Peter Peterson, for example, is the son of a Greek immigrant who arrived in America at age 17 and worked his way up to owning a diner in Nebraska; his Blackstone co-founder, Stephen Schwarzman, is the son of a Philadelphia retailer. And they are hardly the exceptions. Of the top 10 figures on the 2010 Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans, four are self-made, two (Charles and David Koch) expanded a medium-size family oil business into a billion-dollar industrial conglomerate, and the remaining four are all heirs of the self-made billionaire Sam Walton. Similarly, of the top 10 foreign billionaires, six are self-made, and the remaining four are vigorously growing their patrimony, rather than merely living off it. It’s true that few of today’s plutocrats were born into the sort of abject poverty that can close off opportunity altogether— a strong early education is pretty much a precondition—but the bulk of their wealth is generally the fruit of hustle and intelligence (with, presumably, some luck thrown in). They are not aristocrats, by and large, but rather economic meritocrats, preoccupied not merely with consuming wealth but with creating it.
The Road to Davos
To grasp the difference between today’s plutocrats and the hereditary elite, who (to use John Stuart Mill’s memorable phrase) “grow rich in their sleep,” one need merely glance at the events that now fill high-end social calendars. The debutante balls and hunts and regattas of yesteryear may not be quite obsolete, but they are headed in that direction. The real community life of the 21st-century plutocracy occurs on the international conference circuit.
The best-known of these events is the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, invitation to which marks an aspiring plutocrat’s arrival on the international scene. The Bilderberg Group, which meets annually at locations in Europe and North America, is more exclusive still—and more secretive—though it is more focused on geopolitics and less on global business and philanthropy. The Boao Forum for Asia, convened on China’s Hainan Island each spring, offers evidence of that nation’s growing economic importance and its understanding of the plutocratic culture. Bill Clinton is pushing hard to win his Clinton Global Initiative a regular place on the circuit. The TED conferences (the acronym stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design”) are an important stop for the digerati; Herb Allen’s* Sun Valley gathering, for the media moguls; and the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival (co-sponsored by this magazine), for the more policy-minded.
Recognizing the value of such global conclaves, some corporations have begun hosting their own. Among these is Google’s Zeitgeist conference, where I have moderated discussions for several years. One of the most recent gatherings was held last May at the Grove Hotel, a former provincial estate in the English countryside, whose 300-acre grounds have been transformed into a golf course and whose high-ceilinged rooms are now decorated with a mixture of antique and contemporary furniture. (Mock Louis XIV chairs—made, with a wink, from high-end plastic—are much in evidence.) Last year, Cirque du Soleil offered the 500 guests a private performance in an enormous tent erected on the grounds; in 2007, to celebrate its acquisition of YouTube, Google flew in overnight Internet sensations from around the world.
Yet for all its luxury, the mood of the Zeitgeist conference is hardly sybaritic. Rather, it has the intense, earnest atmosphere of a gathering of college summa cum laudes. This is not a group that plays hooky: the conference room is full from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and during coffee breaks the lawns are crowded with executives checking their BlackBerrys and iPads.
Last year’s lineup of Zeitgeist speakers included such notables as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, London Mayor Boris Johnson, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz (not to mention, of course, Google’s own CEO, Eric Schmidt). But the most potent currency at this and comparable gatherings is neither fame nor money. Rather, it’s what author Michael Lewis has dubbed “the new new thing”—the insight or algorithm or technology with the potential to change the world, however briefly. Hence the presence last year of three Nobel laureates, including Daniel Kahneman, a pioneer in behavioral economics. One of the business stars in attendance was the 36-year-old entrepreneur Tony Hsieh, who had sold his Zappos online shoe retailer to Amazon for more than $1 billion the previous summer. And the most popular session of all was the one in which Google showcased some of its new inventions, including the Nexus phone.
This geeky enthusiasm for innovation and ideas is evident at more-intimate gatherings of the global elite as well. Take the elegant Manhattan dinner parties hosted by Marie-Josée Kravis, the economist wife of the private-equity billionaire Henry, in their elegant Upper East Side apartment. Though the china is Sèvres and the paintings are museum quality (Marie-Josée is, after all, president of the Museum of Modern Art’s board), the dinner-table conversation would not be out of place in a graduate seminar. Mrs. Kravis takes pride in bringing together not only plutocrats such as her husband and Michael Bloomberg, but also thinkers and policy makers such as Richard Holbrooke, Robert Zoellick, and Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, and leading them in discussion of matters ranging from global financial imbalances to the war in Afghanistan.
Indeed, in this age of elites who delight in such phrases as outside the box and killer app, arguably the most coveted status symbol isn’t a yacht, a racehorse, or a knighthood; it’s a philanthropic foundation—and, more than that, one actively managed in ways that show its sponsor has big ideas for reshaping the world.
George Soros, who turned 80 last summer, is a pioneer and role model for the socially engaged billionaire. Arguably the most successful investor of the post-war era, he is nonetheless proudest of his Open Society Foundations, through which he has spent billions of dollars on issues as diverse as marijuana legalization, civil society in central and eastern Europe, and rethinking economic assumptions in the wake of the financial crisis.
Inspired and advised by the liberal Soros, Peter Peterson—himself a Republican and former member of Nixon’s Cabinet—has spent $1 billion of his Blackstone windfall on a foundation dedicated to bringing down America’s deficit and entitlement spending. Bill Gates, likewise, devotes most of his energy and intellect today to his foundation’s work on causes ranging from supporting charter schools to combating disease in Africa. Facebook’s Zuckerberg has yet to reach his 30th birthday, but last fall he donated $100 million to improving the public schools of Newark, New Jersey. Insurance and real-estate magnate Eli Broad has become an influential funder of stem-cell research; Jim Balsillie, a co-founder of BlackBerry creator Research in Motion, has established his own international-affairs think tank; and on and on. It is no coincidence that Bill Clinton has devoted his post-presidency to the construction of a global philanthropic “brand.”
The super-wealthy have long recognized that philanthropy, in addition to its moral rewards, can also serve as a pathway to social acceptance and even immortality: Andrew “The Man Who Dies Rich Dies Disgraced” Carnegie transformed himself from robber baron to secular saint with his hospitals, concert halls, libraries, and university; Alfred Nobel ensured that he would be remembered for something other than the invention of dynamite. What is notable about today’s plutocrats is that they tend to bestow their fortunes in much the same way they made them: entrepreneurially. Rather than merely donate to worthy charities or endow existing institutions (though they of course do this as well), they are using their wealth to test new ways to solve big problems. The journalists Matthew Bishop and Michael Green have dubbed the approach “philanthrocapitalism” in their book of the same name. “There is a connection between their ways of thinking as businesspeople and their ways of giving,” Bishop told me. “They are used to operating on a grand scale, and so they operate on a grand scale in their philanthropy as well. And they are doing it at a much earlier age.”
A measure of the importance of public engagement for today’s super-rich is the zeal with which even emerging-market plutocrats are developing their own foundations and think tanks. When the oligarchs of the former Soviet Union first burst out beyond their own borders, they were Marxist caricatures of the nouveau riche, purchasing yachts and sports teams, and surrounding themselves with couture-clad supermodels. Fifteen years later, they are exploring how to buy their way into the world of ideas.
One of the most determined is the Ukrainian entrepreneur Victor Pinchuk, whose business empire ranges from pipe manufacturing to TV stations. With a net worth of $3 billion, Pinchuk is no longer content merely to acquire modern art: in 2009, he began a global competition for young artists, run by his art center in Kiev and conceived as a way of bringing Ukraine into the international cultural mainstream. Pinchuk hosts a regular lunch on the fringes of Davos and has launched his own annual “ideas forum,” a gathering devoted to geopolitics that is held, with suitable modesty, in the same Crimean villa where Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill attended the Yalta Conference. Last September’s meeting, where I served as a moderator, included Bill Clinton, International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Kudrin.
As an entrée into the global super-elite, Pinchuk’s efforts seem to be working: on a visit to the U.S. last spring, the oligarch met with David Axelrod, President Obama’s top political adviser, in Washington and schmoozed with Charlie Rose at a New York book party for Time magazine editor Rick Stengel. On a previous trip, he’d dined with Caroline Kennedy at the Upper East Side townhouse of HBO’s Richard Plepler. Back home, he has entertained his fellow art enthusiast Eli Broad at his palatial estate (which features its own nine-hole golf course) outside Kiev, and has partnered with Soros to finance Ukrainian civil-society projects.
A Nation Apart
Pinchuk’s growing international Rolodex illustrates another defining characteristic of today’s plutocrats: they are forming a global community, and their ties to one another are increasingly closer than their ties to hoi polloi back home. As Glenn Hutchins, co-founder of the private-equity firm Silver Lake, puts it, “A person in Africa who runs a big African bank and went to Harvard might have more in common with me than he does with his neighbors, and I could well share more overlapping concerns and experiences with him than with my neighbors.” The circles we move in, Hutchins explains, are defined by “interests” and “activities” rather than “geography”: “Beijing has a lot in common with New York, London, or Mumbai. You see the same people, you eat in the same restaurants, you stay in the same hotels. But most important, we are engaged as global citizens in crosscutting commercial, political, and social matters of common concern. We are much less place-based than we used to be.”
In a similar vein, the wife of one of America’s most successful hedge-fund managers offered me the small but telling observation that her husband is better able to navigate the streets of Davos than those of his native Manhattan. When he’s at home, she explained, he is ferried around town by a car and driver; the snowy Swiss hamlet, which is too small and awkward for limos, is the only place where he actually walks. An American media executive living in London put it more succinctly still: “We are the people who know airline flight attendants better than we know our own wives.”
America’s business elite is something of a latecomer to this transnational community. In a study of British and American CEOs, for example, Elisabeth Marx, of the headhunting firm Heidrick & Struggles, found that almost a third of the former were foreign nationals, compared with just 10 percent of the latter. Similarly, more than two-thirds of the Brits had worked abroad for at least a year, whereas just a third of the Americans had done so.
But despite the slow start, American business is catching up: the younger generation of chief executives has significantly more international experience than the older generation, and the number of foreign and foreign-born CEOs, while still relatively small, is rising. The shift is particularly evident on Wall Street: in 2006, each of America’s eight biggest banks was run by a native-born CEO; today, five of those banks remain, and two of the survivors—Citigroup and Morgan Stanley—are led by men who were born abroad.
Mohamed ElErian, the CEO of Pimco, the world’s largest bond manager, is typical of the internationalists gradually rising to the top echelons of U.S. business. The son of an Egyptian father and a French mother, ElErian had a peripatetic childhood, shuttling between Egypt, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. He was educated at Cambridge and Oxford and now leads a U.S.-based company that is owned by the German financial conglomerate Allianz SE.
Though ElErian lives in Laguna Beach, California, near where Pimco is headquartered, he says that he can’t name a single country as his own. “I have had the privilege of living in many countries,” ElErian told me on a recent visit to New York. “One consequence is that I am a sort of global nomad, open to many perspectives.” As he talked, we walked through Midtown, which ElErian remembered fondly from his childhood, when he’d take the crosstown bus each day to the United Nations International School. That evening, ElErian was catching a flight to London. Later in the week, he was due in St. Petersburg.
Indeed, there is a growing sense that American businesses that don’t internationalize aggressively risk being left behind. For all its global reach, Pimco is still based in the United States. But the flows of goods and capital upon which the super-elite surf are bypassing America more often than they used to. Take, for example, Stephen Jennings, the 50-year-old New Zealander who co-founded the investment bank Renaissance Capital. Renaissance’s roots are in Moscow, where Jennings maintains his primary residence, and his business strategy involves positioning the firm to capture the investment flows between the emerging markets, particularly Russia, Africa, and Asia. For his purposes, New York is increasingly irrelevant. In a 2009 speech in Wellington, New Zealand, he offered his vision of this post-unipolar business reality: “The largest metals group in the world is Indian. The largest aluminum group in the world is Russian … The fastest-growing and largest banks in China, Russia, and Nigeria are all domestic.”
As it happens, a fellow tenant in Jennings’s high-tech, high-rise Moscow office building recently put together a deal that exemplifies just this kind of intra-emerging-market trade. Last year, Digital Sky Technologies, Russia’s largest technology investment firm, entered into a partnership with the South African media corporation Naspers and the Chinese technology company Tencent. All three are fast-growing firms with global vision—last fall, a DST spin-off called Mail.ru went public and immediately became Europe’s most highly valued Internet company—yet none is primarily focused on the United States. A similar harbinger of the intra-emerging-market economy was the acquisition by Bharti Enterprises, the Indian telecom giant, of the African properties of the Kuwait-based telecom firm Zain. A California technology executive explained to me that a company like Bharti has a competitive advantage in what he believes will be the exploding African market: “They know how to provide mobile phones so much more cheaply than we do. In a place like Africa, how can Western firms compete?”
The good news—and the bad news—for America is that the nation’s own super-elite is rapidly adjusting to this more global perspective. The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds told me that his firm’s investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. “His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade,” the CEO recalled.
I heard a similar sentiment from the Taiwanese-born, 30-something CFO of a U.S. Internet company. A gentle, unpretentious man who went from public school to Harvard, he’s nonetheless not terribly sympathetic to the complaints of the American middle class. “We demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world,” he told me. “So if you’re going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut.”