Copyright ©2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we'll talk about people who play an outsized role in our economy, in our politics, even in our culture. We live in a country where we pay a lot of attention to the wealthy, yet even as we pay attention, we don't necessarily get a good look at them. Journalist Chrystia Freeland has been trying to do that. She's been talking with some of the super-rich. Many of the characters in her new book, "Plutocrats" are people, mostly men, who have made their fortunes rather than inheriting them.

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: These super-rich are people who, as they like to say, did it themselves. 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, or I would think, that having done it yourself, you might have more sympathy, be closer to the 99 percent or, you know, as Mitt Romney has called them, the 47 percent.

But I think, 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.

INSKEEP: So if you feel you have dragged yourself up to the pinnacle, you feel very strongly that other people ought to be supporting themselves, too. Is that what you're saying?

FREELAND: Well, that's certainly that attitude that I encountered. You know, The people at the very, very top, when you talk to them about especially the U.S. middle class, what I heard a lot was, well, you know, one hedge fund guy from Connecticut said to me: The low paid American worker is the most overpaid worker in the world. Another guy who's the CFO of a technology company on the West coast, he said to me, you know what? They want to live 10 times better than the Chinese, they need to be 10 times more productive and if they're not, they have to take a pay cut.

INSKEEP: And his background there is that he's working 18 hours a day so he doesn't see why other people shouldn't just work harder? Is that what you're saying?

FREELAND: Yes. And I think it's not just the question of work harder, but it is a sense of, you know, I deserve this. And, yes, 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 of the sort of moments that really was jaw-dropping for me, was talking to one billionaire.

And he was speaking with real sympathy about friends of friends who'd come to him for some financial advice on their investing. And he said to me, and you know what? They only had $10 million saved. How are they going to live on that? He was really worried about how you get by in your retirement if you have a mere 10 million bucks in the bank.

INSKEEP: OK. So you're suggesting the really rich are out of touch with most of America. But let me ask about a couple of nuances on that. Some of the things that you've said seem to imply that the really rich are politically conservative. But aren't there an awful lot of rich people who end up being politically liberal? I mean, Warren Buffett voted for Barack Obama, if I'm not mistaken.

FREELAND: Absolutely. You can definitely find plutocrats across the political spectrum. 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 saw him as one of us. Right? He was a self-made guy. And they feel really angry at Obama, and it's not just about the question of taxes, although that angers them a lot.

And it's kind of amazing how far someone who has hundreds of millions of dollars will go to get a couple of percentage points knocked off his taxes. But it's also a profound emotional thing. And what I think is going on is in America, 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.

And what I think has entered the political discourse now, and I think the president has been one of the people pushing this, is he's saying wait a minute. What is good for the guys at the very top is not necessarily good for the people in the middle.

INSKEEP: And you're telling me that very wealthy people that you have spoken with are personally offended by this.

FREELAND: I think it's even more than personally offended. I think it's actually an existential threat. People don't just want to be rich and successful, they want to be good. And I think it's really threatening to feel like, wow, you mean I'm not as full of virtue and goodness as I thought I was?

INSKEEP: So how are these super-rich, whom you have interviewed, different from the super-rich of 1955, say?

FREELAND: Well, first of all, there's a lot more of them, and the gap between them and us is much, much greater. One of the things which is really astonishing is how much bigger the gap is than it was before. In the 1950s, America was relatively egalitarian, much more so than compared to now. The gap between how much the CEO earn and how much his workers earn has just risen exponentially.

That is the single biggest difference. The other difference is that nowadays the super-rich are global. That is something which is imposed on them by the nature of the world economy. And so increasingly, I think you are actually, you know, seeing what, ironically, was the dream of Marxists, right? You are seeing the emergence of an international class.

INSKEEP: Excuse me, the dream of Marxists to have billionaires...

(LAUGHTER)

FREELAND: No, no. But, but, but no, but the dream of Marxists was this notion of the nation-state dissolving. The nation-state...

INSKEEP: Withering away.

FREELAND: ...withering away. And this notion that borders wouldn't matter, that we would have commonality of interests around the world. Well, guess who got there first? The plutocrats.

INSKEEP: OK. So what are the long-term implications of having a really, really rich elite that, in your view, is less and less connected to the country?

FREELAND: My long-term fear is that even if you rose to the top thanks to a society that was very open, that had a lot of social mobility as American did in the past, the inevitable human temptation once you get to the top is to rig the rules of the game in your own favor. And you don't do this in a kind of chortling, smoking your cigar, conspiratorial thinking way. You do it by persuading yourself that what is in your own personal self-interest is in the interests of everybody else. So you persuade yourself that actually government services, things like spending on education, which is what created that social mobility in the first place, need to be cut so that the budget deficit will shrink, so that your tax bill doesn't go up.

And what I really worry about is, there is so much money and so much power at the very top, and the gap between those people at the very top and everybody else is so great, that we are going to see social mobility choked off and society transformed.

INSKEEP: Chrystia Freeland interviewed wealthy people for her book, "Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.