Timing is everything, so it’s hard not to feel a bit of sympathy for Dinesh D’Souza, who has the bad luck to offer an insightful book about the social and moral implications of the New Economy’s great wealth just as the dot-com bubble is bursting.
Only a year ago, the world marveled at the great wealth of such entrepreneurs as Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and computer magnate Michael Dell. Recently, though, technology stocks have suffered huge losses on Wall Street. The headlines from the New Economy these days involve layoffs, disappointing earnings, cash crunches, and bankruptcy filings. With this in mind, does D’Souza have anything to tell us?
Well, yes. Like it or not, we live in the Age of the Entrepreneur, with technology plentiful, capitalism triumphant, and America ascendant. This age mints new millionaires on a regular basis: A million U.S. households are worth $3.7 million or more. At the time D’Souza made his calculations, Bill Gates’s net worth surpassed the total output of Hungary, Ireland, Israel, or New Zealand. And Gates isn’t alone. “What’s new is neither affluence or extravagance but rather the number of superrich people today and the amounts of money they possess,” D’Souza says.
Stock prices may wax and wane, but the New Economy and its wealth aren’t going away. D’Souza, author of Illiberal Education and The End of Racism, wants us to understand the New Economy and dissects the inner workings of its plutocrats. Turns out, the members of this new overclass, as D’Souza calls it, are different from wealthy Americans of the past. New Economy billionaires try not to act like rich people. They wear faded blue jeans, not suits. They prefer Budweiser to champagne, SUVs to limousines. They feel a kinship with rebels and nonconformists, not the establishment. With enough money to join Veblen’s leisure class, they cling to their middle class virtues, frowning on conspicuous consumption and even on leisure itself.
Strangest of all, they claim to be nonchalant about what most fascinates the rest of us—the money. Today’s entrepreneurial class swears it was never about getting rich. They see themselves as visionaries, pioneers, messiahs prodding mankind toward a Promised Land of a global Internet village and genetic engineering. “The new rich know they’re doing well,” says D’Souza, “but they also want to feel as if they’re doing good.”
The vestiges of a middle-class work ethic, ambivalence about wealth, and yearning to do good make today’s rich conflicted about their legacy. In the past, D’Souza says, people desired wealth, in part, so they could pass it on to their children. But for today’s overclass, especially the tech magnates, D’Souza observes, “The prevailing sentiment . . . is that they are not going to leave the bulk of their money to their children, they are going to give it all away.”
That’s sure to warm the hearts of the charities and foundations that will benefit from the windfall. The overclass isn’t entirely motivated by altruism, however; at least in part, they fear the corrupting influence of wealth on their children. Today’s wealthy are “terrified of producing a generation of arrogant, lazy, spoiled brats,” D’Souza writes. “The new rich want to raise their kids with the same bourgeois virtues of frugality, persistence, hard work, and responsibility that helped them get where they are.”
D’Souza’s tidbits on the overclass’s quirks and philanthropy are just a warm-up for the real purpose of The Virtue of Prosperity. The bulk of the book focuses on a great debate about the New Economy: Is it good for us—for our society and our souls?
In his exploration of the spiritual side of the New Economy, D’Souza covers the waterfront, chewing on the thoughts of everyone from the Greeks to the Founding Fathers. Interestingly, he finds the overclass rather obtuse on the subject of their place in the moral universe. They shrug.
For the most part, the cacophony over values comes from the self-appointed intelligentsia, who lob their catcalls and kudos over the heads of the Silicon Valley types. The New Economy’s critics—the pessimists D’Souza calls the Party of Nah—wail from the left about the growing schism between rich and poor and from the right about the soulless quest for money that breeds self-indulgence and destroys community.
D’Souza tries hard to confer legitimacy on the Party of Nah and does not mock their nostalgia for a world that never was. Here and there, he even chastises the techno-utopians for hubris. Still, his heart is with the Party of Yeah.
Generally, he joins in their celebration of the New Economy as not just a source of wealth for a few lucky entrepreneurs but as good news for mankind. Even the man-as-God aspects of biotechnology—cloning, designer children—aren’t enough to make D’Souza recoil. “The new technologies,” he writes, “are likely to further reduce scarcity, eliminate suffering, and cure previously intractable diseases.”
All in all, D’Souza concludes that technology and capitalism aren’t putting mankind in jeopardy. Rather than ruin, the future holds wealth and new wonders—all the better if the New Economy fat cats make good on their pledge and distribute their riches to charity.
Richard Alm is a business reporter at the Dallas Morning News and co-author of Myths of Rich and Poor: Why We’re Better Off Than We Think.