Saturday, January 23, 2016

Hot News Connection: 62 Billionaires Now Own More Than Half The Planet’s Population And 2015 Far Outpaced 2014 as Planet’s Hottest Ever Year

Headlines and accompanying graphs that document significant progressions of some unwelcome change- Are hey related
This week brings two jaw-dropping headlines accompanied by graphs that document significant progressions of some unwelcome change.  With the news of each, arriving together, one must wonder about the possible relationships between the two. .

The Guardian reports that, according to a new report by Oxfam, our accelerating inequality means that the richest 62 people in the world are now as wealthy as half of world's population.  What's more, 1% of people on the world own more wealth than other 99% of the population combined.  See: Richest 62 people as wealthy as half of world's population, says Oxfam- Charity says only higher wages, crackdown on tax dodging and higher investment in public services can stop divide widening, by Larry Elliott, 18 January 18, 2016.

More than half the world's wealth held by just 1% and just 62 people owning as much as half the world's population?  If you believe that we live in a world where money is power and probably increasingly so, then an exceedingly small set of individuals hold an awful lot of power.  As for how fast this situation is getting worse, the Oxfam report tells us that only five years ago in 2010 this power of holding as much wealth as half the world's population was dispersed among 388 multi-billionaires.

On this side of the Atlantic the New York Times has just reported that 2015 was earth's warmest year by the widest margin on record; outstripping 2014, the previous record setter.  This means we have "two back-to-back record years," the odds against which are 1 out of 1,500 unless. . .  Yes, worsening climate change with the prospect of annually increasing temperatures is undeniably here.  See: 2015 Far Eclipsed 2014 As Wordls Hottest Year, Climate Scientists Say / 2015 Was Hottest Year in Historical Record, Scientists Say, by Justin Gillis January 20, 2016.

Climate change is definitely here.  It is phenomenally destructive to our planet and yet the world is doing very little about it.  Why?

The Oxfam report on the increasing concentration of wealth tells us a little bit about climate change:
. .  while the poorest people live in areas most vulnerable to climate change, the poorest half of the global population are responsible for only around 10 percent of total global emissions. Meanwhile, the average carbon footprint of the richest 1 percent of people globally could be as much as 175 times higher than that of the poorest 10 percent.
Another Oxfam report cited in a footnote to the above amplifies that, "The richest 10% of people produce half of Earth’s climate-harming fossil-fuel emissions,"  See:  World's richest 10% produce half of global carbon emissions, says Oxfam,  the Guardian, December 2, 2015.

Probably more important than the correlation between wealth accompanied by disproportionate consumption, and therefore much larger carbon footprints, is that the poorest in the world are the most vulnerable to the costs of climate change.  That's exceedingly relevant because, if money is power, then those worst affected by climate change are those least powerful to compel civilization to adjust and chart a better course.

It is clear that large carbon footprints and excessive consumption can be laid at the doorstep of the wealthiest, even citing the those amongst the tippy-top 1% with alarmingly cavalier consumption.  A recent hard-to-believe report, "Elite Emissions: How the Homes of the Wealthiest New Yorkers Help Drive Climate Change” by the Climate Works for All coalition concluded that with NYC buildings being responsible for "70% of New York City’s emissions" that generate the "greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming . . a mere two percent of the city’s one million buildings use 45% of all of the city’s energy."  See: New York Post- Rich New Yorkers' homes are ruining our air, by Hana R. Alberts, November 20, 2015.

Using the Forbes’ World’s Billionaires list to investigate The Elite Emissions report was able to present a list of  buildings with their high energy consumption figures.  It includes buildings with the homes of those ranking among the top 62 wealthiest people in the world, among them: The apartment building housing the home of David H. Koch (740 Park Avenue- the building made infamous by a book and an Alex Gibney documentary about it,) Alice Walton (515 Park Avenue in a a $25 million apartment), and Donald Trump (721 5th Avenue- "Trump Tower").  David Koch, along with is equally wealthy brother Charles, are, in whatever order you want, the sixth and seventh wealthiest multi-billionaires in the world.  Alice Walton is the eleventh.  Christy Walton and Jim Walton are higher up the list than Alice, right after the Kochs.  Climate science denying Donald Trump, with only an estimated $4.5 billion to his name, is way down the list of the world's wealthy at #405 with only a fraction of their wealth.

Of much more concern than whatever may be the aggregate personal carbon emissions are of these particular, exceedingly wealthy individuals, is the effect these individuals have on what systemically contributes to and establishes the societal infrastructure for climate change throughout the world.

An article in the New York Times wrote about how the richest multi-billionaires are now so wealthy that they are forming their own political parties: How Billionaire Oligarchs Are Becoming Their Own Political Parties,
by Jim Rutenberg, October 17, 2014.  Certainly, many already perceive the Tea Party, in view of its funding, as being essentially the party of Koch.

Of course, there is very visibly also Trump.  And, now, apparently, goaded or "galled by" the success of the relatively small-change Trump in this election cycle, Michael Bloomberg (multi-billionaire #14 on the Forbes list of the world's wealthiest) has disclosed renewed ambitions to run for Unite States President.  Mr. Bloomberg's credentials are environmentally dubious despite a lot of PR to the contrary.  Endorsed fracking he was  then appointed `Climate Change Envoy’ by the United Nations.  Bloomberg is looking to run as an independent candidate declaring that he would spend "at least $1 billion" of his estimated $35.5 billion fortune to run.  Mr. Bloomberg reportedly doesn't like the Wall Street-critical Sanders and 'laments' what he considers Hillary Clinton’s "lurch to the left" to keep pace with Sanders. See: Bloomberg, Sensing an Opening, Revisits a Potential White House Run, by Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman, January 23, 2016.

Trump, Koch and most particularly Bloomberg present examples of the cycle of how money and power reinforce each other.  Some may regard Bloomberg's $1 billion proposed to be spent on his campaign, or the cash similarly splashed around Trump as expenditures.  Others may view it as an investment that will more that repay itself no matter who is elected.  When Bloomberg declared his interest in politics to launch his career he was not exceptionally wealthy, but when he completed his third term as mayor he was, having for a time become the richest man in the city.  In the process he far outpaced the wealth increase of most others on Forbes list.

From Noticing New York: Two charts overlaid, showing how Bloomberg's increasing annual wealth makes the increasing annual average wealth of the rest of the "Forbes 400" look virtually flat by comparison
The question is what these multi-billionaires do with the huge influence they wield. In theory climate change will adversely affect everybody.  Indeed, we have heard some billionaires tell us they are mobilizing efforts to do what they think should be done to curtail climate change.  See: Bill Gates forms billionaires' super league against climate change- With the COP21 conference starting today in Paris, wealthy investors including Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg team up to give governments a helping hand, by Adam Gale Monday, 30 November 2015 and Top 10 Billionaires Saving the Planet, by Sarah Backhouse, August 21, 2015.

That doesn't necessarily mean that one should agree with the solutions the multi-billionaires promote, or trust their motivations.  One reason to be skeptical about the solutions that get fielded when multi-billionaires mobilize is if you believe that, as we grapple with climate change, there won't be one "silver bullet" top-down solution.  Instead there will be a "mosaic of solutions" generated myriad fashion mostly from the bottom up. What's more Jane Jacobs ("The Economy of Cities") suggested that one upside to large populations is the multiplication of individuals and groups who can innovate to advance society and improve what we do.  If that's a theory you subscribe to, then leaving the half the world's population high and dry of a share of resources with which to participate negates that advantage.

Whatever good some billionaires like Tom Steyer may do with respect to climate battles like Mr. Steyer's opposing the Keystone XL oil pipeline there is all the weight of what is being done to counteract their better efforts.  Steyers is way down the Forbes list of the wealthy (#1190) and not even a multi-billionaire, with only an estimated $1.61 billion to his name.

We find this assessment of the fight between our financial giants at Bill Moyers' Moyers and Company site:
Fred Wertheimer, a long-time advocate of campaign finance reform, tells the Times that a political world where billionaires set the agenda is not a democracy. "This is about as far away as we can get from `representative government,'" he said. And when it comes to politically active billionaires, it would seem that there are more who profit from inaction on climate change than who want to see that action happen - not a good sign for those who agree with Steyer's politics.
See: Bill Moyers- The Billionaires on Both Sides of Climate Change, by John Light, February 19, 2014.

The Koch brothers are the prime example of such "politically active [multi-]billionaires."   With their combined wealth that exceeds that of any individual on the plant they are politically active, spending to fuel climate science denial and inaction about how we are raising the temperature of the earth and they are also fighting public health care (probably it's actually the same thing).

It is not just the first 62 multi-billionaires who are as wealthy as half the world.  What is remarkable is how many more multi-billionaires are up there on the Forbes list in the top sliver of the 1% fraction that holds more than half world's wealth.  You would probably not have to go far down the list before you had collected yet another small set of outrageously wealthy individuals who also collectively own and control more wealth than the poorest half of the world's population. The frightening thing is that many of those multi-billionaires also are either joining the Kochs in stymieing effective measures to address climate change, or they are doing little to prevent it.

For example at #100 on the list we find Stephen A. Schwarzman, head of the Blackstone Group, with an estimated personal wealth of $9.8 billion who lives in the same hugely energy inefficient building as David Koch.  (Great as Schwarzman's wealth is, it is just 8.76% of the combined wealth of the two Koch brothers, and far less than the $121.7 million which is the estimated combined fortune the three Waltons command.) Along with promoting fracking and a list of other objectionable activities, Mr. Schwarzman has been involved in selling off New York City Libraries.  The Oxfam report on escalating income inequality calls for a "three pronged approach" to counter that trend, one prong of which is "higher investment in public services."  Certainly the disinvestment of selling libraries (with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's approval) is the opposite of of such investment and what is otherwise called for if we are to start restoring equality.  The other two prongs called for by the report: are "a crackdown on tax dodging" and "higher investment in public services; and higher wages for the low paid.". .

. . .  As for tax dodging, Mr. Schwarzman has been famously aggressive in promoting what are viewed as dodgy tax loopholes. Mr. Schwarzman may be low on the Forbes list in terms of his wealth, but Forbes has compensatingly ranked him higher on another of its lists:  On the Forbes list of those with power in the world Forbes ranks Schwarzman as number 62.

It seems that Mr. Schwarzman has predilections to tilt the playing field on at least two fronts: Against those who could be trying to catch up and close the gap with him, and secondly, in favor of the tax system advantages that will continue to move him even further ahead.

Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary under Clinton, has a new book out, "Saving Capitalism For the Many, Not the Few," that addresses the escalating income inequality we see in the United States.  Median national household income is declining (after adjusting for inflation, an American family earns less in 2013 than it did in 1989) while productivity gains from economic growth collect at the top.  Mr. Reich tells us to remember these recent changes are not because of economics per se, but because of the way that the rules of the market are being written by those with wealth and power, people like Mr. Schwarzman.  . .

. . . Studying the law of property and property ownership in law school and urban planning school I was taught that the rules of property ownership are formulated based, in part, on concepts of what will ultimately benefit society, husband its resources and forestall waste.  The current decimation of our environment while wealth concentrates in the hands of a very few who mostly encourage this devastation or who sit idly by should be viewed as evidence that the rules we have now are not working and need to be rewritten.

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