The Wealthy Are Seriously Misjudging the Situation

This memo from one of the most revered icons of the investment world, Howard Marks, is typical of the public clamoring from the wealthiest elites in the face of rising populism from the Left. Mr. Marks, who has freely given sage advice over the years, benefiting many a budding investor, decries proposals from the Left that would impinge upon owners’ rights to run their companies as they see fit. This is typical of the elites’ response to rising populism, the diminishing share of profits going to labor, and the resulting gross disparity in income and wealth–in short, to what many consider gross unfairness and injustice.

I actually agree with much if not most of what Mr. Marks writes and do believe the risks from proposed solutions that would prove to be counterproductive are significant if not outright dire. What I object to, however, are the tactics of the elite, and what I am most concerned about is their obliviousness.

The tactics are to criticize and warn while ignoring or dismissing the problem out of hand. There are exceptions of course, but they are rare. To this point, the elite routinely dismiss the warnings of their more prescient members such as Ray Dalio.

In former times, when things got bad enough, the wealthy, powerful elite had to worry about insurrection and revolution. But today no one takes the threat of guillotines seriously. Today, serfs in western democracies have other options, the power to vote to be precise. And history shows they can be pushed quite far before becoming immune to manipulation by propaganda and threats; indeed, modern humans can be cowed fairly easily. We are a passive bunch.

The last time American serfs threatened to overturn the established order was during the Great Depression. The country was fortunate enough then to have a leader as astute and wise as Franklin Roosevelt. He understood the threat and headed it off. Social Security was born. Jobs programs were enacted. The role of the federal government was fundamentally transformed.

Roosevelt understood that unfettered capitalism was unworkable over the long term. I suspect Mr. Marks understands that as well, but after reading his memo I can’t be sure. Even if he does, it seems doubtful many of his fellow billionaires and multimillionaires get it. They seem to have been lulled into thinking their positions were secure since the guillotines have been dismantled and are no longer a response available to the masses.

Of course, if things got bad enough, they might be surprised at how quickly things could be reassembled, but we’re probably a long ways from that. What’s more likely is a political response that could strike at the heart of the elite: their balance sheets.

Which could be problematic, for some of the so-called “solutions” being proposed by the politicos on the Left would end up hurting the people they are designed to help, of that I am sure. But of course that’s not the real objective in most cases anyway. The real objective is to win an election and claim power.

It would be nice if Mr. Marks and a substantial number of other elites would do something other than complain and warn; it would be nice if they proposed and implemented solutions. But that would mean giving something up, and as of yet that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. So the power of the Left swells. And the risks increase.

To  be fair, in a parenthetical near the end of this memo, Mr. Marks concedes there is room for increases in tax rates. He cites the fact that today’s top rate of 37 percent is one of the lowest in the 106-year history of the U.S. income tax (thanks, of course, to Mr. Trump and the Republicans in Congress). But it was a mere parenthetical. And there is no evidence Mr. Marks is exhibiting any leadership in addressing the issues. He’s apparently content with writing memos.

My fear is that the wealthy are seriously misjudging the situation and that a global backlash may be unleashed which does more harm than good, to just about everyone. Of course, there are never only losers; there are always some winners, no matter how much the sands shift.

It’s time, I suspect, to be particularly attentive to ensure that, even if you can’t be a winner after this has played out, your losses will not be crippling.

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