Ironic irony of being a billionaire
March 11th, 2018
While Forbes was unveiling its list of billionaires last week, Tom Pritzker was in New Delhi honoring an architect known for designing low-cost housing.
Balkrishna Doshi is the first Indian to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the highest honor in architecture. Along with its prestige, the honor comes with a $100,000 prize.
Pritzker was ranked as the third wealthiest Chicagoan on the list with a net worth of $4.9 billion. He didn’t immediately get back to me about his billionaire ranking. He’s still traveling. Or maybe he’d prefer not discussing it.
For a lot of billionaires, being showcased on the “three comma club,” as Forbes calls it, is the downside of wealth. The list detracts from the good work they do–even though that good work comes from their wealth.
What a conundrum.
In my straw poll of Chicago-area billionaires, their reaction to the Forbes’ list ranges from cringe to eye-roll. Jerry Reinsdorf grumbles that Forbes’ estimates “aren’t even close to being accurate.” Most billionaires try to ignore it–that’s what their aides say.
The rest of us devour the billionaire names and numbers. It feeds into our love-hate relationship with the wealthy. We love rags to riches stories like that of Sam Zell, whose family immigrated to this country with next to nothing. He’s gone on, of course, to found and run Equity Group Investments and donate millions to education programs (Forbes lists him as having a $4.9 billion net worth). We’re inspired by the entrepreneurialism of Ken Griffin, who started a business in his college dorm and now runs Citadel hedge-fund company (he’s the wealthiest Chicagoan with $9 billion). Griffin has donated millions to reshaping Chicago’s cultural scene–from museums to the lakeshore path. And Eric Lefkofsky, a co-founder of Groupon, is now trying to cure cancer, for goodness sake. (Now the founder of Tempus, Lefkofsky is on the list with $2.2 billion.)
What infuriates most regular folks is whether the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes. More than a few billionaires say they’d be willing to pay more in taxes if it was attached to real tax reform.
Liberals like to “demonize billionaires,” one source said. “They ignore the fact that in most cases it’s billionaires, and those who are close to it, who are the ones funding the very kinds of foundations, community organizations, nonprofits and advocacy campaigns (like gay marriage and choice legislation) that the far left cares about. It’s an ironic irony.”
Here’s a loosely annotated list of billionaires who make Chicago work.
STOCKS TRADE SATURDAY: That was Alec Litowitz, founder and CEO of Magnetar Capital, holding court Saturday at Navy Pier. His investment firm runs the Magnetar Youth Academy Trading Challenge. The event gives high-school students real-life experience competing on a mock trading floor. Some 400 students from 34 high schools took part. They analyzed trends to build a $100,000 mock stock portfolio.
Winners in order were Northside College Prep, Deerfield High School and Lincoln Park High School. The Financial Literacy Quiz Winner was Whitney Young Magnet High School.
Ron Lieber, the New York Times “Your Money” columnist was a keynote speaker. He’s an alumni of Francis Parker School so he enjoys making trips to Chicago. Magnetar’s David Snyderman, the global head of fixed income and Ernie Rogers, the company’s COO, also were on hand to talk to students.
TAKING ON TRUMP: Businesswoman Penny Pritzker talks about trade, tariffs and “the most heart-wrenching moments” of her time serving as U.S. Commerce secretary.
“I met with steelworkers whose lives and livelihoods were flipped upside down by years of overproduction and subsequent dumping of steel by the Chinese on the global market. This action created a glut worldwide, causing a crash in steel prices. Workers in Lorain, along with many other communities across America, felt this massive shock as thousands were laid off,” Pritzker wrote. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of the significant pain those steel workers had the courage to share. Thus, I understand the president’s desire to find clear and urgent solutions to help protect American workers from foreign competition. But the reality is that the president’s call for tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, or threats of a trade war, will do exactly the opposite.”
TOP DOG TALK: U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth was featured in a Q&A about “the world’s most qualified women.” The story package offered insights from women around the world about their secrets to success. Asked what the best advice she ever received, the former Army helicopter pilot said it was not to fear standing up to authority. “It’s an interesting thing to have learned from the military, which is such a hierarchical organization. But one of the fundamental tenets that they teach you as a young officer is that you have to stand up for what’s right, even if those above you are giving you orders that you know to be wrong.”
I like that, but maybe more astonishing is her statement on what many Chicagoans hold near and dear. In a take-away at the end of the Q&A she said, “I wish people would stop telling me…that it’s ‘wrong to put ketchup on my hot dogs.” Blasphemy!
HOLLYWOOD DINING: I hear Nobu Malibu, the California Japanese restaurant popular with the Kardashians, felt a lot like a night at Gibson’s the other day.
Seated at one table were Mark Walter, the CEO of Chicago-based Guggenheim Partners; Reggie Love, the former body man for President Barack Obama; and Les Coney, the executive vice president in Mesirow Financial’s office of the chairman. Dr. James Chandler of Northwestern University was at another table.
And Sean Conlon, who heads Conlon/Christie’s International Real Estate in Chicago was there, too, dining with his old fishing buddies–TV producer David E. Kelley and his actress wife Michelle Pfieffer. Conlon’s CNBC show The Deed Chicago has been renewed for a second season.
TALK ABOUT TIMELY. The first woman engineer to oversee the country’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) is headlining Lumity’s annual dinner March 15. Megan Jensen is based at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Her appearance comes on the heels of President Donald Trump announcing he’ll meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to discuss nuclear disarmament talks.
Jensen, who has cousins who live in Chicago, is likely to address ICBM during Lumity’s keynote “fireside chat.” But her main focus is on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). The 28-year-old has been a science and math whiz since she was a kid and she supports Lumity’s plans for an initiative supporting grade-school girls interested in STEM classes. The advisory board for the project includes SPAAN Tech CEO Smita Shah, Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer and Illinois Treasurer Susana Mendoza.
BOARD MOVES: Two big-name investors are stepping down from the corporate boards of Kraft Heinz Co. and Mondelez International Inc.
Warren Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., is retiring from Kraft at the end of his term in April. “Mr. Buffett decided to retire from the board as he decreases his travel commitments,” according to a statement from the company.
His exit from the Northfield-based company comes on the heels of Nelson Peltz leaving Mondelez’s board. Peltz is an activist investor who once made fun of Mondelez’s name. He’s now joining the board of Procter & Gamble Co.