While Americans fixate on Trump, the super-rich are absconding with our wealth, and the plague of inequality continues to grow. An analysis of 2016 data found that the poorest five deciles of the world population own about $410 billion in total wealth. As of June 8, 2017, the world's richest five men owned over $400 billion in wealth. Thus, on average, each man owns nearly as much as 750 million people.
Why do we let a few people shift great portions of the world's wealth to themselves?
Most of the super-super-rich are Americans. We the American people created the internet, developed and funded artificial intelligence, and built a massive transportation infrastructure, yet we let just a few individuals take almost all the credit, along with hundreds of billions of dollars.
Defenders of the out-of-control wealth gap insist that all is OK, because after all, America is a meritocracy in which the super-wealthy have earned all they have. They heed the words of Warren Buffett: "The genius of the American economy, our emphasis on a meritocracy and a market system and a rule of law has enabled generation after generation to live better than their parents did."
But it's not a meritocracy. Children are no longer living better than their parents did. In the eight years since the recession the Wilshire Total Market valuation has more than tripled, rising from a little over $8 trillion to nearly $25 trillion. The great majority of it has gone to the very richest Americans. In 2016 alone, the richest 1% effectively shifted nearly $4 trillion in wealth away from the rest of the nation to themselves, with nearly half of the wealth transfer ($1.94 trillion) coming from the nation's poorest 90% — the middle and lower classes. That's over $17,000 in housing and savings per lower-to-middle-class household lost to the super-rich.
A meritocracy? Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos have done little that wouldn't have happened anyway. All modern U.S. technology started with, and to a great extent continues with, our tax dollars and our research institutes and our subsidies to corporations.
Why do we let unqualified rich people tell us how to live?
In 1975, at the age of 20, Bill Gates founded Microsoft with high school buddy Paul Allen. At the time, Gary Kildall's CP/M operating system was the industry standard. Even Gates' company used it. But Kildall was an innovator, not a businessman, and when IBM came calling for an OS for the new IBM PC, his delays drove the big mainframe company to Gates. Even though the newly established Microsoft company couldn't fill IBM's needs, Gates and Allen saw an opportunity, and so they hurriedly bought the rights to another local company's OS — which was based on Kildall's CP/M system. Kildall wanted to sue, but intellectual property law for software had not yet been established. Kildall was a maker who got taken.
So Bill Gates took from others to become the richest man in the world. And now, because of his great wealth and the meritocracy myth, many people look to him for solutions in vital areas of human need, such as education and global food production.
Gates on education: He has promoted galvanic skin response monitors to measure the biological reactions of students, and the videotaping of teachers to evaluate their performances. About schools he said, "The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of the school system. So you have one executive, and the school board isn’t as powerful."
Gates on Africa: With investments in or deals with Monsanto, Cargill and Merck, Gates has demonstrated his preference for corporate control over poor countries deemed unable to help themselves. But no problem: according to Gates, "By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world."
Warren Buffett: Demanding to be taxed at a higher rate (as long as his own company doesn't have to pay)
Warren Buffett has advocated for higher taxes on the rich and a reasonable estate tax. But his company Berkshire Hathaway has used "hypothetical amounts" to pay its taxes while actually deferring $77 billion in real taxes.
Jeff Bezos: $50 billion in less than two years, and fighting taxes all the way
Since the end of 2015 Jeff Bezos has accumulated enough wealth to cover the entire $50 billion U.S. housing budget, which serves five million Americans. Bezos, who has profited greatly from the internet and the infrastructure built up over many years by many people with many of our tax dollars, has used tax havens and high-priced lobbyists to avoid the taxes owed by his company.
Mark Zuckerberg (6th richest in world, 4th richest in America)
While Zuckerberg was developing his version of social networking at Harvard, Columbia University students Adam Goldberg and Wayne Ting built a system called Campus Network, which was much more sophisticated than the early versions of Facebook. But Zuckerberg had the Harvard name and better financial support.
Now with his billions he has created a charitable foundation, which in reality is a tax-exempt limited liability company, leaving him free to make political donations or sell his holdings, all without paying taxes.
The false promise of philanthropy
Many super-rich individuals have pledged the majority of their fortunes to philanthropic causes. That's very generous, if they keep their promises. But that's not really the point.
American billionaires all made their money because of the research and innovation and infrastructure that make up the foundation of our modern technologies. They have taken credit, along with their massive fortunes, for successes that derive from society rather than from a few individuals. It should not be any one person's decision about the proper use of that wealth. Instead a significant portion of annual national wealth gains should be promised to education, housing, health research, and infrastructure. That is what Americans and their parents and grandparents have earned after a half-century of hard work and productivity.