The Bill Gates Mystery
By Bryan Caplan
Not long after I started at GMU, Tyler approximately remarked that, “Bill Gates is just crazy – he works like a dog despite his billions.” I don’t remember how I responded at the time. But when I’m trying to understand the behavior of people whose circumstances are drastically different from my own, I find that a little empathy goes a long way. How does life look through the eyes of Bill Gates?
My old conversation with Tyler came back to me a couple of days ago when I was reading Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). Here’s a dialogue that almost seems like it’s ripped straight from a GMU lunch. Tom, the lead character, is talking with his friend, Bill, about Tom’s new boss, Hopkins:
Bill sipped his drink thoughtfully. “What do you already know about Hopkins?” he asked.
“Not much,” Tom said. “I’ve hardly heard of him. Somebody told me he started with nothing and he’s making two hundred thousand a year now. That’s about all I know – I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a picture of him.”
“Precisely,” Bill said professionally. “Precisely.”
“What the hell do you mean by that?”
“I mean it looks like the public-relations boys have cooked up a big deal to put Hopkins on the map, and you’ve stumbled into it.”
“I don’t get it,” Tom said.
“Figure it out for yourself. Here’s Hopkins, about fifty years old, and the president of the United Broadcasting Corporation… Inside the company, he’s the biggest deal in the world… But outside the company he’s nothing. Taxi drivers don’t call him ‘Sir.’ Waiters more than five blocks from Radio Center don’t give him a special table… Don’t you see how tough it must be?”
“I’m weeping,” Tom said.
“All right. Here’s a guy who works fifteen or twenty hours a day – inside the company he’s famous for it… And people like him – he knows how to drive people and still make them like him. But what’s he get out of life?”
“Of course! But if he made only a quarter as much money, he’d still be able to buy everything he wants. Hopkins is a guy of simple tastes… So what’s he keep working fifteen or twenty hours a day for?”
“Must be nuts,” Tom said.
“Nuts nothing! The poor son of a bitch wants fame! And he’s in a position to buy it. So he calls Ogden and Walker and says, ‘Boys, make me famous. One year from today I want to be famous, or you’re fired!'”
“Oh come on,” Tom said, laughing. “You know damn well that’s nonsense.”
“Perhaps he wouldn’t word it that way exactly… He’d say, ‘Gentlemen, I believe that for the sake of the company, the major executives must direct more attention to their personal public relations…'”
“I doubt like hell that a man in his position would say that either.”
“Okay – be a stickler for detail. What would really happen is that somebody would suggest that Hopkins head a committee on mental health – these guys are asked to do that sort of thing all the time. Usually they refuse. But this time Hopkins figures he’s got a chance for the national spotlight. You’re right about one thing – he’d never have to say anything about it. He wouldn’t have to…”
The whole book is filled with gems like this. If you’re short on time, try the movie – it’s a great adaptation, and the dialogue is right out of the book.