When billionaire financier George Soros penned a feisty, if incoherent, anti-capitalist manifesto, business pundits on both sides of the Atlantic reacted as if Karl Marx -- tanned, rested and ready -- had risen from the grave.
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LIFE must be hard for the business pundit these days. Imagine the dilemma: Your businessman readers are delicate creatures, like crack babies who must be soothed and told constantly that they are loved. But that’s OK, because, for the most part, you do love them. Your real problem is that, like all who roam the wide columns of the op-ed page, you’ve built your career on the clever put-down, the righteous retort and the chewable insight. After a long day of crushing Big Labor or signing trade agreements with Asian communists, your readers want to snuggle between the sheets of the Lincoln Bedroom and chuckle as you, Business Pundit, tear another straw man limb from limb.
But what’s left to destroy? Your clients have joyfully triumphed over just about everything, leaving you with a serious glut of bile. How many more pieces can you write about those pernicious government regulators?
Riding to the rescue: George Soros.
Last I’d heard, Soros was the billionaire philanthropist who awed the business press and ruined many an afternoon tea back in 1992, when his currency speculation sent the British pound tumbling. Not any more. George Soros is now a “crackpot,” a “fool,” a man who’s gone on an “appalling foray into the realm of ideas” and come out with a “preposterous” and “damaging” argument that’s nonetheless “gibberish,” “drivel,” “nonsense” and (get your dictionary ready) a “rodomontade of sloppy thinking.”
What’s the deal? Soros’ cover piece, “The Capitalist Threat,” in the February Atlantic Monthly, that’s what. His article has set off a series of delayed-reaction explosions inside the heads of business pundits everywhere. In the 12-page essay, Soros, who endured both fascism and communism in Hungary, argues that laissez-faire capitalism is now the world’s most serious threat to the “open society” — that being the kind of society in which we all respect each other and admit our own fallibility. Capitalism, Soros says, justifies its existence by appealing to market economics — it’s as much a voodoo science as Marxism. It just makes more and more people wretched while telling them it’s their own fault.
At least, that’s my take on “The Capitalist Threat.” For a better explanation, you really should ask Soros himself, because, I’m sorry to say, the man can’t write his way out of a paper bag. Littered with incomplete arguments, passive verbs and infuriating vagueness, “The Capitalist Threat” is more memo than manifesto. The Atlantic’s editors must have either been afraid of Soros or entirely apathetic, since the article, with a few additions, is merely a reprint of a personal statement that’s been sitting around the Soros Foundation Web site for more than six months.
Perhaps that explains how the Economist got the jump on “The Capitalist Threat” and managed to send its volley from London a week before the issue even hit the stands. “Palindrome repents,” sniggered a Jan. 25 headline (Soros spelled backwards is … Soros — get it?).
“It is hard to know exactly where to pick this apart, so numerous are the errors,” sniffs the author, who, like all writers for the Economist, can only be known as Sir.
Sir’s disgust took more than a month to migrate to America, but it’s now taken hold with vigor. In the past couple of weeks, pundits in Forbes, Fortune, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek have all blasted the billionaire. Even twentysomethings must not remain ignorant of Soros’ heresy: Karl Filippini, a columnist for the new Web-zine JournalX, promises to bring his demographics closer to death with a whole series on the subject.
Apparently, Soros is not just wrong to call capitalism a dangerous and deluded system. He’s also a megalomaniac. In the March 17 Fortune, economics columnist Rob Norton (the man who expanded my vocabulary with the word “rodomontade”) growled that “Soros is not content to be a billionaire and philanthropist. He wants to be known as a thinker, a philosopher of economics and history and society — even as a seer.”
In the Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, Swiss investor David de Pury complained that Soros was picking unfairly on “today’s bogeyman … the excess of capitalism.” And Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson offered up a perky anti-Soros vendetta of his own — an attempt to prevent “ordinary readers” from being seduced by Soros’ “rubbish.”
“The very illogic and obscurity of Soros’ diatribe may, ironically, enhance its appeal,” he wrote. “It panders to a fashionable anti-capitalist chic.” (Samuelson fails to explore the question of whether the chic anti-capitalists have their own ready-to-wear collection and, if so, whether it’s assembled in Bangladesh.)
But just who is this amorphous enemy to whom Soros has betrayed the free market like some latter-day elderly-male version of Mata Hari? Described variously as “lefties,” “the hard left,” “a newspaper near you” and “Subcommander Marcos,” these are the people who (the business pundits imagine) are now cackling with glee over their grubby copies of Atlantic Monthly.
Or not. I’ve paged through every leftist publication I could find, and none have even mentioned Soros’ tract. In fact, it looks as if, but for the attention of the business press, “The Capitalist Threat” might have sunk without a trace.
In fact, I was hard pressed to find an enemy of capitalism who’d even read the piece. Robert Schildgen, managing editor of Sierra, and the Progressive editor Matthew Rothschild both admitted they had the February Atlantic lying around the house, but they hadn’t quite brought themselves to read it.
One lefty who had checked out the piece is the Nation Institute’s president, Hamilton Fish III. But then, Fish happens to know Soros personally.
George is not a traditional leftist, Fish admits. Rather, he’s simply a humanitarian who’s very concerned about the way a growing number of people in America, from prisoners to legal immigrants, are being disenfranchised.
I have to point out that none of that comes up in “The Capitalist Threat.”
“The article wasn’t intended as a social commentary,” Fish says. “It’s an individual effort to explain a personal and evolving philosophy” — an effort that is, he admits, a bit “academic.”
Therein lies the sadness of the Soros spectacle. As a man endowed, by all accounts, with unusual amounts of money, intelligence and compassion, Soros is in a rare position to lead the media into a wide-ranging debate about capitalism. But as long he’s allowed to indulge in long-winded lectures, he’ll remain simply a chew-toy for detractors and useless to anyone else.
If, however, the billionaire is still evolving, perhaps he’ll admit to his fallibility and hire himself a few decent writers. That at least would help to narrow the gap between rich and poor right away.
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Julia Barton is a writer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her website is <a href="http://www.juliabarton.com">juliabarton.com</a>.