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The Rich

From Slaves to Super Yachts: a 2,000-year history

John Kampfner

Joseph Stiglitz "Much of today's inequality is due to the manipulation of the financial system, enabled by changes in the rules that have been bought and paid for by the financial industry itself - one of the best investments ever."

Wealth rarely buys piece of mind. The super-rich are consumed by fear - fear of kidnappers, fear of what will happen to their children, fear of their legacy - how will history judge them?

Medici power typical - their opponents would have their holdings wildly over-valued, and a crushing tax imposed. The tax assessors would then buy the properties on the cheap.

Medici Bank handled the Vatican accounts - trade, savings and borrowings. It accounted for half their profits. Yet usury was a sin. In Dante's hell, sodomites and usurers are punished in the 'third ditch of the seventh circle'. The banks' simply got round the prohibition with an annual 'gift' of around 8 or 10%.

Clive of India got very rich very quickly, but he never gained the respectability he craved. He became bitter and paranoid and never got to enjoy his money.

Thorsten Veblen coined the term 'conspicuous consumption' to describe the spending habits of the Robber Barons of late C19 USA. "Public anger at the questionable way that Big Money had grasped their wealth continued to be coupled with avid interest in the Big Lives they led."

Foreigners live in the UAE on strict sufferance. Within reason, they can do what they like behind the walls of their gated communities. But if they break that understanding, or criticize the govt in any way, they will be told to leave. And for most expatriates, that is a big financial incentive to toe the line.

Wang Jianlin, one of richest men in China, owns and develops property. Included in the developments were several marinas, for which he intended to buy 30 Sunseeker yachts (the flash luxury yachts that featured in James Bond films). But then he decided that he might as well buy the company as well.

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, was working for the Ministry of Foreign Trade, when he was assigned to escort an American guest to the Great Wall. The guest turned out to be Jerry Wang, co-founder of Yahoo. Wang encouraged Ma to take the plunge with Alibaba, and later Yahoo put a billion dollars into the company.

But he makes sure to stay on the right side of the Communist Party rulers - if they ask for data, they get it. "My shareholders don't want me to oppose the govt and go bankrupt."

Bill Gates sceptical of ability of politicians to deal with the complex issues of modern world, or the ability of voters to sensibly decide which pols to elect. Basically suggesting that companies should retain a portion of the taxes they owe, and decide for themselves how to spend that to make society a better place.

(London Times)

The rich are always with us, but the richest man ever to live - Bill Gates take note - has been all but forgotten. His name was Mansa Musa, a 13th-century ruler of the Malian Empire, which at the time produced two-thirds of the world's gold. One recent attempt to calculate his wealth - which was founded upon a royal decree that all gold in his land belonged to him - put it at $400 billion in modern prices. In 1324, he set off on the Hajj, with an entourage of 60,000 men and 12,000 slaves, each carrying six pounds of gold, and a camel train that bore more than 100 loads of gold dust and nuggets, each weighing 300 pounds. Such was Musa's philanthropic, gold-dispensing extravagance on the route of the 2,500 mile pilgrimage to Mecca, that he caused a crash in the price of gold that was still felt a decade later. All that wealth eventually disappeared and Mali today is one of the poorest countries in the world. Musa is just one character who appears in John Kampfner's book, a 2,000-year history of the trials and tribulations of the super-rich, which takes us from ancient Rome to the sheikhs, Silicon Valley geeks, oligarchs and bankers of our time.

Some things never change - property is still a good bet. If Marcus Crassus was still with us, he would sit happily around a Notting Hill dinner table discussing house prices and buy-to-let. He used his political power in ancient Rome to create a huge property portfolio. When the consul Sulla had his opponents' property confiscated, Crassus, an ally, bought the lots at knockdown prices. Crassus had other underhand methods for acquiring property. Roman homes were firetraps, but the Republic had no fire brigade, so Crassus, spotting an opportunity, turned some of his slaves into firefighters. As Kampfner tells it, 'They would arrive on the scene of a burning house, commiserate briefly with the residents, then offer to buy the building - which was disappearing before their eyes - off them. The owner, fearing that he would be left with nothing, was forced to sell. Crassus's slaves would then extinguish the flames.' Crassus would then rebuild the property and sell it on.

