They're rich: so why do Americans hate them so much?

Carl Russo, the 42-year-old moustachioed chief executive of Cerent, is the newest billionaire spawned by the information age. Under his direction, an information technology outfit that was ailing last year has now been sold for £7 billion.

Even the Financial Times was impressed by Russo's achievement: "Mr Russo," it proclaimed in an interview, "may have just set a new world speed record for generating wealth."

Russo, who swears he won't retire and is at work before 7am every morning, insists that his devotion to work is not about money but about winning; money, he tells us, is merely the clearest indicator of who has won and who has lost.

This approach may explain why, despite their long economic boom, Americans are in the doldrums. There are lots of winners out there - 4 per cent of US households last year had a net worth of over $1 million - but there are a lot of losers, too. The Internet success stories that are splashed daily across newspapers - executives of,, who have become tycoons overnight - expose the gap between the haves and have-nots. According to a new report, the ratio between the pay of top executives and that of factory workers exploded from 42:1 in 1980 to 419:1 last year. In a recent Newsweek poll, 61 per cent said the boom had passed them by, and 72 per cent felt more social pressure to keep up. Envy, in short, threatens to infect America.

Witness the treatment being meted out to Bill Gates, Microsoft's CEO. He has given away £9.4 billion since the beginning of the year; he has pledged to fund the development of a vaccine against malaria; and he has offered to wire every public library in the US for the Internet age. Yet press and politicians alike have whined in a cynical chorus about the timing of these donations (they were announced during the Microsoft antitrust trial). And what of the glee with which George Soros's recent losses were celebrated by the media from Albany to Albuquerque? It would seem that the land that worshipped the get-up-and-go of entrepreneurship and has always admired rather than resented the self-made man is increasingly jealous of what it dubs the "two comma" ($1,000,000) and "three comma" ($1,000,000,000) crowd.

Yet the very rich have always been part of US history and they have fed the American Dream. Why could Americans handle - and indeed come to love - a Rockefeller or a Getty, whereas now they can't cope with a Gates or a Russo?

First, because the new information moguls (and apart from Soros, most of today's American tycoons are Internet entrepreneurs) seem to make their fortunes with indecent haste. Russo's 12-month record may be unmatched, but there are plenty of nerdy graduates who leave campus and two years on are raking in their first million.

Second, because the new gold rush has none of the romance associated with the rags-to-riches stories that Americans have been brought up on. No tales of hardships and penny-pinching measures, no immigrant's plight or legendary mentor here: just a kid sitting in front of a screen, hatching an idea for a website and then, quick as the clicking of a mouse, selling it as stock.

Finally, there is the matter of the new moguls' youth. Gates and Russo may be in their 40s, but the vast majority of the Silicon Valley success stories involve teenyboppers who slouch about in T-shirts and trainers, looking as if they should be worrying about their zits, not their squillions.

But not even the most disgruntled American could deny that the new wealth has been the source of some good things - charitable donations, for instance, have doubled to reach £10 billion during this bullish decade. And who knows? By rewriting the American Dream, the host of new private Internet fortunes may urge a rethinking of the old notion that money makes us winners or losers.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?