The Super Rich

Tracing the impact of the one percent on politics, the economy, and culture.

book covers

book cover

BullouBullough, Oliver. Moneyland: the inside story of the crooks and kleptocrats who rule the world. St. Martin’s, 2019. 296p bibl index ISBN 9781250208705, $28.99; ISBN 9781250208712 ebook, $14.99.
Reviewed in CHOICE February 2020

Moneyland offers an amazing, fascinating, and eye-opening look into the secret superrich and politically powerful people who operate with little to no oversight or accountability. More than being nationalists to any one country or activists for a particular cause, these people know no true nationality, have no true patriotism, and find more in common with kindred stationed all over the world than with the people they grew up with. Make no mistake, this is a meticulously researched behind-the-scenes look into the world of super-rich corruption and lawless greed. It offers many snapshots of secret areas that often sit right under the noses of the global community or, worse, operate in full view of the world because the world is relatively powerless to stop it. This is not a formal, rigorous act of scholarship. It is more like a tell-all, a journalistic exposé meant to titillate people with the sordid details of kleptocrats and kleptocracies, but not necessarily lead to true roots and causes. But perhaps this book will serve as an introduction for new minds, scholars included, to break these ugly processes down and set about deterring them. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers; professionals. —M. D. Crosston, American Military University

Collins, Chuck. Born on third base: a one percenter makes the case for tackling inequality, bringing wealth home, and committing to the common good. Chelsea Green, 2016. 267p index ISBN 9781603586832 pbk, $17.95; ISBN 9781603586849 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2017

Drawing on both engaging personal stories and economic research, Collins (Institute for Policy Studies) portrays an “economic apartheid” of growing inequality of wealth and opportunity in the US, and urges citizens, especially the wealthiest, to recommit to the broader community to address it. Collins describes “an empathetic barrier to change” that leads rich Americans to deride the industriousness of the less affluent. Raised in a “one percent” family, Collins understands how the wealthy are cut off from the wider society as their experiences lead them to adopt false myths of self-reliance and meritocracy. These views overlook the roles community and equity play in securing prosperity and well-being for rich and poor Americans. The overvaluing of self-reliance obscures the advantages of family wealth as well as the role of government programs in providing gains for the white middle class (in particular, home ownership) over other groups. Collins calls for empathy and solidarity among the rich, the affluent, and the poor to address inequality and environmental degradation. The book lists ways for the wealthy to connect to the larger society and support policies to bring about an equitable and sustainable future. Summing Up: Recommended. All readership levels. —J. M. Burke, Mount Holyoke College

Currid-Halkett, Elizabeth. The sum of small things: a theory of the aspirational class. Princeton, 2017. 254p bibl index ISBN 9780691162737, $29.95; ISBN 9781400884698 ebook, contact pubisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2018

The author identifies the emergence of an “aspirational class” in the 21st-century US through analysis of its consumption patterns. Below the super-rich, this larger upper class includes those in the top 1 to 15 percent of income; their consumption patterns set them apart from other Americans and ensure they can reproduce themselves as a class. In contrast to the earlier upper-class consumption patterns famously studied by Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), this new meritocratic elite requires education for social mobility rather than for the former group’s leisure. Their consumption patterns, based on the continuous Consumer Expenditure Survey (1980–present), demonstrate an aversion to the mass market but an affinity toward artisanal production. To ensure their preservation, the aspirational class invests heavily in child-rearing, elite education at all levels, and health care. Their ever-growing income permits these investments while middle-class income stagnates and the working class faces job loss, which dramatically reduces access to upward mobility and produces a growing class divide. This is an important and very well-written study that provides a valuable descriptive snapshot rather than a historical analysis. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. —J. Borchert, Cleveland State University

Deresiewicz, William. The death of the artist: how creators are struggling to survive in the age of billionaires and big tech. H. Holt, 2020. 355p index ISBN 9781250125514, $27.99; ISBN 9781250125521 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2021

This book is about the changing relationship of art and money and how art is changing as a result. Deresiewicz (formerly, English, Yale) documents the struggles of visual artists, musicians, writers, and other kinds of creators to survive a brutally unequal economy. Two conflicting narratives have emerged. One comes from Silicon Valley and the relevant tech sector, with its laptops and iPhones along with GarageBand, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, and so on, and, of course, the internet and social media. Their message is that it is a great time to be an artist. The second narrative, provided by the artists themselves, is less optimistic. Digital tools and the internet have facilitated some aspects of art, but a question remains: with so much free or on the cheap, who is going to pay a person to be creative? The internet provides unlimited access to art and artists and favors a content that is fast, brief, and recognizable. This is ushering in the “golden age of the amateur.” The professional artist has become increasingly rare. This is unfortunate, for it is precisely these professional creators, whose whole energies are dedicated to their calling, who are best suited to speak genuinely new truths. The title of the final chapter offers a suggestion: “Don’t Mourn, Organize.” Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. —R. M. Davis, emeritus, Albion College

Formisano, Ronald P. Plutocracy in America: how increasing inequality destroys the middle class and exploits the poor. Johns Hopkins, 2015. 255p index afp ISBN 9781421417400, $22.95; ISBN 9781421417417 ebook, $22.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE January 2016

Formisano (political history, Univ. of Kentucky) has written a hard-hitting indictment of the extreme inequality in the US.  The hollowing-out of the middle in the US socioeconomic system—along with the reduced share of total income accruing to the poor and middle-class and the increased concentration of resources in the super-rich—has been noted for some years.  Here, Formisano marshals numerous facts and examples in order to underscore these trends.  He also addresses citizens’ beliefs regarding the possibility of mobility and the undeserving nature of the poor, and the political inequality that accompanies socioeconomic inequality—providing ample reference to recent events and writings on the subject.  Those seeking a more balanced treatment of the US situation might look elsewhere; Formisano makes clear his beliefs in the injustice of the current state of affairs. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates and above. —J. P. Jacobsen, Wesleyan University

Giridharadas, Anand. Winners take all: the elite charade of changing the world. Knopf, 2018. 288p bibl index ISBN 9780451493248, $26.95; ISBN 9780451493255 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE February 2019

The subtitle of this book succinctly states its argument. According to Giridharadas (journalism, NYU, and a well-known speaker and author) today’s ultra-rich elites present themselves as change makers, devising market solutions to pressing social and economic problems. They gather at places like the Aspen Institute and Davos to talk about social entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The effect, though, is to reinforce and solidify their own positions in a world of growing inequality. Giridaradas writes from the inside—he is himself an Aspen Institute fellow—drawing on extensive interviews with this elite business class. He is able to sympathize with the individuals he describes while remaining critical of the consequences of their strategies. This is a strength of the book but also its chief problem. For the most part, the wealthy, would-be do-gooders do not come across as scheming hypocrites, but as human beings who are at once well-meaning and self-serving. Giridharadas’s core argument is that the world economy requires a fundamental structural change, but he does not lay out how this would happen. Though he has some ideas about changes he considers desirable—e.g., raising minimum wages—he offers no real program, only proclamations that the world power structure needs to be transformed in some way that will make it more egalitarian. Scholarly apparatus is sparse. Summing Up: Optional. Most appropriate for general readers, but also of interest to scholars and professionals. —C. L. Bankston, Tulane University

Hägel, Peter. Billionaires in world politics. Oxford, 2021. 368p bibl index ISBN 9780198852711, $90.00; ISBN 9780191887079 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2015

The author offers an extended examination of why Forbes-list billionaires deserve more attention from students of world politics. The first four chapters examine how traditional concepts of agency and structural context are limited in helping to explain the role of “super actor” billionaires. The next three chapters, drawing heavily on US examples, are case studies focusing on Sheldon Adelson (security for Israel), Charles and David Koch (anti–climate change positions), Rupert Murdoch (international media influence), Bill Gates (world health), and George Soros (regime changes). For Hägel (international and comparative politics, American Univ. of Paris) these billionaires are motivated to act internationally for a variety of reasons, which range from ideology to profit motive to self-esteem. All, however, benefit from being US citizens and from the Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited political spending by groups and individuals. In particular, both Soros and Murdoch found it advantageous to become citizens. In a summarizing analysis the author concludes that these individuals have engaged in a form of “stealth politics” that lacks democratic legitimacy and renders the idea of class irrelevant. Their ability to “orchestrate” international policy positions is persuasively presented in this heavily documented study. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. —R. Heineman, emeritus, Alfred University

Harrington, Brooke. Capital without borders: wealth managers and the one percent. Harvard, 2016. 381p index afp ISBN 9780674743809, $29.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2017

In this remarkable work, Harrington (Copenhagen Business School) relays in-depth interviews with wealth managers for the ultra-rich, building on her previous publications on financial markets and fraud. Her strategy was to take a professional training course in wealth management and interview fellow students who were experienced professionals (after fully disclosing her academic position and purpose). She describes ways wealth managers protect assets against taxation, divorce proceedings, or spendthrift family members, using both trusts and tax havens—jurisdictions that offer low/no taxation and secrecy from authorities. Key related works that cover tax havens’ history are Tax Havens (CH, Jul’10, 47-6384) and Treasure Islands (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012); their role in the Latin American debt crisis, The Blood Bankers (CH, Apr’04, 41-4776); and their use in facilitating illegal or questionable activities, Capitalism’s Achilles Heel (Wiley, 2005). This work adds unique insights into the extraordinary trust between wealth managers and their rich clients, as well as other nuggets of insight. Its academic writing makes it suitable for upper-division undergraduates and up; its revelations about lifestyles of the rich makes it suitable for larger public libraries. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —M. Larudee, Visiting Associate Professor and Lecturer, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Kumar, Raj. The business of changing the world: how billionaires, tech disruptors, and social entrepreneurs are transforming the global aid industry. Beacon Press, 2019. 241p index ISBN 9780807059579, $28.95; ISBN 9780807059708 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE November 2019

What is the best way to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Summit (2015) goal of eliminating the extreme poverty of 800 million people on the planet? In this fascinating book, Kumar, co-founder and chief editor of Devex, the world’s largest Bloomberg-style platform for the aid industry, provides a wealth of data and dozens of examples of highly innovative strategies for delivering effective aid. The paradigm shift from the methods of such standard aid institutions as UNICEF, USAID, and OXFAM to more recent projects, such as Give Directly, Global Giving, and Co-Impact, to name a few, is due to the advent of massive billionaire funding, a growing number of socially responsive corporations, and revolutionary start-ups in communication, finance, medicine, and agriculture. These organizations use technological innovations, human-centered design, systems thinking, and direct communication with recipients to deliver effective aid that includes carefully planned training and infrastructure support. The book is a mine of valuable information for anyone working, or planning to work, in the aid industry and anyone concerned about the desperate plight of so many people in a world economy wealthy enough to end extreme poverty. Summing Up: Essential. All readers. —S. A. Mason, emerita, Concordia University

Martin, Isaac William. Rich people’s movements: grassroots campaigns to untax the one percent. Oxford, 2013. 275p ISBN 9780199928996, $29.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2014

Martin (Univ. of California, San Diego) argues that rich people’s movements–“movements explicitly designed to benefit the wealthy”–depend on committed supporters, prodded into action by distinct threats to their economic interests. These threats are brought to citizens’ attention by savvy organizers applying techniques gleaned from mass movements on behalf of other political agendas. Martin contends rich people’s movements are genuinely grassroots efforts, examining an array of causes pursued during the 20th century. For example, “entrepreneurial activist” J. A. Arnold used techniques of populist organizers to press for lower income tax rates in the 1920s. Others emulated the successful movement to repeal Prohibition in advocating repeal of the income tax amendment. The women’s suffrage movement provided a template for the Liberty Belles’ anti-tax movement. Though generally ineffective, these movements kept policy issues alive. With the rise of the Tea Party, Sixteenth Amendment repeal, the Liberty Amendment, and other long-dormant proposals became topical again. Martin’s historical coverage of these movements is provocative. However, despite his arguments, the amount of “astroturf” in these “grassroots” movements remains an open question. In politics, the rich do not march; they rely on paid lobbyists to bend the political agenda to meet their needs. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers; students at all levels; faculty; researchers. —R. S. Hewett, Drake University