Exposing the Great American Bubble Barons: Join Us in the Investigation
A century ago, the robber barons at the helm of the U.S. economy were easily identifiable titans of industry: Andrew Carnegie of Carnegie Steel, John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil, financier and steel magnate J.P. Morgan. It was easy to draw the link between the robber barons' brutal business practices and their immense wealth; it was clear that these businessmen were, quite literally, robbing the American people in the course of amassing their fortunes.
The influence of today's super-rich is significantly harder to trace. Much of their wealth is managed in opaque Wall Street investment vehicles and byzantine corporate structures. They are less likely to slap their names on their ventures, and their profitable relationships with the most destructive segments of our economy are hidden behind layers of corporate control. In our post-industrial economy, they amass wealth not by producing things with actual value, but rather by riding waves of speculation, such as the housing bubble, to dizzying heights of wealth.
Today's super-rich are not robber barons, but bubble barons: they extract their fortunes from intensifying cycles of imaginary wealth creation and destruction, live at a far remove from their businesses, and evade accountability in the public spotlight. The robber barons stood behind their economic crimes; the bubble barons, for the most part, do not.
Beginning today, AlterNet and LittleSis.org are partnering in an investigation of these bubble barons -- a select group of American multi-billionaires who saw astronomic gains in wealth during the housing bubble, and who so far have evaded all accountability in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Who are they? Where did their wealth come from? Where has it gone? How do they exercise their influence?
To find out, we need your help: Click here to sign up with LittleSis.org and join AlterNet's investigation of America's bubble barons.(E-mail email@example.com if you have any questions.)
Once you sign up, you'll receive instructions about how you can help with our research. You will also receive instructions on how to use LittleSis, a platform for collaborative research on influential Americans, which we like to call an "involuntary facebook."
We've identified 67 "bubble barons" (also listed below) to target with this investigation. All are worth $2 billion or more, and all have ties to the industries that benefited most from the housing bubble: real estate and finance. Some, such as New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, have enjoyed increases of over 400 percent on what were substantial fortunes in the pre-bubble years. Others, such as former Enron trader John Arnold, are newly minted billionaires.
Following the bubble barons' money will be a key component of our investigation; naturally, this will entail a closer look at their charitable and political activities. Bloomberg, for one, supports public health initiatives through his family foundation. George Soros is a well-known funder of progressive causes through his Open Society Institute. The Koch brothers, on the other hand, are prominent backers of conservative organizations.
All of these fortunes were built on the illusion of a sound economy -- an illusion that came crashing down for most of the country in 2007 and 2008, as record numbers of Americans lost their homes to foreclosure and saw their jobs disappear.
But the illusion didn't come crashing down for the bubble barons. The U.S. government came to their rescue, in the form of massive, taxpayer-funded Wall Street bailouts and a monetary policy that rewards wealth, above all -- the bubble barons, above all. While Americans struggle under the burden of double-digit interest rates on mortgages and credit cards and see their savings accounts eke out gains measured in basis points, the bubble barons are essentially getting paid unprecedented amounts to sit on their money, simply because they have lots and lots of it.
Ferociously destructive for most of the country, the bubble economy -- albeit in slightly different form -- continues to generate tremendous wealth for the super-rich.
Who are the bubble barons? We need your help mapping their connections and following their money; where is their bubble wealth going, and where has it gone, now that most of the country has entered a period of economic devastation? Click here to sign up. Or firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
Ultimately, you will be asked to adopt a bubble baron and find out as much as you can about that individual. Which companies has he worked at, founded or owned? Which boards does he sit on? Where does he invest his money? Does he make charitable donations? If so, to whom? Where did he go to school? Who are his closest professional associates and business partners? Who is he married to?
At the conclusion of the investigation, we will produce a network visualization of the bubble barons and their connections, an article summarizing our findings, and a list of the top 10 bubble barons, as selected by the investigative team (you!). All of this will be published on AlterNet in coming weeks, and all participating citizen journalists will be acknowledged as contributors to the research.
A note on our methodology: The initial set of 67 bubble barons was compiled using lists of Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans for the past 10 years. We selected individuals who had seen large, sustained increases in wealth over that period, and had a net worth of $2 billion or more as of 2009 (multi-billionaires). We included individuals with the strongest ties to the finance and real estate industries.
Some notable names did not make the initial list because they did not see net gains in wealth over the past 10 years. Warren Buffett, surprisingly, hasn't seen huge gains since the dot-com bubble, if Forbes' data is to be believed. Others didn't make the cut because their industry was not adequately bubble-oriented (e.g. Oprah, Bill Gates and the Google founders).
The list is subject to revision, so if you are particularly interested in adding an individual you believe fits the criteria, please make the case in an e-mail to email@example.com or the research group (and be prepared to sign up and tackle research on that particular bubble baron).
The Bubble Barons (in alphabetical order):