Jeff Bezos pledged to give away most of his $122 billion fortune during his lifetime. No one is exactly sure why he finally made that decision, but we have not ruled out a visit from three ghosts.
Riches have their place in LDS theology. “But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after he have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good — to cloth the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and afflicted” (Jacob 2:18-19).
Let’s get one thing straight about the value of money. Money itself has no value. You can’t eat it, wear it, or shelter under it. Money is a lump of precious metal, a piece of paper with some printing on it, pixels on a computer screen that say you have some numbers in a bank that belong to you. Money is valuable only if you can trade it for things that you actually need. It’s a medium of exchange. Rather than bartering for everything we need, society picked something (money) and said let’s use this instead.
Money is a way to distribute resources. That’s all it is.
Before we talk about billionaires giving away money, let’s talk about paying people. Malachi records the Lord’s words: “And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against … those that oppress the hireling in his wages” (Malachi 3:5). (I would really approve of an Apostle choosing to talk about this verse in every single General Conference for the next ten years or so.)
This morning, in the course of my job, I was on a phone call with a woman in her 70s who was working three (low-paying) jobs to try and make ends meet. She worked at a food samples stand, and also cleaned a building and I forget the other one. None of those jobs pay enough for her to live on, even when combined with her paltry Social Security. No one in their 70s should be forced to work three jobs just to be able to buy food and pay rent. At this point in her life, hard work isn’t building character; it’s grinding her down and wearing her out.
Then I ran across the paperwork for a single mom working full-time who can’t afford to live in a house or apartment, so she and her three children live in a camper trailer.
Not too long ago, I was working with a business who had somehow mislaid $5 million. They’d borrowed it, and from what I could tell, neither the lender nor the receiver was all that concerned. In their industry, $5 million really wasn’t that much money.
Once you’ve got enough money to meet your needs, wealth is just a way to keep score. It’s a bizarre way to stockpile resources you can’t possibly use, and meanwhile other people don’t have enough to live on.
We ought to require business owners to pay their employees plenty of money, and thereby make less profit for themselves. Instead, they pay the lowest wages possible and then expect to be lionized for donating some of the wealth that they accumulated by not paying enough wages. Any headline that says “Company Reports Recordbreaking Profits” should be rewritten to “Company Underpays Workers and Overcharges Consumers.” Profits should simply not be that high. The company is failing to distribute enough money to the people who are making the company that much money.
Spread the money around. Raise wages. Give people the chance to buy food, shelter, clothing, medical care and some things that are just purely for enjoyment. Money is a way to distribute resources, and concentrating billions in the hands of one man is unfair distribution. Why does Bezos get to decide how to spend billions more than he could ever need for his own resources? It isn’t because he’s an expert in spreading resources around fairly; he has that money because he’s a ruthless businessman.
[image id: A tweet that says, “Okay, how about this? No more billionaires. None. After you reach $999 million, every red cent goes to schools and health care. You get a trophy that say, “I won capitalism” and we name a dog park after you. End id.]
Jacob wasn’t speaking to capitalists when he told people that they had to seek Christ before riches, and then use those riches to help the poor. At that point in the narrative, the Nephites had been in the new world a few decades (remember that Jacob was born before they crossed the ocean). They were likely in a small agrarian community, and they likely knew personally the people who needed help. Getting rich probably meant having three rooms in your cottage and four changes of clothes. The meaning of riches to Joseph Smith was probably pretty similar, honestly.
Donating money you’ve accumulated by sharp dealings to the poorest of the poor isn’t nearly as honorable as being economically fair to everyone around you. Being economically fair means you probably won’t accumulate bags and bags of riches. I sure would love it if the Church would use some of that billion-dollar fund to pay Church custodians so well that a Church custodian can support an entire family with just that one job. Start paying service missionaries. Imagine how many elderly the Church could raise up out of poverty if they paid senior missionaries – instead of working 3 menial jobs, that elderly woman I spoke with today could work at the distribution center part-time, selling garments to nice people. As it is, senior missionary work is a position of privilege – the poor can’t afford to volunteer their time.
So … earn a lot of money and then donate it? Or earn less money by spreading the money around rather than accumulating it?
Is it possible to amass a billion dollar fortune without exploiting other people?
Do you think wealth inequality is a moral issue that the Church ought to speak about?
Yes, I do think this is an issue the church ought to speak about. Instead they focus on Self Reliance. A consequence of this focus is that bishops and others responsible for the poor often refuse to help the poor believing they are helping them be self reliant. They also subject them to hurtful surveillance demanding not only full access to every detail of their finances but also want to look in their cupboards and then tell them to get their families to help instead. It’s demoralizing and difficult to get help through some bishops and so poor families find other sources than the church to help. Than the church thinks they succeeded in making someone self reliant.
What they fail to understand is that some people cannot become self reliant no matter how righteous they are.
People suffer from disabilities and illnesses that can prevent self reliance. Once again this has nothing to do with righteousness, and putting them through in depth surveillance and refusing to help doesn’t mean their disabilities and illnesses disappear and they can magically support themselves.
