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Sipping Champagne on the Titanic: Twenty Billionaires Own More Than the Bottom Half of Americans

How can there be so many billionaires so self-absorbed in their greed that they cannot see the suffering that surrounds them?

How can there be so many billionaires so self-absorbed in their greed that they cannot see the suffering that surrounds them? (Photo: Money Hoarding via Shutterstock)

The new Institute for Policy Studies report “Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us” is out. I printed a copy, started reading and promptly threw it against the wall in fury and disgust.

How can the wealthy be so cruel?

How can there be 400 billionaires so self-absorbed in their fortunes and greed that they cannot see the sea of suffering that surrounds them? They are sitting in the 16 lifeboats of the ill-fated Titanic wearing mink coats, diamonds and white, elbow-length dinner gloves while the rest of us thrash in icy, black water, drowning in the disaster of our economy. Our children are stiffening, dead in the water. Our students are being dragged down into the depths of poverty by the heavy chains of debt. Our elders are desperately trying to keep their heads above water.

If the United States were the Titanic, those on the Forbes 400 list would be sitting in the lifeboats, guilty, hard-hearted and refusing to go back to help the screaming, pleading voices drowning in the dark night.

Like the iconic disaster story, the current crisis of extreme wealth inequality might have been (and still could be, according to the report) averted: more lifeboats, better emergency protections, taking out the barriers to upward mobility, raising the floor so that our heads are not traveling underwater, protected only by the dangerous metal-hulled theories of free markets and trickle-down effects. The wealthy could use their class, privilege and fortunes to create a safer ship for all of us.

Instead, well, we know how this story goes.

Reckless, irresponsible greed has created a crisis in which every 38 seconds, a US citizen dies of poverty and poverty-related social conditions. The US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling handed US politics over to the wealthy on a silver platter, turning elections into auctions with political offices going to the highest bidder, starting at prices far out of reach for the average American. The opportunities needed to save lives and build economic justice are held in the same hands as those gripping wealth and power. The political purse strings tie inequality up with a bow and condemn the rest of us to a life sentence of poverty.

The Institute for Policy Studies report shares some damning statistics: The top 20 billionaires (who could all fit in a private jet together) own more than the bottom half of Americans. They are all white, mostly men and nearly half of them belong to the same three families (Walton, Koch and Mars). If the Forbes 400 list threw an exclusive party, they could all fit into the Seattle Space Needle, wining, dining and toasting to their success while idly spinning in circles.

Perhaps Oprah Winfrey and Robert Smith (the only Black people in the room) might exchange tight-lipped looks when one of the Koch brothers points out that the 400 Space Needle billionaires own more than the entire Black population and one-third of the Latino population combined. The five Latinos at the party might grimace. There are only a few Asians, and not a single Native American.

There are no teachers or artists at the party. Those professions are not valued and rewarded like hedge fund traders, hotel chain owners, high-end real estate developers, tech firm owners and media moguls. There are no country doctors or any health-care professionals, though pharmaceutical company owners are present. There’s plenty of inherited wealth in the room, mingling with family dynasties, and perhaps chatting with so-called self-made men who shipped jobs overseas and refused to pay living wages in the United States. The four Facebook billionaires are huddled in a corner together, all men, all white. There are no farmers, though the two brothers who own the Cargill grain fortune might claim to be family farmers.

This is what wealth looks like in the United States: a disgusting outcome of hundreds of years of exploitation, extraction, conquest, colonization, slavery, wage slavery, indentured servitude, wars, militarism, crony capitalism, sweatshops, low wages, destruction of the earth, the genocide of Native peoples, racism, sexism and oppression. (My apologies if I forgot anything; truth is hard to keep track of.)

The rest of us – the other 99% who are not invited to the party – are veterans, school teachers, ambulance drivers, dancers, researchers, inventors, clerks, accountants, child-care providers, firefighters, nurses, mom-and-pop store owners, novelists, activists, civil rights lawyers, truckers, ranchers, sculptors, painters, public speakers, ministers, social workers, waiters, cooks, bellhops, taxi drivers, dishwashers, construction workers, singers and musicians. The wide swath of our human family is excluded from the profit of a whole society’s worth of labor and productivity. We create the wealth through our sweat, hard work, creativity, inventions, skills, services and knowledge. We do not get to enjoy the wealth, however. That is reserved for a very narrow group of people, most of who can be described as the owning class.

The Institute for Policy Studies report contains some grave warnings about the dangers of extreme wealth concentration. Like the unfortunate Titanic, there are icebergs ahead in the cold waters of the global economy. Continuing full steam ahead without correcting the causes of extreme inequality is risking disaster. Those on the Forbes 400 list may soon find themselves horrified in the lifeboat of their bank accounts, watching the elderly, poor people and the nation’s children drown in the disaster of poverty.

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