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.
This widening gap between the rich and non-rich has been evident for years. In a 2005 report to investors, for instance, three analysts at Citigroup advised that “the World is dividing into two blocs—the Plutonomy and the rest”:
In a plutonomy there is no such animal as “the U.S. consumer” or “the UK consumer”, or indeed the “Russian consumer”. There are rich consumers, few in number, but disproportionate in the gigantic slice of income and consumption they take. There are the rest, the “non-rich”, the multitudinous many, but only accounting for surprisingly small bites of the national pie.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.
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.
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.George Soros, who turned 80 last summer, is a pioneer and role model for the socially engaged billionaire. Arguably the most successful investor of the post-war era, he is nonetheless proudest of his Open Society Foundations, through which he has spent billions of dollars on issues as diverse as marijuana legalization, civil society in central and eastern Europe, and rethinking economic assumptions in the wake of the financial crisis.
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.”
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.
It is perhaps telling that Blankfein is the son of a Brooklyn postal worker and that Hayward (BP CEO) —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.
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.