Op Ed

Yes, Billionaires Should Exist

Beware of presidential candidates with all THE ANSWERS.

By - Mar 3rd, 2020 05:12 pm
Ald. Robert Bauman and Michael Bloomberg. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

Ald. Robert Bauman and Michael Bloomberg. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

One of the things you learn over a long career in business: beware of the person in company who has all the answers. Promote the thoughtful employee who has insightful questions and engages in a collaborative dialog to get to the best answers.

As the presidential debates last week demonstrated, this insight doesn’t apply to much of the world of politics, where professional management has taken a back seat to sound bites and their righteous repetition.

The debates reeked of sound and fury, but little wisdom. Example from Bernie Sanders: “Billionaires should not be allowed to exist.” But what if they are entrepreneurs who brought great benefits to society (think iPhone) and are giving most of their wealth to charities and further business investment?

Is it a better concept to create a society that produces more entrepreneurs; a rare few of who go on become billionaires? Note: the entrepreneurs reinvent our economy. They are the job creators. Old-line companies generally reduce more positions than they add.

The other people to avoid in leadership are the zealots. They have THE ANSWERS, and they want to impose their top-down blue prints on the rest of us. There were several of those zealots on stage Wednesday night.

Think Medicare-for-All, whose proponents (Sanders, Elizabeth Warren) would strip 160 million employed Americans of their health plans. Note: most employees like their company health plans. The culinary workers like their union plan. If Sanders were not a zealot, he would compromise and let them keep their hard-won plan. He would go to work on the uninsured and under-insured and leave the well insured alone.

President Barack Obama’s health plan was top-down as well. It had to be forced through Congress. But at least it was semi-pragmatic in not trying to upend the whole industry.

The other related fatal flaw in business leaders is arrogance. One of the nation’s best business thinkers, Clayton Christiansen, has made the case convincingly that great companies fail when they stop learning.

He defines humility as the willingness to learn – the opposite of arrogance.

Was there a humble man on the debate stage? Mike Bloomberg made an apology for his aggressive stop-and-risk tactics. He learned from his mistake and cut that New York City initiative way back.

Both Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg expressed collaborative approaches to problem solving versus hard-wired partisan positions. They didn’t assume postures of moral superiority. Isn’t that what we want from our leaders?

Another tool for leaders in building relationships and solving problems that relates to the ones outlined above is the ability to listen to opposing views. Debates are not listening forums; they are more gotcha forums. So they are of limited use in determining who would be the most effective leaders.

Note that our current president is notorious for listening to almost no one. He listens primarily to the voices in his own head.

Some leaders are dynamic in their personas, but many are quiet and deliberative. Gesticulating wildly to make a point, ala Sanders, is more of a turn-off than a turn-on.

Insulting and demeaning other people — management by intimidation, ala Donald Trump – seldom works for very long either.

Yet another dimension for the kind of leader this country needs is the ability to build a team and then pass the credit around to team members. Trump is the opposite of a team builder. Everyone around him, except his family, is pushed aside and often ends up under the bus.

Were there insights from the debate on which Democrats could build a team?

Bloomberg, though a lackluster debater, has built effective teams at his fabulous company and as mayor of New York.

If elected, he could find some valuable cabinet secretaries among his presidential opponents. Joe Biden for secretary of state? Warren to head Treasury and bring Wall Street to heel? Klobuchar, a former prosecutor, as attorney general? Buttigieg for housing and urban development?

He could pull in several Republicans as well: Sen. Mitt Romney for Secretary of Commerce? Gov. William Weld, a master of collaboration, to head Health and Human Services and health cost reform?

President Abraham Lincoln famously brought his rivals for the oval office into his cabinet to help unify the country when it was torn with strife. It produced stress in the White House, but generally helped to heal the kind of divisiveness the country faces today.

It’s up to American voters to sift through the political bombast of 2020, which was in full evidence last Wednesday, and find a genuine leader who gives respect to others and deserves it and our votes in return.

