Politics and Plutocrats: A Parade of Inequality
Sept 12, 2012 | Gar Smith
America is currently engaged in the most expensive presidential contest
in world history. In the United States, money doesn't just talk - it
dictates. How can we hope to make progress on the path to sustainability
when the road is blocked by barricades of bullion backed by battalions
of billionaires? How do we break through the political gridlock?
Dave Brower's wife, Anne, once put a wise spin on this dilemma. "What we need," she said, is "a cure for greedlock."
Earth's richest 1,000 individuals now control as much wealth as the
poorest 2.5 billion people on the planet. This super elite uses its vast
wealth to control the media, influence politicians, and bend laws to
their favor. In the US, the wealthy dominate our government: 47 percent
of US representatives are millionaires, as are 67 percent of US
senators. The Center for Responsive Politics reports Congressional
wealth has increased 11 percent between 2009 and 2011.
Not only is our economy out of balance with nature, our economy is also
out of balance with the practical limits of physical and fiscal reality.
As the Occupy movement has indelibly framed it, we are now a society
divided not only by haves and have-nots, but we are a nation - and a
world - divided into the 99 percent and the 1 percent.
Imagine if a tree were engineered like the US economy - with half of
its mass centered in the top 10 percent of its height and 40 percent of
its mass concentrated in the very topmost branches. Whether redwood or
oak, such a tree would not be stable in a windstorm. It would be
destined to topple. Of course, nature has better sense.
In 2011, the International Forum on Globalization (IFG) published a report called Outing the Oligarchy
designed to focus public attention on "the ultra-rich individuals who
benefit most from - and are most responsible for - the growing
climate chaos that is destabilizing global ecosystems." It defined them
as "a small elite of powerful billionaires who profit from polluting the
atmosphere by promoting government policies that support an
unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels."
The IFG report illustrated the growing rich-poor gap by visualizing a
parade in which all the residents of Canada ambled down a city street on
a single day. Let's translate that vision to the US.
Imagine if everyone in America was invited to parade down Pennsylvania
Avenue in Washington, DC. Imagine if the parade took just one hour.
Imagine if the march began with the poorest people in the lead. Imagine
if all the marchers' income levels were indicated by their height.
Here's what such a parade would look like:
For the first 10 minutes, the lead marchers (those who survive on only a
few thousands dollars a year) look like toddlers, barely a foot tall.
Around 15 minutes into the parade, the marchers are not quite so poor:
They now stand about three feet tall. This tide of half-sized adults
continues for the next 25 minutes. Only after more than two-thirds of
the population has surged down the parade route do we begin to see
normal-sized marchers (those making an average income). For the next 10
minutes or so, the spectacle resembles a normal parade. Then things
start to get really strange.
In the final 10 minutes, we start to see marchers who are wealthier than
average: people who are seven, even eight feet tall. In the last six
minutes, the marchers loom more than 14 feet tall. With 25 seconds left,
the minority of super-rich marchers looks down from a height of more
than 30 feet - nearly six times the size of the average marcher; 30
times the size of those who made up the first quarter of the parade.
In the closing seconds of this parade of wealth, the shoulders of some
marchers extend thousands of feet into the sky - these are the
plutocrats. Finally, bringing up the rear, in the very last second of
the march, are the most powerful and dominant members of the power elite
- a select band of Godzilla-like oligarchs who look down upon
everyone else from an astonishing altitude of 8,000-plus-feet. No wonder
the superrich seem so removed and aloof.
Just like the banking system, when something is "too big to fail" it
becomes a danger to itself and others. Nature would never tolerate such a
system. Nor should we.
Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal.