Posts Tagged ‘billionaires’

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Bruce Plante Cartoon: Your tax cut  Alabama Creeper

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Wealth inequality in the United States has reached such extreme levels it is almost impossible to put it into perspective.

But the folks at the Institute for Policy Studies (pdf) have found a novel way, by comparing the fortunes of the 400 wealthiest Americans to the meager assets of everyone else.

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Here’s what they found:

  • The three wealthiest people in the United States—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett—now own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 160 million people or 63 million households.
  • America’s top 25 billionaires—a group the size of a major league baseball team’s active roster—together hold $1 trillion in wealth. These 25 have as much wealth as 56 percent of the population, a total 178 million people or 70 million households.
  • The billionaires who make up the full Forbes 400 list now own more wealth than the bottom 64 percent of the U.S. population, an estimated 80 million households or 204 million people—more people than the populations of Canada and Mexico combined.

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Here’s another way: the average wealth of the top 10 billionaires (from the Forbes 2017 list) is $61 billion. In 2014 (the last year for which data are available), the average wealth for the United States as a whole (the blue line in the chart above) was only $297 thousand, while the average wealth owned by the middle 40 percent (the green line) was even less, $202 thousand. As for the top 1 percent, their average wealth (the red line) was $1.15 million—clearly far more than most other Americans but not even close to the extraordinary level of wealth that has been accumulated by the tiny group at the very top.

As the authors of the report explain,

The elite ranks of our billionaire class continue to pull apart from the rest of us. We have not witnessed such extreme levels of concentrated wealth and power since the first Gilded Age a century ago. Such staggering levels of wealth inequality threaten our democracy, compound racial and class divisions, undermine social cohesion, and destabilize our economy.

The problem is, while mainstream economists look the other way, politicians in Washington continue to allow the Monopoly men to pass Go, collect their additional billions in wealth, and win the game.

 

*”Monopoly men” are not just men: there are 50 women on the 2017 Forbes 400 list, who are worth a combined $305 billion. (An additional five women who built and share fortunes with their husbands also made the list.) They include Alice Walton (with a net worth of $38.2 billion), Jacqueline Mars ($25.5 billion), Laurene Powell Jobs ($19.4 billion), Abigail Johnson ($16 billion), and Blair Parry-Okeden ($12 billion).

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Bruce Plante Cartoon: Is it too soon?  download (1)

billionaires

The timing could not have been better, at least for me. It just so happens I’m teaching Thorsten Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class this week. It should become quickly obvious to students that, as I have argued before on this blog, we’re now in the midst of a Second Gilded Age.

This is confirmed in a new report by UBS/PwC, according to which, after a brief pause in 2015, the expansion in billionaire wealth around the world has resumed.

Thus, billionaire wealth rose 17 percent in 2016 (up from $5.1 trillion to $6 trillion), far more than the 5.8-percent nominal GDP growth figure and double the rate of the MSCI AC World Index.** There was also a 10-percent rise in the number of billionaires globally to 1,542. Despite a period of heightened geopolitical uncertainty, the world’s ultrawealthy are flourishing.

The United States still has the world’s largest concentration of billionaire wealth. It grew by 15 percent from $2.4 trillion to $2.8 trillion as billionaires prospered, far outstripping the MSCI AC World Index. Thirty-nine Americans entered the billion-dollar plus wealth band and 14 dropped off.

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Europe’s billionaire population was static in 2016. Twenty-four entered this wealth band, while 21 dropped off.*** There were 342 European billionaires at the end of 2016.

The biggest jump occurred in Asia. Three quarters of the newly minted billionaires are from the region’s two biggest economies—China and India. China had by far the highest number, adding a net 67 to total 318. India’s billionaire population climbed 16 to 100. Taken together, the wealth of Asian billionaires grew by almost a third (31 percent) in 2016, up from $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion.

So, what do the world’s billionaires do with their vast wealth? Most of it is used to capture even more income and wealth. Thus, the 1,542 billionaires in the UBS/PwC database own or partly own companies that directly employ at least 27.7 million people worldwide—roughly the same as the UK’s working population. And, via an array of financial instruments and “club deals,” they manage to siphon off a large part of the surplus created by the rest of the global working-class.****

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Apparently, the world’s billionaires are also becoming major patrons of sports, such as football (both global and American), hockey, baseball, and basketball. According to the report, more than 140 of the top sports clubs globally are owned by just 109 billionaires.*****

One European entrepreneur explains why he owns a sports club in the following way. “Sport is my life and my dearest hobby,” he says. “Further, the publicity you get from the broadcasting is global. The business works according to the theme ‘you win on Sunday and sell on Monday.’ People always identify themselves with winners. A er all, I not only sponsor, whatever I do in this eld must be sustainable and needs to make commercial sense.”

