It was probably an oversimplification even in the Stone Age. And there were probably wise people in the Stone Age who knew this.
That's not the point of any of this. In fact, some of these billionaires are trying to explain to other billionaires that it's not a zero-sum game -- that some ideas that seem to involve short-term losses for the rich can deliver longer-term gains, positive-sum for all, while some strategies that generate short-term gains for the rich can be negative-sum, even making the rich poorer in the longer term. Many of the rich are able to get this. Which is hardly a new thing. FDR's Fed chief, Marriner Eccles, a wealthy, conservative industrialist and banker from Utah (a Republican and a Mormon) outlined pretty much the entire New Deal before FDR took office, and joined FDR's administration. Republicans want to forget him, because they saw him as a class traitor. Democrats want to forget him, because it means acknowledging that there have been great Republicans besides Teddy Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln. But some people haven't forgotten him: the Federal Reserve building is named after him.
Of course, the rich aren't all alike, and that's another factor here. What happens when, to a rich person, what matters is the /status/ difference between himself and the Lowly (a factor not to be underestimated - Tom Wolfe's "the pleasure of seeing 'em jump") rather the absolute level of wealth? Then you're back to Gore Vidal's quip: "It's not enough to win - others must lose." If you inherited your wealth, you're not likely to appreciate it very much as an actual winning -- you grew up with it as normal, you didn't work for it, so you have little idea of what goes into wealth accumulation or what it's like to be without. You might be more inclined toward strategies that cause others to lose, as a source of self-satisfaction. Entrepreneurs, whatever their politics, are able to "get" what inequality of opportunity means, and why it's unfair. The smart ones have some appreciation of how lucky they were, not just of how hard they worked or how capable they are. But the real inequality issue now is not entrepreneurs. It's inheritors. People with inordinate skill in .... choosing their parents.
K-1 bldg 3F
Shinjuku-ku Tokyo 160-0023
Tel: +81 (3) 6890-1140
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"Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction." -- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I don't subscribe to the zero-sum thesis, appropriate in the Old Stone Age
as it may be, that the rich gain at the expense of everyone else. I
welcome evidence otherwise as I don't want to be chasing after bad
Billionaires to the Barricades
By ALAN FEUER
EARLIER this month, when the billionaire merchandising mogul Johann
Rupert gave a speech at The Financial Times's "luxury summit" in
Monaco, he sounded more like a Marxist theoretician than someone who
made his fortune selling Cartier diamonds and Montblanc pens.
Appearing before a crowd of executives from Fendi and Ferrari, Mr.
Rupert argued that it wasn't right--or even good business--for
"the 0.1 percent of the 0.1 percent" to raid the world's spoils.
"It's unfair and it is not sustainable," he said.
For several years now, populist politicians and liberal
intellectuals have been inveighing against income inequality, an
issue that is gaining traction among the broader body politic, as
shown by a recent New York Times/CBS News poll that found that
nearly 60 percent of American voters want their government to do
more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. But in the
last several months, this topic has been taken up by a different and
unlikely group of advocates: a small but vocal band of billionaires.
In March, for instance, Paul Tudor Jones II, the private equity
investor, gave a TED talk in which he proclaimed that the divide
between the top 1 percent in the United States and the remainder of
the country "cannot and will not persist." Mr. Jones, who is thought
to be worth nearly $5 billion, added that such divides have
historically been resolved in one of three ways: taxes, wars or
A few months earlier, Jeff Greene, a billionaire real estate
entrepreneur, suggested on CNBC that the superrich should pay higher
taxes in order to restore what he called "the inclusive economy that
I grew up in."
And in June, Nick Hanauer, a tech billionaire from Seattle, wrote a
blog post laying out the capitalist's case for a $15 minimum wage.
The post echoed sentiments that Mr. Hanauer made in a separate
polemic he wrote last summer for Politico, in which he addressed
himself directly to the planet's "zillionaires" and said: "I have a
message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our
gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won't last."
What's going on here? Are all these anxious magnates really
interested in leveling the playing field or are they simply paying
lip service to a shift in the political winds? Or perhaps it's just
a statistical blip, given that most of the world's 1,800
billionaires are not exactly out at the barricades lifting
pitchforks for economic change.
According to Chrystia Freeland, author of the 2012 book "Plutocrats:
The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone
Else," the phenomenon of the socially conscious billionaire is
significant and good. "It is absolutely happening," Ms. Freeland
said. "After my book came out, a few billionaires quietly got in
touch with me to say that they agreed that the current system isn't
working. It makes sense that the people who have benefited most from
the economy have the greatest interest in making it sustainable."
Ms. Freeland, who is also a Liberal Party member of the Canadian
Parliament, pointed to the so-called Conference on Inclusive
Capitalism, organized in London last year by Lynn Forester de
Rothschild, a member of the storied Rothschild banking clan. While
the one-day event was derided by some as a nervous hedge against the
threat of insurrection, the ostensible purpose of the gathering was
to reorient the 1 percent toward public-minded goods like long-term
investing, environmental stewardship and the fate of the global
Financiers like George Soros and Warren E. Buffett have trod this
ground before to great attention, but now that other billionaires
have been moved to join them, it has helped to change the
conversation, said Darrell M. West, a scholar at the Brookings
Institution and the author of "Billionaires: Reflections on the
"The messenger matters," Mr. West said. "When people of modest means
complain about inequality, it usually gets written off as class
warfare, but when billionaires complain, the problem is redefined"
--in a helpful way, he added--"as basic fairness and economic
This is not to say that the current crop of concerned tycoons is
working purely out of altruistic motives. "There's been a major
backlash against inequality," Mr. West said. "And some wealthy
individuals have felt a pressure to address it."
Given the political groundswell for decreasing wealth disparity, Mr.
West added, "There's a realization among the billionaire class that
it's actually in their own self-interest to at least spread some of
the wealth around."
Of course, it may be that some of these outspoken billionaires are
not responding to politics so much as playing it themselves. "I'm
not surprised to hear the wealthy saying these things, but talk is
cheap," said Dennis Kelleher, the president of Better Markets, which
advocates financial reform. "These people know exactly how to move
the levers of power and, until that happens, whatever they say is
nothing but empty words."
According to William D. Cohan, a former Wall Street banker who has
written frequently about billionaires, if the investor class were
truly interested in targeting unfairness, its members would try to
alter the policies of the Federal Reserve, which tend to help the
rich, or do away with inequity-inducing programs like tax incentives
for hedge funds.
Mr. Cohan said that proposals like increasing the minimum wage, a
popular rallying cry among those decrying income inequality, would
have, at best, a minimal effect on reducing the rift between
ordinary people and the 1 percent.
Most billionaires, he added, are apt to address inequality by
donating portions of their fortunes, not by seeking systemic
economic change. "Charity? Yes," Mr. Cohan said. "But leveling the
playing field? No."
And yet the extremely wealthy do face an abiding risk from festering
inequity: The have-nots might finally lose patience and turn upon
"That's the real danger," Mr. Cohan said. "This little thing called
the French Revolution."
Alan Feuer is a metropolitan reporter for The New York Times.
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