Just to be clear, being wealthy doesn’t make you more righteous either.
I have a friend I met through ministering who moved around and stayed in touch with me. She called and told me about every contact with a bishop or his RS president where she had to ask for help. She is treated with judgement over and over. Sometimes she gets a kind bishop who helps but sometimes she gets a bishop who hears about her getting help a previous time and he will just refuse to help. She has been told to make self reliance plan before she can get help. They suggest she make cookies and sell them (without ingredients or a way to pay the electric bill).
She is homeless and the transitional bishop system is exhausting as well because there’s no ward to help someone with no home, just a bishop who is busy taking care of his ward and doesn’t have anything left emotionally for homeless families. If he can just refuse to help for a month it gets handed to the next bishop. It’s bishop roulette.
She and her husband and son are shuttled from couch to couch, hotel to hotel. Sometimes they find work for a tiny bit of money. She gets SSI but there’s still no hope of getting into an apartment.
In the last few years she has never even been offered a self reliance class, though she has asked about it hoping to show she is trying.
I have been so disillusioned about the church’s commitment to help the poor. The church is no better than it’s bishops and they don’t really have the time energy and training to really understand the poor. It becomes easier to judge them and tell them to practice self reliance.
And mean while all my life time of tithing is earning interest for the church in savings. We need to do better. I feel that to my bones with great sadness.
I don’t know how many times I have sat in a Mormon class and listened to the mental gymnastics people play to try and explain that riches are ok and that Jesus wasn’t that hostile to the rich. No, he was. Easier for a camel. . .
Ooh, I love that Malachi quote! I agree with you about wanting to hear about it in General Conference!
I think it would be great if the GAs worried even 1% as much about wealth inequality as they do about LGBTQ people. I think early Church leaders maybe at least had the possibility of doing it. The United Order was an interesting attempt at re-thinking an economic system (and if I remember right, that type of community continued in some places in Utah, like Orderville). It definitely had its flaws, but at least the Church was counter-cultural enough at that point to at least consider the possibility of something different than the status quo.
Now, though, the Church is firmly entrenched in the existing economic system, especially having amassed a giant pile of money, so I just can’t imagine the GAs would do anything even as radical as pointing out that there’s no moral reason for all the wealth to flow upward to the capitalists. The Church is with the capitalists, so the GAs just couldn’t imagine saying it. So instead we’ll hear more about self-reliance and the need for hard work, which I agree are important issues, but focusing on them alone overlooks the giant problems of systems set up to, as you point out so well, pay people as little as possible for their labor and ensure that most profits accumulate to the already-wealthy.
Thank you, Janey, for addressing this topic. After reading Kristine A’s post yesterday about affordable housing, I was curious about and looked up the high-density housing the church had planned for the Tooele Valley. There is high-density housing and there is affordable high-density housing. Not all high-density housing is affordable (consider the housing the church built in the City Creek development in SLC. High density? Yes. Affordable? Most definitely not.). I have difficulty seeing the church placing *affordable* high-density housing near its temples. And that wasn’t the plan. The plan included single family homes along with attached housing for residents over age 55. This doesn’t seem to address issues of affordable housing and doesn’t seem to have been their intention.
It is hard for me to want to worship in a temple that is deliberately located a distance from anyone who can’t afford a half-million dollar living space, high density or not.
I’ve seen where the family homeless shelter is located in Salt Lake County. Can we see that as a temple, and service there as temple service? Can we reframe temple service to service that helps the neediest among us rather than people who have already died? It feels backwards to me to focus so much of our attention on the dead rather than the living. The family shelter can be a hard place to live in due to constraints of housing so many people with such limited funds, but it gives desperate families a roof over their heads, especially during cold winter weather. A lot of the residents choose to live in their cars when the weather is more moderate. Imagine if some of the temple building funds went instead to build homeless shelters, transitional housing, and affordable housing units that low-income families could purchase. What if some of the funds went to build organizations that could provide living wage jobs for the poor?
“They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries” is right there in the Book of Mormon. We are not innocent of that sin.
With you I dream of conference talks about not oppressing the hireling in his/her wages. So many scriptures that address these and related issues. It says a lot about us when we choose not to teach *certain* scriptures. The levels of poverty we see in our communities is tragic, especially when our nations are as wealthy as they are. Do we really believe that “the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare” as the Doctrine and Covenants states? Might the concept of a covenant path be reframed so that we focus on the directives found in these types of scriptures? So many scriptures deal with the responsibilities we have to the vulnerable that are among us. That is the covenant path I want to motivate myself to travel and that I want to see my church travel.
Great thoughts. Peter Block once described our form of capitalism as a dual-wage system. We have some people who are paid as much as possible and others who are paid as little as possible. The latter are treated as human resources, commodities, property. They are a cost to be minimized. We ought to require businesses to pay everyone as much as possible. The only way to accomplish that is to make all businesses employee owned. Of course there can still be some inequality, based on skill level, education, and seniority, but if everyone is an owner, everyone gets paid as much as possible. No more businesses where some people own the time and lives of others.
Oh, and did I mention that almost every business in America is an authoritarian institution? The only way to have workplace democracy is to give every employee a share of the ownership and a voice in determining who leads the business and in the major decisions of the business.
Some people will scream that this is communism. But no, it isn’t. It is capitalism as it was intended to be. Communism is state ownership of business. Employee ownership is the only form of ownership consistent with our political ideals.
I think LDS culture’s adherence to the Prosperity Gospel ideology prevents the Church from being as Christian as it could be
Our view of charitable giving is so misguided in the world.
We pay workers low wages which creates financial struggles that lead to all kinds of mental and physical health issues. Then we turn around at the end of our lives and donate all this wealth to help cure society’s ills which we caused. If we instead paid people a living wage then many of these health issues wouldn’t have existed in the first place. What a huge waste of potential. I speak from experience on this.
I’m tired of pointing fingers at the wealthy because they are going to do whatever they want. All I can do is try to make an impact with the wealth I have. First step was to completely change my charitable giving to organizations that actually and immediately use it to help society. I’ve personally still got work to do on how best to give my time to those in need.
To answer your questions, no and yes in that order.
What lws329 and josh h said. The whole “self-reliance” thing, as lws329 points out, is merely a coded message (the result of a certain brand of American conservatism) designed to signal to both the poor and prosperous alike that basically, wherever you are in life financially, it’s all your own fault/doing. While it is true that I don’t like the fact that American liberalism doesn’t talk enough about personal responsibility, it’s also the case that American conservatism (and Mormonism) rarely, if ever, talks about larger socio-cultural factors that inhibit (or facilitate) one’s financial success. And if you can’t understand the various factors and challenges that confront people, and all of the reasons for those challenges, how can you actually help them?
To josh h’s point, the Prosperity Gospel is alive and well in Mormonism; so much so that I think one reason why the church doesn’t know how to deal with people in challenging financial circumstances is the assumption that, in a Mormon context, money and goods are accumulated as at least a partial result of personal righteousness, thus the corresponding assumption is that if you haven’t accumulated a certain amount of wealth, well, then you’re just not righteous enough. This also connects to the OP, since, in that same Prosperity Gospel context, of course you should accumulate vast amounts of wealth and then donate it; that’s what righteous people do! However, this is an incredibly myopic view of things, one that isn’t helped by Mormonism’s deeply unfortunate tendency to focus on individual prosperity/righteousness instead of diagnosing and alleviating larger social problems. If we had a more expansive perspective, we could indeed at least do something about things like wage inequity, etc., at least when it comes to paying church custodians and other church workers. But of course, social justice, wage equity, etc., are the concerns of “cultural Marxism” (whatever the f**k that is) and therefore can’t be a part of the solution. I think there is more than a hint of the whole mid-20th century Mormon paranoia about Communism, etc. in Mormonism’s continued unwillingness to actually confront the very social ills and inequities it actually helps to create. Great post.
Why would the church speak about either of these topics. With the money it has in its Ensign Peak Fund that’s used for development to get more money and how they have cut custodial staff to be replaced with ward volunteers, families paying for their own children’s missions, a volunteer leadership system, etc, etc, etc, and then to have the audacity to say some of its major investments like City Creek did not involve tithing funds or to constantly build and rebuild temples all at undisclosed/unaccountable amounts to get more people to pay tithing makes the church an unreliable speaker against wealth or even helping the poor. There might be stories of the poor or what they spend to help the poor but it pales in comparison to what they really do with their billions.
Yes, wealth inequality and the pursuit of wealth are moral issues. These verses from Matthew are pretty clear:
21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
23 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Jeff Bezos had a good idea and ran with it. Let he/she who has never ordered on Amazon cast the first stone.
Great post. These are questions I struggle with a lot. I am fortunate enough to be in a position where it looks like I will be able to retire and maintain my current comfortable, but not extravagant (by American standards), lifestyle. I, of course, have nowhere near the wealth of Jeff Bezos, so if I were to donate a significant portion of my lifetime savings to charity, I would definitely need to adjust my lifestyle accordingly so that I don’t risk running out of money before I die. I do donate some time and money to charity, but when I encounter scriptures like the ones discussed here, I do start sweating and wonder if I should be doing more now, even if it does mean I have to cut back on my lifestyle, especially when I reflect on the lifestyles of people in 3rd world countries.
I’m no fan of Jeff Bezos or Amazon. The reports I read about Bezos often make him seem like a real jerk, and I am aware that Amazon engages in some shady business practices. That said, I did a few quick calculations that I found interesting (I’m not an accountant, so any accountants here may need to make corrections). A quick Google search indicates that Jeff Bezos is currently worth 111.6 billion dollars. Amazon currently has nearly 1.5 million employees. If Jeff Bezos were to take all of his wealth and divide it equally among his employees, then each employee would receive a check for $74,000. This is certainly nothing to sneeze at (it might be two or more years of annual compensation for some employees), but it would be a once in 28 years event since Amazon was founded in 1994. Annualizing the $74,000 over 28 years amounts to $2543 per year.
In 2019, Amazon had net income of about 11.588 billion dollars, so if Amazon were to distribute this amount equally, each employee would receive a check for about $7,725. That could be an annual payout, but the amount would vary somewhat from year to year (in many of Amazon’s early years, the check would have been zero because Amazon didn’t make a profit back then). That would definitely make a big impact on many low income workers, especially like the woman in the OP, but it doesn’t necessarily move people from poverty to comfortably middle class.
It seems like if Jeff Bezos and Amazon would share their wealth like this, it would make a significant impact on the lives of Amazon’s employees on the order of about $10,000 per year, but perhaps this amount is smaller than some people, including myself, would have initially thought? It also doesn’t seem like there is any way for Bezos to give more than all his accumulated wealth and for Amazon to give more than its annual profits?
I Googled a little more and found that 3.5% of the world’s wealth is in the hands of 2,750 billionaires while the poorest 50% of the earth’s population has only 2% of the world’s wealth. In other words, if the billionaires gave up only half of their wealth, they could nearly double the wealth of the poorest 50% of the worlds population. That would be a big difference!
Yes, I think it is possible to amass that kind of wealth without exploiting people – at the least, taking as the definition of exploiting people from your post (paying a living wage instead of the least amount possible). Sure, Mr. Bezos had a great idea and ran with it. And from what I’ve heard*, once a person reaches a certain amount of wealth it can almost be difficult NOT for that wealth to grow when invested even half-responsibly.
*not being that kind of person myself, or knowing any billionaires personally, this is literally from what I have read in articles etc.
Is this an issue in the Church? Of course it is. Are there some in the Church that are able to avoid this issue by the ways they exercise their agency? Also of course. I think the intent of the post was more to challenge any institutional biases, which would be a welcome thing.
But on a personal level, it can be difficult to parse out what to do at times because we desire the comforts of the world so often. If I buy an expensive house, have I just perpetuated wealth inequality? Perhaps yes, and perhaps no. People have arguments on both sides of the question. What would Jesus have done/asked us to do? Some people he challenged to sell all that they had, give to the poor, and follow Him. Probably he’d say something similar today. But others he simply dined with – culminating with accepting a donated tomb from a wealthy man. As with so many things in life, it seems to often come down to what our intent is, and what opportunities are presented to us/we seek out, and how we act when those opportunities are there.
When the super wealthy engage in charitable giving (think of all those well-known nonprofit foundations), more often than not it includes a way for the wealthy to somehow make a profit on the transaction at the same time as helping the poor. The wealthy see it as a win-win. Yet the twin concepts of equality and fairness are rarely, if ever, addressed. The system remains unchanged.
I have so many thoughts on this topic. I’m reading all your comments and nodding. Yes, that’s terrible about lws329’s friend; yes, josh h is right on about the prosperity gospel; Octavia’s housing research and note that the Church doesn’t want poor people housing close to the temple; Lily the Church interpretation of that teaching drives me up the wall; Tom – good thoughts; Chadwick – yeah we create the problem and then want credit for solving it; Brother Sky and the criticism of self-reliance, yep I agree; not checking mountainclimber’s math but that sounds interesting. p, the meaning of a monopoly is that there aren’t alternatives – many people don’t have an option to Amazon because Bezos turned it into a monopoly.
and Ziff: “I think it would be great if the GAs worried even 1% as much about wealth inequality as they do about LGBTQ people.”
Yes this, so much this. I grew up hearing that the Book of Mormon was written for our day. We must study the principles in it because it was prepared precisely for us! For the last days! Yes, this very day! The Book of Mormon is all about the latter days.
Number of Book of Mormon scriptures prohibiting gay sex: 0.
Number of Book of Mormon scriptures talking about wealth inequality, pride in riches and mistreatment of the poor: lots.
There’s an interesting take out there on the relationship between mormonism and capital, if you’ve got two hours it might be worth a listen to you: https://youtu.be/-cMs2BYo9nY
In sum though, the idea is that Christianity has sort of struggled with this long before JS showed up. Jesus’ teachings didn’t stop people from ripping each other off, and exploiting others to become wealthy but you were supposed to at least feel bad about it. And that’s how it went up until the Protestant Reformation. Protestantism comes along and says “you don’t need to feel bad about being rich, in fact, you should feel the opposite, wealth is a sign of God’s approval”, and that opens the door for the emerging prosperity theology. Not coincidentally, the Reformation and the resulting 30 Year’s War is when capitalism as a systemic entity is essentially born. It would take a couple more centuries for capitalism to wipe out the remnants of feudalism, but the 1600s is when it gets started.
Anyway, so this Protestantism (essentially just the theological wrapping paper for capitalism) is of course exported to North America with the early colonizers and is the dominant mindset for the USA and other anglo-derived nations elsewhere in the world.
Now the interesting thing here, is that there was occasional explosive push-back to capitalism and its associated protestant theology in North America. The way capitalism and its resulting market structures reorganize societies, did so in such a way that many people found it alienating. It removes regular people’s relationships with the land and atomizes social and family structures down to the individual and makes them expendable commodities, this is why the Smith family was bouncing around between New York and Vermont so much just trying to make a living in the first place. This process would be going at full speed with the Industrial Revolution, but even before that, people felt their communities being hollowed out.
The revivalist movements in North America were effectively reactions to the social disruptions of capitalism and they sought to push back and resist it. The revivalist movements were less about particular theological points (as is depicted in the 15 minute JS movie we all showed people as missionaries), and more about trying to preserve or recreate religiously based community social structures. In a very real sense, the revivalist movements were anti-capitalist, and the most successful of these movements (albeit not permanently) was mormonism. JS was really committed to the idea of forming an independent religious community that would exist outside the bounds of the market, and the state, and he had the charisma to really get it going. And it worked (for a time) because there was always somewhere out west to run away to and start over again when enough of the non-mormon locals got mad enough to resort to violence.
BY took up the cause after JS was killed and was likewise committed to the project of creating a politically and economically independent theocratic state with a collectivist approach to economy. As we all know, it was difficult and didn’t go very well, and both JS and BY kind of hedged their bets a bit by trying to appease the US government when possible. With the US-Mexico War in the 1840s, the writing was on the wall that there would be no escape from the USA nor the market. Hence the mormon batallion and establishment of the Utah territory and petitions for statehood. BY was a canny guy, and, at some level, probably realized that Zion as JS envisioned it wasn’t going to happen, and so settled for being assimilated into the USA (and the market) on the best possible terms, hence his transition from proto-communist to gilded-age tycoon capitalist, but of course he wouldn’t budge on the polygamy issue and that, inadvertently, held assimilation at bay for a few decades .
Later, when the Church drops polygamy after BY is dead, it sorts marks this point in which mormonism would really start assimilating into the USA, and more importantly, into the protestant prosperity gospel mindset, and mormons would not only embrace capitalism (and American empire) but end up becoming some of its more ardent acolytes (probably peaking during Ezra Taft Benson’s tenure). And that’s why mormonism (and the Church) survived (and thrived) while the other revivalist movements didn’t. The Mormons switched sides in the war between community and capitalism.
So, TLDR: Mormonism started as an implicitly anti-capitalist movement, but eventually succumbed, and then embraced it. Or in the parlance of the 2020’s mormonism let itself get ‘cucked’ by capitalism.
JS and BY did make sincere attempts to create more egalitarian economic social orders (well, for men anyway). But in the end, capitalism dethroned and killed God, and now here we are in the year of our lord 2022 as capitalism bores its way through our last renaming social ties and leaves us as increasingly lonely and miserable people, worshipping our destroyer.
Money is also one of the most efficient ways of sharing information imagined by man so far. It’s way more than a lump of metal. It communicates how many resources should be allocated where without the need for a central planning committee and without every person in the value chain knowing why they have to make their piece. It’s certainly imperfect but we haven’t figured out something better.
I’m liberal in my politics but when it comes to money I get nervous about people deciding for me what is morally acceptable. I make a comfortable living, am kind to my employees, and frugal in my spending. I am a saver / investor and I drive a 10 year old Corolla and my kids all shared a room. I hope to retire w/o worrying about money. Some people would consider me a miser and some would consider me wealthy. I consider myself careful.
I know someone worth about $80 million who lives like he makes $100k. He is generous and from what I can tell he earned it ethically. I think it’s possible for someone to earn $1billion ethically. After a couple of million it’s not hard to multiply your assets.
The thing is that I’m not ready to set the rules about $1 billion or $1 million because I’m not convinced we know the answer or that the solution will be better than the problem. I have the feeling the downvotes are coming.
It is very hard to know if someone can actually earn a billion dollars, because our tax policies favor the wealthy, who then use some of their favored increase to aid politicians who will give them yet another tax reduction.
Wealth at the top must also include corporate wealth: “corporations are people”.
They tell a tale (which for many is a sincerely held belief) of earning their wealth. But many had monies available to them through generational wealth, which of course is greater than what was earned because of lower taxes on capital gains than earned income, family businesses paying them more than similar employees, and virtually no taxes on inherited wealth.
I wish I had cataloged the reference, in an interview, the subject described that beyond exploiting people, there is enormous environmental exploitation; beyond low wages, education support (primary and college) is lower; infrastructure has been woefully neglected. For decades housing costs have increased at a greater rate than wages.
The man being interviewed pointed out that there is no way charitable donations from corporations or wealthy people can even begin to compensate for what was taken for them to achieve their status.
On a grand scale we see this right in front of us with DJT’s apparent generational wealth, revealed financial losses which enabled him to pay $0-750/year in income tax, and the wealth cycle continue on to his children (and grandchildren, no doubt).
