Helaine Olen,  March 23, 2015

Focus Group-ing Our Way to Prosperity

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The secret to solving inequality in America is...a call center? / Photo by Vitor Lima
The secret to solving inequality in America is…a call center? / Vitor Lima

Paul Tudor Jones, the hedge fund star who is the founder of the Tudor Investment Corporation, says he’s concerned about inequality. And since he’s worth an estimated $4.6 billion, he got to share his ideas on how to alleviate it, on the stage at of TED15 in Vancouver last week.

Jones used his star turn to announce that JUST Capital, the advocacy organization he founded last year—an organization that, in the words of Bloomberg, “seeks to broaden company missions beyond profitability”—will take steps to encourage corporations to tackle the United States’ wealth gap.

And, how, precisely, will it do that? Well, Jones is calling for a focus group and a bit of polling. Seriously.

Let’s backtrack for a moment. Jones, who is worth an estimated $4.6 billion, told the audience that historically, eras that feature as much income and wealth inequality as the United States do right now, have a way of ending in one of three rather undesirable ways. They are wars, revolution, and higher taxes. None of them, he says, are on his personal “bucket list.”

Actually, periods of inequality can end in all three ways together, as the Russian Revolution proved. But I digress. World War II, the last days of Nicholas and Alexandra, and a marginal tax rate of 90 percent are apparently equally as appalling to Jones, who is, let me say it again, worth approximately $4.6 billion.

So Jones says he believes his—oops, I mean JUST Capital’s—plan to survey 20,000 Americans is just the thing. The American people will tell pollsters how to restore “humanity” to corporations. JUST Capital, in turn, will rate 1,000 of the most profitable companies in the United States by this democratically-decided measure, and release the survey in September. Then what? “JUST Capital plans to talk with companies about what it has found,” Bloomberg reports.

I can just see the Koch brothers quaking in their boots, wondering about their rating on JUST Capital’s list. Oh, right. Never mind. Jones “poured money,” as Hamilton Nolan at Gawker put it, into Mitt Romney’s campaign.

Moreover, Jones himself doesn’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to corporate enlightenment. We are, after all, talking about the same Paul Tudor Jones who tackled the paucity of women on Wall Street, not by announcing plans to revamp his hiring practices, but by explaining to a group of University of Virginia students in 2013 that women with children simply aren’t capable investors. “As soon as that baby’s lips touched that girl’s bosom, forget it,” he said. “Every single investment idea, every desire to understand what’s going to make this go up or go down is going to be overwhelmed.”

A modern man, Jones is. I can’t wait to see his plan to rate corporations on how they treat their female employees.

So why is anyone falling for this? Well, Paul Tudor Jones is also the founder of the Robin Hood Foundation, the Wall Street charity that raises money for New York City social services like preschool for children growing up in low-income homes. It certainly seems well intentioned—coming from a man who is worth $4.6 billion and all—and Jones regularly receives hosannas for his efforts from the sort of people who can afford to pay a minimum of $8,500 to sit in the audience at TED.

But as I noted on this blog last year, the $60 million raised at last year’s Robin Hood gala event was a mere fraction of the estimated $532 million that a proposed tax on city residents earning more than $500,000 would have raised, a tax that was successfully opposed by the most of the people attending that very event.

That amount is also a mere fraction—a little more than 1 percent—of Paul Tudor Jones’s estimated wealth, which is, again, $4.6 billion. What’s going on here is distressingly banal and horribly familiar. Paul Tudor Jones wants to discuss the problem of inequality, so long as he can remain in control of the conversation, and in possession of his money. It’s his $4.6 billion, not yours, and may you never forget that.

Helaine Olen is the author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, a contributing editor for Pacific Standard, and a regular Slate contributor.

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