A cascade of thoughts can become an avalanche of insights from one piece of information. I’ve been tracking wealth inequality for years. Data drives most of the thoughts, but after consuming dozens of articles and videos it only takes one extra story to crystalize my concern. The snowball that started the avalanche was a local NPR story. The insight convinced me wealth inequality is different this time, despite what some say it isn’t just a bunch of poor people complaining, and the situation is getting extreme enough that something is going to change whether by choice or chance.
The global story that caught my attention was the fact that about 80 people have as much wealth as the poorest 3,500,000,000.
The local story that caught my attention was that less than 5% of the people moving to Seattle are considered middle class.
We become numb to data. If we weren’t, Federal spending and personal priorities would shift from destruction and junk food to construction and healthy habits. Eighty people have this. Five percent fit here. Just numbers. Trends can be ignored, too; but maybe I notice them more than most.
Eighty people own half the world’s wealth. Four years ago it was 388, and we were shocked. Before that it took so many to not warrant being counted. Unfortunately, at this rate, in four years half the wealth will be owned by 17 people. I doubt that it would ever get down to 1 person owning more than half the rest of the species; but ask yourself how few would it have to be before you thought the situation should change.
Only 5% of the people moving to Seattle and King County are middle class. That’s odd enough, but if middle class is a narrow definition, then a small percentage makes sense. Middle class was defined as making $35,000 to $125,000 per year. That’s a broad range. The good news is that the area is attracting a lot of high income jobs. The bad news is that the majority of new residents make less than $35,000.
As wealth inequality increases, and as income inequality increases America loses its status as a classless society. When there was an even distribution of income and wealth, there was mobility, hope, and a reason to work harder. A chasm, a moat, is widening that can’t be crossed with attitudes and stereotypes that were valid ten years ago.
The main reason I am worried about the economy is that, as wealth accumulates, spending stagnates, businesses stagnate, jobs stagnate, incomes stagnate, the country and the world stagnate.
Give a billion dollars to a multi-billionaire. If they spend it, the only way to spend all of it in a year is to buy very expensive things from other very rich people. To spend a billion dollars in a year a person has to spend $2,739,726 every day. Buying a sports team isn’t enough. Buying companies works, and if done right, creates more wealth – which exacerbates the inequality. The greater likelihood is that the billion won’t get spent, and the life of the multi-billionaire wouldn’t change.
Give a billion dollars to a thousand people and they each get a million. It’s possible to spend a million. Many would. Many would also say thank you and reinvest it because so few folks have retirement accounts. Much of the money would get spent, and many people could relax a lot more. There might even be a vacation in there.
Give a billion dollars to a million people and they each get a thousand dollars. A million lives would create a million variations. For some, a thousand would be nice, but soon blends into an existing portfolio. For some, a thousand would let them take a short vacation, or fix the house or car, or pay down a bit of debt. For some, it would be the greatest windfall of their lives and would arrive just in time for some to avoid bankruptcy, foreclosure, default, homelessness, or hunger. A lot of the billion would be spent.
Give a billion dollars to a billion people and most Americans wouldn’t notice, but large parts of the world’s population would immediately put the money to work. Very little would languish.
Wealth is accumulating. Productivity is up, but wages are flat. Profits are up, but wages are flat. Jobs are up, but many are for lower wages, or temporary, or part-time, or without benefits.
The trend is continuing. Wealth continues to accumulate. Luckily, at least the American part of the story happens within a representative democracy. With enough votes, anything can happen; and while the lower classes are growing, the power remains elsewhere. A few of the ultra-rich are advocating for change, but they are in a minority within their ranks.
Ironically, a possible source for change may come from the recently ultra-rich. The ultra-rich shrank from 388 to 80, which means there are 300 people who are now excluded from that club. Just a bit poorer than them are the multi-millionaires who may be realizing that they won’t get to be billionaires. They don’t need the money, but humans have other motivations. People with tens of millions or more are also more likely to be able to exercise the money is speech is power process that is operating in America’s government and media. While the greatest collection of votes may be in the lower class, the greatest collection of political power may be in the bottom 99% of the 1%.
Historically, there have been very few peaceful resolutions of wealth inequities. I look forward to hearing examples. Asking around, the most common example I hear is the French Revolution, the source of the fictional “Let them eat cake” and the source of the very real guillotine. Wealth redistribution is not a case of someone writing billions of checks or some hacker redistributing cash. Much of the wealth is in real estate, stocks, bonds, and commodities. Even if the wealth of Microsoft was redistributed by giving one share of MSFT to everyone one the planet (with about a billion shares left over), everyone would get about $42. The stockholders meeting would be awesome and could stand in for the United Nations. It is unlikely to happen. The wealth has taken decades to accumulate. It might take just as long to distribute.
My worry is that I see no significant effort to curtail the trend; the trend accumulates wealth outside the mainstream economy; any movement of that wealth tends to be from portfolio to organization, not from person to people; and that a peaceful resolution has no historical precedence.
The timing is not academic. At this rate, with potentially only 17 people owning half the wealth in four years, the imbalance within lives and the economy should become more pronounced. I have a difficult time believing that political pressures or revelatory compassionate responses of the ultra-rich will move faster or prove stronger than the possible populist desire for dramatic change.
Pardon me as I sit back and continue pretending not to panic.