Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The problem of wealth

Protestors all over the country are demanding greater accountability from the small percentage of Americans who control the vast majority of its wealth. It is only the latest installment in the debate which has gone on since the beginning of human social life.

In a group of social animals, leaders emerge based of clear-cut abilities that give them dominance over the lesser members of their band. As humans evolved, their brains not only gave them more tools with which to manipulate their environment and each other but also superstition and flawed logic with which to create belief systems that would perpetuate the dominance of certain humans and their descendants regardless of the actual abilities of specific individuals.

Dreamers who believe in the unstoppable power of hard work and initiative, and the self-correcting nature of a completely free market are confident that the concentration of wealth is not a bad thing at all, and that it simply gives all the hard-working strivers a goal toward which to work. Taxation is not the way to break up this clot of wealth. They haven't said exactly how the free market will provide the leverage. They're simply confident that the government should not be used as part of the solution.

Compare that point of view for a moment to the pot-smoking teenager who does not want his parents to come into his room. Of course he doesn't want adults coming in telling him he can't indulge himself as he wishes. He may even be making money on a little commerce in his chosen field. If you object to the example of an illegal drug and illicit commerce, substitute chronic masturbation and a stack of Playboy magazines. As distasteful  as that habit may be to contemplate, it's still legal as far as I know. And it creates jobs, as our little wanker buys publications to stimulate his imagination and suitable lubricants to ease friction. It shares another characteristic with immense wealth, being that it is done exclusively for the gratification of the one at the expense of whatever else has to be neglected during the pursuit of it.

Like any metaphor, it can be beaten to death. Flogged too hard, as it were.

Most shorthand economic arguments being tossed around today are based on incorrect assumptions, like the notion that rich people are the only job creators. Anyone who buys goods or services is creating demand. Demand creates jobs. Existing jobs need demand to keep them viable. I create jobs.You create jobs. We all create jobs. Hurricanes and earthquakes create jobs.

The margin of error in the debate grows even larger because we're looking only at dollar amounts. A million dollars today is less money than it was ten, twenty and thirty years ago. Who knows what it will be worth in ten more years. Money is just a number. A $100 bill and a $1 bill produce exactly the same amount of heat and light when you burn them. The difference to us is entirely the result of what we make them represent.

Numbers don't lie but people certainly use them as part of many falsehoods and misdirections. Because actual currency and verifiable value are only a small part of our financial world, clever fabricators have developed --derived, if you will -- numerical rat-mazes based on theoretical principles that sweep a few digits at a time into one person's column instead of someone else's. It's done in a room as sequestered from reality as our fantasizing teenager's bedroom, yet its consequences are vastly greater.

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