Morally Repugnant Elite

I was reading an article from 1994 on Haiti’s “Morally Repugnant Elite” and was stopped cold by the first paragraph:
“Haiti’s tiny upper class, the 1 percent of the population that hogs half the nation’s income, is referred to by American diplomats in Port-au-Prince as ‘MREs’, short for ‘morally repugnant elites’.”

The notion, in 1994, that one per cent of a nation could control half a nation’s income was so objectionable as to be morally repugnant. Yet now the entire world is that way. Worse than that, even. One percent of the world now has more money than the other 99%. Indeed, sixty two people, combined, are now richer than the several billion of the poorest half of the population of the world put together. Haiti, as appalling as it was in 1994, had a more equitable balance of income than the entire world has today. The rich keep getting richer, hogging, as the article says, half the world’s income, with no sign their share will not keep growing. There is money being made, but less and less people are seeing any of it.

That inequality is growing as wealth becomes more and more centralized. It was 388 people with over half the world’s income in 2010. In 2014 it had shrunk to eighty. Last year, sixty-two. If this trend continues, within just a few years you’ll be able to count the owners of most of the world’s wealth on ten fingers. Perhaps it will even get to the point again of late 19th century capitalism, when John D Rockefeller was worth more, in 2015 dollars, than the top ten billionaires in the world today combined. Yet today there are many more billionaires than in Rockefeller’s time, 1,826 of them in 2015, so many that Forbes list of the 500 richest people in the world includes only those worth over $3.5 billion. Mere millionaires are a dime a dozen anymore–there are an estimated 15 million of them world wide (or a little less than one quarter of one per cent of the world’s population), and the hundred-millionaires among them (that is those with wealth measured in nine figures) have to be at least ten times as common as billionaires, so that at a bare minimum there have to be nearly 20,000 people in the world whose wealth is less than a billion dollars but more than one hundred million dollars each. Now combine them with billionaires and there are upwards of 25,000 people (an estimate I suspect is low) who are incredibly wealthy. Remember, this is not including those that have wealth between ten and ninety-nine million dollars. We are not considering them incredibly wealthy, just extremely wealthy. This is how much money there is concentrated among the top .0025% of the world’s population. There is enough money for fifteen million millionaires. And very little money for the rest of us.

The world is actually full of money, lots and lots of money. Though it has to be pointed out that together that the top 62 wealthiest people who share between them more wealth than half the world’s population have between them a little over $1.7 trillion dollars, which means that the nearly four billion people of the bottom half shared between them 1.7 trillion dollars, or roughly $400 a piece. It takes only 62 people to have as much wealth as half the population of the world because half the population of the world have almost no wealth at all. It took 388 people in 2010 to equal the wealth of the poorer half of the world because that poorer half wasn’t as cash poor as they are today. The bottom half of that half was plenty poor, of course, but those in the upper range of that bottom 50% were not poor at all. They had money. They had comfortable middle class lives. But that money began slipping away. You cannot have 14 million millionaires and billionaires in the world, with another million millionaires created annually (over 900,000 in 2014) without sucking a lot of wealth out of the hands of a lot of middle class people. All the layoffs, wage reductions, unpaid overtime, outsourced jobs, benefit cuts, automation and internships have taken income away from the many and concentrated it in the hands of a dozen million or so millionaires.

And while we consider this unjust, somehow we have gotten beyond the point where we consider it morally repugnant. We used to. The sight of the lavishly spending Haitian elites surrounded by masses of their desperately poor fellow citizens was seen as a blight on humanity. Morally indefensible. Repugnant. But it doesn’t bother us anymore, even though that sort of income inequality afflicts us now, and not just the population of the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Maybe it’s because in Haiti the top one per cent lived within sight of the other 99%, flaunting their wealth, but we only see billionaires if they run for president. Or maybe it’s because we wish we were rich, too. Ships do come in, a million of them a year. One of them just has to be ours, and it’s out there, just over the horizon.

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