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article imageOp-Ed: Bah Humbug! The economy of 2014 in a nutshell

By Glen Olives     Dec 16, 2014 in Politics
As 2014 comes to a close, new studies conclude what we already knew: the middle class is steadily disappearing and the rich are getting richer. What’s worse, this trend is apparently endemic to our economic system, and there is no end in sight.
Yes, I know, this is not the kind of feel-good story one might expect during the holiday season. Unless of course you're wealthy, in which case the end-of-year economic data now rolling in is a steady stream of good news. The Dow Jones broke record highs throughout the year, and while globally there are fewer desperately poor than there were a decade ago (people earning less than a dollar per day), dirt-poor is still-dirt poor now matter how you slice it. The middle class, meanwhile, continues to take a beating. A hard beating. And income inequality is at its highest point since the Great Depression.
Even with this sobering, if not depressing news, I’m not an anti-capitalist, really. I’m not a member of the communist party. For half of my life I’ve been a Republican. I don’t have a beard. Or wear hemp sandals. Or smoke pot (anymore). I’m a middle-aged, balding, somewhat jowly, pasty-skinned WASP. I drive an SUV. Oddly, strangers sometimes ask me for investment advice. When I am required to don a suit and tie I could pass for a banker. People part ways for me at airports. Fellow passengers expectantly ask me what I do, undoubtedly expecting something interesting like I’m a real estate developer who owns a chain of strip malls in New Jersey. When I tell them I’m a teacher their disappointment is palpable. But I digress.
Some things in western civilization, and particularly within American society, are sacred to the point of being unassailably, incontrovertibly, self-evidently, good, even divine. One is our founding document, the Constitution–the shortest and vaguest constitution in the world. The other isn’t a document but rather a concept, an economic theory, a construct of the human mind–free market capitalism. People tend to conflate the two, and they shouldn’t. In 1787 the concept of capitalism as we now understand it didn’t even exist, nor did the concept of the business corporation; indeed, our Constitution is silent with regard to what economic theory the United States should operate. When I tell my students this they seem genuinely baffled. It’s a look that says, “Democracy, the Constitution, the free market: They’re not all the same thing?” It is, of course, not their fault. These three things have for so long been inextricably linked together that they have become inseparably intertwined. They shouldn't be.
But lest William F. Buckley and Robin Leach channeled through Stuart Varney unleash a fusillade of aut maledictione at me for being liberal socialist apologist, and in the grandest tradition of the great polemicists, let me first make the case–to the extent my own cognitive limitations will allow–for capitalism in all its divinely-inspired, orgiastic, glistening, sweaty glory.
Hundreds of books have been written by economists and historians about capitalism, and the history of capitalism has even grown into its own sub-discipline within some university history departments. For the sake of brevity, then, I will skip the early origins of capitalism such as the banking innovations of Italy’s Medici family; there’s lots of excellent scholarship out there about this as well as many fine documentaries. No, what I’m concerned with is the modern, post-industrial revolution free market capitalism of the 20th Century and beyond. And what a glorious century is has been for capitalists! First, let’s skip over some of the minor bumps in the road, the unpleasant underbelly of the free market: the Dickensian labor abuses during the industrial revolution and well into the 21st Century, the Great Depression, the stagflation of the 1970s, the abject greed of the hostile takeover era of the 1980s (I had to take repeated hot showers after reading Barbarians at the Gate the first time and I still can’t get the stench off me). Then the Russian’s threw in the tea towel, and we can now safely say that the only viable world economic system alive and kicking today is capitalism (with some notable varying strains such as Chinese state capitalism, and even some minor exceptions such as socialism in Cuba and Venezuela). Then again, the subprime mortgage-induced financial meltdown of 2008 (the Great Recession) kind of knocked us on our ass, from which we’re still rubbing the sore spot and limping a little. The frenzy of getting rich quick without really trying, effectively turning Wall Street into a Las Vegas casino, seems to have become a recurring theme, from the Roaring 20s to the Roaring 80s to the Roaring early-00s. After all, we are only human, and instances of our worst flaws are bound to manifest themselves in any human endeavor. Economics is, as we well know, a social science and not a hard science. We’re bound to make mistakes, learning as we go.
