How to Prevent More Billionaires from Happening
Imagine a society with no billionaires.
Numerous countries have tried to accomplish this, but nearly every time they do, the United States intervenes, sometimes covertly like Reagan did in Central America with the contras, and sometimes overtly and explicitly, as JFK did with the attempted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
We love and defend our billionaires and multimillionaires; after all, we have more of them than any society in the world. The result is that our political system has been corrupted to third-world levels, our middle class has been reduced to servility and deep indebtedness, and a UN representative who recently visited the American South was shocked to find infant mortality, lifespans and hookworm infestations as bad as in some of the world's poorest nations.
And this is the official policy of the United States.
Bill Gates, arguably one of our more benign billionaires, was recently on TV proudly noting that he and his wife have given away “more than $40 billion.” Without specific government programs allowing monopolistic behavior and extending government intellectual property protections for extended periods (something Jefferson fought against unsuccessfully), Gates would merely be a multimillionaire.
Does society benefit from having billionaires? And if not, why do we “allow” (and in fact, openly promote) such wealth accumulation, and where did this all begin?
Prior to the agricultural revolution, roughly 7,000 to 10,000 years ago, virtually all of our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. As Peter Farb (Man’s Rise to Civilization), Marshall Sahlins (The Original Affluent Society), Daniel Quinn (Ishmael) and others have documented over the years, their societies were broadly equal and egalitarian. They were what we’d today call “communist,” in that the community was the first priority and individual accumulation of wealth was entirely subordinate to the needs of the community.
Potlatch societies across North America prior to Columbus, tribes across Africa (the San are most famous; see the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy), and even European tribes were very much based on the idea that the purpose of organizing into a tribe or community was to benefit all, rather than to benefit one family.
The purpose of government, and of an economy, for that matter, was to benefit society, rather than to create a class of the morbidly rich.
Jefferson was so enamored of the idea that his red-haired ancestors in the British Isles prior to the Roman invasion lived tribally and in an egalitarian fashion that he wrote extensively about Paul de Rapin de Thoyras’s History of England, sometimes referred to as the first among the “Whig histories,” which documented how tribal Brits organized their communities and societies in egalitarian fashion. Hume, the main British historian studied in Jefferson’s time, who rejected the Whig histories, was, according to Jefferson, a “fraud.”
While Jefferson and many of his contemporaries enjoyed their wealth, it was, as I document in my book What Would Jefferson Do, more of what today we’d call the upper middle class.
For example, John Hancock, the wealthiest of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, had assets worth a bit over $700,000 in today’s money. The absolute majority of ratifiers of the Constitution in 1789 were farmers, teachers and others among the working class; the most wealthy more often opposed ratification.
Jefferson, like Washington, died broke. None wanted to emulate England with their multi-generational “landed gentry,” and in fact, not a single fortune from that era lasted more than two generations. A billion-dollar insurance company may bear Hancock’s name today, but there is no direct line from his modest wealth to that company.
So how did we end up with an infestation of billionaires, and how have other societies, from Northern European nations to 100% of our ancestors for most of human history, avoid this poverty- and crime-producing plague?
Daniel Quinn is perhaps the most eloquent in pointing out that it all began when the agricultural revolution allowed us to live in climates where food wasn’t produced year-round. Spring, summer, and fall led to large harvests, which could be used for food through the long winters characterized by the farther north and south above and below the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.
But with the seasonal food surpluses came the emergence of the first humans who would prey on and lord over other humans as a way of life. The most efficient of the farmers learned that if they could simply lock up their food surplus throughout the winter, they could force others to serve them or face starvation during winter months.
While equatorial peoples still largely “lived in the hands of the gods,” having a year-round food supply and typically spending less than three hours a day “working” to get and prepare food, those in the far north and south created highly unequal societies; what we today call kingdoms, empires and dynasties.
Although it was replicated in other cultures around the world, from Asia to South America, the history of Northern Europe is probably best known to most Americans. Kings built castles where they stored food, and demanded that the serfs who grew the food had to turn most of it over to them, to be doled out to those who won their favor.
Even in recent history we see this: during the Irish potato famine, as over a million Irish died of starvation, that island exported to the lords and King of England every year amounts of food products (particularly wheat, which the Irish were forbidden to eat) in quantities far exceeding what would have been necessary to prevent famine in Ireland.
