Republicans and Democrats have spent the past 40 or so years divesting in us. Grotesquely-devout capitalists run both houses, and the rest do as their financier’s command- cut taxes and regulations, and bulk-up security to deal with the mess.
‘Reducing the cost of government’ as they excuse it, has pushed an added 6% of our children below the poverty line while helping a few individuals score almost half the world’s wealth i. Now our ‘America-1st’ president has lit an even-bigger fire-sale than the arsonists he deposed. Our military is only thing slated to grow. But says it can’t find recruitment-age Americans healthy enough to serve (which I’ll discuss below).ii With considerable state plumbing, enough capital trickles down for us to survive. Without it the trickle grows to a waterfall, except it flows up.
As the state improves its means to liquidate us, we turn -of all places- to the bidders. Despite the obvious link between their growth and our decline (and if you believe the press, which their kind own), Bill Gates’ charity and Elon Musk’s hotwheels in space can provide hope in dark times. But hope for what? Private fortunes aren’t a source of democracy. They don’t even advance partisan goals, at least as middle, working-class, or nominally-rich voters count them. 40% of 2016 election contributions came from the top 0.01%.iii That was enough for the Democrats to all but discard their Union and working-class base and still raise the most money. And enough for the Republicans to win, anyway. But also enough to stand our democracy -elites from both parties competing for our attention- on its head. Jeff Bezoz, for example, gave nearly equal support to Democrats and Republicans. Whether for specific investment goals (like the ‘Amazon amendment’, which ties him to the $53b the government spends on office supplies iv), or for broader political goals, class -not partisan- politics arms both sides. And arming the rich against the poor is no act of democracy.
But, according to a recent Koch Brothers memo, it is working. Their spokesman says they’re giddy enough to dump around $400mil into the midterm elections. Once critics of Trump, to hear them now, our cancerous president is wrecking the place, suitably, and according to their plan.v
Of course, not everyone’s a ruthless libertarian who can ignore that buying elections doesn’t free them. Philanthropist-types like Bill Gates pull their weight, right? Well, Gates warned the Trump kakistocracy that even a 10% cut in US aid would mean 5 million deaths over the next decade.vi Gates also said he and his ilk could not pick up the tab. By their own figures, the Gates Foundation contributes just over $3bn a year to development, which is around 10% of what the government spends, and about 2% of the global sum.vii
On the other hand, Gates told Tomas Pikety he did not want to pay more in taxes, but figured we should put a progressive tax on consumption, instead. A high tax on Teslas and a low tax on Earth-bound clunkers sound good, but its the opposite of what we have now. How progressive a tax code, how much of an about-face, should we expect when the 1% dictate taxes?
We know Microsoft, for one, already ducks a lot of taxes. Foreign subsidiaries license software to Microsoft USA, earning them royalties that are not taxed by the US at all, nor by anyone at more than 3%. According to Senate reports, Microsoft does 85% of its work in the US, yet avoids at least 2.5b in taxes.viii
In fairness, Gates has not been in charge since 2006 and as of this year, owns surprisingly little, 1.9% of its stock. But it did make him exceedingly rich, the richest man ever, and by his own admission, richer than he can justify. As of February 2018, he’s a net worth of $89.3 billion. The Foundation’s money comes from all over. Still, pretending it’s all his would put his contribution at just over 3% of his worth, per year. Leaving him more than $85b for rent and groceries. This makes him history’s greatest philanthropist.
For contrast, the average soldier earns $35,592 annually, or $17.50 /hr.ix Pay aside, they have the legal stature of slaves. If they don’t lose life or limb, nor have to fight trauma or addiction, etcetera, giving away $1,000 of it per year pairs them percentage-wise with Bill Gates. That said, 69% of Americans don’t have $1000, and grunts likely fit this category. Still, I suspect they are charitable with their time and money, outside of work, in access of 3%. I suspect the same of most middle, working-class, and poor civilians. But Bill Gates’ level of commitment, we know, is not typical of the 1%.
And what does Bill Gates count as charity? According to his most-recent, Annual Letter:
Sometimes we use more complex financial deals to bring in the private sector. For example, donors can remove some of the risks for companies by guaranteeing them that they will either get a certain price for their product or sell a certain volume of it… Agriculture companies like Monsanto (!) are making seeds that could help farmers in poor countries grow more food, earn more money, and adapt to climate change. And we work with mobile-phone providers like Vodafone so that more poor people can save money, make payments, and borrow through their phone.
Needless to say, I don’t handle stacks of money, and can’t extol best practices. Nor do I accuse Bill Gates of self-dealing, or predation, or -at least knowingly- fraud. The Gates Foundation has been laudably transparent, and responsive to it its critics. But the name Monsanto is the stuff of horror, not charity. And Vodaphone is being investigated for its acquisitions ‘that raise serious questions as to how western firms enter Africa’s telecoms markets’.x And there’s the pharma companies…
Early on Gates said the goal was to make the aspects of capitalism that work for wealthy people work for poor people as well. He seems to have abandoned that line, rightly, since, if capitalism is working, it works by divesting in the middle, working-class, and poor. Low wages, high-interest loans, lacking health care, and exceedingly-regressive tax codes are its wins.
Which returns us to soldiers. The Army wants to add an extra 17,000 in 2018. But complains that most of Gen-Z are either too obese or depressed to qualify. Only 9.7 million of the 33.4 million recruitment-age Americans can pass fitness, medical, misconduct, substance use, and mental health requirements. And of those, fewer than 1 in 5 passes with scores recruiters like. And of those, the USAREC figures not more than 136,000 young people would even consider joining. That is, they’ve failed to engage all but >½ of 1% of their targets.xi
But if America’s youth is unfit even for the bonds of slavery, it means the US government has failed 99.5% of its young people. In the Army Times column that sourced these stats, recruiters blamed ‘technology’ (who made that?) for the lack of interest, but it might be that they can’t find healthy, happy people because education, housing, and healthcare budgets have been decimated by our overweight military. 21% of American children live below the poverty line. Up from around 15% of their parent’s generation, because of divestment.xii Mind, should they enlist, their blood and sweat go to defending and advancing corporate investments abroad, not national security. (How many soldiers you think want to defend Monsanto, brewers of Agent-Orange?) And these corporations, by cannibalizing the state, are what’s killing Americans, not some farmers in Afghanistan. But don’t expect either party to explain this.
The other day I read how ‘single-issue groups’ like Black Lives Matter we’re draining liberal votes, though, if we’re locked in a struggle between liberalism and racist-populism, draining them -I’m not sure where. (Democrats tend to sputter excuses with as much poise and melody as deflating balloons.) Should we take directions from above and not below than we the middle, working-class, and poor will not build coalitions. I for one do not expect help to come from ‘progressive’ candidates in the mid-term election (I mean the same straw Democrats but with the word ‘progressive’ stickered on them). How much progressive legislation should we anticipate when their biggest donors are starting their own insurance company? Of course, had they worked for their people instead of for the billionaires, they wouldn’t be out of office in so many districts, anyway.
It’s a small thing, but if we start by ditching straw ideas like ‘charity’ we might start recognizing the real contributions of all our ‘single-issue groups’ and start building a real democracy. Then we can take back words like ‘Left’ and ‘Progressive’, maybe even revive ‘Democrat’ one day.
iii. Adam Bonica, Stanford University; World Wealth and Income Database (wealth share)