Even among normal people I hang out with, I have an acquaintance who claimed that her husband’s income (from a family business) was $35k/year. He was diligently at his job M-F from 8-4:30. Yearly they vacationed at a theme park or in Hawaii. It was careful accounting that afforded them their luxuries. Very nice people.
Too often the stock market is represented as the economy. In reality, the economy is the people that work. Essential employees were revealed during the pandemic (hint: it was not CEOs, though their assets grew). It wasn’t churches, either.
I hope we can collectively have the will to begin policy changes to compensate people for the work they do, and restructure corporate accountability.
Toad, I thought you were more insightful than that. Can you seriously not see all of the things that were outside of your control but that nonetheless worked in your favor to get you to the financial position you’re in now? Tax codes that tax capital at lower rates than labor, tax codes that don’t tax capital until it is sold so it just keeps increasing in value? Business law structures that allows business owners to purchase tax free items the rest of the citizens pay taxes to purchase. Am economy propped up by military strength to keep oil prices low (using the lives of inner city children whose only ticket out of poverty is military life, kind of like in the Hunger Games). I get that you drive a ten-year-old Corolla. So do a lot of other people who haven’t accumulated the wealth you have. But you know deep down that sure being frugal helped you out financially but it took a heck of a lot more than that to get you where you are. Some things attributable to you and what you did and some things far out of your control but your luck was good. I don’t discount in any way that you did a lot to get yourself to that position. But a lot of people do the same and don’t have the same luck and the same tax codes to prop then and their wealth accumulation. I don’t have time here but read a little by Nobel economist Stiglitz to get a glimpse of the bigger picture. As for your friend who is worth 80 million. I feel bad for that friend–I learned as a primary child that I was worth more than all the money in the world. Seriously, I really dislike that lingo. Your friend has assets of $80 million. It’s simple enough to say that. If the economy tanked and your friend lost everything, your friend would still be worth as much as he was before. He’s with far more than $80 million and so is the woman sleeping under the freeway overpass.
Matt W. Your response would be stronger without the ad hominem and the red herring. I think you know that I don’t literally mean someone (a friend no less) is worth a sum of money. Also the point I was trying to make when using my financial choices as an example wasn’t about luck or building on others hard work (I concede that in a heartbeat). Rather – possessing some degree of wealth doesn’t always tell the whole story. For example I’d wager that a couple of W&T authors and a few regular commentators have assets in the range that some would call excessive, yet their progressive posts and ways of thinking give me hope.
To address the OP (hopefully) more clearly than my previous – I guess I’m trying to say that, while I agree with some of the points, that I’d argue that wealth, generosity, poverty merit more nuance. Matt quoted a Nobel laureate so I will too. Schumpeter won a Nobel partly by showing that inequality is a good thing (yeah probably over simplified). Amartya Sen showed that famines generally happen under authoritarian regimes, not in democracies, therefore poverty has political causes more than ecological causes. Both said a lot of interesting things about poverty and capitalism. It’s been said that Bezos could solve world hunger with his vast resources but that he chooses not too. I really doubt he could even if he did want to.
My goal is not to defend pitiful billionaires and multimillionaires (sarcasm) but to say that some of the statements in the OP concern me. I’m not willing to put an upper limit on a morally acceptable amount of wealth. I think while it’s distasteful that one person has more assets than some countries, that some of those people have transformed the world in positive ways. Bezos / Amazon gave the middle class access to the equivalent of a digital butler. Creators of the internet have given unimaginable freedom of information to billions. I argue that capital markets and innovation are extremely valuable and objectively positive.
I end my excessively lengthy post, bow out, and look forward to others comments.
Mati W. Sincere apologies for spelling your name wrong. It was unintentional.
@purple_flurp, that is a fascinating summary. I would buy a book about that. I don’t absorb info as well from youtube videos, but I’ll put that video on my ‘marked for later’ list.
@Toad – I think you either misunderstood my post or set up a straw man argument. Your point that money is a way to allocate resources is exactly the point I was making. And of course capital markets and innovation are positive things. The point of my post is that it gets to a point where excessive wealth concentrated in the hands of a few harms the many who don’t have access to necessary resources. There is a huge gap between $80 million and $1 billion and the amounts can’t realistically be compared. Let’s say it took your friend 20 years to earn $80 million. Working at that same rate, it would take your friend another 250 years to earn $1 billion. A billion is a ridiculous sum of money. Yes, it’s an arbitrary number I picked for the sake of discussion. Some billionaires have done some good with their money (thinking of Bill Gates spending on health), but if we didn’t have billionaires at all, and that wealth was spread around more, there would be many more people who would have the opportunity to do some good too. Poverty, and people who have to scramble for enough money to pay the rent, has probably set back innovation by decades, when you think about how many of those people might have been able to invent or produce things if they’d had enough economic cushion to take a risk or develop an idea.
I take issue with a couple of points you made in your last comment. So I’m going to write a very long comment that I am definitely going to spend too much time on.
“Amartya Sen showed that famines generally happen under authoritarian regimes, not in democracies, therefore poverty has political causes more than ecological causes.”
