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Wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence

Alexandre Prévot

As Piketty wrote, “the inescapable reality is this; wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence, so that some people imagine that it belongs to surreal or mysterious entities.”[1] So far from the playing field of opportunity and economic advantage being slighted tilted, it is grotesquely unbalanced, fantastically biased. The ultra-rich are therefore a distinct class, or almost a sub-species of human, and can appear to be threatened by the mass of “normal” humanity. I remember being driven in a limousine, and observing a young American woman begging by a traffic light, on a cold and snowy day; my host referred to her as “trash”.  I have seen similar scenes in Johannesburg (where beggars can be black or white) and elsewhere in the world.

Because wealth has become the defining attribute in our global culture the ultra-wealthy are by definition special, their wealth is a talisman, and in effect we have created an apartheid society, with the ultra-wealthy being apart from the rest of us. Glimpsed occasionally in Monaco and Cannes, as they come ashore from their super-yachts.yacht_lady_moura_in_monaco-public-domain

Figure 1 Lady Moura at Monaco 2005, photo by Berthold Werner[2]

The point of these observations is not to produce a polemic, ranting about inequality, but to highlight two related consequences, firstly ultra-wealth gives huge political and social power in our societies, and secondly when under pressure many of the ultra-wealthy will consider that there will be a mechanism which will exclude them from the consequences of global problems, because many have never faced a problem that they could not buy their way out of. This shows itself in a number of ways, including the interest in the ultra-wealthy in buying boltholes with private airstrips in countries like New Zealand[3]. Such solutions, which may appear achievable for the ultra-rich, may not offer any benefits for the rest of humanity. In fact, the power of the ultra-rich may result in decisions being made which are incompatible with the best interests of humanity as a whole.

Some ultra-rich individuals have also expressed an interest in geoengineering. Jane Long, director at large for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said “We will need to protect ourselves from vested interests [and] be sure that choices are not influenced by parties who might make significant amounts of money through a choice to modify climate, especially using proprietary intellectual property.”[4]

It has ever been argued that the interests of elites, which run counter to the interests of society as a whole, have in the past been a factor in the collapse of some societies. Coffee argued that “It can reasonably be inferred …. that, whatever other demographic reason, or however exhausted the Maya soil became, intra-elite as well as inter-elite conflict played an important role in the demise of Maya city-states.”[5] Diamond also suggested that one of the reasons for the failure of the Norse colonies in Greenland was “a conflict between the short-term interests of those in power, and the long-term interests of the society as a whole.”[6] He added, regarding the Norse Greenland elites, “That the last right they obtained for themselves was the privilege of being the last to starve.”[7]

© Andrew Palmer 2016, do not reproduce.

Rolls Royce photograph by Alexandre Prévot

[1] Piketty, Thomas – p.259

[2] Public Domain photograph. Lady Moura, 344 feet long by 62 feet wide, is one of the largest and most expensive yachts in the world. It boasts a spa, private casino, entertainment areas, fully equipped operating room and a heliport. Owned by Dr. Nasser al Rashid, valued at $210 million. In 2009 his fortune was valued at $8 billion (Robert Frank –“The Five Richest Saudis”, Wall Street Journal, 31 August, 2009)

[3] Keating, Fiona – “Super-rich hedge fund managers buying boltholes with private airstrips in case of revolution”, International Business Times, 26 January 2015, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/super-rich-hedge-fund-managers-buying-boltholes-private-airstrips-case-revolution-1485263

[4]  quoted by  Vidal, John – “Bill Gates backs climate scientists lobbying for large-scale geoengineering’, The Guardian, 6 February 2012

[5] Yoffee, Norman – “Maya Elite Interaction: Through a glass, sideways”, in Classic Maya Political History: Hieroglyphic and Archaeological Evidence – T Patrick Culbert, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, p. 305

[6] Diamond, Jared – “Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, Viking, London, 2005, p.276

[7] Diamond, Jared – “Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, Viking, London, 2005, p.276

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