America’s Modern Slide Toward Feudalism

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It’s all very fun to predict that America is going to slide toward some modern form of feudalism. It’s even more amusing to insist that it’s already happened.

It’s also bunkum.

Contemporary society may have little place for orthodox religion, and our military, however impressive, hardly constitutes an effective ruling class. But we are beginning to see the elevation of two very powerful classes—one dominant economically, the other culturally. Meanwhile, the power of today’s Third Estate inexorably weakens.

The ultrarich represent an emergent global aristocracy—or rather, a new oligarchy. Fewer than one hundred billionaires now own as much as 50 percent of the world’s assets—the same amount that around four hundred billionaires owned a little more than five years ago. In the United States, the richest four hundred U.S. citizens now have more wealth than 185 million of their fellow Americans com­bined. The shift has been dramatic: the top 1 percent in America captured just 4.9 percent of total U.S. income growth from 1945 to 1973, but in the following two decades the country’s richest classes gobbled up the majority of U.S. income growth.

It’s simply nonsense in two different ways but for the same reason. We don’t count wealth properly.

The first problem is that we count wealth before everything we do to redistribute wealth. We’re counting what people have as a known and seen financial asset that is transferable. And yet we’ve already decided that we don’t like that pure market distribution of wealth. So, we’ve gone and changed it. But, when we measure wealth inequality we don’t incorporate the movement of wealth as the result of our attempts to change that distribution.

For example, a fully funded private sector pension is wealth. The state pension is not wealth. A pile of cash you can use to buy health care is wealth, the NHS is not wealth. Free schooling for the kiddies is not wealth – although it quite obviously is.

So, modern measurements of wealth are nowt but tosh. They’re simply not telling us anything useful about the actual distribution of wealth.

The second bit is that this financial wealth that is being analysed, it’s not even the largest part of wealth anyway. That’s human capital. And we don’t measure that value nor its distribution. Despite our knowing that it’s several times the size of financial wealth and also markedly more equally distributed.

All of which means that a claim that we’re entering a new feudalism based upon our studies of the wealth distribution is, well, it’s tosh, isn’t it?

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SpikeMichael van der RietSnarkusEsteban Recent comment authors
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Spike
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Spike

A third problem is that they look at data on income inequality (a fundamental attribute of the human condition) and assume that disparities were created by a malevolent will, which will now impose stasis (how?) to maintain the inequality. This is about what they did to weather data to create a runaway* man-caused* climate crisis about which We Must Act in 12 years. (Was “10” in 1990.)

Snarkus
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Snarkus

on economics, OK. However ideas dominate IMHO. Otherwise the wealthy would not support ideas that are supposedly aimed at them, like Democrats claiming to support income redistribution. Sakis’ “The Storming of Lady Barstable” comes to mind. Given the media groups show a common world view that is remarkable for its falsifiability yet remain doggedly committed to it, illustrates the power of worldview and prior assumptions in determining what is “obvious”

Spike
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Spike

Ideas do dominate, but not all of us, nor all of the affluent, have the same ones. For some of them, the main problem is now how to be liked despite their wealth. They are especially susceptible to the notion that they have to atone for their achievement somehow. (Bill Gates and Warren Buffett especially.) (For those who seem immune, why not start by claiming they are an oligarchy?)

Snarkus
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Snarkus

I should make myself clearer. Presuppositions dominate because that’s is what is used to select the ideas one uses. All humans use presuppositions, eg, variations on materialism, rational dualism to animism. As for articles main point that pre-redistibutive income disparities are increasing, but does this matter is not answered. As for Bill Gates and his kind, nothing new. Many of the 19th century robber barons have spent their excess wealth on “good works” In Roman times, it was the accepted way to buy status. Most of the great artists patrons were similar. As for whether they care about being liked,… Read more »

Michael van der Riet
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Michael van der Riet

When Bill was the king of Microsoft, Bill Meetings were renowned for their ferocity. Then he mellowed out, soma anyone, told Ballmer to go ahead and run MS into the ground, and set himself up as an omni-intelligent guardian of all that is precious and holy on Earth. Now that Ballmer is gone and Microsoft has recovered enough to make Bill momentarily the richest person on Earth (is it still permissible to refer to “humans” as “people” or must we ask them their domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species first and their preferred pronoun), Bill is noticeably… Read more »

Spike
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Spike

Note “momentarily”! as none of Gates’s gifting, nor his proposals that would require my stuff be gifted, prevents the next person from organizing a change in our recordkeeping as cataclysmic as the one he organized. That means there’s no oligarchy. We’ve quickly gone to “Microsoft must be broken up because it has a monopoly on (non-UNIX PC) computing!” to “Who cares what happens on desktops?” PS – “Feisty” comes to most with age; it is then called “cranky.”

Esteban
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Esteban

Note also, that they shift from wealth to income in their argument as if they are the same thing. Likewise, using income growth statistics, which are (A) pre-tax, therefore misleading and (B) demonstrate their focus on envy – never mind whether your life has gotten better, let’s bitch because that other chap’s life has gotten better by more.

Michael van der Riet
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Michael van der Riet

At one time it was de riguer to display above one’s desk as sign that read, “Work Smarter Not Harder.” Then it was discovered that those who work smarter unfairly earned more than those who lived by the sweat of their brow, and the signs quietly disappeared.

Spike
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Spike

Because of embarrassment? or because everyone else made the same discovery?! Working smarter is harder than working harder, and every new tech wave offers riches to the first people to learn it, understand it, ply it, and teach it.

Esteban: Yes, and a hypothetical invention that doubled everyone’s real purchasing power would double income inequality, and would be fought by the gadflies (especially as it would make redistribution less relevant).