It should come as no surprise that Veblen held a quite different view:

Addiction to athletic sports, not only in the way of direct participation, but also in the way of sentiment and moral support, is, in a more or less pronounced degree, a characteristic of the leisure class; and it is a trait which that class shares with the lower-class delinquents, and with such atavistic elements throughout the body of the community as are endowed with a dominant predaceous trend.

Clearly, the Gilded Age today shares with its historical predecessor a “dominant predaceous trend” that enables the world’s billionaires to accumulate more and more wealth and leaves the rest of us behind.

 

*The title of this post is from the collection of short stories by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, published in 1873. Apparently, the name chosen by Twain and Warner was inspired by William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John (Act 4, Scene 2):

Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

**The MSCI AC World Index is a market capitalization weighted index designed to provide a broad measure of equity-market performance throughout the world. It is maintained by Morgan Stanley Capital International, and is comprised of stocks from both developed and emerging markets.

***Germany, Europe’s largest economy, also has the most billionaires, at 117. The United Kingdom comes a distant second, at 55, followed by Italy (42), France (39) and Switzerland (35).

****One high-profile example of clubbing together occurred when Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway group backed the ill-fated Kraft Heinz $143-billion bid for Unilever in February 2017. Buffett has a record of helping the 3G private equity vehicle behind the bid to finance its deals. 3G is controlled by Jorge Paolo Lemann, Brazil’s richest man, and his partners. Buffett has added his financial firepower to 3G’s acquisitions of doughnut chain Tim Hortons as well as Kraft Heinz.

*****The Glazer family, worth an estimated $4.7 billion in 2015, controls 83 percent of my own favorite sports team.

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Russia is back in the news again in the United States, with the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election as well as a growing set of links between a variety of figures (including Cabinet and family members) associated with Donald Trump and the regime of Vladimir Putin.

This year is also the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution, which sought to create the conditions for a transition to communism in the midst of a society characterized by various forms of feudalism, peasant communism, and capitalism. But we shouldn’t forget that, in addition, the Red Century has clearly left its mark on the political economy of the West, including the United States—both in the early years, when the “communist threat” undoubtedly led to reforms associated with a more equal distribution of income, and later, when the Fall of the Wall reinforced the neoliberal turn to privatization and deregulation.

Now we have a third reason to think about Russia, which happens to intersect with the first two concerns. A new study of income and wealth data by Filip Novokmet, Thomas Piketty, Gabriel Zucman reveals just how much has changed in Russia from the time of the tsarist oligarchy through the Soviet Union to rise of the new oligarchy during and after the “shock therapy” that served to create a new form of private capitalism under Putin.

As is clear from the chart, income inequality was extremely high in Tsarist Russia, then dropped to very low levels during the Soviet period, and finally rose back to very high levels after the fall of the Soviet Union. Thus, for example, the top 1-percent income share was somewhat close to 20 percent in 1905, dropped to as little as 4-5 percent during the Soviet period, and rose spectacularly to 20-25 percent in recent decades.

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The data sets used by Novokmet et al. reveal a level of inequality under the new oligarchs that is much higher than was apparent using survey data—a top 1-percent income share that is more than double for 2007-08.

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Novokmet et al. also show that the income shares of the top 10 percent and the bottom 50 percent moved in exactly opposite directions after the privatization of Russian state capitalism in the early 1990s. While the top 10-percent income share rose from less than 25 percent in 1990-1991 to more than 45 percent in 1996, the share of the bottom 50 percent collapsed, dropping from about 30 percent of total income in 1990-1991 to less than 10 percent in 1996, before gradually returning to 15 percent by 1998 and about 18 percent by 2015.

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In comparison to other countries, Russia was much more equal during the Soviet period and, by 2015, had approached a level of inequality higher than that of France and comparable only to that of the United States.

billionaires

Finally, Novokmet et al. have been able to estimate the enormous growth of private wealth under the new oligarchy, especially the wealth that was captured by a tiny group at the very top and is now owned by Russia’s billionaires. As the authors explain,

The number of Russian billionaires—as registered in international rankings such as the Forbes list—is extremely high by international standards. According to Forbes, total billionaire wealth was very small in Russia in the 1990s, increased enormously in the early 2000s, and stabilized around 25-40% of national income between 2005 and 2015 (with large variations due to the international crisis and the sharp fall of the Russian stock market after 2008). This is much larger than the corresponding numbers in Western countries: Total billionaire wealth represents between 5% and 15% of national income in the United States, Germany and France in 2005-2015 according to Forbes, despite the fact that average income and average wealth are much higher than in Russia. This clearly suggests that wealth concentration at the very top is significantly higher in Russia than in other countries.

Clearly, there is nothing “natural” about the distribution of income and the ownership of wealth. This new study demonstrates that different economic structures and political events create fundamentally different levels of inequality in both income and wealth, both within and between countries.

The Russian experience is a perfect example how inequality can fall and then, later, be reversed with radical economic and political transformations—thus creating a new oligarchy that dominates the national political economy and seeks to intervene in other countries.

Not unlike the United States.