Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

Case full of cash stacks

With the decline of honest conversation, we’ve reached a point where the political right basically decries any amount of government as socialism, equates it with the Soviet Union, and decries it as evil.

Unfortunately, doing so just feeds the flames of incivility and creates this bogeyman that can be used to incite fear and anger and turn people against anything. Honestly, it’s not any different from what Senator Joseph McCarthy did in the 1950s, except it’s focused on turning the mob against specific political ideas rather than individuals (although it is often used on people as well).

By creating this extreme “other” of socialism and moving the goalposts so it’s always encroaching on us, this political approach pushes us further and further in the opposite direction. In doing so, it doesn’t allow for a real conversation as to whether or not what we’re doing is right or if we should slow down and maybe actually consider the results of our structure.

A projection last week suggested Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos could become the world’s first trillionaire. Bezos is currently the wealthiest man in the world, with his net worth estimated at $143 billion. At first glance, that seems like a far cry from $1 trillion. In fact, Bezos’ wealth would have to grow by almost exactly a factor of seven to reach that lofty status.

So how long would you guess the projection said it would take for Bezos to multiply his net worth by seven? The investing Rule of 72 helps us figure out how long it will take to double an amount of money at certain interest rates. If we look for a solid 5-10 percent, which is about the best we can ever hope for over the long term with our own retirement plans and other investments, it would take somewhere between 7-15 years for his wealth to double. Doubling three times would surpass that initial factor of seven (2 x 2 = 4, 4 x 2 = 8), so let’s average out to 11 years x 3 doubles, and say he would cross the trillionaire threshold in somewhere around 30 years, assuming healthy long-term investment returns.

Nope.

The model on which Bezos’ wealth growth is estimated says it could take less than seven years to multiply his wealth by seven. Here’s how they came up with that: over the past five years, Bezos’ net worth grew by an average of 34 percent each year. Maintaining that same average puts him over $1 trillion by 2026.

Well, now, you must be saying, that may have been how he was going when we had the best economy in the history of the world (as Donald Trump has repeatedly – and falsely – assured us), and everyone’s bank accounts were growing by a healthy 34 percent, because #capitalism. (At this point, please take a moment to check your bank or investment statements and confirm that we’ve all achieved that same benefit that Bezos did from this great economy. Oh wait. None of us did). But unfortunately that all came to a crashing halt with the recent pandemic, and surely Bezos has lost a lot of his money (just as many of us have).

Nope.

This year, Bezos’ worth has grown by an estimated $28 billion. In the midst of the worst pandemic in the last century. While America is suffering the worst unemployment and job losses since the Great Depression. While Amazon workers are being forced to work in unsafe conditions without adequate protection or paid sick leave in the midst of that same pandemic.

Is this what we want? Please, regardless of how you feel about capitalism or socialism, just take a moment to really ponder that question. In the midst of tens of millions of job losses, the wealthiest man in the world continues to grow his stockpile at a vastly increased rate. Is this right? Is this your American Dream?

Here’s the problem: in our efforts to avoid anything resembling socialism, we’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole of “Greed is good” capitalism that we’ve created possibly the worst wealth disparity of any advanced nation in history. An honest look at our current structure exposes just how much it is designed to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor, with the benefits becoming progressively more extreme as the wealth grows.

Is this really the system we want?

First of all, we need to stop the misinformation that equates the Soviet Union with socialism. The Soviet Union was a communist nation, which is a significant difference. Communism demands government control and ownership of everything and removes any rights from the people (because they own nothing). As seen in the USSR, with our flawed humanity, it is all but guaranteed to end in corruption with the ruling class taking advantage of the lower class. In fact, people point to the lack of food and empty store shelves and lack of wealth in the USSR as examples of how terrible communism (although they usually say socialism) ends up.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen many very similar images in the past few months during this pandemic, when food and supply shortages have led to long lines at food banks and people have lost their jobs and been exposed to extreme poverty.

This is something we like to ignore but must acknowledge: our system is just as capable of leading to devastation as any other. We’ve seen it. We’re continuing to see it. That doesn’t downplay the issues with the Soviet Union or its governance, but it humbly acknowledges that there is no American Exceptionalism that prevents us from falling to similar lows even by different methods.

Only when we act in humility can we avoid the worst-case scenarios. Unfortunately, humility is one of the weakest traits we have as a country rooted in extreme arrogance shrouded in calls of patriotism. “It could never happen here.” We’ve heard that for so many things when, in fact, many of them have happened here and are continuing to happen here.

The other issue with our current disingenuous political dialogue is that it creates an exclusively “us-versus-them” mentality where there are two sides and no middle ground. But that is fundamentally untrue. We even see it within our own country, with programs such as Medicare and Social Security that, by definition, are socialist. These programs benefit millions of people every year and have dramatically improved the lives of the older demographic since they were implemented decades ago.

So we must break free from this either-or mentality, and we must acknowledge the honest truth of our situation: our system is broken. Unless you honestly believe that a system that allows one man to gain nearly $1 trillion in a seven-year stretch and to increase his wealth by almost $30 billion while tens of millions lose their jobs and the workers at his own company suffer in dangerous conditions with few guarantees and for little pay, you must admit that our system is broken.

Over the last several decades, right-wing tax cuts have passed on extreme benefits to the ultra-wealthy under the guise of “trickle-down economics.” This philosophy claims that as benefits are given to the rich, they’ll be able to hire more people and expand their businesses and pass those benefits down to the less wealthy, and the rising tide lifts all boats. That argument has been used repeatedly to justify massive tax cuts for the wealthy in the last 40 years. Every time the numbers have proven it to be false.

