No, that's not a typo in the title. This piece isn't about catching waves; it's about being drowned in the wave of vast and disparate wealth that has made serfs of us all. Or almost all. In fact, the gulf between rich and poor is wider and deeper than ever, dwarfing the avarice and greed often associated with the medieval world when the landed nobility had most everything and the serfs had barely enough to keep body and soul united. Just enough to work long, die hard, and die young.
Get this: Just eight individuals now have more wealth than the 3.6 billion people who are the world's poorer people. Just three of those obscenely wealthy people—Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg—have combined wealth of $426 billion, while 50% of the world's people combined share a mere $409 billion. Total. Divide 3.6 billion people into $409 billion dollars and you can see how little most of us have. And, when I use the word "us," I mean to include those people in our own country where poverty remains so deep, so persistent, even as more wealth flows to the very, very few, and more and more of us lose our tenuous hold on middle class status.
It wouldn't be hard to construct the case that modern serfdom may be even worse than what our medieval ancestors knew.
It wouldn't be hard to construct the case that modern serfdom may be even worse than what our medieval ancestors knew. Surely the disparity of wealth is wider now, vastly so, with the kinds of self indulgence and comforts and delights now attainable by the richest earthlings far beyond the dreams of the landed European nobility or Eastern potentates who looked down upon those who tilled the soil for them and produced their wealth six or seven centuries ago when those lords and ladies shivered through winters in their castles, or ate foods limited to what could be grown nearby, with consumption limited to the seasons.
Now, however, no whim of pleasure is denied to that handful of human beings who own most everything, and who feel no need to concern themselves with the health and well being of the serfs because no personal self- interest attaches to how the wretched of the earth are faring. Even slave owners of more recent times had to spare a little for the people who who were the embodiment of their wealth, and whose labor produced their wealth. But what need does a contemporary international plutocrat or an obscenely wealthy Wall Street hedge fund manager have to worry about the well-being of a starving child on the streets of Mumbai, or a kid in Appalachia or on the mean streets of New York, going to bed with a growling belly, if there's a bed at all?
Nothing but human compassion will now motivate any modern mogul or mansion dweller to give a hoot in hell about the poor, and human compassion has never shown itself to be in abundant supply. God will bless the child that's got his own; all others better bring cash or credit cards.
Want health care? A SNAP card? Lotsa luck. Check with the new guy at Health and Human Services or the Department of Agriculture and see where you rank on his list of priorities. Want housing? Check with Dr. Ben, and see if he gives a damn. Want a good education for our kid? Betsy DeVos will attend to your needs, if you've got the cash to supplement a voucher designed for people who are better off than you ever dreamed of being.
"Whatever is not nailed down is mine. And if I can pry it loose, it's not nailed down." Those were the words of Collis Huntington, one of that cluster of American men who got fabulously rich as railroad "builders" back in the 19th century. Like the "builder" who is now our nation's leader, of course, he didn't build those railroads. He got rich paying low wages to the men—Irish, Chinese, Peruvian, Eastern European—who did build those rail lines.
Collis Huntington—like Leland Stanford, and others—also got rich in the other old fashioned way, through the massive gift of government land and taxpayer money. The land gift consisted of thousands of square miles of property that bordered the rail lines, twenty square miles on alternating sides of the right of way from the Mississippi through the plains, over the mountains, and down to the the Pacific Ocean. That land, where once the buffalo roamed, had been stolen with the strength of the nation's military, but it was given to a very few men who were able to wangle it, to pry it loose, to enhance the rich gravy train those select few rode to riches, their ticket to ride paid for courtesy of that big gift of land and taxpayer money.
Those guys who got so rich and stayed so rich right through the Gilded Age and into the 20th century set the template for how wealth has largely been created in these United States, and most other places. Though the mythology is successfully packaged and sold that these people gained every penny because of their brilliance, their hard work, their perspicacity, and the many other ways that set them apart from the common run of humanity, the real fact (not the alternative fact) is that nearly every great fortune was accrued through a redistribution of wealth that began and ended with taxation, nearly always regressive, or with the land and resources we are often told we hold in common, but don't.
From Forest Service roads built and maintained to serve the profits of the timber industry to the vast purchases of goods and services by state or federal government, with inflated contracts doled out so generously to buy pharmaceuticals, Coca Cola, computers, sheetrock, uniforms, and thousands of other things the government buys at mark ups that fatten the coffers of corporations and con men. You know, like the outright gift of land to encourage those captains of industry to build us all a railway system, or those bargain basement grazing fees the ranchers pay to fatten their sheep or cattle on public lands .
Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are two of those eight mega-oligarchs who have so much more wealth than those 3.6 billion serfs at the bottom combined. Gates surely made a contribution to advancing civilization, as did Zuckerberg (though both men's contributions were accompanied by serious downsides). The products of their minds and imaginations were not transformed into merchandise, however, without the help of millions of people, many of them exploited, much like those quasi-slaves who enriched Steve Jobs in China, or who made shoes for Nike for subsistence wages. (I once read that it would take 49.000 years for one of those Asian women who make those shoes to equal what Michael Jordan was paid for one day's work filming the commercial to sell those shoes to the young black men who were, on occasion, willing to kill to get a vastly overpriced pair of that swooshy footwear.)
Think of the hundreds of thousands of pairs of Nikes purchased for college sports teams at taxpayer expense. Think of the countless Apple, Microsoft, Delta, or other brands of computers purchased for schools, and the software that so frequently needs to be updated. Mounds of obsolete technology get tossed out year after year as managers of schools and bureaucracies gin up yearly budgets that cut jobs to pay for the latest tech gimmicks sold and marketed as essential to the work of education, and all other fields of government endeavor. Since we spend 57% of our annual budget on "defense," think of the tax money allocated each year for junk, for padded expenses, for the maintenance of imperial golf courses for the officer class, and then think of the people who sit high atop that mountain of profit, waste, greed, and theft, gilded with government largesse.
"Behind every fortune lies a crime," Balzac told us more than a century ago. Now, when the fortunes are so great, so are the crimes against humanity. In a world where eight people hold more wealth than 3.6 billion of their fellow human beings, that's a crime on its face, a gargantuan violation of the spirit, a crime aided and abetted by taxation, and by governments corrupted and deformed to serve as accomplices to the thievery that makes so many poor, and so few so grotesquely favored.
And now that the power is so entrenched, so globally linked, so strong and implacable, they hardly even try to hide the corruption any more. Exxon-Mobil, Goldman Sachs, and the most high visibility plutocrats and autocrats slide into the top governmental slots. Billionaires who hate the purpose of the agencies they will run are installed , and we wind up paying fat salaries to people who work for themselves and their criminal co-conspirators, not for the people who, in large part, pay those salaries. As Leona Helmsley once said, "taxes are for the little people." That's an idea widely shared by the richest 1%, from the current Thief-in-Chief right on through the ranks of Republican elitists, from Romney and the legions of tax evaders who got their wealth through the tax system, and who keep it by participating in paying taxes as resolutely and imaginatively as their highly paid lawyers can contrive for them to do. They don't got to show us no stinkin' tax information, not if they don't want to, not if they can pretend they are under audit, and further pretend that matters.
Think of those subsidized oil profits that increase with every uptick in prices at the pump, or those NBA and NFL profiteers who get us to buy their stadia for them, or those who compound their fortunes with each new scam they concoct, then sell to corrupt members of congress through lobbyists who were, not long before, their colleagues, cracking sexist, racist, or homophobic jokes together during work outs in the congressional gym, then showering together in the rare and privileged company of guys who are too often bought and paid for by special interest, and always "friends," no matter their differences.
So, they're serfin' U.S.A. and throughout the world, that tiny number of monumentally wealthy people who are using us modern-day serfs, using our backs, our brawn, our brains and our finite and precious time to ride us over the waves of cash that thunder onto their privileged shores day in and day out.
Serfs up? Not so you'd notice. Here and elsewhere, the serfs lend support to being down, vote for the land lord, or the guy in the golden tower. After all, who feeds the serf or the slave? "Get a new master, be a new man." That was Shakespeare's Caliban, expressing his willing subjugation. And so, here in the U.S.A., modern day serfs voted for a new master, thinking it would make them into new men. They voted for Donald Trump because, after all, how could he be so rich and not be smarter than they were, a wizard among mere mortals?
No one, it was said, ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, people in a nation where there's a sucker born every minute. And boy howdy, did the serfs get suckered this time around. It remains to be seen how long we're going to put up with self-imposed serfdom, or even if there's much we can now do to overthrow the tyranny we, ourselves, imposed.