Would today’s captains of industry be happier in a 1950s-style world?

by Andrew Gelman on September 6, 2013 · 8 comments

in Political Economy

In a post about “rich whiners,” Matthew Yglesias argues that what richies really want is respect. Yglesias writes:

I think rich businessmen would be happier if we could go back to 1950s-style, more egalitarian distribution of pre-tax income. The richest people around would still be the richest people around, and as the richest people around they would live in the nicest houses and drive the nicest cars and send their kids to the best schools and in other respects capture the vast majority of the concrete gains of being rich. But they’d also have a much better chance of gaining the kind of respect as civic and national leaders that they crave. They want to be seen as the “job creators” and the heroes of the economy, not the greedy exploiters of the masses. But in order to have heroes of the economy, you need a broadly happy story about the economy—one where living standards are rising across the board and prosperity is broadly shared.

This is an appealing argument but I’m skeptical. My impression is that, back in the 1950s, the culture heroes included sports starts, authors, broadcast and movie stars, etc. Some politicians and union leaders too, and various others. But nowadays, lots of rich people are heroes of one sort or another: Steve Jobs, those guys at Google, various gossip about tech billionaires, Donald Trump. Even the supervillians at Goldman Sachs get some respect—-it’s kinda cool to be a supervillian. There’s the Forbes list of billionaires. Not to mention Michael Bloomberg and Mitt Romney. And it’s not just cos these rich guys have done cool things like Google maps. Warren Buffett is a hero too, mostly from doing a very good job at accumulating money.

If you’re superrich and your goal is to be viewed as a hero, I’d say that the current era from the mid-90s through now has been a good time to do it. They call this the New Gilded Age for a reason. In contrast, I have the sense that the 1950s was a great time to get respect for local rich guys: the owner of the local factory, the proprietor of the local newspaper, etc. Back then, if you were running a moderate-sized business, you could be a real big shot.

I’m not quite sure how this could be studied more systematically but maybe it’s worth looking in to.


Bill Harshaw September 6, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Having lived through the 50′s, I think “culture hero” was a new concept then. Daniel Boorstin had a book called The Image on the subject in 1961 which probably identified it.
But there’s a difference between “respect” and “culture hero”. Trump is a culture hero, I guess; Jobs gets some respect.

What business figures did have in the 50′s, besides some union opposition, was an established local hierarchy. Thomas Watson, Edward Link and Charles(?) Johnson were leaders in the Triple Cities area of New York in 1950; they weren’t national figures at that time. See James Fallows on Holland, MI for the way it used to be.

Andrew Gelman September 6, 2013 at 2:47 pm


Yes, that sounds about right to me. That’s why I disagreed with Yglesias. I think NYC financial elites get a lot more respect now. Back in the 50s they were just a bunch of guys who had good jobs.

Jason McDaniel September 6, 2013 at 5:24 pm


I am reminded of your argument in Red State Blue State about the different occupations held by the affluent “red state” vs. “blue state” economic and cultural elite. I would guess that there is geographic and ideological variation in the respect given to particular types of “captains of industry.” And, I would not be surprised if there is similar variation in whether the elite individuals perceive themselves to be respected by their “communities.”

Martin G. Smith September 6, 2013 at 7:54 pm

Respect is something that is earned not taken as an entitlement. Too many take the Late Milton Friedman’s mantra that the role of a corporation is to make as much as possible in a legal manner. The definition of what is legal today appears to depend on how well connected your counsel is, and he mentioned nothing about ethics.

I watch the goings on from a position I have occupied for nigh on Forty Years at the bottom of the Consumer Chain, collecting and reducing for reprocessing the detritus generated by rapid consumptive excess, 5000Tonnes/Month from a population of under 5000,000.

From a business standpoint, it is the best place to be, looked upon with envy by those in the community who see the profits generated by the refuse of the free-market
trickle-nomics ethos.

Mr Friedman left the planet in 2006 and it is going to take at least four generation to recover the mess he made.

Martin G. Smith

David Hawkins September 6, 2013 at 10:58 pm

I suspect that “the rich” have suffered from the same decline in public trust as other major institutions, most notably the government. The rich may pine for a time when people ‘knew their place,’ but society can’t and won’t go back to a point when people were expected to swallow their lot in life and be glad for it. An equally important issue is how ‘the rich’ have changed. There are still captains of industry who innovate and create jobs with real and useful products or services, but for every job creator, there are seemingly dozens of frauds and hucksters. The sub-prime mortgage industry, for-profit colleges, and Enron have all peddled their fraudulent wares in full view of the public, and have cloaked themselves in the noble pursuit of money and free markets. In doing so, they’ve further tarnished the market and helped create (with many other players) a whole new generation of skeptics and cynics. So ‘the rich’ can rest assured that their reputation among ‘the masses’ is hard-earned.

Sandy Thatcher September 7, 2013 at 11:33 am

Do not forget “Shark Tank,” one of the most popular shows on TV, whose popularity stems in part, I would argue, from its demonstration of how rich people (who themselves came from humble backgrounds) invest in the ideas and inventions of ordinary citizens and thus help propel the overall economy forward through supporting American ingenuity. As a resident of the Dallas area, I can also tell you that Mark Cuban is a major hero in these parts, not just as the “maverick” owner of the Mavericks but as a genuinely caring philanthropist who has made major contributions to all sorts of local projects.

Joseph Celentano September 7, 2013 at 8:49 pm

This would be a great experiment, but I’d wonder first and foremost about how you would quantify respect for “the rich.” Asking people straight-up would present issues just on the basis of defining “respect.” Some people may respect their skill at accumulating wealth, others for their philanthropy, others for the products they make, etc. Not to say it is impossible to define a metric, but it would certainly be a little troublesome.

Peter T September 8, 2013 at 12:39 am

It’s easier to be “respected” where there are a lot of small or medium scale hierarchies – there are more niches. In one big national pyramid, the slots at the top tend to be much more similar. And revolve much more around what the people in the second slice think of as worthy of respect. 50s rich, for instance, were competing for respect mostly on a local level, where other forms of respect (what you did in the war, how you stood in your church) were in the mix.

As for people knowing their place – my impression is that lower level jobs are much more controlled from above now than in the 50s, and therefore less seen as worthy of respect. So the rich are resented both for their different values and for their control.

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