A former Silicon Valley entrepreneur was downgraded and humiliated because of a combination of illegal activity and a failing business.
Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of life sciences company Theranos, is in the news again. Once the darling of Wall Street, admired and backed by no less than James Mattis, Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch and Betsy DeVos, Holmes was indicted on June 15 on charges of wire fraud. An article in The Wrap reminds us that “a Wall Street Journal investigation found evidence that Theranos couldn’t back up its promises. In June 2016, Forbes downgraded Holmes’ estimated worth from $4.5 billion to zero. As a result, her Wikipedia page currently lists her net worth as “$0.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
In financial markets, after all the hype necessary to create the idea of value, reclassified according to what something is rather than an inflated idea of what it might be
Holmes’ case reveals a number of interesting things about the current US economic and political system as well as its language. She had all the right connections and was an excellent decision-maker, starting with her very first intuition: choosing the right parents. As Tech Crunch describes it, “Holmes … comes from a family with powerful political connections — both parents held important government positions in Washington.” In an economy of equal opportunity, some are evidently more equal than others.
She went to the right university in the right place: Stanford in Silicon Valley, where the contact with venture capitalists is particularly easy for those who have the right connections in Washington and other power centers. Like Bill Gates before her and Mark Zuckerberg after her, she precociously dropped out of her prestigious university to chase the prospect of becoming a billionaire. She succeeded when her fortune was calculated at $4.5 billion. As always, this wasn’t money in the bank but simply the belief “the market” (savvy investors and banks) had in the value of her assets. Like Bill Gates and Larry Page, she even recruited her “Indian,” Ramesh Balwani (actually born in the US), to be her president (and lover).
As every school child learns in the most direct fashion, everything that exists in US culture is “graded,” which means it can be upgraded or downgraded, depending on circumstances. Grades also implicitly translate into dollar value. That’s why students strive for good grades, more so than ever, in fact, since most of them go deep into debt just to get the grades that lead to the diploma that (presumably) leads to the job and the salary to pay back the debt.
Holmes has made the news because her downgrading is particularly spectacular. She hit the top — the billionaire class — but amazingly ended up, after a few mistakes, with zero. Forbes explains: “[In 2015], Elizabeth Holmes topped the FORBES list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women with a net worth of $4.5 billion. Today, FORBES is lowering our estimate of her net worth to nothing.”
Holmes was downgraded and utterly humiliated (she may face decades in prison) because of a combination of illegal activity and a failing business. Billionaires tend to survive one or the other of those outcomes — sometimes with symbolic and short jail terms — but both together is proving too much for even her great connections to save her. Her future doesn’t look as bright as her past.
Not only individual fortunes and companies or even nations’ credit ratings can be downgraded. A scandal at Harvard University shows that entire races can be downgraded. Over recent decades, Harvard has given a lower rating to Asian applicants on the basis of a “personal rating system.” Newsy reports that among the criteria used were “positive personality,” “likability,” being “an attractive person to be with” and “widely respected.” Harvard appears to be making an effort to show that Asians have now been upgraded.
The obvious conclusion to anyone schooled in intercultural sociology must be that Harvard’s administration needs to enroll in one of its own intercultural courses. The criteria it has chosen correspond to US cultural values: assertiveness, the ability to sell oneself, the cultivation of a veneer of sociability, and the kind of social “grading” that makes one “widely respected.” This may include money, a sense of celebrity or self-promotion and a taste for manipulation of people and situations. These are indeed keys to success in US society, but not necessarily to academic success. They are also behaviors that are frowned upon in East Asian societies.
Grading, upgrading and downgrading everything in sight may sum up one major aspect of US culture. But using it to judge academic potential shows a clear cultural bias.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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