Thursday, January 27, 2011

Don't Bother Sucking Up to Them. They've Already Checked Out...

..and many of them are convinced they're doing "God's work."

Call me less than impressed by President Obama's shift to the center-right in the wake of the November elections, as evidenced by his recent State of the Union address.

Playing to what he presumes the independent voters want to hear, he threw in a heavy dose of business-friendly rhetoric and American exceptionalism, which the Republicans and Tea Party types have heretofore accused him of not believing in sufficiently.

In calling attention to the challenge posed by Asia to our claims to supremacy, Obama called this our "Sputnik moment." Well, even though I hate to jump onto the Tiger Mom cliche bandwagon, the Tiger Mom comparison fits better than the Sputnik comparison.
We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business.
I've heard this promise to fix the education system in every SOTU speech I can remember, and it never happens... That's all very well and good Mr. President, but even if we managed to discover tomorrow the magic elixer to set education right in this country, it would take at least a generation to take effect. We don't have that kind of time. What about the people who are suffering here and now? In this globalized economy we could theoretically compete on education and skill even if we couldn't compete on costs, but the fact of the matter is, we have already gotten to the point where we can't compete on costs and can't compete on education and skill either.

In effect, we are screwed, and the only thing that can possibly save us is protectionism, but the Tom Friedmans of the world have succeeded in making protectionism a dirty word.

As he begs hat-in-hand in suck-up mode to corporate America, Obama even designated GE's Jeffrey Immelt as head of his new "Council on Jobs and Competitiveness." Talk about a fox being sent to take charge of the chicken coop... If there is any US-based company that trail-blazed the loss of our intellectual capital to foreign companies and the loss of American manufacturing jobs through offshoring, it was GE, under Imelt's predecessor, the fraudulent buffoon Jack Welch.

So, if we cannot compete under the economic globalization paradigm as it currently stands, and if protectionism is still a dirty word, we'd better start learning to speak the language of cooperation rather than competititon, especially if the threats of climate change and peak oil have any thruth to them (and they do).

This, however, will not occur. You see, it is a lie to say that the Chinese are merely the manufacturing plant to the world and have nothing to offer other countries politically or culturally. Their ideal of a Confucian meritocracy dovetails very nicely with the laissez faire, free market dogmatism to be found among the world's global elites who hobnob and schmooze together in Davos, Manhattan, London, Moscow, Shanghai and Hong Kong. These entreprenuerial, innovative, noveau riche citizens of the world are quite happy with the way things are, thank you very much, and if you haven't the gumption to climb up the way they have, well that's your tough luck. The way they see it, there was nothing stopping you. If the world goes to hell in a handbasket, they are going to make sure that they and others like them are going to be OK, regardless of nationality, because they share more in common with each other than they do with their own countrymen..

In 2007, I wrote about Peggy Noonan's op-ed piece A Separate Peace: America is in trouble --and our elites are merely resigned. She said at the time:
Our elites, our educated and successful professionals, are the ones who are supposed to dig us out and lead us... I have a nagging sense, and think I have accurately observed, that many of these people have made a separate peace. That they're living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas; that they're going forward each day with the knowledge, which they hold more securely and with greater reason than nonelites, that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley's off the tracks, and with a conviction, a certainty, that there is nothing they can do about it.

I suspect that history, including great historical novelists of the future, will look back and see that many of our elites simply decided to enjoy their lives while they waited for the next chapter of trouble. And that they consciously, or unconsciously, took grim comfort in this thought: I got mine. Which is what the separate peace comes down to, "I got mine, you get yours."

You're a lobbyist or a senator or a cabinet chief, you're an editor at a paper or a green-room schmoozer, you're a doctor or lawyer or Indian chief, and you're making your life a little fortress. That's what I think a lot of the elites are up to.
I think this tendency is even more pronounced today, although I don't think Ms. Noonan gives the recent phenomenon of the new, globally-oriented, capitalistic philanthropist enough recognition and credit.

The Atlantic magazine is always a great read, but last month's issue was absolutely superb. Some of the great articles included:

A reminder of Eisenhower's prescient warning about the military-industrial complex: The Tyranny of Defense Inc.

A profile of the dour and cynically obstructionist Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: Strict Obstructionist.

The effects of brutally mysogynistic internet pornography on our de riguer sexual mores: Hard Core.

...But the article I recommend most heartily is the cover story: The Rise of the New Global Elite.

Some extended excerpts below... Class warfare? You betcha. But I didn't declare it. They did.
On the set of Meet the Press, the host, David Gregory, was interviewing a guest who made a forceful case that the U.S. economy had become “very distorted.” In the wake of the recession, this guest explained, high-income individuals, large banks, and major corporations had experienced a “significant recovery”; the rest of the economy, by contrast—including small businesses and “a very significant amount of the labor force”—was stuck and still struggling. What we were seeing, he argued, was not a single economy at all, but rather “fundamentally two separate types of economy,” increasingly distinct and divergent.

This diagnosis, though alarming, was hardly unique: drawing attention to the divide between the wealthy and everyone else has long been standard fare on the left. (The idea of “two Americas” was a central theme of John Edwards’s 2004 and 2008 presidential runs.) What made the argument striking in this instance was that it was being offered by none other than the former five-term Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan: iconic libertarian, preeminent defender of the free market, and (at least until recently) the nation’s foremost devotee of Ayn Rand. When the high priest of capitalism himself is declaring the growth in economic inequality a national crisis, something has gone very, very wrong...

Before the recession, it was relatively easy to ignore this concentration of wealth among an elite few. The wondrous inventions of the modern economy—Google, Amazon, the iPhone—broadly improved the lives of middle-class consumers, even as they made a tiny subset of entrepreneurs hugely wealthy. And the less-wondrous inventions—particularly the explosion of subprime credit—helped mask the rise of income inequality for many of those whose earnings were stagnant.

But the financial crisis and its long, dismal aftermath have changed all that. A multibillion-dollar bailout and Wall Street’s swift, subsequent reinstatement of gargantuan bonuses have inspired a narrative of parasitic bankers and other elites rigging the game for their own benefit. And this, in turn, has led to wider—and not unreasonable—fears that we are living in not merely a plutonomy, but a plutocracy, in which the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble.

The rich of today are ... 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.

The Winner-Take-Most Economy

The rise of the new plutocracy is inextricably connected to two phenomena: the revolution in information technology and the liberalization of global trade. Individual nations have offered their own contributions to income inequality—financial deregulation and upper-bracket tax cuts in the United States; insider privatization in Russia; rent-seeking in regulated industries in India and Mexico. But the shared narrative is that, thanks to globalization and technological innovation, people, money, and ideas travel more freely today than ever before.

Peter Lindert is an economist at the University of California at Davis and one of the leaders of the “deep history” school of economics, a movement devoted to thinking about the world economy over the long term—that is to say, in the context of the entire sweep of human civilization. Yet he argues that the economic changes we are witnessing today are unprecedented. “Britain’s classic industrial revolution was far less impressive than what has been going on in the past 30 years,” he told me. The current productivity gains are larger, he explained, and the waves of disruptive innovation much, much faster.

From a global perspective, the impact of these developments has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly in the poorer parts of the world. Take India and China, for example: between 1820 and 1950, nearly a century and a half, per capita income in those two countries was basically flat. Between 1950 and 1973, it increased by 68 percent. Then, between 1973 and 2002, it grew by 245 percent, and continues to grow strongly despite the global financial crisis.

But within nations, the fruits of this global transformation have been shared unevenly. Though China’s middle class has grown exponentially and tens of millions have been lifted out of poverty, the super-elite in Shanghai and other east-coast cities have steadily pulled away. Income inequality has also increased in developing markets such as India and Russia, and across much of the industrialized West, from the relatively laissez-faire United States to the comfy social democracies of Canada and Scandinavia. Thomas Friedman is right that in many ways the world has become flatter; but in others it has grown spikier...

Executive pay has skyrocketed for many reasons—including the prevalence of overly cozy boards and changing cultural norms about pay—but increasing scale, competition, and innovation have all played major roles.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of U.S. workers, however devoted and skilled at their jobs, have missed out on the windfalls of this winner-take-most economy—or worse, found their savings, employers, or professions ravaged by the same forces that have enriched the plutocratic elite. The result of these divergent trends is a jaw-dropping surge in U.S. income inequality. According to the economists Emmanuel Saez of Berkeley and Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics, between 2002 and 2007, 65 percent of all income growth in the United States went to the top 1 percent of the population...

Plutocracy Now

As with the aristocracies of bygone days, such vast wealth has created a gulf between the plutocrats and other people, one reinforced by their withdrawal into gated estates, exclusive academies, and private planes. We are mesmerized by such extravagances as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s 414-foot yacht, the Octopus, which is home to two helicopters, a submarine, and a swimming pool.

But while their excesses seem familiar, even archaic, today’s plutocrats represent a new phenomenon. The wealthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s era were shaped, he wrote, by the fact that they had been “born rich.” They knew what it was to “possess and enjoy early.”

