To get a sense of how the world's elite acts in a moment of global crisis, a moment like the one we are in now, it's instructive to watch a player like Timothy Geithner at work. The New York Federal Reserve Bank president has been at the center of frantic behind-the-scenes efforts to stem the spread of the U.S. credit collapse, to manage the bank run that brought down Bear Stearns, and many crises before it. Slim and youthful Geithner can seem out of place working the phones within the monumental offices of the Fed, done in a style that might be characterized as late-middle mausoleum. Yet it is his very will-o'-the-wisp quality, his deftness, that makes him suited to the modern job of one of the most powerful men in the financial world. Because interest-rate changes and cash infusions have less lasting impact on markets than in the past, the power of central banks is effectively more limited. In today's world, no one institution, not even the U.S. Fed, has the power to contain a crisis. Being a successful central banker now depends on what Geithner calls "a convening power … that is separate from the formal authority of our institution and which can be a very powerful tool."
Speaking to Geithner while I was doing the research for my recently published book "Superclass," he sketched in fascinating detail how the world's power elite rallies when the markets quake. Recalling an earlier crisis in global securities markets that he helped to manage, Geithner said the Fed brought together the leaders of the world's 14 major financial firms, from five countries, representing 95 percent of all the activity in global markets. The Swiss were there, the Germans were there, the British were there. Interestingly, no Asians were there, not even the Japanese. Goldman Sachs chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein "jokingly called them 'the 14 families,' like in 'The Godfather'," says Geithner. "And we said to them, "You guys have got to fix this problem. Tell us how you are going to fix it and we will work out some basic regime to make sure there are no free riders to give you comfort; you know that if you move individually everybody else will move with you."
There was nothing in writing, no rules, no formal process, and while no one asked the Fed to act, the Fed let everyone in the markets know it was acting. The beauty of the process was its absolute efficiency, seeing what a tight circle of large firms with "some global reach" could get done, fast—with an executive committee of only four running the weekly conference call until the crisis was past. "There is no formal mechanism we could have used to force this on anybody, so we had to invent it. I think the premise going forward is that you have to have a borderless, collaborative process. It does not mean it has to be universal, every jurisdiction or every institution," said Geithner. "You just need a critical mass of the right players. It is a much more concentrated world."
Geithner's description of the financial elite in crisis mode came many months before the recent meltdown of Bear Stearns, yet foreshadowed in an uncanny way how Treasury boss Henry Paulson, Fed boss Ben Bernanke, JPMorgan boss James Dimon and other bank heads powwowed over the course of a weekend to make a deal Bear Stearns could not refuse and to shore up markets. By necessity, the conversations were limited to the central players, the big decision makers whose clout would make the most difference on Wall Street and worldwide. Fast action was needed, and it was taken.
The Fed's evolving crisis-management playbook underscores not only the move toward more public-private collaboration on big global issues, but also the concentration of power among a very select and insular group of players—in this case, the heads of the world's biggest financial institutions, as well as gatekeepers like Bernanke and Paulsen.
The people on the recent calls like those described by Geithner, plus a few thousand more like them, not only in business and finance, but also politics, the arts, the nonprofit world and other realms, are part of a new global elite that has emerged over the past several decades. I call it the "superclass." They have vastly more power than any other group on the planet. Each of the members is set apart by his ability to regularly influence the lives of millions of people in multiple countries worldwide. Each actively exercises this power, and often amplifies it through the development of relationships with other superclass members. This new class of elites is both more permeable, and more transient, than elites of the past. The age of inherent lifelong power is largely behind us—to be a member of this superclass one has to hold on to power just long enough to make an impact, be it by leading a revolution or launching a revolutionary Web site.
