When Chrystia Freeland began researching her new book on the global super-rich, she discovered there were almost no female plutocrats. Here, she tells Rachel Cooper why.
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F Scott Fitzgerald, chronicler of the wealthy and dysfunctional, declared in a short story of 1924: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”
Almost a century later, former Financial Times deputy editor, Chrystia Freeland, has come to pretty much the same conclusion in her new book Plutocrats , Charting the Rise of the Global Super-Rich — and the Fall of Everyone Else.
Drawing comparisons with the 19th Century “Gilded Age” when great wealth followed rapid industrialisation, Freeland argues that our second “gilded age” of advancing technology has helped create a new class of phenomenally wealthy individuals — the 0,1% who can exert significant influence over politics and policy.
Analysts at Credit Suisse last year noted that the number of super-rich individuals has surged, with 29 000 people owning net assets worth more than US$100 million.
Living international lifestyles that take them from homes in New York to business meetings in Asia via conferences in Davos, the existence of these “ultra high net worth individuals” is in stark contrast to the subsistence of many living on lowly or stagnating wages.
But observing dinner parties with private equity chieftains and in conversations with technology tycoons, Freeland discovered another surprising point of difference among the plutocrats: There are virtually no women.
“When I first wrote the outline (of the book), I was intending to write a chapter about the women plutocrats, as I thought that would be interesting,” Freeland told The Telegraph.
“When I started to work on that, I discovered this really astonishing thing there were effectively none. At the real heights; I’m not talking about women in professions at the real summit of money, there are almost no women apart from wives and daughters of plutocrats.”
Of the 1,226 billionaires on the Forbes billionaire list this year, says Freeland, only 104 were women. Subtract the wives, daughters and widows and you are left with a fraction of that number, she adds.
The richest man in history
Indeed, the plutocrats depicted in her book are almost exclusively male, from hedge fund manager Arpad Busson to Mexico’s Carlos Slim, who made his fortune in telecoms. When asking who has accrued record wealth, Plutocrats asks not “Who was the richest person in history?” but “Who was the richest man in history?”
It is difficult to compare wealth across the generations, but one way of judging it is by the quantity of labour a wealthy man can command. By that reckoning, Slim is the richest man in history, according to Plutocrats. His fortune, valued at US$69 billion, is equivalent to the average annual salary of more than 400 000 Mexicans.
Beside these plutocrats are their wives. Freeland notes that these women are managing the households of their wealthy husbands — often a complex task — and pursuing philanthropic ventures. Not many are doing a job of their own despite being highly-educated themselves. In 2005, according to the book, just more than a quarter of taxpayers in the top 0,1% had a working spouse.
Their role, then, tends to be in the background and in the home, not around the boardroom table of their plutocrat husbands. Life among the very wealthiest, says Freeland, is a “real 1950s throwback”.
This sets the plutocrats apart from the rest of society, she argues.
The absence of women among the highest echelons of wealth is, she says, “particularly striking” because “something we are seeing lower down in income distribution is the economic rise of women”.
In the US, among two income households, in 30% of them the woman is the breadwinner, she says.
“This trend of growing power for women in society as a whole in the middle is real,” Freeland adds. But while in the workplace women are accelerating, “the people at the very, very top are almost exclusively men”.
‘The plutocracy is a patriarchy’
“The middle class is becoming a matriarchy and the plutocracy is a patriarchy,” she argues.
Why then, are there so few women among the new class of global plutocrats, the private equity tycoons, the financiers and the internet entrepreneurs?
Unlike in the world of Scott Fitzgerald, which was largely populated by those who had inherited their wealth, the modern-day plutocrat has worked to earn his fortune. Freeland charts the ascent of the “alpha geeks”, the aggressive, intensely-educated mathematicians who made their first fortune young.
Women are similarly highly educated. In 2004, the incoming first-year at Harvard included more women than men. But, a different attitude towards risk and aggression is arguably precluding women from joining the plutocratic class.
One plutocrat told Freeland that the young women coming into his firm were every bit as numerate and mathematically brilliant as the young men. He noted too that not all his female colleagues dropped out after having children.
But, his theory of why women were not breaking into the very highest echelons of wealth and power was that they are not aggressive enough. He told Freeland that women do not “go for the jugular”, that women “don’t have the killer instinct”.
“It’s certainly true that any woman, any mother of daughters, when you examine yourself, you will come up against the reality that our attitudes towards aggression in women are still very different,” Freeland says.
She counters that you do not need the “killer instinct” to be highly successful, but to amass a vast fortune, it’s “pretty self-evident that you’re not going to do that without extreme self-belief, extreme willingness to always keep on pushing … and an aptitude for taking the right risks. That does require a certain killer instinct”.
Exceptions to the rule
There are exceptions to the rule, however. When asked whether she has identified any female plutocrats, Freeland cites Oprah Winfrey as an “important figure”.
And there are examples of women succeeding in technology too. Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, is in Freeland’s words “the world’s most successful female executive”.
“The skill that made her fortune is the ability to understand where the action is and her ability to make ‘unconventional’ choices,” writes Freeland.
While Freeland seems hopeful rather than convinced that there will be a greater gender balance among the plutocrats in future, she points to China as an “interesting counter-example”.
There, she says, more women have broken through to the very top. That includes the likes of Wu Yajun, who made her fortune in real estate.
Childcare is a factor in Chinese women being able to accelerate, Freeland argues. “It is totally socially acceptable for mothers to have someone other than themselves care for their children,” she says. “(It) may be one reason that women have been able to accumulate these fortunes.”
But, fortune does not necessarily imbue women with power in China as Freeland notes that the most important form of power in that society is political, not financial.
Such political power then is the preserve of men.
This increasing political power of the — male — global plutocrats, who can bend the ear of decision makers, is one manifestation of the widening chasm between the wealthiest and the rest of us. The gender gap, adds Freeland, is another “subtle but quite influential manifestation of that gap”.
What concerns her most, however, is the income gap. With, for example, the wealthiest 10% of Americans receiving half of the nation’s income, fortunes are flowing ever higher. Thirty years ago, the average American chief executive made 42 times as much as the average worker; today that ratio is 380.
“The same economic forces that are driving the rise of plutocrats are also hollowing out the middle classes and we have to find a way to create a more balanced capitalism” says Freeland.
There are no easy answers
Finding that path is not easy and Plutocrats leaves hanging the question of how to bridge income inequality. This seems deliberate.
Freeland says she did consider concluding the book with a checklist of 10 policy proposals. But, she decided against it as there is a “real temptation to reach for easy answers” when there are none.
While people draw parallels between the industrial revolution and our current technological revolution, drawing succour from the equilibrium achieved after that intense industrialisation, Freeland says this is only “persuasive to a point”.
“To get to that equilibrium required two world wars, the Great Depression, communist revolutions in China and Russia. In response to that and to preserve capitalism, Western society invented the modern welfare state and modern regulatory institutions governing capitalism,” says Freeland.
“That wasn’t a 10-point plan on three pages, that was decades of very intense, very iconoclastic debate and thinking.”
Freeland believes that such debate is necessary again. With a tiny minority making great fortunes and middle class incomes stagnating, she says that the intellectual challenge is figuring out how to make capitalism “work for the middle class, for most of society”.
And the sooner we start on that intellectual project, says Freeland, the better.
“It’s going to take 10 or 20 years, a lot of debate, a lot of wild ideas and policy experiments, and we should really start seriously doing that.”