Book Club

Book Excerpt: Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats

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Bill recently interviewed author Chrystia Freeland on Moyers & Company. Her book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, was published last week and is the inaugural book in the Moyers Book Club. Read an excerpt:

“The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford. What were the luxuries have become the necessaries of life. The laborer has now more comforts than the farmer had a few generations ago. The farmer has more luxuries than the landlord had, and is more richly clad and better housed. The landlord has books and pictures rarer and appointments more artistic than the king could then obtain.”— Andrew Carnegie

Branko Milanovic is an economist at the World Bank. He first became interested in income inequality studying for his PhD in the 1980s in his native Yugoslavia, where he discovered it was officially viewed as a “sensitive” subject — which meant one the ruling regime didn’t want its scholars to look at too closely. That wasn’t a huge surprise; after all, the central ideological promise of socialism was to deliver a classless society.

But when Milanovic moved to Washington, he discovered a curious thing. Americans were happy to celebrate their super-rich and, at least sometimes, worry about their poor. But putting those two conversations together and talking about economic inequality was pretty much taboo.

“I was once told by the head of a prestigious think tank in Washington, D.C., that the think tank’s board was very unlikely to fund any work that had income or wealth inequality in its title,” Milanovic, who wears a beard and has a receding hairline and teddy bear build, explained in a recent book. “Yes, they would finance anything to do with poverty alleviation, but inequality was an altogether different matter.”

“Why?” he asked. “Because ‘my’ concern with the poverty of some people actually projects me in a very nice, warm glow: I am ready to use my money to help them. Charity is a good thing; a lot of egos are boosted by it and many ethical points earned even when only tiny amounts are given to the poor. But inequality is different: Every mention of it raises in fact the issue of the appropriateness or legitimacy of my income.”

It is not just the super-rich who don’t like to talk about rising income inequality. It can be an ideologically uncomfortable conversation for many of the rest of us, too. That’s because even — or perhaps particularly — in the view of its most ardent supporters, global capitalism wasn’t supposed to work quite this way.
The point isn’t that the super-elite are reluctant to display their wealth — that is, after all, at least part of the purpose of yachts, couture, vast homes, and high-profile big-buck philanthropy. But when the discussion shifts from celebratory to analytical, the super-elite get nervous. One Wall Street Democrat, who has held big jobs in Washington and at some of America’s top financial institutions, told me President Barack Obama had alienated the business community by speaking about “the rich.” It would be best not to refer to income differences at all, the banker said, but if the president couldn’t avoid singling out the country’s top earners, he should call them “affluent.” Naming them as “rich,” he told me, sounded divisive — something the rich don’t want to be. Striking a similar tone, Bill Clinton, in his 2011 book, Back to Work, faulted Barack Obama for how he talks about those at the top. “I didn’t attack them for their success,” President Clinton wrote, attributing to that softer touch his greater success in getting those at the top to accept higher taxes.

Robert Kenny, a Boston psychologist who specializes in counseling the super-elite, agrees. He told an interviewer that “often the word ‘rich’ becomes a pejorative. It rhymes with ‘bitch.’ I’ve been in rooms and seen people stand up and say, ‘I’m Bob Kenny and I’m rich.’ And then they burst into tears.”

It is not just the super-rich who don’t like to talk about rising income inequality. It can be an ideologically uncomfortable conversation for many of the rest of us, too. That’s because even — or perhaps particularly — in the view of its most ardent supporters, global capitalism wasn’t supposed to work quite this way.

“If one looks closely at what has happened to the world since the beginning of society, it is easy to see that equality is prevalent only at the historical poles of civilization.” — Alexis de Tocqueville
Until the past few decades, the received wisdom among economists was that income inequality would be fairly low in the preindustrial era—overall wealth and productivity were fairly small, so there wasn’t that much for an elite to capture—then spike during industrialization, as the industrialists and industrial workers outstripped farmers (think of China today). Finally, in fully industrialized or postindustrial societies, income inequality would again decrease as education became more widespread and the state played a bigger, more redistributive role.

This view of the relationship between economic development and income inequality was first and most clearly articulated by Simon Kuznets, a Belarusian-born immigrant to the United States. Kuznets illustrated his theory with one of the most famous graphs in economics — the Kuznets curve, an upside-down U that traces the movement of society as its economy becomes more sophisticated and productive, from low inequality, to high inequality, and back down to low inequality.

Writing in the early years of the industrial revolution, and without the benefit of Kuznets’s data and statistical analysis, Alexis de Tocqueville came up with a similar prediction: “If one looks closely at what has happened to the world since the beginning of society, it is easy to see that equality is prevalent only at the historical poles of civilization. Savages are equal because they are equally weak and ignorant. Very civilized men can all become equal because they all have at their disposal similar means of attaining comfort and happiness. Between these two extremes is found inequality of condition, wealth, knowledge — the power of the few, the poverty, ignorance, and weakness of the rest.”

