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Is Equality Overrated, Too?

Photo by Laurie Avocado | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Laurie Avocado | CC BY 2.0

 

Some say we are embarking on new times, where fake truth is stranger than fake fiction, where rural life has retaken a rusted world, where the new rulers want to show us how a real “free” market system works. In fact, the latest rulers want to pull their own levers, all of them. Perhaps it has ever been thus, though never so brazenly obvious as a citizen-billionaire accepts the American crown for the first time. As Mr Moneybags goes to Washington, the number of dollars one hoards is now the official measure of a man. Indeed, in Trumpland there are only 2 kinds of people: winners and losers.

The net worth of the winners? The 2016 Forbes 400 U.S. wealth ranking (simple called “The List”) tots up to $2.4 trillion, though money is an odd measure of wealth since the US also scores the world’s highest rate of child poverty at more than 32% (the next worst are the UK at 25.6% and New Zealand at 18.4%). “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of furniture” was an early clarion call to a freer and fairer world. Apparently one can be happy without a table, chairs, or food to feed one’s family as long as one’s happy. Strange times indeed when 400 people have $2.4 trillion, while one third of American children live in very unhappy poverty. Cue a real revolution in the home of the unmoneyed brave.

Interestingly, Donald Trump was listed by Forbes at $3.7 B, good for 156th place on The List, tied with 17 others, including 5 members of the Johnson cleaning products family, a Campbell Soup heiress, the FedEx founder, and Steven Spielberg. Trump’s stated wealth from television and real estate makes him a true blue American “one-percenter” (actually 0.00005% if you do the math: 156/319 million). Another member whose dues are wanting.

There are more notables if you want to know how our habits make billionaires of others: Jeff Bezos (#2, $67 B, Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (#4, $55.5 B, Facebook), various Waltons (total $255 B, Wal-Mart), and Michael Dell (#20, $20 B, computers) as well as Michael Bloomberg, the Koch brothers, Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch, David Geffen, George Lucas, Ross Perot, Mark Cuban, David Rockefeller, Howard Schultz, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Wynn, and Herbert Hunt, who variously made their billions from financial services, oil, media, entertainment, casinos, and coffee. Next time you buy from a corporate outlet, you can mark how the rich get richer. Local is the way to keep from getting lost in the global machinations of a world run neither of, by, or for its citizens.

Oxfam also tots up the annual world wealth numbers, typically timing its release with the start of the “World Economic Forum” in mid-January. The top money meeting in the snow-kissed alpine town of Davos, Switzerland, is the AAA-list get-together for the global Richie Riches. This year’s stated theme is “Responsive and Responsible Leadership,” while “Shaping the Future of Consumption” is at the top of 14 planned “System Initiatives.” For the less-moneyed that means finding how to get the regular cash-strapped Joe and Jane hoi polloi to spend more. Meg Whitman (#309, $2.3 B, eBay) is a co-chair. The Davos “Insight Report” on what’s ahead notes that, “The next decade is expected to be the golden age of the consumer, with shoppers having more choices and control than ever before.” Cue the canned laugh track. Cue the outrage.

Last year, Oxfam’s calculations showed that 62 people equalled 3.5 billion, moneywise. The year before, 85 had as much wealth as half the world’s population. This time round the numbers are even worse: “just eight men own the same wealth as the poorest half of the world,” primarily because the poor have been getting even poorer. A single digit? With such obscene amounts of inequality, one cannot call our world fair, democratic, or enlightened. Oxfam called it “beyond grotesque.”

I wonder how a billionaire sleeps without waking up in horror like that mad man on the bridge in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (#18, $125 million)? I suppose the first thing one does is look in the mirror and say, “Hi there gorgeous, I’m Bill Gates and I’m worth $81 billion, but because of trickle-down economics and a rigged tax system I make the world a better place.” Never mind the total take, his annual swings alone are more than anyone not on The List makes in a lifetime.

By the end of his life, John D. Rockefeller, the richest man ever in relative terms (his wealth was 1.6% of the U.S. GDP at the time of his death) was apt to give away dimes to random people on the street. As the typically laconic Rockefeller remarked in an address at Brown University (where his son was a student), “The growth of large business is merely a survival of the fittest … It is merely the working out of the law of nature and the law of God.” Indeed, the rich are ever anointing themselves. But where is the empathy to feely the deep pain of others?

What does Donald Trump say in his mirror? Of course, the new Pinball Wizard wants us to believe all will be rosy just like the last macro man in chief, but “Yes we can” is now “Pull the other one.” Cue whatever smells worse: 43 million people on food stamps, millions more without meaningful work, excessive Monopoly money hoarding. I know many of us were taught that kindness, neighbourliness, and humility are noble virtues, but it is clear to Mister $3.7 B, 156th place Moneybags that winning is all that matters. Indeed, who wishes a Happy New Year “including to my many enemies” with tweeted addenda to those who “lost so badly.”

