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Life Among the Plutocrats -- What Unimaginable Wealth Does to a Person

They control our politics, shape our societies, outsource our jobs.

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Now, she says, the median earnings for Harvard men in 2005 were $162,000. "But almost eight per cent of the men had labor market income above $1 million, putting them in the top 0.5 per cent. An important driver of the gap was the split between the bankers and everyone else, with financiers earning 195 per cent more than their classmates."

In effect, the plutonomy is drawing the next generation's best and brightest into its orbit, leaving everything else (including higher education) to the fools and saints willing to stay in the 99 per cent. More and more of those graduates are themselves the children -- bright or not -- of plutocrats.

I saw this, without understanding it, as an alumnus-recruiter for Columbia University in the 1990s. The teenage applicants I interviewed here in Vancouver were smart, well travelled, and positively placid about the cost of tuition (then around $30,000 a year; now, much more). What was more, they considered Columbia as a fallback if they couldn't get into Harvard or Yale, where the real connections could be made.

So it's the plutocracy's world; we just live in it. It funds our politics, shapes our societies, owns our universities, and outsources our jobs. Many individual plutocrats are personally admirable, but their collective efforts inevitably crowd the rest of us into poverty. Their offspring may do well, but most will regress to the mean, becoming merely rich mediocrities. Unless some talented political superstar emerges (perhaps the renegade child of a plutocrat) and turns our society around, such mediocrities will flourish for the next generation or two.

Perhaps the Chinese have the only way to limit the plutocracy. As Freeland says, "China's plutocrats don't fight the state because they are the state -- and when any of them forget that, they are treated with summary brutality: between 2003 and 2011, at least 14 Chinese billionaires were executed." 

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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