If you believe in capitalism — and nowadays pretty much the whole world does — the Kuznets curve was a wonderful theory. Economic progress might be brutal and bumpy and create losers along the way. But once we reached that Tocquevillian plateau of all being “very civilized men” (yes, men!), we would all share in the gains. Until the late 1970s, the United States, the world’s poster child of capitalism, was also an embodiment of the Kuznets curve. The great postwar expansion was also the period of what economists have dubbed the Great Compression, when inequality shrank and most Americans came to think of themselves as middle class. This was the era when, in the words of Harvard economist Larry Katz, “Americans grew together.” That seemed to be the natural shape of industrial capitalism.

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  • Awake

    Chrystia Freeland’s book is an eye-opener. Am looking forward to reading more.

  • http://www.facebook.com/TallPhilosopher John Champagne

    Our economy and political system embody systemic flaws. These flaws stem from our neglect of public property rights. We have not paid attention to the principle, articulated by political philosophers, that opportunity to enjoy the benefits of natural wealth ought to be shared equally. The philosophical foundation of our concept of private property rights stems from natural law that says that we all have a right to take natural resources (public or commons property) and, by working them with our labor, make them our own property.

    If some forms of natural wealth is made unavailable to some members of society, because all the standing trees have been enclosed in private domains, for example, then the opportunity for people to better themselves by taking natural wealth and making something useful is lost. We then have the germ of unjust disparity of wealth.

    A remedy would be to recognize that the amounts of the various kinds of natural wealth are finite quantities, and to the extent that any person takes some of this wealth, we will necessarily have less available for others to take. So one person, or one economic actor, availing themselves of a natural opportunity necessarily diminishes the opportunity for others to enjoy a similar benefit. We could decide that, as compensation for this diminished opportunity imposed on others, those who take natural wealth (which is owned by all equally) shall pay a fee when they take this wealth in pursuit of their own advantage. The fees assessed on the taking of various kinds of resources can be made high enough so that the overall rate of taking of each particular kind of wealth can be kept within limits acceptable to the people at large. (We could take a random survey to discern whether the average opinion of the people would prefer more or less taking of natural wealth of whatever kind, or whether current practice strikes a good balance between the competing interests. When most people say that we have a good balance or very near it (with an approximately equal number saying we are too strict in our limits as those who say we are too lenient), then we will know that the fees are set at an appropriate amount.)

    Sharing fee proceeds equally means that no one lives in abject poverty. The value of this wealth is estimated at upwards of $20 per day for each person on the planet. Http://gaiabrain.blogspot.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=612223916 Holly Dolly

    An online book club? What a great idea! Will there be a live voice chat, round-table discussion of the book, the same as in a traditional club?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.dipietro.14 Mike Dipietro

    I also believe the Supreme Court made a fatal decision, allowing corporations to have the same rights as persons; this is ludicris…this could beginning of the end of a fair election..its so apparent to be common sense, this must be repealed to bring a sense of fairness to the election process

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=502061487 Vlad Jersian

    For those that like Graphs… here’s some suporting data… Income Summary from 1980 to 2010 converted to 2010 Dollars… almost ‘sickening’….

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151236369601488&set=a.10151230847771488.509302.502061487&type=3&theater

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=502061487 Vlad Jersian

    More supporting Data.. using the Data from the Graph below.. just summarizing it by “DECADES”… To see what was happening “Historically” in 2010 Dollars…

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151285260481488&set=a.10151230847771488.509302.502061487&type=3&theater

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=502061487 Vlad Jersian

    And then… Assuming an Average GENERATION is 30 years… How did GENERATIONS compare from 1950 to 2010? We (the bottom 90%) did great from 1950 to 1970… and then… things started to change… dramatically… Income started to move only in one direction… UP.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151285255076488&set=a.10151230847771488.509302.502061487&type=3&theater

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=502061487 Vlad Jersian

    Finally.. how did a LIFETIME of working (50 years) “change” from 1920 to 1960… what do “workers”.. the “Bottom 90%” have to look forward to now?

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151285254866488&set=a.10151230847771488.509302.502061487&type=3&theater

  • Dianna

    Who was the poet who wrote a book about being grateful? I heard it on PBS December 19, 2012 He had a son who had a disability and said one day, “I’m happy, I’m happy!” Please reply, Thanks Dr59801@msn.com

  • Anonymous

    “We could decide that, as compensation for this diminished opportunity imposed on others, those who take natural wealth (which is owned by all equally) shall pay a fee when they take this wealth in pursuit of their own advantage. The fees assessed on the taking of various kinds of resources can be made high enough so that the overall rate of taking of each particular kind of natural resource can be kept within limits acceptable to the people at large.”

    ————
    And we could give that fee a name. How about taxes? Then the taxes could be used to give the benefits from those resources to those who are part owners of those resources because of their birthplace.
    The problem is that those who pillage don’t feel the need (nor desire) to pay those taxes, and those who would be in charge of distributing those taxes would waste those tax dollars in the eyes of those not in direct receipt of those funds.