Monday, 19 November 2012

Plutocrats by Christina Freeland


Maybe I came to this book too soon after reading Robert Frank's Richistan: A Journey Through the 21st Century Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich and the more recent  The High-Beta Rich: How the Manic Wealthy Will Take Us to the Next Boom, Bubble, and Bust: How the Maniac Wealthy Will Take Us to the Next Boom, Bubble, and Bust , which are snappier and more intriguing portraits of the New Rich.  Freeland doesn't have the journalistic lightness of touch that nonetheless reveals truths in a snapshot that Frank has, but having said that if you plough through the more 'flat' zones of this book, there are some interesting insights and ideas.

Unfortunately though, they are overwhelmed by the clear need for this book to have been edited further.  It's more than twice the length it should be, and has too many lengthy passage that quote mere facts and figures, as well as in places  being repetitive.  Although Freeland to her credit tries to maintain an objective distance from the plutocracy she's investigating, she still can't help slipping into little self-congratulatory snippets of useless information along the lines of 'I was having a breakfast meeting with the 3rd richest man in the world when he said...' and 'I was chairing a meeting at Davos when 'x' said something intriguing...' etc., as if just to let us know she herself is well keyed into the plutocracy, and actually is very pleased with herself about it.

As said above though, there are still some good observations in places.  After a slow, rather turgid start it picks up in the middle, fades again as yet another facts and figures analysis is done of the globalised elite from China to Mexico and then- unexpectedly- picks up again in the last couple of chapters. Freeland rightly observes that different socio-economic systems throw up different groups of elite- for 2oth century communism it was intellectuals, for fascism those in command of physical force and media coercion, and for liberal capitalism it is entrepreneurial chancers and institutional rent-seekers.  Towards the end she offers an almost-critique of the new plutocrats by way of showing just how much of a supra-national bubble they live in, and as with all bubbles, it will one day be pricked.

The fallout from that burst bubble will be something of course we will all have to deal with and outcomes are uncertain, although I suspect we may be finding out sooner rather than later.  Freeland on the whole though, can't help but come across as an apologist for the plutocracy- she lays great store on their charity works for example and hints that this may be a positive spin off of a rich-beyond-comprehension global elite- yet fails to point out the tax-efficiencies of such ventures and, of course, the self-selecting process that goes on with rich foundations being set up for pet causes.

One of the most illuminating interviews to my mind with regard to this issue, was with a young Silicon Valley billionaire, libertarian to the core, who decried taxation of any type, whinging that he was taxed too much and if he wasn't taxed at all, then he would have oodles of cash spare to dedicate to charity and other philanthropic initiatives of his choosing, rather than the evil government deciding what to do with his tax dollars.  It's difficult to tell whether Freeland reports this with irony [as say Robert Frank would], or with glassy eyed admiration. What's chilling about such statements, is that governments are supposed to be elected bodies in place to look after the interests of us all, and need to be trusted [and supported] to do that in a fair, equitable way.  The rich libertarian choice approach to social care, only leads to favoured groups and causes getting the cash and then not necessarily on a long term basis, as the rich have changing personal whims just like the rest of us...

So all in all a good book to read with a sceptical eye and perhaps selectively.  Ms Freeland would have done well to produce a book with half the pages and twice the punch, but at least the plutocracy is getting some serious analysis now, from even inside the camp.


Willis Peyton said...

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