The cultural ties that bind the super-rich to everyone else are fraying from both ends at once. Since World War II, the United States in particular has had an ethos of aspirational capitalism. As Soros told me, “It is easier to be rich in America than in Europe, because Europeans envy the billionaire, but Americans hope to emulate him.” But as the wealth gap has grown wider, and the rich have appeared to benefit disproportionately from government bailouts, that admiration has begun to sour.
One measure of the pricklier mood is how risky it has become for politicians to champion Big Business publicly. Defending Big Oil and railing against government interference used to be part of the job description of Texas Republicans. But when Congressman Joe Barton tried to take the White House to task for its post-spill “shakedown” of BP, he was immediately silenced by party elders. New York’s Charles Schumer is sometimes described as “the senator from Wall Street.” Yet when the financial-reform bill came to the Senate last spring—a political tussle in which each side furiously accused the other of carrying water for the banks—on Wall Street, Schumer was called the “invisible man” for his uncharacteristic silence on the issue.
In June, when I asked Larry Summers, then the president’s chief economic adviser, about hedge funds’ objections to the carried-interest tax reform, he was quick to disassociate himself from Wall Street’s concerns. “If that’s been the largest public-policy issue you’ve encountered,” he told me, “you’ve been traveling in different circles than I have been over the last several months.” I reminded him that he had in fact worked for a hedge fund, D. E. Shaw, as recently as 2008, and he emphasized his use of the qualifier over the last several months.
Critiques of the super-elite are becoming more common even at gatherings of the super-elite. At a Wall Street Journal conference in December 2009, Paul Volcker, the legendary former head of the Federal Reserve, argued that Wall Street’s claims of wealth creation were without any real basis. “I wish someone,” he said, “would give me one shred of neutral evidence that financial innovation has led to economic growth—one shred of evidence.”
At Google’s May Zeitgeist gathering, Desmond Tutu, the opening speaker, took direct aim at executive compensation. “I do have a very real concern about capitalism,” he lectured the gathered executives. “The Goldman Sachs thing. I read that one of the directors general—whatever they are called, CEO—took away one year as his salary $64 million. Sixty-four million dollars.” He sputtered to a stop, momentarily stunned by this sum (though, by the standards of Wall Street and Silicon Valley compensation, it’s not actually that much money). In an op-ed in TheWall Street Journal last year, even the economist Klaus Schwab—founder of the World Economic Forum and its iconic Davos meeting—warned that “the entrepreneurial system is being perverted,” and businesses that “fall back into old habits and excesses” could “undermin[e] social peace.”
Not all plutocrats, of course, are created equal. Apple’s visionary Steve Jobs is neither the moral nor the economic equivalent of the Russian oligarchs who made their fortunes by brazenly seizing their country’s natural resources. And while the benefits of the past decade’s financial “innovations” are, as Volcker noted, very much in question, many plutocratic fortunes—especially in the technology sector—have been built on advances that have broadly benefited the nation and the world. That is why, even as the TARP-recipient bankers have become objects of widespread anger, figures such as Jobs, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett remain heroes.
And, ultimately, that is the dilemma: America really does need many of its plutocrats. We benefit from the goods they produce and the jobs they create. And even if a growing portion of those jobs are overseas, it is better to be the home of these innovators—native and immigrant alike—than not. In today’s hypercompetitive global environment, we need a creative, dynamic super-elite more than ever.
There is also the simple fact that someone will have to pay for the improved public education and social safety net the American middle class will need in order to navigate the wrenching transformations of the global economy. (That’s not to mention the small matter of the budget deficit.) Inevitably, a lot of that money will have to come from the wealthy—after all, as the bank robbers say, that’s where the money is.
It is not much of a surprise that the plutocrats themselves oppose such analysis and consider themselves singled out, unfairly maligned, or even punished for their success. Self-interest, after all, is the mother of rationalization, and—as we have seen—many of the plutocracy’s rationalizations have more than a bit of truth to them: as a class, they are generally more hardworking and meritocratic than their forebears; their philanthropic efforts are innovative and important; and the recent losses of the American middle class have in many cases entailed gains for the rest of the world.
But if the plutocrats’ opposition to increases in their taxes and tighter regulation of their economic activities is understandable, it is also a mistake. The real threat facing the super-elite, at home and abroad, isn’t modestly higher taxes, but rather the possibility that inchoate public rage could cohere into a more concrete populist agenda—that, for instance, middle-class Americans could conclude that the world economy isn’t working for them and decide that protectionism or truly punitive taxation is preferable to incremental measures such as the eventual repeal of the upper-bracket Bush tax cuts.
Mohamed El-Erian, the Pimco CEO, is a model member of the super-elite. But he is also a man whose father grew up in rural Egypt, and he has studied nations where the gaps between the rich and the poor have had violent resolutions. “For successful people to say the challenges faced by the lower end of the income distribution aren’t relevant to them is shortsighted,” he told me. Noting that “global labor and capital are doing better than their strictly national counterparts” in most Western industrialized nations, ElErian added, “I think this will lead to increasingly inward-looking social and political conditions. I worry that we risk ending up with very insular policies that will not do well in a global world. One of the big surprises of 2010 is that the protectionist dog didn’t bark. But that will come under pressure.”
The lesson of history is that, in the long run, super-elites have two ways to survive: by suppressing dissent or by sharing their wealth. It is obvious which of these would be the better outcome for America, and the world. Let us hope the plutocrats aren’t already too isolated to recognize this. Because, in the end, there can never be a place like Galt’s Gulch.