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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.
The traditional face of survivalism is that of a shaggy loner in camouflage, holed up in a cabin in the wilderness and surrounded by cases of canned goods and ammunition.
It is not that of Barton M. Biggs, the former chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley. Yet in Mr. Biggs's new book, "Wealth, War and Wisdom," he says people should "assume the possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure."
It is hard to remember a time when more shifts in the global balance of power are happening at once -- with so few in America’s favor.
There has been much debate in this campaign about which of our enemies the next US president should deign to talk to. The real story, the next president may discover, though, is how few countries are waiting around for us to call. It is hard to remember a time when more shifts in the global balance of power are happening at once -- with so few in America’s favor.
Mr. Rothkopf’s book argues that on many of the most critical issues of our time, the influence of all nation-states is waning, the system for addressing global issues among nation-states is more ineffective than ever, and therefore a power void is being created. This void is often being filled by a small group of players -- “the superclass” -- a new global elite, who are much better suited to operating on the global stage and influencing global outcomes than the vast majority of national political leaders.
Some of this new elite “are from business and finance,” says Rothkopf. “Some are members of a kind of shadow elite -- criminals and terrorists. Some are masters of new or traditional media; some are religious leaders, and a few are top officials of those governments that do have the ability to project their influence globally.”
The next president will have to manage these new rising states and these new rising individuals and networks, while wearing the straightjacket left in the Oval Office by Mr. Bush.
Fame alone doesn't get you into the global power elite: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are out while Angelina Jolie and Bono are in. High office is generally enough for politicians and even their spouses, but membership in the superclass can be fleeting -- Mikhail Gorbachev and Cherie Blair are now out, while Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton are still in. Rothkopf harps on the Pareto principle of distribution, or the "80/20 rule," whereby 20 percent of the causes of anything are responsible for 80 percent of the consequences. That means 20 percent of the money-makers make 80 percent of the money and 20 percent of the politicians make 80 percent of the important decisions. That 20 percent belongs to the superclass.
A white page appears with a deliberately shadowy image of a boardroom table and chairs. Sentences materialize: "They sit on the boards of the largest companies in America." "Many sit on government committees." "They make decisions that affect our lives." Finally, "They rule." The site allows visitors to trace the connections between individuals who serve on the boards of top corporations, universities, think thanks, foundations and other elite institutions. Created by the presumably pseudonymous Josh On, "They Rule" can be dismissed as classic conspiracy theory. Or it can be viewed, along with David Rothkopf's Superclass, as a map of how the world really works.