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A side-scrolling adventure with the super-rich

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

The interactive side-scroller Wealth shown to scale by Matt Korostoff is an article that shows just how much money the 400 richest Americans (the .0001%) have—and what could be done with a relatively small fraction of it (e.g. use 6% to “refund all taxes for households earning under $80,000”).

Pro tip: Show the source of the page to read it without all of the scrolling.

You scroll horizontally along a nearly endlessly long page that discusses excessive wealth and the good it could do were it to be distributed. The final bit of text appears at about $120 billion (about 4%). If you want to scroll for the remaining 96%, you can. It’s a good, quasi-visceral way of feeling just how damned much money/assets/value/wealth those 400 people have.

The article addresses not just the recent crisis in the West (Covid-19), but also the one that’s been killing people in the developing world in droves for decades: malaria. He doesn’t mention AIDS, but that’s also a global pandemic that kills its targets much more slowly—and that’s also largely under control in the West and therefore not really a problem.

“Around 800 children will die of malaria today. A small group of super rich people could stop it for a sum of money so small that they would likely never even notice its absence. But they choose not to.”

The author is American, so he focuses on the excess American wealth—which is truly staggering—and what it could do for Americans. Instead of accepting that the debt burden shoots even further into the stratosphere, what if we just used all of that excess cash that a handful of Americans have and will never be able to use to pay it all back now?[1]

“The recent coronavirus stimulus was the largest ever passed by congress. It was financed entirely through deficit spending, which will be repaid by taxpayers for generations. The burden of repaying this debt could be erased in an instant with a tax on the super rich so small that they would not even feel it.”

Because of the massive and utterly useless private cash reserves in the US, Americans are faced with more of a false choice than in other nations:

“As Americans debate how and when to open the economy after coronavirus, we are frequently presented with a seemingly impossible choice between risking millions of lives and sliding into a great depression through a continued lock down. This is a repugnant lie.

“The money to weather this storm while maintaining quarantine exists, it’s just a matter of finding the political will to take it.”

In fairness, though, there is no political will short of a revolution that will take this money. It is so ideologically inconceivable for Americans to seize money like this that the shock should it happen would reverberate so hard as to wipe out the wealth it was trying to seize.

This is not an argument against trying it. Instead, I’m counseling caution and planning to make sure that it works in the best way possible.

The author goes on to mention all sorts of amazing things we could do with the nearly $3 trillion of wealth owned by the top 400 in America. At an 85% wealth tax on the .0001%, we get everything we could dream of.

“These programs combined would completely transform our world. By redistributing this wealth, millions of lives would be saved. Billions would be rescued from poverty and disease. By inconveniencing just 400 people, the entire human race could advance to a new, unprecedented level of development.”

However.

Here’s where I have to play party-pooper.

The wealth he proposes to confiscate is asset-based. It’s not cash that can be used to pay for programs like $10,000 for every household in America. It’s possible that confiscating this much money would destabilize the rest of the economy to such a degree that a large percentage of the wealth being confiscated disappears as it is being confiscated (or soon after). It’s fictitious cash and cannot be made “real” just by taking it.

I agree wholeheartedly that 400 families/people should be able to live on “just” $500 billion left over after the 85% was confiscated. But we have to have a plan for how to turn the confiscated value into redistributable capital without endangering it.

Since it’s mostly in the form of assets, those assets would have to be confiscated or nationalized and would have to continue to be managed. Or, the assets would remain in the hands of those currently managing them, but 85% of their value would be transferred to sovereign funds, which would use them as collateral to obtain the liquidity to fund the programs mentioned in the article. Future gains and profits would also be split along the 85/15 line.

This could work—with a different population that has been indoctrinated with a different ideology. The population would have to consider solidarity a public good that is worth attaining, instead of focusing laser-like on personal gain and senseless accumulation.

It’s clear that they have far more money than they know what to do with (by orders of magnitude). The ideology in America that everyone is just—as John Steinbeck put it—“temporarily embarrassed millionaires” runs deep and strong.

Remember, we’re not talking about an 85% income tax; we’re talking about seizing 85% of some people’s wealth. People with no money at all will consider their as-yet unrealized—and likely never-to-be-realized—fortunes to be in just as much danger as the actual fortunes of their overlords—and will paradoxically do everything they can to protect their master’s fortunes.

This oft-observed behavior is a well-worn strategy and has protected the elites thus far—and they’ve gotten nearly incomprehensibly far. We would be fools to think that anything short of a revolution would shake the shit out of a society like that.


[1] Debt-to-GDP ratio has not historically been a problem in the US. However, with a drastically sinking output and a skyrocketing deficit and therefore debt, it might soon be. Since other countries are weathering the economic storm better than the US, they can expect their debt-to-GDP ratio to increase much less. Not that GDP is a proper measure of economic output, but as a gross indicator, it’s almost all we’ve got.