Up From Opulence

April 21, 1994|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The face in the photo looked familiar. It was a full-page ad for Forbes magazine. ''All he ever dreamed of, growing up in Detroit,'' intoned the copy, ''was managing his own machine shop. Then one day he came to The Valley.'' Silicon Valley, that is. ''And he had a vision.''

He went on, the ad explained, to found Sun Microsystems, one of the most spectacularly successful computer companies. The kicker: ''Scott McNealy picked up his first copy of Forbes as a foreman in an auto shop in 1977.''

This hilarious ad contains two implied messages. One is that the way to get rich is to subscribe to Forbes. That, of course, is undeniably true. More questionable is the message that the founder of Sun Microsystems is a classic American up-from-the-bottom success story. There he was, working in an auto shop, when a copy of Forbes magazine lifted his eyes toward the heavens . . . and another glorious chapter of American capitalism was written.

Now I know Scott McNealy, and he is indeed a classic American success story. But it's not the story Forbes is peddling.

I don't doubt that he worked in an auto shop in 1977, but I doubt it was for very long because from 1972 to 1976 he was a student at Harvard College (where there is no major in auto mechanics), and afterward he attended Stanford Business School. Before Harvard, he was a student (as was I) at an expensive prep school in suburban Detroit called Cranbrook. While it's possible that he aspired to nothing more in those days than to manage his own machine shop, this would have been a sore disappointment to his father, who was vice chairman of American Motors.

This history is not meant to demean Mr. McNealy's remarkable achievement at Sun Microsystems. It is Forbes, in fact, that demeans Mr. McNealy's achievement with its ham-handed mythmaking. It is not good enough, Forbes is suggesting, to have gone on from Cranbrook School to found a multi-billion-dollar computer giant. One must have gone on from an auto shop.

Why does the magazine wish to insult its own affluent readers in this way? It is telling them that their economic milieu is shameful and must be covered up. It is saying that anything their children may achieve in life is diminished by their own success. What point is there, one might ask, in subscribing to Forbes if the hollow consequence of the riches that will inevitably follow is to force your kids to fake their resumes?

It is one thing for a rock musician or a philosophy professor or a liberal columnist to be embarrassed by a bourgeois background. But for Forbes magazine, the ''Capitalist Tool,'' to promote the idea that a triumphant capitalist needs to be ashamed of his upper-mercantile upbringing is strange. Is this not the anti-success attitude that poisoned our great country during the deplorable 1960s? How did such an attitude penetrate into the very heart of the capitalist propaganda machine?

One lesson of Forbes' own annual list of the 400 richest Americans is that the best single strategy for acquiring enormous wealth (apart, that is, from subscribing to Forbes magazine) is to arrange to be born into modest wealth. Numbers one and two on the most recent list, investor genius Warren Buffett and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, both used this technique. That's not all they had going for them, obviously, but it helped.

Of the top dozen on Forbes' list, only the family of the late Sam Walton and investor Kirk Kerkorian seem to have made it from scratch in one generation. Yet Forbes is so attached to the

up-from-nothing myth that it is reduced to mentioning that various billionaires' grandfathers started out as poor immigrants.

Well, yes, even the Forbes family itself started out as invertebrates back at some point, before climbing its way up the evolutionary and financial scales (no doubt through a lot of darned hard work and gumption and a dream that wouldn't die, etc.) But how much credit does Steve Forbes, the current publisher and the third generation of Forbeses in that chair, deserve that his ancestors used to be fish?

The log cabin myth -- that our great figures worked their way up from scratch -- is a treasured bit of Americana. It's a tribute to our egalitarian spirit. But it has its comic side. It can lead to reverse snobbery -- the only kind of snobbery with any real power in America. There are people, of course, who pretend to come from snootier backgrounds than they do. But there are more, I suspect, who play the game Forbes played with Scott McNealy: shading their backgrounds down a level or three, in an attempt to appropriate some of that log-cabin cachet.

More seriously, the log-cabin myth helps to disguise the advantage that still comes, even in America, from having an affluent background -- and the disadvantage that comes from not having one. It takes more than a subscription to Forbes to make up the difference.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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