Wealth's apologist

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2001, 12:00am

AS WITH MANY people who watched the events of September 11 unfold, publisher Steve Forbes was gripped by the audacious assault on the United States .

Unlike most of us, however, the multi-millionaire and driving force behind the family's business magazine witnessed the destruction first-hand.

'I was on the other side of the river. We had a clear view of the towers going into the Holland Tunnel and driving in, there was smoke coming out of the first tower. When we were looking at that, you could see what looked like a dark plane crash into the second one and a ball of fire. My eyes could not quite believe what they were seeing, and I think the next big shock was the buildings collapsing,' he said.

We are sitting in a hotel room on an overcast afternoon in Singapore, more than a week and half a world away from the destruction at the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

But with the rubble yet to be cleared from Lower Manhattan and threats of awesome US retaliation growing progressively more strident, it is the only place to start.

'They say they may have a cause, just as Stalin and Hitler said they had a cause, but their methods are quite the opposite [from decent people]. These are spiritual descendants of the Khmer Rouge, who were building utopia on the basis of tyranny, murder and bloodshed. So any group that think the way to salvation is to kill as many civilians as possible are the true nihilists. [German philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche would recognise the group right away.'

Mr Forbes - avuncular, agreeably intellectual and unfailingly polite - has come for a business conference sponsored by his firm. It is an Asian first for the fortnightly publication, a glossy handbook dedicated to printing the kind of material favoured by what the company describes as 'hard-core capitalists'.

The president and chief executive of Forbes Inc is the third-generation family member to head the magazine, which first rolled off the presses in 1917. His comfortable background ensures he is rich enough to spend a lifetime without lifting a finger, but before and after being handed full control in 1990, he has nevertheless pursued a punishing schedule.

To the main US edition Mr Forbes grafted on Forbes Global in 1998, hoping to spread the word to those further afield. Then there is a new presence in cyberspace, plus a Japanese-language edition and a growing stable of other titles which delve into lifestyle and technology options for the well-heeled.

All in all, the group reckons that Forbes and Forbes Global reach an audience of five million.

Pick up a copy of the flagship title and it reads as if it were a hymn sheet for the United States' right wing, skating through foreign affairs and the ins and out of corporate shenanigans.

'We should give the Israeli Government the green light to take the gloves off and break the backs of Arafat's terrorist cells,' writes Mr Forbes in his regular 'Fact and Comment' editorial section.

He adds a stinging critique of the recent International Monetary Fund bail-out of Argentina and a plea for privately financed US highways. It is well-written, solidly researched, libertarian diatribe.

To his credit, Mr Forbes has not been content simply to comment from the sidelines but opted to take some of his dollars and wade into the mudbath that is US politics, competing twice for the Republican Party presidential nomination.

Undeterred by a panning in 1996, he tried again last year, pushing for a flat tax rate of 17 per cent, strong national defence and parental choice for children's schools.

After blowing an estimated US$50 million, he pulled out as George W. Bush's campaign gathered momentum, then tipped him correctly to see off the Democrat challenge from Al Gore.

The gruelling experience may have lightened his wallet but he says it boosted his faith in and knowledge of the US.

'What you came away with was an appreciation that you could not possibly get travelling round on business or as a tourist - it sounds like a cliche, but it is absolutely true - of the strength and decency of the American people.

'That character came through in this crisis - a sense of community, pitching in, rising to the occasion, latent patriotism, a positive force.'

He adds that his expensive politicking also ensured that some of his favourite policies - notably cuts in federal taxes - were picked up in a modified form by today's occupant of the White House.

'I think a fair amount of educating got done, and a fair amount more remains to be done. But yes, you get in the arena and even if the messenger gets mushed up some of the message did get through . . ,' he said.

The push for political glory took Mr Forbes well away from the boardrooms and country clubs that are his usual haunts.

Critics predictably charged that his background rendered him unfit for the party's backing, including a memorable put down from Senator John McCain: 'The Republican Party will never nominate a man whose only crises in life were going to boarding school, going to Princeton and inheriting his father's magazine.'

Despite this jibe - and many that were far worse - he savoured the campaign trail's hot-house atmosphere.

The best part of it was the interaction with people. Especially in an early contest state such as Iowa.

'People were genuinely interested when you'd go round to these hamlets and towns and build up support. They asked real questions, they wanted to learn and I think that's is one reason that the Bush campaign came up with their tax proposal. Among others, [Mr Bush's senior political adviser] Karl Rove will tell you it was just to fend me off initially, it was a political move.

'But the fact that people were being persuaded of it made a difference, and that was a true joy.'

The nub of the campaign message - just like the nub of almost any Forbes piece - is the un-shakeable belief that liberal democracy and capitalism go hand in hand. Just as accountable and legitimate government provide the ideal conditions for the pursuit of wealth, so the practice of free enterprise itself generates pressures for more open political practices, the publishing magnate contends.

In brazen celebration of this world view, Forbes' flamboyant father, Malcolm, named his private Boeing 727 The Capitalist Tool. In keeping with his more restrained persona the son has the same tag line embroidered into the fabric of his tie.

'If you want stability there is always East Germany, which did nothing for years except turn out pollution - and cars that have some perverse appeal because they are so bad. Yep, not much happened, but if that is what you like then you can have stagnation,' he said.

For Mr Forbes the alternative is constant innovation, change and the simultaneous evolution of economic and political systems. In the process, everywhere is inexorably falling in closer step with tempo set by the US model.

'What happens is that democratic capitalism changes non-democratic systems.

'We saw it in Chile, we saw it in South Korea, we saw it in Taiwan, we are seeing it here, in Singapore,' he says as we shift our talk further from the immediate issues thrown up by September 11.

And what of the mainland where the Communist Party is pressing on with the introduction of market economics while maintaining its vice-like grip on political power?

'The Chinese are discovering it is very hard. They may want the fruits of democratic capitalism - but they don't realise that it has other impacts.

'And it is almost like the king [Canute] declaring to the water not to move, the Chinese trying to control the Internet, access to the Internet . . . It's hopeless, it's hopeless.'

And the finale?

'The question is whether it is going to be a transformation that avoids turmoil and bloodshed or is it one where it becomes so rigid that you get an equal and opposite reaction? There are parts of China where millions [of workers are going] from doing one thing to another. It is going to have repercussions.'

Steve Forbes is president and chief executive of Forbes Inc, and editor-in-chief of Forbes, the business magazine. In 1996 and 2000, he campaigned for the Republican Party nomination for the presidency on a platform of flat tax, medical savings accounts, strong defence and parental choice of schools for their children. He is married and has five children.

Graphic: face24gbz