Through a variety of property scams, Crassus made himself the richest man in Roman history. He employed 32,000 Romans and his total wealth was thought to be nearly 200 million sestercii, the same as the annual income of the Roman exchequer. Such wealth could not protect him: his demise was apposite - captured by the Parthians, so goes one myth, he was killed by having molten gold poured into his mouth.

Some are born wealthy, some achieve great wealth, but very few have their riches thrust upon them. They have had to work for it - many were brutal, most were conniving, but they could also be charming in their pursuit of wealth. The most common trait, uniting the wealthy of past and present, is their competitiveness in the making of money and the spending of it, according to Kampfner.

Robert Clive was the epitome of the driven man. As a boy, the future Clive of India ran a protection racket with a gang of young tearaways - they smashed shop windows if their owners refused to cough up. His father thought his son was never going to prosper in the respectable professions, so at the age of 17 he was sent off to become a clerk for the East India Company. On the journey to Madras, he ran out of money and had to borrow from the ship's captain. But through wheeling-dealing, graft and plunder he built a fortune and climbed the company's ranks. His moneymaking techniques were not always sophisticated - after leading English forces to a decisive victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, he paid himself 'expenses' and helped himself to 1.25 million rupees (£160,000) from the defeated Nawab of Bengal's coffers.

Like many self-made men, Clive sought respectability back home. He bought three country houses, to go alongside his Berkeley Square townhouse, and showered his new aristocratic friends with exotic gifts such as pet tigers. Nonetheless, he could never escape his corrupt reputation, and died in mysterious circumstances, possibly by his own hand.

More egregious still is Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congolese dictator, who modelled himself on Louis XIV. A French minister nicknamed him 'the walking bank vault with a leopardskin cap' because of the way he plundered the Congo’s resources and foreign aid during his rule from 1965 to 1997. His fortune hidden away in Swiss bank accounts topped $5 billion in the 1980s, and when he finally lost power, there was only $2,000 in the central bank's vaults. He built himself a dozen palaces, including Gbadolite, his answer to Versailles, which cost $100 million to build and $15 million a year to keep in readiness for his flying visits. Despite being in the jungle, an international airport was built with a runway long enough to accommodate Concorde. This son of a chambermaid who kept Machiavelli's The Princeby his bed, was as late as 1989 still called by President Bush 'one of our most valued friends'.

The Rich is an absorbing read, but there is slightly too much history, and not enough histrionics. Kampfner is good on giving the context in which the rich live, but I wanted to know more about how today's wealthiest spend their money, and about the feuds and fits behind the gated walls. There is plenty of rich material. I once interviewed a prince from an oil-rich Arab country. Halfway through the interview he decided he must go shooting, so we drove out into the desert and there in the sand dunes was a vibrant green shooting estate, with oaks, grass and pheasants being driven over the hills by beaters in plus fours. A butler served us piping-hot consomme laced with whisky. We could have been in Wiltshire except for the searing heat. Another prince was so horrified that his wealth had been underestimated in the Forbes Rich List that he laid out his wife's jewellery before a group of journalists in his palace. It stretched along miles of corridor and we had to dodge between the diamonds and rubies.

Kampfner, a former editor of The New Statesman, isn't quite tough enough on the rich. He states early on that the wealth of the richest billionaires, at £240 billion, is enough to wipe out extreme global poverty four times over, but barely comments on it. He points out that the super-rich are now a global phenomenon and that the divide is growing not between societies, but within them. However, he admires more than admonishes the men in his book, almost sympathising with the bankers' struggling with their tarnished reputation.

He does, though, remind us that wealth rarely lasts. The Rothschilds may still be with us, but they are the exceptions. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum, who established the Dubai Petroleum Company in the 1960s, liked to inculcate in his children the transience of wealth. He was brought up with no electricity or running water, but soon had islands, hotels and race courses on his shopping list. He once explained, 'My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will driver a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel.'

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