Essay

On Wealth, Art, Democracy, and Religion

By January 24, 2019 5 Comments
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In one of the lesser-studied chapters of his renowned Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville reflects on the “spirit” in which democratic nations such as the United States cultivate the arts (Vol II, Part I, chapter 11). His conclusions are not happy. If aristocratic art aspires to “greatness,” democracies are content with “elegance and prettiness.” Americans, forever restless in their drive for upward mobility, turn from the “ideal” to banal realism, but then turn away from reality, too, toward the cultivation of appearances. And no appearance is as popular as that of opulence: success measured in monetary terms. “Hypocrisy of virtue is common to all ages,” Tocqueville opines, “but hypocrisy of luxury belongs more particularly to democratic countries.” To satisfy the “new needs” that “human vanity” demands in new democratic circumstances, “the arts have recourse to every kind of imposture.”

To assess how well (or poorly) Tocqueville’s critique fits the current scene would take many more words than are available in this space. Readers of Reformed inclination can go to theorists within the tradition—Lambert Zuidervaart and Nicholas Wolterstorff for starters—to read more hopeful takes on the subject. My own reflections are spurred by recent visits to the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Huntington Library and Gardens in nearby San Marino. As it happened, I went to both with the news fresh in mind of the death of John (Jack) Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group of investment funds. An odd coincidence, until we think about the intersection of art, money, and democracy—and the Christian faith.

The Huntington(s)

The two museum complexes are “democratic” and “aristocratic” both: democratic in terms of access, positively baronial in origin and funding. The Huntington is named after Henry Edwards Huntington (1850-1927), the nephew and heir of Collis P. Huntington (1821-1900), one of the most reviled robber barons of the first Gilded Age (1870-1900). The elder Huntington belonged to the band of four tycoons who built the western section—the Central Pacific—of the transcontinental railroad, harnessing some 12,000 Chinese immigrants to do most of the heavy lifting, and shafting his erstwhile partner, Leland Stanford, in the bargain. C. P. Huntington went on to develop the Southern Pacific and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroads as well, operating one of the strongest lobbies in Washington D.C. to do so and doling out massive bribes to Congressmen in the process. Nephew Henry moved down from San Francisco to Los Angeles after his uncle’s death and shortly exchanged his first wife for his uncle’s widow, Arabella Huntington. She was, conveniently, his own age and his guide into the realm of art acquisition. His land speculation gave Henry expansive acreage in San Marino, and his investments in transit systems, not to mention Uncle Collis’s legacy, gave him the means to build there a premier research library, art museum, and marvelous series of gardens. There’s nothing like strolling through the roses on a January afternoon, especially for a Midwesterner.

The Getty(s)

The Getty complex is even more striking. But then its founder, J. Paul Getty (1892-1976), was far wealthier. In the 1960s Getty was thought to be the richest non-royal individual in the world. He was worth more than $6 billion at the time of his death (multiply by 4+ for current values), and over a tenth of that fortune went into making the Getty Trust the richest art institution in the world. Jean Paul’s wealth came from oil—first in Oklahoma, later through a highly successful speculative bargain with the House of Saud. Hence his most famous quotation: “The meek shall inherit the earth but not its mineral rights.” Getty’s womanizing was just as legendary. Of his five wives, all eventually divorced, the first three married him as teenagers; the fourth was 14 when they met but waited till 21 for the wedding. Most of the time Getty lived apart from them all, pursing other liaisons on the side and installing one hopeful mistress after another in his London palace.

Tocqueville would recognize the pattern as aristocratic par excellence. And, updating for the evolution of taste and style, he would recognize the Getty Center as aristocratic too. Standing high above Los Angeles with its views of the Pacific Ocean, its magnificent architecture evokes a medieval castle with modernist lines. Gardens tumble down the slope, while four huge towers hold innumerable works of art. The latest acquisition that we saw was the Rothschild Pentateuch, a fabulous illuminated Torah on display in juxtaposition to analogous Bibles and Qur’ans. But then you wander back outside just to consider the architecture again from different angles.

Getty and Huntington thus have their monuments, a purchase on everlasting fame. It’s commonly held that sometime in the 20th century art and sex became the de facto religions of the modern world, our two remaining stabs at the transcendent and eternal. Getty and Huntington are reputed to have pursued art with, well, religious devotion. In their PR moments—perhaps also in their heart of hearts—they saw the display of art as a means they could endow for elevating the masses. Noblesse oblige. Certainly Andrew Carnegie, another baron premier of the Gilded Age, said just that about the many libraries he scattered around the country. Thus great wealth was to be redeemed, for the wealthy and the commoner alike.

The Christian

Jack Bogle, who died last Wednesday, worked it differently. He was born in 1929, on the verge of the Great Depression, and saw his father ruined by the Crash, falling into alcoholism and a broken marriage. Jack got into a New Jersey prep school and then Princeton as a scholarship student and never forgot it. His plan for Vanguard was based on his senior thesis at Princeton, but perhaps also out of that searing early memory of the damage Wall Street speculation could wreak. Vanguard would be an investor-owned, super-low-cost mutual fund that aimed to provide small investors with reliable asset accumulation via “indexing,” i.e., matching the stock market’s average growth.

It was not the ordinary investor that sought to make a killing in the market, said Bogle, perhaps with a glance at Tocqueville. It was the fat-cats of the brokerage houses who sold their magic potions to the unknowing, charged them exorbitantly for the privilege, and managing to beat the market average only five percent of the time. By all accounts Vanguard was novel, and widely derided, at its inception, but it has revolutionized the investment industry, saving its investors and those of other firms who have had to copy Bogle’s approach a trillion dollars in the process. None less than Paul Samuelson rated Bogle’s invention of the indexed mutual fund on a par with the alphabet, the wheel, and the Gutenberg printing press.

All this could have made Bogle a multi-billionaire, like the CEOs of smaller investment houses today. Instead, his net worth at death is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $80 million—hardly a pittance, to be sure, but nowhere near what mere market calculations would deem to be his just deserts. Thus we can look for no monuments in stone from Jack Bogle. His monument instead is a new model of investment by, of, and for modest savers. Lincoln’s definition of democracy.

Bogle’s obituary noted that his funeral service would be private, at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church outside Philadelphia. It was in that connection that I—ignorant 403b me—first heard of Jack Bogle. Our daughter-in-law served on staff there for a time, and our son reported chatting up this intriguing old guy after church one day, who turned out to be a genius investor. I remain no super-sleuth when it comes to investment, so my observations here stand to be corrected. But the god of private endowments—David Swenson of Yale—joins Samuelson, America’s first Nobel Prize winner in economics, in swearing by Bogle’s plan for ordinary people. That’s good enough for me. Presbyterian, democratic, advocate of sound finance, decrier of legalized fraud: Jack Bogle, RIP. Alexis de Tocqueville, call your office.

***

For a few of the many recent articles on John Bogle, see:

http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/philly/obituary.aspx?n=john-clifton-bogle&pid=191294286&fhid=13988
https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/01/18/john-bogle-made-investors-richer-financial-industry-poorer/?utm_term=.4a5a16744941
https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-inspiration-for-john-bogles-great-invention-2014-03-05
https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2019/01/21/remembering-john-bogle-patron-saint-of-the-amateur-investor
https://www.marketwatch.com/story/jack-bogle-mutual-fund-industry-agitator-got-the-last-laugh-2019-01-16
https://www.smh.com.au/business/markets/he-should-be-a-billionaire-but-jack-bogle-chose-to-make-others-richer-20190119-p50sd8.html

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

5 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Oh my oh my. Marvelous connections and implications.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    The whole post is great, but I like the snippet at the end about Bogle being a “…decrier of legalized fraud.” It wasn’t just fund managers either – he went after corporate CEO compensation too. The kicker being that it wasn’t the usual envy-ridden tedium that “at some point you’ve made enough money” or that it was “gross” or “unfair” to make so much money. Bogle attacked it with the hard truth that there was a distinct (fraudulent?) lack of value being produced to warrant such compensation.

    I suppose some could say that it was in his own best interest to attack other fund managers – that it was a marketing gimmick. (I don’t believe this.) It looks courageous to me, but I leave open the possibility that there was more than a small dose of outright disdain. RIP

  • David Schelhaas says:

    Thanks for this piece, wonderful in several ways. In the old days when I taught high school English, just about the only AV equipment available to me was a record player. I had a record I played for my students of Carl Sandburg half reading, half singing his poem “Southern Pacific.”
    Thought you might like it, Jim.
    Here’s the print version:

    Southern Pacific

    HUNTINGTON sleeps in a house six feet long.
    Huntington dreams of railroads he built and owned.
    Huntington dreams of ten thousand men saying: Yes, sir.

    Blithery sleeps in a house six feet long.
    Blithery dreams of rails and ties he laid.
    Blithery dreams of saying to Huntington: Yes, sir.

    Huntington,
    Blithery, sleep in houses six feet long.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Wow. Fascinating. I spent many happy hours at the Huntington Library and in the gardens in 2004-2006. Glad I didn’t know all this then, actually. Grateful to learn about Bogle.

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