I agree that political causes do have a big part to play, perhaps even more so than ecological causes, but I have a couple things to pick apart about your representation of Sen’ thesis here.
First, maybe, you didn’t mean this, since you haven’t said so explicitly, but I thinking that you’re implicitly associating capitalism with ‘democracy’ and not-capitalism with authoritarian regimes. There are, and have been, plenty of authoritarian capitalist regimes, that’s a good descriptor for Saudi Arabia, Russia, Hungary, China, and Israel.
But even if you’re not implying that capitalism = democracy, even traditionally considered paragons of democracy and capitalism like the USA and UK, have presided over horrific famines, like the Dust Bowl and the Bengal Famine, respectively. Both cases involved not just an ecological catastrophe made worse by mismanagement but were also the result of specific (and deliberately exploitative!) capitalist economic policies. The USA’s military government in south Korea from 1945-1948, and following puppet state up until the Korean War in 1950, saw famines, food shortage, labour strikes, etc. That (what would later be called) North Korea avoided, largely by redistributing land (that had been confiscated by the Japanese colonizers) back to the peasants (a non-capitalist policy); whereas in the US controlled South, the US simply picked up where the Japanese left off with respect to continuing to develop an extractive economic model. For a short 5 year period, North Korea was actually better place to live than South Korea, in terms of both democracy and food security. Obviously the positions have reversed since the war for a number of reasons (like the north being bombed into the stone age and receiving harsh economic sanctions while the south was pumped full of US dollars).
This sort of transitions to a point I want to make here, and it’s that the freedom and all of the cheap food and stuff that “we” in first world nominal democracies have, only works because we export the authoritarianism abroad. The rising standard of living and resulting social reforms in the UK in the 19th and 20th centuries only happened because wealth was being squeezed out of the colonies in India and Africa. Non-british folks in the colonies worked in near-slavery conditions so the folks back home could have cheap stuff.
In the US we got cheap produce like bananas by literally overthrowing democratic governments and propping up authoritarian regimes would make people work for starvation wages at gun-point to grow and sell bananas to US corporations at rock-bottom prices. Big American fashion brands get their products produced with child-labour in sweatshops in south-Asia and will harass and immediately crack down on any strikes or union efforts. And they can, and will, get the US government to intervene if, say in Indonesia, a new democratically elected regime makes an attempt to limit the power of foreign corporations on its own soil and improve wages and conditions for workers.
Coca-Cola steals water from family-lever farmers in India, the list goes on… To reiterate the point, is it really freedom and democracy when it comes at the expense of other’s freedom and democracy? I would say no, and while I suppose one could make the argument that freedom/democracy overseas doesn’t matter (which would a terrible take), one cannot argue against the fact that our capitalist economy REQUIRES exploitation, and well, let’s call it what it is: theft.
And it’s not just semi-democracies like the US and the UK that benefit from stealing wealth from abroad, even the ‘good’ social democracies like the oft-praised Nordic countries with all of their great healthcare and socially progressive policies, only work because of this stealing and exploitation.
So then the question is, is it all worth it? You make this statement here:
“some of those people have transformed the world in positive ways. Bezos / Amazon gave the middle class access to the equivalent of a digital butler”
Is a ‘digital butler’ worth child labour? Is it worth making people black-lung in a coal mine? Is it worth the wars and violent coups? A butler? The thing that thing no one actually needs, much less a ‘digital’ butler)?
The consensus for most Americans, and other first worlders, seems to be that it is worth it, because it’s not their children that are working in a sweat shop, it’s not their neighbour that’s working for starvation wages on a cocoa plantation. We get to be nicely removed from that and not have to think about it about too much. And maybe if we do, we feel bad so we donate to some charity, which is really just a shell company for some billionaire’s wealth.
And your last couple of lines here:
“Creators of the internet have given unimaginable freedom of information to billions. I argue that capital markets and innovation are extremely valuable and objectively positive.”
Here I take issue with the implicature that innovation only happens in capitalism, and, in particular, that capitalists (in this sense, those with capital) created the internet as part of normal business venture. It wasn’t some entrepreneur or small business or anything that made the internet, it wasn’t an Apple, Microsoft, Amazon story of particularly clever person who invented a useful thing who patented it and sold it. As far as I am aware, It was a bunch of engineers and scientists, paid by the government, with no shareholders or sales expectations that created the internet.
You technically could say that ‘capitalism gave us the internet’ in that the US government, as an institution that exists to enforce the capital interests of its own wealthy citizens and allies, did create the internet. But that isn’t the usual image of capital-driven innovation that we imagine and like to tell ourselves about.
I’m not saying innovation doesn’t happen in a capitalist economy, I’m saying that it doesn’t have to, and importantly, it often isn’t worth all the death and human suffering that it comes with.
More germane to the actual discussion here, sure it’s arbitrary to say ‘if you have more than X amount of money then you are a bad person’, but only arbitrary in the amount of money that X represents. What I’d argue is that after your needs you and your dependents needs are met, any excess wealth would be better off helping others meet their needs, specifically, food security, housing, and healthcare.
