Earth Island Institute logo, tap or click to visit the Institute home page

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Autumn 2012 > Spyhopping


Politics and Plutocrats: a Parade of Inequality

America is currently engaged in the most expensive presidential contest in world history. In the United States, money doesn’t just talk – it dictates. How can we hope to make progress on the path to sustainability when the road is blocked by barricades of bullion backed by battalions of billionaires? How do we break through the political gridlock?

Dave Brower’s wife, Anne, once put a wise spin on this dilemma. “What we need,” she said, is “a cure for greedlock.”

Earth’s richest 1,000 individuals now control as much wealth as the poorest 2.5 billion people on the planet. This super elite uses its vast wealth to control the media, influence politicians, and bend laws to their favor. In the US, the wealthy dominate our government: 47 percent of US representatives are millionaires, as are 67 percent of US senators. The Center for Responsive Politics reports Congressional wealth has increased 11 percent between 2009 and 2011.

Not only is our economy out of balance with nature, our economy is also out of balance with the practical limits of physical and fiscal reality. As the Occupy movement has indelibly framed it, we are now a society divided not only by haves and have-nots, but we are a nation – and a world – divided into the 99 percent and the 1 percent.

Imagine if a tree were engineered like the US economy – with half of its mass centered in the top 10 percent of its height and 40 percent of its mass concentrated in the very topmost branches. Whether redwood or oak, such a tree would not be stable in a windstorm. It would be destined to topple. Of course, nature has better sense.

In 2011, the International Forum on Globalization (IFG) published a report called Outing the Oligarchy designed to focus public attention on “the ultra-rich individuals who benefit most from – and are most responsible for – the growing climate chaos that is destabilizing global ecosystems.” It defined them as “a small elite of powerful billionaires who profit from polluting the atmosphere by promoting government policies that support an unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels.”

The IFG report illustrated the growing rich-poor gap by visualizing a parade in which all the residents of Canada ambled down a city street on a single day. Let’s translate that vision to the US.

Imagine if everyone in America was invited to parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. Imagine if the parade took just one hour. Imagine if the march began with the poorest people in the lead. Imagine if all the marchers’ income levels were indicated by their height. Here’s what such a parade would look like:

For the first 10 minutes, the lead marchers (those who survive on only a few thousands dollars a year) look like toddlers, barely a foot tall. Around 15 minutes into the parade, the marchers are not quite so poor: They now stand about three feet tall. This tide of half-sized adults continues for the next 25 minutes. Only after more than two-thirds of the population has surged down the parade route do we begin to see normal-sized marchers (those making an average income). For the next 10 minutes or so, the spectacle resembles a normal parade. Then things start to get really strange.

In the final 10 minutes, we start to see marchers who are wealthier than average: people who are seven, even eight feet tall. In the last six minutes, the marchers loom more than 14 feet tall. With 25 seconds left, the minority of super-rich marchers looks down from a height of more than 30 feet – nearly six times the size of the average marcher; 30 times the size of those who made up the first quarter of the parade.

In the closing seconds of this parade of wealth, the shoulders of some marchers extend thousands of feet into the sky – these are the plutocrats. Finally, bringing up the rear, in the very last second of the march, are the most powerful and dominant members of the power elite – a select band of Godzilla-like oligarchs who look down upon everyone else from an astonishing altitude of 8,000-plus-feet. No wonder the superrich seem so removed and aloof.

Just like the banking system, when something is “too big to fail” it becomes a danger to itself and others. Nature would never tolerate such a system. Nor should we.

Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal.


Email this article to a friend.

Write to the editor about this article.

Subscribe Today
cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJFour issues of the award-winning
Earth Island Journal for only $10



I shudder at the irony of the wealthy railing against those who who feel “entitled” to welfare, food stamps, etc., on “their dime”.

Those with the most breathtaking sense of entitlement of all are the super-wealthy, who feel entitled to take from the global economy as much as they can get their hands on, by whatever means they can get away with. From whence does this sense, this right they claim derive?

So far as I can see, it is a variation of might makes right.

The ability to do something, however, does NOT automatically confer the right to do so. If it did, rape and murder would be legal.

Wealth-building is a behavior. Behaviors that cause harm to others and to society at large are normally regulated and punished for excesses. Why is wealth-building, then given a pass? It is obvious that past a certain point, more wealth adds very little to personal security of health, housing or anything else of consequence to the individual who holds it. What it does confer is the power to sink other humans in misery and hopelessness, to foment political wreckage, to play god with the planet. These are purely driven by ego needs, not physical ones. Billionaires are addicts: addicted to the process of wealth-building, utterly unable to control themselves, needing the rush that such power brings. They are not job-creators, they are job destroyers. They destroy millions of jobs every year in the name of “efficiency”.

What they fail to note is that their “efficiency” is of a personal, not a societal type. A monopoly may be the most efficient system of gaining wealth for an individual, but is extremely inefficient on a societal level. Cutthroat competition may be very efficient from a psychopath’s viewpoint, but cooperative competition is far more efficient from a societal one. Every measure by which one might judge the super-wealthy’s behaviors points to the idea that most, if not all, of them are high-functioning psychopaths.

The best, perhaps only, way to stop this endless cycle of greedy behaviors destroying the countries they take control of is to cap wealth.

Let me repeat that: CAP WEALTH.

There is NO universal right to unlimited wealth-building. It is perhaps the most universally destructive human behavior of all, the root from which most other behaviors for which we incarcerate millions of people globally derive. It is the single biggest cause of misery on the planet. Why do we allow it to go unchecked?

Cap wealth at a billion dollars: more than enough for any individual. Give those over cap four years to give the excess away to non-profit, non-violent, non-political organizations, or to individuals. Then they retire economically and find something else to do with their lives. If they claim it an abuse of their “right” to build wealth, ask them from where they derive this so-called “right”? Ask yourself.

Excessive wealth-building is a destructive bahavior by addicts unable to control themselves, unable and unwilling to know when to say when. The results of their destructive behaviors can be seen in the ruins of our economies and deteriorating societies. It is clearly their fault. They are the problem, not the solution.

End the misery and the madness: cap wealth.

By michael piotrowski on Thu, September 13, 2012 at 10:52 am

I congratuate you! You have accurately described why the “We are the 99%” war cry falls on dead ears: the middle class is callous too. It explains why Rupert Murdoch and other powerful, RW, media noisemakers can find a vast audience eager for their distortions and misinformation.

By Roy Ferguson on Sat, September 08, 2012 at 11:33 pm

There is no “99%.” The poor and middle classes weren’t merely divided, but sharply pitted against each other. Our celebrated middle class has proved that it is entirely comfortable with letting the poor suffer and die; this does fall a tad short of “solidarity.” The middle class made it abundantly clear that they are at war with the poor. Consider the outrage of the middle class at the rumor that the president was planning to allow a few crumbs to trickle down to the desperately poor! When referring to the “99%,” what is really meant is the bourgeoisie, the better-off, and that falls FAR short of 99% of the population!

By DHFabian on Wed, September 05, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Leave a comment

Comments Policy

Please enter the word you see in the image below:


Four issues for just
$15 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!