More than a bit rich

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - David Free

The Rich: From Slaves to Su­per Yachts, a 2000-Year His­tory By John Kampfner Ha­chette Aus­tralia, 454pp, $32.99

IF you want to know what God thinks of money, Dorothy Parker is sup­posed to have said, just look at the peo­ple he gives it to. It is per­mis­si­ble, the rest of us feel, to diss the rich as a class. They may be the last mi­nor­ity left that we can put the boot into with im­punity. Hat­ing them, in­deed, is a pro­gres­sive stance. If it of­fends them, it will of­fend them on the way to the bank.

But the rich, as Bri­tish jour­nal­ist John Kampfner demon­strates in his panoramic and solidly re­searched new book, are not as easy to gen­er­alise about as we might hope. In­evitably, his survey of his­tory’s most fan­tas­ti­cally loaded peo­ple con­tains its share of bad seeds, rang­ing from the con­quis­ta­dor Francisco Pizarro, who plun­dered his way to the top in South Amer­ica, to the Wall Street spiv who, after the crash of 2008, likened the “de­mon­i­sa­tion” of Amer­ica’s rich to Hitler’s treat­ment of the Jews.

But there are phi­lan­thropists and for­ward­thinkers here too, such as Amer­i­can in­vestor War­ren Buf­fett, Kampfner’s “model of the good bil­lion­aire”. Worth about $US70 bil­lion ($79bn), Buf­fett, 84, has pledged to give away 99 per cent of that for­tune to char­i­ties when he dies, if not be­fore. More­over, he has a way with words. He wants to be­queath his chil­dren “enough so they feel they could do any­thing, but not so much that they could do noth­ing”. Stir­ring words, un­less you’re one of his kids.

Kampfner’s tour through 2000 years of fat­cat­tery opens with the case of Mar­cus Licinius Cras­sus, who shared power with Pom­pey and Cae­sar in Rome’s first tri­umvi­rate. Cras­sus owned an army of slaves from which he as­sem­bled a pri­vate fire bri­gade. When somebody’s house caught fire, Cras­sus would roll up with his team and of­fer to buy the blaz­ing prop­erty at a rock-bot­tom price. If the owner agreed, Cras­sus would ex­tin­guish the flames and add the place to his port­fo­lio of Ro­man real es­tate; if not, he would let it burn. This story, which comes from Plutarch, sounds a bit im­plau­si­ble, but so do a lot of true things about the mega-rich.

Cras­sus em­bod­ies sev­eral of Kampfner’s main themes. He shows how quickly the iffi­ly­got­ten gain can be­come the es­tab­lished for­tune — how quickly new money can be­come old money. And he demon­strates that cash, in suf- fi­cient quan­ti­ties, can buy you a place at the po­lit­i­cal ta­ble. To be­lieve this rule no longer ap­plies, you would need to be­lieve Clive Palmer got into par­lia­ment be­cause of his charm and his care­fully med­i­tated poli­cies alone.

But the rich don’t need to en­ter pol­i­tics to pre­vail. Cor­po­ra­tions can ride out storms that politi­cians, even dic­ta­tors, can’t sur­vive. Th­ese max­ims vividly emerge from Kampfner’s por­trait of the Krupp fam­ily, Ger­man steel barons who, dur­ing the ar­ma­ments craze that pre­ceded World War I, con­sol­i­dated their for­tune by sell­ing hard­ware to both sides. Later, Krupp’s fac­to­ries helped Hitler covertly re-arm for the se­quel. At the Nurem­berg tri­als, the Al­lies pros­e­cuted Krupp direc­tors for war crimes. But by the early 1950s they were out of prison and back in business — the US needed their steel to build a vi­ably anti-com­mu­nist West Ger­many. “The big cor­po­ra­tions,” says Kampfner, an­nounc­ing another of the book’s per­sis­tent themes, “were deemed too im­por­tant to fail.”

Ro­man his­to­rian Sallust, writ­ing about Cras­sus’s cor­rup­tion of Rome, lamented the late repub­lic’s deca­dent view “that ev­ery­thing was for sale”. But his­tory tends to prove ev­ery­thing is, at the right price. About 1500 years after Cras­sus, the Medici fam­ily, which amassed its for­tune through bank­ing and spec­u­la­tion, would sup­ply Italy with four popes. But they had taste: their pa­tron­age helped to bankroll the Re­nais­sance.

Th­ese days, a bit less ed­i­fy­ingly, the oil-rich na­tion of Qatar is “hoover­ing up” mas­ter­pieces in a bid to turn it­self into a hub of world cul­ture. Its re­cent ac­qui­si­tions in­clude a paint­ing from Cezanne’s Card Play­ers se­ries, for which it paid a

Mont­gomery Burns, left, is a car­i­ca­ture of the evil rich, but War­ren Buf­fett and Bill Gates have a phil­an­thropic bent

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