That’s not the case for much of today’s super-elite. “Fat cats who owe it to their grandfathers are not getting all of the gains,” Peter Lindert told me. “A lot of it is going to innovators this time around. There is more meritocracy in Bill Gates being at the top than the Duke of Bedford.” Even Emmanuel Saez, who is deeply worried about the social and political consequences of rising income inequality, concurs that a defining quality of the current crop of plutocrats is that they are the “working rich.” He has found that in 1916, the richest 1 percent of Americans received only one-fifth of their income from paid work; in 2004, that figure had risen threefold, to 60 percent.

A Nation Apart

Another defining characteristic of today’s plutocrats: they are forming a global community, and their ties to one another are increasingly closer than their ties to hoi polloi back home. As Glenn Hutchins, co-founder of the private-equity firm Silver Lake, puts it, “A person in Africa who runs a big African bank and went to Harvard might have more in common with me than he does with his neighbors, and I could well share more overlapping concerns and experiences with him than with my neighbors.” The circles we move in, Hutchins explains, are defined by “interests” and “activities” rather than “geography”: “Beijing has a lot in common with New York, London, or Mumbai. You see the same people, you eat in the same restaurants, you stay in the same hotels. But most important, we are engaged as global citizens in crosscutting commercial, political, and social matters of common concern. We are much less place-based than we used to be.”

America'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.”

At last summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival, Michael Splinter, CEO of the Silicon Valley green-tech firm Applied Materials, said that if he were starting from scratch, only 20 percent of his workforce would be domestic. “This year, almost 90 percent of our sales will be outside the U.S.,” he explained. “The pull to be close to the customers—most of them in Asia—is enormous.” 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.”

Revolt of the Elites

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. As a consequence of this disconnect, when business titans talk about the economy and their role in it, the notes they strike are often discordant: for example, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein waving away public outrage in 2009 by saying he was “doing God’s work”; or the insistence by several top bankers after the immediate threat of the financial crisis receded that their institutions could have survived without TARP funding and that they had accepted it only because they had been strong-armed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Nor does this aloof disposition end at the water’s edge: think of BP CEO Tony Hayward, who complained of wanting to get his life back after the Gulf oil spill and then proceeded to do so by watching his yacht compete in a race off the Isle of Wight.

It is perhaps telling that Blankfein is the son of a Brooklyn postal worker and that Hayward—despite his U.S. caricature as an upper-class English twit—got his start at BP as a rig geologist in the North Sea. They are both, in other words, working-class boys made good. And while you might imagine that such backgrounds would make plutocrats especially sympathetic to those who are struggling, the opposite is often true. 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.

Unsurprisingly, 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.” (Khodorkovsky’s subsequent political travails—his oil company was appropriated by the state in 2004 and he is currently in prison—have tempered this Darwinian outlook: in a jail-cell correspondence last year, he admitted that he had “treated business exclusively as a game” and “did not care much about social responsibility.”)

Though typically more guarded in their choice of words, 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. 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 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.”

However histrionic his imagery, Schwarzman (who subsequently apologized for the remark) is a Republican, so his antipathy toward the current administration is no surprise. What is more striking is the degree to which even former Obama supporters in the financial industry have turned against the president and his party. A Wall Street investor who is a passionate Democrat recounted to me his bitter exchange with a Democratic leader in Congress who is involved in the tax-reform effort. “Screw you,” he told the lawmaker. “Even if you change the legislation, the government won’t get a single penny more from me in taxes. I’ll put my money into my foundation and spend it on good causes. My money isn’t going to be wasted in your deficit sinkhole.” He is not alone in his fury. In a much-quoted newsletter to investors last summer, the 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—told me that the president is “anti-business”; one went so far as to worry that Obama is “a socialist.”

Much of this pique stems from simple self-interest: in addition to the proposed tax hikes, the financial reforms that Obama signed into law last summer have made regulations on American finance more stringent. But as the Democratic investor’s angry references to his philanthropic work suggest, the rage in the C-suites is driven not merely by greed but by a perceived affront to the plutocrats’ amour propre, a wounded incredulity that anyone could think of them as villains rather than heroes. Aren’t they, after all, the ones whose financial and technological innovations represent the future of the American economy? Aren’t they “doing God’s work”?

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. (G. K. Chesterton suggested a similar idea, though more gently, in his novel The Man Who Was Thursday: “The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn’t; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht.”)

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. They may not be isolating themselves geographically, as Rand fantasized. But they appear to be isolating themselves ideologically, which in the end may be of greater consequence...

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...

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.

No comments: