Vinoth Ramachandra

How to Get Super-Rich

Posted on: January 20, 2016

The UK-based international charity Oxfam reported this week that the world’s richest 62 people now own as much wealth as half the world’s population. Super-rich individuals saw an increase of 44 percent since 2010, taking their cumulative wealth to $1.76 trillion – equivalent to the total owned by 3.5 billion of the world’s poorest people. The report also stated that tax havens were helping corporations and individuals to stash away about $7.6 trillion, depriving governments of $190bn in tax revenue every year.

Any regular reader of my Blog will not be surprised by these findings. While conventional economics has long ignored inequality and been obsessed with economic growth as an end in itself, there has been a growing counter-stream of eminent voices (e.g. Anthony Atkinson, Thomas Picketty, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman) who have argued that not only is economic inequality on such a scale morally obscene, but also bad economics.

I have also (following Susan George) called for more studies by economists and anthropologists on the rich than on the poor. How do the super-rich make their fortunes? Who bears the costs? How do they change politics? Why do they need so much money- money that they could never spend in several lifetimes? What does it do to their characters and relationships? Etc.

The most common way that the super-rich in low and middle-income countries have made their fortunes is fairly straightforward: viz. the open plunder of public resources. Think of the Russian oligarchs who bought state enterprises in the 1990s for a song; Chinese business tycoons hand-in-glove with the communist party leaders; ruling political families in Nigeria, Philippines or Sri Lanka who have siphoned off public funds into their undisclosed private accounts in Switzerland, Dubai, Singapore or the Cayman Islands (funds that are almost impossible to recover because of the secrecy enveloping the global banking system).

But is it any different in the U.S and other rich nations?

As I wrote on 18 December 2010 (“Crony Capitalism”), the Clinton and Bush administrations were well-stocked with former senior bankers from Goldman Sachs. Hank Paulson, the Treasury Secretary who engineered the 2008 bank bailout was himself a former chairman of the bank; so, unsurprisingly, Goldman Sachs was one of the first banks to benefit from the scaremongering that the US Treasury initiated to get the deal passed by both houses of Congress, while its rival Lehman Brothers was allowed to sink.

The world’s single largest funder of research into emerging technologies is the Pentagon- through its Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency). DARPA does not engage in research and development directly, but gives large grants to the top American private universities and private technology companies to do so. Without DARPA funding, the computer revolution would not have happened. DARPA (then called ARPA) funded the research that invented the Internet (initially called ARPANET), as well as the researchers who developed the Graphical User Interface, a version of which you probably see every time you use a computer or smart phone. Siri (the virtual assistant incorporated into Apple’s iPhones) was also a product of DARPA-funded research.

So, U.S. taxpayers fund the research that leads to the high-tech products that are patented and sold around the world by private corporations. The technology billionaires that are spawned write their own pay-checks and salt away their fortunes in offshore tax havens out of reach of the IRS. Sweat-shops on the Mexican side of the U.S-Mexico border, or in Southeast Asia, make the components for the computers and smart phones for some of the world’s most powerful corporations.

Isaac Newton, notes Joseph Stiglitz, was at least modest enough to admit that he stood on the shoulders of giants. But these titans of industry, from Microsoft to Amazon, have no compunction about being free riders. “To say that Apple or Google simply took advantage of the current system is to let them off the hook too easily: the system didn’t just come into being on its own. It was shaped from the start by lobbyists from large multinationals. Companies like General Electric lobbied for, and got, provisions that enabled them to avoid even more taxes. If Apple and Google stand for the opportunities afforded by globalization, their attitudes towards tax avoidance have made them emblematic of what can, and is, going wrong with that system.”

The only candidate in the current U.S. presidential race who has the courage to address these moral issues is Bernie Sanders, the veteran Democrat senator. Unsurprisingly, Sanders’ reported net wealth is $700,000, compared with Hilary Clinton’s net wealth- reportedly between $30-45 million- which positions her closer to Donald Trump. (In the Senate, Sanders voted against the Iraq war, bailing out Wall Street, and the 2001 Patriot Act; Clinton voted for all of them).

Last September Sanders visited Liberty University, a private college founded by the fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell. Surprisingly a large number of students received his message positively. “Calling on us to help the neediest, that resonates with me as a Christian,” said Quincy Thompson, the student body president, who had a chance to briefly meet Mr. Sanders after the event. “But as a Christian, I think the responsibility to help them falls to the church, not the government.” [http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/09/14/bernie-sanders-makes-rare-appeal-to-evangelicals-at-liberty-university/]

This, in a nutshell, is the obstacle to support for Sanders from the so-called “Bible-believing” wing of the American church. Ironically, it is ignorance of the Bible. The Church helps the poor, while governments help the rich. I can only hope that a Jew like Bernie Sanders will help these Christians go back and read the Hebrew Bible.

17 Responses to "How to Get Super-Rich"

President of Liberty U, Jerry Falwell, said “Trump reminds me so much of my father… In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” he said Monday.

Falwell added that Trump is “the only candidate in this national election” who can reasonably claim to be free from pressures by donors. He called Trump a man “who is not a career politician, who has succeeded in real life… He cannot be bought, he’s not a puppet on a string like many other candidates … who have wealthy donors as their puppet masters,” he told the crowd. “And that is a key reason why so many voters are attracted to him.” More https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/01/18/trump-received-a-glowing-welcome-at-liberty-university-but-not-everyone-was-convinced/

Trump sure knows how to hide his love and help for Mexicans, the poor, the sick, and just about any people group that isn’t white and rich.

I was with you up until the very last paragraph. Are you saying that although the church should indeed help the poor, the church should also influence the government in terms of policy toward the rich? Is the man´s response to Bernie Sanders one sided in your opinion?

There is no theology of government- as if God works only through the Church. Read through Deuteronomy, the Prophets and even the wisdom literature (e.g. Ps.72, Prov.31) to see what Yahweh expects of those in political authority.

Thanks Vinoth.

In my opinion, God can (and does) work through both the church and the state to bring justice. That said, both the church and the state should be acting in just and compassionate ways toward the world´s poor. The government has its role and so does the church. To simply say it is only the church´s job to bring relief is simply incorrect in my opinion. The government has its place in society and the bible speaks to this place clearly I think. The problem is the biblical right wing in America doesn´t believe this and sadly they often have the loudest voice.

How can we apply our Lord’s mild rebuke to the man who wanted the inheritance to be divided equitably between himself and his brother (Lk 12:12-14 RSV) here? We need to look into our own hearts and weed out the “greed” lurking therein.
Let’s practice the ministry of ecclesial compassion, community, and love as emulated by the early Church in our own respective contexts whlist with humility and repentance call for structural changes and studies to look into root causes. The epistle of James teaches us on how best to serve the poor in our churches. Jesus Himself purged the Temple of its money changers, and sellers because the house of worship had been transformed into a place of commerce.
Greed runs through each of our hearts as much as it across geography and culture, and demography.

As for these super-rich they will do well to take their cue from parts of Steve Jobs’ swan song, rather sad – Quote “I reached the pinnacle of success in the business world, in others’ eyes, my life is an epitome of success. However, aside from work, I have little joy. In the end, wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to. At this moment, lying on the sick bed and recalling my whole life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in, have paled and become meaningless in the face of impending death. Whichever stage of life we are at right now, with time, we will face the day when the curtains come down” Unquote.

How prophetic! Just when the UK government is agreeing to tax deals with Google and talk of European negotiations with Apple!

Three important things Bernie Sanders is saying (a quick video):

http://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2016-35443586

How can any Christian in the US disagree with this?

I agree there needs to be more academic studies of the influence of the rich. One pioneer is Professor Jeffrey Winters in the Political Science Department at Northwestern University

http://www.polisci.northwestern.edu/people/core-faculty/jeffrey-winters.html

He argues the USA is an oligarchy not a democracy. He is well known for his research on negative role of corporations in Indonesia.

American Christians disagree with it because most of them view economics and social justice through the lens of the Christian right.

As a Christian who is registered to vote in the U.S., I like Bernie Sander´s message very much, however I don´t think the U.S. is ready for a true social democrat. Also, many U.S. Christians will not vote for him probably because of his views on same-sex marriage and abortion. Many U.S. Christians are one (or two) issue voters.