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With the digression of those unpleasantries aside, let us turn to the benefits that capitalism has conferred upon the world; as it turns out there are many. Capital markets are much more efficient than government-controlled markets–just ask the Soviets. No one is waiting in line for bread in in countries with capitalist economies. American consumers are spoiled for choice, from organic haricot verts to the latest smartphone to miraculous penis-enhancing pharmaceuticals (I wouldn’t know anything about the latter, I swear). In a capitalist system too, the individual is the master of his own universe–capitalists love the idea of a meritocracy to the point of codifying it as scripture; and the overall social good and upward mobility historically supplied by capitalist systems cannot be easily denied. Arguably, if thrifty-enough even the low-wage worker has the opportunity to save money, and spend money within the local and national economy, contributing to jobs in other areas, creating a vast web of economic connectivity, of interdependent consumerism, where all benefit. So far so good, and there is more good news. Capitalism inexorably leads to economic growth over time (despite occasional setbacks) and constant innovation. Where a particular commodity turns scarce, for example, the profit motive provides an incentive to find a solution. And Americans are innovation junkies, hooked on the hard stuff, stoned on creativity, looking for the next fix even before the high wears off. Henry Ford famously said something to the effect that if he had asked potential customers what they wanted they would have told him to make faster horse. He created, instead, the mass-produced automobile. Steve Jobs followed in the same tradition of creative innovation and made products we didn’t even know we wanted, and still can’t get enough of, even after we’re holding them in our fat hands, safe on the sofa, far away from the crowds of the Apple store, guiltily wondering how to hide the next credit card bill from our partners. It is hard to imagine the amazing breakthroughs in medicine and public health which has given humans an average a life expectancy of 78 years, compared to 31 years in the early 20th Century, without the capitalist motive. Big-Pharm can cure anything that ails you from testicular warts to toenail fungus–for a price of course (someone’s got to pay for all that R&D). Air travel is faster and safer, vehicle travel is faster and safer, largely due to product competition, and the sciences funded through government spending, financed largely by taxes paid by capitalists, have given us impressive breakthroughs in every imaginable discipline. Civilian space travel is just around the corner and there is no shortage of people willing to pay the exorbitantly high price for a ticket. All of these things are touted, and I think rightfully so, by the conservative right as examples of the benefits of our economic system.
But I think they make the mistake of taking one step too-far. For conservative political commentators and economists, the free market has become a cure-all; it has become, as it were, not a flawed-but-useful economic theory, but rather a dogma, with Adam Smith as its god, and his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, its bible. No doubt one reason for this is the utter simplicity of the concept. (Simple good. Me like simple.) The market will decide which businesses are successful and which businesses fail, which products win-over the public and which don’t, and all this without government regulation or intervention, and with very low (if any) taxes in order to encourage investment and the accumulation of wealth. It is an elegant theory, even beautiful. It is also deeply flawed in many ways. The most obvious flaw of all being that the “market” consists entirely of the human species. We are, to put it as diplomatically as possible, not especially rational creatures; moreover, we are plagued by all sorts of ugly traits like greed, prejudice and nepotism, just to name a few. It’s in our nature.
