"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Birthdays Today

When I select my "Birthdays Today" birthdays, I generally select people I have a pre-existing interest in, people about whom I feel I can say something at least marginally interesting.  Today there are no such people -- what's up with December 15th? -- so I thought I'd just select someone whom I know basically nothing about and see what I can find.  

Anyway, it's J. Paul Getty's birthday today.   Born in 1892, Getty's name was always synonymous for me with vast wealth.   When I was little -- and I think a lot of people are this way even as adults (I'm looking at you, liberals) -- I thought that there were just "rich people," who were born that way.  I had no idea what anyone had to do to get there, just as I had little idea what my own father and mother did in order to get food on the table and keep a roof over our heads.   I think when people talk about "taxing the rich," they invariably do it without acknowledging that those "rich" oftentimes took enormous risks and worked extraordinarily hard and made significant innovations that improve people's lives.  

So it occurs to me... how exactly did Getty become Getty?

Getty's father was in the oil business, but Getty made his first million by age 24 running his own oil company in Tulsa.   He inherited $500,000 from his father in 1930 -- a huge sum then, but not enough to make him a billionaire by any stretch of the imagination -- and built his own oil business through shrewd mergers throughout the Depression.   Here is the interesting part, to me anyway:  in 1949,Getty agreed to pay $9.5 million in cash and $1 million a year for a 60-year concession to a tract of barren land near the border of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.  No oil had ever been discovered there, and none appeared until four years and $30 million had been spent.  From 1953 onward, Getty's gamble produced 16,000,000 barrels (2,500,000 m3) a year, which contributed greatly to the fortune which made him one of the richest people in the world.   Along the way, Getty learned to speak Arabic.

In other words, Getty had some help getting started from his father, but made his vast fortune by risking his fortune on a gamble, committing himself to roughly $100 million in expense (the $9.5 million plus $1 million a year for 60 years plus $30 million in exploration costs) before he saw a dime in return, and doing so in a volatile part of the world in an alien culture.   How many people would take that risk?  How many people have that kind of courage, particularly when they had already inherited or earned enough to be "comfortable"?   Most of us impose our own "glass ceilings" in life by settling for comfort.  Only a few won't settle, and push on to create something big.  

Apropos of this thought, here is Bernard Goldberg in his column yesterday:
Did you know that the top one percent of American wage earners (adjusted gross income) pay about 38 percent of all our federal personal taxes (according to the National Taxpayer Union)? The top one percent, by the way, account for 23.5 percent of all income — a substantial amount, yes, but considerably less than 38 percent. Or that the top five percent pay just under 60 percent?  Or that the top ten percent pay about 70 percent of all the personal income taxes collected in this great land of ours?
These "fat-cats" are the ones who do the heavy lifting in this country. They're the ones whose federal tax dollars pick up a big chunk of the tab for all sorts of noble things, such as: food for folks who don't have enough to eat … medicine and doctors for people with little money … financial aid to help other people's kids go to college … milk and diapers for poor babies whose 15 year-old mothers and deadbeat fathers are too irresponsible to take care of their own kids … a safety net for old folks who are retired on fixed incomes … and on and on.....
By the way, the bottom 50 percent of tax filers pay a paltry 2.7 percent of our federal income taxes. How many poor people do you think their tax dollars are taking care of? If you ask me, they're the ones not paying their fair share. Every time they pass a "rich" person on the street, they ought to say, "Thank you for everything you do me and for this country."
For those of you not already making plans to hang me in effigy — or for real — let me simply say this: The richest Americans may not "need" a break on their taxes, but they sure don't need being vilified, either. They need our gratitude. So let's get busy on that shiny monument in our nation's capital. And let's get some unemployed people out there building it. It's the least they can do for those nice rich people who have been keeping them afloat.
Getty was also  an avid art collector; his collection formed the basis of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, pictured below.  He left over $661 million of his estate to the museum... it's is the world's wealthiest art institute.   (I assume this is private art institutions, thinking that the Louvre or some other state-run museum must be wealthier, but who knows?)

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