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PAX, LUX ET VERITAS SINCE 1965
Post I Grew Up Poor
Created by John Eipper on 06/19/18 4:59 AM

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I Grew Up Poor (Istvan Simon, USA, 06/19/18 4:59 am)

Though there is undoubtedly some truth in the claims of generational preservation of wealth (see John Heelan, 12 June), one should not put too much into these poorly formulated theories.

Take my father as a counter-example.  Dad's family was definitely much closer to poor than even lower middle class. My grandfather died when my dad was 10 years old. Their situation, which was already far from comfortable, became nearly desperate. My father at the age of 10 was the only man of the home, with 4 sisters, all older than my father. To help the family survive, my father carried milk jugs on his back at the market at the age of 10.

Then came the Nazis and the horrors that came with it. My father was deported to Oranienburg, where he was starved and used as slave labor in the Henkel aircraft factory. He barely survived, having lost more than half of his normal body weight. Indeed had he perished, I would not be telling this story. Yet having come from such modest background, he got a mechanical engineering degree in night school, and worked at the Ministry of Heavy Industry under communism. When we left Hungary there is not much that we could take with us. My father spoke not a single word of Portuguese. Yet he brought up his three sons and wife in relative luxury compared to the economic conditions that existed in Hungary. All three of us got engineering degrees at the best engineering school in Brazil.

My life has been incomparably easier than my poor father's. Yet I too can be considered a counter-example to these theories. Indeed my father was employed as an engineer at the Ministry of Heavy Industry in Budapest, but nonetheless we were far from comfortable. The first time I saw an orange in my life was in Vienna, after we left Hungary. I have never gone hungry to bed in my entire life, yet I had usually no more than 2 pairs of pants. For the first 10 years of my life we lived in rather modest conditions.

I walked to school from where we lived, a good half an hour walk. So did my father walk to his place of work. We could not dream of having a car, or even taking the bus. We rarely could afford butter. Usually I put lard on bread to eat lunch. Our economic conditions were not altogether that different from the children one would see in Vittorio de Sica's movies with Sophia Loren in Italy about poor folks in Italy after the war. Indeed the contrast between life in Budapest and in Vienna when we finally left Hungary was so dramatic, that it affected my political outlook of my entire life.

We arrived in Brazil in debt. Yet two years later we bought our first car. There is no question that our economic conditions were much better in Brazil than in Hungary. There were plenty of economic upheavals in Brazil while I grew up. But both my older brothers ended up getting PhDs at the best universities. I owned my own home in Campinas, Brazil debt-free. No mortgage. I built it with my own savings. The story of my father's life and my own are both examples of stories of major upward economic mobility. Neither of us was born with a silver spoon in our mouths.

JE comments:  I always enjoy WAIS posts on the impact of history on real individuals.  Nicely done, Istvan.  May I ask an indiscreet question?  If your father was enslaved in a Nazi factory, why would he choose to pursue a career in industry after the war?  Or did the Hungarian communist authorities "assign" him to engineering, given his wartime work experience?


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  • Generational Preservation of Wealth; from Ric Mauricio (John Eipper, USA 06/21/18 6:37 AM)

    Ric Mauricio writes:



    I concur with Istvan Simon (June 19th) that "one should not put too much into these poorly formulated theories" on the generational preservation of wealth.


    I have known people who are born with all the advantages, parents who are well-to-do, belonging to the middle class or to the wealthy classes, who go on to fritter away their advantages. In fact, take a look at the Forbes 400. The richest man in the world is Jeff Bezos, the son of a Cuban immigrant, with barely a nickel to his name. The same could be said of Carlos Slim Helú of Mexico, who has gone from poor to the richest man in Mexico. Sure, one can point at Buffett (son of a congressman), Bernard Arnault (dad started the business), or Koch Brothers (father Fred was a successful businessman) and point to their advantages. But a cursory glance at the list will point to mostly self-made billionaires. Of course, there are the Waltons (Walmart) and the Pritzkers, who inherited their billions, but there is only one Rockefeller and no Vanderbilts or Gettys. Keep in mind that the Vanderbilt wealth turned into Vanderbilt University, the Carnegie wealth turned into libraries, and the Getty wealth became the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.


    Many trust-fund babies just self-destructed, the partying and drugs their panacea for being born into wealth. Did they learn anything? Obviously not.


    But closer to home, my parents were immigrants. My dad's family had nothing, but in one generation, managed to raise themselves to the top 30% of net worth ranking. My dad, the first college graduate in the family (UC Berkeley), unfortunately was killed in action in Korea when I was 5 months old (Silver Star recipient) and couldn't utilize this advantage to help his family. The next generation, of which I belong to, is an interesting study of what to do and what not to do. My two cousins and I were able to leverage our advantage to raise ourselves to another ranking, while other cousins frittered away their advantages. I am trying to make sure that my children and grandchildren do not fritter away their advantages.


    This leads me to a discussion on net worth rankings. The bottom 10% have a net worth of negative $1,000 or below. The bottom 40% have a net worth of less than $49k. The next 40% have a net worth ranging from $$49k to $499k. So to break into the top 20%, one must have a $500k net worth. To break into the top 10%, you need a net worth of $1.2M, and to breach the top 5%, the number is $2.4M. The top 1% is $10.4M. That's millions, not billions. The billionaires are .1% of the population.


    So why do those with more modest means (or no means at all) succeed where others with advantages don't? Perhaps it's the hunger. Perhaps it is in our DNA to strive for success. Perhaps it is because I did not learn to make excuses or to blame others for my failings. Perhaps it is my ability to not compare myself to others and to not be jealous of others' successes and to throttle any feelings to tear others down because I cannot measure up to them.


    Perhaps this is why the President doesn't like Bezos. How can Bezos, the son of a Cuban immigrant, become the richest man in the world, while the President (who started off earlier than Bezos at $200M) is relegated to #276, and perhaps now #300? How can John McCain survive a POW camp and become a war hero, when the President had to deal with bone spurs?


    OK, so the President will just destroy the stock market with a trade war and bring the value of all those above him down to his level.


    JE comments:  We love riches-to-rags stories almost as much as rags-to-riches ones (unless you are the wealthy kid who goes broke).  But are the Bezoses and Slims of the world the exceptions to prove the rule?


    (We're back at WAIS HQ, Royal Oak, to welcome in the summer.  Our nine days in Colombia were unforgettable.  A couple of further Colombia-themed WAIS posts are in the pipeline...must write them up before I forget!)

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  • My Father: From Slave Laborer to Entrepreneur (Istvan Simon, USA 06/21/18 8:43 AM)
    John E asked (19 June) why my father would choose engineering after having been enslaved by the Nazis in a factory during World War II.

    Though I cannot truly answer for my father--I never asked him this question, so I do not know--I nonetheless can say some things about the matter. First of all even before the war, my father was involved with industry. He worked at a Swiss company that made aluminum products in Hungary. A relative of ours was the managing director of this company in Budapest, and my father was employed as a laborer. He did not yet have an engineering degree at the time, but was a technician. Furthermore, the company sent him for training in Switzerland, one of the reasons why my father was fluent and spoke perfect German. It was therefore natural for him to continue in the same line of business more or less as what he had done all his life. It was also at this company that my father met my mother.


    The communists in Hungary did not assign my father to anything. Studying mechanical engineering was his own choice.


    My father was an expert on industrial tool making and machining. In fact he wrote and published two books about the subject in Hungary. Later when due to the economic upheavals that rocked Brazil it became difficult for my him to find gainful employment, he opened his own business, leveraging his experience and knowledge in tool making.


    This business initially was very difficult to get off the ground, but eventually gave my father a very comfortable living, and he also enjoyed being his own boss.  We had a small manufacturing company and had a very extensive list of products in the tool making sector of pre-fabricated tooling components and devices. When my father started this business, this was a major technological innovation in Brazil. It was commonplace technology in the United States, but in Brazil tool making was still done on an artisanal basis, one project at a time in the tool departments of factories.


    There was resistance to do it in a more modern and predictable way using these components to assemble a complete tool or complex device used in the manufacturing process. As usual, people liked doing things the way they have always done, and did not want to adopt the less costly and more effective new technology easily. This is why it was very difficult to get his business off the ground. In a very real sense, my father helped Brazil modernize in this area and adopt more efficient and less error-prone methods to assemble tools and devices form components rather than make one-off tools in the tooling departments. Tools are tricky to make, and very costly if designed the old-fashioned way. Oftentimes the tool had to be debugged, until it would work as intended, and this process was very expensive and time-consuming. Designing the tool from prefabricated components was much less error-prone, faster, used much less labor, and so it was better and ultimately much cheaper. But it took education to change the mentality in Brazilian companies.


    JE comments:  Istvan, have you ever thought of writing your parents' story at greater length?  What a fascinating saga of upheaval, suffering, displacement and ultimate triumph over adversity.


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