Right now, the Republicans in Congress are pushing a tax plan that transfers money from the poor and lower middle class to the wealthiest. They are not doing this out of simple greed. There’s a much more rational — if fiendish—reason for why the right wing feels it is their duty to ruin the lives of tens of millions of Americans. It's not so much that they enjoy hurting people (though Speaker Paul Ryan, famously reminisced about his dreams to end Medicare when he was in college), it's that they have no choice.
In his book, Capital in the 21st Century, economist Thomas Picketty writes about a debate that is taking place in the economics departments of universities and think tanks all over the world: whether one person or one state will own the world. The entire world. Not some figure of speech. The answer to this question is, as a matter of simple arithmetic, an unequivocal yes. Under the current tax system, eventually one person or one state will own the world. All the land, including yours, all houses and buildings, all corporations, all science and technology, all banking, all debt and the political systems to wrap it all up nicely. From private jets to junkyards, from the rivers to the pollution dumped in them: everything. That one entity will own the world is a demonstrated mathematical certainty, because the more money you have, the more money you make. It's a sort of Ponzi scheme, with all the money in the pyramid working its way upward. People are rich, and feel rich as the money comes through their tiers of the pyramid, but eventually it is sucked upwards. It happens because when more money can be spent on evaluating and making investments, the highest returns occur. Those returns have to come out of someone’s accounts. If you had your own private Goldman Sachs working for you, you would expect to make a lot more money than you would buying stocks online at Charles Schwab.
If you don't think that's what's happening, consider Oxfam's report last year that 8 men already own as much as the bottom half of the planet's population. Only a year before, it took a battalion of 62 billionaires to amount to that much. The fat is already being trimmed. Consider Credit Suisse's 2014 report that the first trillionaire may already be walking the Earth. The 37 richest Americans are already worth a trillion dollars. That’s enough to spend $100 million a day for the next 27 years.
Well, as long as things keep looking the way they're looking, and someone or the other is going to be the ultimate winner one day, it'd be a bit much to ask of the billionaire class not to take their feelings into account. The Koch brothers and the Waltons and the Saudi royal family are not so deluded as to believe that the happy day when they own the whole shebang will occur in their lifetimes, but they are fully aware of the stakes they're playing for. And who can blame them? Bill Gates once answered a reporter's question about how much money he had with the answer that he didn't know the exact figure, but that the real answer to that question was that he was in possession of an infinite amount of money. Mr. Gates seems to be less hardhearted about taking over the world, but that might just be a stealth tactic, as, after all, he is considered the top candidate to reach a trillion first, so either he’s not trying too hard or an infinite amount of money is hard to give away. A hundred million here and a hundred million there are not enough to derail the train.
All right, so the tide is bringing in one person or one state destined to own the world. Well, then — so what? Who’s to say it wouldn’t be a better place? Maybe if a goodhearted philosopher like Donald Trump was free to act on all the benevolence he surely carries in his heart without being sandwiched between the twin pumpernickel slices of the FBI on one cheek and the KGB on the other, he would selflessly direct the building and repairs and improvement society needs.
Some people seem unable to rid themselves of the idea that the placement of unlimited power in one short-fingered hand is not a risk they are willing to take. Regardless of the principle of the thing, these stalwarts are at a disadvantage, because the only tool at their disposal to stop that from happening would be, according to Picketty and every economist operating outside the pockets of billionaire employers, the institution of a worldwide, progressive (meaning simply that larger amounts of money are taxed more and amounts leading to domination of the political system are not transmitted to future generations) and transparent tax system. No more Liechtensteins, no more Caymans, Isles of Wights, Panamas, Switzerlands, Trump Towers in Azerbaijan financed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard or Trump Tower in Panama paid for by drug cartels or any of the other United States tax loopholery and the secrecy that guards it all over lunch at the Four Seasons.
Well, good luck getting Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan or a presidential tax cheat on board with that. Good luck getting the rest of the world on board.
So, we are left having to consider the point of view of these too-often maligned billionaires. As well we should. We have a lot to learn from them, after all. No one comprehends better than they do how the concentration of money is the concentration of power. They are already largely able to function autocratically, immune to laws and able to dispense with rules or norms when all it takes to overcome them is a sufficient legal budget. That’s not good enough. One would like the system to be more bulletproof. Once in a while they are reined in, say with a $635 million fine for fueling America’s OxyContin addiction or some other matter they feel no one should be allowed to meddle with under Libertarian principles that dictate that nothing but a completely free market, unregulated by anything but the conscience of money, can iron things out.
What those in contention to become owners of the world are more sensitive than you or I is a world trajectory that is tending towards greater authoritarianism under the combined pressures of growing population, diminishing resources, corporate concentration of wealth and power, perpetual war and terror and the inclination of governments to control media and communications as matters of political advantage cloaked in national security. The problem hits closer to home for them, and they have spent more time considering the problem.
One of the conclusions they must be reaching is that for the Owner of the World, mere authoritarianism isn’t going to do the trick. There will always be some people who won’t be comfortable with the idea of your owning them, their cats, the first-grade classroom at the coal mine where the kids go when they get off their shifts, the courts, the office that gives you permission to visit your grandmother, the skies, the streams and the seas. Authoritarians only get to push people around. Totalitarians get to kill them.
Without some great enlightenment on a societal scale very different from what we humans seem inclined to actually support — Trump being the best example because he doesn’t even pretend to be competent or incorruptible — authoritarianism and totalitarianism are the predictable next steps. Some of the tools used in parallel with the vacuuming of wealth are the traditional ones; the ground is softened by elevating enemies (North Koreans, Muslims, Jews, people of color, gays, atheists, abortionists, liberals, it makes no difference; generating tension is all that counts), let a few more bullets fly here and there, let some small war spill over onto a beach resort, add a few isotopes from the local nuclear medicine department’s CAT scanner to the next firecracker to go off in some downtown, turn the heat up with a small nuke or two, and presto — the soufflé that emerges from the oven is perfectly puffed up for enough diners to ooh and ahh their acquiescence to an ultimate authority who promises protection.
Now, while that sort of thing is always unpleasant for the average disposable human, it would be unfair to subject anyone who has grown accustomed to a perch above the law to any such humiliations. In the case of a totalitarian government, there is by definition only one winner. Everyone but the ruler becomes a subject. Would you let that happen to your descendants if you could help it? To a grandson as cute as little Billy? That kid’s as smart as a whip. Heck, that boy could be President of the United States one day (of course, now that Trump occupies the Oval Office, there is no longer any reason to think that any kid, even one who likes to microwave turtles, can not rise to the presidency).
No. If you have the dough to play in this game, you could easily convince yourself that you are serving the future interests of your family by grooming little Billy for the top job (it would never be a little Billie: this system is without exception patriarchal). We don't have to look any farther than Trump for an example of someone who believes his domination and that of his family is a blessing to the world. Trump told us that, ”Jared will bring peace to the Middle East. Jared will end the opiate crisis. Jared will reconstitute the federal bureaucracy.…" Of course, all Jared has done is sell visas for $500,000 a pop to the Chinese, but give him a little time.
Which brings us back to the current tax plan. For the processes at work to be given a chance to play out in America, there is no alternative to the kind of attack we are now witnessing on the poor and middle classes. It's not an optional step. Populations must be weakened en masse — starved, deprived of healthcare and education, subjected to corporate whims, debt, and so on — in order to become more compliant, and the tranches of money being spent on them must be freed to move upwards.
Now, not everyone who tucks a $25K check down Speaker Paul Ryan's brassiere every time he puts his platforms on and pole dances for them is thinking they're going to own the world or even aware that that's anything but the plot of a James Bond movie. The rank and file contributor is not among the happy few at the party in that particular VIP room. Greed is relied on to incentivize them and the broader base, the millions of poor slobs who will get behind anything that they are told will reduce their taxes and make it legal to say Merry Christmas again, whether it will or not.
What that broader base doesn't realize is that their time on the chopping block will inevitably follow. This isn’t eleven-dimensional chess, it’s eleven-dimensional checkers, played on the biggest cracker barrel of them all. Every piece gets jumped. The time will come when what they have will also be sucked upwards, according to the plan they're promulgating now.
So, is there a solution? Sure there is. It's in the kind of tax code Mr. Picketty described and every economist knows is necessary to the well-being of the planet. A tax system that does not allow unlimited wealth to be passed from generation to generation and taxes it appropriately in the present.
But to get that, the Constitution of the United States would need to be amended to prohibit any spending on politics. I’ve never spoken to an ordinary American who doesn’t believe there’s too much money in politics. But getting them to vote money out of politics? I have my doubts. Not as long as there are more urgent matters to attend to, like NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem.
In the meantime, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, legitimized unlimited, secret spending on political campaigns. Finally, politicians were able to start pocketing the kind of money they felt they deserved. Foreign governments and individuals were allowed to donate all they liked to United States Senators and Representatives, even to presidential campaigns. And so are billionaires. And as long as that is permitted to go on, they will continue to fight for the only thing worth fighting for, as far as they're concerned. To own the world. Pretty much just for the hell of it.
Well, okay, not just for the hell of it. For little Billy’s sake, too.