Nick Hanauer, a founder and a funder of more than 30 companies across a range of industries. He was the first non-family investor in Amazon.
Nick Hanauer – Venture capitalist, author
You probably don’t know me, but I am one of those 0.01 percenters that you hear about and read about, and I am by any reasonable definition a plutocrat. And tonight, what I would like to do is speak directly to other plutocrats, to my people, because it feels like it’s time for us all to have a chat.
Like most plutocrats, I too am a proud and unapologetic capitalist. I have founded, cofounded or funded over 30 companies across a range of industries. I was the first non-family investor in Amazon.com. I cofounded a company called aQuantive that we sold to Microsoft for $6.4 billion. My friends and I, we own a bank. I tell you this — unbelievable, right?
I tell you this to show that my life is like most plutocrats. I have a broad perspective on capitalism and business, and I have been rewarded obscenely for that with a life that most of you all can’t even imagine: multiple homes, a yacht, my own plane, etc., etc., etc.
But let’s be honest: I am not the smartest person you’ve ever met. I am certainly not the hardest working. I was a mediocre student. I’m not technical at all. I can’t write a word of code. Truly, my success is the consequence of spectacular luck, of birth, of circumstance and of timing.
But I am actually pretty good at a couple of things. One, I have an unusually high tolerance for risk, and the other is I have a good sense, a good intuition about what will happen in the future, and I think that that intuition about the future is the essence of good entrepreneurship.
So what do I see in our future today, you ask? I see pitchforks, as in angry mobs with pitchforks, because while people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99% of our fellow citizens are falling farther and farther behind.
In 1980, the top 1% of Americans shared about 8% of national wealth, while the bottom 50% of Americans shared 18%.
Thirty years later, today, the top 1% shares over 20% of national wealth, while the bottom 50% of Americans share 12% or 13%. If the trend continues, the top 1% will share over 30% of national wealth in another 30 years, while the bottom 50% of Americans will share just 6%.
You see, the problem isn’t that we have some inequality. Some inequality is necessary for a high-functioning capitalist democracy. The problem is that inequality is at historic highs today and it’s getting worse every day. And if wealth, power, and income continue to concentrate at the very tippy top, our society will change from a capitalist democracy to a neo-feudalist rentier society like 18th-century France. That was France before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.
So I have a message for my fellow plutocrats and zillionaires and for anyone who lives in a gated bubble world: Wake up. Wake up. It cannot last. Because if we do not do something to fix the glaring economic inequities in our society, the pitchforks will come for us, for no free and open society can long sustain this kind of rising economic inequality. It has never happened. There are no examples.
You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state or an uprising. The pitchforks will come for us if we do not address this. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when. And it will be terrible when they come for everyone, but particularly for people like us plutocrats.
I know I must sound like some liberal do-gooder. I’m not. I’m not making a moral argument that economic inequality is wrong. What I am arguing is that rising economic inequality is stupid and ultimately self-defeating. Rising inequality doesn’t just increase our risks from pitchforks, but it’s also terrible for business too.
So the model for us rich guys should be Henry Ford. When Ford famously introduced the $5 a day, which was twice the prevailing wage at the time, he didn’t just increase the productivity of his factories, he converted exploited autoworkers who were poor into a thriving middle class who could now afford to buy the products that they made. Ford intuited what we now know is true, that an economy is best understood as an ecosystem and characterized by the same kinds of feedback loops you find in a natural ecosystem, a feedback loop between customers and businesses. Raising wages increases demand, which increases hiring, which in turn increases wages and demand and profits, and that virtuous cycle of increasing prosperity is precisely what is missing from today’s economic recovery.