An everyman’s understanding of economics, wealth and fairness

A letter writer takes on global inequality.

“The one who dies with the most toys wins.” “Them that has, gets. “It takes money to make money.” “Money is the root of all evil.” “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” All these statements have some validity in historical context and belief. All except for the part where the poor get poorer.

Global poverty is defined as the number of people worldwide who live on less than $1.90 per day. That number has fallen by more than 50% since 1990 but still leaves 729 million fellow humans in this category, according to OurWorldInData.org. Among the rest of us, 85% live on less than $30 per day and two-thirds live on less than $10 per day. These statistics ping the heart but I hope they make you feel lucky.

It always amazes me how people can hold such diametrically opposed opinions of causes and effects relating to such study. Too much government interference with financial markets? Too little? Are there political undertones? (Of course there are.) How large a part does good old-fashioned greed play? Do we need more regulation or less? Higher interest rates or lower? Increase tariffs or eliminate them?

I’m sure CEOs are all very nice people, but their pay has skyrocketed 1,322% since 1978, according to a 2017 report from the Institute for Policy Studies. The finance industry creates 4% of the jobs but takes 25% of the profits in corporate America. Boy, did I choose the wrong major in college!

A few facts concerning the financial meltdown of 2008 gathered by reporters from ABC News: Merrill Lynch lost $30.48 billion in 2008 but still paid out 696 bonuses of at least $1 million. Citigroup, one of the biggest recipients of government bailout money, our money, gave employees $5.33 billion in bonuses for 2008. Bank of America used $20 billion of its $45 billion bailout money to buy failing Merrill Lynch and earned $2.56 billion in 2008.

The toxic home mortgage scheme perpetuated by the banking industry resulting in the housing bubble bursting was due to greed and outright fraud exercised by financial institutions we trusted. The use of bewildering financial vehicles such as derivatives and credit default swaps was also to blame. All the while using our money — which we thought was safe.

I have zero understanding of such things as derivatives that live in the shadow world of finance but I can pass along this definition from the International Monetary Fund: “Financial derivatives are financial instruments (like a trombone?) that are linked to a specific financial instrument (like a trumpet?) or indicator or commodity, and through which specific financial risks can be traded in financial markets in their own right.” I sincerely hope that clears it up for you. I won’t even try to explain credit default swaps.

Maybe U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said it best: “The goose that lays golden eggs has been considered a most valuable possession. But even more profitable is the privilege of taking the eggs laid by somebody else’s goose. The investment bankers and their associates now enjoy that privilege.”

Much has been written about income and wealth inequality. The statistics are dramatic. A 2017 report said that Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett owned as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the nation’s adult population (160 million people). The Oxfam Report in 2021 concluded that the 10 richest men in the world owned more than the combined wealth of the bottom 3.1 billion people, almost half of the global population. Their combined wealth doubled during the pandemic.

This should not in any way be construed as a condemnation of their wealth or any form of judgment as to whether it is deserved or not. It is just a statement of fact.

The 2021 Global Wealth report from Credit Suisse states that the wealthiest 1.1% of the adult population in the world owns 45.8% of total wealth, an increase of 4.8% since 2013. The bottom half of the adult world’s population owns only 1.3% of total wealth, a decrease of 1.7%.

Widening wealth inequality is a defining challenge of our times. No wonder we yell at each other and demean each other on social media. Our perception of fairness and equal access is challenged. So we become mean-spirited.

Wealth has become in many minds the only measure of success. In the race for more riches, the temptation to hedge and cheat, for some, is irresistible. If there is the possibility of monopolizing assets, someone will.

Maybe Bob Dylan’s lyrics in his song “Masters of War” are appropriate:

“Let me ask you one question, is your money that good?

Will it buy your forgiveness? Do you think that it could?

I think you will find when your death takes its toll;

All the money you made won’t buy back your soul.”

Of course, there is always the opposing view as espoused by Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street: “Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all its forms: greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

I am not a wealthy person, but I am comfortable. Forty-five years of plying a trade can do that. I will admit that I also feel at times the urge to keep up with the Joneses. Envy is a human trait almost all of us share, to a degree. But I definitely don’t feel like someone else has to lose for me to win, which it seems to me is how our financial system works.

Money will always have its allure. People will always keep score. The biggest yacht, the fanciest plane, the largest mansion will continue to be the goal for many. And maybe it should be so. The trickle-down theory of economics that says tax breaks and benefits for corporations and the wealthy will benefit everyone else might hold some validity. But I’m sure the vast majority of us would favor the trickle-up theory.

Asked why he was so sad, the rich man replied, “Because I want more.”

Asked why he was so happy, the poor man replied, “Because I have enough.”

One thing is for sure, ever since one man traded another man’s life for 30 pieces of silver, greed has remained one of our most tempting and deadliest cardinal sins.

Ted Moore is a frequent writer of letters to the editor in The Dallas Morning News.

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