Friday Jul 19

MONEY MATTERS - A New “ism” for the 21st Century:

Limitarianism

As we end the month of May, I saw that Elon Musk – ever the brick throwing oligarch he has aspired to be – posted on his famed “X” that he just can’t imagine voting for Joe Biden in the upcoming election. So thoughtful and civic of him to let us know as he continues to accumulate more and more of the globe’s wealth and income. $200 billion makes him the world’s richest person according to most sources, though I suspect Vladimir may have secreted away even more but since Russians don’t believe in a free press, who’ll ever know?

It’s useful to consider what an average worker might have to earn to reach the lofty number of $200 billion. If you work 40 years and earn the average $50,000/year, you’ll have earned $1.7 million over a lifetime. To get to $200 billion, you’d have to move that yearly income up to $5 billion PER YEAR to get there.

So back to Elon and his sharing. A modern-day J. D. Rockefeller, his era’s richest person in the world, Elon exhibits privileges closer to inheritors of fiefdoms than successful business people. He literally can spend billions to buy a media outlet and then use it to share his political insight and advice. Perhaps he’s just trying to upstage Jeff Bezos, who is keeping the Washington Post afloat (barely), but he doesn’t seem to use it as a platform to foist his views on an unsuspecting public. Elon, though, has no such compunction. He just floats out there that he can’t imagine voting for Uncle Joe. Why? Well, I suppose we just have to conjure the reasons for ourselves. Could be that he’s worried the Trump tax cuts that sunset next year might cost him personally. What mega-rich person doesn’t want to hang on to every last nickel? Or perhaps he thinks the Biden administration’s efforts cracking down on anti-trust violations might bring Tesla or SpaceX into the limelight for their monopoly practices. Or perhaps he’s planning a friendly merger with Truth Social so X can once again become the mouthpiece for Trump’s second term, as one can imagine that the former guy would gladly part with his revenue challenged platform for a couple of billion – chump change to Musk. Who knows? The point is, the world’s richest guy doesn’t even have to engage in the complicated carnage of unlimited political giving to try to influence the election, he just tweets on X. Leave the messy dark money games to Miriam Adelson who will likely fuel the Trump campaign that is largely overspent on legal costs, or so the press is reporting.

What this all begins to show is that what we keep wanting to call our democratic republic has really devolved into something far more akin to an oligarchy than anything else. Britannica defines oligarchy as, “…a form of government by the few, often for corrupt or selfish purposes.” There is almost no question that Russia is now an oligarchy that seems quite happy to keep Putin indefinitely in opposition-free power. But how different might the US be should Trump return to power? His platform has starkly announced a litany of anti-democratic policies in the 2025 Plan led by his promise to eliminate the Civil Service in favor of repopulating the federal government with “loyalists” to Trump who promises to use them to support his vow of “retribution.” And with a deepening alienation among a growing portion of the electorate, who is to say he won’t succeed?

The countervailing force, thus far, is a Biden administration that seems bound to 20th Century notions of politics and communication and an outdated philosophical construct limiting their imagination. Somehow, the idea of approaching social problems from a very different and dynamic perspective seems a bridge too far for them and many progressives. EXCEPT what about this little-known economist, Ingrid Robeyns? Never heard of her? Not surprising, but that may change. Her seminal idea is captured in a single word – limitarianism - that she coined in a paper first published in 2017 by the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy in its NOMOS annual yearbook. Briefly, 

“…limitarianism is a normative theory that argues for setting an upper limit on wealth to promote political equality, address urgent needs, and ensure a fair distribution of resources. It combines moral, political, and empirical arguments to justify wealth caps and advocates for a mix of redistributive, predistributive, ethical, and structural measures to achieve its goals.”

Wow – that’s a mouthful, but at heart, the idea suggests that all our efforts to address inequality since the 1930s, and there have been many, have been designed to lift up the poor and have-nots while leaving the moral question of greed and unlimited accumulation unaddressed. And so, while some progress gets made (social security, Medicare, minimum wage, etc.), they pale in relation to the problem of over-accumulation and the concentration of wealth in a smaller and smaller group of winners. And that’s my point: over-accumulation of wealth and income is a problem unsolved by democratic capitalism. For every new billionaire you read about, there are simply fewer resources for society to work with as it struggles to create safety and opportunity for all people.

