[Marxism] Billionaires to the Barricades

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jul 5 10:35:55 MDT 2015


NY Times, July 5 2015
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 revolution.

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 working class.

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 Upper Crust.”

“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 sustainability.”

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 the haves.

“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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