3.5 The Richest of the Rich
I have discussed income disparity a great deal in this book, but I have not discussed exactly how wealthy the wealthiest few are and how poor the poorest masses are, and the numbers are astounding. The richest people in the world are mostly Americans in positions of corporate or political power or both. The most lucrative companies in the world are almost all American companies. They are glorified as the “Fortune 500” in Fortune Magazine and on the stock market. The most lucrative corporation on Earth in 2009 was Wal-Mart (see chart below) which banked $421 billion in 2010 and $466.1 billion dollars in 2012.[i] They make most of their money by outsourcing. Just about everything sold in Walmart is made outside of America. 70% of their products come from China and Walmart’s imports from China have contributed to America’s trade deficit with the country.
Walmart’s income in 2010 was about equal to the combined GDP of 41 of Africa’s 53 countries. If Walmart’s income was distributed evenly among its employees, each employee would receive $204,285.71, yet most are paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. (Undocumented workers in America and abroad hired by Walmart are often paid even less.) A forty hour work week at that wage generates $290 per week and an annual salary (without vacations) of $15,080.
Christy Walton, the widow of John T. Walton, son of the founder of Walmart (Sam Walton) was the richest woman in the world in 2011 with a net worth of $26.5 billion. Jim Walton, son of Sam Walton was worth $21.3 billion that year. Alice Walton, daughter of Sam Walton, was worth $21.2 billion. (She also killed someone with her car and never served jail time because money affords freedom.) S. Robson Walton, eldest son of Sam Walton and chairman of Walmart was worth $21 billion. Collectively, the Walton’s have more than enough money to end world hunger.
Top 10 Grossing Corporations in 2009:
|5||Fannie Mae||$154,000,000,000 + $800,000,000 in assets|
|9||Bank of America||$134,000,000,000|
Source: Fortune Magazine, 2009.
The Fortune “Global 500″ ranks the most profitable international corporations. Most of the companies on the 2009 list were not surprisingly headquartered in America, but there were more collectively in Europe. The European Union also had a GDP of $16.228 trillion in 2010, which was greater than America’s that year, but America remains the far more dominant economic and military power. In 2012 most of the global fortune 500 companies were also headquartered in America. Exxon Mobil (America) and Royal Dutch Shell (Netherlands) are currently the most profitable companies on Earth in terms of revenue. Shell has 90,000 employees and it is planning on drilling for oil in Artic (because melting it just wasn’t enough apparently). They expect the Artic to be the largest source of crude oil for the next few decades, and they may be unless we stop them. They had revenue of $484.489 billion in 2012, and Exxon Mobil’s revenue was $452.926 billion.[ii] Gas is currently the most profitable industry in the world.
In 2012 the U.S. had 132 of the Global Fortune 500 companies. China had 73 and Japan had 68. Some corporations in China and Japan have surpassed many of America’s in 2012. Toyota (Japan’s most profitable corporation) had the tenth highest revenue in the world. Sinopec Group, a state-owned Chinese oil company had the fifth highest revenue of $375.338 million, and China Natural Petroleum had the sixth highest. Out of the ten corporations in the world with the highest revenue in 2012, six were oil companies. Walmart was the only corporation not related to energy, although Walmart uses tremendous amount of energy and its carbon footprint
The rest of the global Fortune 500 were scattered mostly throughout Europe. Russia had a seven. Its most profitable was Gazprom, of which the Russian government owns 50.01%. South America had several, but its most profitable was Petrobras, another oil company headquartered in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, which had a monopoly on gas products for decades. Australia had nine of the global fortune 500 companies in 2012. BHP Billton, a petroleum and mining corporation, was the most profitable with revenue of 71.139 billion. Its major management office is in London and it is traded on the London Stock exchange. Africa had none of the fortune 500 companies.
The combined revenue of the global fortune 500 in 2010 was $22.5 trillion, which was more than one third of world’s 62 trillion dollar GDP that year. It was also more than double the combined GDP of Africa, South East Asia and South America. In addition, Africa is the second largest and second most populous continent on Earth, yet its GDP was only 2.3% of the world’s GDP in 2010.
3.6 The Stock Exchange: A Crooked Casino
The stock exchange greatly contributes to the wealth of the wealthiest, and it also exemplifies their ideology on money. The richest few treat money like a toy, and the stock exchange is just their casino. But they pull the strings of the world’s economy, so many only appear to be betting. Stocks, bonds, loans and liens are essentially ways to bet on intangible and even nonexistent assets in some cases.
In the case of loans and liens, banks bet that the person taking the loan or lien will be able to pay it back. Loans can be helpful, but banks often profit more if loan takers are not able to pay them back because their debt will accrue interest and their assets (like their homes) can be seized, forcing them into homelessness and sometimes life-long poverty. This can be a very lucrative process when done on a large scale. When actors that want to take advantage of institutions that provide insurance, these companies and other economic safeguards that are supposed prevent economic collapse can also go bankrupt and affect many other industries.
Buying a share of a stock is much like making a bet in a casino. It is a bet or a calculated estimate of the future decisions of other actors. Individuals invest in a stock if they believe the company will be financially successful and more shares will be bought than sold. But everyday investors are often at a disadvantage since they do not know everything CEOs do know about their companies nor do they make financial decisions about them. CEOs can predict economic trends best because they and their circles of rich friends affect these trends the most with their own financial decisions.
A stock is an equity stake of a corporation. A company’s stock is divided into shares and each stock represents a piece of ownership of that company. However, common shareholders have no power over company decisions. Only the majority shareholders make the decisions and they are the usually the owners of the corporations. When a company files for bankruptcy (chapter 11), their stock will be worth whatever is left over when a corporation pays offs its creditors and all of its debt claims are paid. Most of the actual money flows to the largest shareholders and if they file for bankruptcy creditors “are paid in order of their seniority.” Shareholders are the last to be paid after unsecured creditors and holders of “preferred stock.”[iii] Shareholders receive nothing if creditors are not paid in full.
Aside from typical stocks, there are also many other complex financial instruments that mostly benefit large shareholders and the already wealthy like derivatives. There are many kinds of derivative transactions like options, collars, floors, caps, futures, debt obligations and interest rate derivatives. (In June 2009, the Bank for International Settlements estimated that the notional value of all OTC interest rate contracts was $437 trillion and the combined notional value of all interest rate swaps $342 trillion. Both figures are far beyond the entire world’s entire GDP.) They are all just contracts. Their value is determined by the performance of underlying market factors like currencies, debt, and market securities.
“Options” are contracts that give the parties involved the ability to buy or sell an asset or financial instrument at specified price or before a specified date. Usually, this is not an obligation, but an available choice. An option that gives one the ability to buy an asset is called a “call” and the opposite is called a “put.” Some of these transactions are done “OTC” or “off-exchange,” which means they are private exchanges that do not take place at exchange trading facilities. Like OTC medicine, OTC trading is not subject to authority. These exchanges do not incur the same fees and taxes that traditional exchange trading does, and they can allow for more freedom as well as exploitation.
Wall Street likes to use secret jargon to disguise what the stock exchange is doing and its value. But they are all just greedy gamblers. They bet on money being traded, not being traded, loans defaulting, future prices and bets on bets on bets that become so abstract they lose all real meaning. The ultimate goal becomes to confuse and deceive. When one man’s loss is another’s gain (zero-sum equation) as in the stock market, this is likely to happen.
Even with all of this virtual wealth floating around, every officially recognized country in the world is in debt because large banks, corporations and the financial institutions that print the money decide how much money and debt should exist. America and the European Union are the leaders in debt as of 2013, but paradoxically they are also the world’s wealthiest countries. Both have about $16 trillion in debt. Their GDP is about the same. China and India both have more than one trillion in public debt according Economist Intelligence Unit data from 2012.
The largest empires and their proxy governments that once openly controlled “weaker” territories with force are most in debt. In 2011 Australia was about $395 billion in debt and Austria was $300 billion in debt. That same year the world debt was about $50 trillion, equivalent to five-sevenths of the 2011 global $70 trillion dollar GDP.[iv]
Most empires do not want to pursue the largest financial crimes and put the richest people in the world in jail because they are often financially tied to them. As stated, the owners benefit the most from current economies worldwide. The rulers of the largest corporations, governments and even religions and media outlets have the most impact on major world trends, changes in global economies, and social movements. Therefore, they often have the best ability to predict them, which gives them a significant advantage in the stock exchange and with trading of all kinds. However, this system can be used against them. If individuals who have little capital or power can predict the future better than these rulers can, then they can bankrupt the stock market and spread the wealth. This can be done by organizing and containing information about stocks and shareholder plans among common people. But we ought to be mindful about what we want to bet on. Foreclosures, inherited debt, bankruptcies and even deaths often benefit certain investors because there are people willing to make bets on them. Investors can also bet that the value of a country’s currency will decrease if an oil spill occurs or a large portion of the population dies from disease. In a system that is purely for-profit, any outcome can be profited from, no matter how negative. These are often seen as “inevitable externalities” that are of little concern to the rulers of these institutions.
Even when a country’s currency becomes more valuable very fast, this can be due to negative externalities. Of course, economic growth can be the product of moral business practices, sustainability, efficiency, collaboration, new ideas, and the employment of underemployed or unemployed people, but unfortunately it is usually not. Growth is mostly achieved through policies of low wages, long hours, poor working conditions, prison labor and slave labor. Efforts are also made to increase the working population (regardless of age or handicap) and to stress the importance of “good work ethic” in order to increase profits for the rich at the cost of our welfare. All of this decreases the costs of operations for corporations and increases demand for their exports, which increases the value of their currency in the global marketplace. (Most transactions between countries involve money, not barter.) A large discovery of oil or precious metals can also substantially increase the value of a country’s currency. Most countries likely to experience an economic boom within the next 10 years like South Africa, Japan, China, Brazil, India and others will grow at the expense of their working class citizens and their resources. The rich will benefit most.
The US trading system only affords a select few great wealth because it functions on unequal transactions. Many of the products we use every day are made by slaves, children, prisoners, and indentured servants. Workers are easy to exploit where there is massive economic disparity, and people have little means to defend themselves and there is no oversight. America is home to the richest people on Earth only because the rest of the world (and common hard-working Americans) are so poor. The United States is becoming a larger exporter as the prison labor industry expands. But its trade tariffs (import and export taxes) remain low, which means the country is still doing more buying often for resale with a heavy mark-up than it is developing products for sale.
Most currency exchanges involve either Euros or US bills. Most currencies are worth far less. For example, one central African Franc (one “dollar” in Africa) is worth about two tenths of one American cent or $0.0022.[v] One Afghani dollar is worth about two American cents. A flight from Kabul Afghanistan to New York City is about $1300-2500.[vi] A flight from the Congo to France costs about $5,000 or about 2.2 million Central African Francs, so it is not as if leaving is an easy option for common people in these countries and helping fix them is an even more difficult process. In the slightly more wealthy country of South Africa, a plane ticket leaving from Johannesburg going to France costs about $1,200 or 8182 African Rands[vii]
3.7 The Poorest of the Poor and Their Health
What is most sickening about the richest corporations and people who hoard their wealth is that while they spend millions on things they don’t need, the majority of the world does not have enough money to eat. More than three billion people (almost half of the world) live on less than $2.50 (US dollars) a day, and about half of them are children.[viii] 80 percent of the world lives on less than $10 a day. 40 percent of the world receives five percent of the world’s income while the richest 20% make three-fourths of the world’s total income.
Poverty is by far the most common cause of death, disease, and general poor quality of life. Most people who live in the poorest countries live substantially shorter lives than the rest of us. According to World Health Organization reports in 2011 only one percent of the people who died in high income countries were 0-14 years old. 28% were 15-69 years old and a massive 71% were over 70 years old. In middle income countries, however, 15% of the people who died were 0-14 years old, 45% were 15-69 years old and only 40% were over 70 years old. The statistics from low-income countries are even worse. 40% of the people who died in low income countries were 0-14 years old, 43% were 15-69, and a mere 17% were over 70 years of age.[ix]
Most of the deaths that occur in middle and low-income countries are easily preventable, and many are caused by starvation, dehydration and diseases that scientists found cures for long ago. The major causes of these problems are unsanitary, unhealthy or insufficient food and water and living conditions. Government encouraged tobacco and alcohol use and an enormous lack of medicine and medical care are also large contributors. On average about 22,000 children younger than five died every day of 2010 from starvation and easily preventable diseases.[x] About 27-28 percent of all children in developing countries are stunted or underweight.[xi]
While this is not a pleasant topic to read about, it is an important one because understanding the most common causes of death can help us prevent them and save lives. The WHO reported the leading cause of death in low-income countries in 2008 was lower respiratory infections like pneumonia, bronchitis, lung abscess. 1.05 million died from lower respiratory infection in 2008. 760,000 died from diarrheal diseases and HIV/AIDS killed 0.72 million. Diarrheal diseases are mostly caused by drinking contaminated water. But they can also be caused by eating contaminated food, unsanitary removal of human waste and poor personal hygiene. The most common way that people develop these diseases is by drinking water that is contaminated with human waste. Many very poor, populated regions don’t have sewer systems, water treatment plants, or even running, potable water, which is why these diseases are common there. Diarrhea can be caused by over 100 different bacteria, protozoa and viruses, and some are present in waste. The most deadly of the diarrheal diseases are cholera, bacterial dysentery and typhoid. Only individuals in low-income countries die of these diseases in large numbers because richer countries are cleaner and most of their populations have access to clean water and food.
Diarrhea can kill us because it depletes the body of water and electrolytes like sodium, which can cause severe dehydration. If the body loses 10% or more of its fluids, death can occur. When those with diarrheal diseases needs to rehydrate, if they only have access to contaminated water, drinking more of it will only cause them to lose their bodily fluids faster, making death more imminent. It is possibly one of the most unpleasant ways to die, and sadly, it kills mostly children
Ischemic heart (IHD) disease killed 0.57 million in low-income countries in 2008.[xii] IHD reduces blood flow to the heart through the buildup of plaque, cholesterol, or other obstructions. Poor diet, smoking and drinking are the most common causes. It is a much more common cause of death in middle and high-income countries.
The numbers were worse for low-income countries in 2004. That year 2.94 million people died because of lower respiratory infection in these countries and 2.47 million died because of coronary heart disease in 2004. Both of these diseases cause far less deaths in middle and high income countries. 1.81 million people died from diarrheal diseases in low-income countries and 1.51 million died from HIV/AIDS in 2004.[xiii]
HIV and AIDS are largely seen as African problems because they mostly affect Africa, but HIV and AIDS are actually serious problems in America as well that affect a disproportionate number of poor individuals and minorities. America is home to the most AIDS sufferers of all industrialized countries, despite the fact that it is the richest country in the world. There are over one million people sufferers in America, but far fewer people die from it in America than in Africa because the treatment here is better. In 2009 17,000 people died from AIDS in America[xiv] while about 1.4 million died from AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa that year.
The 2011 US federal budget request for AIDS treatment in America was $20.4 billion. 69% of this money was allocated for care, 14% for research, 13% for housing assistance, and 4% for prevention. The US budget allocated to AIDS prevention and treatment in Africa was far lower, even though an estimated 22.5 million people living in Sub-Saharan Africa have HIV, which is around two-thirds of the global total. If AIDS became an epidemic in America as it is in Africa, there would be much more media coverage on it and far more money allocated for treatment, but borderlines are the cause for the differences in treatment.
