Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Atlantic: The Rise of the New Global Elite

Rarely do I come upon an article that is as eye opening as this one from Chrystia Freeland, in the Atlantic.  Freeland has recently moved to global editor at large for Reuters but before that was U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times so has a diverse global background that is pretty rare among journalists.  The gist of this article - The Rise of the New Global Elite - is to answer a form of question about the upper upper upper 0.1% I've seen posed in so many comments the past 3+ years:  "Don't they care about what is happening to the rest of the country?" or "How do they sleep at night?" or similar.   [Sep 7, 2009: Citigroup 2006 - America, a Modern Day Plutonomy]  While I don't want to generalize and put a whole subset of people under one canopy, your questions are finally answered.  Big picture - Lloyd the investment banker in the U.S. has far more in common with Sergey the Russian oligarch than he does with the 'common man' walking the streets of the States.  As Friedman said, the world is flat -hence much of the 'global elite' is in a way 'nation less'.  Another fascinating take away is many of the wealthy are not 'blue bloods' but first generation (not always 'self made' since government connections mean so much in other parts of the world), so their attitudes are completely different.  Plus the amounts of money made now are so enormous, they have reached 'escape velocity' versus the orbit most others in any country on earth live in. As I wrote years ago the long term implications for the American middle class are far reaching.  [Dec 8, 2007: Do the Bottom 80% of Americans Stand a Chance?]  As investors it can explain why American business, especially those of the global multinationals, can do well... while there is rampant unemployment and many are left behind in the domestic economy.  All things we've discussed at length, but this insight into the thinking of the 'global elite' is fascinating.

I highly recommend the read.

A few snippets:
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he declared the rich different from you and me. But today’s super-rich are also different from yesterday’s: more hardworking and meritocratic, but less connected to the nations that granted them opportunity—and the countrymen they are leaving ever further behind.
  • Through my work as a business journalist, I’ve spent the better part of the past decade shadowing the new super-rich: attending the same exclusive conferences in Europe; conducting interviews over cappuccinos on Martha’s Vineyard or in Silicon Valley meeting rooms; observing high-powered dinner parties in Manhattan. Some of what I’ve learned is entirely predictable: the rich are, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously noted, different from you and me.  
  • What is more relevant to our times, though, is that the rich of today are also different from the rich of yesterday. Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth
  • Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly. Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves

On America's middle class:
  • The good news—and the bad news—for America is that the nation’s own super-elite is rapidly adjusting to this more global perspective. The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds told me that his firm’s investment committee often discusses 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 means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade,” the CEO recalled. 
  • I heard a similar sentiment from the Taiwanese-born, 30-something CFO of a U.S. Internet company. A gentle, unpretentious man who went from public school to Harvard, he’s nonetheless not terribly sympathetic to the complaints of the American middle class. “We demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world,” he told me. “So if you’re going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut.” 
  • ....  Speaking at the same conference, Thomas Wilson, CEO of Allstate, also lamented this global reality: “I can get [workers] anywhere in the world. It is a problem for America, but it is not necessarily a problem for American business … American businesses will adapt.”  Wilson’s distinction helps explain why many of America’s other business elites appear so removed from the continuing travails of the U.S. workforce and economy: the global “nation” in which they increasingly live and work is doing fine—indeed, it’s thriving.

Since the new global elite are 'first generation' their attitude towards their countrymen are more along the lines of "I did it, why can't they?"
  • For the super-elite, a sense of meritocratic achievement can inspire high self-regard, and that self-regard—especially when compounded by their isolation among like-minded peers—can lead to obliviousness and indifference to the suffering of others.  
  • Russian oligarchs have been among the most fearless in expressing this attitude. A little more than a decade ago, for instance, I spoke to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at that moment the richest man in Russia. “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.” 
  • ....many American plutocrats suggest, as Khodorkovsky did, that the trials faced by the working and middle classes are generally their own fault. 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.
  • 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 hundreds of billions 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 pre-crisis levels of compensation even as Main Street continues to struggle. Yet many of America’s financial giants consider themselves under siege from the Obama administration—in some cases almost literally. Last summer, for example, Blackstone’s Schwarzman caused an uproar when he said an Obama proposal to raise taxes on private-equity-firm compensation—by treating “carried interest” as ordinary income—was “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” 
  • You might say that the American plutocracy is experiencing its John Galt moment. Libertarians (and run-of-the-mill high-school nerds) will recall that Galt is the plutocratic hero of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged. Tired of being dragged down by the parasitic, envious, and less talented lower classes, Galt and his fellow capitalists revolted, retreating to “Galt’s Gulch,” a refuge in the Rocky Mountains. There, they passed their days in secluded natural splendor, while the rest of the world, bereft of their genius and hard work, collapsed
  • This plutocratic fantasy is, of course, just that: no matter how smart and innovative and industrious the super-elite may be, they can’t exist without the wider community. Even setting aside the financial bailouts recently supplied by the governments of the world, the rich need the rest of us as workers, clients, and consumers. Yet, as a metaphor, Galt’s Gulch has an ominous ring at a time when the business elite view themselves increasingly as a global community, distinguished by their unique talents and above such parochial concerns as national identity, or devoting “their” taxes to paying down “our” budget deficit. 

  • 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.” 
  • .... 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. 
  • 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....
  • 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.

        I've attached a video from "Morning Joe" which is the only discussion I could find on the topic in video format below.  7 minutes long.

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