Part of the problem, of course, are the stories we tell one another of American “vitality,” “exceptionalism,” and “persistence.” All cultures live through the stories they tell themselves about themselves, but the idea that anyone in America has a level chance of success if they just work hard is…bunk. Bill Moyers, always an insightful observer, noted twenty years ago that the rich/poor gap was widening:

For years now a small fraction of American households have been garnering an extreme concentration of wealth and income while large corporation and financial institutions have obtained unprecedented levels of economic and political power over daily life. In 1960, the gap in terms of wealth between the top 20% and the bottom 20% was 30-fold. Four decades later it is 75-fold. Such concentrations of wealth would be far less of an issue if the rest of society were benefiting proportionately. But that is not the case.

And if that was the case in 2004, who among us would argue that it is not now far worse. As Moyers puts it later in his NYU address, “The balance between wealth and commonwealth is being upended. By design. Deliberately.” And later: “…what passes for ‘political debate’ in this country has become a cynical charade behind which the real business goes on – the not-so-scrupulous business of getting and keeping power in order to divide up the spoils.”

Many have joined Moyers in noting the eerie return of the “Gilded Age,” that period of the 1890s in which the rapacious likes of J.D. Rockefeller and others backed McKinley and exploited every advantage for their monopolies. Bill goes on to write in a 2010 speech, “The Gilded Age returned with a vengeance in our time. It slipped in quietly at first, back in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan began a ‘massive decades-long transfer of national wealth to the rich.’…under Bill Clinton the transfer was even more dramatic, as the top 10 percent captured an ever-growing share of national income…and by 2007 the wealthiest 10% of Americans were taking in 50% of the national income…” Is it really any wonder that the Democrats have lost the trust of working Americans? The contrasting question of why they are willing to trust the traditional party of the rich, the GOP, is likely due to as much to Trump’s crass and hateful rhetoric than anything in the policy realm. “You’re fired!!!” is what appeals to folks who no longer have a stake in the game. When the story you tell yourself is the system is rigged against you, and it is in so many ways, why not just blow it all up? Who, after all, are we protecting? 

To this nihilism, Robeyns offers some hope. While there is no political system on the planet that one can currently imagine imposing a limit on wealth or income, there don’t seem to be any that are free of the toxic fumes of excessive wealth. Wealth dominates virtually all politics across the ideological spectrum, from China to the petro-states of Russia and the Middle East to the industrialized Europe and North America, often using religion to cloak itself in false virtue. Concentration of wealth is a problem few seem willing to address, partly because it conflicts with our cultural myths. But as was true in the age of monarchies, the inherent flaw of greed is that it chokes human progress and numbs us to the compassion that makes us human. Eventually, there will be a reckoning.

Perhaps there will be a way to put a limit on wealth accumulation and free up resources for the collective good. It’s worth thinking about. Lord knows not much else seems effective in bringing back civility and reason to public discourse. But better do so carefully. Given how the right reacts to soft ideas like DEI, can you imagine what they might do if they thought someone was coming after not their guns, but their “excess” money and wealth???


DRUMMOND PIKE, a frequent Organizers’ Forum participant and contributor to these pages, was the founder and CEO of Tides in San Francisco, and continues to be involved in philanthropy and social change.


SOURCES:

“Why Limitarianism?,” Ingrid Robeyns, Journal of Political Philosophy / Vol. 30, Issue 2 / p. 249-270, 26 Jan 2022

The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, Martin Wolf, Penguin Press 2023

“Inequality Matters,” Bill Moyers, Keynote Address, New York University June 3, 2004

“Welcome to the Plutocracy!” Bill Moyers, t r u t h o u t | Speech, 3 November 2010

Calculation of annual earnings required to reach $200 billion: Perplexity AI