NPR | October 15 2012
Brian Ferraro ~ Chrystia Freeland is an editor at Reuters. Her previous book was Sale of a Century: The Inside Story of the Second Russian Revolution.
Journalist Chrystia Freeland has spent years reporting on the people who’ve reached the pinnacle of the business world. For her new book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, she traveled the world, interviewing the multimillionaires — and billionaires — who make up the world’s elite super-rich. Freeland says that many of today’s richest individuals gained their fortunes not from inheritance, but from actual work.
“These super-rich are people who, as they like to say, ‘did it themselves,’ ” Freeland tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “And what’s interesting for me, and actually I didn’t expect it, I think it’s a paradox of this sort of working super-rich, which is that you would think … that having done it yourself, you might have more sympathy, be closer to the 99 percent.”
But, she says, that’s often not the case. “In many ways, that personal history of really feeling like, ‘I did this! By myself!’ actually creates more of a chasm between them and the rest of us, and, I would say, a certain degree of disdain.”
Those at the very top, Freeland says, have told her that American workers are the most overpaid in the world, and that they need to be more productive if they want to have better lives.
“It is a sense of, you know, ‘I deserve this,’ ” she says. “I do think that there is both a very powerful sense of entitlement and a kind of bubble of wealth which makes it hard for the people at the very top to understand the travails of the middle class.”
One standout moment Freeland recalls is a conversation with a billionaire who spoke with great sympathy about some friends who’d come to him for investment advice. “And he said to me, ‘You know what? They only had $10 million saved. How are they going to live on that?’ I kid you not, he was really worried about them.”
Today’s plutocrats come down across the political spectrum, Freeland says; there are definitely liberal billionaires. “It is, however, also the case that in the United States there has been a real shift away from Barack Obama, and a lot of these guys loved him in 2008 … They feel really angry at Obama, and it’s not just the question of taxes.” Freeland calls it “a profound emotional thing.”
“In America,” she says, “we have equated personal business success with public virtue. And to a certain extent, your moral and civic virtue could be measured by the size of your bank account.”