PlutocratsI just read Chrystia Freeland’s new book Plutocrats. I know her from her repeated appearances on Up with Chris Hayes. And I have to say, my reaction to the book is the same as it is to her: what a muddle. Plutocrats really isn’t clear what it is trying to say. Intellectually, it can see that the rise of the super rich is a bad thing, but it is simultaneously almost worshipful of these people. But that might be okay all by itself. I do not have a problem with the vagaries of the human soul. But there is little in the way of new information. Inequality is more extreme the further you go up in income; many of the super rich are “self made” and yet are working to make it harder for others to achieve similarly; the super rich have a separate world in which they life. These are well established facts.

She is strangely sympathetic to these people. She notes their high stress and hard working lives. This is really too much and seems designed to keep open her access to all the plutocrats who took to time to talk to her about their very difficult lives. But please! It is ridiculous to think that a rich man’s self-imposed work life is anything like the very real problems faced by a poor man who has no choice. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking and apologizing for the super rich does not belong in any book that wants to be taken seriously as a study of income inequality.

There are parts of the book that work, although even they don’t have the snap that one would get from Jeremy Scahill or Michael Hastings—two men unafraid of offending their subjects. In the last chapter of Plutocrats, Freeland discusses the rise of La Serrata in 14th century Venice, which she compares to our current system where after the super rich rise, they pull up the ladder from those above. This is a big problem, but it is hardly the worst. Our system is set up so that the poor do far worse than their abilities and work justify while the rich do far (almost unimaginably) better than their abilities and work justify. This is not an issue that Freeland seems to be much interested in.

But she does know the basics. I do like that she understands that there really is no difference between the supposedly good plutocrats like Steve Jobs and the supposedly bad plutocrats like Lloyd Blankfein. She writes:

More important, the difference between the good guys and the bad guys is smaller than we might like to think. Inclusive and extrative societies are very different, but the economic elites within them are driven by the same imperative to make money and win competitive advantages for themselves and their companies. Trying to slant the rules of the game in your favor isn’t an aberration, it is what all businesses seek to do. The difference isn’t between having virtuous and villainous businesspeople, it is about whether your society has the right rules and policing able to enforce them.

In other words, Jobs and Blankfein are doing exactly the same thing and if you changed them around there would be no difference. I would go further. I find it constantly aggravating that people hold Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in such high regard. The (wrong) idea is that these are men created great things that we all benefit from. The truth is that the little good these men did is swamped by the things they did that harmed progress. And the things they did to harm progress are what made them “great men” and what made them household words. Certainly Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds did far more to improve all of our lives than either Gates or Jobs. And yet, only the computer geeks will have even heard their names before. And why is that? Because they didn’t make any money and they certainly aren’t plutocrats.

Plutocrats is a lively and even fun read. Chrystia Freeland is a good writer. But like many writers, she is a bit too in love with her subject.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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