Betsy DeVos Loses A Father-In-Law, Gains Some Billions Of Dollars
Richard DeVos, the billionaire co-founder of Amway and father-in-law of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, died Thursday at 92. He also owned the Orlando Magic basketball team and, as a tax shelter, Magic Johnson himself. It's a great comfort to his family to know that only DeVos's physical shell has perished. I don't mean that metaphorically. His spirit is literally now residing in the healthy body of a former drifter who resembles a young Rock Hudson.
Amway was built on a highly personalized sales style that relied on a vast army of "distributors" or door-to-door salespeople. Before they launched the company, Mr. DeVos and Van Andel spent a decade refining their sales technique while peddling vitamins.
Mr. Devos drove a green Rolls-Royce, maintained a fleet of corporate jets and made round-the-world voyages on a huge yacht. At times, he flaunted his wealth to inspire his international army of distributors, which the company said numbered more than 1 million.
DeVos donated millions over his lifetime to Republican candidates and conservative causes. Thanks to the recent GOP tax scam bill, DeVos's estimated net worth of $5.5 billion should pass on to his heirs relatively untouched by greedy government hands. That's what Betsy DeVos would call a solid "return on their investment." The DeVos family does donate a great deal to causes they care about, including the anti-LGBT groups Family Research Council and Focus on the Family. That's not how I spell "philanthropy" but whatevs.
DeVos was a member of the Presidential Commission on AIDS that Ronald Reagan formed in 1987 after he got around to noticing the disease. DeVos opposed naming anyone to the commission who was "personally or emotionally" involved in the matter (so, no one gay or gay adjacent).
The Federal Trade Commission in 1979 ruled that Amway (short for "American Way") "passed muster" as a non-pyramid scheme business model. Good for Amway (less so for the suckers the IRS wouldn't even let write off the losses from their glorified "hobby"). In 2010, like any honest mom and pop, Amway paid out $56 million in class action lawsuits. This is sort of like the $25 million Donald Trump had to pay in a class action suit against his eponymous university, except the check probably cleared.
Meanwhile, DeVos's daughter-in-law is currently running a triangle-shaped program within the Department of Education. She's stated that traditional public education, of which she has zero personal experience, is a "dead end" and wants to divert public funds to
Amway products private and religious education. She argues that students left at the bottom of the education pyramid will thrive once students at the top have taken the taxpayers' money and run to the Christian school of their choice. I guess it all runs in the family.
DeVos, during her televised airhead autopsy on "60 Minutes," told Leslie Stahl that we should invest in "students not buildings." The average cost to educate a student in my home state of South Carolina is a little under $7,000. DeVos is set to save billions from the recent changes to the tax code. She could invest in every student in South Carolina with just what she loses in the many couch cushions of her many houses.
My thoughts are with the DeVos family, though they might not appreciate this one: When you die with multiple billions and a fleet of jets, were you really a philanthropist in life or just a hoarder?
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle.