“but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing (Mark 4.18)”
How much is enough? A recent Princeton University study contends the income required for optimum happiness is $75,000/year. Up to that figure, people tend to worry about financial security and making ends meet, but at $75k most people feel like they are financially set. They have enough disposable income to enjoy leisure activities like eating out and taking vacations.
However, when a person makes more than $75k/year, the Princeton study indicates the increase in wealth does not appear to make individuals any happier. The facts on the ground seem to bear out this truth. Lottery winners experience increased rates of divorce and after the initial flush of the win, no increases in overall happiness are maintained. The Maasai bushmen, probably the individuals with the least amount of material wealth on the planet, report happiness levels equivalent to the Forbes 400 wealthiest people on earth. It would seem that enough really is enough.
Everybody on earth should have access to $75k/year or the equivalent value for their cultural variables and exchange rate. The Maasai probably wouldn’t need or even want that much to maintain their currently level of contentedness. But most Americans want more than $75k, they want to be rich. We think money will solve all our problems, and our cultural programming reinforces this belief. The consumer goods, pharmaceuticals, skin care products, toys, electronics, diet food, hot tubs and McMansions that are flashed across our conscious and unconscious realities on a daily basis, promise health, beauty, security, status, entertainment and of course happiness.
Jesus said that a rich man had as much chance of entering the Kingdom of Heaven as a camel has of passing through the eye of a needle. Why is being rich evil or at the very least, a detriment to heavenly salvation? With values that contradict our expressed Christian majority, Americans admire the obscenely rich. We make television programs about them, their yachts, their homes and their decadent shopping behaviors. We tend to believe they have worked hard to get where they are and harbor secret hopes to one day join their ranks, even though we aren’t supposed to covet. But Jesus clearly does not share our admiration and for good reason.
The truth is, most rich people don’t work any harder than you or I do. Most do not possess any great intelligence, and few have contributed anything of real value to society as a whole. The Forbes 400 for 2010 lists 400 American billionaires (that’s more than $1,000 million each in net worth). In the United States, while record numbers of children join the ranks of third world-like poverty, 400 people possess more than enough wealth collectively to house and feed them all.
What did the Forbes 400 do to deserve such wealth? Of course, Bill Gates, as always, tops the list with a net worth of $54 billion. Bill Gates did contribute something of value to the world, but it isn’t what most people think. While he is often attributed with being the author of the MS DOS and Microsoft Windows software that revolutionized home computing, he was primarily just a savvy investor. Microsoft’s first big break in 1981 was supplying the MS DOS operating systems for the new IBM personal computers. Gates and his partner Paul Allen didn’t write that software, they purchased it from an obscure and little known company called Seattle Computer Products. The rest is history. Through restrictive, monopolistic marketing practices, Bill Gates and Paul Allen amassed an empire and revolutionized home computing. Actually, the home computing thing was destined to happen anyway, but by cornering the market early on, Microsoft ruthlessly crowded out competitors leaving consumers with few other viable software options.
Nowadays, Bill Gates has retired as CEO of Microsoft and spends his time as a humanitarian. He famously pledged to give half of his wealth to his own charity, and most people think he’s just a swell guy. He certainly looks benign with his nerdy glasses, mild slouch and soft-spoken manner. And, Gates has definitely done some good in the world. The Gates Foundation has almost single-handedly wiped out a couple of nasty bugs in Africa, and he donates a lot of computers to school children. Gates is obviously a smart guy and he can continue to put his smarts to good purpose to the benefit of the world. It is not surprising the good one can achieve with billions of dollars. The question is, why stop at half Bill? Why not decide to give it all away to good causes. Keep a million or billion or two. There is still a lot of dosh in Bill Gates’ bank account that seems to be doing little other than making Mr. Gates feel good. Does he really need all those billions of dollars to feel secure? And is it fair for him to keep so much for himself when so many people are literally starving to death? I pick on Bill Gates, but really, most of the Forbes 400 are far worse.
4 of the top 10 are heirs to Sam Walton’s fortune. Collectively, the WalMart heirs have a net worth of $83.8 billion. It is doubtful they have ever done a meaningful day’s work in their privileged lives, but they are happy to enslave people across the globe. Women and children in filthy sweat shops in Bangladesh and minimum wage-earning, hard-working associates who have to apply for food stamps and Medicaid to feed and provide for their families all toil to line the pockets of Mr. Walton’s progeny.
A large proportion of the 400 Forbes American elites are Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers (you know, the one’s who bankrupted our country), energy moguls (turtle and pelican slickers), internet geniuses (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.) and Casino magnates (I don’t know why I separated them from the Wall Street guys). The rest of the field is rounded out by several consumer product giants, pharmaceutical industry executives and the Cargill heirs (the guys who brought us high fructose corn syrup). 14 of the 400 made their billions on something called “leveraged buyouts,” otherwise known as the hostile takeover. Although a broad diversity of skills is to be found on the Forbes 400 list, one can safely say that not one of them has worked as hard in their lifetime as the single mother WalMart employee or a 16 hour a day factory worker in China.
One billion dollars is more than 500,000 times the annual salary of the average Chinese factory worker. It is almost 50,000 times the annual salary of a WalMart employee. In 2010, Forbes reports the world has 1,011 billionaires. Their combined wealth is greater than half of the world’s population combined (3,400,000,000 people).
Any one of the billionaires could give away at least nine tenths of their wealth, continue to lead a very decadent lifestyle and make the world a much better place, but they don’t. Instead, the vast majority whine about losing the tax cuts they obviously do not need and make extravagant campaign contributions to candidates that would cut social programs, making the lives of the poor and miserable even more so.
How did we as a culture come to view such abject greed as something virtuous? Jesus is after all correct in his assumptions about the obscenely wealthy. Americans need to wake up and smell the coffee. The vast majority of the wealthy elites are evil pigs and we need to tax them extensively and redistribute their wealth to where it is needed in our society. The few of the wealthy who aren’t greedy bastards won’t mind in the least.