The Freethinking Homeless Billionaire and the Flat-Broke State
A long list of politicians and a whole industry of fix-it professionals have failed to restore California to its former glory. Did Nicolas Berggruen—Paris-born, art collector, global investor—and his Think Long committee, know how to rebuild the Golden State? And if so, Why didn’t anyone listen?
I WAS RUNNING VERY LATE FOR A MEETING with a billionaire. I’d gotten delayed dropping off my son at preschool. An earlier appointment ran long. Wilshire was backed up. So was Santa Monica. My destination, the Peninsula Beverly Hills, was just off the intersection of those busy boulevards. I was a little frantic.
Once I walked through the doors of the hotel, though, I relaxed. The chaos of the streets faded away. The music was soft. Staffers were courteous. “Nicolas Berggruen?” I asked.
He’s in the Belvedere, they told me. I wandered through the hotel restaurant, and there, sitting at the first table outside, was the last, best chance to save California.
Nicolas Berggruen—global investor, playboy, and convener—is famously homeless, but at his table at the Belvedere he looked right at home. He was reading papers. He was talking on a phone in German and English. He was flirting with a stunning, dark-skinned woman who’d stopped by to say hello. (Her looks could have caused the traffic snarl outside). This man in a white button-down shirt and slacks, with brown hair that looked freshly combed from the shower, was managing investments on five continents. He was heading up efforts to reform governance on three continents. The sun was shining on his table. He was not sweating.
I approached, self-conscious about being late, and stammered out a question about how long he intended to be in California. “As long as possible,” he said, serenely, speaking in an accent that might best be described as Franco-Prussian. “It allows me to be isolated. It allows me to think.”
The answer was peculiar. California in 2012 is many things, but a place of quiet contemplation is not one of them. It’s a frenzied, broken place, with an unemployment rate near 11 percent, crumbling infrastructure, and a state budget that is permanently out of balance.
But Berggruen doesn’t mind these problems. In fact, they have even inspired him. Berggruen, who turned 51 in August, has come to feel that democracy everywhere is in need of a reboot. Western nations with short-term, consumerist politics are being bested by eastern nations with long-range plans. Governance in Europe and the Americas has become so democratic, with so many different interests able to obstruct progress, that accountability and effectiveness are nearly impossible. So Berggruen is devoting his remaining years and considerable resources to correcting the course of democracy around the globe. California, broken and democratic, is where he has decided to start. You could say Berggruen wants to fix California—so that he can fix the world.