The Strange Cares of Billionaires

Then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks during the 2010 meeting of the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington, D.C., November 16, 2010. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

What the fabulously rich think can help society is often quite different from what actually does.

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a weekly newsletter about gauche billionaires. Also politics, language, and culture. To subscribe to “The Tuesday,” which I hope you will do, please click this link.

Lady Fristberg, of the Princeton Fristbergs

First, some caveats: I don’t like the way “elite” is used as a term of abuse; I think it is enormously destructive that right-wing populists have decided that our best institutions of higher education should be regarded as class enemies to be defeated rather than important institutions in need of reform; I think it is unseemly when people sneer that this or that billionaire is still really, really rich — a billionaire, in fact! — even after making a big charitable donation; it is a sign of our national soul-sickness that in certain quarters, philanthropy as such is derided as the new Medici indulgence or scorned as an analgesic helping to put off the more fundamental structural economic changes dreamt of by such would-be revolutionaries as Senator Bernie Sanders. And of all the Democrats and crypto-Democrats who were running in 2020, Michael Bloomberg would have been my first choice.

That being stipulated, I will confess that reading about the new Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity at Princeton University caused my eyes to roll so hard you’d have thought I was auditioning for a role in The Exorcist XVII: The Devil Goes Down to Muleshoe.

Princeton, like practically every other similar institution in the country, believes that it has a diversity problem. I myself am not convinced that it does, but Princeton is of course entitled to decide for itself. Princeton reports that about a quarter of its student body is made up of “underrepresented minorities,” which is lower than the combined black and Latino share of high-school graduates in the United States but not radically so. (And Princeton, with fewer than 9,000 students and one of the country’s most selective institutions, offers a relatively small data set. Nationally, African Americans make up about 13 percent of college students, roughly proportional to their share of the population.) More interesting than the racial-ethnic breakdown is the fact that a fifth of Princeton’s students come from households reporting less than $50,000 a year, to me a surprisingly high figure. I see little to criticize in these figures.

There are two things Princeton and Michael Bloomberg have in common. One, neither of them needs money: Bloomberg’s net worth is estimated at around $60 billion, and Princeton’s endowment is about $27 billion, with its annual endowment income amounting to more than $170,000 per student, a figure that allows Princeton to offer generous financial-aid packages that allow most of its students to graduate with no student-loan debt or very little. Some 82 percent of Princeton undergraduates finish debt-free, and the median debt among those who do borrow is less than $10,000. It is to Princeton’s credit that this is the very model of how an elite institution of this sort should conduct its basic business.

The other thing Princeton and Michael Bloomberg have in common is Emma Bloomberg.

The elder Bloomberg daughter is a richly credentialed academic striver, having followed her undergraduate degree at Princeton, which today houses 220 undergraduates at Emma Bloomberg Hall, with a joint graduate degree in business and public administration from Harvard, which is to be home to the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University after a $150 million donation from Bloomberg Philanthropies. She worked for the Robin Hood Foundation, a nonprofit that has benefited in many ways from its Bloomberg relationships.

Ms. Bloomberg has the usual insufferable class markers (her ex-husband’s surname is “Frissora” and their daughter bears the portmanteau surname Frissberg) and she has spent her career mostly in what amounts to an extended version of the family business, working in institutions supported by her father’s money. She also worked in the mayor’s office in New York — something not entirely surprising for a Bloomberg.

In the great American tradition of starting a club in order to give yourself something to be in charge of, she founded Murmuration, a nonprofit that for a long time did not seem to actually do very much of anything but was notionally oriented toward education reform until it starting buying up campaign-oriented enterprises. It employs veterans of such organizations as the Center for American Progress and the Bloomberg-founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and it rejoices in the services of a vice president of communications who was until 2015 the “national fan ambassador” for USA Curling — something very close to the perfect recipe for perfect mediocrity. This is what happens when Tracy Flick has real money.

In a documentary film about the undistinguished children of rich people, her sister, Georgina, complained that “it sucks” being a Bloomberg. She has since had a change of heart. It probably does suck, in some ways, but it beats flying coach.

Today, Emma Bloomberg sits on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which will donate $20 million to her alma mater for its new diversity center, to be named after her. This is the billionaire’s equivalent to a matching set of logo-covered Louis Vuitton luggage or a Burberry plaid baseball cap.

It is not the case that a daughter’s making a career out of her father’s money and connections means that she necessarily is unaccomplished in her own right — Lucrezia Borgia spoke a half-dozen languages and held real political power as governor of Spoleto, which gives her a better claim to having shattered a glass ceiling than anything that could be boasted of by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was finally unsuccessful in politics as anything other than extension of the career of her gifted and amoral husband.

But if we must have Bloomie Borgias and modern Medici, then we really need an updated version of the old aristocratic manners and perhaps even a touch of — difficult as it is to imagine, given the character of the people we are talking about — the self-effacing discretion that characterized earlier generations of moneyed patrons.

It is vulgar to name an institution after someone living in exchange for money. It is vulgar when Michael Bloomberg does it on his own behalf, and it is triple-double vulgar when he does it on behalf of his daughter, who is barely 40 years old and is lightly accomplished at best.

It is probably a bad idea to name an institution after a living person in general for almost any reason — especially in light of our recent convulsions over things named for people who died 500 years ago.

This sort of vulgarity is far from unknown at institutions such as Princeton, which is home to the Frist Campus Center and has seen various members of the Frist family frolicking about its exclusive campus. It even has been suggested in some quarters that these two developments may be somehow linked! Our norms should discourage very strongly this kind of self-aggrandizement, but the trend seems to be in the opposite direction: Princeton also will be home to a new dormitory named for Mellody Hobson, the second Mrs. George Lucas, a sprightly youthful Princetonian born the year the billionaire film director married his first wife.

Perhaps the Frissbergs — or maybe even the Fristbergs, in the happy event of such a conjunction! — will do better when it is their generation’s turn.

And while I will here repeat that $20 million is a great deal of money irrespective of how much more than that one has, that Michael Bloomberg could have bought his daughter a private island (why settle for semi-private?) rather than plaster her name (which is also his name) on an Ivy League institution (for a second time), that the philanthropic impulse should be generally encouraged, etc., it is worth noting that this is another excellent example of the way that the elites who dominate our political discourse and our policy-making institutions are — inevitably — obsessed with their own interests and constrained by their own experiences.

The social situation of African Americans is, in many ways, a scandal: twice the average poverty rate (and three times the white poverty rate), four times the national average felony-conviction rate, shorter life expectancy, etc. But the social situation of people who are black and who also are plausible candidates for admission to Princeton is a different story. Students who might end up at Princeton if there is a bit more enthusiastic diversity outreach aren’t going to Rikers Island if they fail to get into Princeton — they’re going to Stanford or Penn or Duke or — angels and ministers of grace defend us! — Berkeley. The people who need help are not promising young black Princeton applicants — they are black high-school dropouts, and, indeed, high-school dropouts of all races. They are addicts and people with mental-health problems, felons attempting to reenter society and find decent work, etc.

Of course, we as a nation can walk and chew gum at the same time — but we don’t.

We don’t have Bloombergs — or the former Mrs. Jobs, or the former Mrs. Bezos, or Mrs. Gates, or other representatives of the billionaire-dilettante class — lined up to be the next principal of Milwaukee’s North Division High School. But for the sake of the country — and for the sake of its most vulnerable people — fixing what’s wrong at North Division is going to matter a great deal more than seeing to it that Princeton has one more thing named after the Bloombergs.

Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood. The press loves a story about the press. The people who dominate the political conversation, philanthropy, and the policy-making process cannot help but be most intensely interested in themselves. That is human nature.

One of the many blessings of a market-oriented economy — besides the fact that somebody has to earn those billions before they can be given away — is that markets are one of the few social institutions that really force us to think about other people’s lives and aspirations and that reward us for satisfying other people’s needs and desires. Government agencies can be run — indefinitely — for the benefit of their employees, and philanthropic endeavors can persist for years in vanity, crankery, and incompetence. Which is not to say that we do not need good government and effective philanthropy — we certainly do. But we should appreciate how powerful is the urge to build monuments to oneself and to create high-class sinecures for one’s family and allies.

