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.”I guess that makes me feel a little better, but it still doesn't help the average American who's getting his house foreclosed on or has lost her job or whose adult kids are back at home (in their foreclosed home?).
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.
Peter Peterson, for example, is the son of a Greek immigrant who arrived in America at age 17 and worked his way up to owning a diner in Nebraska; his Blackstone co-founder, Stephen Schwarzman, is the son of a Philadelphia retailer. And they are hardly the exceptions. Of the top 10 figures on the 2010 Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans, four are self-made, two (Charles and David Koch) expanded a medium-size family oil business into a billion-dollar industrial conglomerate, and the remaining four are all heirs of the self-made billionaire Sam Walton. Similarly, of the top 10 foreign billionaires, six are self-made, and the remaining four are vigorously growing their patrimony, rather than merely living off it. It’s true that few of today’s plutocrats were born into the sort of abject poverty that can close off opportunity altogether— a strong early education is pretty much a precondition—but the bulk of their wealth is generally the fruit of hustle and intelligence (with, presumably, some luck thrown in). They are not aristocrats, by and large, but rather economic meritocrats, preoccupied not merely with consuming wealth but with creating it.
Friday, January 7, 2011
They Earned It
Chrystia Freeland makes the interesting point that the new superrich are mostly meritocratic newbies: