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This op-ed is adapted (some additions, some deletions, some edits) from my acceptance speech for the 2023 Alexander Hamilton Award from the Manhattan Institute. Sorry, the bad jokes mostly made the cut. The full speech is here starting with an introduction to my part around the 16-minute mark. 

Hello from the Manhattan Institute (MI) awards dinner. I bring greetings from, as the new populist right wing would call us, the rootless cosmopolitan globalist donor class who would sell our country to China for some cheap crapola. Oh, and according to them we’re also “RINOs” for believing in things conservatives, classical liberals and libertarians have believed in for 100 years. As a famous Sicilian once almost said, that word RINO, I don’t think it means what they think it means.

I also would like to say hi to the progressive left from, as they in turn would call us, our little band of bond-villain oligarch plutocrats, also tagged as from the much-despised “donor class”, and who the left also believes would sell the country to China, but this time in exchange for a lower capital gains rate and maybe keeping the carried interest exemption.

If you’ve noticed some overlap in my two greetings, you’ll also note that the denial of horseshoe theory ain’t just a river in Egypt.

Among other things they agree on, against all logic and evidence, is that the American worker is in rapid decline, we need an industrial policy that would make Lester Thurow blush, Smoot-Hawley was awesome, free speech is usually taken a little too far, and of course, share repurchases are the devil’s handmaiden.

May God save us from populist socialists of any party affiliation!

Anyway, it’s wonderful to be here with you tonight as we fete “late‑stage capitalism.” Nope, I don’t know what those words mean either. But, and this is important, neither do those regularly uttering them. It’s one of those postmodern phrases whose purpose is almost entirely not to be understandable but to convey a fact-free-feeling. Though, if by “late-stage capitalism” they mean the most prosperous the world has ever been for the most people then, ok, you know, sign me up.

Now, if I can make some more serious comments on the so called “donor class.” The cynicism directed at them from both ass ends of the horseshoe is just at odds with what I see. Here are some thoughts on the MI donor class that I might have titled, “what I saw at the counter-revolution.”

People familiar to MI like Paul Singer, a political and philanthropic mentor to me, John Paulson, Ken Griffin, Dan Loeb, Ken Langone, Stan Druckenmiller, the Hertogs, the Fedaks, and many of you in the audience today, at whatever scale you can help, are, to the best of my poor abilities to discern, truly not here so we can all import some really cheap Chinese goods; or even to lower our personal tax rates — no, that’s why we move to Florida, not why we donate to MI.

In fact, to a person, I’m guessing you have spent far more dollars attempting to better society than it would ever be possible to recoup — even from a plutocrat friendly administration. Those that think the “donor class” are in it for the money are also saying that this same donor class are terrible investors — I’m sorry, but that dog just won’t hunt.

Yes, that was indeed my impression of Albert Brooks doing an impression of Ann Richards.

But here is a situation where the horseshoe doesn’t come around. There is no equivalence between left and right when it comes to the establishment’s treatment of their respective “donor classes.”

The left’s own “donor class” is generally esteemed by the dominant institutions of our time, whose bought-and-sold purpose is, in fact, to esteem them. Being a donor to the left usually means applause and approbation.

Now, in contrast, their equivalents on the right are regularly castigated as robber barons who, for instance, support charter schools only to reap massive profits down the road when they go public. Oh, by the way, there are no profits to donors down the road and they are already public schools. But I digress.

I mean no leftist of the pundit or donor class, to the best of my knowledge, has ever had to do the equivalent of declaring “my friend Harlan Crow does not love and worship the Third Reich.” Just to be clear, he doesn’t, quite the opposite.

Nope. The worst donors to the left have to occasionally say is “no comment” as to why they made a few dozen visits to Epstein’s island or gave a kick back to “the big guy.”

And “no comment” actually works for them! “No comment” is really effective when the #journalist doesn’t actually want a comment to begin with, but is just trying to help his alleged target.

Frankly, I don’t particularly like gotcha questions, but I think I like “I’m trying my level best not to get you” questions even less.

