LectureHop: How Do We Control the World’s Most Powerful People?

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“There are about 1100 billionaires in the world,” David Rothkopf CC’77 said, “and their wealth is equal to that of the bottom 2.5 billion people.” He was the focal point of “Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making,” a panel discussion packed with high powered folks, including PrezBo himself, who delivered some perfunctory introductory remarks.

Most of the world’s wealth is in the hands of the few–we all know this. But Rothkopf, the president and CEO of his own international advisory firm, has written a new book called Superclass (whence the title of the panel) that strives to answer whether the wealthy are unjustly wealthy (he seems to think yes), and, if so, what can the planet do about it? The newly globalized world is creating a tiny group of very powerful people–both super-rich Carlos Slims and super-influential Bonos (and Jeffrey Sachses?)–whose power transcends national boundaries, and who seem to identify more with each other than with the middle (or lower) classes in their countries of origin.

When the American robber barons accumulated too much wealth, the trustbusters were there to take them down a peg.  But which people, and what mechanisms, will keep this new group of global elites in check?  Presumably Rothkopf’s book has some suggestions. The discussion, however, consisted of Alan Murray, the affable moderator and Executive Editor of the Wall Street Journal Online, posing variations of this question to the rest of the panel, and not hearing many concrete answers back.  Perhaps this was because Murray spent much of the time going around the circle, asking panelists individual questions in their areas of expertise—these brilliant people made smart observations, but there wasn’t much back and forth between the panelists, and they didn’t have to stray far from their comfort zones.

Luis Alberto Moreno, the President of the Inter-American Development Bank and former Colombian ambassador to the U.S., admitted that no single NGO had the power to impose anything on these elite people or they corporations for whom they work.  Sociology Professor Saskia Sassen said (in the svelte unplaceable European accent that many Dutch people have) that she preferred “multiple normativities” to “one master normativity.” President Bollinger made the interesting point that universities simply don’t move as fast as the pace of globalization: “I still teach my course ‘Freedom of Speech and Press’ in a national way, even though I know there’s a global media. We have to catch up.” Comments tended towards abstract observation and low-key self-flagellation. Bold claims were scarce.

The panelists’ reluctance no doubt stemmed from the impossible nature of the question:  How do we impose controls on the world’s most powerful people? Perhaps it also stemmed from the panelists’ own considerable power. Arnold, a self-described “revolutionary,” raised this point in the Q&A.  Alan Murray, whose bio says he lives in Greenwich, CT and who works for a Rupert Murdoch-owned news outlet that reaches millions of people, conceded the point, but also argued that the media, atomized by the Internet, had very little ability to impose the news that people ‘should’ be reading.

When Rothkopf, who was quite funny throughout the discussion, cracked that Alan Murray was “enormously wealthy” and “definitely on the list [of the superclass],” much of the audience chuckled. But when Murray leaned over to SIPA professor Merit Janow and laughed,  “News to me,” she looked back with a strained “You live in Greenwich, asshole” smile.

          —Paul Barndt

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  1. brandie  

    This lecture sounds like it would've been great to see. Interesting stuff.

  2. Annoyed  

    Is there a quota system where x #of seats are kept for students, y for faculty, etc? I was wait-listed and pissed off.

  3. oh great

    "...whose power transcends national boundaries, and who seem to identify more with each other than with the middle (or lower) classes in their countries of origin."

    Woohoo it's the new cosmopolitanism! And it's just as elitist, exclusive, and hateful as the old one was!

  4. ...  

    the solution is simple. all we have to do is build a fembot to incite the underclass to rebellion. after they destroy the establishment, the oceans will rise up from global warming, kill all the children, and the woman who we model the fembot after will find true love. her true love will introduce karl marx's great great secret bastard child grandson to bill gates, the google guys and rupert murdoch. they'll dine on the now plentiful seafood and make a pact to perhaps move a bit towards the center for round two, which will take place in north america, now the size of old england.

    THE END.

  5. Actually  

    this lecture was incredibly reductive and obvious. There was no attempt to problematize international institution building in order to regulate the Superclass. Professor Sassen's comments on normative institutional foundations and the need to establish multiple normativities at present (unlike, say, the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Roman Empire) were interesting and left untouched by Rothkopf (who made a bizarre and unrelated comment about people being lost in cracks).

    And Alan Murray came off as a caricature of a former self.

    I'm wondering who made the call to ask the favor to hold this glorified book release party?

    • Viva la revolucion?  

      I don't know whether or not you were confused, but this was the weekly meeting of the Columbia Revolution Club. This was a pretty mainstream discussion and, as such, probably did not 'problematize' enough to satisfy your post-adolescent rebelliousness.

      I was pleased with the relative depth of the conversation. Although I do agree that there was somewhat of a disconnect between the the points made by the various panelists. This had as much to do with their different backgrounds as it did with how little time the discussion was alloted. And while Murray's commentary grew somewhat annoying, he did a good job steering the conversation in a direction that enabled each panelist to provide intelligent comments.

      He was certainly no Che Guevara. Or Prezbo.

      • question  

        "post-adolescent rebelliousness"

        how does this differ from "adolescent rebelliousness"? is it better, since it has a more mature basis? worse, since rebelliousness is inherently adolescent? is there a stage of rebelliousness after post-adolescent, perhaps "post-post-adolescent rebelliousness", or simply "senior rebelliousness"?

  6. it should

    be in the same category as smearing dissidents (who happen to be part of the majority) with a term like 'defensively-complacent' in terms of 'causing knee jerk backlash'

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