Coca-Cola, Daddy Warbucks and other millionaires

October 23, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Now that they're pretty sure the stock market isn't going to crash again this October, frightening them the way it did 10 years ago, the members of the chattering classes can get back to looking down their noses at business once again.

"I often think it's comical/ How nature always does contrive," wrote Sir W.S. Gilbert, "That every boy and every gal/ That's born into the world alive,/ Is either a little Liberal/ Or else a little Conservative!"

Do nothing

That was a century ago. Today's comical division is between those who are in business, and those who aren't but know instinctively what should be done about it. The editors of the New Republic are in the latter group, and right now they're prescribing that the thing to do is -- nothing.

The American economy is in such good shape, they opine in the Nov. 3 issue, that there's no need to do anything but relax and enjoy it. Business is prospering, tax revenues are rolling in, and the world is bright with the prospect of increased government without the need to borrow the money to pay for it.

It's like being on Prozac, the editors explain, with the absolute confidence that their readers will know exactly what they mean by that. In our slightly stupefied state, they seem to be suggesting, while we may be aware of all the nasty problems out there in the global haze, for the moment they seem sort of buffered. This means that we can put aside our angst for a while and proceed through our daily duties wearing pleasant if not quite genuine smiles.

This blissed-out condition isn't likely to last. Whether the economy turns up or down, the air will soon be thick with recommendations about what Washington, and the 50 little Washingtons in the 50 state capitals, should do about it. A policy of laissez-faire runs against every government's instincts.

"The business of America is business," said Calvin Coolidge. That was in 1925, and even then the polished people made fun of him for saying it. Today the polished people are much more numerous, and they know that the real business of the America they belong to is telling business what to do in great detail, relieving it of its excess profits and blaming it for most of the world's woes.

There has always been a personal edge to the polished people's view of business. Not only do they find commerce itself vaguely distasteful, but they disapprove of business people, too. Business people are known to be bourgeois, which may mean that they drink the wrong wines, or drink the right ones for the wrong reasons. They're considered greedy. They don't appreciate the finer things in life.

When the polished people produce their artistic works of social commentary, whether they're called "Babbitt" or "Melrose Place," they're likely to portray business people as fools or villains.

Often the business people depicted in such works of art are engaged in pollution for profit. If they're rich, it's assumed they came by their money dishonestly, and will use it nefariously.

When I was in high school I had an English teacher who told his students that "Little Orphan Annie" was Fascist propaganda, which surprised us, as we had thought it was only a comic strip.

Pressed to elaborate, he explained that Daddy Warbucks, with all his money and power, was as much a dictator as Mussolini and Franco.

Comics caveat

I wasn't sure who Franco was at the time, but to this day I still read the comics with special caution, on guard for hidden messages.

Despite many such cautions in their formative years about the wickedness of the rich, however, a great many Americans simply reject such doctrinaire economic hostility. They're not persuaded that those who make vast fortunes are necessarily bad, or that they've managed to grow rich only by making others poor.

Roberto C. Goizueta, the chairman of the Coca-Cola Co. who died last week, was by anyone's definition a very rich businessman who spent his working life in the employ of a very rich corporation. For that reason alone, my English teacher might not have approved of him. But his life and career were nonetheless inspirational.

A native of Cuba, he fled Fidel Castro in 1961, coming to the United States with three primary assets: $40 in cash, a degree in chemical engineering, and 100 shares of Coke. In 20 years he was the head of the company, and in the 16 years he spent on the job, the value of the company's stock rose from $7 billion to $145 billion.

This success had implications not only for his own net worth, but for all the foundations, institutions, pension funds and individuals holding the stock in their portfolios.

In Atlanta alone, where Coca-Cola is based, four charitable foundations own 119 million Coke shares between them -- about $6.7 billion worth.

In the Ronald Reagan days, Democrats spoke derisively of this sort of thing as "trickle-down economics." But those touched by the Coca-Cola successes of Roberto Goizueta aren't likely to share in that derision.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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