Posts Tagged ‘Inequality’

I learned recently about a new website, inequality.org, which bills itself as a project of the Institute for Policy Studies (a think tank in Washington, D.C. — we obviously need more D.C. think tanks). Inequality, specifically of the wealth and income type, is a trend that has been underway for decades. One has to be living under a rock not to have noticed by now where trends are pointed. The site linked to above no doubt contains quite a lot of information and resources, but I admit I don’t have the patience to wade in only to discover needless details of what is already well known. So where, in fact, has all the money gone? OxFam International provides a disturbing snapshot:

The Oxfam report An Economy for the 1%, shows that the wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population has fallen by a trillion dollars since 2010, a drop of 38 percent. This has occurred despite the global population increasing by around 400 million people during that period. Meanwhile, the wealth of the richest 62 has increased by more than half a trillion dollars to $1.76tr. The report also shows how women are disproportionately affected by inequality — of the current ‘62’, 53 are men and just nine are women.

The title of the Oxfam report is misleading, of course, because the numbers don’t support the populist reference to the 1%. In 2010, when the estimated midyear world population was 6,916,183,482, (6.9 billion, if you prefer) the number of people who accounted for half of the world’s wealth was 388, or 0.000000056% (that’s seven zeroes before the 56). In 2016, with an estimated midyear world population of 7,404,976,783 (or 7.4 billion), the now 62 people who account for half the world’s wealth (assuming the number 62 doesn’t diminish further between now and July 1) is 0.0000000084% (that’s eight zeroes before the 84). The absurdity of so few people having consolidated so much wealth, a trend that continued (probably accelerated) from 2010 to 2016, cannot be lost on any thinking person. Those dates are relatively arbitrary for purposes of comparison.

To say that economic systems are rigged in favor of the few is a statement of the obvious. No rational argument could be made that the value of social contribution or labor of a mere 62 people is equivalent to half the world’s population. Nor can it be reasonably argued that such large pools of money, stagnant or otherwise, are good for economic systems that require both liquidity and diversity. Is anything being done to dismantle this entrenched and deepening inequality? None that I can observe within the context of geopolitics or economics. However, considering how convinced I am that our economic arrangements will fail utterly when the house of cards we’ve built shakes itself apart, not least because so much of it is based on growth fueled by cheap energy that has been losing ROI for over a century, I would argue that what we are doing to ourselves by doing essentially nothing ought to crash things back to where the value of fiat currency is nothing. Poof: no more 1%, no more 0.000000056%, no more 0.0000000084%.

With the direction things are currently going, namely, the widening gulf between the rich (and therefore powerful) and everyone else (not just the poor anymore but the middle class, too), I have been puzzling over what makes gathering wealth and power to oneself so irresistible that those in the narrowest and highest corridors of power are content to reduce everyone and everything around them to squalor even as they sit atop their miserly hoards, staring balefully at the rabble below (if they even bother to look). What’s the point of acquiring fortunes if one ends up besieged?

Numerous answers to those questions arise throughout history. Some want to make their mark on the world, even if they end up being villains. Others thrive on venal manipulation of the rules of engagement for the sheer thrill of success, though how one measures success varies widely with context. Yet others have a psychotic or sociopathic impulse to destroy. What they have in common is a lack of moral restraint, a quality that would keep them from victimizing others without compunction. Those victims may be remote from view, but they exist nonetheless.

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Suffer the Rich

Posted: November 10, 2007 in Consumerism, Culture, Writing
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In his short story “The Rich Boy,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” I haven’t read the story in a long time, but as I recall, Fitzgerald goes on to describe the character of the very rich with an acute perceptiveness hard to imagine with today’s cluttered, distracted literary aesthetic. Writers simply don’t have the time and focus anymore to work out character the way writers of the past did. Being a product of this era, I’m also at a loss to describe the character of the rich accurately. But like power, I’m pretty well convinced excessive wealth has an absolutely corrupting influence.

Forbes magazine recently released its 25th annual ranking of the 400 richest Americans, so the idea of what constitutes being very rich thrust itself upon me with some renewed vigor. The article states that it now takes $1.3 billion just to make the list. So, um, pardon me, and believe me when I say this is not out of envy, but isn’t it rather obscene that there are 400 people in the U.S. who each possess that much wealth? Forbes says the collective amount is $1.54 trillion.

Numbers like those are just a snapshot, and I certainly don’t possess the wherewithal to comment meaningfully on something so far beyond the reckoning of an average wage slave. Still, what is one to make of this article by Reuters, reporting on the sorry fact that living well — that is, having a super luxurious lifestyle — now costs more than ever? Forbes actually keeps an index, not unlike the Consumer Price Index, called the Cost of Living Extremely Well Index (CLEWI), which tracks the price of a selection of luxury goods. That cost is apparently rising faster than the Consumer Price Index. So let me be among the first to shed a few crocodile tears that it’s increasingly difficult for the superrich to distinguish themselves from the merely rich.

If citing Fitzgerald isn’t obvious enough to the uninitiated, he lived during the Jazz Age, which followed behind the Gilded Age (roughly 1870s to the 1890s). The Gilded Age was characterized by radical polarization of wealth, not unlike our situation today. So Fitzgerald had the advantage of perspective and hindsight on the peculiarities of a certain class of people. If we’re currently in the midst of another Gilded Age, it may take a decade or two for some insight on those whom we might think twice before admiring.