Business

Global top dogs: Putin pips Obama in Forbes rankings of who’s hot and who’s not

By J Brooks Spector 1 November 2013

We live in a world that embraces - no, virtually demands - rankings. Rankings of virtually everything and everyone. Top tennis players, highest scoring percentage or batting average for soccer, basketball and baseball players, richest men (or women), most frequently cited scientists and economists in other people’s publications, the world’s highest grossing films, television shows with the most viewers, songs with the largest number of cover versions and sales. J BROOKS SPECTOR trawls through the Forbes rankings of world most powerful.

These lists are all grist for what seems to be an insatiable need to know who’s on first, who’s top of the heap, who’s king of the hill – just like the song says. Falling right in line with this powerful need, beginning in 2009, Forbes magazine has produced and published its “World’s Most Powerful People” list towards the end of each year.

In introducing this year’s list, Forbes wrote the editors had started this list in order “to answer a straight yet complex question: What is the true nature of power and can we really compare and rank heads of state with religious figures and drug traffickers? The premise has always been to select one person for every 100 million on the planet. The first list had 67 slots. This year we are up to 72. At this fifth edition, it’s notable that most of the leaders who made the top 10 on the inaugural list are still on today: Obama, Putin, Bill Gates (No. 6), U.S. Fed Chair Ben Bernanke (No. 7), the King of Saudi Arabia (No. 8), Wal-Mart CEO Michael Duke (No. 10), billionaire Carlos Slim Helu (No. 12), Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Rupert Murdoch (No. 33).”

Last year, Forbes picked US President Barack Obama as the most powerful individual on the globe in this annual ratings sweepstakes. This year, in what some might call a surprise choice, the Forbes editors have again selected a president – but this time it is the president of Russia, one Vladimir Putin. Rounding out the top five, Forbes put Putin first, Obama second, Chinese President Xi Jinping as number three, then Pope Francis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as numbers four and five respectively.

The next five were Bill Gates (no need to identify him, surely); Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank, Ben Bernanke, (with Janet Yellen, the person nominated to replace him, at number 72); Saudi Arabian King, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud; European Central Bank President, Mario Draghi; Michael Duke, the president of Wal-Mart Stores; and then UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

Mexican IT mogul Carlos Slim Helu (and family); legendary investor Warren Buffett; Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier; Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil; Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google; Larry Page, Google’s CEO; French President Francois Hollande; Apple president Timothy Cook; Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff; and Sonia Gandhi, the Chairperson of India’s National Advisory Council, constituted the second ten.

Hmm…. there seems to be a pattern emerging, doesn’t it? The third decile included Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase; Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei; Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg; General Electric’s Jeff Immelt; Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu; Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs; Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh; New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and Li Ka-shing, the head of Hutchison Whampoa (a major Hong Kong-Chinese industrial, construction and trading company).

The list clearly seems to alternate routinely among heads of state, central and international bankers, commercial banking heads, and IT-telecommunications moguls – with only the occasional figure from outside those limited circles. The pope seems to have received a special dispensation to come in at number four.

Thereafter, beyond those tight career circles, the other figures that crack the list include the Koch brothers, Charles and David, of Koch Industries and a host of right wing conservative political campaigns, at numbers thirty and thirty-one; UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at thirty-two; News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch and family at thirty-three; Saudi Arabia’s oil minister at forty; Bill Clinton at forty-three; Bernard Arnault and family, the head of LVMH (the luxury goods purveyor) at fifty-four; the World Health Organization head Margaret Chan at fifty-nine; US Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts at sixty-two; John Boehner (Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives) at sixty-six; Executive Editor of the New York Times Jill Abramson at sixty-eight; Joseph Blatter, the President of FIFA at sixty-nine; and Mo Ibrahim of his eponymous foundation is at seventy-one; and Janet Yellen is the last on the list.

Wait; there is one other name, a man who is not a banker, not a telecommunications wizard, not a head of state. This of course is Joaquin Guzman Loera, head of that giant business group, Sinaloa Cartel. Not familiar with Sinaloa? It is the leviathan-sized drug trafficking syndicate. Yes, that one.

There are only three people with real African connections on this year’s list – Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, who is originally from Pretoria, Mo Ibrahim, and Aliko Dangote, the cement and industrial magnate from Nigeria. There is no one currently living in South Africa on this list. Despite the prominence of the “Africa Rising” phenomenon in international discussion, there are just those three individuals out of Africa – out of seventy-two names.

In much the same way, women also seem to be conspicuous by their relative absence. Only Merkel; Dilma Rousseff; Sonia Gandhi; IMF head Christine Lagarde; South Korean President Geun-hye Park; IBM President Viginia Rometty; the WHO’s Chan; Abramson and Janet Yellen – nine out of seventy-two names. That’s not even close to the fifty-one percent of humanity that women represent from among the global population.

Obviously, even with Forbes’ effort to generate a discrete quantitative measure of power and influence, there would seem to be a certain arbitrariness that has been built into this annual list generation. True, Forbes has a clever conceit here. If the world’s population comprises almost 7.2 billion people, their idea has been to have their list represent that special one in a hundred million people – thus resulting in seventy-two power names. Or as Forbes explains it, “What do the president of Russia, the new Pope and the hoodie-wearing CEO of Facebook all have in common? They’re all featured on Forbes’ 2013 ranking of the World’s Most Powerful People – an annual snapshot of the heads of state, financiers, philanthropists and entrepreneurs who truly run the world.”

How, exactly, does Forbes calculate their rankings? Forbes explains its top editors consider some several hundred nominees along four key dimensions. The first is a person’s actual power over a great many people. That clearly explains the inclusion of people like Obama, Putin, Merkel, Xi, Cameron and Rousseff. In that vein, Forbes argues Pope Francis is the spiritual (albeit non-temporal) leader of some 1.2 billion Catholics (and temporal ruler of a few thousand inhabitants of the Vatican City enclave inside the city of Rome). And while the CEO of Wal-Mart, Michael Duke, doesn’t actually have political power anywhere, he does sit atop a corps of some 1.2 million employees.

Forbes’ second variable is the heft of an individual’s control over financial resources. Or as Forbes says, “For heads of state we used GDP, while for CEOs, we looked at measures like their company’s assets and revenues. When candidates have a high personal net worth –like Carlos Slim Helu (No. 12) – we also take that into consideration. In certain instances, like Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud (No. 8), we considered other valuable resources at the candidate’s disposal – like 20% of the world’s known oil reserves.”

The third variable is whether or not a candidate holds power in a variety of spheres. Given the fact the list only includes seventy-two individuals, being the top dog in just one area is deemed insufficient. The editors explain, for example, “Our picks project their influence in myriad ways: Bill Gates (No. 6) has power because he’s a billionaire, because he’s a major philanthropist, and because he’s chair of the world’s No. 1 computer software company.” Just as an example, in case the name Bill Gates was unfamiliar to the reader.

Finally, there is the question of whether the individuals being considered make active use of their power. While in the view of a growing number of commentators, Barack Obama seems, increasingly, to be giving the impression of a president already caught up in being a lame duck leader – despite having some three years left in his second term – Vladimir Putin has been aggressive in throwing his weight around both domestically and internationally.

This has been seen in Putin’s handling of his sudden opportunity to bring the Syrian chemical weapons crisis to an end. Just behind these two men stands Xi Jinping, the new Chinese president, and it will be very interesting to see how he carries out his power moves as he digs into his job, going forward – and whether he becomes numero uno in 2014 or ‘15. Angela Merkel doesn’t have nearly the size political constituency that Obama, Putin and Xi have, but her enormous impact on the political economy of the Euro zone and beyond keeps her in the running – and in the top five – although she has actually slipped from her second place spot of a year ago. After making their judgements on these four axes, the editors total up the composite scores and then sort out the relative rankings.

Interestingly, outside of two media figures – Rupert Murdoch and Jill Abramson – and a pope, the most powerful individuals list includes no one from the artistic, cultural, academia, intellectual and the literary worlds – although many of the individuals selected are successful authors. It is also true, of course that the Koch brothers, Mo Ibrahim, Bill Gates, and Bill Clinton are also in this list, and they are all clearly drawing on the intersection of how ideas and politics collide or combine, but there is absolutely nobody from the world’s popular culture sphere – not a one.

In contrast to the Forbes list, Time magazine’s top one hundred most influential people in the world list does include many more such people. For example, in Time’s list for this year, released back in April, besides that now-usual run of politicians, bankers and IT moguls, Time has also includes such figures as entertainer Jay Z; Kevin Systrom, the Instagram guy; designer Michael Kors; Minecraft’s Markus Persson and Jens Bergensten; TV storyteller Shonda Rhimes; basketball star Lebron James; Turkish educator and Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen; entertainer Christina Aguilera; uber-filmmaker Steven Spielberg; Chinese architect Wang Shu; Coursera (the revolutionary online educational program bringing university offerings to anyone with an Internet connection) creators Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller; Nollywood’s reigning queen bee Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde; diva Beyoncé; and Chinese tennis champ Li Na.

The Time formula is more subjective, but perhaps also more interesting. They select a hundred undoubted world leaders in various fields and then ask that group to identify their choices as the newest, most interesting leaders in their respective fields – or to select the people one simply can’t avoid naming such as Obama, Putin, Xi and company.

In thinking about Forbes’ list, except for someone like Pope Francis (there’s always an exception to the rule), it seems that the most likely element to the members of this list is their ability (real or potential) to strike fear in the hearts of their opponents, rather than love. Okay, so maybe Barack Obama is not doing a perfect job on that axis these days, but there is still the undisputed fact of the US having the world’s most powerful military, as well as the undoubted strength and influence of that nation’s economic power. To measure that, just recall for a moment how the rest of the world held its breath over the recent government shutdown and debt ceiling crises in the US.

In thinking about power and influence that way, what comes into mind most strikingly may well be Niccolò Machiavelli’s five hundred-year old advice to his prince, “it is much safer to be feared than loved because… love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.” And just how many generations of political and economic leaders worldwide have read, thought about, and assimilated the implications of that maxim since it was first published in 1532? DM

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