One of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen is Born Rich, a 2003 documentary directed by Jamie Johnson, a 3rd generation heir of the Johnson & Johnson fortune, in which he looks at the lives of the young and wealthy and how they experience the world.
Those of you looking closely might recognize an early-20s Ivanka Trump in the upper left corner there. Most of the subjects are 3rd generation or later wealth - landed European gentry, heirs to the A&P and Conde Nast fortunes, et al. - but there’s a couple of kids of just rich parents, like Georgina Bloomberg, the daughter of Michael Bloomberg, and Christina Floyd, the daughter of golf champion, Raymond Floyd.
The film’s thesis is that being born rich is a challenge to overcome because you have no path to determining your worth, which makes it difficult to find an authentic sense of self. One of the sadder moments of the film is when the director, Jamie Johnson goes to his father - 2nd generation wealthy - for help figuring out what to do with his life, and his father, who has spent a lot of time making mediocre paintings, had no advice.
I don’t know that I felt sympathy exactly for these young people, but it was sad to see people with long lives ahead of them so adrift. It’s actually similar to my feelings about the women experiencing The Fleishman Effect that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.
On the one hand, boo-hoo billionaire’s kid, you’re beyond all concerns of material security. On the other, they really do seem pretty damn miserable. One choice is to dedicate yourself to making even more money, but I imagine this desire exhausts itself pretty quickly once you've run out of things money can buy.
One exception was Georgina Bloomberg who had taken advantage of the resources available to her from her father’s wealth to throw herself into equestrianism, apparently a passion she pursues to this day and excels at.
I was reminded of Born Rich when reading this week’s New York Times profile of Elizabeth Koch, daughter of right-wing billionaire Charles Koch, centered on her new initiative, Unlikely Practices, which appears to be some kind of wellness consultancy designed around the need for everyone to deal with what Koch calls our “Perception Box.”
In her words:
I don’t know what that nonsense means, I don’t care enough to find out. The piece itself is puffier than a jumbo marshmallow and it should be a source of embarrassment to everyone at the New York Times, but occasionally lathering up the ultra-wealthy seems to be part of the institutional mission statement over there.
I thought Howard Mittelmark and Caroline Casey summed things up nicely on Twitter.
The piece was extra galling to those of us in the world of reading and writing because it came on the heels of a recent announcement that Elizabeth Koch’s previous foray into trying to be perceived as a good person, Catapult, a publisher of a magazine, books, and a purveyor of online writing classes taught by some top-notch faculty has discontinued those classes, 86’d the magazine, and shrunk the budget of the publishing arm.
Catapult is now apparently also part of the Perception Box mission.
Elizabeth Koch is a dilettante who thinks she is a genius and is indulged in these fantasies because of her unfathomable wealth.
That is not a Perception Box speaking. It is the truth.
She previously pursued an MFA in creative writing at Syracuse University, one of the top programs in the country, and then established Catapult with the idea of expanding access to opportunities for paying work for writers and publishing interesting books.
She told the Times she has a novel manuscript of 1400 pages with “24 major characters and 30 plot lines.” I have read some of her published short fiction and it is brutally terrible. No one would have thought twice about giving this person access to something like the Syracuse MFA program if she had not been a billionaire.
She’s had enough of hobnobbing with writers and has moved on to wellness professionals and academics. For now, she’s able to purchase praise like this from a researcher at Northeastern University, whose work is being funded by Elizabeth Koch and is a paid advisor to Unlikely Practices, two bits of background that were added in as a correction following initial publication of the article.
I don’t know if Dr. Barrett will reap sufficient rewards to not regret this, but it’s a good illustration of how institutions like academia, publishing, and education are built on the whims of American oligarchic wealth.
For over a decade, if you wanted to do research about education, the only source of external funding was Bill Gates, but Bill Gates was only funding certain research based in his personal feelings about what would work.
