Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Economic worries and the global elite

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 17, 2013 15:46 UTC

Here’s one sign the global elite is starting to get worried that capitalism isn’t working for the Western middle class. At the TED Global gathering in Scotland’s elegant capital city this week, much of the spotlight was on what’s going wrong with the 21st-century economy.

That matters because the TED conferences are one of the obligatory stops on the itinerary of any self-regarding plutocrat, and in the past that constituency has often preferred its vision of the economic future served sunny-side up. (TED stands for technology, entertainment and design, and is a not-for-profit global conference organization.)

The gloom started with former Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece. In a remarkably candid and introspective talk, Papandreou offered a mea culpa for his own mistakes and those of the European political elite. He admitted that hardship had been imposed on people who were “in the main, not to blame for the crisis” and accused the European establishment of uncritically, and at great cost, clinging to “the orthodoxy of austerity.”

Small Greece, he argued, had been made the scapegoat for a larger political and economic failure. As Papandreou mockingly put it, Europe chose to point the finger at “those profligate, idle, ouzo-swilling, Zorba-dancing Greeks.” Instead of addressing the harder, underlying issues, the impulse was to say: “They are the problem! Punish them!”

Papandreou is a son of privilege – both his father and grandfather were prime ministers of Greece – but, in a sign of the times, he inveighed against “plutocrats hiding their assets in tax havens” and “powerful lobbies protecting the powerful few.” His comments made an impact partly because he was so open in declaring his own shortcomings. Nor did he shy away from how angry a lot of people are about them.

Business, taxes and responsibility

Chrystia Freeland
May 3, 2013 16:13 UTC

In recent months, people and their politicians around the world have been astonished to learn that big companies and billionaires will go to extraordinary lengths to pay lower taxes.

Thanks to the work of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based in Washington, we have discovered that some of the most prominent public figures in the world have banked their fortunes in international tax havens, beyond the scrutiny of their national treasuries.

Meanwhile, Tom Bergin, my Reuters colleague, has become the scourge of the top U.S. multinationals by revealing their low effective tax rate in Britain. Mr. Bergin has found that between 1998 and 2012, Starbucks paid less than 9 million pounds, or about $14 million, in British taxes while registering sales of more than 3 billion pounds. According to statutory filings, Google made $18 billion in revenue in Britain from 2006 to 2011, and paid just $16 million in taxes.

The imperfect world of George Soros

Chrystia Freeland
Nov 30, 2012 19:27 UTC

As it appears in the December 2012 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

George Soros cites Isaiah Berlin as an important intellectual influence, so it makes sense to see Soros through one of the Riga-born philosopher’s best-known lenses — the division of the world into foxes and hedgehogs. In his public life, Soros is a broad-minded fox: As a hedge fund manager, his success rested on his ability to make many different bets every day. In his philanthropy, Soros is foxy too, supporting, under the broad umbrella of “open society” dozens of causes in dozens of countries.

But intellectually, Soros is a more narrowly focused hedgehog. He has been pondering, articulating, elaborating, and publicizing variations on one big idea for more than half a century. The way he describes that central thought today is “the significance of imperfect understanding as a motive force or determinant of history.”

Over the years, Soros’s written expositions of this concept have sometimes met with bafflement, even as his financial prowess and philanthropic accomplishments have been widely admired. For Soros himself, though, his big idea and many public initiatives are intimately connected; his intellectual framework, he believes, is what has made him good at everything else. And, to his delight, after years of struggling to be accepted as a public intellectual, the turmoil in the world economy has finally made the rest of us more receptive to his insight.

Cheers to Elena Kagan, but where are the rest of the women?

Chrystia Freeland
Jul 2, 2010 15:25 UTC

women swimmersThis piece first appeared in the Washington Post.

Watching Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings this week, it is tempting to declare — as some have of late — that we have entered the age of women. Not just in politics but in school and in the broader economy women are doing well. Yet this female triumphalism overlooks an important exception: The areas where the real money and power reside are occupied almost exclusively by men.

Consider the industries occupying the commanding heights of capitalism: technology and finance. Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook were all founded by men and are led by male CEOs. All of the big Wall Street banks are run by men. Hedge funds and private equity firms — where the real action is — are a male preserve. Sebastian Mallaby’s fine new history of hedge funds zeroes in on 14 chief protagonists — all male. In 400 pages, he interviews only two female hedge fund executives. Mallaby didn’t speak to more women because there aren’t many to talk to. Of the top 10 highest-paid hedge fund managers in 2009, none were women.

The absence of women at the economic summit is particularly significant because those at the very top of the income distribution have reaped the lion’s share of the rewards in the past couple of decades. For all their success elsewhere, it is precisely this economic apex that women are failing to scale.

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