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From The CriticsEver wondered what shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, cosmetics maven Mary Kay Ash and Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson have in common? In The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators, Edwin A. Locke promises to unveil the shared attributes of the ultrarich, but don't expect any startling revelations.
Locke, a University of Maryland business professor, starts off on the wrong foot by taking shots at "Marx and his followers," the "so-called 'intellectuals' on our college campuses," and even "the moderns," whatever that means.
The Cold War is over, right? But Locke, a devotee of author Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy, can't let go. Communism, after all, was the antithesis of everything the Russian-born Rand promoted: self-reliance, small government and the moral goodness of making money.
Nothing wrong with that, but the book comes off as a hopelessly outdated ideological rant by bashing commies and liberal college professors before readers make it out of the first chapter.
The author also tosses around what can only be considered extreme economic theories without providing much to back them up. By abolishing the income tax and all economic controls, Locke claims, any country can produce wealth beyond its wildest dreams. There's no mention of how to deal with minor details like infrastructure, defense, education and environmental safeguards in this new system.
Locke's stated goal is to help entrepreneurs with the "right stuff" join the ranks of the fabulously rich. He also wants to help the prime movers - a term he borrowed from Rand, who lifted it from Aristotle - "see their own value" after being downgraded as "grubby materialists" by lowlifes who secretly envy their success. It's good that writers want to help out. Billionaires have feelings too, you know.
In fact, many rich people had downright rotten childhoods. Locke brings this up when he attempts to address - unsuccessfully - the vexing fact that many of his subjects weren't exactly fun to be around. Auto tycoon Henry Ford was a crotchety anti-Semite. Oil titan Jean Paul Getty was a cold, indifferent husband and father, not to mention a shameless womanizer.
Locke finally dismisses the entire issue by "deliberately not dealing with the whole person but with only those attributes that caused wealth creation." It's a strange approach for a writer attempting to establish the moral superiority of successful moneymakers. He's reluctant to acknowledge that the creation of wealth isn't the only factor that makes a better person or a better society.
At least Prime Movers' early missteps are somewhat unexpected and colorful. How many business books, after all, attempt to explore J.P. Morgan's childhood traumas? But Locke soon falls into an all too predictable trap. The characteristics that his prime movers possess are so obvious that it's doubtful they'd be of much use to anyone. Entrepreneurs with half a brain already know them, and would-be billionaires who need a book to explain them are better off playing the lottery.
Still, the author declares that prime movers have independent vision, an active mind, competence and confidence, egoistic passion, love of ability in others and virtue. Locke fails to mention that many of them also prospered with the help of tax breaks, government subsidies, family money and monopolies, but why muddy the waters?
What that means (you may want to sit down for this) is that shortsighted slackers probably don't have a shot at becoming the next Bill Gates, no matter how much Ayn Rand they read.
It's inevitable that any effort to boil down the traits common to men as diverse as Walt Disney, Ray Kroc and Steve Jobs will lack the precision and insight needed to guide others on a similar path. Their lives are so different and their business pursuits so disparate that commonalities will be overly broad and generalized.
But don't be too hard on Locke. He must have a bit of the prime mover in him. After all, he managed to get this deeply flawed book published.