Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Living in a World of Change

When you are in the middle of things it is hard to get perspective. Here's something that made me stop and think. This is from an article in The Atlantic by Chrystia Freeland entitled "The Rise of the New Global Elite":
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.
For years I've enjoyed thinking about this interesting tidbit from Brad DeLong:
Even the rich were poor. Consider Nathan Meyer Rothschild. He was the richest man in the world in the first half of the nineteenth century. But he died in his fifties of an infected abscess in his back -- an abscess that we oils have cured by lancing and antibiotics without even a hospital admission for day surgery. Nathan Meyer Rothschild did not live to see his grandchildren grow up -- something that the guys working the loading dock at Target expect as a matter of course, as their birthright. Who is richer: Nathan Meyer Rothschild or America's working poor today?
But, as Chrystia Freeland points out, the ultra-rich of today are a different breed from the inheritied wealth of America's Gilded Age:
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.
Freeland spots the problem with the new ultra-rich:
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.
Freeland sees a change in the tone of society, and I hope this is a real change because it is long overdue that the ultra-rich milk the rest of society for their outrageous wealth:
The cultural ties that bind the super-rich to everyone else are fraying from both ends at once. Since World War II, the United States in particular has had an ethos of aspirational capitalism. As Soros told me, “It is easier to be rich in America than in Europe, because Europeans envy the billionaire, but Americans hope to emulate him.” But as the wealth gap has grown wider, and the rich have appeared to benefit disproportionately from government bailouts, that admiration has begun to sour.

One measure of the pricklier mood is how risky it has become for politicians to champion Big Business publicly. Defending Big Oil and railing against government interference used to be part of the job description of Texas Republicans. But when Congressman Joe Barton tried to take the White House to task for its post-spill “shakedown” of BP, he was immediately silenced by party elders. New York’s Charles Schumer is sometimes described as “the senator from Wall Street.” Yet when the financial-reform bill came to the Senate last spring—a political tussle in which each side furiously accused the other of carrying water for the banks—on Wall Street, Schumer was called the “invisible man” for his uncharacteristic silence on the issue.
I've got nothing against rewarding hard work or genius, but it has to be within reasonable bounds. The last 30 years has seen the ultra-rich go beserk in piling their wealth higher and deeper and retreating from the rest of society. This is completely unacceptable. A day of accounting is at hand (at least I hope). Hopefully the accounting will go peacefully with the ultra-wealthy accepting that their greed has passed beyond the bounds of decorum. They need to rejoin the rest of us and form a harmonious society in which everybody gets a chance to succeed. Instead, the last 30 years have seen the bottom 80% see their tenuous hold on life slipping away as their wages have slipped and their standard of life slowly sink. This is crazy in an era of rising productivity. We all should share in the benefits of a bigger, wealthier economy.

Chrystia Freeland ends her article noting that the writing is on the wall for the ultra-rich:
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.

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