The New York Times pays homage to “The Richest of the Rich: Proud of a New Gilded Age“:
The tributes to Sanford I. Weill line the walls of the carpeted hallway that leads to his skyscraper office, with its panoramic view of Central Park. A dozen framed magazine covers, their colors as vivid as an Andy Warhol painting, are the most arresting. Each heralds Mr. Weill’s genius in assembling Citigroup into the most powerful financial institution since the House of Morgan a century ago.
His achievement required political clout, and that, too, is on display. Soon after he formed Citigroup, Congress repealed a Depression-era law that prohibited goliaths like the one Mr. Weill had just put together anyway, combining commercial and investment banking, insurance and stock brokerage operations. A trophy from the victory — a pen that President Bill Clinton used to sign the repeal — hangs, framed, near the magazine covers.
These days, Mr. Weill and many of the nation’s very wealthy chief executives, entrepreneurs and financiers echo an earlier era — the Gilded Age before World War I — when powerful enterprises, dominated by men who grew immensely rich, ushered in the industrialization of the United States. The new titans often see themselves as pillars of a similarly prosperous and expansive age, one in which their successes and their philanthropy have made government less important than it once was.
“People can look at the last 25 years and say this is an incredibly unique period of time,” Mr. Weill said. “We didn’t rely on somebody else to build what we built, and we shouldn’t rely on somebody else to provide all the services our society needs.”
“I once thought how lucky the Carnegies and the Rockefellers were because they made their money before there was an income tax,” Mr. Weill said, never believing in his younger days that deregulation and tax cuts, starting in the late 1970s, would bring back many of the easier conditions of the Gilded Age. “I felt that everything of any great consequence was really all made in the past,” he said. “That turned out not to be true and it is not true today.”
Isn’t it astonishing that Weill can say he made his fortune all by himself, without help from anyone, when we have just been told how he used his “political clout” to get Congress to “[repeal] a Depression-era law that prohibited goliaths like the one Mr. Weill had just put together anyway, combining commercial and investment banking, insurance and stock brokerage operations…”? With the pen Pres. Clinton used to sign the repeal into law hanging framed on the wall to trumpet Weill’s success in changing the law to allow wealthy businessmen like himself to rely on the government in just the manner he claims they never did?
“Do they seriously believe,” Kevin Drum asks, “that American executives in the 50s and 60s just coasted along on waves of cash while they — well, they not only had a world red in tooth and claw to tame, but were responsible for personally taming it without help from any other human being on the planet? Apparently so,” he concludes, quoting this section from the Times article:
The new tycoons describe a history that gives them a heroic role. The American economy, they acknowledge, did grow more rapidly on average in the decades immediately after World War II than it is growing today. Incomes rose faster than inflation for most Americans and the spread between rich and poor was much less. But the United States was far and away the dominant economy, and government played a strong supporting role. In such a world, the new tycoons argue, business leaders needed only to be good managers.
That changed with the arrival of “the technological age,” in Mr. Frankfort’s view. Innovation became a requirement, in addition to good management skills — and innovation has played a role in Coach’s marketing success. “To be successful,” Mr. Frankfort said, “you now needed vision, lateral thinking, courage and an ability to see things, not the way they were but how they might be.”
That, and the above-mentioned repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, and lots of government handouts in the form of generous tax cuts. Unsurprisingly, the “richest of the rich,” despite having done it all on their own, with no help from government, are very much opposed to reversing these tax cuts:
The new tycoons oppose raising taxes on their fortunes. Unlike Mr. Crandall, neither Mr. Weill nor Mr. Griffin nor most of the dozen others who were interviewed favor tax rates higher than they are today, although a few would go along with a return to the levels of the Clinton administration. The marginal tax on income then was 39.6 percent, and on capital gains, 20 percent. That was still far below the 70 percent and 39 percent in the late 1970s. Those top rates, in the Bush years, are now 35 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
“The income distribution has to stand,” Mr. Griffin said, adding that by trying to alter it with a more progressive income tax, “you end up in problematic circumstances. In the current world, there will be people who will move from one tax area to another. I am proud to be an American. But if the tax became too high, as a matter of principle I would not be working this hard.”
Tell that to the millions of people working 18-hour days for 40 cents an hour.
Cross-posted at Liberty Street.