Bozeman entrepreneur Greg Gianforte has been invited to speak at commencement exercises at Montana Tech in Butte and at Rocky Mountain College in Billings. Some people have threatened to boycott the ceremonies because of his involvement with groups that oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians and that support creationism.
I think the protesters have it all wrong. Mr. Gianforte is the perfect person to speak to budding young graduates. Here is what he should say:
I stand before you here today because I am a rich man, the founder of RightNow Technologies in Bozeman. Some people say that is an inadequate qualification to pass along words of wisdom to graduates, and they are right.
Unfortunately, America has become a country that conflates wealth with wisdom. We lionize the makers and doers and despise the takers and losers.
But history tells us that wealth and wisdom don’t always go together. Henry Ford, the pioneering auto maker, was anti-Semitic. John Jacob Astor, the richest man in America at the time of his death, dabbled in the opium trade. Steve Jobs berated and humiliated employees. Donald Trump gets more foolish every day.
Just because I am a computer scientist doesn’t mean I know anything about the natural sciences. Just because I have more money than you do doesn’t mean I have any more insight into how people ought to treat one another.
And my business credentials give me no inside track on correct moral behavior. A new study called “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers” found that employers cheated two-thirds of low-wage workers in just one week, either by paying less than minimum wage, forcing unpaid overtime or committing other violations. Plenty of rich people are just bums with better clothes.
Some people say that those who protest my speaking here today are really attacking Christianity. I don’t know about that. Jesus had no detectable opinions about science, and he never said anything about homosexuality that made it into print.
I won’t speculate about what he might have said about gay rights, much less about a non-discrimination ordinance. But he had plenty to say about rich people.
When a rich man asked him how to attain eternal life, Jesus told the man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor.
Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus told the story of a rich man who was tormented in Hell because he refused to help a poor man here on earth. He told a crowd that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
Jesus wasn’t breaking new ground. Four hundred years before Christ, Socrates said, “He is richest who is content with the least.” Two-and-a-half millennia later, nobody cares what the richest man in Athens thought at the time. Everybody is shaped by what Socrates thought.
His message echoes through time. Noted naturalist John Muir said, centuries later, “I am richer than John D. Rockefeller because I have all the money I want and he hasn’t.” When it comes to how to live wisely in this world, there really is nothing new under the sun.
That’s something you ought to have learned in college. It’s called liberal arts for a good reason, and the reason has nothing to do with what you think the top tax rate ought to be. What you ought to have learned in college – and it’s still not too late – is not how to get ahead in this world but how to live in it, with grace, and humanity, and good works.
Some of you may wind up rich like me, and some of you may aspire to wealth but never attain it. Some of you will choose, as your teachers did, occupations that virtually guarantee you will never be rich. They have their reward.
People get rich for different reasons. Some are born to it – about a third of America’s 50 richest people inherited their wealth. Some achieve it by caring about nothing else. Some get it by having exactly one good idea their entire lives.
Some get it by hard work, diligence and perseverance. But lots of people who work hard and diligently never get wealthy.
So people like me, who end up with a lot of money, had better be humble about it.
We had better not presume that wealth has made us arbiters of right and wrong; we are as capable of leather-headed opinions as you are.
We need to remind ourselves that a full pocketbook doesn’t necessarily mean a full life. And those of us with a lot of money had better plan to give a lot of that money away. Our souls are at risk.