While the notion of expanding businesses is a lofty ideal, the practical reality is that corporations and their wealthy leaders take those financial benefits and use them to benefit themselves. Greed is good. It is that type of cutthroat approach that leads them to the top of the capitalist world, and they’re not going to change once they reach the top. It doesn’t matter that Bezos wouldn’t need to spend the money he currently has over 1,000 lifetimes, his focus is on making more, making it increase seven-fold over the next seven years. And that shouldn’t shock us; if that wasn’t his mindset, he never would’ve made it to where he is in the first place.

So perhaps we need to acknowledge that appealing to the better, more generous natures of the wealthiest people in our country and the companies that only answer to their shareholders and asking them to pass the benefits down to the lower rungs despite receiving no financial benefit for doing so is just not going to do anything. The response will always be lofty words in public with maniacal laughs behind the scenes as their bank accounts skyrocket.

I will never understand the large percentage of people in our country who don’t personally benefit from such rules (or barely do so) but are adamant that we cannot do anything that might shift even a small portion of wealth away from the smallest percentage of people. Why are we so desperately devoted to protecting such extravagance at the expense of hundreds of millions of others?

If anything, this pandemic has exposed just how valuable the people being paid the lowest wages really are to society. They are the “essential” employees being forced to go to work and potentially expose themselves and their families to illness to ensure we have food and supplies to stay safe and supported at home. Yet instead of supporting systemic change to recognize their vital role, we praise short-term wage boosts by companies and offer them lofty rhetoric to thank them for being “heroes.” All the while, they leave their job and return to their state of poverty since their essential minimum wage job can’t support their family.

Our income and wealth gaps are growing rapidly in this country. This is the end result of the extreme capitalism we’ve chosen to move toward over the past several decades: a shift of wealth from the middle class (rarely from the lowest class, since they never had much wealth to begin with) to the small-percentage wealthiest class. The rich get richer. And then, they donate millions of dollars to campaigns and lobbies that push policy changes to further benefit them at the expense of their workers. All the while, we praise “deregulation” as part of an America that will never be a socialist nation!

Human nature is inherently selfish. History has shown us that, and Christians believe that as a core tenet of the fall of humanity. So the fact that unregulated capitalism leads to the benefits disproportionately reaching the smallest number of people should not be surprising or controversial. It should be obvious. It’s social Darwinism – the strong survive off the efforts of the weak.

Our system is broken. It amazes me just how much people don’t want to admit that. Pointing to examples from the Soviet Union as bogeyman warnings about socialism are disingenuous when many of the things they’re warning about are literally happening down the street from us. We just do a good job of hiding it by restricting the devastation to certain parts of town that we then avoid. Then we praise our great capitalist country: God bless America!

At the rates of the last five years, Jeff Bezos will be a trillionaire by 2026. Sometimes numbers get so big that we have a hard time grasping them. Here’s an example of just how much wealth we’re talking about by putting it in terms of time: one millions seconds is 12 days. One billion seconds is 31 years.

Just imagine, instead of dollars, we were talking about time to live. Someone who is at the base of the millionaire threshold would have 12 days to live. This is a very small percentage – about 6 percent of the US population. That means 94 percent would have less than 12 days to live, most of them significantly so. But 6 percent have at least 12 days. Billionaires – of which there are about two for every million Americans – would live for 31 years.

Compare 12 days to 31 years. Most of us think one million is an almost incomprehensible number. But the difference between one million and one billion is the difference between 12 days and 31 years.

Now for the trillions: one trillion seconds is 31,688 years.

One of the most outspoken new congresswomen, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has said that she believes “a system that allows billionaires to exist” is immoral. That is a harsh statement, about which there can be a lot of legitimate debate, but the core is worth considering. Why does anyone ever need that much money? And if we have a system that allows some people – less than 1,000 in our country of more than 300 million – to have that much while millions live in poverty, how can we really say we’re a great nation?

Our system is broken. And at its current pace, it is actively accelerating wealth disparity and creating an environment where Jeff Bezos may very well become the world’s first trillionaire less than seven years from now while tens of thousands of Amazon employees work in grueling conditions for miniscule pay with virtually no guarantees should something prevent them from being able to work. Is this really what we want?

It is not a binary choice between 100 percent unvarnished capitalism and Soviet Union communism that we mistakenly conflate with socialism. Now, more than ever, in the midst of a pandemic that is exposing just how deep our fractures are and giving us time to pause and evaluate, we have an opportunity to have honest discussions that divorce reality from the phony narratives created by the right-wing politicians and media figures (capitalism = idealized good and socialism = pure evil). We have a chance to acknowledge the direction we’re going and the millions of people being trampled in the stampede toward turning billionaires into trillionaires.

We have a chance to ask if we really believe that all are created equal, and if so, why we don’t see anything remotely like that in our economic structure. We have a chance to ask if our country is a “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln said, or if it’s a government of the poor, by the politicians bought by billionaires, for the billionaires.

We have a chance to actually set America on a path to greatness. Not a greatness as measured by how many billionaires live in our midst, but a greatness measured by how few live in poverty, how few can’t afford medical treatment when they are ill, how few can’t afford education, how few can’t afford a home in which to live.

We have that chance. What we do with it is up to us. Because we have plenty of evidence that shows if we leave it up to the Donald Trumps and Jeff Bezos of the world, it will only get worse for everyone else.

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