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Rise Of The New American Barons


This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. This week, Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post; Google's Sergey Brin backed the creation of a lab-grown beef burger. Then there's Richard Branson and his commercial space flights, and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's win in the America's Cup - a very small group of incredibly well-heeled men with the power, and the deep pockets, to effect real change in the world.

In some ways, it's similar to the days of Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, who also amassed enough wealth to advance their own pet projects and philanthropic causes. But how similar are today's billionaire's to the 19th century super-rich? Here to answer that is Daniel Alef, author and publisher of the series "Titans of Fortune," a collection of biographies of American moguls. He joins us from our bureau in New York City. Mr. Alef, thanks so much for being with us.

DANIEL ALEF: My pleasure.

HEADLEE: First of all, is this a fair comparison to make between today's so-called billionaire's club, and the super-rich of the gilded age?

ALEF: I think there is. There is a similarity in the characteristics that made them both successful. I think they're all driven by passion. They think of themselves as being invincible. They will not accept naysayers' thoughts as obstacles that they can't overcome. And they all had vision. They all had enormous work ethic. They were very sure of themselves, very confident in their abilities. And I think those characteristics carry out both back in the gilded age and today.

HEADLEE: So thinking back to some of the moguls of that time - a Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, for example; J.P. Morgan - what are the similarities, or maybe the differences, you see between the pet projects of that age - the Carnegie Foundation, all the things that those millionaires at the time took on - and what's been going on now?

ALEF: Well, I think the times are so drastically different that they allow today's moguls, today's wunderkind to succeed at such an early age. So you take somebody like Elon Musk. He started Zip2 when he dropped out of Stanford. Then by the mid-20s, he started X.com; X.com morphed into PayPal; then he sold PayPal to Yahoo for $1.5 billion. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: PayPal was sold to eBay, not Yahoo, for $1.5 billion.] After that, he started SpaceX, space exploration company. He has Tesla, which is electric motors...

HEADLEE: The cars, yeah.

ALEF: All of this by the time he's 40. The titans of the gilded age and earlier, they had to do things over a gradual period of time. So their ability to involve themselves in other ventures was limited. And most of those ventures really related to foundations and charitable efforts.

HEADLEE: So there are problems, often, that arise when you have a huge amount of wealth concentrated in the hands of a very few. And in fact, many laws were passed. Regulations came into play after the 19th century, in order to bridge that gap between these hyper-powerful titans and the average worker. And things did get better, on the average, for the American worker; that you got the eight-hour workday, the end of child labor. Should we be concerned once we begin to again see the rise of this sort of billionaire class?

ALEF: I don't think so. I think today's views of labor and capital are vastly different than they were back in the gilded age, for example. Some of it, I think, is altruistic. Some of it may be self-serving. They have all kinds of facilities that they offer for their employees. Doesn't mean people work less hard. It doesn't mean that they always enjoy their work. But I think the facilities are made so that it's possible for them to be more productive and happier at their jobs.

HEADLEE: And yet, let me just push back on you - and just a little bit, Dan, here - because what you have created is people who are so far beyond all of the rest of America - right? - that they're able to have influence not just in business. They're able to have influence in culture; they're able to buy our sports teams. Somebody like George Soros can spend enormously, to influence our elections - or the Koch brothers, for example. I would be concerned that in the hands of just a tiny, tiny fraction of the American population, there is so much concentrated power.

ALEF: Oh, I think there's always been - and it's not different today than it was 100 years ago or 150 years ago - I think the power that Vanderbilt had, that Morgan had - J.P. Morgan had, I think their power was as great, if not greater, than the power of the billionaires today. Now, of course, this incredible wealth - and we're talking about so many billions of dollars - it has power associated with it, and a lot of influence associated with it. And so there's always been the danger that these ultra-powerful men can influence our politics, can influence our culture. That hasn't changed.

HEADLEE: Daniel Alef is the author and publisher of "Titans of Fortune." He joined us today from our New York bureau. Mr. Alef, thank you so much.

ALEF: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Our guest said that PayPal was sold to Yahoo. The company actually was sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion.