Sunday, August 25, 2013

Trump University: The cost of worshiping the wealthy

Donald Trump is a boorish, egomaniacal plutocrat. But we already knew that. That's not what bothers me today.

What bothers me is how many gullible people were eager to plop down $35,000 on Trump University (disclaimer: not a real university) in the hopes of getting rich like The Donald. Many of the poor students paid "tuition" with their credit card.

The truth is, the best way to become a billionaire is to inherit the money. That's how Donald Trump got rich: by inheriting up to $200 million from his father who made his fortune building FHA-backed (read: Big Government-subsidized) housing.

Trump is not alone.  Less than 40 percent of the Forbes 400 billionaires are self-made, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.  

The most recent study in the U.S. of self-made millionaires that I could find relied on a survey of 482 millionaires.  Only 3 percent said they inherited their wealth.  Mm-hm.  And in a separate survey of male billionaires, only 5 percent reported having a penis under 10 inches.

Kidding.  The fact is, Americans worship the wealthy.  And the wealthy worship themselves. Our politicians and media fawn over life's economic winners, attributing all sorts of super-human qualities to them. Then when a rich person turns out to be, well, more or less normal, the fawning escalates even higher. "My God, he acts just like you and me!" we cry in disbelief that somebody so rich could possibly not be a prick.  (At least during interviews and public appearances).

There is a whole cottage industry of books, courses and websites that reveal what successful things millionaires do that we normal folks don't. If only we too would sleep 4 hours a night, drop out of school (or stay in school), take huge risks, max out our credit cards and invest all our savings in a simple idea, etc., etc. then we would be super-rich like them.

Sometimes the rich offer advice themselves -- and try to make $ millions off it, like Trump did here.  Other billionaires like Michael Bloomberg offer nuggets of wealth-building wisdom for free, such as: don't take bathroom breaks.  

What the rich often forget to mention is luck.  Yeah, luck.  I guarantee you there are thousands of people who have all the same habits as Bloomberg, including giving themselves urinary tract infections and skipping lunch, and yet they are not rich. Because luck plays a huge role in success. Including luck of birth. If anything, what differentiates the rich from the rest of us is their ability to recognize lucky moments and seize them.  But also having millions of dollars, a rich family or a company at your disposal when lucky moments come along tends to help.  

As Columbia business school professor Michael Maboussin reminds us, "your mind is expert at creating stories to explain results after the fact," and that goes for great success as well as failure.  So just as we shouldn't begrudge the success of the Donalds of the world, we should not attribute that success to their personal grandeur.

By Michael Gormley
August 25, 2013 | AP

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