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The Founding Fortune: a New Anatomy of the Super-Rich Families in America.

The difference between Lapham's book and The Founding Fortunes by Michael Patrick Allen(*) is amusing. The gent and the outsider, they would make a good comedy team. The gent is in a stylish froth, the outsider is imperturbably dull. Allen is a professor of sociology at Washington State University (Lapham, of course, is the editor of Harper's magazine) and his book, studiedly neutral in tone, structured, full of even, word-processed research out of the library, rather than life, is so cleansed of detail, color, and human interest that one begins to feel that one has left life altogether for some kind of sociologist's hereafter. Unlike Lapham, who believes that we are really all just like the rich, and who talks to us as if we know what nilgai is, Allen's tone suggests that until recently he had never heard of rich people and is sure that we haven't either. "The homes of the corporate rich are generally much larger and more expensive than ordinary homes," he writes. "Indeed, many of these homes are so large they can only be called mansions." This pseudo-naivete, or whatever it is, gives the book the air of exposing some hither-to unsuspected evil, namely that the rich have a lot of money, that they manage to keep it by hiring good tax lawyers, that they have more power than other Americans because they contribute to campaigns, own newspapers, and set up philanthropic organizations to retain power over money that would otherwise go to the government. I don't know about you, but I knew this.

All in the family

Unlike Lapham, who is a whirling dervish of opinion, Allen is so coy that he never states in his own words that he personally feels that it's bad for the rich to be rich and powerful. In the beginning of the book he writes, "As G. William Domhoff puts it, `legally the government is all of us, but members of the upper class have the predominant, all-pervasive influence.'" At the end of the book, he writes:

In the final analysis, the issue is not

whether the corporate rich in America have

lost any important battles, but whether they

have lost the war. For the members of these

families, the most important war is the war

for wealth. Although the corporate rich

have lost some significant political battles,

such as the imposition of progressive transfer

taxes, they have certainly not lost the

war for wealth.

By reading between the lines, I think that we can deduce that Allen feels that this state of affairs is bad. Occasionally disapproval seeps through his man-from-Mars impartiality, as when he writes, "The practice of naming male scions for their illustrious forebears represents a form of ancestor worship for wealthy families." One could even say that spleen appears in a ghostly form when he says that these famous names give the rich an advantage when they enter politics and that they achieve success only after adopting "pedestrian nicknames," like "Jay" and "Pete," as if there was something underhanded about this. This is an example of the flimsier material in the book; some of it is quite solid. It's true that the rich have more money and power than other people, one can see that, but somehow in the form that Allen gives this situation it is really hard to care.

Allen's approach to the rich is strictly through their money: how they make it, how they keep it, how they spend it, how they hide it, how they bequeath it. The result of this approach is that his book is all about families, and this, in my opinion, is where its interest lies. First, I found it fascinating that Lapham, who was born into the upper class and therefore belongs to it by virtue of being a member of a family, never mentions families, while Allen, who sounds like he was born in a laboratory, sees this class entirely in terms of families. Secondly, what Allen describes is quite interesting, not, to me, for what it shows about the undue influence of the rich but for the shapes that the family takes in this context of great wealth. For example, he points out that tax avoidance devices, like generation-skipping trusts, in which income goes to one generation and capital to the next at some far-distant-future time, brings about a situation in which you can't really say at any given moment to whom the money belongs: you can say only that it belongs to "the family."

As Allen discusses how families rise in social status through generations, another surprising difference between him and Lapham emerges, for where Lapham revels in destroying snobbish distinctions between breeding and riches, Allen is downright fastidious in pointing out that money is not all that is needed for entry into the "upper class." Indeed some members of the upper class don't have a lot of money themselves (what they have is "cultural capital"), and these new multi-millionaires who come along are often shunned as crude and unscrupulous characters. Here Allen's muffled opprobrium of the social climbing of the corporate rich has the effect of making him seem to approve of this exclusive upper class. Suddenly he seems to be qualifying to be Mrs. Astor's secretary.

As he goes on with the story, it is the second generation to whom the job of entering society falls, and this is done by acquiring "cultural capital," to wit, the right clothes, accent, and conversation (knowing not to say that Thackeray is always blue). This is achieved by going to the right schools, copying the right people, and marrying the right people. Though you'd never know it from Allen's book, this endeavor to enter a higher class by acquiring manners and taste wasn't invented by the newly super-rich. Social climbing is every bit as American as the drive to be rich--in fact it is one of the great motives behind the drive to be rich. This has always been so.

What has changed is the cost of improving one's class status. It used to be possible to live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for a little more than elsewhere, but not much more. Tuitions at private schools used to be serious costs, but not extravagant ones. Minor works of art by known artists were once easily in the range of the middle-class pocketbook. Costs in these areas today are astronomical, which may be one of the reasons for our growing obsession with money and the resulting atmosphere of greed. In other words, class mobility into the upper echelons has become prohibitively expensive, drawing our society into a crisis in which we will either have to blow out in an apoplexy of avarice or simply learn to stop caring about class.

But to return to Allen and the ways of the super-rich, his enumeration of their habits builds to one of his favorite themes, which is that the families of the rich cohere to a much greater extent and longer than other families. They tend to live near each other, they go to regular family reunions, they share staffs that handle their wealth for them. His case is looking good until he startles us with his Martian affect: suddenly he seems to have barely heard of families at all. To him it strains belief, for example, that first cousins would know each other. That second cousins should have contact is, evidently, a sure sign of depravity. It is, in any event, in his view, a custom practiced only by the rich. In my experience, families cohere for lots of reasons, among them a sense of heritage and connectedness, a sense of safety, an obsession with its their myths, a set of special business relationships, and special brands of insanity that make it difficult for members to associate comfortably with anyone else. But I have no trouble believing that they also cohere because of the dictates of wealth, and while I disagree with Allen's apparent feeling that family coherence is in itself unnatural, it's true that his mini-histories of our richest families makes them seem rather lugubrious.

Free at last

What one sees in these stories is a kind of fate entrapping the progeny of the entrepreneur. He has some autonomy, some fun, some freedom of choice. His story is a real story that arises out of his character make-up and how he responds to the hazards of life. But his children and grandchildren seem to be born into prefabricated destinies, in which everything they do, where they live, whom they marry, how they spend their time and with whom, and even how they spend their money (tax avoidance must ever be kept in mind, as well as investment value) are heavily dictated by the imperatives of wealth. They are born into the gelatinous substance of these families held together by money, from which they must struggle to escape for generations.

Escape does come, though gradually. By the third generation the family is socially secure. By the fourth some freedom and individuality comes back. Family members feel more free to marry whom they please, rather than other rich or socially prominent people, and family control of the original corporation has also often slipped away by this time so that they do not have this common interest. The family may cohere still, but with far less solidarity. In fact, an uneasiness with the family association may have set in. In a rare touch of color, Allen quotes a Rockefeller cousin as saying, "Within the family one hardly ever talks about who we are without our Rockefeller identity." That identity, in that sentence, sounds to me like a burden. It is at this level and beyond that Lapham's predicament emerges. In fact, as a fourth-generation heir to the Texaco fortune he fits right into Allen's scheme. (I learned of the Texaco connection elsewhere. He doesn't even tell us this much about himself.) His kind of contradictory distress, anger, and entrapment is as much a part of the American story as that of the immigrant who is clever and hardworking and becomes rich.

I came to the point in Allen's stories where the families began to dissolve with relief. It is as if soul began to escape like butterflies. Those instances in which families disintegrate quickly seemed like instances of a benign fate. There is a sadness in this relief, because it makes everything seem so pointless--that after all is said and done, the great thing is to escape and be ordinary. The peculiar sadness of these stories is an American one, because making lots of money is the American dream. In a way it's all there is. Allen's book is not nearly as much fun to read as Lapham's, but in its dry way it reveals the emptiness at the heart of our culture more effectively.

Of both these books one can say that they make you glad that you are not rich. Even if that is something you might change your mind about if you had different information, it feels good to be positively glad not to be rich. It's freeing. It is also an interesting moment to read about and think about the whole matter of riches and greed in our society. With the shock of the crash still in our bones and the deluded atmosphere of the Reagan years lingering on, it's a moment of change in which it is possible to see that we have been soaking in materialism and have become dull in a way and blind.

I happened to read these books right after Rachel and Her Children, Jonathan Kozol's gripping book about the homeless. The effect was not the hackneyed one of shock that such disparities could exist (although the information in Kozol's book is shocking) or of wishing to reform society by taking from the rich to give to the poor. (All the numbers tell us that the real heft of redistribution has to come from the middle class.) The effect was simply that the rich have become irrelevant, that the whole tool of analysis of society by the standards of class and money has become much less interesting and potent in today's reality.

One of the striking elements in Kozol's book is that he tells the stories of how individuals become homeless. It doesn't take much. Husband and wife both get sick at the same time. House burns down and insurance company doesn't pay. Stories like this make one see that homelessness doesn't belong to another world, that the strata of our society are porous, that it would be possible to become homeless oneself. A coincidence of this and that and one evening you are sitting with your children waiting for an assignment to a shelter. After that you are trapped in a combination of dire need and insane bureaucracy, from which it is nearly impossible to emerge.

When I read later about the fate of becoming rich, it seemed in a way not unlike the fate of becoming homeless. It's a fate. It takes away freedom of choice. It seemed to me that both these fates took place in something larger, a certain atmosphere in which sensibilities were dulled and values askew. In this atmosphere, which can be called an atmosphere of greed for the sake of brevity, some people become homeless and some people become rich, and there, but for the grace of God, go the rest of us.

But it doesn't really matter if you are rich and I am not. It does matter, a lot, if I have no house or if you have no house. It also matters very much if, because I live in an anesthetized and deluded state, I don't notice that you have no house. This matters very much to me as well as to you. The whole level of my existence is debased by it. I am as helpless as you.

I hope we are turning a corner, that we have had enough of this sleep, that we are going to emerge from this miasma soon and take responsibility (which is, after all, a sign of freedom) for the economic and social problems that really need solving and that are within our power to solve. As for the rich, I fear that they will have to devise solutions for themselves. (*)The Founding Fortune: A New Anatomy of the Super-Rich Families in America.Michael Patrick Allen. Dutton, $22.50.
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Article Details
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Author:Lessard, Suzannah
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1988
Previous Article:Money and Class in America.
Next Article:William F. Buckley, Jr. Patron Saint of the Conservatives.

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