So how does one become a member? As ever, being rich certainly helps. Many superclass members are wealthy, wealthier in relative terms than any elite ever has been. The top 10 percent of all people, for example, now control 85 percent of all wealth on the planet. But wealth is only part of the equation. Power is the other currency of any true elite, and if we want to understand the superclass, we need to look at those who have influence that crosses borders—one of the factors that differentiates them from most of the elites of history, whose influence was predominantly national or even more local in nature. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson runs operations in 180 countries worldwide, a far cry from the Pennsylvania oil field and U.S. kerosene market roots of the man who founded his company—and set the ball rolling toward the modern multinational—John D. Rockefeller.
That such a group exists is indisputable. It includes the heads of the biggest financial institutions, the 14 families Blankfein joked about, and then some; the top 50 control almost $50 trillion in assets. The heads of the world's biggest corporations are also members; the top 2,000 support perhaps 500 million people, generate almost $30 trillion in sales and have well over $100 trillion in assets. The list also includes top government officials with real cross-border influence: heads of state, of course, leading diplomats and military chiefs, but also central bankers like Geithner and Bernanke, and their counterparts like Chinese Central Bank Gov. Zhou Xiaochuan, reappointed this week, and the other top economic officials responsible for the world's fastest-growing economy and its nearly $1.5 trillion in reserves.
They are joined by media barons like Rupert Murdoch, whose global network of newspapers, Web products, movie studios and TV stations reach hundreds of millions of people every day, or tech entrepreneurs like Facebook wunderkind, 23-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, whose company is redefining what global community means. Alongside them you'll also find those who have different forms of power: religious leaders from the pope to Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei, perhaps the most powerful man in the Middle East today; clerics who have taken to a media pulpit and reach millions around the world daily like Latin America's Luis Palau or the Egyptian "tele-Muslim," former accountant turned religious TV star Amr Khaled. Cultural icons who use their celebrity platforms for activism like Bono and Angelina Jolie would certainly make the list, as would terrorist leaders and others who form a kind of shadow elite, like Osama bin Laden or the recently arrested arms dealer, Russia's Viktor Bout. A growing number of tycoons from emerging markets make the cut: Indian industrialist Ratan Tata, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, Saudi oil investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and Chinese real-estate billionaire Yang Huiyan, among others.
One can debate who is in and who is out endlessly. Indeed, given that so much power today is institutional or job related (and thus fleeting), any ranked list is out of date almost as soon as it's finished. Those who would have dropped off the list so far this year include the former heads of big banks who lost their jobs as a result of betting too heavily on subprime loans, including the ex-leaders of Citibank, Merrill Lynch and, as of last week, UBS. This is a very fluid ranking. But for the purposes of trying to understand the nature of today's topmost global elite, working with the above criteria, I have ended up with a core group of somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 people—meaning that each one is "one in a million."
A glance at this high-powered class illuminates several key trends. Political elites may be the primary powers where national governments remain dominant—in places like China, Russia and much of the Middle East—yet overall, the list reveals a marked shift from public to private power. Globalization and, to a large extent, privatization, has fueled the superclass (and vice versa). In the 1960s, the average international company had 100 subsidiaries; today many number their subsidiaries in the 10,000s. In the 1950s, the big postwar U.S. defense establishment had a budget that was larger than the revenues of all major U.S. companies put together; today, even though the defense budget is larger in real dollar terms, the sales of two major U.S.-based global corporations—Exxon and Wal-Mart—outstrip it by more than 50 percent.
This concentration of wealth and economic influence has translated into a concentration of power, a trend helped by the fact that the power of national governments is on the wane in many parts of the world. The rise of transnational activities (both public and private), a broad move away from state intervention in national markets and the effective reduction in the state's ability to use force due to the awesomely high price of modern warfare, have all contributed to the declining power of the individual nation-state. In turn, those whose organizations are built for global activity, like multinational companies or financial institutions (or terrorist networks or NGOs), have gained a relative advantage over individual governments and governmental organizations. Consider that the Gates Foundation gives about $1.5 billion annually to support global health initiatives—roughly the entire annual budget of the World Health Organization.
It is hard to exaggerate how small the world can look from the top. If the revolution in transportation and communications technology has shrunk the world for everyone, no group has come closer together than those who can afford the cutting edge. The iconic symbol of superclass unity is the Gulfstream private jet. In fact, one way to measure the clout of an event is to count the private jets at the nearest airport. According to Gulfstream, Davos traditionally attracts more of its planes than any other gathering, drawing up to 10 percent of the 1,500 planes in service to Zurich airport. But this year's Olympics in Beijing will give it a run for its money, as typically do events as diverse as the Monaco Grand Prix, China's Boao Forum, the Geneva Auto Show or Allen & Co.'s annual getaway for media magnates in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Globalization looks different when you can tell the pilot when to leave and where to go, and when there are no security lines to wait in when you are heading off for distant destinations. Those who are free to move about the planet this way come to have more in common with themselves than with their own countrymen. "What happened to us, that we walk through the Davos party and know more people than when we were walking across the village green in the town we live in?" wonders Mark Malloch-Brown, former Deputy Secretary General at the United Nations and now a senior official in the British Foreign Ministry. In fact, Davos is a village green for the superclass. It's at such a gathering that leaders get to know one another, hatch deals and exercise perhaps the greatest power the superclass has collectively: to shape conventional wisdom.
In these conclaves, priorities are not only for their own constituencies, but for entire regions and the world at large. Possibly the premier gathering in Latin America is the "Fathers and Sons" event held annually by the world's richest man, Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim, who presides over groups of Latin American corporate giants and their scions. The telecom billionaire pays for the entire event himself and orchestrates the schedule, which according to recent participants is "quite work intensive" but includes some time for tennis, golf, even, on one occasion and despite the absence of women, dancing among the fathers and sons when the music went on at the end of the day. The Slim event illustrates the importance to the heirs of Latin America's traditional elite culture of connecting across borders, of forging international alliances within the subset of the global superclass with whom they have the most in common.
Thanks to this kind of social interaction, large portions of the global superclass are well acquainted with each other. Says Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Wall Street's Blackstone Group, "The world is pretty small. In almost every one of the areas in which I am dealing or in which we at Blackstone are looking at deals, you find it is just 20, 30 or 50 people worldwide who drive the industry or the sector." Numbers tell the same tale. If you take just the people who serve in top management positions or on the boards of the five biggest companies in the world, you'll find they also serve on the boards of an additional 140 other major companies and 22 universities. To Schwarzman, being a member of the superclass means being able to "get to anybody in the world with one phone call."
These kinds of connections can work to stabilize the world in a crisis. But not necessarily. I once overheard a dinner conversation among the CEO of a leading aircraft manufacturer and a senior member of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee. "Here's the deal," said the CEO. "I want to sell a plane to Muammar Kaddafi and he wants to buy one. But we have sanctions in place that won't let me sell to him. The U.S. wants this guy dead. So, what I'm thinking is, if you help me get the OK to sell him the plane, I'll build with explosive bolts connecting the wings to the fuselage. Then, one day he's up flying over the Med and we push a button. He's gone. I make my sale. Everyone's happy." Fortunately, the conversation took place in the 1990s, a time before U.S. foreign-policy makers began bending international laws to achieve national security goals. The congressperson declined the offer.
In general, the power players on the other side of the dinner table will still be white, male and from either the United States or Europe (graphic).
But even as the group is narrow, it is still more permeable and global than the elites of preceding centuries. As noted earlier, many fewer members have inherited wealth or power. Talk to the superclass and they themselves will discuss how important luck has been in determining their membership in the group.
As their power grows, so does the possibility of a backlash for the superclass; 2008 has been a year of challenges for the ideas and institutions they represent—markets are melting down, energy reserves are being renationalized, protectionism is growing. On the stump, U.S. presidential candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee and John Edwards have all assailed growing inequality in the United States. But the statistics in other superclass hot spots like China are far worse. With the salaries of major multinational CEOs now averaging more than 350 times that of the average employee— a tenfold increase over the disparities of the 1970s—there is a growing anger that those with the power are using it to unfairly feather their own nests.
The current financial crisis is another such example, producing serious questions about the influence of the superclass. Of the world's elites, none has strutted the world stage for the past decade like global investment bankers. Masters of money, they created something new: global markets and a constantly evolving array of securities that were both beyond the reach and the comprehension of regulators. Now, the value of some of the complex investment vehicles they created is proving to be illusory.
As a consequence, the world economy was set for the crisis that is currently unfolding. There was no effective global regulator to keep the system in check, and there was no real voice for the average Joe. The Federal Reserve stepped in to stabilize the burnout of one of these major market makers—even though they have no jurisdiction over investment banks, even though many of those supporting the bailout/buyout were the same who have long clamored for "self-regulation," even though many were the ones who had cited the moral hazard of helping to bail out homeowners and encouraging their bad borrowing behavior. And so you have a financial leadership structure that bails out investment bankers worldwide, but not homeowners.
Some in that leadership are embracing new regulatory proposals mainly because they believe it is the price they must pay to maintain the safety net that was quickly woven together by chairman Bernanke and U.S. Treasury Secretary Paulson (the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, the investment bank that has produced in recent years what is perhaps the most extraordinary list of superclass members).
Many critics assert that this financial crisis is a classic example of elite overreach. Historically, elites from the tyrants of ancient Greece to those of post Civil War America have always been undone by their own greed and ambition. Many today wonder if this might be the beginning of the end for the current superclass, as it was in those instances when the rise of political reformers like Solon and Cleisthenes or trustbusters like Teddy Roosevelt led to major changes in efforts to rein in elite power.
At first glance, anger and frustration aside, it seems unlikely, because national institutions are ineffective beyond their borders and international institutions have not evolved as quickly as global markets, many retaining ownership and management structures dating to the late 1940s with resources inadequate to many global challenges (though recent proposals from Paulson and the U.K. government aim to change that). In fact, the explosion of private money in international markets is marginalizing these institutions, while it makes the global elite more powerful. Thus it is becoming increasingly less likely that any international mechanism can rein in the global elite.
In the short term, the only real change we may see is the spread of the superclass—and the tension around it—to new enclaves. Indians like steel titan Lakshmi Mittal, dueling billionaire brothers Mukesh and Anil Ambani, and global auto magnate Ratan Tata are joining the hundreds of the superrich in Russia (the leading creator of new billionaires on the recent Forbes list) and China (where half of the 25 richest people in the country are under 40). At the same time, the relative importance of Asian governments and militaries is also growing, with China the No. 2 defense spender in the world and India upping its defense expenditures more than 40 percent in the past five years, making it the No. 3 spender in purchasing power-adjusted terms. So it is more likely that the superclass itself will change than that it will be contained.
In the future, this may mean the decline of the old transatlantic venues for convening the elite and the rise of new ones in Asia. With members of the changing superclass defining global conventional wisdom, we are likely to see a shift in the very values that shape world affairs. Leaders from Asian nations may, for example, have different ideas about the role of the state and of the individual; they may also seek to define them in terms of narrower self-interests than imperial or proselytizing Westerners often did. The rise of petrol statesmen could undercut the gathering support for the fight against fossil-fueled global warming. The new clout of emerging-market CEOs may slow the movement to make corporations more socially and environmentally responsible "citizens," a campaign many in the developing world see as a rich-company, rich-country luxury.
And the more members of the superclass adopt a business-as-usual attitude toward countries that ignore political or social conditions, the less likely the superclass will be to reform itself. In short, while we may have a somewhat different superclass in the future, until the people of the world are more comfortable with creating the kind of strong global governance mechanisms that can contain and regulate many of their activities, the 6,000 will continue to play the greatest role of any group on the planet in defining our times.