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Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone… (edition 2012)

by Chrystia Freeland

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207756,585 (3.74)22
Member:Chatterbox
Title:Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else
Authors:Chrystia Freeland
Info:Penguin Press HC, The (2012), Hardcover, 336 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:The World We Live In, Society, Economics, Politics, Globalization

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Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else by Chrystia Freeland

  1. 00
    Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession by Barbara Garson (Jestak)
    Jestak: These two books offer a very effective counterpoint to each other.
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The book’s subtitle, The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, led me to expect a more critical approach to the topic. Instead, I found that Freeland more often than not praises the plutocrats as self-made geniuses and portrays the “fall of everyone else” as an unavoidable aspect of globalization. There’s an imbalance of agency inherent in this approach, but the book is still a valuable glimpse inside the plutocrats’ world.

Freeland, of course, is herself a member of the elite she describes. Daughter of two politically active lawyers, she attended Harvard and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. Freeland worked as the Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times, and currently represents Toronto Centre in the Canadian Parliament. Freeland has an incredible degree of access to politicians, global plutocrats, and even the Russian oligarchs, and Plutocrats is filled with anecdotes of her conversations with these interesting characters. This is really valuable material: many of these people opened up to Freeland in a way they certainly wouldn’t have to, let’s say, Matt Taibbi (who shares Freeland’s background as a reporter of Russia).

Freeland obliquely mentions Taibbi in the concluding pages of Plutocrats. “The vampire squid theory of the super-elite,” she says, “is entertaining and emotionally satisfying. It can be fun to imagine the super-elites who went to Wall Street and their Harvard classmates who became economics professors and those who became U.S. senators participating in a grand conspiracy (hatched ideally, at the Porcellian Club) to rip off the middle class. But the impact of these networks is much less cynical, and much more subtle, though not necessarily of less consequence” (p. 270). The interesting thing about this statement is that although it allows Freeland to continue her kid-gloves treatment of the plutocrats, she’s actually agreeing with Matt.

Freeland’s argument is that the super elite live in a bubble. The world, she says, has lost its borders for them and become simply a series of “rich places” they can visit, surrounded by poor places they can fly over. They can jet around the world to take a 90-minute meeting, and stay in a five-star hotel room that offers the same amenities on any continent. In a sense, the super-rich have turned the planet into McDonalds. Just like middle-class Americans cruising Route 1 from Maine to Florida or Route 66 across the heartland, the plutocracy is safe in a consistent uniformity that promises no surprises wherever they are. And it’s a small community. The elite and their hangers-on see each other regularly at think-fests like Davos, Aspen, and TED, where the organizers very rarely screw up and invite someone like Sarah Silverman.

The result, Freeland says, is a narrowing of perspective. ” ‘When Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson went to Congress last fall arguing that the world as we knew it would end if Congress did not approve the $ 700 billion bailout, he was serious and speaking in good faith. And to an extent he was right: His world— the world he lived and worked in— would have ended had there not been a bailout,’ ” [University of Chicago professor Luigi] Zingales argues. ‘But Henry Paulson’s world is not the world most Americans live in— or even the world in which our economy as a whole exists’ ” (p. 272). Freeland calls this cool-aid-drinking phenomenon “cognitive state capture,” quoting British economist Willem Buiter. Government regulators and Wall Street executives are often the same people. “Four of the last six secretaries of Treasury…were directly or indirectly connected to one firm: Goldman Sachs.” How could they not share a particular perspective and a particular set of priorities. And, in the absence of any credible countervailing opinions, how surprising is it they are taken (by themselves and society) as geniuses and as the only game in town?
“We wear spectacles shaded not only by our self-interest, but also by that of our friends,” Freeland says (p. 274). And if this is just human nature, then the plutocrats aren’t an evil cabal scheming to screw the rest of us. But they are also not infallible, and society needs to be built around a dialog that represents differing perspectives. Freeland concludes her book with a historical example of what happens when a society shuts out those other voices. When Venice codified its elite in the “Book of Gold” the society effectively stopped evolving, Freeland says. This was the beginning of the end.

