Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Class Consciousness for Billionaires | The New Yorker

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Around the start of the twenty-first century, the Oxford sociologist Jonathan Gershuny noticed a change in the way the privileged behaved: the leisure class that the economist Thorstein Veblen had described during the Gilded Age seemed no longer to exist. The farther up people were on the income ladder, the harder they worked. “Busyness,” Gershuny concluded, was “the badge of honor for the new superordinate working class.” These days, even the highest-profile billionaires tend to be a little grim-faced. Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos—they practice judo throws, but do they ever smile? Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported on the minting of a new mega-billionaire, the eighty-six-year-old Texas wildcatter Autry Stephens, who, in February, sold his company and its meticulously assembled Permian drilling rights for twenty-six billion dollars. Stephens had driven to his office every day for forty-five years, lately in an old Toyota Land Cruiser. Was he looking forward to enjoying his extraordinary gains? Not really—he would miss the grind. “There is certainly some sadness on my part,” Stephens said.

Why work this hard? Doesn’t a life of ease beckon? Aren’t there polo ponies to raise? The traditional rationale is to provide comforts to those you love. “Familia, id est substantia,” the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century southern-European jurists argued—in other words, the family is the patrimony. But, at Stephens’s level, the logic dissolves. No family needs the twenty-sixth billion. In the early twentieth century, the Texas oil tycoon Haroldson L. Hunt, then one of the richest men in the world, remarked that, “for practical purposes, someone who has $200,000 a year is as well off as I am.” As he explained, “Money’s just a way of keeping score. It’s the game that matters.”

That game—the competition among the ultra-wealthy for influence, legacy, and fortune—came to seem somewhat more sinister after the Great Recession steepened social inequality. Following the lead of Thomas Piketty, whose “Capital in the Twenty-first Century” was published in 2013, some like-minded scholars probed the distant past, seeking to learn how deeply ingrained inequality had been in societies dissimilar to our own. “As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West” (Princeton), a new book by the Italian historian Guido Alfani, shares these scholars’ political perspective and their emphasis on the extremely long arc. But Alfani is interested less in the patterns of inequality than in the assemblage, use, and justification of great fortunes. The anxieties about extreme wealth which have recently shaped public debate—regarding its influence on politics, the way it tests the reach of states, and the ethics of philanthropy and private investment—turn out to be extraordinarily old. The rich have confused the rest of us from the beginning. When, in northern Italy on the cusp of the Renaissance, something like the modern mogul emerged (urban, financial, ostensibly meritocratic), many members of society were “troubled by the very existence of the rich,” Alfani writes. “Indeed, it would not be too far-fetched to state they did not know precisely what to do with them.”

In the more recent past, the super-rich themselves often dealt with the social problems of wealth simply by declining to discuss them. “The only time a whale gets harpooned is when he surfaces,” the reticent billionaire investor David Gottesman told the Times a decade ago. But lately whales have been surfacing everywhere. This past winter alone, the plutocrats Marc Rowan and Bill Ackman campaigned very publicly to remove the presidents of Penn and Harvard, and the investor Jeffrey Yass sought to have the Republican Party reverse itself on the sale of TikTok, in which he had a stake. The defining billionaire of the moment is Elon Musk, not just because of his trolling presence on social media but because of his salvific ambitions. Projects such as Sam Bankman-Fried’s cryptocurrency and effective-altruism initiatives, and Sam Altman’s simultaneous warnings about and development of artificial intelligence, carry with them a similar imprint; for-profit maneuvers are described in the language of an encompassing idealism, as if those people in charge were envisioning not Q3 returns but the future of humanity itself.

As revelations of inequality have kept a spotlight on the wealthy, some of them, notably the heiress and philanthropist Abigail Disney, have argued for greater public giving. “It’s taxes or pitchforks,” a worried coalition wrote in an open letter released as the World Economic Forum convened in Davos in 2022. Those are the liberals; the more audible reaction has been a bristling insistence that the super-rich deserve their outsized fortune. “Our enemy is anti-merit, anti-ambition, anti-striving, anti-achievement, anti-greatness,” Marc Andreessen wrote in his “Techno-Optimist Manifesto,” widely applauded in Silicon Valley last fall. Speaking before the global élite at Davos this January, Javier Milei, the libertarian President of Argentina, declared, “Let no one tell you your ambition is immoral. . . . You are social benefactors. You are heroes.” Musk himself tweeted an enthusiastic reply by way of a meme: a man having sex with an attractive woman stares at a laptop screen on which Milei is speaking.

