Filthy rich

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 Rich Britain: The Rise and Rise of the New Super-wealthy
It's hard to get rich without getting dirty âe" but will the rest of us demand a clean up?

THERE IS A THEORY among psychologists that high-flying entrepreneurs are soon afflicted with a narcissistic sense of their own superiority. They come to believe their own inherent brilliance entitles them to privileges unknown to the rest of the population. Hasnâe(TM)t their wealth-creating genius bestowed enough on the multitude already?

Such a theory must help to explain the seemingly untroubled consciences of executives at the UKâe(TM)s biggest companies, whose pay more than doubled in the four years to 2004.

Of course, during that time the stock market value of their firms dropped by a third, and one of the messages of Rich Britain is that the UKâe(TM)s recent wealth revolution is seldom based on performance. Most directors receive âe~performance-relatedâe(TM) bonuses even when their company is underperforming, and CEOs receive such large golden hellos and goodbyes that they hardly need bother working in the intervening period.

There is no invisible hand at work here. It is simply a system of cronyism in which chief execs serve as non-executive directors with other firms, setting each otherâe(TM)s pay in an orgy of mutual back-scratching. âe~A small group of business leaders, aided by professionals from accountants to City analysts, have simply taken advantage of the more liberal climate to seize the opportunity to enrich themselves, often at the expense of their shareholders, their staff and sometimes their customers,âe(TM) writes Lansley.

New Labour, meanwhile, looks on hypnotised. It actually took a Tory MP âe" the former Asda chairman Archie Norman âe" to sponsor a private memberâe(TM)s bill to prevent corporate âe~rewards for failureâe(TM).

Yet the CEOs of public listed companies are small fry compared to many of the entrepreneurs running privately owned firms. After you read about the £30 million weddings and £72 million yachts there is a nagging puzzlement that the peasants arenâe(TM)t storming the Bastille.

Lansley suggests that Britain has incorporated US attitudes to wealth âe" the poor donâe(TM)t envy the rich, they just want to be like them. But a real economic jolt could see class politics come back with a vengeance. US economist Raveendra Batra argues that extremes of wealth cause economic disaster âe" the rich speculate dangerously, while others try to emulate them by taking on credit they canâe(TM)t afford.

If so, Britainâe(TM)s new Gatsbys could be living on borrowed time. Hereâe(TM)s hoping.âe"Mat Little

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