The Malign Cluelessness of the Billionaire Bourgeoisie

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

Noting the growing income gap at a recent conference, hedge-fund billionaire Ray Dalio had few solutions to offer other than a more “conscious capitalism” that doesn’t concern itself exclusively with making more money.

One of our nation’s more festive rites of spring convenes every April or May at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. The Milken Institute’s Global Conference, presided over by Michael Milken himself, is a kind of domestic Davos, minus the swarm of elected officials and social movement leaders who are occasionally brought in to the Swiss gathering to spice things up.

The Milken Conference is made of sterner stuff. It’s for financiers, business honchos, and the random superrich, brought together to inform their deal-making, make more connections, and celebrate—well, themselves. Old-timers may recall Milken’s yearly clambakes at the Hilton began in the 1980s, when he was inventing the junk-bond business at Drexel, Burnham, Lambert, and would annually convene high-flying financiers at the Hilton at what was then called “The Predators’ Ball,” a nod to the corporate takeovers and profit extraction that Milken had helped pioneer. 

That, of course, was before Milken did time for financial crimes and then reinvented himself as a think-tank founder and capitalist visionary. This year’s conference has been unfolding this week at the Hilton, and might fairly be called The Nervous Predators’ Ball.

It turns out that all that corporate gutting and profit extraction that Milken himself helped launch has produced rumblings of discontent with capitalism among many of the kinds of people not invited to Milken’s conference. According to an account in today’s Los Angeles Times, a lunch panel yesterday entitled “The Future of the Free-Enterprise System” dealt with such gnarly topics as climate change and “the rising popularity of socialism among young people.” During the presentations, Milken himself acknowledged the glitches in contemporary capitalism. “Obviously, it is not working for everyone,” he said. 

At the closing panel, hedge-fund billionaire Ray Dalio (who pocketed a cool $2 billion last year alone) warned, as he had last month in print, that the prospect of revolution couldn’t be dismissed if things continued the way they’ve been going. In his talk, the Times reported, he contrasted today’s sense of hopelessness among many Americans with “the New Frontier years of the Kennedy administration, when the nation thought it could eliminate poverty.” However, the Times continued, “it was hard to say that any comprehensive concrete solutions emerged out of the discussion,” other than a more “conscious capitalism” that doesn’t concern itself exclusively with making more money.

Overlooked in these discussions was the fact that the declining share of corporate revenues going to workers was somehow related to the decline of worker power since the 1960s, and that rebuilding a vibrant middle class requires a corresponding boost in worker power—say, re-unionization, giving workers half the seats oncorporate boards, and extending collective bargaining agreements to all businesses in a given industry, whether unionized or not. Ignoring the correlation, not to mention the chain of causation, between the decline of the union movement and the decline of workers’ incomes since the 1970s requires an almost heroic feat of epistemic closure, but the Milkenites were up to the occasion. If anyone there spoke for rebuilding worker power at the expense of big-time shareholders, CEOs, and Wall Street, it certainly wasn’t reported.        

Nor, I presume, did anyone respond to Dalio’s reference to the War on Poverty by noting that it came as a response to The Other America, a book by Michael Harrington, who at the time was also America’s leading socialist. If the neo-predators at the Hilton really want to fix what ails us, they’ll have to relinquish the power and privilege they’ve wrested from their fellow Americans in the years since Milken devised a way to supercharge the rich at the expense of everyone else. 

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