There’s an intriguing new essay by Scott Russell Sanders in the current issue of Orion, called “Breaking the Spell of Money,” which looks at an irony of wealth, and the corresponding challenge that the extremely affluent are failing to meet.
“The accumulation of money,” Sanders writes, “gives the richest individuals and corporations godlike power over the rest of us.
“Yet money itself has no intrinsic value; it is a medium of exchange, a token that we have tacitly agreed to recognize and swap for things that do posses intrinsic value, such as potatoes or poetry, salmon or surgery. Money is a symbolic tool, wholly dependent for its usefulness on an underlying social compact. It is paradoxical, therefore, that those who have benefited the most financially from the existence of this compact have been the most aggressive in seeking to undermine it, by attacking unions, cooperatives, public education, independent media, social welfare programs, non-profits that serve the poor, land-use planning, and every aspect of government that doesn’t directly serve the rich. For the social compact to hold, ordinary people must feel that they are participating in a common enterprise that benefits everyone fairly, and not a pyramid scheme designed to benefit a few at the top.”
It’s easy to get lost, or dismayed, by statistics. This is especially true when trying to comprehend vast amounts of wealth. But by wondering “why … a billionaire [would] want more money” Sanders does a better job than most at illuminating the seemingly unrealistic reality of the insanely wealthy.
“Suppose you keep a billion dollars under your mattress,” Sanders explains, “where it will earn no income, and you set out to spend it;
“in order to burn through it all within an adult lifetime of, say, fifty years, you would have to spend $1.7 million per month, or $55,000 per day. If you took your billion dollars out from under your mattress and invested it in long-term U.S. Treasury bonds at current rates, you could spend $40 million per year, or $110,000 per day, without touching your capital. It so happens that $110,000 is a bit more than twice the median household income in the United States.”
So, how rich are the insanely rich? “If you do the math,” continues Sanders, “you will find that the twenty-five hedge fund managers who pulled in $26 billion last year claimed an income equivalent to roughly 500,000 households, or some 2 million people.”
Not bad for a bunch a working stiffs. Clearly, they must have been logging at least a thousand hours at the office on average each week.
But, if the uber-wealthy “are not worrying about sending their kids to college or paying their medical bills,” as Sanders points out, then what are the “billionaire advocates of unbridled capitalism after?”
Answer: “What the free-enterprise billionaires are greedy for is not money but power, and not merely the power to take care of themselves and their families, which would be reasonable, but the power to have anything they want and do anything they want without limit, which is decidedly unreasonable.”
What is the acquisition of vast sums of wealth, after all, without the unrelenting application of unlimited power?
As Sanders notes, this behavior is tantamount to the acting out of unrestrained desires by most two-year-olds, who are “incapable of sensing or caring for the needs of other people, indifferent to the harm they cause, [and react] aggressively toward anyone or anything that blocks their will.” As any loving parent of such a neanderthalic creature can, no doubt, easily relate to.
So, what can be done to remedy the situation? Change the rules of the game.
“Money derives its meaning from society, not from those who own the largest piles of it,” writes Sanders.
“It is a human invention, like baseball or Monopoly, governed by rules that are subject to change and viable only so long as we agree to play the game. We need to see and to declare that the money game as it is currently being played in America produces a few big winners, who thereby acquire tyrannical power over the rest of us as great as that of any dictator … and that the net result of this money game is to degrade the real sources of our well-being.”
A realization which is all fine and good and all. But, skeptically, realistically, one that is much more easily articulated than effectively acted upon in today’s economically unrestrained political climate.
For, if our relationship with money is determined by rules set up by government, and our political system is unduly influenced by money, and (many of) those who operate with extreme wealth do so with the the awareness of a two-year-old, then what can be done to fix this essential problem?
I guess I’ll go ask my toddler.