On Making Money

During a speech in Illinois on April 28, the President went “off the teleprompter” as it were and opined, “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.” He did allow that if you had a successful business model you could go on making money, this being America and all, but the implication–and the disdain–were clear. “Good” people wouldn’t go on pursuing Mammon when their legitimate needs were filled. They would pay their exorbitant taxes, I’m sorry, I mean “share” with their fellow Americans as they are morally and now legally obligated to do, and get away from this distasteful world of wealth generation and dig a well or plant a tree or write a poem or run for office or do whatever it is that Mr. Obama’s “good” people do.

I wouldn’t know as for better or worse I am in the other camp.

When I was in fourth grade, we had a father’s day celebration at school. We serenaded them with a charming rendition of Barry Manilow’s “I Can’t Smile Without You” and then did an impromptu tribute to our fathers in which our teachers went around our circle and asked us what our father’s made. Some said hamburgers, others said fishing flies. When my turn came I smiled up at Dad and said, “My father makes money.” I remember it being a completely automatic response–the proverbial easy answer. My father is something of an unusual guy–he does not fish or hunt. I have seen him on a lawnmower–once–but I have never eaten a meal he cooked or gone swimming with him. He is dedicated to and enthusiastic about his hobbies but they are not the sort of activity that generates anything besides exercise and enjoyment, so when the question came I had only one response, inspired by my father’s passion for his profession as an investment advisor, the sole goal of which is to generate wealth. I wonder if Mr. Obama would consider him a good person?

The investor class is a hunted bunch in this President’s America. The line appears to be that those who are smart and consistent enough to profit off of investing in the markets over a sustained period of time are leeches who are sucking wealth away from Main Street. They have no right to it. They haven’t done anything for it. When they have made “enough” they should have the grace to just go away.

It makes me wonder what would happen if they actually did. What if our investor class said, “Okay, I have enough. I can reduce my lifestyle (one imagines Mr. Obama nodding approvingly) and continue to pay my taxes and keep my head down and anyway, who needs the aggravation of keeping on at this job when the federal government is just going to confiscate everything I earn? Maybe I will plant that tree and write a poem about it after all.” What then? What if all those institutional investors just stopped bothering?

What troubles me about the President’s statement is that there is no recognition of what I consider to be a reality–the wealth generated by the investor class is not something that they have stolen in a sort of reverse Robin Hood from the working classes. It is wealth that would not otherwise exist. It would not hire people or buy things or (gasp) pay tax. It just wouldn’t be there. Our country would be the poorer. What my father has done over his career is support successful companies by giving them his and his client’s money to continue doing what they’re doing on an ever-increasing scale. If the companies prosper, they reap some of the profits.  But here’s the rub: if they don’t invest, publicly held companies don’t expand at the same rate.  Take these people away and who’s going to make this investment? The federal government? Or will the money just fall from the trees they’re all out planting?

Perhaps I have an unduly rosy view of this investor class given my personal contact with a great investor who is also happens to be a terrific person–not to mention father. Maybe I am taking an off-hand remark of the President’s too personally. But after stewing about it for two days I remain disturbed by Mr. Obama’s snide assertion that there is “enough” and that continuing to earn, produce, employ and encourage beyond the point he designates is somehow unseemly. So many people in our nation’s history–be they Vanderbilt or Rockefeller or Gates of Buffett or a less-well-known name–have decided that “enough” was not for them.  That they would continue to work for the rewards their labors bring.  Of course they have enjoyed a success beyond the dreams of most Americans, but the point is that they made something in the process.  I would like to live in a country where what my father makes counts in his favor, rather than against it.