As National Thrift Week winds down, I’m pleased to offer (by permission) a short essay from author David Blankenhorn. This is taken from the end of his 2008 book, Thrift: A Cyclopedia, published by Templeton Press. (Read more about the book here.) I’ve altered formatting slightly to make it more readable in blog format. Emphasis is mine.
I want to conclude this book by asking you to reflect briefly on this 1957 observation on successful American business leaders (“Titans”) from Max Lerner:
There is one division which cuts across most of the Titans of the earlier prewar era of America — the split between the puritan and the magnifico.
J. Piermont Morgan, the greatest of all the Titans, was a magnifico in the sense that he operated on a scale of magnificence. So also were [James J.] Hill, [John W.] Gates, [Jay] Gould, several of the early Du Ponts, and [Charles Tyson] Yerkes himself.
There was a lustiness and grandeur of scope in their private as in their business lives. They bet and gambled, lived conspicuously, gave parties, sailed yachts, were seen in the European capitals; there were legends of the stables of women they kept; they built palatial homes and crammed them with art treasures rifled from the museums and collections of Europe. There was native optimism in them; in business as in private life they were “bullish”…
There was another strain, however, represented by Daniel Drew, the Rockefellers, Henry Ford: not the strain of magnificence but of the taut Puritan qualities. These men came out of small towns and remained at home in small-town America. They were abstemious, church-going, taught Sunday-school classes. They spent little on themselves, and what they did they spent quietly. Like Rockefeller, they handed out shiny dimes; like Ford, they ploughed everything back into the business.
They had the eccentricities in which men can indulge when they sit on top of a pyramid of power. They were apt to be gloomy men and presented a stern vision of the world, at once unsmiling and unrelenting. Yet they were probably closer than the magnificos to the theological roots of capitalism: the demonstration of virtue through success, the doctrine of calling, the gospel of work and thrift.
— from Max Lerner, America as a Civilization, 1957
When I think of this same basic division today, I think of Donald Trump and Warren Buffet.
Donald Trump, one of Max Lerner’s magnificos if ever there was one, is a billionaire real-estate mogul and owner of gambling casinos, who has also in recent years become a best-selling author, TV and radio star, and tabloid media celebrity — the latest and possibly most shameless in a long line of out-sized American gamers who get famous by being rich and stay rich by being famous.
If we ever need a poster boy for “Thrift—Not!” we surely have one in Donald Trump. For him, everything is about high living and fast bucks, or what Trump calls “the art of the deal.” He is a caricature of egotism. Much of his money is from his gambling interests. He leaves behind him a trail of indebtedness and messy bankruptcies. He is a man whose core philosophy seems to be that bigger is always better and that more is always good. A man who cannot have his name on too many buildings or billboards, or in letters too large. A deep craving for glitz, flash, and conspicuous consumption — Donald Trump was bling before bling was a word. Quantities of bragging that, in most places, would gag a horse.
Heaven help us, we all, or at least most of us, have a bit of Donald Trump in us. After all, is it always wrong to want it, have it, and flaunt it? As Lerner recognized, being a magnifico in America can be quite exciting and, often enough, lots of fun! I imagine that more than a few Americans play the lottery today hoping that they’ll get lucky and become a somewhat smaller-scale version of Donald Trump, a hometown magnifico.
In any case, there is a reason why so many, and growing numbers, of our signs across the country have the word “Trump” emblazoned on them. If Trump were a U.S. city, he would doubtless be Las Vegas or Atlantic City, but there is also a sense in which all of our cities, and our society as a whole, have been moving steadily in recent decades in a Trump-like direction.
Warren Buffet is also a famous billionaire. But any similarity to Trump ends there. Buffet lives modestly in Omaha, Nebraska. He eats lunch at the Dairy Queen. He has never borrowed money in business [J.D.'s note: this doesn't mesh with Lowenstein's biography of Buffett], and has never been in debt. Throughout his career, nearly everyone associated with him has made money, usually lots of it. Lerner describes his American puritans as typically “gloomy men” who are “at once unsmiling and unrelenting.” But Buffet seems to be cheerful enough, and by all accounts has a great sense of humor.
He could not be less interested in “the art of the deal.” As an investor, he emphasizes the fundamentals and looks for companies that are likely to thrive over time. He filed his first tax return at age thirteen, for his paper route, and took a $25 deduction for his bicycle. Because he does not believe that the children of rich men, including his own children, should inherit all or even most of their fathers’ estates, he recently announced plans to give most of his money away. He argues that “huge fortunes that flow in large part from society should in large part be returned to society.” He keeps receipts and is a stickler over small sums of money. For years — until he gave it to a charity auction — the license plate on his car read “THRIFTY.”
Most of us have a bit of Warren Buffet in us, or at least would like to. There is much to admire here. And as Lerner’s observations suggest, Buffet’s America — the America of “the demonstration of virtue through success, the doctrine of calling, the gospel of work and thrift” — runs quite deep in our history and still looms large today as an aspect of our collective identity and a shaper of our possibilities.
The question for us today is, which America? Looking ahead, in which direction do we want to go? Do we want as a society to become a bit more like Trump? Or a bit more like Buffet? To me, the answer is clear enough. Moreover, the stakes are quite high. If I had to pick the best word to describe the Trump direction, it would be “waste.” For the Buffet direction, by far the best word, and possibly the only truly adequate word, is “thrift.”
National Thrift Week concludes tomorrow at Get Rich Slowly with one of my favorite instructional films from the 1940s. See you then!
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