BILLIONAIRES, CRIME, AND CORRUPTION
By John Spritzler
What does it really mean when somebody claims to own hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars? What is a billionaire like David Rockefeller really telling us? He's saying that land he may never have set foot on, but which thousands of other people spend their lives farming, belongs to him alone. He's saying that buildings and machinery which he probably has never seen and certainly has never worked at, but which whole communities of people spend their lives working at to produce goods like clothing and automobiles, belong to him alone. He's saying that mansions and jets and yachts which were built by hundreds of other people who have none of these things belong only to him.
His claims are outrageous and disgusting. Modest differences among people are one thing; but when some individuals are not even in the same ball park as everybody else it is obscene. I don't care how "important" they claim to be, very rich people are hogs. They should be socially unacceptable.
Allowing people to be very rich has terrible consequences beyond just its unfairness. As the inequality between the richest and poorest people increases, the differences separating all the people in between also increase, the way marks on a rubber band get farther apart when you stretch it. This inevitably makes everybody more aware of differences in personal wealth. Who hasn't read with keen interest Parade magazine's annual "How much do people earn" issue? The effect on even the best people is to make them anxious about not being a "loser" relative to their peers. The effect on the most selfish people is the reason we have crime—both the illegal kind and the kind that is only legal because rich people make the laws.
Because we have a society in which being very rich is perfectly acceptable and the main way people are judged is by how rich they are, selfish people have a strong incentive to commit horrible crimes for money. Some sell drugs to children, kill their spouse to collect life insurance, scam elderly people out of their life savings, and much worse. Others stay within the law and sell pardons to fugitive crooks, make their employees work in unsafe conditions under the threat of being laid off if they resist, fire elderly workers just before they become vested for pension rights, and much worse.
Anti-social acts get committed every day for money. We need a world based on equality where we do not tolerate the kind of differences in personal wealth that motivate selfish people to hurt others. Only then will bad people have little or nothing to gain by their crimes.
Allowing people to be very rich guarantees a corrupt and undemocratic government. We can enact "Clean Election" reform laws or term limits until we're blue in the face, but as long as some individuals have enormous wealth they will figure out a way to buy power and influence, just as surely as the rivers flow to the ocean no matter how many dams are built. We can have very rich people, or we can have democracy. We cannot have both.
All the arguments about how we need the rich are wrong. They say rich people are important because they produce jobs. What does this mean—that people in an egalitarian society wouldn't be able to grow food and produce goods and provide services to each other? They say the "best and the brightest" people need great wealth to motivate them. But the people who genuinely contribute the most to society don't do it to get rich. Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine knowing he would not make a penny off of it. If the rich all vanished from the face of the earth and their property became public property, and we the people decided that those doing useful and important work should receive compensation to enjoy an average standard of living, then people doing truly valuable and creative things in laboratories, factories, farms, schools and hospitals would continue working. And they would succeed in their efforts even more than today because they would be free to do what helps lots of people rather than what makes a few rich people richer.
They say rich people like Bill Gates deserve all their money because they make it by producing things people want. But Bill Gates didn't produce useful software. He acquired a monopoly ownership of software created by many other people, and fixed it so that part of the purchase price of every computer went into his pocket. Gates actually prevents better software from being produced.
They say it's important to have rich people because they give money to philanthropy. In fact, rich people prevent social resources from being used to solve the real problems in the world, like hunger. Their philanthropy projects are self-serving public relations gimmicks. Philip Morris Tobacco company, for example, is throwing some money at homes for battered women in Boston and advertising on the radio how "concerned" they are for women's health! Bill Gates made the news recently with his donations of money to fight diseases like AIDS in poor nations. His reason, however, is to avert social upheavals and revolution, not to make a more equal world. The CIA is so afraid of what people in Africa—who are dying because pharmaceutical companies won't provide AIDS drugs to poor people—may do, that they have declared AIDS a "national security threat."
The truth is that rich people are just hogs and they don't solve problems, they create them. They need people in the third world to be desperately poor and insecure because otherwise who would work in all their sweatshops? They need people in the U.S. to be economically insecure because otherwise who would put up with the long hours and stress and dictatorial control that the corporations impose on employees? And they need to pit people against each other to control them because otherwise people would make the world very different than what rich people want it to be. Our biggest problems are caused by the things rich people do to get rich and the things they do to prevent regular people from making this a more equal and democratic world.
I think we have a situation today like the "Emperor's New Clothes." Most people think it's wrong to be a hog. But it's taboo to say so when the hog hasn't been caught breaking a law. It's time to break the taboo and say what we really think. We teach our children in kindergarten to share. We don't allow them to grab other children's toys and coats and lunches, and we don't allow them to boss other children around. Why should we let grownups get away with it?
Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, September-October 2001.
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