Conclusion: Plutocrats

The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “PLUTOCRATS: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else” by Chrystia Freeland from the “Conclusion” on page 277 and I quote:

“We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.”                                                                                                                –Louis Brandeis

“The society that put equality before freedom will end up with neither.  The society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both.”     –Milton Friedman

“The lagoons off the north Adriatic coast that eventually became Venice were first settled by refugees from more salubrious inland cities fleeing successive invasions by the Huns and sundry Germanic tribes.  These marshy islands, plagued by fog in the winters and insects in the summer, made a good hiding spot–not only were they hard to reach, they were so grim and inhospitable there was no point in sacking them.

But by the early fourteenth century, Venice had become the richest city in Europe, three times the size of London and as big as Paris.  Venice was an imperial power–the republic financed the Fourth Crusade and established suzerainty over the fertile plains to the north, reaching Lake Garda and the river Adda to the north and west, along the Dalmatian coast deep into what is today Croatia, into the Mediterranean, where it controlled Cyprus, and into the Aegean, where it ruled Crete.

La Serenissimas true power and vocation was commerce.  At the republic’s zenith, it dispatched thirty-six thousand sailors and thirty-three hundred ships into the world’s maritime trade routes.  Venice dominated the salt business–the oil of that era–and trade with Byzantium and the Near East.  A Venetian merchant, Marco Polo played a role in introducing China to western Europe, with his pioneering account of his visit to the Middle Kingdom; his father, also a trader, had done business with the Golden horde of the Tatars.  Francesco Petrarca, sitting at a Venetian window overlooking the Basin of St. Mark and writing a letter to a friend in the fourteenth century, was awed by the trading prowess of the Venetians and the commercial ambitions that drove it: “If you’d seen this vessel, you would have said it was not a boat but a mountain swimming on the surface of the sea. . . . It is setting out for the river Don, for this is as far as our ships can sail on the Black Sea, but many of those on board will disembark and journey on, not stopping until they have crossed the Ganges and the Caucasus to India, then on to farthest China and the Eastern ocean.  What is the source of this insatiable thirst for wealth that seizes men’s minds?”

Venice owed its might and money to the super-elites of that age, and to an economic and political system that nurtured them.  At the heart of the Venetian economy was the commenda a basic form of joint-stock company that lasted for a single trading mission.  The brilliance of the commenda was that it opened the economy to new entrants.  It was a partnership between a “sedentary” investor, who financed the trip, and a traveler, who did the hard and risky work of making the journey.  If the sedentary partner paid for the entire mission, he received 75 percent of the profits; if he financed two-thirds of the voyage, he got half.  The commenda was a powerful engine of both economic growth and social mobility–historians studying government documents from AD 960, 971, and 982 found that new names accounted for respectively 69 percent, 81 percent, and 65 percent of all the elite citizens cited.

Venice’s elite were the chief beneficiaries of the rise of La Serenissima.  But like all open economies, theirs was turbulent.  We think of social mobility as an entirely good thing, but if you are already on top, mobility can also mean competition from outsider entrepreneurs.  Even though this cycle of creative destruction had created the Venetian upper class, in 1315, when their city was at the height of its economic powers, they acted to lock in their privilege. Venice had prospered under a relatively open political system in which a wide swath of the people had a voice in the selection of the republic’s ruler, the doge, and successful outsiders could join the ruling class.  But in 1315, the establishment, which had been gradually tightening its control over the government, put a formal stop to social mobility with the publication of the Libro D’Oro, or Book of Gold, which was an official registry of the Venetian nobility.  If you weren’t in it, you couldn’t join the ruling oligarchy.

This political shift from a nascent representative democracy to an oligarchy marked such a striking change that the Venetians gave it a name: La Serrata, or the closure.  And it wasn’t long before the political Serrata became an economic one, too.  Under the control of the oligarchs, the Venetian state gradually cut off the commercial opportunities for new entrants.  The commenda, the legal innovation that had made Venice (and other Italian city-states) rich, was banned.  La Serenissima’s reigning elite were acting in their own immediate self-interest–shutting out the entrepreneurial upstarts meant the vested interests could enjoy sole control over the city’s lucrative trade routes.  But in the longer term, La Serrata was the beginning of the end for the city’s oligarchs, as well as for Venetian prosperity more generally.  By 1500, the population of Venice was smaller than it had been in 1330.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the rest of Europe grew, the city that had once been its richest continued to shrink.

The story of Venice’s rise and fall is told by the scholars Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson as an illustration of their thesis that what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive.  Extractive states, they argue, are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society and to maintain their own hold on power.

Inclusive states give everyone a say in how their society is ruled and access to economic opportunity.  Inclusive societies often find themselves benefiting for a virtuous circle, in which greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.  The history of the United States, founded in a revolutionary bid for greater inclusiveness, can be read as one such virtuous circle.

But Acemoglu and Robinson cite the story of La Serrata as evidence that virtuous circles can be broken.  Elites who have prospered thanks to inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top.  There are a lot of reasons to be worried about the rise of the plutocrats–the impact soaring inequality has on civic values, on crime rates, on morality, or even, according to some studies, on health.  The big danger, though, is the one represented by La Serrata.  As the people at the very top become ever richer, they have an ever greater ability to tilt the rules of the game in their favor.  That power can be hard to resist.

