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Guillotines & Kulaks

I don’t know how to process last week’s New Yorker article by Evan Osnos, The Haves and Have-Yachts. In my day, the well-to-do were satisfied sharing nautical space with a handful of their social inferiors on the most basic of three-hour tours. Although, it is true, they were just millionaires, and the wife.

Now it’s all about billionaires, their Pomeranians and superyachts.

In 2021, the industry sold a record eight hundred and eighty-seven superyachts worldwide, nearly twice the previous year’s total. With more than a thousand new superyachts on order, shipyards are so backed up that clients unaccustomed to being told no have been shunted to waiting lists.

Since 1990, the United States’ supply of billionaires has increased from sixty-six to more than seven hundred, even as the median hourly wage has risen only twenty per cent… Raphael Sauleau, the C.E.O. of Fraser Yachts, told me bluntly, “covid and wealth—a perfect storm for us.”

A ten-and-a-half fold increase in American billionaires in just over 30 years, **American** billionaires, evidently just a quarter of the world’s billionaire population. According to Forbes, pre-stock market slump, the top 10 billionaires in the class had increased their wealth by almost half-a-trillion dollars since the beginning of 2020, just before Covid came a-knocking that is.

And the rest of us? Facing runaway inflation and a looming threat of a recession as a result of escalating interest rates hikes unleashed to try and wrestle down said runaway. Healthcare crises due to staffing shortages and burnout, and an epidemic not looking to go away anytime soon. That’s just in the so-called developed world. There’s a complete economic collapse underway in Sri Lanka, resulting in political upheavals and military crackdowns. China’s sluggish rate of growth. Oh yeah. That war in the Ukraine, and I’m afraid to even look what’s going on in Africa. Brazil’s got an election coming up. That outta be good. Much of the world is on fire or sinking slowly underwater, and even if there was any political will to tackle the climate crisis, we’re talking trillions and trillions of dollars necessary to do what needs to be done.

All the while, some 2700 billionaires, about 0.0000003556 of the entire global population, status swing their dicks, clutching and preening over yacht size, speed, mooring location, crew count, cost when money is, clearly, no object. The numbers all so astronomically large to be beyond comprehension. Too, too many zeros to be able to fully grasp.

The world contains about fifty-four hundred superyachts, and about a hundred gigayachts.

For the moment, a gigayacht is the most expensive item that our species has figured out how to own.

A gigayacht. Giga. A billion. A hundred gigayachts in the world. Jeff Bezos’s boat, too big to sail out of the Rotterdam port it was refurbished in without bringing down a bridge, has been estimated to cost five hundred million dollars. That’s 500 000 000 (if the number of zeros are right) dollars. 5$$ $$$ $$$. Plus the $25 million a year it’ll cost to keep afloat. For a boat.

“Hey Google!” – with that, handing over more money to a couple other billionaires – “How many nurses would five hundred million dollars hire?”

“Did you mean, How big a gigayacht could you buy with five hundred million dollars?”

… one well-stocked diesel yacht is estimated to produce as much greenhouse gas as fifteen hundred passenger cars…

If you own a ‘well-stocked diesel yacht’, chances are you get to it on your private jet, chauffeured to in a tank-like SUV from one of the countless palatial homes you reside in, all part time. The ecological impact these billionaires inflict will be much, much bigger and uglier than just simply their boat.

The laundry list of outrageous unbridled greed and the ensuing grievous assault committed upon the common good goes on and on for pages. And of course, no reporting about the ultrawealthy on the high seas would be complete without mention of super villain prototype, Peter Thiel, and his idea of seasteading (Donate Here!), a libertarian utopia free from the strictures of oppressive democratic governance and the rule of any law but his own. What used to be known in the old days as piracy.

We have not seen this level of income disparity, and it strikes me that ‘disparity’ does not do justice to this kind of deep, disfiguring inequality we are currently enduring, since the eve of the Great Depression in 1929. The imbalance tipping the scale of a functioning economy off-kilter into disorder and disrepute. This is a Versailles-style economic asymmetry, stimulating little more than an instability, social and political, that threatens upheaval in uncontainable directions.

Sound familiar? It should.

How we’ve arrived back here is no mystery but no less mystifying for that. We know how this goes, and it doesn’t go well except for some precious few and there’s no guarantee which ones that’ll be. Still, too many of us stand idly by, attempting to justify and rationalize such inhumane inequity as some sort of unassailable state of nature, bulwarked by scientific study and Adam Smith.

The Invisible Hand of Rational Self-Interest determines the winners and losers in our society. Winners just keep winning. Winners never stop winning. To the tune of amassing billions and billions of dollars, invisible hand over invisible fist.

Accumulating and earning are completely different things, of course.

Can anyone honestly be said to have earned $200 billion? There are only so many hours in the day, only so many good ideas, so much raw material or natural resources. A person can accumulate two-hundred billion dollars. No one’s earned it.

Not even a billion dollars. No one’s that smart, that innovative, that hard-working. Sociopathic? That’ll get you a cool billion. There are no limits to wealth accumulation a sociopath won’t aspire toward.

A society that accepts and even encourages that level of grasping and wealth hoarding assumes the hue of sociopathy.

We’re long overdue for the conversation, How much money, how much wealth is too much? Anything and everything above and beyond that threshold serves only as detrimental to the rest of society.

I don’t have the answer, an exact number. My sense is, and I think I’m being generous here, if you’ve got nine figures in the bank, you and yours for a couple generations will be alright. More than that? We bring back ‘confiscatory’ tax rates. In no way should that amount of excessive accretion be considered ‘yours’.

Whatever number we arrive at shouldn’t ultimately come from the top and slashing down but should be a bottom-up exercise. How much does anyone need to feed themselves, house themselves, educate themselves and keep themselves healthy? Build the good life up from that point.

The frustrating, revolution-inducing, class warfare making reality is, it wouldn’t take too many fewer gigayachts, private planes, vacation homes, private school fees, shareholder maximized profits to make that kind reality possible. Everybody fed. Everybody housed and healthy. Everybody educated. Everybody with the opportunity to lead a flourishing life. Everybody, everywhere.

Why does it feel so weird and eye-rollingly, treacly naïve to make such a Lennon-esque warm and fuzzy statement?

According to a June article by Jeff Tollefson in Nature, “More than 650 million people across the globe get by on less that US$1.90 per day…” In a review from the same issue, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett state: “Since 1995, almost 20 times as much of the increase in global wealth has gone to the richest 1% of people as the poorest 50%. The global charity Oxfam estimates that 8 men now own the same amount of wealth as the world’s poorest 3.6 billion people.” Eight men possess the same amount of wealth as nearly 50% of the rest of the world.

That’s not just immoral, obscenely so. It’s dangerous. It’s ultimately unsustainable on any number of existential levels. Wilkinson and Pickett outline exactly why:

Inequality needs to be seen as a social relationship. It places us in a hierarchy, ranked one above another, and – crucially determines the social distance between us. Instead of encouraging the public spiritedness, cohesion and trust that can flourish in a community of near equals, big material differences make class and status more important, exacerbating feelings of superiority and inferiority. As a result, people become more conscious of their status. The social structure ossifies and social mobility declines. In short, inequality is a social stressor.

That explains why more-unequal societies have worse physical and mental health, more antisocial behaviour – including higher homicide rates and more people in prison – and lower levels of child well-being and development. Inequality is not just an economic condition: it gets under our skin and into our minds, shapes our behaviours and fundamentally undermines our collective well-being and flourishing. It causes chronic stress.

There’s never just one cause that can bring about something as complex as a societal breakdown. A situation of extreme wealth maldistribution, like the one we’re living through right now, however, is a cancerous growth, more than capable of feeding a multitude of those causes (different from feeding the multitudes), exacerbating a feedback loop of injustices, conflicts and grievances, uniting and igniting them into one big rage-fueled conflagration. We need only look back as far as 1789 to know modern history comes replete with instances of murderous levelling and equalization.

Our deranged super elite may be convinced of their own imperviousness to such a revolutionary comeuppance, making plans to be safely stowed away up in space or on a floating island of independence. History is also full of the bad guys never paying their debts to a society they’ve bled dry. Money may not buy happiness but it can purchase a certain degree of immunity.

Not for everyone of them, however. A three-hour cruise can wind up shipwrecked and marooned. When that happens, unlike a feel-good, egalitarian 1960s sitcom, the likes of Thurston Howell the Third and his luvvie will be held to a reckoning, no laugh track, just the sounds of clubs, gunfire and blades dropping. A spectacle a good majority of the 99.999999644% of the rest of the population might think entirely satisfying and utterly justified.

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