Many years ago, I saw a documentary on a tribe somewhere in the third world. This tribe’s diet relied heavily on taro roots, a vegetable similar to a potato.
After the harvest, the tribal elder, an old man, would take the largest roots and put them in storage. Supposedly, this was in case there was some future famine, but in reality the roots would rot even as less powerful members of the tribe starved. The women were left to make food out of the smaller, more inferior roots.
This is the essence of the patriarchal mindset that has dominated human existence.
I figure that if someone came up to me tomorrow with a check for ten million dollars, I could live the rest of my life in comfort. That would be more than enough to pay off my debts, replace the cars, take some nice trips, donate a bunch to charity, and put the rest in a trust. I would die solvent, and my child would inherit a decent sum.
According to Forbes magazine, there are over two thousand billionaires on the planet. One hundred thirty of these are worth over ten billion dollars.
That’s a lot of taro roots. Two thousand people could live my life at least a hundred times and still have lots of money left over. One hundred people could live my life a thousand times.
What are they doing with their taro roots? Some of them (like Bill Gates) are giving at least some of their wealth to charity. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website has a laudable masthead: “All lives have equal value: We are impatient optimists working to reduce inequity.” And Warren Buffett is famous for regularly pushing Congress to raise taxes on people in his income bracket.
Others, most famously the Koch brothers, use their money to influence politics to their personal benefit. Their names often appear in articles about significant changes to federal legislative patterns, such as with the current healthcare reform drive.
Of course, there are plenty of reformers who aren’t billionaires. But when our culture is driven so much by wealth, and when so much power is tied up in the hands of a few, the hoarders have an undue impact on culture.
One person absent from the Forbes list due to her own actions is J. K. Rowling, who donated $160 million to charity in order to fall off the list. Of the act, Rowling said, “I think you have a moral responsibility, when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently.”
We don’t need more billionaires, we need fewer taro root hoarders.
Why do we need billionaires in the first place? Who needs so much money?
I understand that some people work hard for their money. Bill Gates was raised in relative comfort, but his family growing up had nothing like the wealth he has now. That was due to his hard work, as well as a healthy dose of luck and timing. But who needs $86,000,000,000? At what point should a culture be allowed to step in and say, “Okay, that’s enough”?
Many people on the billionaires list, meanwhile, did very little for their wealth. Famous among these is the Walton family (three of whom are worth over $30B each), who inherited most of that money. Even Ayn Rand, the darling of the anti-tax libertarian crowd, sneered at people who did not create their own wealth.
When I was a child, the top income tax rate was over 70%. This ended under Reagan; during his Administration, the top rate dropped to 50%, and then 28%. The current high is around 43%.
I don’t think the sole solution is to simply tax away people’s wealth. I would like to think that we could find a way, as a culture, to discourage this kind of hoarding. Instead, we praise it, publishing lists that are updated in real time, as if that level of wealth is a horse race on which to place bets and root for our favorite.
Another issue is the demographics of the ultra-rich.
As of the publication of this year’s Forbes list, eight of the ten richest people in this world were white male Americans (the exceptions are Amancio Ortega of Spain and Carlos Slim Helu of Mexico).
All of them are heterosexual enough to have been married to women; they all have children. At least half are Christian (Gates, Ortega, Helu, and the Kochs). They appear to be generally able-bodied.
This is the essence of the modern American patriarchy: White, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, and Christian.
The richest female right now is France’s Liliane Bettencourt. The list above her is a sea of white male wealth. Ms. Bettencourt, heir to the L’Oréal fortune, has to get by on a mere $39,500,000,000 or so.
The richest black person right now is at #105 on the Forbes list. Forbes has a separate, much shorter list for the ten black billionaires, three of whom are American. Ten. Of over two thousand.
Less than half of a percent of the world’s billionaires are black; the same is true for America’s billionaires (three of over five hundred ).
Oprah Winfrey is the sole black American female on a list of two thousand people, topped by three white male Americans. If the three black Americans on the list (Winfrey, Robert Smith, and Michael Jordan) pooled their wealth, they’d have just shy of $7B, poorer than over 200 people.
And while many white female Americans are placed higher on the list, they are widows and other heirs. Oprah Winfrey is the highest American woman on the Forbes list who did not get a significant portion of their wealth through inheritance.
It is extremely difficult to square these numbers with the idea that the United States offers equal opportunity to everyone, regardless of gender, race, or other characteristics.
This is not what racial or gender equity looks like. This is the result of cultural expectation that white men get first dibs on innovation, entrepreneurialism, and power. And the fact that Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and others made the bulk of their money from their own work (even if they started out well ahead of the game) illustrates that our culture is still functioning on that expectation.
Late last century, Danny Elfman sang, “The white folks think they’re at the top, ask any proud white male. A million years of evolution, we get Danny Quayle.”
We need to change this. We need to stop praising people for hoarding taro roots.
Photo credit: Getty Images