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Author found research on millionaires to be entertaining education

SHARE Author found research on millionaires to be entertaining education

Long before Regis Philbin became the television symbol of the millionaire, Cynthia Crossen, senior editor of "The Wall Street Journal," set out to identify the wealthiest people of the millennium.

After Crossen and some researchers had "gone through New York City's libraries like hurricanes," they assembled a list of thieves, plunderers, military types to begin the century. By the end, "we had turned up people who trade electronically or push a few buttons on the computer," Crossen explained in a telephone interview with the Deseret News.

There was a fascinating evolution of how people have become rich, starting with trading things of value, including gold, and progressing to paper and beyond. "When we started," said Crossen, "we were going to identify the wealthiest person of the millennium, but it was just not possible. It was like comparing apples and oranges. Who is to say if someone like Bill Gates in computers is wealthier than Genghis Khan in land?"

Crossen recalled Steve Martin, the comedian, explaining how someone becomes a millionaire: "Well, first you start with a million dollars. . . . " In fact, Crossen found that most of those who become wealthy in any era start with something, and "then you are either very smart or very lucky."

From a world that was quite poor, we have progressed into an "Age of Money," in which at least four million people are millionaires. "We saw a story then," said Crossen. "Fifty millionaires was unwieldy, so we narrowed it down to 10, roughly one per century, and concentrated on how the ways of getting rich changed."

Crossen intentionally left out those who obtained their money exclusively through inheritance. She included some who had inherited money, but they used the money as leverage to gain more. "The history of consumption is so fascinating. In every society there is ambivalence about wealth — we love them and we hate them. We envy them and we are suspicious of them. In any case, they fascinate us."

The result is her new book, "The Rich and How They Got That Way." Crossen hastened to say "It's not a 'how-to' book. You don't read this book to figure out how to get rich. There is no workable pattern for getting rich."

Rather, this is a book of social history, explaining how people went about satisfying one of the oldest of human ambitions. Crossen had so much fun researching and writing it that she considers the process "the liberal education I should have had in college."

In many ways the rich are different than those who aren't. "The wealthy are so single-minded about making money that they tend to be poor in social relationships and in personal relationships. One thing the average person says is, 'If I win the lottery, I'll quit working,' but none of these people stopped working. They didn't enjoy the fruits of their labor very often."

Crossen said most people who know Bill Gates "can't believe he has accomplished so much, because he doesn't have people skills. It turns out you can do just fine without people skills — as long as you have a second-in-command who has them."

Acquiring wealth is "a combination of inspiration, perspiration and luck," Crossen said. "You have to be in the right place at the right time for what you have to offer. A thousand years ago, Bill Gates would not have survived to be 13. Life then was about physical strength, the power to wield a spear. But in any era, people who are fabulously rich have a drive, an idea, a sense of creativity. They see something other people don't see. They are charismatic — even Gates — and can draw people around them."

Crossen has learned that "most wealthy people are not overly concerned about stepping over people on the way up. Wealth will change you, and not necessarily for the better. But it allows you to be more eccentric than most people. One example is that of Howard Hughes having his secretary type the same letter 200 times. It allows you to turn whims and thoughts into reality."

There is also "a cultural expectation that a wealthy person will give some of the money to charity. If you don't, you'll hear about it."

Of the many people Crossen studied, including Machmud of Ghazni, an early ruler of Afghanistan; Jacob Fugger, a 15th century German banker; and Howqua, a 19th century Chinese trader, Crossen's favorites are John Law and Hetty Green.

Law, called the "Pied Piper of paper money," was a 17th century figure, "a swashbuckling, larger-than-life character who killed a man in a duel, escaped from prison before he could be hanged and lived much of his life as a gambler. He was more fun to write about than someone who sat in the counting house. Green ventured out onto the 19th century stock market when it had no regulations, when people were doing anything they could get away with. It was an era when women stayed home and laced their corsets up really tight, but Hetty was out there reducing men to tears."

According to Crossen, wealth has certain unmistakable advantages — "You can buy longevity, privacy, comfort, the ability not to work. You can cushion life's blows. If a hurricane goes through your town it will not hurt you as much.

"But it cannot buy love, personal relationships or self-satisfaction — the feeling that God is in his heaven and all's right with the world. In the end, they've never had enough. There is no point when they stop. They can't quiet the beast that is motivating them."

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com