Critics of the ultra-wealthy have tended to describe them with analogies from the animal kingdom—pigs at a trough, vampire squid. Alfani offers a gentler comparison. “They are like the pearl in the oyster: shiny indeed, and produced by the living body of the oyster, but at the same time somewhat extraneous to the organism,” he writes. The question that animates his book also haunts our politics: What, exactly, do we want the rich to do, and how do we want them to be?

In the beginning, the job was to plunder and protect. Wealth lay in land, and in medieval Europe one amassed and held land by force of arms. In 1066, a Breton nobleman named Alan Rufus crossed the English Channel with his second cousin William the Conqueror, whose left flank he’d helped hold in a crucial battle. For this, he was granted a broad portfolio of lands in Cambridgeshire, many of which had belonged to the vanquished queen Edith the Fair. “But that was just the beginning of Rufus’ path to immense wealth,” Alfani writes. Soon, there was a rebellion in York, and Rufus was summoned to help suppress it, which he did in a brutal campaign that is thought to have killed as many as a hundred thousand people. The territories given to him grew and grew, until, Alfani reports, their net revenue may have exceeded seven per cent of England’s. No Englishman has ever again controlled such a large share.

Within a couple of hundred years, however, the richest Europeans were increasingly emerging not from real estate but from commerce and finance. The epicenter was northern Italy, where the traders of the so-called commercial revolution had followed old Roman caravan routes into the Middle East, returning to Genoa, Ragusa, and Pisa laden with goods, and where innovative Italian bankers had developed double-entry bookkeeping, letters of credit, and bills of exchange, in part to help manage papal taxes flowing from across Christendom to the Vatican. When the English Crown fought the Hundred Years’ War, it did so on credit extended by two Florentine family banks. When the Hapsburgs wanted to unify their empire, they contracted with Francesco Tasso of Bergamo to create a postal service; by the early sixteenth century, a package sent from Brussels could reach Innsbruck in five days.

These changes aroused the philosophers. Theologians emphasized the unnaturalness of finance: “Nummus non parit nummos,” Thomas Aquinas insisted—money does not generate money. “As they approached their deathbeds, usury was not a but the sin on the minds of the wealthy,” Tim Parks wrote in “Medici Money” (2006). Objections to the source of banking fortunes were intertwined with concerns about their scale. Nicole Oresme, an adviser to Charles V of France, argued, in the thirteen-seventies, that the rich ought to be banished to preserve the social balance in democratically governed cities: “The superabundantes are so unequal and exceed and overcome the others regarding their political power so much that it is reasonable to think that they are among the others as God is among men.” In the letters that the Renaissance wealthy wrote one another, there are traces of anxiety that both God and the public might disapprove of what they are doing. An associate of the fantastically rich Florentine merchant Francesco Datini warns him against opening a bank, arguing that he will be disdained even if he leaves the bulk of his fortune to found a hospital for the poor, and that he will lose his buona fama—his good name.

The hinge figure in Alfani’s history is Cosimo de’ Medici, who offered one solution to the problem of the rich. The Rome branch of the Banco de Medici already held the Vatican’s deposits when Cosimo took over the bank, in 1420, and he lent cautiously, married strategically, and expanded relentlessly. Parks writes, “Nothing in the history books gives us the sense of the man’s ever having been young.” In time, Cosimo antagonized the Florentine landowning dynasty headed by Rinaldo degli Albizzi, in part because of Cosimo’s financial ties to rival Italian republics. When Cosimo opposed a war with the state of Lucca, which the Albizzi family had pushed for, Rinaldo angled to have Cosimo imprisoned and charged with treason, punishable by death, in 1433. Cosimo managed to have his sentence commuted to exile, and took his banking operations and his favorite architect, Michelozzo, to Venice, giving the city a monastery with a new library and building for himself a spectacular palazzo. Within a year, the Albizzi war proved disastrous, and Florence was in financial ruin. It was a good time to have a phenomenal amount of cash. Cosimo agreed to pay off the Florentine war debt, and, as Niccolò Machiavelli wrote a century later, he was “hailed as the benefactor of the people and the father of his country.”

