“Forbes” magazine’s list of the world’s richest people lists Mexican Carlos “Slim” Helu, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Birkshire/Hathaway’s Warren Buffet at the top of their list of billionaires for the second year in a row. In spite of the world’s economic woes, these three and most of the other 1210 billionaires on the list have seen their wealth reach record levels. Helu’s wealth alone went from $54 billion in 2009 to more than $74 billion in 2010, an increase of 34 percent. Gates and Buffet saw a more modest $3 billion increase in each of their wealth. Together these three men and their immediate families are worth more than the country of Germany, according to “Forbes.” The Koch brothers, David and Charles, who inherited their father’s oil business would together control the number four spot on the “Forbes” list if their wealth was combined.
Why the interest in the world’s wealthy and their money? Usually readers of “Forbes” comment that these men earned this wealth and it is justifiably theirs. If they earn this much, many writers maintain, good for them. We can all strive to achieve the same thing seems to be the feeling voiced by many.
If wealth is found by hard work, I’m wondering how Helu could possibly have worked hard enough to earn another $20 billion. The reality is that this wealth is primarily generated through investments and not by “work” at all, or even by directly producing something tangible.They didn’t really earn the wealth, their money did. The implication that these super wealthy men and their families “deserve” what they have also implies that those who are struggling “deserve” what they don’t have.
The implications of such extreme wealth being concentrated in the hands of a few are serious. With this kind of wealth–exceeding that of small countries–comes disproportionate power. Democracy is based on the principle of equal representation for everyone and a vote for everyone. Anyone who believes that a fireman or teacher has the same political clout as the Koch brothers is not paying attention. The governor of Wisconsin who is working so hard to limit the collective bargaining power of teachers, firemen, policemen and other public sector employees, was elected in a campaign paid for in large part by the Koch brothers. The ads you see decrying the pay of public employees represented by their unions as being forty-two percent higher than private sector employees is paid for by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity.
Even if, like Gates and Buffet, the wealthy pledge to give away half of their wealth to help the rest of the world, their influence is substantial. They decide which aid projects are important and which are funded. They decide what policies are advocated for and who receives their support in elections.
Our senators and representatives are required to disclose their personal assets and liabilities. The reason for this is to put into the open where potential conflicts of interests might be. Less than 1 percent of all Americans are millionaires. Forty to fifty percent of the members of congress are millionaires. A recent analysis of the new freshmen congressmen’s disclosure forms show that those elected in the last election fit right in. More than 60 percent of the new class of senators in Washington, DC, are millionaires. More than 40 percent of the newly elected representatives are millionaires. North Dakota’s freshman representative, Rick Berg is reported to be the third wealthiest new member of the House of Representatives with a net worth of possibly as much as $59 million. Senator John Hoeven is ranked number thirteen richest in the Senate as a whole with an estimated net worth of $20 million. Ken Conrad’s wealth is estimated at $3 million.
Can someone who is worth $60 million really understand the dilemma of losing your heating assistance at the same time as your food stamps or Women’s Infants and Children’s voucher disappears? Can he imagine how hard it is for a hard working parent to have to ask for food assistance? Can he understand that if your employer does not provide you with group health insurance, your choice is to go without insurance or send a check to the insurance company for more than a thousand dollars and in return get coverage that will leave you paying for all but catastrophic health care costs? Can he understand that there are people who really can’t find a job before their unemployment benefits run out? Can he understand what cuts to Social Security will mean for many senior citizens?
I cannot imagine what it is like to have $60 billion or even $60 million in assets. I do not expect the extremely wealthy to understand what it is like to have a poverty level income or even a middle class income. What I don’t understand is how those of us who will never come close to even smelling this kind of wealth can be convinced to fight the political battles of the extremely rich. They have the money, but their numbers are few. They need to convince the people with the votes (the rest of us) to support policies and candidates that will further their positions.
And they are succeeding.
Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains