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The Super Rich: A Delicious Skewering

Our ultra rich don’t just have humungous piles of cash. They have, argues this sprightly new survey of uber wealth, enormous political power, too, enough to make life much rougher for the rest of us than it ever needs to be.

By Sam Pizzigati

Trouble with Billioanires [1]A review of Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks, The Trouble with Billionaires. Viking Canada, 2010. 272 pp.

Linda McQuaig writes punchy prose as an op-ed columnist at the Toronto Star. Neil Brooks teaches about taxes at a top Canadian law school. They make a great pair. Together they’ve just penned what may be the most entertaining treatment yet of our super rich — and their devastating impact upon us.

The Trouble with Billionaires does, to be sure, cover a good bit of ground that other authors have already plowed. But these other authors have seldom plowed with anything close to the zest and wit we see in these pages.

Other analysts, for instance, have explored how political and economic power frame the “free” market and enrich a fortunate few at the expense of the great many.

McQuaig and Brooks do this exploring, too — by explaining why mega-millionaire British actor Michael Caine, who has threatened to exit Britain if its tax rate on the rich rose a single point, would never have become rich in the first place if he had plied his acting trade in our world’s “only true free market,” the “adult” film industry.

And what about incentives? To get top “performance” from our most talented, must we offer massive rewards as motivation? McQuaig and Brooks start discussing this core question by comparing baseball statistics. Alex Rodriguez, they note, took home $27.7 million in 2008, over 30 times the top pay, after inflation, that ever went to Hank Aaron, a performer every bit as productive.

In The Trouble with Billionaires, McQuaig and Brooks both take us back in history, to the political decisions that helped birth our billionaires, and move us forward into the cutting-edge research on the clear and present dangers concentrated wealth poses. Along the way, they take on — and blow away — the various spins we get on wealth creation from the flacks for the awesomely affluent.

signup [2]Our billionaires, The Trouble with Billionaires makes plain via vivid profiles of billionaires ranging from computer wunderkid Bill Gates to hedge fund king John Paulson, in no way “deserve” their grand fortunes — and the rest of us in no way deserve the problems the presence of grand fortunes invariably creates.

“A society top-heavy with billionaires may seem like a paradise of upward mobility, but it’s actually closer to being a boneyard of broken dreams for all but a lucky few,” McQuaig and Brooks posit. “Those wanting to give their children a real chance to live the American Dream would be well advised to move to Sweden.”

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online newsletter on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Too Much appears weekly. Read the current issue [3] or sign up [2] to receive Too Much in your email inbox.