In his Monday "Editorial Notebook," "A Billion Here, a Billion There," editorial board member and former Times economics reporter Eduardo Porter unleashed his left-wing envy.
Back in November 2007, Porter argued that America should be tax-hiking its way to happiness. Today he got worked up over the latest Fortune 400 from Forbes magazine:
Past the initial schadenfreude, it's hard to figure out what to think about the shrinking of the nation's 400 most gilded fortunes. It is reassuring that the super-rich can lose money too - $300 billion in the last year, according to Forbes, bringing their total down to $1.27 trillion. It's about the same percentage that was lost by Americans' private pensions, whose assets dropped by about $1.1 trillion, nearly 19 percent.
Every year as I get worked up over Forbes's latest billionaire review, I try to convince myself that accumulation of wealth at the top can serve a social function. I tell myself that inequality of income is a standard feature of capitalism, pushing the best and brightest into the most profitable jobs. It encourages people to study hard and work hard, or at least to become a banker. Big financial rewards push people to excel, and thus the economy to grow.
But $1.27 trillion? That's a decade of health care reform in one of the more expensive versions. This isn't garden-variety inequality - this is a winner-take-all deal that can destroy incentives for everyone except those in the upper crust.
Porter's small editorial is larded with liberal labels like "plutocrats" and "corporate greed," while citing a Ralph Nader novel (which is apparently just as horrifying as it sounds):
Maybe the jolt of billion-plus losses can spur plutocrats to change. Ralph Nader just wrote a novel called "Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!" in which Mr. Buffett (already a major philanthropist), Ross Perot and a few other billionaires go to Maui to "redirect" society onto the right path. Warren Beatty gets to run California. Wal-Mart workers unionize. Corporate greed is brought to heel.
There is no sign of such enlightenment on Wall Street.
For his sake one hopes Porter picked out his "plutocrats" with care - he named Warren Buffett, Kirk Kerkorian and Citigroup founder Sanford Weill. The last time Porter took on some rich people was back in August 2007, when he described Mexican media mogul Carlos Slim as a "thief" and "robber baron" in a signed editorial. In 2009, that same robber baron gave the NYT Co. a $250 million loan, and became in the eyes of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. "a very shrewd businessman with an appreciation for great brands."