Money, Wealth and Power

Who gets it? Who Keeps it? How much? Who decides?

Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash

Of all the problems the world is facing right now there seems to be one that links all of them together. From a certain point of view it is not a problem at all. Some see it as THE solution to all their problems. It has been a fact of life, probably ever since humans began to gather into groups, and especially after they settled down to become an agrarian society. It is the fact of the unequal possession of wealth, power and opportunity.

For several millennia now there have been a few very wealthy people, and a whole lot of poor folk who were under some obligation to support the wealthy. Throughout the ages there were different names for the rich: kings, queens, monarchs, emperors, dukes, noblemen, generals, chiefs, strongmen, oligarchs, industrials, bankers, monopolists, tycoons, and on to hedge fund managers, investment bankers, and other millionaires and now billionaires.

On the bottom, looking up, there have always been slaves, serfs, indentured servants, servants, share-croppers, all the way to Amazon warehouse workers, Walmart shelve stackers and McDonald’s burger flippers. These are people who work very hard, at monotonous but not difficult jobs, for as low a wage as the company can get anyone to work for.

The “Middle-Class” consisting of people who worked hard and earned enough to live well, but not in splendor, hardly existed until about 250 years ago. They began as the skilled craftsmen who did construction, ran shops, and acted as middlemen for the famers and shepherds that had things to sell. They did well as cities developed and not everyone lived off the land. These people often got crushed when there were bad years, wars, plagues, or just crazy rulers who over-taxed and over-punished.

Over the last thirty years, due to many unanticipated factors, including the technology that created instant communications, instant money transfers, global manufacturing, big data, big tech, huge tech, consolidation of older industries including fossil fuels, banking and other forms of international finance, the rich and powerful have increased their wealth and power, while the Middle-Class has struggled and the poor have suffered as usual.

I’m sure you are all familiar with the charts and graphs which show that the top 1% of the wealthy have increased their wealth more than everyone else, and about as much as everyone else combined.

This concentration of wealth and power has contributed to almost all of the other problems facing the US and the world. It is not that people actually make money that is a bad thing, a lot of people make money, and even more want to. Most of the immigrants who came to the US came with the idea that it was easier to make money here than any place else in the world.

In general, Capitalism is a good system. It encourages entrepreneurship, innovation, business formation, and customer service. But over the last forty years America has fostered a culture of profits above all else. “Shareholder value” has become more important than the quality of the product, the quality of the employees’ lives, the safety of the environment, and the morality of how a product, such a guns, bombs, drugs, and chemicals are used.

The bigger problem then becomes what people do with the huge amounts of money they collected. One of he worst things they do is buy governments.

In the US they buy governments through campaign contributions, through lobbyists, and through just plain bribery and corruption. It is corruption that always leads to the destruction of society. iI eats away at the trust people need to live and work together. Once people begin to feel that things are unfair the anger builds. Once the anger builds the tendency is for those with the power do things to protect their wealth. Governments become more authoritarian. Power and threats become the message more than negotiation and cooperation.

Without cooperation and negotiation it becomes much difficult to solve complex problems. We have seen that with the destruction of the climate, and the spread of a pandemic. If the rich run the government, the first things they do is protect their riches. They give themselves tax breaks, while cutting programs that help the poor and middle class. They select pro-business and pro-wealth judges. They get fancy lawyers who charge millions of dollars and know how to delay or dismiss all charges of corruption.

Corruption leads to money becoming more important than morals, such as selling weapons to any country that will buy them, without any concern for the people who end up under the bombs. It leads to the very rich buying up many media outlets, and then reporting the news in ways that praise and value the very rich. Those in power have the resources to spread messages of blaming and scapegoating other poor people and minorities for the trouble that the inequality of wealth causes. This allows them to pass more laws to protect their wealth and power.

The imbalance of wealth also causes a society to stagnate. It fights innovations that will disrupt the power of major industries. The world is going through major disruptions now, due to changes in technology. Many of the older industries are threatened and they didn’t see these changes coming. So they are fighting back with lies and distortions, trying to hold on to cash cows that have become inefficient, or even harmful to society.

How this problem will be resolved is very unclear at the moment. What is happening is that the people who have always been exploited or kept down are now making these injustices and disadvantages clear. They are asking for real equal opportunity. They are asking for a rebalancing of the wealth through governments, through wage improvements, through changes in opportunity, and through confronting discrimination, prejudice and exclusion.

However, there are few instances in all of history when those who have held a huge advantage of power and wealth have decided that their interests would be better served by sharing their wealth and giving up power. The US went through a difficult transition when it decided that slavery was not a proper energy policy. Slave holders didn’t agree, and they sent out the poor white people to die trying to preserve it.

What will happen over the next one to five years is not clear. Right now it looks as if there may be a few tweaks to the way wealth is taxed, and how those taxes are spent, so that the amount of suffering is diminished. Or, it could be that those with the wealth and power continue to hold tight and to do so they impose more restrictions on protests and reactions. I don’t think we are headed for a renewed use of the guillotine, but it is not unimaginable. Whose heads will roll is also not yet clear.

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