Monday, March 27, 2006

Forbes' Billionaires: Wealth and Plutocracy

Forbes’ annual ranking of the world’s billionaires is out along with its familiar faces: Bill Gates at the top with $50 billion, which is more than the total GDP of individual countries like Morocco, Kuwait, Croatia, Luxembourg and about 150 others, or more than the combined GDP of a dozen country or two, depending on where you begin counting (Iceland’s total GDP is a measly $12 billion). Warren Buffet is next at $42 billion, followed by Carlos Slim Helu, at $30 billion, a Mexican with a Lebanese name, and on down the line, including the gang of five Waltons, each of whom clocks in at $15 billion-some for a sum-total of $78.9 billion.
Three years ago there were 476 billionaires. Now there are 793. In a column last week, Michael Kinsley made a couple of observations: “Some people automatically associate great wealth with evil, and they deserve the ridicule they get. But the automatic association of great wealth with virtue is equally fatuous.” He then followed with this equally fatuous line: “It’s probably true that most billionaires have acquired their wealth in ways that make life better for the rest of us.” The last line assumes a cause-and-effect link between wealth and material virtue, or creativity, that adds up to this: The wealthier you are, the more you’ve probably contributed to the general well-being. But the argument is easily defeated on several counts. First, this notion that it’s ridiculous to associate great wealth with great evil. Why ridiculous? Kinsley would not dispute Lord Acton’s adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Money is power. Big sums of money is big power. You get the idea. Politicians aren’t corrupt because of the way they go about fighting culture wars on abortion clinics’ doorsteps. They’re corrupt because of the way they go about using their power to direct and divvy up the nation’s wealth—that $2.5 trillion the president and Congress play with in every budget. Power accrues where money does, and with it, the slouch toward corruption. Logically, it’s more accurate to say, as Kinsley does, that the automatic association of wealth with virtue is fatuous, but for a reason that makes the first part of his sentence untenable: Bucking money’s corruptive potential is the exception, not the norm. Therefore, the automatic association of great wealth with corruption (rather than evil, which is a straw word) is anything but ridiculous. Read the rest...