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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

America’s Rich Uncle–Joe Biden And How He Learned To Love Giving Things Away

Bobby Benson had two uncles – one wealthy and generous to a fault; the other parsimonious, even niggardly, but who parlayed his modest wealth into a small fortune. 

‘There’s-More-Where-That-Came-From’ Harvey Benson, his father’s brother, had made his money in plywood.  He started off as a journeyman carpenter in Green Bay, learned  the construction business, and seeing a windfall market in downstate plywood, secured a small loan and set up his own business.

Before long, thanks to good service, on-time delivery, and high quality product, Harvey did well and branched out and up from southern Wisconsin until he had 25 plywood retailers throughout the state.  Like any good American businessman with a nose for money and profit, he sold the business, bought the largest John Deere dealership in the state, and thanks to canny marketing and professional salesmanship, he made millions in tractors, backhoes, tillers, and drillers.  From there he expanded wherever the price was right – textiles, hunting and fishing, second mortgages, and real estate.  By the time he was forty he was a millionaire many times over, and by fifty he was one of the richest men in the Midwest.   

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Uncle Harvey was a big man of big appetites.  Having made his fortune, he intended to spend it lavishly; and because he was largely unschooled, unsophisticated, and culturally simple, he was more Las Vegas than Rittenhouse Square.  He loved glitz, glamour, beautiful women, yachts, second and third homes, and throwing Great Gatsby parties. 

Harvey’s brother, Arnold, had nothing but contempt for the free-spending, unrestrained, and profligate ways of his sibling.  There was something obscene about the way he threw money around.  Wealth was to be husbanded, respected for its inherent value as capital and labor, and spent wisely and sparely. 

There could not be two more different brothers, and most wondered if they in fact were related or were issue from the St. Horatio Home For Boys in Eau Claire.  They both had their father’s quirky, ironic smile, and low-brow hairline but little else.  Hiram Benson was a day laborer who could never make ends meet, a distracted man who had trouble figuring things out.  He never amounted to anything, had no ambition, insight, or imagination; so it was a surprise that both his boys turned out to be successful and inordinately wealthy.

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Of course friends, family, and acquaintances only guessed at Arnold’s wealth – he was so frugal in his tastes, and so miserly in spirit, that everyone assumed that return on his quiet investments in the stock market and other financial products must have been considerable (an occasional mention of him was made in the WSJ) and squirreled away under his modest rambler.  He never picked up a check, never spent more on anything more than it was ‘worth’, was unmarried, and deliberately alone.

The brothers both lived in Wilmington, Delaware not by fraternity but because of that state’s very favorable corporate and financial environment.  Delaware had the reputation of being the closest thing to the Caymans on the mainland, and neither brother, despite their very different approaches to spending, wanted to give as little as possible to Uncle Sam.

Wilmington is not the place for high living.  Dupont executives were men of rectitude, modesty, and reserve; so Bobby spent much of his time in his New York penthouse and houses in Boca Raton and Rimini.  Thanks to his generosity and easy way with money, he was a popular addition to these quite socially conservative locales.  He had married twice, once to his Wisconsin sweetheart and once to a Las Vegas showgirl, but after those dismal, boring failures, he decided to enjoy the bachelor life.  He always had a beautiful woman on his arm and one waiting by the pool.  He was the envy of many, but a bourgeois buffoon fond of rhinestone and bosoms to just as many others.

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Not surprisingly both Benson brothers knew Joe Biden.  As a glad-handing, social, smiling, up-and-coming politician, Biden was a frequent visitor at Wilmington’s watering holes, and a meeting between the two men was inevitable.  Biden, always a careful politician, was at first wary of the robust backwoods billionaire, but few could resist Bobby’s charm; and Biden was no different.  They became friends, played golf together, and had ‘fun’ in out-of-the-way places.  They never talked politics – Bobby never had anything to do with Washington and even less to do with his own state legislature – nor did they talk business since Bobby had left all that far behind. They just enjoyed each other and the camaraderie of spending money together – Bobby’s money, of course, but there were never favors asked or granted on either side, so the entertainment was freely given and freely taken.

Over the years, the very circumspect and traditional Biden – a man much like Bobby’s brother who appreciated the value of a dollar and the men and women who worked for it – came to appreciate more and more the Epicurean style of his friend.  Money was not to be squirreled away, kept under the mattress for a rainy day, invested in savings accounts, and withdrawn only when absolutely necessary.  In his politician’s lingo, money was to be ‘circulated’.  

Joe had always been a Roosevelt Democrat and saw how his hero had printed money to get America out of the Great Depression; and conflated this economic principle with his friend Bobby’s lavish ‘investments’. After all, rationalized Joe, it matters little where and how money is spent, since it always contributes to others’ wealth or well-being.  Showgirls, nightclub waitresses, marina operators, hairdressers, car dealers, liquor stores, let alone Armani, Cardin, Ferrari, and Gucci all benefitted from Bobby’s wealth and with it made others wealthy.

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It was the perfect storm – a weird, unexpected mix of liberal, progressive government spending and conservative private wealth leveraging.   As a Delaware politician, knowing full well how the state’s coffers were filled and understanding the public benefits resulting from taxes on Dupont family wealth, he was never as redistributive as Roosevelt or even LBJ.  If he ever had the chance, he would become the modern day Roosevelt, but on his way up, he could not afford to offend the Duponts.  And they threw great parties at which his friend Bobby Benson was a frequent guest.  

The Duponts rarely attended Bobby’s parties – although they never admitted such, the Bensons were far too crass and new-monied – but were generous in their invitations to him.  Amidst the Dupont sophisticated glamour, Bobby and his showgirls would be lost.

Coincidentally, but again not surprisingly, Joe met Bobby’s brother.  Bobby spoke highly of Arnold to Joe, for as different as they were, money and wealth bonded them.  For Bobby, it didn’t matter how you made it as long as you made it.  He respected his brother’s financial acumen, and while he thought him a prig, he understood  his worth.  Maybe Biden could pick up a few tips.

The first meetings between the two were a bit uneasy.  The perpetually smiling, glad-handing Biden and the reclusive, miserly Arnold found each other irritating; but Arnold without artifice or intended benefit, suggested how the politician might reconsider his very liberal financial and economic positions, and over the months of their acquaintance instructed the self-schooled Biden in the economics of Hayek, Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and the Chicago School.  

Spending without compensating revenue was inflationary, ultimately unproductive, and shortsighted.  Raising taxes to balance spending was an even worse idea, leading to public financial lassitude, dependence on government, and reliance on welfare.  Increasing productivity through lowering taxes and limiting regulation would provide necessary public revenues.

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Joe listened patiently, but in his heart of heart he was a spender no matter what.  There are poor people out there, he said, and they must be served.  

So Biden, never an intellectual heavyweight or deep thinker, and a man who relied on charm and hail-fellow-well-met camaraderie, found liberalism more congenial, more suitable.  Arnold’s careful calculations and projections went over Biden’s head; and besides, a lesson learned over time - promising benefits - increases likeability.  He wanted to be the Bobby Benson of the Delaware political world and perhaps beyond.

There are some died-in-the-wool progressives who came to their profligate spending perhaps more honestly – that is, through intellectual, albeit fragmentary reasoning mixed with vague Christian principles.  Biden’s liberalism was a blend of happy talk and a silver (some said garrulous) tongue and FDR hero-worship.  By the time he got to be President his happy visions prevailed more than ever.  Giving away things felt good, and now he could do it on a national scale.  He didn’t have to consider Arnold Benson’s rigorous economic analyses or even wonder about them.  Joe Biden had the key to the national treasury, and it was time to open it. 

As his Presidency went on, and his mental agility – never a strong suit – began to fail; and as his radical advisors took increasing hold of the reins of power, the State gave away trillions without blinking an eye.  America went deeper and deeper into debt, more beholden to the Chinese and American corporate lenders.  The country watched inflation rise, the dollar weaken, and international influence wane.  It would certainly return to Republican rule in 2022 and certainly in 2024; but like any rich uncle, Biden saw only happy children at Christmas and kept on giving.

As far as the Bensons were concerned, Biden was always an afterthought, a curious interlude. Neither one ever thought he would make it out of Delaware, nut never thought to take advantage of their acquaintance when he did. 

In any case Biden never understood Bobby’s glitz and lowbrow taste, nor could he follow Arnold’s tight economic logic. A White House appointment would be fun for no one.

The Benson brothers had followed Biden’s career for too long to be surprised at his mediocre showing as President. Joe could just as easily have become a milkman or a bus driver, and as long as he had someone to help him along he would be all right.

As far as the Bensons were concerned, life was good. Bobby caroused and spent a pasha until the day he died, and Arnold continued to amass a fortune which, like Silas Marner, he looked at every night before bed but never spent.

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