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Plutocrats

bookcover
Author: Chrystia Freeland

Acknowledging economic differences does not make for polite conversation and the subject is seldom brought up. Chrystia Freeland sets about to change that: Statistics in hand, the author charts the extraordinary gains made by the top 1% of the population so reviled by the Occupy Movement. In 2011, the top 20% own 84% of American wealth whereas, in Sweden, the same fraction captured only 36%. The average American CEO in 1980 earned 42 times what an average worker earned, in 2012, 380 times... Her contention is that the same 1% skews democracy and free market rules while indulging in self-pity, bolstered in tandem by an able class of hired guns from K Street and .1% envy.

In mesmerizing details, she recounts how elites across national borders, whether they bought state holdings as in Russia, capitalized on their influence as members of the National People's Congress in China, or became finance tycoons in the United States, manage to insulate themselves from the day-to-day travails of the average citizen. Those new Robber Barons are true meritocrats: they started from scratch, are well-educated, and are often workaholics rather than "rent-seekers." Their worldview and lifestyle are similar across continents and the author raises the question whether large U.S. global companies led by those elites are able to make decisions in the best interest of the nation. Concurrently, a whole class of people, from entertainers to home decorators, lawyers, chefs and couturiers has been able to benefit from lavish spending and from the combined effects of technology and globalization, allowing their fames and skills to be overnight sensations.

The ability to "pivot" (change course on a dime), the access to 21st century tools of production (essentially the laptop), and the oft-repeated stories of geeks starting up from garages may be what the average person needs to feel that indeed joining the uber rich is attainable, but increasingly the author demonstrates how the self-fulfilling power of fame (Matthew Effect) interferes with the discovery of true nuggets of literature, science and music.

Yet she points out the benefits of being an outlier to create new concepts. One disturbing conclusion I draw from the information delivered by the author is that, since 2007, the American consumer is no longer the main driver of the economy (remember when George W. Bush told us on September 2nd or 3rd to come back out and spend?). Definitely Plutocrats is an ode to a withering American middle class built on industrial might and relative social harmony thanks to agreements between unions and companies' boards of directors. We are no longer needed. Globalization and technology are a boon for American businesses but a bane for Americans.