[…] The rich get richer, Vinoth Ramachandra notes here. This particularly hit home after watch the film the Big short which details the banking and and financial collapse. […]

Vinoth, I respect your views and analysis. However, as an American Christian it would help to receive and reflect on your challenge to me and other American Christians if you could fill out your hermeneutics on how the OT should inform our lives as Christians and what kind of government we should work for as Christians who live under the New Covenant. You write this, which helps some:

“There is no theology of government- as if God works only through the Church. Read through Deuteronomy, the Prophets and even the wisdom literature (e.g. Ps.72, Prov.31) to see what Yahweh expects of those in political authority.”

Can you fill out for me what you mean here?

“This, in a nutshell, is the obstacle to support for Sanders from the so-called “Bible-believing” wing of the American church. Ironically, it is ignorance of the Bible. The Church helps the poor, while governments help the rich. I can only hope that a Jew like Bernie Sanders will help these Christians go back and read the Hebrew Bible.”

In your understanding of Biblical Theology, both the government and the Church have a responsibility to help the poor. Seems fair, but I don’t see this view being as obviously Biblical as you purport it to be. Can you fill out or justify why the OT theocratic governmental system that we no longer live in or under should inform NT Christians…especially when the NT doesn’t seem to tell Christians to transform their governments along the lines of the OT government? As I read the NT, it’s own assumptions seem to be more Anabaptist to me, we’re a separate group, a minority of a larger society, and we can influence it some, but mainly from outside the power structures…

Supporting OT values and implementing them in our governments seems good to me, but I don’t see a Biblical justification in the Scriptures themselves for NT Christians to prioritize transforming the government along the OT governmental lines.

The NT seems to command Christians on how to do Church and do Church in their societies…it doesn’t seem to be telling them to look back to the OT and to implement that in their governments. Could you be overplaying the role of the OT in a Christian’s life vis a vis the NT? Shouldn’t the NT be our controlling influence primarily?

My thoughts. I’m curious to hear more of yours.

Mark, my hermeneutic is really quite simple. I get it from Jesus who addressed the God of the OT as “Father” and saw the OT as revelatory of his Father’s character, concerns and purposes for the world. God’s concern for the poor and the vulnerable foreigner runs right through the OT and was taken for granted by the (largely Jewish) early Church. It was never a subject for debate in the Church. However, the latter was in no position to influence Roman government, but American Christians today are not in the position of the early Church. They have enormous power, not least through the ballot box to vote for candidates who reflect something of God’s concerns and purposes. You say “The NT seems to command Christians on how to do Church and do Church in their societies…” Precisely. “Doing Church” in the US today (where presidents and politicians claim to be Christian while pursuing policies profoundly anti-Christian) cannot be the same as in a context where very few Christians were even citizens of empire.

@Mark

I´m not certain if this is helpful Mark, and I can largely see your points as I too lean toward a more Anabaptist understanding of Christians and state involvement, but I also think that the government has a role to play in all this as well. The Book of Romans states that the government is supposed to be a steward of the good and Jesus himself seems to also define governments´ role when he talks about giving to Caesar what is Caesar´s. If this is true, shouldn´t Christians then support government in such a way as to effectively and positively influence the state´s role in human flourishing?

Also, I think governments are to do the very things the church is unable to do in terms of social justice — i.e. passing legislation that enacts policies which deconstruct injustice while building up real justice. Oddly … a Jewish (I think also atheist) socialist in that of Bernie Sanders stands for this approach more than U.S. politicians who call themselves Christians.

…and now the Panama Papers as the masses in the UK come to grips with one set of rules for the rich and another for the rest. The debates in the House of Commons suggest a major disconnection with reality, an indifference and disrespect for the vast majority of the electorate.
Shame how the respectable end of providing for one’s family was used to justify the immoral albeit legal means (tax avoidance), Also how one member posed the question of whether the Commons should be filled with ‘mediocrity’?! So are those not ‘smart’ enough to hide their earnings from the scrutiny of HMRC lazy and mediocre?!
The politicians of the third world, first world (whether from the socialist or capitalist persuasions) and all corrupt tax avoiders are they all not birds of a feather? Only one thesis fits – not of market forces, Marx or the escapism of Eastern philosophies. But that of Christ – We are self centred and Christ transforms the willing to be Him centred, to no longer live for ourselves but for Him who died for us and was raised from the dead (2 Corinthians 5:15).
No doubt their will be many amongst us gnashing their teeth and crying “If only we had heeded the call of Christ..”

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