The 85

It’s been reported that the 85 wealthiest individuals have wealth equivalent to that of half the world’s population.

It’s not clear how debt is accounted for. Some rich people can accrue far more debt than us normal individuals. One might calculate the poorest person on earth has a net worth of negative billions; that person still could easily amass actual goods, insofar as “if you owe a hundred dollars, that’s your problem, but if you owe a hundred million, that’s the bank’s problem.”

Assuming, however, that there is little skewing of these figures by actual negative wealth, we can assert that the mean total wealth of the 85 wealthiest is 7,000,000,000/85 = 82,000,000 times higher than the mean total wealth of the poorer half of humanity. We also have the net worth of the 85 at about a trillion, or a mean of about ten billion each. So the mean total wealth of the poorer half is about $120.

That’s a median, not a mean. So it’s not precise to say that a quarter of the world could not raise $120. But that seems to be the ballpark.

What this means for negotiating our future is unclear. One thing that is very clear is that it’s very important that the wealthiest people not have badly skewed ideas about what is actually going on. From all appearances, though, they do.


  1. And some recent little Stiglitz bits too: "For most Americans, there is no recovery, with 95% of the gains going to the top 1%... Even before the recession, American-style capitalism was not working for a large share of the population. The recession only made its rough edges more apparent. Median income (adjusted for inflation) is still lower than it was in 1989, almost a quarter-century ago; and median income for males is lower than it was four decades ago."

  2. Putting aside the actual numbers for a moment, it seems reasonably evident that the rich are getting richer, and the poor, poorer. There is evidence for this, for example at the Guardian (no surprise there).

    Linking this to Davos, where the rich play together to determine the fate of all - nominally, we return to the age-old problem of the distribution of wealth.

    One of the popular arguments from the Dark Side is that increasing future global wealth will compensate for decreasing Global Health (of the planet). A previous discussion with Stoat revolved around the question of whether we are collectively better off now than we were, and why this matters.

    As time lumbers on, it is hard to deny that for many people, things have got generally a bit better. China was the point in hand before, and is pertinent here. But the balance is tenuous. Whilst folks in the UK are not generally starving, there is a clear change in the relationship between levels of taxation (rising) and levels of service (falling), which favours the haves over the have-nots. This pattern can be seen repeated elsewhere. Whilst the multitude remains insufficently put out to actually do something about this unfairness, nothing changes, but there are plentiful examples, more often in more marginal social environments, where the people have taken matters into their own hands.

    It should be noted that there are several examples of the richest individuals spreading their bounty (such as the Gateses). Several of these powerful people are relatively enlightened and encourage the better sort of philanthropic activity - see Schwarzenegger, another example. What concerns me more is the faceless Corporate entities which do much of the damage to our world, and the faceless funds and trusts which dominate market trading; I believe that these are the juggernaut which needs to be halted.

    What it means for negotiating our future? As history shows, we have a collective power where we lack it individually. We have a social entity which is more than the sum of its parts. We need to continue to put pressure on the holders of power to enact large changes, to see that their interests are better served in concert with ours, not at our cost. This is especially the case in relation to the planet itself, since Nature does not champion itself, having no voice but ours to represent it.

  3. I don't think anything like Bitcoin is likely to be the system to do this, but this stuff makes me wonder about how you pull the rug from under such insane wealth. This relates to the previous discussion of the financial sector: it's built on the same money system used by people working in call centres and in fact relies on that system. Given that, why can't people have much more clear options to put their money into alternatives? Ones that can't be used for casino-style speculation? And that, ultimately, can't be used to underpin such vast gulfs of wealth?

    Complete fantasy on my part, but it's a fantasy worth discussing and - as with Russell Brand's attack on the current political system, suggesting we don't vote - while I'm not sure I agree with the bitcoin philosophy, it's a great idea to be opening up space for discussion about alternatives.

    It's a bugger of a problem though. One of the tools one might want to use for collective action - the state - is currently not looking very promising. While states' central banks guarantee our current financial structure, the global financial system is beyond any state, and so guarantees the safety of those 85 people (and the vast number of others whose money lives a mercurial existence beyond the state's reach).

    So I can see Bitcoin's point - but if you want some alternative financial platform, one capable of safeguarding against casinos where our pension funds are used as chips, and one where there's some system in place for restricting the gap between rich and poor, the state still looks like one of the best places to develop options. The internet's an open platform (still, just) but was state-funded (albeit initially for military reasons, not so for Tim Berners-Lee's contribution). The current financial system, while now piggybacking on that platform, is about as closed as it's possible to be.

  4. "The Pyramid Game"
    -- by Horatio Algeranon

    The Pyramid Game is very cool
    You make your money from a fool
    Who makes his money from another
    Who makes his off his little brother

    The one on top is good as gold
    With those on bottom left to hold
    The empty bag with nothing in it
    They simply cannot hope to win it

  5. Monbiot notes our trend:

    We appear to possess an almost limitless ability to sit back and watch as political life is seized by plutocrats, as the biosphere is trashed, as public services are killed or given to corporations; as workers are dragooned into zero-hour contracts.... How did we acquire this superhuman passivity?

    ... Almost universally we now seem content to lead a proxy life, a counter life, of vicarious, illusory relationships, of secondhand pleasures, of atomisation without individuation. Those who possess some disposable income are extraordinarily free, by comparison to almost all our great-grandparents, but we tend to act as if we have been placed under house arrest.... we would rather stare at an illuminated box, watching other people jumping up and down and screaming. Our political constraint is one aspect of a wider inhibition, a wider failure to be free.

    I’m not talking about thinktank freedoms here: the freedom of billionaires not to pay their taxes, of corporations to pollute the atmosphere or induce children to smoke, of landlords to exploit their tenants. We should respect the prohibitive decencies we owe to others. But there are plenty of freedoms we can exercise without diminishing other people’s.

    .... how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves? How many would have foreseen a national conversation – in public and in private – that revolves around the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts? How many would have guessed that people possessed of unimaginable wealth and leisure and liberty would spend their time shopping for onion goggles and wheatgrass juicers? Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores.
    Could it be this – the immediate satisfaction of desire, the readiness with which we can find comfort – that deprives us of greater freedoms? Does extreme comfort deaden the will to be free?

    If so, it is a habit learnt early and learnt hard.... Perhaps freedom from want has paradoxically deprived us of other freedoms. The freedom which makes so many new pleasures available vitiates the desire to enjoy them.

    Tocqueville made a similar point about democracy: it threatens to enclose each of us “entirely in the solitude of his own heart.”(8) The freedoms it grants us destroy the desire to combine and to organise. To judge by our reluctance to create sustained alternatives, we wish neither to belong nor to deviate.

    It is not hard to see how our elective impotence leads before long to tyranny. Without coherent popular movements, which are required to prevent opposition parties from falling into the clutches of millionaires and corporate lobbyists, almost any government would be tempted to engineer a nominally democratic police state. Freedom of all kinds is something we must use or lose. But we seem to have forgotten what it means.

  6. "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores." Wonderful. I have been noting the growth of chains of stores selling cheap goods. Almost an oxymoron? I finally walked into one and was hard pressed to see anything that didn't depress me.
    The massive disruption to climate, the towering numbers of people, the capitalist rape of nature, the corrupting, corrosive effects of greed, and much more, have made me want to weep for my children and their children.
    Born in the first month of 1944, I feel lucky to have had a glimpse of the best, and sad to be expecting the worst.

  7. "Born in the first month of 1944, I feel lucky to have had a glimpse of the best, and sad to be expecting the worst."

    This time a hundred years ago, my country was about to start throwing its young men into the mincing machine of World War One by the boatload. The best, after WWII, was perhaps a consequence of those wars. It seems it must take such suffering to prompt society to really find the best in itself - which is a sod, really, isn't it? But also a hint of hope: there is a struggle, happening right now, becoming more apparent every day. Society never ends up where dreamers dream of or fighters fight for, but the dreaming and fighting gets us there anyway.

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