An interesting statistic was published recently that didn’t get near the publicity or commentary that it deserved. According to a published report, 62 individuals who occupy this planet have accumulated the same amount of monetary wealth as half of the planet’s population. That’s over 3.5 billion people. In other words, 62 individuals have the same amount of material resources as do the economically lower half of Earth’s populace. Thus are the wonders of world capitalism that goes largely unrestrained. The breathtaking enormity of the implications behind this statistic should give pause to anyone that considers what it means to be part of the human condition at this point in time at this particular spot in the universe.
The absurdity of such wealth inequality can be best illustrated in current lifestyles prevailing among Earth’s continents. While millions in the U.S. and much of Europe fret that their lives have become almost meaningless because Apple still hasn’t put the new I-Phone 7 on the market, huge chunks of Africa, as well as large parts of Asia and Latin America, still lack electricity, sanitary drinking water, and decent bathroom facilities. For these people, a computer would be as foreign an object as a a meteor that came hurling out of the sky. Many on this planet working full time, still earn less than a dollar a day, and live under the most wretched of conditions.
To understand how all this came about, one has to return to the early days of the industrial revolution that began unfolding in the 19th century. Until that point most of the world’s population was employed as either farmers or shopkeepers, and poverty dominated in virtually all societies. Large concentrations of wealth at that time also existed among the few, who were generally monarchs and royalty that ruled most nations. But as the U.S. began its expansion in the 1800s, and with a democratic, laissez-faire government ruling the country in lieu of a monarchy, the landscape was fertile ground for development of the industrial revolution. Suddenly, a powerful force of energy known as electricity was discovered. It was discovered that oil could be excavated from the ground instead of having to rely on the killing of whales. New-fangled electronics such as the teletype, telephone, photography, and the electric light-bulb began coming on the market. A railroad system that would eventually run from coast-to-coast was in the making. And then, toward the end of the 19th century, a mammoth innovation took place with the invention of the horseless carriage. Mankind, at least in the U.S. and Europe was on a roll, or so it seemed.
The unquenchable demand for all this output added great wealth to many societies, as capitalism provided the economic fuel that underwrote the industrial revolution. But the problem was that while certain people had an inherent talent for exploiting the industrial revolution to become fabulously rich, such as the John D. Rockafellers, or Andrew Carnage’s, others were not so fortunate. Most people who participated in heady times of 19th century industry worked for what became known as “coolie wages.” Coolies were mainly Chinese immigrants brought over to the U.S. to lay track for the developing coast-to-coast railway system. They were paid virtually nothing, and were given dismal, ramshackle quarters to sleep in, some unrecognizable slop to feed on, and usually worked 12-14 hours daily. Most died at an early age. From clothing sweatshops in Manhattan to to the drudgery of coal-mining in West Virginia, most of what was known as the working class faced similarly dismal conditions, and could be considered as capitalism’s casualties.
When Henry Ford started mass producing his automobiles in the early 20th century, he introduced the concept of paying his employees a “living wage” which he figured was $5 a day at the time. It was good for business he claimed, besides being the decent thing to do. Thus, over the next century, many of capitalism’s rough edges started to smoothen out. Legislation was passed halting the exploitation of children in the garment and other industries. Labor unions became legal as did the right to strike for better wages and working conditions. Safety standards were established to minimize workplace accidents and casualties. The list goes on. Unquestionably, workers today in the U.S., Europe, most of Asia and parts of South America face far better working conditions and earn far better wages than their 19th century counterparts. Still, in many parts of the world, mind-numbing poverty and the most wretched living conditions continue to exist. The problem is inherent in the very nature of capitalism.
Some people’s genetic makeup is tailor-made to exploit a capitalistic economic system. Wall Street bankers and investment firms, hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, etc. generally thrive, (at least monetarily) under capitalism; while others, such as artists, writers, musicians, sculpturers, etc. generally do poorly under the same economic order. The artist may posses the same intelligence as the successful financier, but his or her mind is not made to undergo the rough and tumble competition it takes to succeed in a capitalistic society. Vincent Van Gogh or Edgar Allen Poe may have turned out the most brilliant pieces of art and literature, but both died penniless because the didn’t know how to function in a world predicated on laissez-faire capitalism. Success usually requires knowing how to defeat the competition, and artists tend to be very non-competitive. The 62 people I mentioned earlier that have as much wealth as over 3.5 billion individuals, obviously have the genetic talent to totally exploit existing capitalistic societies.
Actually, capitalism, and its inherent wealth inequality, is based almost totally on the random nature of human existence. Go into any children’s cancer ward in any major hospital, and ask why those children are lying there bedridden or dying, while their former classmates are chasing each other around the school playground in perfect health. All part of the randomness of the universe which doesn’t care or seek involvement in the turmoil of the human condition.