During his State of the Union Address, President Obama brought into the open, a topic we've all been mulling, lately… the worrisome rise in wealth and income disparity. Especially in the U.S., where two generations have grown up under the blithe illusion (unprecedented in human history) that matters of class are no-big-deal.
Knowing that we're about to discuss the calamitous effects of a rising plutocracy, some of you will click away.
Heck, I understand; we all have "elites" we are worried about, and others we deem to be goodguys. You conservatives out there have been taught to admire "job creators." But, before you leave, might I ask: is there some level of wealth disparity that YOU would at last find worrisome?
When one percent owns 80% of the wealth? When 0.01% owns 90%? When five people own it all?
== A hard-working oligarchy ==
Okay, we're not quite there yet. But the combined wealth of the world's richest 85 people is now equivalent to that owned by half of the world's population -- or 3.5 billion of the poorest people -- according to a new report from Oxfam. And that is roughly equivalent to the disparities seen just before the French Revolution.
It's important to note this does not mean 85 people own half the world's wealth! Though we all know that is rapidly changing, with both the first and second derivatives of wealth flow pouring toward about 1000 uber-aristocratic families.
Indeed, the same Oxfam report does address the "who owns half" question. The answer? Just 1 percent of the world's population controls nearly half of the planet's wealth, according to a report released ahead of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos.
This all boils down to being an IQ Test for zillionaires.
If they are as smart as the "trillies" I portray in Existence, they will start holding deeper meetings, to discuss the trait called "satiability" in order (if for no other reason) not to kill the golden goose and drive the world back toward class radicalism. Because this era is different from others in crucial ways. The middle class holds every expertise, in technologies that could be used in a mind-spinning variety of science-fictional ways. At such a time, the surest aristocracy intelligence metric will be whether they can act in their own self- interest, in time, keeping that middle class 90% hopeful, mobile and -- if necessary -- sovereign. And ensure that the middle class absorbs ever-greater numbers of the easily radicalized poor.
It is called enlightened self-interest. We see it among the smartest of the rich… the tech billionaires. (Who almost universally say: "raise my taxes!") But will the true heavyweights - those who got rich through favored-deal resource extraction or collusive financial manipulation, or CEO pay circle-jerking through interlocking directorates… or… by inheriting it) follow suit?
Or will they (as they have so far) replicate every impulse of the French aristocracy in 1789?
It's not too late to hold those honest meetings that I described in fiction. Failure to pass this test will prove they are just not smart enough to deserve the lordship that they seek.
== An IQ test already-failed ==
An extensive study into the financial networks that support groups denying the science behind climate change and opposing political action has found a vast, secretive web of think tanks and industry associations, bankrolled by conservative billionaires. It replicates - sometimes using the very same public relations firms - the successful 40 year delaying tactics used to stave off action on tobacco. But… why are they doing this? It cannot just be dullard obstinacy or short term self-interest to preserve the value of coal interests.
Could they be taking short positions on coastal properties? And maintaining buy-calls by convincing fools that the sea levels won't rise?
Are they aware that a radicalized future will look for exactly that kind of correlation, when seeking goats to scape for all the pain? Are they truly certain that the computers of 2030 will be unable to parse every twisted scheme… or that the homes of the schemers will not be given to climate refugees? No, sorry. There are no levels at which they are passing the IQ test.
Alas, that upsets me. Because even though I will fight for the Enlightenment to continue till we reach Star Trek, I admit the odds are always against us. And if the Enlightenment does fail, it would be better to be ruled by genius lords than dismally self-delusional ones.
== Speak of the devils ==
Read about the Koch Network of ultra-secret super Pac manipulation of US politics. Then, if you shrug, ask yourself -- is there ANY degree of this that might make you (or your Fox-watching uncle) suspicious or angry?
See the Koch Network (image from the Washington Post).
And here's a more leftist perspective… Who Buys the Spies? After pages of tedious ranting, this article finally gets to the point, promising to correlate who donates to political campaigns (from the wealthiest moguls and corporations) and who benefits from actions by those recipient politicians. It is hard to read past the leftist bile -- (there truly is danger on that side too, boys & girls: though muted at the moment) -- but still, the topic truly is interesting and I hope they eventually succeed in making a strong case for what we all know must happen… getting (most of the ) money out of politics.
Getting more fundamental. Do you believe that social class correlates with inherent superiority of mind or spirit? This was the absolute assumption across nearly all past ages and places, relentlessly preached from thrones and pulpits. Today, we're not supposed to believe in that, but rather in the self-made person, free of any burdens from the previous generation and able to prove yourself by innovation, work and goodwill alone.
Social Darwinism isn't Dead: Alas, the old way of thinking runs in our blood and is soooo tempting, especially when you are on top. Now researchers have found that higher social class was associated with greater social class essentialism, or belief that your class derived from inherent birth quality far above any other factors… like luck. This pattern remained even after controlling for political orientation as well as objective measures of a participant’s income and education level, indicating that it’s one’s sense of being above or below others, not one’s actual resources, that drives the result.
Just glance at human history and the endless waves of rationalizations for rule-by-inherited-oligarchy. This is in our blood, our bones. It is what we do.
== Irony heaped upon Irony ==
See The Geography of the American Dream in The Atlantic. Class rigidity and lack of social mobility have been measured in a study that ranks all 100 largest U.S. cities for the chances of a person born poor to rise from the bottom 20% to the top 20%. All except just three of the bottom 21 cities are in Old Dixie. "In other words: virtually all of this nation’s class-rigidity still remains in the U.S. South, even after the Civil War."
I would quibble with "virtually all"… but it shows how the cultural traits that got a million poor whites to fight (bravely) and die for a few thousand slave owners still lives on.
== And finally… more good news ==
All told, health care costs have been growing more slowly over the last three years than any other time period since 1965. More recently, yearly health cost growth slowed from an average rate of 3.9 percent between 2000 and 2007 to 1.3 percent between 2011 and 2013.
and… nearly 2 billion people have gained access to clean toilets, or at least a decent outhouse, since 1990, the nonprofit UNICEF Thursday. But toilets aren't only the reason the world is becoming a better place for kids. Children around the globe today have more access to education, medicine and food than they did two decades ago. Though we still have a long way to go!
Oh, but… 6500 highway bridges in the U.S. in "failing" condition.
And… How the US, during the 2000s, let itself be out maneuvered and cornered out of Rare Earth elements mining and marketing and manufacturing, to become utterly dependent upon China.
So it's mixed and complicated? get used to it. Complexity is the source of our hope. Relearn how to negotiate.