The billionaires next door

By Chrystia Freeland
October 15, 2012

This is an excerpt from Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, published this week by Penguin Press.

Pittsburgh was one of the smelters of America’s Gilded Age. As the industrial revolution took hold there, Andrew Carnegie was struck by the contrast between “the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer.” Human beings had never before lived in such strikingly different material circumstances, he believed, and the result was “rigid castes” living in “mutual ignorance” and “mutual distrust” of one another.

The twenty-seven-story Mumbai mansion of the Ambani family, rumored to have cost a billion dollars, is just seven miles away from Dharavi, one of the world’s most famous slums, and the gap between these two ways of life is even wider than anything Carnegie could find in the Golden Triangle. So, for that matter, is the difference between Bill Gates’s futuristically wired 66,000-square-foot mansion overlooking Lake Washington, which is nicknamed Xanadu 2.0 and whose library bears an inscription from The Great Gatsby, and the homes of the poor of Washington State, where unemployment in 2012 was slightly above the national average.

Even so, the correct etiquette in today’s plutocracy, particularly among its most admired tribe, the technorati of the U.S. West Coast, is to downplay the personal impact of vast wealth. In April 2010, when MIT students asked him how it felt to be the richest person in the world, Bill Gates suggested it wasn’t a very big deal. “Well, the marginal return for extra dollars does drop off,” Gates said. “I haven’t found any burgers at any price that are better than McDonald’s.” He admitted there were some great perks, like flying on a private jet, but said that after a “few million or something, it’s all about how you’re going to give it back.”

If you traveled to Mountain View to visit Eric Schmidt when he was CEO of Google, you would have found him in a narrow office barely big enough to hold three people. The equations on the whiteboard may well have been scribbled by one of the engineers who works next door and is welcome to use the chief’s office whenever he’s not in. And while it is okay to have a private jet in the Valley, employing a chauffeur is frowned upon. “Whereas in other cultures, you can drive your Rolls-Royce around and just sort of look rich and have a really good time, in technology it’s not socially okay to have a driver who drives you to work every day,” Schmidt told me. “I don’t know why, but you’ll notice nobody does it.”

This egalitarian style can clash with the Valley’s reality of extreme income polarization. “Many tech companies solved this problem by having the lowest-paid workers not actually be employees. They’re contracted out,” Schmidt explained. “We can treat them differently, because we don’t really hire them. The person who’s cleaning the bathroom is not exactly the same sort of person. Which I find sort of offensive, but it is the way it’s done.” When he was CEO of Bain Capital and building his current net worth of about $200 million, Mitt Romney drove a Chevrolet Caprice station wagon with red vinyl seats and a beaten-up fender. Carlos Slim’s trademark look is slightly scruffy casual wear, and he loves to tell journalists he doesn’t own any homes outside his native Mexico.

But even when he dresses down, a billionaire inhabits a world apart. A little more than a decade ago, I asked Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at that moment the richest man in Russia (and, as it happens, also someone who favored casual clothes and lived in a modest house), what he thought of the rest of us. “If a man is not an oligarch, something is not right with him,” Khodorkovsky told me. “Everyone had the same starting conditions, everyone could have done it.” (Khodorkovsky’s subsequent experiences — his company was appropriated by the state in 2004 and he is currently in prison for fraud and embezzlement — have tempered this Darwinian outlook: in jail cell correspondence he admitted that he had “treated business exclusively as a game” and “did not care much about social responsibility.”)

This worldview is straight out of the pages of Ayn Rand, but Khodorkovsky told me his uncompromising position was based not on literature but on life experience. During the 1998 Russian financial crisis some of his non-oligarch minions had made mistakes that had cost Khodorkovsky hundreds of millions. With hindsight, he blamed himself—they weren’t oligarchs, therefore something was wrong with them, therefore they shouldn’t have been trusted to make such big decisions.

Remember the line about Björn Borg, of whom Ilie Nastase said, “We’re playing tennis, he’s playing something else”? The extreme self-confidence you hear in Khodorkovsky’s comment is partly the product of believing you have an extreme aptitude for making money, one that is probably largely independent of time and circumstance.

The robber barons felt that way, too. “That this talent for organization and management is rare among men is proved by the fact that it invariably secures enormous rewards for its possessor, no matter where or under what laws or conditions,” Carnegie wrote. “The experienced in affairs always rate the man whose services can be obtained as partner as not only the first consideration, but such as render the question of his capital scarcely worth considering: for such men soon create capital; in the hands of those without the special talent required, capital soon takes wings.”

For the super-elite, a sense of meritocratic achievement can inspire self-regard, and that self-regard — especially when compounded by their isolation among likeminded peers — can lead to obliviousness and indifference to the suffering
of others.

Eric Schmidt, by then the chairman of Google, admitted to a journalist in December 2011 that no one in his world thought much about Occupy Wall Street and the discontent of the 99 percent. “We live in a bubble,” he said. “And I don’t mean a tech bubble or a valuation bubble. I mean a bubble as in our own little world. . . . Companies can’t hire people fast enough. Young people can work hard and make a fortune. Homes hold their value.” What is striking about those remarks is that the unemployment rate in Santa Clara County, where Google’s Mountain View campus is located, was 8.6 percent, slightly higher than the national average. And some of the most violent and controversial Occupy demonstrations were in Oakland, a 45-minute drive from Schmidt’s office.

The plutocratic bubble isn’t just about being insulated by the company of fellow super-elites, although that is part of it. It is also created by the way you are treated by everyone else. One financier, speaking about his friend who is one of the top five hedge fund managers in the world, said, “He’s a good man — or as good as you can be when you are surrounded by sycophants.”

A recent family of academic studies suggests that there may in fact be a coarsening effect of privilege. Paul Piff, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, and four other researchers devised seven different experiments to test the impact of affluence on how we treat others. “Is society’s nobility in fact its most noble actors?” the researchers ask. Their answer is a resounding no: “Relative to lower-class individuals, individuals from upper-class backgrounds behaved more unethically. ” Their explanation for the behavior of these ignoble nobles: “We reason that increased resources and independence from others cause people to prioritize self-interest over others’ welfare and perceive greed as positive and beneficial, which in turn gives rise to increased unethical behavior.” One of the experiments studied San Francisco intersections. The team found that the drivers of new, expensive cars were twice as likely to cut off other vehicles or pedestrians as the drivers of old, cheap cars. In another test, experimental subjects with higher real-world incomes were more likely to deceive a hypothetical job applicant in order to persuade him or her to accept a lower salary — an accomplishment that earned the manager in the experiment a bonus. Even imagining you were rich changed the way experimental subjects behaved. In another study, participants were prompted to think of themselves as either very rich or very poor, and were then invited to take candy from a jar that afterward would be given to children in a nearby lab. The subjects who had imagined they were very rich took more candy.

Or consider the view of some Western members of the plutocracy concerning the strains imposed on the American middle class by globalization. The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world’s largest fund managers told me that his firm’s investment committee often discussed the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. “His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade,” the CEO recalled.

And even those plutocrats who are sympathetic to the plight of the U.S. middle class feel compelled to contribute to it. One private equity investor invited me to lunch at Michael’s, the restaurant that is practically a canteen for the New York media set, to talk about income inequality. When we moved on to other subjects, he told me about a recent deal his firm had done to acquire an Indian outsourcing company. A fringe benefit was that he could now use it to outsource his own company’s research. The result was better work, more motivated employees, and lower costs. “We were paying University of Connecticut BAs $120,000 a year to do dead-end jobs,” he told me. “Now we pay Indian PhDs $60,000 and they are thrilled to work for us.”

You wouldn’t hear comments like these in many middle-class U.S. households. What’s striking, though, is how similar these views are to the perspectives of plutocrats in the emerging markets.

“You know, historically, economic activities tend to migrate because people who don’t have it have a lot more urge to have it, they’re willing to work harder for less money, and that’s part of life,” B. N. Kalyani, the chairman of Bharat Forge, India’s largest exporter of motor parts, told me. “You had your golden period; now, hopefully, we’ll have ours.”

Kris Gopalakrishnan, the co-chair of Infosys, told me bluntly that the per capita consumption of the Western middle class would have to decline as the developed and developing worlds “meet somewhere in the middle.” When I asked one of Wall Street’s most successful investment bank CEOs if he felt guilty for his firm’s role in creating the financial crisis, he told me with evident sincerity that he did not. The real culprit, he explained, was his feckless cousin, who owned three cars and a home he could not afford.

One of America’s top hedge fund managers made a near identical case to me, though this time the offenders were his in-laws and their subprime mortgage. And a private equity baron who divides his time between New York and Palm Beach pinned blame for the collapse on a favorite golf caddy in Arizona, who had bought three condos as investment properties at the height of the bubble.

It is this not-our-fault mentality that accounts for the plutocrats’ profound sense of victimization in the Obama era. You might expect that American elites — and particularly those in the financial sector — would be feeling pretty good, and more than a little grateful, right now. Thanks to a $700 billion TARP bailout and trillions of dollars lent nearly free of charge by the Federal Reserve (a policy Soros himself told me was a “hidden gift” to the banks), Wall Street has surged back to precrisis levels of compensation even as Main Street continues to struggle.

But instead, many of the giants of American finance have come to, in the words of a mystified administration economist, “hate” the president and to believe he is fundamentally opposed to them and their well-being. In a much quoted newsletter to investors in the summer of 2010, hedge fund manager — and 2008 Obama fund-raiser — Dan Loeb fumed, “So long as our leaders tell us that we must trust them to regulate and redistribute our way back to prosperity, we will not break out of this economic quagmire.” Two other former Obama backers on Wall Street — both claim to have been on Rahm Emanuel’s speed dial list — recently told me that the president is “antibusiness”; one went so far as to worry that Obama is “a socialist.”