The question is, where are the other perspectives going to come from? Freeland hopes to find them among the plutocrats, in people who although they went to Harvard, started life in a remote public school. Among her examples of this are Mark Zuckerberg “(New York State public school, Harvard), Blackstone cofounder Steve Schwarzman (Pennsylvania public school, Yale undergraduate, Harvard MBA), and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein (Brooklyn public school, Harvard)” (p. 147). Personally, I think we need to throw the net a bit wider.

But I’ll admit, Freeland makes a case for trying to distinguish between plutocrats who were entrepreneurs and others who were simply rent-seekers. She quotes Franklin Roosevelt’s observation that “The financiers who pushed the railroads to the Pacific were always ruthless, often wasteful, and frequently corrupt; but they did build railroads, and we have them today. It has been estimated that the American investor paid for the American railway system more than three times over in the process; but despite this fact the net advantage was to the United States” (p. 178). However, I think she underestimates the value of being at the right place at the right time. I think this is best shown in the remarks of billionaire Aditya Mittal, of Mittal Steel, who told her “Change is fantastic. That’s how you create value because you participate in the change that you see. Now, it can be wrong, or it can be right—that is your own judgment call. But change is how you create value. If there is no change, how else do you create value?” (p. 162).

You create value by actually creating value. Not by scooping up Central and Eastern European steel mills at pennies on the dollar. That’s just arbitrage, and at some point those opportunities will come to an end. Yes, a class of plutocrats and oligarchs will be formed along the way. And yes, they’ll inevitably believe they are self-made geniuses. The question is, will there be anybody left at the table to speak for the rest of us? ( )
  Dan.Allosso | Dec 11, 2014 |
In 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement brought the issue of wealth distribution into our public conversations. The protesters and activists labeled themselves the 99 percent—those with far less wealth than the 1 percent who worked on Wall Street.

Chrystia Freeland goes further in Plutocrats. The real division isn't between the 99 and the 1 percent, it's between the 99.99 and the 0.01 percent! This 0.01 percent is an elite group of "super-rich" who live and see the world in dramatically different ways from the rest of society:

- Unlike the aristocracy of earlier centuries, the 0.01 percent feel that their wealth is self-made.
- National identity is less important for the 0.01 percent since they have far more in common with the rest of the people in their wealth-bracket than their fellow countrymen and women.
- The 0.01 percent like to view themselves as philanthropists, often engaging in large-scale humanitarian efforts.

Freeland has done a remarkable job, as a reporter, working her way into the community of the super-rich and learning how they think and operate. If you want to understand the mindset of a multi-billionaire, this is an interesting read.

That said, I found the book to be overloaded with business-speak that took away from the immediacy of the prose. Perhaps this is just par for the genre—I don't read many business books! ( )
1 vote StephenBarkley | Aug 12, 2014 |
3 of the 4 posted reviews made me wonder if the writers didn't read the entire book. The last two chapters "Rent-Seeking" and "Plutocrats and the Rest of Us" along with the Conclusion are fascinating and I'd say required reading to understand the global economy, the super-elite, and the implications for the rest of us. ( )
1 vote FranklynCee | Jan 19, 2014 |
I have not finished this yet, but I'm enjoying it. It is not a "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" that I feared, so far. Author provides a helpful overview of the forces behind the growing (national) income inequality and the growing (global) income equality. As incomes go up in the rising nations, they have to go down somewhere. That is, they have to go down for those who are not in the top tier taking advantage of globalization.
  bradleybunch | Mar 30, 2013 |
Meh! The author goes on and on with dropping names and telling us how many billions of dollars the people she talked to have. Got tiring after a while. This should have been an article in the New Yorker instead of a book. ( )
1 vote SymphonySil | Jan 18, 2013 |
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A journalist and industry specialist for Reuters examines the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, taking a non-partisan look into the businesspeople who are amassing colossal fortunes and preferring the company of similar people around the world.… (more)

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