Last night I went out for dinner with my parents, who are about as conservative as you can get. My dad’s been listening to Rush Limbaugh for as long as I’ve been alive. These arguments have been much more frequent since I went to Madsion, WI last weekend to protest Gov. Walker’s “Emergency Budget” bill that will sack union’s rights to collectively bargain.
Anyway, our argument (fueled by a healthy serving of beer and wine earlier in the evening) eventually turned toward whether or not the wealthy “earn” their vast wealth. I asked how it is that Bill Gates, for example, “earned” the right to have more wealth than almost every country in South America and Africa, but a public school teacher of 30 years “makes too much.”
Of course the answer is that they don’t. To play off the recent Mother Jones article about a similar topic, “It’s the system, stupid!” Our economic and political institutions intentionally and systematically funnel money to a few fortunate individuals at the expense of the majority (see my last post about James Madison). Consider the light touch the government’s given to Microsoft with regard to their software monopoly, tax breaks they’ve surely gotten, tax loopholes they’ve exploited, and other favors they’ve gotten from the government. Meanwhile, teachers and other public workers in Wisconsin are being asked to “sacrifice” to pay off a fabricated state deficit.
It occurred to me that, perhaps, my parents didn’t really comprehend how much money Gates was worth ($54 billion dollars). The idea of $54 billion is actually kind of difficult to grasp and understand. This lead me to do some math tricks today that I’d like to share with you all.
Bill Gates could send over 1,766,600 students to college for four years and still have over a billion dollars for himself. A billion dollars, which no average person could reasonably spend in their lifetime. It would take an average US income earner saving every penny they made over 21,700 years to save up a billion dollars. That means it would take that person over 1,173,900 years to save up as much as Bill Gates is worth. That’s just a little less than one hundred times as long as the history of human civilization!
After sending 1,766,600 students to college for four years and keeping some $1 billion change for himself Bill Gates could still buy,
- A Maybach Landaulet for $1 million to drive around in.
- A $100 million yacht.
- A Gulfstream G550 private jet for $40 million.
- A private island for $24.5 million (castle included).
- A $8 million estate.
- A $5 million watch (for shits and giggles).
- Total: $178.5 million.
That means Gates would still have $821.5 million left over (so he could by 417,500 top of the line MacBooks).
The website wallstats.com has a good page on visualizing what $1 billion dollars looks like. But I thought these visualizations were particularly relevant.
Nobody earns the right to have this much wealth while people are being made to sacrifice, or while people have no access to healthcare, education, and other means of a secure and dignified life.
So what’s the alternative? In the short run we could of course end the wars, increase taxes on the wealthy, and so on. But as we’re seeing, these short term solutions only last as long as it takes for the wealthy to regroup and crush the reforms and programs which check their power. In the long term we must look toward radical, revolutionary alternatives which socialize property, place workplaces and production in the democratic control of the people who work in them, and democratically plan the economy to make it function for the benefit of everyone, not just the few who earn the profit.
For a discussion on what democratic planning could look like, I suggest you check out this lecture by radical economist Robin Hahnel, speaking at the 100th Anniversary of the Spanish Confederacíon Nacíonal de Trabajadores (CNT), an anarchist inspired industrial union, which in the 1930s led the most militant fight against the Fascist uprising. In the lecture, Hahnel outlines some of the contours of what a decentralized, democratically planned economy could look like.