Elon, S.B.F. & the Closing of the Billionaire Mind

Our inclination to mythologize the lives of billionaires like Elon Musk, or Sam Bankman-Fried, has perhaps blinded us to a more fundamental truth. Photo: Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
William D. Cohan
December 7, 2022

We do love our rich folks in America, that’s for sure. Back in the day, it was men like J.P. Morgan and Henry Villard, the money men who backed Thomas Edison, and John D. Rockefeller, who for a time controlled the oil patch and was our first billionaire. More recently, our infatuation has landed on such businessmen as Jack Welch and Larry Page and Sergey Brin. We can also throw into the mix the Microsoft coaching tree, including Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, the late Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer.

Ah, and then there were the really good old days, back in the ’80s and ’90s, when the deal guys like Felix Rohatyn and Bruce Wasserstein would bring together C.E.O.s in their Fifth Avenue apartments or at Three Guys on Madison Avenue and design a big merger, only to have the juicy deliberations leak out into the pages of the Wall Street Journal a few days later, cementing their status as legends of finance. What fun that was to read about! (Dennis Berman, one of the masters of the Wall Street-to-Wall Street Journal leak, has worked on Wall Street, at Lazard, my alma mater, for some five years now, in the TMT advisory group.) 

But the shocking events that have unfolded in recent months at both Twitter and FTX, with the concurrent bed-soiling of the world’s richest man and the world’s richest manchild, might be enough to convince our culture to reduce our blind reverence. They are neither the saviors nor the inspirational leaders we’d like them to be, or think that they are. In fact, they may be closer to buffoons and criminals than some sort of heroes.