Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild’s Kinder, Gentler Capitalism

"I wish everyone could live the life I’ve led"

Photo by Arnaldo Magnani/Liaison

“Thirty years ago, the Anglo-American capitalist system was the apartment block everyone in the world admired,” Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild told a gathering of business and political influentials gathered on the 28th floor of Bloomberg LP’s Lexington Avenue office tower on Thursday morning.

“Now, that apartment block has really nice apartments up on top. In the middle, they’re kind of cramped and dowdy, and on the lower floors, they’re underwater. But the worst part of it is—the elevator’s broken.”

The metaphor wasn’t hers (she’d borrowed it from Harvard economist Larry Katz), but the morning was. Wearing a slim-fitting sleeveless dress and lots of gold, Ms. de Rothschild was welcoming guests to the U.S. launch of something called the Henry Jackson Initiative for Inclusive Capitalism. It was less a think tank than a movement, less a movement than a platform for a double-edged idea: That everyone should benefit from gains made by the capitalist system, and that it’s good for capitalists when everybody does.

The initiative, which grew out of the Henry Jackson Society, a right-leaning British foreign policy think tank named after the Cold War-era American senator, has some recommendations: corporations should invest in training workers for the jobs they’ll need filled in the future, nurture small- and medium-size businesses, and take a long-term view of creating value for shareholders.

But those ideas seemed less important than bringing business leaders together to address a more central concern: In an era of rising income inequality and grim economic outlook, people seemed to be losing confidence in capitalism altogether.

Inclusive capitalism, it turns out, has a pretty exclusive following. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers gave the keynote address at Thursday’s launch. Former Fortune 500 CEOs Bob Nardelli and James Robinson III attended, along with an assortment of executives, entrepreneurs, scholars and consultants. Their central question: What could they do to revive an economy in which smart, hard-working people were losing faith in the idea of earned success?

“You have college-educated kids who aren’t finding jobs,” Ms. de Rothschild, 58 and currently CEO of the private investment firm E.L. Rothschild, told us later. “You do that for too long as a society, and people start questioning whether the system works, and then the system becomes something else. Now we have 25 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds thinking this system isn’t working. I am not happy with that.”

Later, Ms. de Rothschild was sitting in the perfumed living room of her duplex in the River House, an East Side co-op of such refined reputation that management has long discouraged brokers from the naming the building in advertisements. In another era, the co-op was famous for turning down Diane Keaton and Gloria Vanderbilt over the company they kept. Blackstone co-founder Peter Peterson and former Salomon Brothers chief John Gutfreund have moved, but Ms. de Rothschild’s friend Henry Kissinger still lives downstairs.

It seemed an exalted place to talk about the gap between rich and poor even before Ms. de Rothschild’s husband, Sir Evelyn, wandered down the stairs in shirt and tie, looking as if he’d just awoken from a nap.

“I thought your American visitors might enjoy this,” he said to his wife, then recited from the printed page in his hand: “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.” Did we know who wrote that? Thomas Jefferson!

“He was remarkably far-sighted, and of course, he had excellent taste in wine,” Sir Evelyn told us. (Unfortunately, none was offered.)

Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild’s Kinder, Gentler Capitalism