The Editors have asked for my reflections on various guides to getting rich. For three weeks, I read the stack of books they sent, assiduously dog-earing pages, underlining passages and taking notes. I considered them while commuting. I reread, reannotated. I synthesized and explicated ideas in many drafts of this essay. All told, the enterprise consumed thirty-plus hours. For this service, the Editors will pay me $150 CDN. So you might ask, as I ask them: With what authority do I pass judgement on the efficacy of others’ financial advice?
Fortunately, these books have little to do with actual money. As Herb Kay notes in How to Get Filthy, Stinking Rich and Still Have Time for Great Sex, “More than anything else, filthy, stinking rich is a mindset.” (A bit about Herb: when another company tried to recruit him, Herb replied, “Thanks, but I love what I’m doing. That’s my wife and kids over there in the pool, and I’ve got so much money and happiness I’m writing a book about it!”) These manuals are peppered with specific advice to varying degrees, but they’re all bursting with the buoyant vernacular of self-help psychology.
Consider Ted Ciuba. It’s hard not to, grinning at us as he is from the cover of How to Get Rich on the Internet. Ciuba’s book transcribes his interviews with twenty-one Internet luminaries no one’s ever heard of—men like Terry Dean, who made $72,930 US in one weekend, and T. J. Rohleder, who netted $10 million US in four years without even really trying. (“The income claims the speakers make are believed to be true, but were not verified,” a note explains.)
As best I can tell, the men of Ciuba’s book make their fortunes and live their lives in worlds of self-referential gobbledegook. They “launch online offers,” or just plain “business offers.” They sell “online informational products.” They start websites with names like TheWorldsGreatestInternet-Business.com. Their advice is rousing and worthless. For one expert, the secret is to “go out, find an established market, test that market to see what they’re interested in, then use whatever it is you have to help that market get what they want.”
This is very postmodern stuff. In Ciuba’s book on Internet marketing, one expert advises, “Invest in yourself and your future by purchasing books and tapes” on Internet marketing. On the bottom of page 49, mega-expert Jay Conrad Levinson explains, “One of the most important things people can do on the Internet is to offer something free or at a very low cost. The reason you do that is because you get names for your mailing list.” Three lines below runs the book’s standard footer: “Bonus! 2 Killer FREE Gifts at www.Get-Rich-On-The-Internet.com.”
Not surprisingly, How to Get Rich on the Internet is ultimately a book-length sales pitch for Ciuba’s pyramidesque scheme. ($1,497
US will buy you, among other things, reprint and resale rights to Ciuba’s “home study system.” Like Amway, he is selling you the right to sell his program to others.) But such extreme guilelessness helps put the entire genre of get-rich guides in perspective. These books are themselves products, and their authors entrepreneurs implementing the very advice they’re peddling as they peddle it. Teaching thousands of people in as many different businesses to actually get rich would be impossible. Teaching all of us to believe we can is not. And as Ciuba says, “The more people you help, the more money you make.”
Modern salesmanship, wrote media scholar Neil Postman, “is not about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products… What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but That is wrong about the buyer.” These books know what’s wrong with us: we are willing to believe in ourselves and in our ability to succeed in virtually anything, no matter how baseless and improbable that belief might be.
Any indolent, untrained schmuck can manufacture billions, we are told. You just have to be smart about it. It’s all up to you—except if you fail. Then, says Herb Kay, “it’s not you, it’s the culmination of hundreds of circumstances beyond your control.” It’s the Protestant work ethic sodden with decades of luxuriant consumerism: not only are we all capable of better, we are entitled to it. Thus, even a relatively esteemed author like David Bach (The Automatic Millionaire, Smart Women Finish Rich) assures us that the foundational fact of capitalism—that a person works, makes money and spends it—is “an unfair vicious cycle.”
It’s faith that’s being sold here, and in all the traditional ways. There are testimonials: in a chapter entitled “My Life and Hard Times,” for example, Kay recounts his descent from “God’s gift to pet retailing” to zilch and his subsequent redemption. There are catechisms: in a conversation with the early retirees who inspired his savings philosophy, Bach asks questions like, “How did you get yourselves to stick to all those rules in the face of all that temptation?” and they explain. And there are plenty of parables, the most revealing case being George S. Clason’s The Richest Man in Babylon, where financial advice is dressed up like ancient, apostolic scripture. “Study thoughtfully thy accustomed habits of living,” he writes.
With the line between selling a product and selling faith so blurred, authors can understandably get carried away. In early chapters, Herb Kay chooses pull quotes like “The corporation acts as a shield, protecting you personally from any legal liability,” but by cha
pter 39 he’s progressed to “I want to say I think the whole adultery business is absolutely contemptible.”
Donald Trump is clearly a different animal. In his How to Get Rich, Trump’s not selling us our better selves. He doesn’t know if we can succeed and he doesn’t care. Trump is selling us Trump, unmitigated and living large. He puts Woody Allen on hold to take Mayor Bloomberg. He cites Jung, Huxley and Shakespeare. He says things like, “Maybe I’ll sue them, just to prove a point” as Hugh Grant popsin unannounced. What Trump delivers is a kind of pecuniary contact high. His product’s inimitable, and he knows it. Poor Ted Ciuba does not.
My review copy of How to Get Rich on the Internet arrived inscribed and dated by the author. “Jon,” he wrote on the title page, “Open your eyes to a new New World! Your friend, Ted Ciuba.” As skeptical and nimble an adversary as I’ve tried to be throughout this process, seeing Ciuba’s note even now makes me feel sincerely a little special, a little more replete with promise than I did a moment ago. There is a lot out there to believe in and seize, in the emptiness he calls friendship that stretches between us—“America’s Foremost Internet Marketing Consultant” and a freelance book reviewer pulling four-something an hour.