One reason La Serrata is such a useful example is that the Venetian oligarchs who closed off their society were the products of a robust, open economy.  They didn’t start out as oligarchs–they’d made themselves into oligarchs.   That’s important because as soaring income inequality has become an undeniable political fact, even in societies, such as the United States, that have been squeamish about open discussions of class, a dominant response has been to try to sort the plutocrats into the white hats and the black hats.  Steve Jobs is a hero; Lloyd Blankfein is a villain.  Big business is bad; small business is good.  Private equity is vulture lending, community banks are virtue lending.  Wall Street banks are speculators who didn’t deserve their bailout; Detroit carmakers are manufacturers who did.

No one likes this approach better than the “good” plutocrats.  “There’s a lot of anger in society because of what the government did to the benefit of the financial industry, because it was seen as unfair,” Eric Schmidt told me.  “And you don’t find that anger against, for example, Microsoft and Bill Gates, right?  Who is seen as a historic, American figure who created a global company.  So I think it’s very important to distinguish between rich people who get there by taking the economic rents of the country for their own benefit versus the people who. in fact, create a new corporation or a new source of wealth.”

There’s a lot that’s right about this impulse.  Dividing the plutocrats into the rent-seekers and the value creators is a good way to judge whether your economy is inclusive or extractive.  And creating more opportunities for productive enterprise, and fewer for rent-seeking, is how you create an inclusive economic system.  But this approach takes you only so far.

For one thing, there’s no magical sorting hat for plutocrats, and without one, figuring out who is adding value and who is rent-seeking is an inexact science.  Indeed, even the exercise of trying to separate the virtuous plutocrats from the venal ones, and to treat them differently, is an invitation to precisely the sort of rent-seeking that creates the “wrong” kind of wealth in the first place.

As Emmanuel Saez, the economist who tracks the 1 percent, told me, “It’s probably true that some activities are truly creative, like a normal market, while others are more zero-sum game.”  But deciding which was which was a different story: “I would say it is very hard who is going to make that case.  I don’t think anyone would be comfortable having the government decide this is a good business and this is a bad business, and the bad business punish it with, say, special taxes.  Because then you will have all the lobbying forces, right? . . . It’s so hard even for economists to say, ‘This is a good business.  This is a bad business.’  Especially while the thing is happening, it’s extremely hard.”

More important, the difference between the good guys and the bad guys is smaller than we might like to think.  Inclusive and extractive societies are very different, but the economic elites within them are driven by the same imperative to make money and win competitive advantage for themselves and their companies.  Trying to slant the rules of the game in your favor isn’t an aberration, it is what all business 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.”


“Rising inequality is one of the most pressing issues of our time.  Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats provides us with a glimpse of the lives of America’s elites and a disquieting look at the society that produces them.  This well-written and lively account is a good primer for anyone who wants to understand one extreme of America today.”  –Joseph Stiglitz, author of                                             The Price of Inequality; University Professor, Columbia University


“A groundbreaking examination of wealth disparity, income inequality, and the new global elite.

There has always been some gap between rich and poor in this country, but in the last few decades what it means to be rich has changed dramatically.  Alarmingly, the greatest income gap is not between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, but within the wealthiest 1 percent of our nation–as the merely wealthy are left behind by the rapidly expanding fortunes of the new global super-rich.  Forget the 1 percent; Plutocrats proves that it is the wealthiest 0.1 percent who are outpacing the rest of us at breakneck speed.

What’s changed is more than numbers.  Today, most colossal fortunes are new, not inherited–amassed by perceptive businesspeople who see themselves as deserving victors in a cutthroat international competition.  As a transglobal class of successful professionals, today’s self-made oligarchs often feel they have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home.  Bringing together the economics and psychology of these new super-rich, Plutocrats puts us inside a league very much of its own, with its own rules.

The closest mirror to our own time is the late-nineteenth-century Gilded Age–the era of powerful “robber barons” like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.  Then as now, emerging markets and innovative technologies collided to produce unprecedented wealth for more people than ever in human history.  Yet those at the very top benefited far more than others–and from this pinnacle they exercised immense and unchecked power in their countries.  Today’s closest analogue to these robber barons can be found in the turbulent economies of India, Brazil, and China, all home to ferocious market competition and political turmoil.  But wealth, corruption, and populism are no longer constrained by national borders, so this new Gilded Age is already transforming the economics of the West as well.  Plutocrats demonstrates how social upheavals generated by the first Gilded Age may pale in comparison to what is in store for us, as the wealth of the entire globalized world is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.”


LaVern Isely, Progressive, Overtaxed, Independent Middle Class Taxpayer and Public Citizen Member and USAF Veteran


About tim074

I'm a retired dairy farmer that was a member of the National Farmer's Organization (NFO). Before going farming, I spent 4 years in the United States Air Force where I saved up enough money to get my down payment to go farming. I also enjoy writing and reading biographies and I write about myself as well as articles and excerpts I find interesting. I'm specifically interested in finances, particularly in the banking industry because if it wasn't for help from my local Community Bank, I never could have started farming which I was successful at. So, I'm real interested in the Small Business Administration and I know they are the ones creating jobs. I have been a member of Common Cause and am now a member of Public Citizen as well as AARP. I have, in the past, written over 150 articles on the Obama Blog ( and I'd like to tie these two sites together. I'm also on Twitter, MySpace and Facebook and find these outlets terrifically interesting particularly what many of these people did concerning the uprising in the Arab world. I believe this is a smaller world than we think it is and my goal is to try to bring people together to live in peace because management needs labor like labor needs management. Up to now, that hasn't been so easy to find.
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