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April 21, 2021

Civilized societies

Opinion

April 21, 2021

What makes a society civilized? In a word: limits. Civilized societies – to protect and enhance the greater good – set limits on how people behave.

We limit, for instance, how fast motorists can drive. We limit how many ducks hunters can shoot. We limit how much noise our neighbors can make late at night.

But we have one aspect of contemporary life where no limits ever seem to apply: We let our wealthiest keep getting ever wealthier. And the pace of that enriching is ever quickening.

Back in 1982, the year Forbes started listing America’s 400 richest on an annual basis, the nation sported a mere 13 billionaires, and the richest on that list had just $2 billion. The combined wealth of all 400 on that initial Forbes list totaled $91.8 billion, about $252 billion in today’s dollars. By 1990, our billionaire population had jumped to 66, and the combined wealth of those billionaires alone had hit $240 billion, nearly the wealth of the entire 1982 Forbes

top 400.

And then the real fun began, as the Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness detailed earlier this week. By the year 2000, our US billionaire cohort had more than quadrupled in size over the 1990 level, to 298 super rich, and their collective net worth had soared to $1.7 trillion, seven times the 1990 total. By 2020, our billionaire class had swelled to 614, nearly ten times the 1990 total.

That upsurge has spilled into 2021. Our US billionaires, just over three months into the new year, now count 719 three-comma souls in their ranks. They hold an astounding $4.56 trillion in wealth.

The worldwide billionaire population, meanwhile, has leaped by 660 over the past year, to over 2,750. The United States is still leading the billionaire pack, but China, with nearly 700, is coming up quick. The world’s 20 richest individuals now hold more wealth than the entire bottom half of humanity.

Can the world’s wealth continue to concentrate this intensely forever? The simple answer: Nothing in human affairs goes on forever. But can we point to any hopeful indications that a turnaround – some real limits – may actually be approaching? We certainly can, if we look closely enough.

One positive sign came last weekend at the policy convention of Canada’s New Democratic Party, that nation’s leading progressive party over recent decades and the current majority party in British Columbia. The delegates to this NDP convention resolved that Canada should raise the tax rate on personal income over $1 million to 80 percent and start levying an additional 1 percent annual tax on those with private fortunes over $20 million.

Other delegates at the NDP convention wanted the party to take even stronger steps and rallied around a proposal to place a 100 percent tax on wealth over $1 billion.

Excerpted: ‘What Can We Do to Start Civilizing Our Richest?’

Counterpunch.org