I dunno about you guys, but I think people having their basic survival needs met is more important than having a ‘digital butler’.
Another observable effect of wealth disparity,: increasing numbers of unhoused people. I was raised during the ‘60s. I do not remember seeing homeless people, encampments, or with signs at freeway exits during my childhood. I did read books about “hobos” knocking on people’s doors asking to chop wood in exchange for a meal during the Great Depression. I think numbers were creeping up as I grew up, but I distinctly remember the first time I really *saw* a family asking for help – it was after my mission.
Conservatives have steadily dismantled policies created after the Depression that largely aided in our country having a strong working middle class. The Glass Steagall Act, in particular. I am not aware of attacks on it, but the GI Bill helped propel a lot of people to at least middle class that might not have even been able to attend college before WWII. Those policies still mostly benefitted white people, then the push for civil rights, particularly voting rights, started giving more people of color a fighting opportunity to build a foothold and foundation.
Rhetoric that labels people as threats to our safety, or our moral standards, or our financial interests has long been used as a tactic to distract from the policies that largely benefit already wealth people and corporations.
Numbers of people who have to scrounge for somewhere to sleep, and improvise ways to hang onto a few belongings continue to increase. I suspect a causal link between wealth consolidation, a decreasing middle class, and greater numbers of unhoused people. They are a visible canary in a coal mine.
Toad, I’ve read over your comment trying to figure out what triggered me and to be honest I’m just not sure. Maybe nothing–maybe it was just me. But I apologize. I don’t want these discussions to involve harming of feelings. Even though we are all anonymous strangers, we are still all people. I value your input in these discussions and so many times have been grateful for your insights.
Janey, great post and important discussion.
I love the sentiment of the Tweet, that once you hit a certain level of wealth (not sure what that level is), any excess should go toward reducing wealth inequity. This is where I would put that money: 1) retirement funding (expand social security), 2) public healthcare options (expand medicaid).
I was talking with someone recently about retirement. She is in her 60s, recently suffered a stroke and had open heart surgery, and works at Walmart. She has very little savings, no retirement benefits, and is two years into a thirty year mortgage on a house that needs ongoing repairs. Her car will probably need to be replaced within 5 years. She is also waiting to find out just how much medical debt she is in. She is dealing with the same problems roughly 40% of Americans are facing right now.
New legislation was introduced into the Senate that would prevent hedge funds from buying residential homes. 39% of homes in AZ would be affected if it passes. Homeowners are up in arms because they overpaid in the extreme for their houses in the last 2-3 years. But at the same time, we have a huge housing shortage, and almost no housing that is affordable to workers, even apartments have waiting lists. If you have any instance of bad credit (including due to divorce-related issues) or you have any kind of criminal record, the threat of becoming a real life Jean Valjean is not just realistic but likely. But homeowners in AZ are lobbying to prevent this legislation because they’d rather some people go homeless than lose their inflated house value.
purple_flurp: “I think people having their basic survival needs met is more important than having a ‘digital butler’.” I think we all agree with that, but I don’t think we 1) know exactly how to make that happen, and 2) can draw a straight line from abolishing wealth to creating human flourishing. Systems are incredibly complex, as are governments and corporations. My own perspective is that our systems (and governments) are far too entrenched with corporations to the point of protecting them from the ire of the populace. How to remedy that? Better governance, better systems, but fat chance of that happening when every successful politician was funded by big business.
One of my favorite quotes on the root issues we are discussing is that “If corporations are people, those people are sociopaths.” Capitalism may be the least bad alternative, but it definitely grinds the workers and benefits the owners.
Purple_flurp, thank you for pointing out that capitalism might *not* actually be the least bad option we have.
Joseph Stiglitz focuses on the harms inequality leads to for everyone, not just those at the bottom. We all benefit from innovation which is stunted when monopoly corporations suppress startups and when disadvantaged children are not afforded opportunities to develop and learn in ways that allow them to reach their potential. He points out that it is a myth that government cannot do things well and he gives numerous examples of innovations accomplished by government entities. His list is far longer than this simple comment can address.
Stiglitz points out that what we have is not true capitalism. He talks of large corporations where “you socialize the losses and privatize the gains,” which he notes is not capitalism. We saw this in the 2008 financial bailouts, among many bailouts the government has engaged in. In most cases the executives still walk away with pockets full of money even when their performance was dismal and led to a situation where the company would have folded without a government bailout.
We tax laborers at higher rates than investors. In the 90’s when efforts were made in the US to lower capital gains taxes it was noted that investment is important for a strong economy. As if labor isn’t. Or is somehow less noble.
Something is wrong when our middle class families pay higher income tax rates than Jeff Bezos, who apparently pays very little relative to his wealth, along with others who inhabit the billionaire class.
Robert Reich has a fascinating documentary on Netflix called “Saving Capitalism.”
It’s worth watching as is the documentary “Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream”