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What does Bill Gates have in common with Genghis Khan, the thirteenth-century conqueror who wanted to own the world but settled for just five million square miles?
Or, for that matter, what does Gates have to do with Pope Alexander IV, whom historians describe as a scoundrel, saint, charlatan, and samaritan? Or Richard Arkwright, the eighteenth-century industrialist with the ultimate rags-to-riches story, who claimed that if he lived long enough he could repay Britain's entire national debt?
These four men were among the richest people in history, and they and six others tell a dramatic and important story -- how the wealthy have made, invested, and spent their money over the past thousand years. A millennium ago, plunder was a primary source of great fortunes. In the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, plunder became too dangerous, and trade took over as the source of great riches. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the earliest capitalists and bankers pool risk, making money with money. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries belonged to merchants and industrialists, who recognized the emergence of a new consumer society. In the twentieth century, the key to becoming wealthy was appealing to the mass market, and no one did it better than Bill Gates and his computer software.
What do early millionaires, who prospered by killing their enemies, have in common with the modern wizards of spreadsheets? For one thing, successful warriors, like prosperous capitalists, could do what's now called "thinking outside the box." They smelled opportunity where others saw obstacles. The fact that something had never been done was a goad, not a halter, to the self-made wealthy, whether they were thieves or chief executive officers -- or both.
The Rich and How They Got That Way is an informative and entertaining look at the very rich and how they got their money, used it, and sometimes frittered it away. Through their stories Cynthia Crossen traces the major financial, social, and technological developments that have shaped the world we live in. Told with wit and charm, the stories of some of the great characters of the past thousand years come alive:
-- Machmud of Ghazni, the ruler who killed tens of thousands of Indians for their gold and in forty years of nearly constant warfare never lost a battle.
-- Mansa Musa, the African king who executed anyone who sneezed in his presence and left a trail of gold wherever he went.
-- Jacob Fugger, the fifteenth-century German banker who impertinently declared, "the king reigns, but the bank rules," managed the Pope's money, and whose aggressive debt collection techniques on behalf of the papacy repelled Martin Luther and helped provoke him into launching the Protestant Reformation.
-- John Law, the Pied Piper of paper money, who became so popular that people would overturn their carriages if they passed him in the street, hoping to draw his attention and buy some stock.
-- Howqua, the nineteenth-century Chinese trader who made millions on opium.
-- Hetty Green, whose stock-market genius made her a millionaire, and who was so miserly that she tried to get her son into a charity hospital when he hurt his leg.
The way wealth is created has changed so much that rich people on either end of the millennium could almost be two different species. Yet there are similarities, too. The twenty-first-century wealthy want big houses, political power, gold jewelry, and freedom from restraint -- just like the wealthy of the eleventh century. And the people who become wealthy share some personality traits, too, such as aggression, egotism, and determination. The Rich and How They Got That Way follows the trajectory of wealth from past to present and proves, once and for all, that the rich are different from everyone else.
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According to an old saying, the very rich are different from you and me because they have more money. According to The Wall Street Journal senior editor Cynthia Crossen, the very rich are different because they often cross into unknown territory to obtain their great wealth--and regularly presage significant changes in society and culture while doing so. Crossen profiles 10 of these notable magnates in The Rich and How They Got That Way, focusing on a truly unorthodox assortment from a thousand-year period that fit this dual definition. The result is novel, engaging, and instructive.
Much of this stems from the choices that Crossen has made, which range chronologically from military leader Machmud of Ghazni of the 10th century to technology leader Bill Gates of the 21st. In between, there's Genghis Khan (who went "beyond simple robbery" to "taxing a conquered people"); Mansa Musa (a master of early worldwide trade routes through Africa); Pope Alexander VI (who managed to "rule the spiritual world and manipulate the political"); Jacob Fugger (a 15th-century German moneylender); John Law (who refashioned France's treasury during the late 1600s); Richard Arkwright (a forefather of the 18th-century British industrial revolution); Howqua, (a Chinese trader at the tail end of his country's global isolation); and Hetty Green ("the early 20th-century queen of the stock market"). Students of both business enterprise and world history will appreciate how these stories tie together the surprisingly parallel development of each discipline. --Howard RothmanAbout the Author:
Cynthia Crossen is a senior editor at The Wall Street Journal, where she has been a reporter and editor since 1983. Her beats have included the financial markets, publishing, education, and social trends. Her previous book, Tainted Truth: The Manipulation of Fact in America, was one of Business Week's top ten business books of 1994. She lives in Garrison, New York, with her husband.
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