HIV prevention is most important in Africa. Free contraceptives, spermicides, sex education, regular blood tests and well-trained doctors in reproductive healthcare would be most helpful. Many people in Africa with HIV and AIDS do not know they are infected, because there are far too few clinics that provide free testing. (HIV tests can also produce negative results, even when blood is positive for HIV within the first six months after transmission.) Those who do know they are infected sometimes don’t tell their sexual partners, and this further spreads the disease. Religious taboos, rape, (which is widespread in many conflict-ravaged regions of Africa) and lack of reporting about all of these issues also contributes to these problems.
More clinics need to be established in Africa and more doctors must volunteer to change this. Rape prevention classes and support groups would also be very helpful. Everyone in Africa with HIV and AIDS at the very least should know they have it to prevent it from spreading and so that they can treat themselves. While there is no known cure for either, antiretroviral drugs can slow the progress of the diseases and also prevent them from spreading. I also believe a cure for AIDS will be found and distributed for free within fifteen years or so.
HIV and AIDS are mostly spread mostly through vaginal and anal sex. You cannot transmit either through salvia. They can also be spread by blood, which can occur when infected needles are shared. Infected mothers can also transmit the diseases to their newborns as I have said, and 70,000 infants are born with HIV every year.
Antiretroviral drugs can be used to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, but it is best to avoid having your own children if you are infected with HIV or AIDS. There are many orphaned children in Africa who need parents who could benefit from their care. For soon-to-be mothers with the disease, the WHO recommends taking the antiretroviral drug Zidovudine 28 weeks after becoming pregnant and taking Nevirapine during labor to prevent transmission. They also recommend that the mother take Zidovudine and Lamuvidine one week after the birth and that the baby be given single dose of Nevirapine immediately after being born and Zidovudine daily for one week after birth. (This is not an endorsement of these drugs.)
HIV and AIDS can also be transmitted through breast milk, so mothers should not breastfeed, but instead use formula. Caesarean sections can also be performed to reduce the chance of transmission. But cesarean sections are costly and they can be very dangerous without the proper medical equipment, trained doctors and a sterile environment. Maternal mortality is already high in many parts of Africa and other poor regions, so cesarean sections can add to the danger. Maternal mortality rates in Chad and Somalia were 1200 per 100,000 births in 2010[xv]. In Afghanistan that rate was 1400 maternal deaths per 100,000 births, (Afghanistan also has the highest infant mortality rates: 121.63 per 1,000 live births[xvi]) whereas America only had 24 maternal deaths and Canada had 12 per 100,000 births. Most Eastern European countries had even lower maternal mortality rates (under 10), because many of them have better healthcare systems and healthier lifestyles.
Stroke and cardiovascular diseases caused 1.48 million deaths in low income countries in 2004. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) also killed 0.94 million and tuberculosis killed 0.91 million that year in low income countries. Many of these deaths are also caused by tobacco-related illness, poor diet or both. Neonatal infections were responsible for 900,000 deaths that year; malaria was responsible for 860,000 deaths, and prematurity and low birth-weight were responsible for 840,000 deaths in low income countries. These are all easily preventable maladies and they almost never occur in richer countries.
Malaria is a disease almost no one dies from in rich countries because it is extremely easy to prevent and treat. It is mostly transmitted through mosquito bite and mosquito nets cost just a few dollars. Preventing it worldwide would not cost much. Doing so could save millions of lives. However, these diseases are not just caused by the deficiency of medicine and medical care; they are also caused by the lack of good schools and information in most regions of the world. Almost one billion people in the year 2000 were unable to read or write their names, yet less than one percent of the global military budget that year could have provided education for every child in the world.[xvii] Women are usually even more restricted access to education in misogynist societies because rulers know they will have more difficulty helping themselves if they do not know how. This is the same reason every marginalized group is restricted access to education.
Although this is all very sobering, preventing death from starvation, unclean water, dehydration, and the widespread absence of education and information would cost only a fraction of what rich countries spend on things they do not need and would give up freely. Rich people do not have to become peasants for there to be greater equality. There are more than enough resources for everyone on the planet, but the problem is that the richest people care more about money than they do about people, and they try to convince us to do the same.
In 1997 America and Europe spent $17 billion on pet food, $8 billion on cosmetics and $12 billion on perfume. A mere $13 billion (in addition to what is already spent) would have provided basic health and nutrition for the entire developing portion of the world.[xviii] (Human beings are actually easier to feed than cattle or domesticated animals because they can grow their own food.) Further, education for all would have cost a mere $6 billion more, water and sanitation for all would have cost $9 billion more and reproductive health for women worldwide would have cost $12 billion more. Collectively, they would have cost a mere $40 billion more dollars than what was spent. Global military spending in 1997 was $780 billion, which is about 20 times more than what these basic lifesaving services would have cost in addition. It is time our values start to reflect our realities and our expenditures.
Money buys not only freedom but time on Earth as well, and it provides the basic resources necessary to live a good life. But the people who hoard billions of dollars and do not give one dollar back to anyone have blood on their hands. They are cutting peoples’ lives short by letting disease spread and people go hungry and even exploiting poor, hungry people just for the sake of profit. These people would only have to give up a fraction of their wealth to prevent millions of deaths. But most do not intend to do this, and they do not want average citizens to know about these inequalities, because it would make us less selfish.
Many Americans are unaware of the scope of these problems because the major news corporations do not tell us about them. Mainstream news anchors are actors. They are part of a larger circus made to distract, separate, scare, and provoke.
I believe there is a need to rethink morality, money and the way we do business globally. Many people lack life-saving resources that the richest and most powerful often take for granted. But economic inequality is a solvable problem. As long as we’re all vigilant and unwavering in our efforts to gain common control over economic structures and businesses, we can prevent wealth from determining people’s health and be hopeful about the future.
[i] Bloomberg Buisnessweek: “Wal-mart Stores INC” (WMT: New York). 2013. Online.
[ii] CNN: Global 500 Companies. 2013. Online
[iii] Bloomberg BusinessWeek: “Why People Buy Stock in Bankrupt Companies.” Tiffany Kary. May 19th 2011. Journal.
[iv] CIA: World Factbook. 2011. Print.
[v] <xe.comcurrrency/xaf-cental-african-cfa-franc-beac?r=1> 05/02/2013. Online.
[vi] Priceline.com. Estimates made in 2013. Online. (Not an endorsement.)
[vii] Priceline.com. Estimates made in 2011. Online. (Not an endorsement.)
[viii] World Bank: Development Indicators. 2008. Graph.
[ix] World Health Organization, World Health Statistics: Death Distribution: 2011. (Pg. 169-170) Print. <www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/index1.html.>
[x] UNICEF: Child Mortality Rate Drops by a Third Since 1990. September 17 2010. New York. Print.
[xi] United Nations Development Program: 2007 Human Development Report. November 27th 2007. Print. Pg. 27.
[xii] World Health Organization: “The Top Ten Causes of Death”. Print, 2008. <http://:www.who.int.mediacentre.facesheetfs310/en/index.html
[xiii] World Health Organization, “The Top Ten Causes of Death by Broad Income Group.” 2004. Print. <http://www.premierheart.com/webapp/downloads/who_stats.pdf>
[xvi] CIA.gov, Country Comparison: Infant Mortality Rate, 2012. Print. <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2091rank.html>
[xvii] State of the World, Issue 287. February 1997, New Internationalist. Journal.
[xviii] U.N. Development Programmed (UNDP), Human Development Report 1998. New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1998, Pg 37. Print. <http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/hdr_1998_en_chap1.pdf>