The world’s billionaires are hoarding wealth at a breakneck pace, and their unquenchable greed is putting the whole world at risk.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) recently turned heads with a comment about how billionaires shouldn’t exist in any society where people still get sick from unclean drinking water, citing the example of poverty-stricken communities like Lowndes County, Alabama, where hookworm is prevalent. A 2017 article in The Guardian reported on how parasites like Necator americanus are inextricably tied to poverty:
The parasite, better known as hookworm, enters the body through the skin, usually through the soles of bare feet, and travels around the body until it attaches itself to the small intestine where it proceeds to suck the blood of its host. Over months or years it causes iron deficiency and anemia, weight loss, tiredness and impaired mental function, especially in children, helping to trap them into the poverty in which the disease flourishes.
…The average income is just $18,046 (£13,850) a year, and almost a third of the population live below the official US poverty line. The most elementary waste disposal infrastructure is often non-existent.
Some 73% of residents included in the Baylor survey reported that they had been exposed to raw sewage washing back into their homes as a result of faulty septic tanks or waste pipes becoming overwhelmed in torrential rains.
Like hookworm, the world’s billionaires are also parasitic in their greed, in that they continue to suck up more wealth and money while the rest of the world has to continue to find ways to survive with less and less. For example, a recent report from Oxfam found that since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the number of billionaires has doubled. Additionally, the richest billionaires have become astronomically richer in just a small number of years.
In 2016, Oxfam found that the wealthiest 61 billionaires owned as much wealth as the poorest 50 percent of the world. In 2017, 43 billionaires owned more than the poorest half of the planet. And in 2018, that number fell to just 26 — roughly the same amount of people that could fit in the first-class section of a commercial flight. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, currently the wealthiest person on the planet, saw his net worth increase by $12 billion just in the first 24 days of 2019, according to Seattle Times reporter Mike Rosenberg.
While it could be argued that billionaires could use their rapidly expanding wealth for philanthropic purposes that would help their communities, that typically isn’t the case. Just in the last few weeks, billionaires have used their wealth for gaudy purchases and ostentatious displays of greed, like NFL team owner Dan Snyder installing an IMAX cinema on his 305-foot superyacht. Billionaire hedge funder Ken Griffin’s recent purchase of a 24,000 square-foot apartment in New York City’s Central Park for $238 million is another example, as the cost of that apartment is roughly the same amount as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the nation of Palau.
Aside from tacky yachts and penthouses, billionaires are also getting something else for their money — politicians. The 2018 midterm election saw roughly $5 billion in political donations, making it the most expensive in history. More than $400 million in political donations came from just 20 people, according to The Guardian. When billionaires are spending nine-figure sums on elections, it’s no coincidence that their net worths continue to rise while everyone else struggles with stagnant wages and dwindling personal assets.
Ocasio-Cortez’s plan to fund her Green New Deal is a 70 percent new top marginal tax rate for all incomes above $10 million/year, which would only apply to the richest 11,000 taxpayers in the U.S. However, because greed knows no bounds, billionaires are experts at hiding their wealth, and most keep their incomes artificially low. Jeff Bezos, for example, drew a salary of just over $81,000 last year, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg paid himself just $1 in base pay. Most of their wealth is in company stock.
Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Massachusetts) newly announced proposal to tax all wealth above $50 million is particularly ground-breaking, as wealth like stocks and bonds are typically not taxed unless they’re sold on the market. And even then, that money is only subjected to the capital gains tax, which comes at a much lower rate than real, actual work.
Oxfam is suggesting a one percent tax on all wealth, and for the estimated $418 billion in annual revenue raised from the tax to be reinvested in public services, like education and healthcare. This is also a proposal floated by economist and best-selling author Thomas Piketty, as a means of addressing global wealth inequality. And in a 2018 column for Grit Post, Institute for Policy Studies inequality scholar Chuck Collins outlined a 14-point plan for addressing inequality, which included taxing extremely high incomes and inherited wealth, as well as Wall Street speculation.
However we address the greed of billionaires, action has to be taken soon if the planet is to survive. According to a paper for the United Nations’ 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report, scientists argued that the rapid depletion of the world’s ecosystems was proof that global sustainability was incompatible with the current economic order. The UN also estimated that the earth has approximately 12 years to act before climate change warms the planet by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, exacerbating floods, droughts, wildfires, and other extreme weather.
A 2018 report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculated that, if we continue to do nothing, the economic cost of climate change could equal more than half of global GDP by 2040. Global GDP in 2017 was $80 trillion, so if the IPCC is correct, climate change will cause $40 trillion in damage around the world in the next few decades.
To compare, global consulting firm McKinsey & Company reported that an investment of $231 billion to $405 billion per year in climate solutions could stave off the worst consequences of climate change. That’s a fraction of a percentage of the economic cost of climate change the IPCC estimated in its 2018 report. And coincidentally, that’s right around the same amount of money that would be generated from Oxfam’s proposed global wealth tax. Even just in the U.S., Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax would generate around $230 billion per year.
America, and the world, will have to make a choice: Will we allow the greed of a handful of billionaires to destroy the planet, or will we take bold action and put a stop to the hoarding of wealth before it’s too late?