The men and women of the MI “donor class” are again, to the best of my abilities to tell, and I’m often in these meetings, truly patriots who don’t benefit but take risks doing what they do. Rather than applause and approbation they often face odium and opprobrium, and sometimes even aggressively ample alliteration.

Now, of course, that doesn’t mean MI’s donors are right about, or agree amongst themselves about everything. But things you do when facing opprobrium just get you more street cred than those that bring applause.

I would venture just a few things that I do have some confidence they generally agree on.

They do not obsess about their personal tax rates, they obsess about the state of the country.

They believe in the free enterprise system not because they want to become yet richer, but because they want everyone to prosper. They actually do understand that it’s not their lives that will be much better under a better system, they will likely be pretty good either way, and amazingly they don’t have the ego to think free enterprise only works for themselves.

They believe in merit not because they’ve demonstrated it themselves, which most have, but because it’s what makes civilization prosper and because the merit that we still acknowledge, reward, and allow to flourish today is why we’re not yet a dystopian hell‑scape best observed from Galt’s Gulch.

They believe in equality of opportunity not as a defense against the left’s accusations, but as a matter of civic religion and the noblest of goals.

They believe in school choice not because they hate unions but because they love kids, and for that matter because they love teachers. Also, they realize that education is what made their blessed lives possible and, yet again, they actually do know they are just not that special. Education can save anyone.

They believe in free speech because of, uh, well, duh. I don’t really need a reason for that one do I?

They believe in keeping civil order not because they hate squatters and squeegee men and own window repair companies, but because they know a safe, fair, and well-policed city is important to everyone, but most spectacularly so to those less fortunate than themselves.

They believe in constitutional government not as a tool of plutocrat power but for what it is — a written down set of rules to be followed until amended, and yes some of those amendments were damn important. They know that having these rules is the vital difference between a just, stable, and civil society versus being ruled by the ephemeral whims of men backed by guns.

By now you may have been thinking I’ve forgotten about MI itself. That’s fair given my loquacity, but not remotely true. I have been discussing them implicitly in almost every line so far. MI is not a monolith, and I don’t purport to speak for all our scholars and stake‑holders. But I think what I’ve been talking about is pretty darn in line with the ethos at MI.

The Manhattan Institute, named that only because “Manhattan Project” was already taken, has long been a voice of reason in New York City and in fact on national issues.

They, in my humble opinion, stand for some pretty great things.

They stand for people of all walks being able to live in safety, to educate their children effectively, to prosper economically, and to live as free men and women with all the rights and obligations, successes and failures, and joys and pains that this entails.

And they fight. The populist right is sort of correct that we do need more fighters, they just want often fighters for the wrong causes, and sometimes we can be too pleased with our own intellectual deftness to get our hands sufficiently dirty. MI scholars do not generally have this problem.

From Heather MacDonald, whom I definitely wouldn’t want to fight, to Glaeser, to Gelinas, to Loury, to Malanga, to Schrager, to Fryer, Riley, Shapiro, and Copland. They fight.

Actually, now that I say it out loud “Fryer, Riley, Shapiro, and Copeland” is a great name for a law firm. Not as good as Archie Bunker’s lawyers: The famous firm of “Rabinowitz, Rabinowitz, and Rabinowitz” that he described as, and I’m only quoting Norman Lear here so don’t cancel me, “seven savage Jews who won’t leave a scrap on your bones.” No, it’s not that good a name, but it’s pretty good.

Obviously that list of names is nowhere near exhaustive. I just picked a few and left out too many others. In the immortal words of a Seinfeld episode, “you’re all winners.”

So, our scholars are not just right, and not just brilliant, but they’re courageous brilliant fighters for what’s right. They run into the breach not just “once more” but again and again. And for that, and much more, I thank them.

Of course, I’d like to end by thanking not just them but everyone at MI, and the extended MI family including my fellow members of the “donor class” who support these efforts — I’ll see you guys at the next naked cavorting in the woods coming up in June. You know where.

Cliff Asness is the co-founder of AQR Capital Management. 

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