There has never been a better time to be remarkable, nor a worse time to be unremarkable.
People who highlight that the average American is better off than the richest person 100 years ago are, similar to someone telling you to follow your passion, already rich. The poor in the US have not progressed much, and there is still an apartheid-like disparity in household wealth among the races.
The wealthy have done well, in a supernova kind of way. A ton has been written on this, so just one data point: the top .1% capture more wealth than the bottom 80%. For purposes of self-preservation you’d think the uber-rich would be concerned with this level of income inequality. At some point, the bottom half of the globe by income realizes they can double their wealth by taking the wealth of the richest 8 families, who have more money than 3.6 billion people.
An easy way to contrast the progress of the poor vs. the rich over the last decade is to compare the change in NASDAQ (the top 10% of income-earning households own 84% of stocks) and minimum wage:
I’m staying with friends at the Yellowstone Club in Montana, where the .1% congregate. It would be easy to be cynical about the crowd and experience. There is a cartoon that very wealthy people are generally assholes. They are not. My experience is most very successful people have a few things in common: grit, luck, talent, and a tolerance for risk.
Yes, most people, including the .1%, will use their skills and resources to ensure their firm has an advantage over others, even if that means turning a blind eye to externalities (environmental standards, monopoly abuse, tax avoidance, teen depression). Affixing your own oxygen mask before helping others is a decent tagline for capitalism.
Yet most successful capitalist systems acknowledge that without rule of law, empathy, and redistribution of income, we lose the script. The purpose of an economy is to build a robust middle class. We have, traditionally, elected leaders who cut the lower branches off trees to ensure other saplings get sunlight. There is less and less sunlight. It’s never been easier to become a billionaire, or harder to become a millionaire.
The uber-wealthy paid a tax rate of 70% in the fifties, 47% in the eighties, and 23% at present — a lower tax rate than the middle class. Taxes on the poor and middle class have largely stayed the same. We’ve exploded the debt so rich people pay less tax. If money is the transfer of work and time, we’ve decided our kids will need to work more in the future, and spend less time with their families, so wealthy people can pay lower taxes today. If that sounds immoral, trust your instincts.
It feels as if something has changed. Gerrymandering, money in politics, lack of a shared experience among Americans, social-media-fueled rage, and an idolatry of innovators have led to a faustian bargain: the innovators (lords) capture the majority of the gains, and the 99% (serfs) get an awesome phone, a $4,000 TV, great original scripted television, and Mandalorian action figures delivered within 24 hours. Everybody gets a taste of the innovators’ nose candy and can buy shares in Amazon. Everyone has heard about someone whose daughter works at Google and bought her parents a house.
The Biggest Losers
The biggest losers of the decade are the unremarkables. Our society used to give remarkable opportunities to unremarkable kids and young adults. Some of the crowding out of unremarkable white males, including myself, is a good thing. More women are going to college, and remarkable kids from low-income neighborhoods get opportunities. But a middle-class kid who doesn’t learn to code Python or speak Mandarin can soon find she is not “tracking” and can’t catch up.
- I have intimate experience with being unremarkable:
- Graduated public high school with a 3.2 GPA and 1130 SAT (85%).
- Admitted, on appeal, to UCLA, academic probation 4 times, subject to dismissal twice, 2.27 GPA.
- Landed a job at Morgan Stanley in Fixed Income Group. (How? I interview well and lied about my grades.)
- Admitted to UC Berkeley Haas (yes, with a 2.27 undergrad GPA).
- Have started several businesses since graduation; most have gone sideways or failed.
My wins were businesses that sold for between $28 million (Prophet) and $160 million (L2). The firm that was sold for $160 million, my VCs didn’t want to sell, as they felt there was an opportunity to go “bigger.” This is emblematic of our lottery / Hunger Games economy, where the gestalt is to go big or die trying. This creates a small class of uber-winners and many more people who wake up at 40 with no economic security or prospects. It’s “go big or go home.” Deaths of despair are skyrocketing, and the innovation ecosystem feeds it.
Some data on why unremarkables have become an endangered species. I’ll use my background as context:
- The acceptance rate at UCLA has gone from 42% (1989) to 12% (2019). Put another way, it’s 3 times as difficult to be a Bruin.
- In 1992, the annual tuition at Haas was $1,500, and upon graduating I received an offer from a consulting firm at $90,000/year. A degree ROI of 60. Haas tuition in 2020 is $62,000, and the median starting salary of a Haas grad is $140,000, yielding a degree ROI of 2 (97% decline).
- There were nearly twice as many new companies formed each day during the Carter administration vs. now. We are living in an era of non-innovation as a feckless DOJ/FTC and media enable monopoly abuse.
- My first house in San Francisco (Potrero Hill) cost $285,000, two years post-grad school (1994). Our household income was $210,000. A house/income of 1.36. The average house in San Francisco now costs $1.6 million, and a married couple (both MBAs, two years post-Haas) could make around $320,000 combined, yielding a ratio of 5. So, housing is almost 4x the cost.
- In 1997 we purchased a home in Noe Valley (next-door to where the Zuck lives now … no joke) for $760,000 and sold it 2 years later for $1.2 million. I used the gain to move to NYC, start an e-commerce incubator (Brand Farm), and purchase stock in Nike, Oracle, Apple, and disk drive firm Iomega.
- My tax rate on the proceeds from the sale of L2 was approximately 20%. I’m a Florida resident (no state income tax), and Obama passed Section 1202, which exempts the first $10 million in proceeds.
In sum, unremarkable kids no longer have access to remarkable opportunities. Today, I would not be admitted to a good school, wouldn’t be able to start a business due to crushing student loan debt, wouldn’t be able to buy a house, invest in stocks, or start a business. My professional life, and economic fortune, would foot to who I was/am — unremarkable.
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” — Mahatma Gandhi
One way to reinvest in the unremarkable: a Marshall Plan to increase 4-year public colleges by 40%, and junior colleges and trade schools by 80% over the next 10 years. This would be funded by:
- Tax endowments over $1 billion of universities not growing freshman seats at 1.5x population growth. Any institution with tens of billions on its balance sheet that isn’t growing admissions is not a public good, but a private enterprise drunk on luxury.
- Abolish tenure. (This will take a dean who is a class traitor.) Faculty and administrators have starched the degree ROI with a culture best described as “expensive but mediocre.”
- Tax K-12 private schools and reinvest the proceeds in public schools. We are barreling toward a caste system, sequestering kids by income, which cuts at a key ingredient to capitalism: empathy.
- Eliminate capital gains and mortgage tax deductions. Both are transfers from the young and middle class to the old and rich.
- Resist populist proposals such as free college, which again is a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, as only 32% of Americans go to college.
I attended UCLA/Berkeley, vacation at the Yellowstone Club, and am unremarkable. Each year there are fewer of us at all three.
Life is so rich,