Chrystia Freeland is editor of Thomson Reuters Digital and author of “The Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.” We spoke Tuesday about how the plutocrats she reported on for the book were handling Mitt Romney’s loss. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Ezra Klein: You’ve written about the revolt of the very rich against President Obama, and all the money they spent and time they dedicated to defeating him. So what’s the mood in those circles now that they’ve lost?
Chrystia Freeland: There’s a great joke on Wall Street which is that the bet on Romney is Wall Street’s worst bet since the bet on subprime. But I found the hostility towards Obama astonishing. I found the commitment to getting him out astonishing. I found the absolute confidence that it would work astonishing. On that Tuesday, the big Romney backers I was talking to were sure he was going to win. They were all flying into Logan Airport for the victory party. There’s this stunned feeling of how could we be so wrong, and a feeling of alienation.
The Romney comments to his donors, for which he was roundly pounced on by Republican politicians, I think they accurately reflected the view of a lot of these money guys. It’s the continuation of this 47 percent idea. They believe that Obama has been shoring up the entitlement society, and if you give enough entitlements to enough people, they’ll vote for you.
EK: Here’s my question about those comments. Romney was promising the very rich either a huge tax cut or, if you believe he would’ve paid for every dime and dollar of his cut, protection from any tax increases. He was promising financiers that he would roll back Dodd-Frank and Sarbanex-Oxley. He was promising current seniors that he wouldn’t touch their benefit. How are these not “gifts”?
CF: Let me be clear that I’m not defending any of them. But I think the way it works — and I think Romney’s comments were very telling in this regard — there are two differences in the mind of this class. First, they’re absolutely convinced that they’re not asking for special privileges for themselves. They’re convinced that it just so happens that their self-interest coincides perfectly with the collective interest. That’s where you get this idea of the “job creators”. The view is that to seek a low tax environment or less regulation, that’s not special pleading for yourself, it’s not transactional politics. It’s that this set of rules is the most conducive to economic growth for everybody. It will grow the pie. Now, it also happens to be an incredibly convenient way of thinking. If you’ve developed an ideology that what’s good for you personally also happens to be good for everyone else, that’s quite wonderful because there’s no moral tension.
Hmmm. I don’t know, though. Is this the approach of people who are genuinely considering what’s “good for everyone else”?
JIM SINEGAL, the chief executive of Costco Wholesale, the nation’s fifth-largest retailer, had all the enthusiasm of an 8-year-old in a candy store as he tore open the container of one of his favorite new products: granola snack mix. “You got to try this; it’s delicious,” he said. “And just $9.99 for 38 ounces.”
But not everyone is happy with Costco’s business strategy. Some Wall Street analysts assert that Mr. Sinegal is overly generous not only to Costco’s customers but to its workers as well.
Costco’s average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club. And Costco’s health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogish. One analyst, Bill Dreher of Deutsche Bank, complained last year that at Costco “it’s better to be an employee or a customer than a shareholder.”
Mr. Sinegal begs to differ. He rejects Wall Street’s assumption that to succeed in discount retailing, companies must pay poorly and skimp on benefits, or must ratchet up prices to meet Wall Street’s profit demands.
“This is not altruistic,” he said. “This is good business.”
IF shareholders mind Mr. Sinegal’s philosophy, it is not obvious: Costco’s stock price has risen more than 10 percent in the last 12 months, while Wal-Mart’s has slipped 5 percent. Costco shares sell for almost 23 times expected earnings; at Wal-Mart the multiple is about 19.Mr. Dreher said Costco’s share price was so high because so many people love the company. “It’s a cult stock,” he said.
Emme Kozloff, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, faulted Mr. Sinegal as being too generous to employees, noting that when analysts complained that Costco’s workers were paying just 4 percent toward their health costs, he raised that percentage only to 8 percent, when the retail average is 25 percent.
I don’t have a Costco where I live but I’d rather have a Costco than a Walmart because Costco employees are paid better than slave wages. That money directly benefits my whole community. They’ll be living here, working here and buying here with those higher wages and I live and work here too, so that matters to me. It doesn’t do me a whole lot of good to save 25 dollars a month on grocery items if I’m surrounded by people who have to rely on food stamps and Medicaid to supplement rock-bottom wages. That isn’t a good deal for me. Weird how Wall Street simply doesn’t see this, isn’t it, when it’s so blatantly obvious to the rest of us? Who benefits when they pressure employers to drive down wages and benefits? Costco employees? Me? My community? How?