During the next thirty years, Cosimo schemed and maneuvered, holding power, deflecting allegations that he was a sponsor of sodomites, and beheading his political enemies (including two cousins of Machiavelli’s father). But he also endowed: he sponsored the Council of Florence, in 1438, to reconcile the Roman and Byzantine Churches, and he built the Platonic Academy and the Medici Library, likely the first public library in Renaissance Europe. Among his public-relations agents was the Tuscan scholar Poggio Bracciolini, once his tutor, whose view of the two roles the rich could play matched Cosimo’s example. They could beautify the city through philanthropy, Poggio wrote, and they could supply “barns of money” to rescue it from a crisis. With their “abundant means to aid the sick, the weak, to benefit many in their needs,” the rich were the “nervous system of the city.” You couldn’t function without them.

But the wealthy men of early modern Europe didn’t act much like Poggio had envisioned. Florence was an exception, both in its republican politics and in its humanist splendor; great fortunes were still often made through ambition and cunning at court. The indebted sixteenth-century privateer Francisco Pizarro held the Incan emperor Atahualpa hostage for a ransom of eighty-five cubic metres of gold and twice as much silver (Atahualpa paid; Pizarro killed him anyway) and used the money to buy political influence in Spain and a South American empire for his brother. In the late seventeenth century, the French merchant Antoine Crozat won a place at court through his loans to the Crown; his sons exploited the position to make advantageous loans to other nobles, and eventually secured the Crown’s monopoly on trade in the Louisiana Territory.

These were tempestuous centuries, with the social order regularly restructured, but Alfani seems little interested in political change, acknowledging the French Revolution and Karl Marx only in passing. He emphasizes instead the constant pattern of dynastic entrenchment. However much creativity and innovation were required to build the “massive number of wealthy dynasties” spawned during industrialization, he writes, those fortunes “often quickly took a different direction after the founders had passed away, for example, by pursuing politics and high office and/or merging with the nobility.” Give the Musk and Andreessen families a single generation, his account suggests, and their fortunes will be no more justifiable than that of the rentiers—which could help explain why present-day billionaires so want to demonstrate how hard they are working. Historically, some of this entrenchment happened almost naturally. In eighteenth-century Holland, the riches that arrived following a broad colonial and commercial expansion entirely upended the economic order, whereupon the insurgents swiftly became oligarchs: within a generation, eighty-three per cent of Rotterdam’s city councillors were a close relation of one another. At other times, the dynastic entrenchment was engineered. Of the eighteen marriages entered into by the grandchildren of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, sixteen were between an uncle and a niece or between first cousins.

That the politics of wealth are, irreducibly, the politics of inherited wealth was once much more obvious in Europe than in the United States. In 1910, a little more than half of the largest American fortunes derived primarily from inheritance, whereas in most European countries the figure was about seventy-five per cent. Then, after the shocks of the nineteen-thirties and the Second World War, those positions flipped. By the mid-twentieth century, the inheritance share of wealth was higher in the U.S. than in Europe. Perhaps because of the scale of fortunes that arose in America, or because of our explicitly democratic covenants, the rich here have tended to wrestle more directly with the contradictions of their position: There was the model of Andrew Carnegie, exploiting his workers while worrying over the possibility of a “rigid caste” system and establishing public libraries to help alleviate it. Then, there was Jay Gould, who denied that there was anything to apologize for, and forwent philanthropy in favor of building a railroad empire and marrying his daughter into the French nobility. What, really, are the rich supposed to do with their fortunes? They can spend their money lavishly, which everyone agrees is profligate and gross. Or they can save it, which deepens inequality and is probably worse. “Whatever they do, the rich attract criticism,” Alfani writes.

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