It’s one of the marks of our Second Gilded Age that wealth is viewed in and of itself as an achievement, one so stupendous it grants the holder the right to opine on all sorts of topics about which they know very little or nothing. As a trend, this has been with us for some time, but it has become worse under the Trump administration, where the wealthiest man ever elected to the White House has appointed the wealthiest Cabinet in history.
The best example yet of this came over the weekend. On “60 Minutes,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos revealed herself to be woefully ignorant on the subject she’s supposedly an expert at. Under questioning by Lesley Stahl, it turned out DeVos did not appear to know that that the reading and math scores of American schoolchildren have increased and not decreased over the past several decades, or that for many students the charter school expansion in her native Michigan has led to poorer educational outcomes.
For good measure, DeVos told Stahl she doesn’t intentionally visit schools that are failing, admitting: “Maybe I should.” Apparently, prior to Sunday evening, only the successful ones were worthy of her actual physical presence.
All in all, it was a wretched performance. But why would we expect it to be anything else? An heiress to one fortune and the wife to the heir of another, a product of private schools who chose to educate her children in a similar fashion, DeVos’s qualifications for the job of education secretary were never more than those of a wealthy (and not particularly well-informed) hobbyist whose pet cause was the promotion of charter schools as a solution to a problem she had limited personal experience with.
But DeVos is hardly alone, whether it comes to the Trump administration, educational policy circles or larger American culture. The idea that wealth and its companion, business success, in and of themselves bestow on their possessors greater wisdom and insight into all manner of social, political and economic problems is something that has assumed greater and greater prominence in popular culture and political circles, really since the 1980s, when CEOs and Wall Street titans were routinely profiled as all but heroes. Partly as a result, we’ve seen people such as Mark Cuban, Howard Schultz and Sheryl Sandberg held up as plausible candidates for president based on little more than their business track record.
This is particularly true in education. Nowhere has deference to billionaires operating far outside their area of expertise been more pronounced than in this field.
Everyone from Bill and Melinda Gates to Mark Zuckerberg to numerous hedge fund millionaires and billionaires have attempted to take on the project of improving American public schools, with mixed results at best. Zuckerberg, famously, blew through $100 million attempting to improve the schools in Newark, despite having known almost nothing about education.
But the Trump administration has taken this worship of wealth for wealth’s sake to a new level. Trump — again, the wealthiest man ever elected president, who appointed the wealthiest Cabinet and administration in American history — frequently cited his own wealth as a reason to vote for him, saying it would allow him to act in the best interest of voters because he didn’t need money.
Trump has also explicitly cited wealth as a key qualification for his Cabinet picks. “I want people that made a fortune because now they’re negotiating with you,” Trump explained in 2016. “It’s not different than a great baseball player or a great golfer.”
Actually, yes, it is. DeVos’s performance Sunday night is proof of that.
In fact, as I’ve noted, behavioral finance tells us the wealthy are, if anything, less qualified to opine on the lives and concerns of others than the average Joe they might see from the window of their chauffeur-driven limousine. They might think they are selfless advocates devoted to originating and promoting the best policies for all of us, but, in fact, studies repeatedly find they are less empathetic and less generous and more likely to act in their immediate self-interest at the expense of others than are men and women of lesser means.
It’s hardly surprising that the Trump administration’s one major legislative accomplishment has been the successful passage of a tax reform package that so favors the wealthy — including, natch, Trump. Otherwise, when it comes to everything from health care to housing to student loan repayment policies and consumer rights, the Trump administration has used the regulatory apparatus to make life worse for many, many people.
What’s more, on policy, Trump often seems like a dilettante who thinks his pronouncements carry weight simply because he spent so many years giving orders in the private sector. He contradicts himself constantly and often seems, to put it gently, less-than-well-informed.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that Trump didn’t realize — or perhaps didn’t care — that DeVos was manifestly unqualified to head up education policy for the United States. But if there were any doubt among anyone else, Sunday night’s performance should have finally put an end to the idea that wealth is a qualification for anyone to weigh in on — never mind have actual authority over — areas in which they have no expertise.
Perhaps demonstrating this clearly for all to see will constitute one area in which the Trump administration performs a very valuable public service.