Wealthy Beyond the Dreams of John D. Rockefeller

David Burkhead over at thewriterinblack got me thinking. He wrote a post titled “The Poor Getting Poorer?” in which he mentions Rockefeller’s wealth in 1918 and asks if you would trade Rockefeller’s then for your now. Yes, this kind of comparison has been done before, but think about it. You’d get $1.2 billion. You’d be the richest person in America. Imagine what you could do and how you could live.

No, really, imagine it.

Would it really be all that good a deal for most of us, the poor included? Per the post, probably not. How many of us would die within a few years of making that switch? I can’t say we will live longer now than Rockefeller did then, since he died at the ripe old age of 97 and how many of us have powerhouse genes like that? But we—the poor included—have the opportunity to live longer than we would have as a billionaire in 1918. How many of us live better than Rockefeller did, even on our far more modest incomes? And yes, I’m including most of the poor in that.


Let’s compare the two scenarios using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

Physiological: Air (cleaner), water (cleaner, except maybe in Flint, MI), food (obesity epidemic, anyone?), clothing (the cheapest in history), shelter (we have air conditioning; he had any house in the world; however, from a psychological perspective, at some point, shelter is shelter), sleep (technology has helped here),  sex (antibiotics! robots coming soon to a robo-brothel near you! otherwise, not a lot different). Life expectancy was 36.6 years for men and 42.2 years for women. Now it’s 76.1 and 81.1 respectively.

Safety: Protection from the elements (our homeless shelters have heat and air conditioning), order, law, stability, security, freedom from fear (I’ll come back to these).

The three levels of Love and belonging, Esteem, and Self-actualization: These levels are earned, not given, so I don’t see these as wealth issues, per se. Wealth offers more opportunities, with the tradeoff of people loving you for your money or (for the kids) living under daddy’s shadow. However, the internet also offers more opportunities, with the tradeoff of the insecurities and unhappiness studies are finding on platforms such as Facebook. Our high potential for mobility also offers more opportunities with corresponding negatives. But wow, what opportunities! What potential!

Looking at all of the levels, I’m convinced that the American lower middle class and higher have it so much better than Rockefeller did. My household certainly does. I wouldn’t trade our world for his for… well, for 1.2 billion in 1918 dollars.

Looking at all levels except safety, the poor for the most part have it better than Rockefeller did. However, Rockefeller had certain elements of safety that some poor do not. Specifically, he had security, stability, and freedom from fear at the basic level. Don’t get me wrong, he still had fears, and some of those fears were a direct result of his wealth, but his wealth could cover safety fears. The poor, specifically the poor who live in the inner cities, may lack security, stability, and freedom from fear. Again, they have the potential for mobility. Staying put is a choice. It may not feel like a choice, but it is ultimately a choice. “If you choose not to decide…”

But let’s say they have no choice. Are their lives worse? I’m gonna say yes for at least some of them. Basic security will trump everything else under certain circumstances. That means a small percent of the population of the United States is worse off than the richest American in 1918. Would they take Rockefeller’s place in 1918? That’s an open question.


Now I want to add two items that Maslow did not include:

Relative wealth: We humans love to compare ourselves to each other. We can have all of our basic needs met and the opportunity to fill our higher level needs and still not be satisfied because our neighbor has more. Some of us will be dissatisfied unless and until we have more, more, more! To the people who must scratch that itch, I say, “Enjoy 1918!” Just don’t be surprised to discover that this urge was covering an even more fundamental need, leaving you still unsatisfied. Sorry, no refunds or returns.

Power: This is where Rockefeller’s money made the greatest difference. Power over circumstances. Power over people.

The first power, over circumstances, is largely an illusion. Rockefeller did not have power over the Spanish flu that was devastating the world that very year. He had little to no control over the Great War that was ending that very year. However, what control over circumstances he could have, he did. He could remove himself and his family from danger zones. He could pay people to accept risks for him.

Ya know what? We modern Americans have at least as much power to remove ourselves and our family from danger.  Hurricane coming? We have a warning system. We have the Interstate system that runs deep into the country where hurricanes can’t reach. Major flu outbreak? We have vaccines that can decrease our odds of getting it. We can pay people to accept the risk of getting groceries and delivering them to our doorstep.

The second power, over people, he had in spades. This, I believe, is what people think about when they think about Rockefeller’s level of wealth. However, his wealth was merely a symbol of that power; it was not the source. Had the average person arrived in 1918 with $1.2 billion, how long would it be before the wealth diminished, or disappeared entirely? Why? Because the average person doesn’t have the experience and drive necessary to handle that kind of power. If the average person did, the average person would already have that kind of wealth and power.

So, shall I call up the TARDIS and deliver you to your new digs in 1918?

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