Wisdom of a Non-Idiot Billionaire
‘I saw Bernie Sanders and the kids around him,’ says Ken Langone. ‘I thought: This is the antichrist!’
By Peggy Noonan
An occasional preoccupation in this space is that young people have no particular loyalty to or affection for free-market capitalism, the economic system that made America a great thing in history and a magnet for the world. There are two reasons. One is that in their short lives they’ve witnessed and experienced only capitalism’s scandals—the 2008 crash, inequality. The other is that they’ve never heard capitalism defended—not in K through college, not in our entertainment culture. When you don’t especially admire something you feel no inclination to protect it, which will have serious political implications down the road.
We should all make the case for capitalism, especially our idiot billionaires and especially those in Silicon Valley. Some, by which I mean Mark Zuckerberg in particular, act as if America is special mostly because it provided a stage for their fabulousness, otherwise not much. During a hearing last month Sen. Dan Sullivan referred to Mr. Zuckerberg’s dorm-room invention and said: “Only in America, would you agree with that?” Mr. Zuckerberg seemed taken aback and mumbled around. “You’re supposed to answer ‘yes’ to this question,” Mr. Sullivan explained.
But let’s get to a non-idiot billionaire. Ken Langone, 82, investor, philanthropist and founder of Home Depot, has written an autobiography that actually conveys the excitement of business—of starting an enterprise that creates a job that creates a family, of the joy of the deal and the place of imagination in the making of a career. Its hokey and ebullient name is “I Love Capitalism” which I think makes his stand clear.
Why did he write it? I asked him by phone. He wanted to show gratitude, to inspire the young—“If I can make it, everyone can!”—and he wanted young voters to understand socialism is not the way. “In 2016 I saw Bernie Sanders and the kids around him. I thought: This is the antichrist! We have the greatest engine in the world.” The wealthy have an absolute obligation to help others: “Where would we be if people didn’t share their wealth? I got 38 kids on Bucknell scholarships. They’re all colors of the rainbow; some are poor kids, rough around the edges. It’s capitalism!” He famously funds NYU/Langone Medical Center.
He worries about the future of economic freedom and sees the selfishness of some of the successful as an impediment. “Are there people who are greedy, who do nothing for anyone? Yes.” They should feel shame. If the system goes down they’ll be part of the reason. “But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!”
Can capitalism win the future? “Yes, but we have to be more emphatic and forthright about what it is and its benefits. A rising tide does lift boats.”
Home Depot has changed lives. “We have 400,000 people who work there, and we’ve never once paid anybody minimum wage.” Three thousand employees “came to work for us fresh out of high school, didn’t go to college, pushing carts in the parking lot. All 3,000 are multimillionaires. Salary, stock, a stock savings plan.”
Mr. Langone came up in the middle of the 20th century—the golden age of American capitalism. Does his example still pertain to the 21st? Yes, he says emphatically: “The future is rich in opportunity.” To see it, look for it. For instance: “Look, people are living longer. They’re living more vibrant lives, more productive. This is an opportunity to accommodate the needs of older people. Better products, cheaper prices—help them get what they need!”
Mr. Langone grew up in blue-collar, Long Island, N.Y. Neither parent finished high school. His father was a plumber who was poor at business; his mother worked in the school cafeteria. They lived paycheck to paycheck. He was a lousy student but he had one big thing going for him: “I loved making money.” He got his first job at 11 and often worked two at a time—paperboy, butcher-shop boy, caddie, lawn work, Bohack grocery clerk. He didn’t mind: “I wanted to be rich.”
He got into Bucknell University when the registrar saw something in him despite his grades. He scraped through, enjoyed economics class. His mother prayed every day to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, that he’d find good sense and self-discipline. He met a beautiful Long Island girl named Elaine, they married; he looked for work on Wall Street, found some after struggling, and went to New York University at night for a business degree from what’s now called the Langone Program.
By the spring of 1965 he was not yet 30 and earning $100,000 a year in commissions alone. He loved mergers and acquisitions. For his first initial public offering, he nailed down Ross Perot and EDS. By his mid-30s he was Mr. Perot’s banker and quite full of himself. Naturally his business soon wobbled, almost cratered, and righting the ship took years.
Then came Home Depot. You’ll have to read the book to hear the story. Ross Perot decided not to invest.
Mr. Langone’s book is not only helpful, it’s fun. He doesn’t offer rules for living but you can discern some between the lines.
1. Take your religious faith seriously. His Catholicism gave him safe harbor in storms and left him “sensitive to the plight and needs of others.”
2. Marry for the long run. He and Elaine have been wed 63 years. When things were good she cheered him on; when they weren’t she let him know “she would always be there for me—win, lose or draw.”
3. You teach values by living them. Don’t say—do. People absorb eloquent action.
4. “Pray at the feet of hard work.” Be ravenous in reading about your field, whichever you wind up in and for however long.
5. Money solves the problems money can solve. Don’t ask more of it, and don’t be ashamed of wanting it. “A kid once said to me, ‘Money doesn’t buy everything.’ I said, ‘Well, kid, I was poor, and I can tell you right now poverty doesn’t do a very good job either.’ ”
6. Stay excited. Don’t be sated.
7. Admit the reality around you, then change it. When Mr. Langone couldn’t get an entry level job at Goldman Sachs , Kidder Peabody or White Weld, an executive took him aside: “Let me tell you the lay of the land. We have Jewish firms for Jewish kids and we have WASP firms for WASP kids. The Irish we make clerks, and put them on the floor of the stock exchange, and Italian kids like you we put in the back office.” When Mr. Langone began to succeed, he started to hire—and brought in the sons of cops who went to St. John’s. This contributed to “the democratization of Wall Street.”
8. When you’re successful you’ll put noses out of joint, even among colleagues who benefit from your work. Be careful about jealousy but in the end roll with it, it’s human nature. When you “piss off the old guard,” become the old guard—and help the clever rise.
9. “There’s no defeat except in giving up.” You’re going to fail. So what? Keep going, something will work.
Billionaire tech gods should read it, emulate it, and start celebrating the system that made them mighty.