This year, I simply couldn't get one fact out of my head: according to a 2017 report from the Institute for Policy Studies, three billionaires -- Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates -- have amassed as much wealth as the bottom half of American society. That's 160 million people! (And unlike our president, I don't use exclamation points lightly or often.) Or as Oxfam reported in January of this year, the wealth of eight men -- and yes, they were men (including the three mentioned above) -- was equal to that of half the people on this planet in 2017. Yikes! And just to give you a sense of where we've been heading at supersonic speed, an Oxfam report a year earlier had 62 billionaires owning half the planet's wealth. Imagine that: 62 to eight in a single year.
Then consider what we know about the rise of the billionaire class. Again, according to Oxfam, a new billionaire appeared every two days in 2017, while 82% of the wealth being created on this planet already went to the top 1% and the bottom half of the global population saw no wealth gains at all. In 2017 (the last year for which we have such figures), the total wealth of the globe's billionaire class ballooned by almost 20%. (And I want you to know that, unlike our president, I'm fighting hard to restrain the urge to put one or more exclamation points after every one of those sentences.)
Oxfam released its figures this January to coincide with the annual meeting of the world's top dogs at Davos in Switzerland. Assumedly, it will do so again in January 2019 and I shudder to think what the next set of stats are likely to be. In the meantime, consider what TomDispatch regular Nomi Prins, author most recently of Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World, has to say about a planet on which the actual economic situation of most people bears remarkably little relationship to what's generally advertised and why, if you think stability is already a thing of the past in a Trumpian world, you ain't seen nuthin' yet. Tom
Wall Street, Banks, and Angry Citizens
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
By Nomi Prins
As we head into 2019, leaving the chaos of this year behind, a major question remains unanswered when it comes to the state of Main Street, not just here but across the planet. If the global economy really is booming, as many politicians claim, why are leaders and their parties around the world continuing to get booted out of office in such a sweeping fashion?
One obvious answer: the post-Great Recession economic "recovery" was largely reserved for the few who could participate in the rising financial markets of those years, not the majority who continued to work longer hours, sometimes at multiple jobs, to stay afloat. In other words, the good times have left out so many people, like those struggling to keep even a few hundred dollars in their bank accounts to cover an emergency or the 80% of American workers who live paycheck to paycheck.- Advertisement -
In today's global economy, financial security is increasingly the property of the 1%. No surprise, then, that, as a sense of economic instability continued to grow over the past decade, angst turned to anger, a transition that -- from the U.S. to the Philippines, Hungary to Brazil, Poland to Mexico -- has provoked a plethora of voter upheavals. In the process, a 1930s-style brew of rising nationalism and blaming the "other" -- whether that other was an immigrant, a religious group, a country, or the rest of the world -- emerged.
This phenomenon offered a series of Trumpian figures, including of course The Donald himself, an opening to ride a wave of "populism" to the heights of the political system. That the backgrounds and records of none of them -- whether you're talking about Donald Trump, Viktor Orba'n, Rodrigo Duterte, or Jair Bolsonaro (among others) -- reflected the daily concerns of the "common people," as the classic definition of populism might have it, hardly mattered. Even a billionaire could, it turned out, exploit economic insecurity effectively and use it to rise to ultimate power.
Ironically, as that American master at evoking the fears of apprentices everywhere showed, to assume the highest office in the land was only to begin a process of creating yet more fear and insecurity. Trump's trade wars, for instance, have typically infused the world with increased anxiety and distrust toward the U.S., even as they thwarted the ability of domestic business leaders and ordinary people to plan for the future. Meanwhile, just under the surface of the reputed good times, the damage to that future only intensified. In other words, the groundwork has already been laid for what could be a frightening transformation, both domestically and globally.
That Old Financial Crisis
To understand how we got here, let's take a step back. Only a decade ago, the world experienced a genuine global financial crisis, a meltdown of the first order. Economic growth ended; shrinking economies threatened to collapse; countless jobs were cut; homes were foreclosed upon and lives wrecked. For regular people, access to credit suddenly disappeared. No wonder fears rose. No wonder for so many a brighter tomorrow ceased to exist.
The details of just why the Great Recession happened have since been glossed over by time and partisan spin. This September, when the 10th anniversary of the collapse of the global financial services firm Lehman Brothers came around, major business news channels considered whether the world might be at risk of another such crisis. However, coverage of such fears, like so many other topics, was quickly tossed aside in favor of paying yet more attention to Donald Trump's latest tweets, complaints, insults, and lies. Why? Because such a crisis was so 2008 in a year in which, it was claimed, we were enjoying a first class economic high and edging toward the longest bull-market in Wall Street history. When it came to "boom versus gloom," boom won hands down.- Advertisement -
None of that changed one thing, though: most people still feel left behind both in the U.S. and globally. Thanks to the massive accumulation of wealth by a 1% skilled at gaming the system, the roots of a crisis that didn't end with the end of the Great Recession have spread across the planet, while the dividing line between the "have-nots" and the "have-a-lots" only sharpened and widened.
Though the media hasn't been paying much attention to the resulting inequality, the statistics (when you see them) on that ever-widening wealth gap are mind-boggling. According to Inequality.org, for instance, those with at least $30 million in wealth globally had the fastest growth rate of any group between 2016 and 2017. The size of that club rose by 25.5% during those years, to 174,800 members. Or if you really want to grasp what's been happening, consider that, between 2009 and 2017, the number of billionaires whose combined wealth was greater than that of the world's poorest 50% fell from 380 to just eight. And by the way, despite claims by the president that every other country is screwing America, the U.S. leads the pack when it comes to the growth of inequality. As Inequality.org notes, it has "much greater shares of national wealth and income going to the richest 1% than any other country."
That, in part, is due to an institution many in the U.S. normally pay little attention to: the U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve. It helped spark that increase in wealth disparity domestically and globally by adopting a post-crisis monetary policy in which electronically fabricated money (via a program called quantitative easing, or QE) was offered to banks and corporations at significantly cheaper rates than to ordinary Americans.