A Tycoon for Our Times?

Article excerpt

Why Americans can't seem to decide whether they should love or hate Microsoft's Bill Gates

The real drama of the antitrust suit against mi- crosoft--the contest that truly holds our attention--has little to do with software, the Internet or browser wars. It has everything to do with social standing and repu-tation. It also amounts to an argument about America, because it poses messy questions about our history and values. Only a few years ago Bill Gates and Microsoft were widely (though not universally) celebrated as symbols of Americans' ability to pioneer and popularize new technology. Now they are widely (though hardly universally) stigmatized as outlaws whose immense fortunes stem from vicious and illegal competition. Which is it?

Whatever the courts ultimately decide will address this larger question and, in the process, either bless Gates's success or brand him as a national delinquent. Microsoft isn't simply resisting antitrust charges. It is also waging a campaign for public approval. For many computer executives, the issue is already settled. They see Gates as an unchastened bully who will attack his rivals by almost any available means. But among the wider public the question remains open, and not merely because Microsoft's customers and stockholders are fairly satisfied.

It stays open because it touches our confused feelings about the dogged pursuit of material gain and wealth. By and large, Americans regard earned wealth--even massive piles of it totaling billions of dollars--as a badge of success. One reason is that getting rich affirms our faith in hard work and individual opportunity. A 1996 CBS News poll asked: "Do you think it's possible to start out poor in this country, work hard and become rich?" The answer: yes, 78 percent; no, 18 percent. People also think the wealthy provide jobs and investment. In 1992, a poll asked whether "the country would be better off or worse off if we had no rich people." Only 21 percent thought it would be better off.

But too much wealth is also suspect. "Americans think society now places too much emphasis on money," write public-opinion analysts Everett Carll Ladd and Karlyn Bowman in "Attitudes Towards Economic Inequality" (from which all this survey data is drawn). In 1992, about two thirds of Americans thought the rich used "their wealth mostly to protect their positions in society." And most Americans do not think money buys happiness. A 1996 Gallup poll asked, "If you had your choice, would you want to be rich?" Almost 40 percent said no. In another poll, 80 percent said they would not sacrifice most family time to be rich.

Our ambivalence toward wealth rises with the amount. By the time we reach the super-rich--say, anyone with $1 billion--we are totally muddled. American Heritage magazine recently listed the 40 richest Americans ever. The list, compiled by Robert Gunther and Michael Klepper as an update to their 1996 book "The Wealthy 100," compares people's wealth to the economy when they lived. Their wealth is then converted with present dollars by assuming an identical relationship today. The top five are:

1. John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937): $190 billion, oil. …