It was once argued (and curiously still is by some), for example, that capitalism is the friend of the middle class. And if you confine your research to three decades in the middle of the 20th Century, it is hard to argue the point otherwise. I don’t think the argument carries much weight now. The sad cliché “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is true. As in empirically, factually true. In a recent New York Times article, Nelson D. Schwartz pointed out, based on research done by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, that in 1992 the share of personal consumption expenditures for the top 5 percent of income earners was 27 percent. In 2012 it was 38 percent, an increase of 11 percent. At the same time, the bottom 80 percent of income earners share of personal consumption expenditures fell from 46.6 percent to 39 percent, representing a decrease of over 7 percent. This is confirmed by industry giants such as General Electric, where the sales of high-end appliances dwarf the sales of mass-market, middle-class models. High-end retailers are enjoying a boom in sales of luxury goods, while discount retailers are on the verge of bankruptcy. According to Forbes,sales at family restaurants like the Olive Garden and Red Lobster are barely enough to keep them open, while upscale restaurants are enjoying a renaissance, despite fewer people dining out. Middle-class households are increasingly relying on food stamps and Salvation Army thrift shops to get by. In a 2012 Pew Research Center report, only 50 percent of households were middle income, compared to 61 percent in the 70s. And according to the Economic Policy Institute, cited by CNN, the richest 1 percent of the population are 288 times richer than the median, up from 121 times in 1962. But wait, it gets worse. As it turns out, we Americans are the lucky ones. According to Credit Suisse, the richest 1 percent of the global population own almost 50 percent of total global wealth. Oxfam published research that the world’s richest 85 people share the combined wealth of the world’s poorest 8.5 billion people. If this sickening accumulation of wealth continues, as it very likely will, within another generation there will be no middle class. We will have only the obscenely wealthy and the desperately poor. The Hunger Games as reality writ large. Thank you Adam Smith and your intellectual progeny!
Americans tend to be quite insular. It seems we don’t get out much. Only about 30 percent of us have passports. If we travelled more, we would see that this grossly imbalanced distribution of wealth is the global norm. In Mexico, for example, where both rural and inner-city poverty is gut-wrenching, where 42 percent of the population live below the national poverty line and some 40 million people live on less than five dollars a day (and where American factories are scrambling to set up shop for some of that deliciously cheap Mexican labor), the net worth of the 14 richest Mexicans exceeds $148 billion dollars according to Forbes. I have lived in Mexico for more than a decade, where washing car windows at traffic lights is not a job for the homeless, it’s a career. In America, working as a burger-flipper is no longer a part-time job for teenagers, it too is a career. But don’t worry–we’re catching up to Mexico fast.
Photo Bucket Stock Photo
Now, you can’t really argue with the numbers, or the general trend, as the math just isn’t that hard. So conservatives can only respond in two ways. This first is to say that this imbalance of wealth is perfectly fine, that’s the way the market is supposed to operate, and the results are fair, in which case you are a philosophically consistent, and perhaps even intellectually honest (in the narrowest sense) asshole. The second response is to acknowledge the unfortunate present inequities, but blame them on something else, e.g., the government, in which case you an intellectually dishonest self-absorbed snake oil salesman, or at the very least, a self-deluded boob. Most conservatives fall into the latter of the two camps, so let’s address their argument head-on.
If you are a fan of FOX News, which I am, you are surely familiar with the stale arguments in defense of free-market capitalism. The central tenor of these arguments is that if the government would just get out of the way, let American Exceptionalism turn its swag on through individual initiative, lift the heavy burden of taxes and regulation, and not meddle in the affairs of business, such as raising the minimum wage to make it (at least barely) a living wage, or “picking winners and losers” in the clean energy market, then we would be demonstrably better-off. I mean, my God, man, can’t you remember the glory days of the Reagan years? Yes, I do actually remember the Reagan years: the savings and loan crisis, deregulation which eventually gave us the gift of ENRON, the tax cuts, and the subsequent tax increases to balance the budget. I also remember the Clinton years, where pragmatic non-ideological policies produced the greatest spurt of economic growth in American history, where the budget deficit was turned into a surplus, where the debt clock had to be removed from its Sixth Avenue home because there was no longer any debt. And I remember the debt clock’s re-installation in 2004 due to, by-and-large, the wildly irresponsible military spending of George W. Bush, and his reckless economic policies.
The argument that the government is inept, and does far more harm than good when it interferes with the economy, is the mantra of conservatives. At the height of the Great Recession when conservative commentators were quite literally salivating at the Obama administration’s lack of success at turning the economy around, and using the government loan-backed Solyndra bankruptcy as the poster-boy of how the government can only fuck things up when it comes to business enterprise, is a prime example. The rhetoric, does not of course, comport with the facts. Public-private partnerships have always been beneficial, especially when individual entrepreneurs are understandably reluctant to risk it all on unproven technologies. Paul Krugman (the proverbial thorn in the side of conservative thinkers) recently pointed out in a New York Times op-ed that Solyndra, whose bankruptcy cost U.S. taxpayers some $528 million dollars, was balanced by the fact that the same government program included investments in other green energy companies that are on track to return an investment of at least $5 billion dollars. While conservative commentators were shouting down reasoned voices like Krugman’s, apparently with the belief that if you shout it loud enough and often enough, like Pentecostal serpent-handling preachers, or Deepak Chopra, people will start to listen. The fact is that the government is no worse nor better than other investors at picking winners and losers. Krugman also points out that the Oracle of Omaha himself, Warren Buffett, recently lost $873 million in a Texas energy company. The fact is that when the government can help, it should. Sadly, our current economic recovery is largely tilted toward the rich and away from the middle class. The rich have political power because they have money, and now after the Citizens’ United case, there is no real limit to how much they can contribute to political campaigns, which may be the best investment of all for conservatives. This investment in politicians is almost assuredly bound to bear fruit of the most nutritious and nutritious variety: even lower taxes, fewer regulations, and richer rich people.
Another mantra touted by the right is that higher corporate taxes would discourage investment and the hiring of new workers, but this can easily be demonstrated as a canard of almost embarrassing proportions. Suppose, for example, that a business person, a personal friend who you have the utmost trust, comes to you with an opportunity where if you invest $250,000 you can make $5 million over a five year period. He shows you the business model and plan and you crunch the numbers together. But the next day he comes back into your office, looking somewhat dejected. He tells you that Congress voted to raise business taxes back to their Clinton levels, and because of this his previous estimate of return would only be $4.5 million. According to conservatives, your response could only be, “Only four and a half million? Fuck it! Get the fuck out of my office!”
Now, it could be that conservatives really do believe these economic principles are fair and do not favor the rich over the poor or middle class. I just don’t see how they can. The arguments against them are just too reasonable, too sane. The window dressing of common sense lurking behind the curtain of conservative free-market economic theory is attractive, to be sure, but when examining the historical facts and empirical data, “voodoo” supply-side economics just doesn’t work, at least for formerly middle class workers.
I don’t want to live in a communist world. While the model of Wealth of Nations capitalism is surely flawed, communism is by far worse, hands-down, because of the many things it doesn’t do, like take into account the human condition (just like capitalism). During the Cold War, Soviet citizens did not live in an egalitarian, harmonious, society. Not only did the average citizen suffer from the inefficiencies of central planning, smart people, well-connected people, powerful people all got special perks like cars and dachas and international travel, just to name a few things. We humans desire, we want to consume, we want to accumulate wealth, we want our children to have better lives than we do. It’s human nature, and capitalism doesn’t just acknowledge this, it embraces it; capitalism, like the Devil himself, is a fan of man. The problem for capitalism is to find its place again in the modern world, the world of globalization, the world of information technologies and services, a world where manufacturing no longer creates the wealth it once did, at least in fully developed societies.
Soon there will be no middle class, just the unbelievably wealthy and the dirt poor. Most super-rich don’t seem to have a problem with this. Some, though, like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Ted Turner, among others, are actually humans; they’re intent on giving much of their wealth away; in some small way keeping the heads of the less fortunate above the water. Apparently, they oddly enough, are actually capable of feeling empathy. They recognize the inherent inequality as it exists in the world, at least intellectually, and perhaps even emotionally. But they are by all accounts in the distinct minority. One thing we can do, indeed should do as a society, is to recognize the flaws of capitalism, reject the tenants of communism or any other form of totalitarianism, and modify our sacred economic model to embrace socialism. There, I said it. Socialism. Conservatives have succeeded, wildly so, in making the ‘S’ word sound dirty, un-American, lurid. Like the ‘F’-word: France. But what they won’t tell you as that they’re socialists too, as we all are. If you pay into Social Security Trust Fund, as most of us do, and expect to withdraw income from it when you retire, as most of us will, you’re a socialist. If you believe that the crippled, the unlucky ones by virtue of the happenstance of their birth, should not be cast out by society, shouldn’t be sterilized or euthanized, should rather be taken care of, you are a socialist. If you believe that we should pay reasonable taxes so that roads are repaired and the garbage is disposed of and the environment is protected and police serve the public, you are a socialist. And if you are a conservative who thinks that corporations should not pay taxes (many of them of course don’t due to our convoluted tax laws) because they are the “job creators” you are a socialist too–a corporate socialist.
