Sam Zell's CNBC Interview Reveals A Deep Schism Regarding America And Its Character

03/07/19 12:00 PM EST

In the latest instance of a career of provocative and controversial statements, billionaire entrepreneur and real estate investor Sam Zell was again recorded voicing his unfiltered opinion during a panel interview on the March 6 edition of CNBC’s "Squawk Box."

The Incredulous Billionaire

Zell’s target this time was Democratic representative of New York’s 6th district Gregory Meeks, who was Zell’s interview counterpart.

In speaking on the program about Amazon.com, Inc.’s (NASDAQ: AMZN) now retracted plan to establish a branch of its second headquarters within part of his district, Meeks expressed his commitment to negotiations with the $800 billion company, but also stressed the need for considerations about the negative impact Amazon’s presence might have on the district’s poorer residents.

As the interview drew to a close, Zell, seemingly under the impression he was off-mic, bluntly challenged Meeks assertion, calling the representative’s comments a “crock of s**t.”

Zell, no stranger to making off-the-cuff pronouncements in public venues, is set to make further public appearances in the year. He’ll be a featured speaker at the relaunched SALT Conference taking place in Las Vegas this May.

This recent profanity-tinged CNBC exchange, while provocative, represented just a small portion of a much longer interview with the firebrand billionaire in which he voiced his opinion on American politics, the character of the nation and the pursuit of success and wealth.

Balance and Equality In 2020

Speaking on his outlook on the 2020 field of presidential hopefuls looking to challenge President Donald Trump, Zell emphasized that any challenger would have to represent a centrist choice if the divided country hopes find balance and continued prosperity. Said Zell, “Somehow or other, whether it be Republican or Democrat, we’re going to have to find some middle ground for this country to go forward.”

As an example, Zell voiced his high regard for fellow billionaire and former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg. Just the day before, Bloomberg announced he had decided not to run for office in 2020.

Zell was less fulsome on the field of announced Democratic hopefuls, many of whom represent a more progressive branch of the party advocating for greater economic parity through taxes targeted at billionaires like Zell. The billionaire, however, downplayed the wealth disparity in the country, maintaining the U.S. is among the most equal economies in the world.

In Wealth, Income Or Opportunity?

Unfortunately, most metrics indicate this is not true.

Although not a wholly comprehensive insight into opportunity and well-being, the Gini Index’s most recent survey of national and global income and wealth inequality shows the U.S. has the highest rate of wealth disparity of any other high-income economy, and an income disparity second only to Russia. It also had the second-highest poverty rate of that contingent and an average life expectancy on par with that of Estonia.

What’s more, research performed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in 2017 shows social mobility within the United States, as measured by intergenerational income, has been trending sharply down since the 1980s.

The Self-Made Zell

Zell has perhaps earned carte blanche to voice his honest opinion thanks to his professional history of both finding success and generating wealth.

The son of Polish-Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi invasion, Zell revealed a strong entrepreneurial drive while attending law school at the University of Michigan, quickly developing his business acumen by managing a series of student apartments that thrived under his oversight.

However, later endeavors in his career proved less wholly beneficial. Most notably is Zell’s purchase of Tribune Publishing Co. (NASDAQ: TPCO), which entered bankruptcy a year after Zell took ownership. The filing and subsequent restructuring were marred by massive pay increases for the executive team, benefit cuts for the editorial staff to pay off creditors and culture of widespread sexual harassment, as reported in a devastating New York Times profile of the media company.

What Americans Want

The key to Zell’s assessment of American equality and his hope for even-handed leadership might have come elsewhere in the interview where he said, “Everyone in America wants to be rich. Everybody in America wants to succeed,” two very different assertions.

Zell’s 2020 vision of a viable centrist candidate may not be such an unlikely occurrence. Ultimately, the next election will likely be saturated with candidates of all stripes debating which of the two forces Zell conflated in the interview more closely capture the American character: the dream of wealth or the desire for success.