In my day, one had only to read Ann Landers or Dear Abby in their hugely popular syndicated columns to see everyday virtue on display, from offering the aged a hand to letting a date discover your best values rather than gauchely trumpeting your own best bits, from not gossiping about friends to not talking loudly on a commuter train. I learned as much from the Phillips sisters Ester (Ann) and Pauline (Abby) as from my parents. My dad’s best advice after my occasional poorly chosen group activity: “Would you jump off a cliff just because everyone else did?” My mother’s was just as harsh: “If you go out like that they will think you don’t have a mother.” Most lessons are hard won in regular life.

Today on social media, we see similar sentiments regularly rotated in feel-good videos and happy cat cartoons. One making the rounds is a post by ersatz presidential candidate Bernie Sanders: “A great nation is judged not by how many millionaires and billionaires it has, or by the size of its military budget. It is judged by how well it treats its weakest and most vulnerable citizens. A truly great nation is one that is filled with compassion and solidarity.” Here, here, or in modern parlance, I pressed “Like” on that one. And from Nelson Mandela: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

One has to wonder though with a billionaire pulling the levers now if it’s all about winning and losing, the US legally registered as a business. Mister $3.7 B, 156th place Moneybags wants to bring an individual solution to a commons problem, working his magic from above, economics his only idea of strength. Hail to the new Libertarian lord leader as he assembles his billion-dollar inner cabinet star chamber cum security network. Forget about decency and manners. Forget about equal access and opportunity. We now live in a Halloween version of The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Like Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who believed that financial freedom was the biz before he started pulling levers that benefited only the few, Trump will serve his real master – money. Greenspan was inspired by Ayn Rand, the supposed prime mover of personal and financial freedom, who watched her family lose all in the Russian Revolution, yet nonetheless showed up at the White House to watch her protégé being sworn in as Lord Fed Lever, thereby undermining the prime directive of Libertarian non-interventionism. They came to bury Caesar not to praise him. In truth, they praised and praised him with every new minted coin. Atlas didn’t shrug, Atlas fainted.

There is indeed a new strain of me-first pretend free-spirits, who claim the world is yours for the taking if you grab it by the moneyed tail. Hell, they’ll even quote the scripture, saying God helps those who help themselves, but then of course scripture is like astrology where you can see whatever you want. Honestly, how can a rigger unrig a rigged system? If the rich keep getting richer in an unfair system how is that anything other than lies?

One must realize the revolutionary achievement though as Donald Trump ascends to the top slot on the all-seeing eye-capped pyramid. Not won with muskets at Yorktown or the Bastille, but at the head of a squeaky-clean, 0.0005-percent tweet force. Will he now work equally on behalf of all citizens, balancing taxes, security, and the needs of everyday workers? But there’s the rub – how can one balance all interests? We cannot all be rich, we cannot all be equally insured, we cannot all pay no taxes. Success cannot logically accrue to everyone: autoworkers, veterans in waiting lines, the unlucky infirmed, …, (the 43 million unmentionables).

We will soon call it Trumponomics. We had Reaganomics, a system that saw taxes lowered from 70% to 50% and then to 28% while the national debt tripled from $900 billion to $3 trillion. In contrast, Obama only doubled the national debt (roughly $10 to $20 trillion). Of course, unless the money makers run out of paper, the New Masters can print greenbacks until the sun goes red giant and then white dwarf. I hear the plan now is to further reduce the top-rate taxes. There is no end to the fairytale Libertarian levering, though one really ought to check the cards they play with.

So who benefits (Cui bono)? The 0.0005% and their revolutionary new leader or the rest, many who work at jobs that don’t revolve around money 24/7, doctors, teachers, bus drivers, hell, everyone other than the hallowed few. That 8 people can have as much wealth as 3.5 billion is not a success but a failure. How have we tumbled so far?

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some tweet their own horn to appear great, profit and loss measured solely in dollars and nonsense. But money should never trump wisdom, private wealth our commonwealth, or consumer convenience consumer conscience. When we enable the common in our commonwealth, we find the real measure of our individual humanity.

Will court life change Mr Moneybags and remake the modern man? Or will Casino USA start to implode? As a measure of a president, let’s see how many places the new king goes up on The List after the dust settles. Will he do “very very well” for him or you? Just ask in whose interest the main men serve as financial freedom fixers, and whether they saved I or thou. To the victor go the spoils? Or are the victors spoiling the world for all but the few?

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John K. White, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Physics, University College Dublin, and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: john.white@ucd.ie.

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