A deeply disturbing question

made me think of this question, and the right way to frame it.

At the moment, the United States, or interests based in the United States, control roughly one-half of the world’s wealth and economic activity. Yet the U.S. has only 4% of the planet’s population, roughly.

So what would the United States look like if it controlled the same percentage of the planet’s economy and wealth, as the population numbers would suggest? That is to say, what if its economic wealth and its population represented the same percentage — 4%?

I’ve not got the slightest idea how to begin to answer that yet. I’ll think on it — brood, more likely — this weekend.


In a way, the question hearkens back to ancient Athens. There and then, the accumulation of wealth was difficult. Wealthy people were identified by the community, and tapped to perform important civic functions — they were required to spend their money for the construction, outfitting and officering of ships in the Athenian fleet; to pay for the production of plays during the Greater and Lesser Dionysia festivals; to sponsor banquets and athletic competitions; to promote civic and civil life; and to serve as the principal priests of the various deities for a year or two at a time (and pay for the celebration of their festivals out of their own pockets).

The constitution of Athens, and their early hatred of both aristocracy and plutocracy, prevented the accumulation of wealth into a few hands. However, as the early fervor of the revolution which brought the Athenian democracy into being waned, these rules were obeyed less and less often. Whereas early on, the wealthiest Athenians were rarely more than sixteen times richer than the poorest; later Athenians grew wealthy while indebtedness prospered in the lower ranks of society, and the social goods once promoted by the sponsorship and patronage of the wealthy fell by the wayside.

I don’t see Donald Trump or Bill Gates donning robes to perform sacrifices to Demeter or Athena. Not in public, anyway. I don’t see the wealthy constructing free public theaters all over America, or sponsoring acting troupes in their hometowns. I don’t see them running soup kitchens out of the kindess of their hearts.

On the other hand, we don’t have slavery, either.

I’ll be brooding on this one for a long time.

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2 comments

  1. Part of the problem is much of the planet lives in a subsistence situation. In my mind, the pursuit of hampering those who have it good is less useful than trying to improve the lot of those who have it bad.

    I don’t think the situation is a zero sum game, where either we have it or they do.

    There are some efforts underway, such as ideas on bringing technological benefits at very low cost/effort to wide groups of people. A guy won a Nobel prize for essentially nothing more than a clay pot. The pot was porous, however, and serves as an effective cooler when kept moist. Nothing important? It stands to improve the lot of rural Africans a great deal.

    We’ve learned, however, that large scale attempts to solve problems generally fail in spectacular ways, partially due to the inability for humans to handle big problems rationally and partially due to the inevitable corruption that is entailed in gathering looooots of money into small, dense packets. (IMF, frex.)

  2. Part of the problem is much of the planet lives in a subsistence situation. In my mind, the pursuit of hampering those who have it good is less useful than trying to improve the lot of those who have it bad.

    I don’t think the situation is a zero sum game, where either we have it or they do.

    There are some efforts underway, such as ideas on bringing technological benefits at very low cost/effort to wide groups of people. A guy won a Nobel prize for essentially nothing more than a clay pot. The pot was porous, however, and serves as an effective cooler when kept moist. Nothing important? It stands to improve the lot of rural Africans a great deal.

    We’ve learned, however, that large scale attempts to solve problems generally fail in spectacular ways, partially due to the inability for humans to handle big problems rationally and partially due to the inevitable corruption that is entailed in gathering looooots of money into small, dense packets. (IMF, frex.)

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