Friday, November 4, 2011

Power, Forbes Style

It has been a long time since I have taken Forbes seriously as a source of either news or background for any matters financial.  As a matter of fact, I am not sure I ever saw them as anything other than the owner of some rather expensive Romanoff artifacts.  That was at least enough for me to have a higher opinion of them than of The National Enquirer.

By keeping myself in blissful ignorance, I did not realize that they maintained an annual list of the world’s most powerful people, also known as “The 70 Who Matter.”  Had it not been for Chris Matyszczyk bringing it to my attention in a post to his Technically Incorrect blog on CNET News, I might have maintained my bliss.  Unfortunately, Chris let this cat out of the bag;  so I figured I would mix metaphors and rant a bit about why this dog just won’t hunt.

As anyone who has taken the trouble to study social theory at a depth greater than Eat, Pray, Love (or, if you prefer, the latest collection of anecdotes from Malcolm Gladwell) knows, power is a very tricky concept.  The ability of one person to influence, let alone force, the actions of another is highly context-dependent.  This means that there is no way power can be reduced to a set of criteria, each of which may be assigned a numeric value, after which those individual values can be weighted into some kind of “score.”  This, of course, is precisely what Forbes did.  To their credit, they have been perfectly up front about those criteria, which were enumerated in an article by staff writer Michael Noer as follows:

The ranking takes into account four factors.  First, we measured how many people a person has power over.  For a religious leader, like Pope Benedict XVI (#7), that would be the number of adherents, or Catholics, in the world.  For a CEO, like General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt (#28) we counted the number of employees.

Then we looked at the financial resources controlled by each candidate, whether that is revenues (for a company), GDP (for a country) or net worth (for a billionaire). Next we asked: Is a candidate influential in more than one arena, or sphere? This bumped up the ranking of people like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (#17), who is a powerful politician, a self-made media billionaire and a major philanthropist.

Finally, we gave consideration to how actively the candidates wield their power.  This measure eliminated inactive heirs to great fortunes, semi-retired industrialists and former heads of state.  In all, 70 people made the final list, one for every 100 million people on the planet.

I also found it interesting that, on the site that gives the actual list, Forbes declares that their sample space includes “Heads of state, business and religious leaders, opinion makers and criminals.”  They seem to be discreet enough to evade any suggestion that these categories may overlap.  In any event here is the prevailing “top ten” on the list:

1.    Barack Obama, President of the United States of America
2.    Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia
3.    Hu Jintao, President of the People’s Republic of China
4.    Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany
5.    Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
6.    Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, King of Saudi Arabia
7.    Benedict XVI, Pope of the Roman Catholic Church
8.    Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States of America
9.    Mark Zuckerberg, Founder of Facebook
10. David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Obviously, it was Zuckerberg’s presence among the “top ten” that prompted Matyszczyk to write his post.  Since the criteria are so utterly useless for anything other than an overt declaration of Forbes’ underlying values, I feel there is little that can be taken from this list other than mild amusement at Zuckerberg beating out Cameron.  It is also ironic that the criteria were enumerated right at a time when their irrelevancy and context-sensitivity were being demonstrated by a single man, not on the list, who seems to have the power to bring down the economy of the European Union, if not the entire world:  Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou.

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