“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