John Torinus is the chairman of Serigraph Inc. and a former Milwaukee Sentinel business editor who blogs regularly at johntorinus.com.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

5 thoughts on “Op Ed: Yes, Billionaires Should Exist”

  1. steenwyr says:

    John, why do you use such divisive language like “strip people of health care”? It really takes away from any point of humility or compromise you’re trying to make here.

    Most employees “like” their employer-provided plan because they can’t imagine it any other way and the alternatives are truly worse. Those plans gives most the best opportunity to have any semblance of buying power. Most seniors love their Medicare too, so why can’t everyone. Your own article says you should be willing to learn, hope you’re trying.

    BTW, the only people who should be truly worried by anything like MFA are the 530k who work in the health care insurance industry, a cohort, that, by the way, has nearly doubled in size in 25 years: https://www.statista.com/statistics/194229/number-of-health-insurance-employees-in-the-us-since-1960/ You tell me, has the actual administration of health care really gotten more complicated in that time, or did it get made that way? (Before you freak, no, more/most of that growth was pre-ACA too.)

    One last thought, how many of your revered billionaires are sitting on top of those paper-pushing organizations insurance delivering “great benefits” for society?

  2. mcadagio says:

    It is true that billionaires can contribute some good things to society, WHILE ALSO doing great harm. The difference today is that people are noticing the bad that billionaires either actively promote OR are passively complicit in.

    We live in a time where wages and benefits are stagnant while both the cost of living and stock market returns continue to rise to all-time highs. When the threat of being fired and removed from an employer’s health plan can mean bankruptcy, poverty, or death. Is it any wonder why there’s anger towards the bosses, the investors, the chairmen, the honorary board members, ceremonial appointees, and others of the upper class? You’re missing the anger and anxiety that is fueling the support for “zealot” candidates, and the fear that is fueling a surge for Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee.

  3. mkwagner says:

    The current US economy with its enormous wealth gap, large student loan debt and out of control healthcare costs all make becoming a successful entrepreneur more difficult. The problem with many billionaires is they made money off the labor of their employees whose wages have stagnated over the last 3 decades. They built their wealth on an infrastructure paid for by all US taxpayers yet they continue to demand lower and lower taxes for themselves. While billionaires are enjoying increasing wealth, more than half the population struggles to make ends meet. We struggle to pay for health care and quality education for our children. We worry about how we can put money aside for retirement (many of us watched our retirement nest eggs vanish in the 2008 crash.)

    One more thing John, the wealthy are not as philanthropic as you may think. They spend a smaller portion of their wealth than in the past and much of that goes to arts organizations and quasi-political education organizations (such as WILL). Individuals like the Kochs have rebuilt the Gilded Age with little consideration give to the enormous damage caused to the US and world economies as a result.

  4. Thomas Gaudynski says:

    Oh, I’m sorry. I read the headline Billionaires Should Exit.

  5. BBauer9 says:

    It is good to see that people recognize that it really isn’t about wealth by itself; it’s how that wealth was made. Entrepreneurs, business owners and professionals put in their own sweat equity to build the business. Often this is with little or no compensation, but only an idea. They also take personal risks, they have “skin in the game.” They have to put up their own personal collateral to build the business, so if the business goes down, they and their personal assets go down with it.
    On the other hand, corporate executives like those on the Fortune 500 receive annual compensation averaging over $10 million per year. Yes, they may help run and increase the value of the business, but they step into businesses that were already built and they have no risk, other than their own salary. They are rewarded by how much money they make for their shareholders, so the incentive for them is to keep wages down. In addition, many of them have golden parachutes, that pay them exit money, even if their company goes down.
    It is the innovators, the entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and so many others who have built their businesses with their own own ideas and capital. On the other hand, the corporate executives who step into companies that others have built and now control the low wages of so many of their workers so that they can be rewarded with more are like predators on our American economy. (BTW, both Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg are donating most of their earned wealth)
    We need to look at our taxation system and differentiate the entrepreneurs who own 20% or more of their company and are at risk from those who stepped into their compensation.

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