For every Pope Alexander VI there is a Savonarola in waiting.

Words About Words

As some of you will have noticed, I am interested in something in linguistics called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, part of something known more generally as “linguistic relativity.” The idea is that the structure of a language influences or constrains how we think about the world. The classic example (based on nonsense, apparently) is the folk belief that Eskimos have a very large vocabulary of words for different kinds of snow. Benjamin Whorf, writing in 1940, argues that the Eskimo have different words for different kinds of snow because in their environment these constitute “different things to contend with.” In English, all the different kinds of snow are just snow, whereas “to an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable.” That turns out to be a just-so story, but there are legitimate examples. For example, some languages have a word for the obligation a daughter-in-law owes to her husband’s parents (with no equivalent for sons-in-law) while the English-speaking people had no such word and no such concept. Because we think in language, it is difficult to think very clearly about something for which we do not have a word, and we have a tendency to try to fit things into the categories created by our language.

And so words can shape our thinking in powerful ways. For example, the metaphorical “cloud” of off-site software has taken on a conceptual life of its own, spoken about and treated as though it were an actual entity rather than a way of talking about providing a software service. In response — this is how you know the issue is a serious one — someone has taken the time to emblazon a T-shirt with the slogan: “There Is No Cloud. It’s Just Someone Else’s Computer.”

F. A. Hayek, who couldn’t possibly have known how bad things would get, invested a great deal of ink in demonstrating the emptiness of the concept of “social justice.”

As demonstrated above, words such as equity, diversity, inclusion, etc., have been used to smuggle assumptions into our language and, hence, into our thinking. The displacement of the biological term sex by the grammatical term gender is another example of this.

Rampant Prescriptivism

I was thinking about “the cloud” in part because a reader wrote to complain about a degradation in the language of software professionals. Cloud software is, properly speaking, “off-premises,” but my reader reports that this qualification increasingly is being shorted to “off-premise,” which means something else entirely, perhaps describing the second act of a Charlie Kaufman script. The plural of premise is premises, but premises in the sense of a site or location is a distinct word, albeit one that derives directly from the plural of premise, in its legal sense denoting the details of a deed. So, don’t write premise when you mean premises.

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

Why do we call a single building the premises? To answer this question, we must go back to the Middle Ages. The English word premises comes from the Latin praemissa, which is both a feminine singular and a neuter plural form of praemissus, the past participle of praemittere, “to send in advance, utter by way of preface, place in front, prefix.” In Medieval Latin, the feminine form praemissa was often used with the sense “logical premise” in philosophical discussions, while the neuter plural praemissa was often used with the sense “things mentioned before” in legal documents. Latin praemissa was borrowed into Old French as premisse and thence into Middle English. In Middle English legal documents, the plural premisses came to be used with the sense “the property, collectively, which is specified in the beginning of a legal document and which is conveyed, as by grant.” By the first half of the 1700s, this use of the word had given rise to the modern sense of premises, “a building with its grounds or appurtenances.”

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In Other News . . .

Are traffic stops dangerous for police officers? All my life, I have heard that they are the most dangerous thing a typical police officer does in a typical day. In a conversation with Mark Joseph Stern, Jordan Blair Woods of the University of Arkansas School of Law discusses his Michigan Law Review article in which he makes the case that this is a myth, one that has distorted both law-enforcement practices and legal thinking. Both the interview and the law-review article are worth reading.

Recommended

A podcast you should be listening to is Mark Leonard’s World in 30 Minutes in association with the European Council on Foreign Relations. Consistently interesting conversation and good reading recommendations.

The Destroyer Cometh

Pancake (“the Destroyer”) is no fan of baths and absolutely hates having her paws cleaned after running through the mud, but, if you happen to leave the shower running . . .

In Closing

“Probably it is true enough that the great majority are rarely capable of thinking independently,” writes F. A. Hayek, “that on most questions they accept views which they find ready-made, and that they will be equally content if born or coaxed into one set of beliefs or another. In any society freedom of thought will probably be of direct significance only for a small minority. But this does not mean that anyone is competent, or ought to have power, to select those to whom this freedom is to be reserved. It certainly does not justify the presumption of any group of people to claim the right to determine what people ought to think or believe.”

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