Indeed, within the private equity fraternity, which would be hardest hit by a change in the tax treatment of carried interest, this is very much the majority view. On a human level it is hard not to have at least a little sympathy for the fierce defenders of the current system — after all, a 20 percentage point tax hike is hard to stomach no matter how rich you are — but intellectually their position is close to indefensible. One piece of evidence came in a November 2011 speech Mike Bloomberg delivered in Washington. Bloomberg is, of course, himself both a plutocrat and one of the country’s most prominent financial entrepreneurs. As New York’s mayor, he has defended Wall Street with the hometown zeal of a Detroit politician supporting the carmakers or a prairie leader backing farmers.

Nonetheless, here was Bloomberg on carried interest: “Since fair is fair, tax loopholes in the financial industry that are outdated should be closed, too, such as taxing carried interest at ordinary income rates. And I say this even though many of the people who would be affected are my constituents — so I assume I will get some phone calls later this afternoon.”

13 comments

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Great post. I just bought your book and looking forward to reading it. Mrs. Clinton brought this subject up at the Global Initiative and I hope the elite leaders were listening. If anybody thought this election wasn’t important, they are wrong. I hope everyone gets out to vote.

Posted by changingtimes | Report as abusive

Well written Chrystia. I am going grumble a bit now… and even though I would be considered a centrist in Canada, it seems I would be a bleeding heart liberal in the USA.

With such things as a carried interest getting special tax treatment, and people like Romney abusing it further by re-branding fees to “appear” to be carried interest, all the while using any tax dodging tricks that skirt laws (and who know about the ones in the unreleased taxes of prior years) the American people should be up in arms that such corporate welfare exists.

Instead we see the average voter saying that the Kenyan, Socialist, Marxist Communist, anti-business, Muslim loving, lazy, useless bum (and more thatis disrespectufl and should be unprintable … but they aren’t racist, nope) who has kept their heads above water, has to go, so they vote against their best interest. (I wish Fox had kept its commentary open so the hate would be less evident elsewhere)

As a Canadian, I have come to see why the Republicans say they do not need any fact checking. Well written blogs like yours are not read by the ignorant and most average voters. They do not even see that what Romney has on his website do not match what he espoused on the campaign tail and what he said in the debate and his “facts and figures” change so drastically depending on the demographics of his audience. His “facts” do not add up, but why would a rich person care, as long as he keeps his tax loopholes and riches intact?

Adding a youthful Ayn Rand-ian should have been Romney’s demise, and yet… look what has happened! The world truly is going to hell in a handbasket. This all reminds me of a social experiment where a woman with 2 children who looked poor left her kids on the street to punish them and when the mother returned, she had a lot of angry people waiting for her, and one had called social services. A rich woman dressed well, in a Mercedes, wasn’t chided or even spoken to, as they released the children go back to her.

PS: The invisible hand has shown its hand and it was full of jokers…

Posted by youniquelikeme | Report as abusive

I’ll be brief. We see these developments in cycles. With regards to lessons throughout our history the title of your book should be:

‘Demise of the plutocrats and rise of everyone else’.

This cycle will end soon.

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive

There is ONE BIG FLAW of the argumentation
of which the super rich are very well aware
but the 99% appear not yet to have realized
… in EARNEST …
The Superrich are not even 1 % they are may be 0.01 %
of all … THAT makes their riches VULNERABLE …
as it would be a PIECE of CAKE
to EQUALIZE the EQUITATION

Posted by Tannehof | Report as abusive

Plutocracy in US is an economic phenomenon. Only in US can such socio-economic divide between rich and poor exist because of socalled *American Exceptionalism*.

What does thgat mean?

It means that unlike in EU, the social economic model is screwed in favour of the rich, and there is little or no fiscal policy baseline to normatively effect progressive redistribution, as economy grows.

Socio-economic divisions eventually lead to social-political conflict between individuals, nations, and business.

We’ve seen it throughtout recent European history – which led to wars between states and eventual creation under Rome Treaty present day EU.

There is a built-in conflict between the *social market economy* of EU post-industrial model compared to winner -take – it – all American plutocracy.

Posted by hariknaidu | Report as abusive

We wring our hands at the ‘sorry shape’ of the middle class, but the hand-wringing isn’t supported by facts.

Based on a 40+ year study of household income data from the US Census, the losses in numbers of middle class households has been offset by an increase in the number of upper income households (the number of lower income households has held constant).

Middle class households are becoming upper income households. This is a problem?

http://unrepentantcapitalist.blogspot.co m/2010/08/act-one.html

Posted by jambrytay | Report as abusive

It’s time to admit that the America Class War is long over. The plutocracy is firmly emplanted and the pee-ons should just accept their fate.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Wow, Romny. That sure is an articulate response.

Posted by circulo110 | Report as abusive

I wonder what Ms. Freeland’s salary is. I hazard a bit more than the average in the developed world, and a lot more than the $2.50 (or less!) a day that half the world tries to subsist on. No doubt she knows all about the rest of us.

Posted by haracters | Report as abusive

“I can hire half the working class to kill the other half.”
Jay Gould, Robber Baron

Posted by 1bar1 | Report as abusive

One American is worth more than four non-Americans? Really? Do you have a formula re this?

Posted by ludwig44 | Report as abusive

I value the blog post.Much thanks again. Cool.

I loved your article.Really thank you! Really Great.