Conservatives have been blinded by the dogma of free market capitalism and defend it as if it is a revealed truth. It isn’t. It’s an economic model that requires lots of patches, lots of modifications, lots of adjustments and fixes to work at all. One last dirty word–the ‘P’ word, and no it isn’t Progressive policies, it’s Pragmatism. In the spirit of Benjamin Franklin, let’s stop worrying about keeping our favorite ideologies pristinely intact at the expense of the real-world economy and social equality.
The power of the capitalist mindset can be most recently seen in a bill which would provide corporate and business tax relief worth $440 billion dollars over 10 years, while letting provisions helping low income earners like the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit expire. This, ironically, comes at a time when corporate earnings are skyrocketing due, as least in part, to two phenomena: outsourcing and crowdsourcing. Outsourcing has been around for many decades and is a relatively simple concept. If you move your manufacturing business (and even some service businesses) to countries where wages are lower, your profits are higher. To keep shareholders happy, the well-paid manufacturing job, providing for a middle-class, respectable life, has gone the way of the Kinhasi Spray Toad (for those of you who aren’t zoologists, this is the rarest animal alive on earth). If you’re an educated high-wage earner, you’re next, thanks to the concept of crowdsourcing (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Why should businesses pay full-time, credentialed professionals, when they can pay pennies for people to perform small tasks take surveys, review new cars, post original photographs, write ad copy, transcribe interviews, perform R&D, among thousands of other things? Jacob Silverman’s article “The Crowdsourcing Scam” published in The Baffler is a brilliant essay on this practice, and illustrates just how nimble free-market corporatism can be at increasing productivity while cutting costs, at the cost, of course, of well-paying full-time professional jobs. And part of the increased profits earned from this practice goes into the increasingly higher earnings of “super professionals” who are tasked with managing the underpaid, always-looking-for-the-next-gig, working-at-home, crowdsourced professionals. Working at home in your pajamas with an Irish Coffee an arms-reach away may sound like the romantic ideal of personal freedom and individuality (which is exactly how it is sold), but the past-reality of long commutes, long meetings, unemployment benefits, paid vacations, and upward mobility, increasingly only exists as nostalgic memories to many, like Norman Rockwell’s America where one need only work hard to achieve the American Dream.
I recently wrote an article exploring research by neurobiologists and evolutionary psychologists who concluded that we are biologically hardwired invent knowledge when we don’t know something. Over the millennia our brains have evolved to sense knowledge as pleasure and lack of knowledge as pain, which had an evolutionary benefit. Our species thrives because we love to learn, to explain things, to seek out patterns of cause and effect. But this otherwise incredibly useful trait has a dark side. When we come up against uncertainty, we are powerfully predisposed to believe something, anything, even if it is completely irrational. Our brains reward us with dopamine. Stupidity becomes knowledge. If we pursue knowledge further, building up our imagined knowledge with the tools of scientific methodology, observation, and further rational argument, we are rewarded further, often at our peril. Our knowledge, real or imagined, eventually transforms itself into a dogma. Newtonian physics, for example, because of its amazing predictive power, became a dogma that lasted for over 200 years, only to be overturned by Einstein’s theories of relativity, which are now being overturned by the latest development in physics: string theory.
Free market capitalism, particularly the highly-contagious mutant laissez-faire strain, has become a dogma partly because of its audacious beauty as articulated in The Wealth of Nations. But then Keynes came along and pointed out what should have been obvious–the free market capitalist theory, to operate efficiently, if at all, required completely rational behavior by the market, that is, er, humans. Keynes’ answer, or correction, if you will, to this problem was to have governments, acting rationally and on good evidence, make adjustments when things get out of balance, which they surely will. This seemed sensible enough, really. But this solution, as pragmatic as is was, and while it seemed to work well enough, lacked what can only be described as ideological vigor. What’s the point of having a simple, easy-to-understand, elegant, even beautiful, theory, if it only works when the clumsy hands of government have to manipulate it into compliance with the higher good? Along came the savior in the form of Milton Friedman, who said essentially that Adam Smith had it right all along. Friedman, a god among conservative economists, a purveyor of the Smith’s capitalist dogma to mere mortals, as it were, marketing a disease as a cure, got a good dose of the real medicine, from a barely post-pubescent rich kid. He (Friedman) became baffled and confused (that’s one of the side effects) under the gentle questioning of a twenty-something. It was both sad and telling. Friedman was beatified, no–deified–by the Reagan administration. Oh the glories of the free market rising-tide-raises-all-ships-wealth-will-trickle-down-to-everyone orgy of the 1980s! Despite its obvious failures as an economic model, it is still being celebrated by the conservative right as the promising paradise lost. Their arguments ring hollow.
It must be unsettling, to say the least, to have worked your entire life on an economic model, to have published dozens of books, to have been called a “hero of freedom” by a sitting president and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to have been worshipped as if a god, only to have a lisping kid with bad skin and greasy hair humble you with simple questions about why the rich are getting richer, why wealth is accumulating into fewer and fewer hands, and why the middle class is disappearing. But that is exactly what happened when Johnson & Johnson heir Jaime Johnson interviewed Friedman for his 2006 documentary One Percent. Friedman fumbles and posits that “the government has grown too big” before removing his microphone and storming out of his own office, saying “you’ve exhausted my patience.” David Hume warned us about investing too much in any dogma over 200 years ago. It seems we haven’t learned much.
If you are middle class, or one day hope to move into the middle class, and are prone to bouts of depression, please stop reading now. What I am about to report will bring no one comfort, except the already rich. And forget, for the moment, about the degradations of crowdsourcing. We are moving beyond that. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t even have to pay people at all? Just think of the profits to be gained if we increased efficiency and reduced costs by eliminating payroll expenses altogether! It’s happened before. Robots in developed countries have replaced repetitive tasks that factory workers once performed. And now it’s happening, with a twist, again. Artificial intelligence is here. IBM’s Watson, after famously trouncing its opponents at Jeopardy, is now doing legal research and giving advice to doctors. Security cameras are replacing security guards. Journalists too–already increasingly crowdsourced–might be replaced by Quill, an “automated narrative generation platform,” that can turn raw data into articles. A recent Oxford University study suggests that 47 percent of all U.S. jobs may be lost to automation in the next decade. These are not only all chilling economic developments, they are downright creepy.
If you are still reading this piece, it can only mean one of three things. You are rich, in which case you are celebrating the good news by popping the cork of one of your $50,000 bottles of Pernod Ricard Perrier Jouet. Or you are poor and harbor no hope at improving your station in life, in which case nothing is likely to make your life much worse. Or you are middle class, and a masochist. If in the third category, and you still wish to continue, please stop drinking. If there are firearms in your house, lock them away and throw away the key. Same with dangerous pharmaceuticals. Sharp implements too. You get the idea.
The French economist Thomas Picketty’s book Capital in the Twenty First Century, published just a few months ago in English (and previously reviewed in Digital Journal) is a best-selling 600-page cry-to-stop-the-madness. Based on a decade of research, Picketty shows, with impeccable documentation and analysis, how the accumulation of wealth is only increasing and will continue to do so. Capital wealth grows faster than economic output, with the result that the wealth of the already wealthy will grow and concentrate, without them having to do anything. Isn’t that nice? Criticisms from conservative economists and politicians of Picketty’s work have been pretty thin. (How do you argue with one plus one equals two?) Mostly, the book has been ignored by the conservative press, although there has been some nibbling around the edges, such as criticisms that that this trend is not written is stone, and that who know what the future might bring. Or that Picketty offers a criticism but no solution. Brilliant.
I am not a Marxist nor a Communist. I believe that I, having devoted almost a decade of my life to formal tertiary education and another decade to scholarship, should be paid more than my gardener, this of course being no discredit to him, who earns an honest living and does excellent work. I also acknowledge that by happenstance of birth, by the lottery of life, where you may be fortunate to have been born into a wealthy family in an industrialized country, or where you may be born with amazing natural abilities and ambitions that most other people don’t have (through no fault of their own) you shouldn’t be an asshole. Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India with a fortune of $27 billion, for example, is an asshole.
Mukesh Ambani  Chairman of Reliance Industries  at the company's annual general meeting in Mumb...
Mukesh Ambani, Chairman of Reliance Industries, at the company's annual general meeting in Mumbai on June 6, 2013
Indranil Mukherjee, AFP/File
He owns the world’s most expensive home, but hasn’t moved in with his family because the house does not evince the principles of the architecture of vastu shastra; he’s afraid moving in might bring back luck. His 27-storey, billion dollar home boasts three helipads, floating gardens, and remains empty while 2 million Indians are homeless, and 836 million live on less than a dollar a day. Jay Leno, the legendary American talk-show host and comedian, an American icon, with a net worth of a mere 350 million dollars, owns some 130 cars and 93 motorcycles. He too is an asshole. But don’t get me wrong. I get it, Jay. You like cars. It’s your hobby, your passion. And I don’t begrudge you that. Moreover, both you and your rich compatriot Mukesh haven’t been accused of any chicanery, nor charlatanism, nor even the slightest hint of tax evasion. No doubt you are both talented and earned your money through years of hard work, the application of your talent, thrift, and any number of other admirable things. But you don’t live in a shared world. You live in your world, which other less fortunate people, less talented, less able, just happen to inhabit. I’m not saying that you should sell all of your worldly possessions, abandon your family and move to Nepal to study Buddhism. That would be irresponsible, even stupid. But do you really need look at yourselves: How many cars are too many? Or is there any limit? If you own a million cars and your fellow million citizens own a total of none, would you see this as a problem? Would it bother you? Should it bother you? What would the tipping point of non-essential car ownership be?
Jay Leno
Comedian Jay Leno
Dodge Challenger1
This is precisely the discussion the rich should be having with one other. Personally, I don’t get the ostentatious accumulation of wealth thing, and of course I like stuff too. I like my basement library, my flat screen HD TV, my car, my house, my garden. My wife, for that matter, isn’t so bad. But I only have one of each. I expect to be able to save enough to send my kids to college without debt, and retire comfortably. I’ve worked hard, but I’m also lucky. I would be ashamed to own a billion dollar house or over two hundred vehicles. I just couldn’t do it. Some rich people complain about how hard it is to get by on fifty million. I don’t know what weird, sick, alternate universe their living in, but I do know I want none of it.
The rich need not worry about a revolution from the world’s poor. If you’re a subsistence farmer in rural India or a shoe-shine boy in Mexico City, the chances are your dollar-a-day survivalfest life won’t be affected by the next great economic downturn. But the middle class and middle-class-eligible, are not likely to relegate themselves to the fate of their poor brethren without a fight, having been promised the Promised Land for so long. What scares me is not the thought of a violent economic revolution. It is the thought that most Americans, while they can’t afford college for their kids or a dignified retirement, are still buying the lie of upward mobility and the increasingly evasive American Dream. We are a democracy only in name. America is an oligarchy, and has been for some time. The true talent of conservatives is in selling their failed economic ideology to the very people who are harmed by it. The only hope at all is that poor and middle class voters wake up and stop voting against their own interests. If history is any guide, it seems unlikely.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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