Compared to what her father is doing, purchasing direct access to the levers of power in American government in order to continue to make the world safe for fossil fuels, Elizabeth Koch is relatively harmless, but we should take each of these occasions as a call to tax wealth in a way that returns this money to the people.
People kept their mouths shut as long at Elizabeth Koch was funding something good - like indie publishing - but having to rely on the largesse of oligarchs is not good, particularly when that largesse can be pulled.
I miss the days when a robber baron would drop some dough on a foundation and get lost, rather than insisting on being involved in the enterprise.
Perhaps Elizabeth Koch is preferable to her cousin Wyatt, who founded a company on the premise that people would want to wear the ugliest shirts imaginable.
But I don’t think so. Wyatt Koch is not trying buy respectability or make sure people don’t associate him with the obscene wealth and reactionary politics of his forebears. He’s being a stupid rich guy and apparently having a good time doing it.
At least he’s found his authentic self. No being hemmed in by his Perception Box for this guy!
We’re supposed to pretend that Elizabeth Koch is a serious person because she can attract excellent writers who are trying to make a living to her publishing company, or because some academics will say good things about her because Elizabeth Koch is the source of her funding?
Honestly, fuck that.
Tax these people. Put the money to the public good, very much including the arts, which we all benefit from.
I often try to find ways to shoehorn the books that come to mind while I’m writing the newsletter into the main essay, but sometimes that gets awkward, so I’ve decided to start this separate section, to highlight worthy books related to the topic at hand. All links go to Bookshop with affiliate income to Open Books of Chicago, and a second non-profit to be named.
Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America by Christopher Leonard
A truly infuriating look at how the Koch’s systematically purchased the lion’s share of our democratic system of government, making it much less of a democracy. Imagine the country is like a hotel and one of the people staying there gets access to the manager who will change the hotel policies based on that one person’s wishes. That’s what the Kochs have done to the country.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer
It’s not just the Kochs who have subverted our democracy with their wealth and power. New Yorker writer Jane Mayer tells the full terrifying story.
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas
If you still think that charity is any kind of way to make up for structural inequality, this book should be able to dissuade you. Tax the wealthy.
This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown by Taylor Harris
This book, published by Catapult, is one of the most moving memoirs you’ll ever read.
Three of my favorite contemporary writers do their professing as part of the Syracuse MFA program: George Saunders, Jonathan Dee, and Dana Spiotta.
Three recommendations: Civilwarland in Bad Decline by Saunders, The Locals by Dee, and Wayward by Spiotta.
My Chicago Tribune column this week is about “weird books” in which I make eight recommendations.
In honor of Elizabeth Koch’s “Perception Box,” at LitHub, Dan Sheehan asks, “Could a billionaire get these infamous fictional boxes made?”
Chip Gaines, yeah that dude from the country-aesthetic home construction/design show has apparently bought Larry McMurtry’s former bookstore. McMurtry passed away in 2021.
1. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
2. The Overstory by Richard Powers
3. Liberation Day by George Saunders
4. H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
5. Happy Go Lucky by David Sedaris
Ryan M. - Falmouth, ME
I think Ryan will be into the wit and inventiveness of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette.
Farewell to a Good Boy
One of the consequences of having a house filled with dogs is that you occasionally have to say goodbye to them. This week it was time to say goodbye to our boy Truman, almost sixteen years old, almost two years removed from a cancer diagnosis with a six month prognosis.
Dignified to the end.
Supporting The Biblioracle Recommends is correlated with a 57% chance of improving your Perception Box.
Hope to see you next week. I’m on the road doing some talks, but I’m trusting there will be sufficient down time for us to have some fun here.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Can you give us a link to Koch's short fiction? I'm not ashamed to go diving in the dumpster of a billionaire.
I'm so sorry to hear about Truman. Losing a pet is hard.
And thanks for the recommendation in your Trib column for "weird" books. Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" is one of my favorite books ever; it was the first, but definitely not the last, book of his that I read.