Six hundred Americans, enough to fill a high school auditorium, own as much as a full 60% of Americans, or 200 million people. About half of the billionaire wealth has accumulated from passive stock market gains over the past ten years.
Protests in the streets don’t impact the people who have taken so much while doing so little. Instead, the often-destructive uprisings usually target small businesses that are themselves part of the victimized lower- to middle-income segment of our nation.
That 60% of Americans whose wealth is matched by a roomful of billionaires should be working together to fight economic injustice. But whenever there’s talk of public banks or public health care or public schools, the wealthiest Americans use their media power to try to convince us that working together as a society is a step toward communism.
The protests that seem to work, such as Occupy Wall Street, are temporary solutions to a systemic pattern of greed that seems to have no beginning or end. But there’s hope. We can study the effectiveness of past protests, and we can consider strategies for the present that might combat greed in a practical way. And we can anticipate the dangers that await the super-rich if they refuse to step down from their yachts and bunkers and lofty Wall Street pedestals.
The past: protests by plunder
In his People’s History, Howard Zinn described colonial opposition to inequality in 1765: “A shoemaker named Ebenezer Macintosh led a mob in destroying the house of a rich Boston merchant named Andrew Oliver. Two weeks later, the crowd turned to the home of Thomas Hutchinson, symbol of the rich elite who ruled the colonies in the name of England. They smashed up his house with axes, drank the wine in his wine cellar, and looted the house of its furniture and other objects. A report by colony officials to England said that this was part of a larger scheme in which the houses of fifteen rich people were to be destroyed, as part of ‘a war of plunder, of general levelling and taking away the distinction of rich and poor.'”
That wouldn’t work today. The super-rich have fortified themselves in secure bunkers, as far away as New Zealand. But there have been many people’s protests, in the U.S. and around the world in the last sixty years, from Martin Luther King’s March on Washington to the Berlin Wall to Tiananmen Square to the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. That brings us to the present, with Black Lives Matter, and the protests are not slowing down.
The present: Protests we should be having
For 75 years the U.S. public has been subsidizing the tech and pharmaceutical industries, only to face robot automation and outrageous medical costs. Protesting for a guaranteed income started with Martin Luther King; now we’re beginning to see results. Mayors for a Guaranteed Income is a coalition of eleven American mayors who are committed to a guaranteed income in their cities. They understand that the pandemic has made it impossible for millions of people to support their families.
Can it work? A four-year trial in Canada in the 1970s “saw rates of hospitalisations fall, improvements in mental health, and a rise in the number of children completing high school.” When the trial was discontinued these measures of success gradually faded away.
How do we pay for it, and how will it hurt the super-rich? It will bruise their egos, but no more than anyone else with a stock portfolio. Just a TWO-PERCENT TAX on total financial wealth would generate enough revenue to provide nearly a $14,000 annual stipend to every American household (including those of the richest families).
Another area of protest would directly address Wall Street greed. The establishment of public banks would restore some of the integrity of the post-recession Volcker Rule and the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment banking from retail banking. Right now, the state of New York is considering a bill which would support the creation of public banks and public ownership of their stock. California recently passed a law that would allow local counties and municipalities to create public banks.
Opposition from the banking industry in New York is expected to be formidable. In recent years they’ve donated more than $3.5 million to their own candidates for local and state office. But public banking works. For over a century the public bank of North Dakota has focused on small business loans, often those unlikely to be issued by larger banks, except at prohibitive rates of interest. The North Dakota bank had an equity return of 23.4% before the state’s oil boom. US News and the Mercatus Center rank North Dakota 13th and 19th, respectively, for financial health. The normally privatization-minded Wall Street Journal admitted that “The BND’s costs are extremely low: no exorbitantly-paid executives; no bonuses, fees, or commissions; only one branch office; very low borrowing costs..”
The Future: Protests by Drone
Future billionaires might want to keep their images off the Forbes Billionaire List. The rapid evolution of intelligent machines, with the ability to make decisions that can impact human life, is bringing us closer to a man-made revolution that the wealthy elite won’t be able to control. A microdrone, like a nearly invisible gnat in the air, could be equipped with a tiny but lethal dose of an injectable poison, programmed with facial recognition software, and released in the general vicinity of its target, where it will be instructed to wait patiently as it remains charged by the sun, and finally to sweep in to its target’s head or neck to complete its task. Silent and unseen, unidentifiable and untraceable, it will then self-destruct in the final act of its perfect mission.
This could happen anywhere, even in the secluded island bunkers of the most isolated and seemingly well-protected billionaires. As climate change worsens and the surging global population overruns our depleted living spaces, the world’s super-rich will increasingly become the targets of undervalued and desperate human beings. Reducing inequality is in their best interest.