In fact, the American Revolution was, in large part, a rebellion against this very sort of predation, in that case by the world’s then-largest corporation, the British East India Company. After the British Parliament in 1773 granted the corporation a Trump-sized tax cut (the Tea Act of 1773), enabling it to more easily drive smaller American tea sellers out of business, the colonists had had enough.
The citizens of the colonies gathered to throw off one of the corporations that had for almost 200 years determined nearly every aspect of their lives through its economic and political power. They were planning to destroy the goods of the world’s largest multinational corporation, intimidate its employees and face down the guns of the government that supported it.
A pamphlet was circulated through the colonies called The Alarm and signed by an enigmatic “Rusticus.” Posted on trees all over Boston, it made clear the feelings of colonial Americans about England’s largest transnational corporation and its behavior around the world:
“Are we in like Manner to be given up to the Disposal of the East India Company, who have now the Assurance, to step forth in Aid of the Minister, to execute his Plan, of enslaving America? Their Conduct in Asia, for some Years past, has given simple Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties, or Lives of Men.…Fifteen hundred Thousands, it is said, perished by Famine, not because the Earth denied its Fruits; but [because] this Company and their Servants engulfed all the Necessaries of Life, and set them at so high a Rate [price] that the poor could not purchase them.”
But within a generation after the American Revolution, those who would aspire to morbid riches began to again use the British model of monopoly and predatory practice to gain and accumulate wealth. America got her first millionaire in 1799.
While Lincoln railed against New York banks and speculators, and Grover Cleveland included in his 1887 State of the Union address a specific criticism of the “iron heel” of “corporate masters” upon the “necks” of working people, the U.S. president who most clearly called out the Morbidly Rich was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Accepting the nomination for his second term in Philadelphia in 1936, the sitting president of the United States called out the modern equivalent of Quinn’s “locking up the food”:
That very word freedom, in itself and of necessity, suggests freedom from some restraining power.
In 1776 we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy—from the 18th-century royalists who held special privileges from the crown. It was to perpetuate their privilege that they governed without the consent of the governed; that they denied the right of free assembly and free speech; that they restricted the worship of God; that they put the average man's property and the average man's life in pawn to the mercenaries of dynastic power; that they regimented the people.
Since that struggle, however, man's inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution—all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.
For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things.
Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital—all undreamed of by the fathers—the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.
There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small business men and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. They were no more free than the worker or the farmer.
Even honest and progressive-minded men of wealth, aware of their obligation to their generation, could never know just where they fitted into this dynastic scheme of things.
It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction.
In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.
The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor—these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. The savings of the average family, the capital of the small business man, the investments set aside for old age—other people's money—these were tools which the new economic royalty used to dig itself in. ...
Throughout the Nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restricted.
Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.
An old English judge once said: "Necessitous [hungry, homeless, or deeply poor] men are not free men."
Liberty requires opportunity to make a living—a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.
For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality.
A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor—other people's lives.
For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.
Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government. ...
The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the Government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody's business. They granted that the Government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the Government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.
Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.
These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America.
What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. But our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power.
Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.
The morbidly rich are once again “thirsting for power," reaching out for control over government itself.
The Maine state co-chair of the Koch-funded ALEC, Rep. Nathan Wadsworth, R-Hiram, has introduced legislation calling for a new Constitutional Convention, the first since 1787, to rewrite our constitution.
Republicans in over 30 states have already done the same; they’re within a few states of pulling it off, and have already had annual rehearsals of the Convention in Washington, DC, for the past several years.
In recent years, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus like Rep. Mark Pocan have played the role of Rusticus and FDR in our modern era.
Unfortunately, as a result of a series of legislative, FCC, and Executive Branch actions, most of our major media is now owned outright or controlled in large part by the morbidly rich, so their voices are rarely heard as loudly as those of Paul Revere or Franklin Roosevelt were in their days. (For a vivid example of how this works, check out www.theyrule.net.)
While the morbidly rich have had periods of virtually absolute rule in America—during the Andrew Jackson era, the Gilded Age in the late 1800s, and during the Roaring 20s—have always been American patriots (Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, arguably even JFK/LBJ) who have stood up and blocked their plans to turn American into a neofeudal state.
If they’re able to rewrite our constitution, however, even the thought experiment of a nation without billionaires will become impossible. They will have not only locked up the food, but pretty much everything else as well.
The fate of American democracy, and the future of what’s left of our middle class, now hangs in the balance.
And as both FDR and Sanders/Warren/Pocan have repeatedly pointed out, only the power of organized people can restrain the power of organized money.