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Billionaires and the Public Good

By Jerry Gerber 

 

What is Money For?

Secularism has brought us many valuable ideas and advances:  Democracy, the sovereignty and dignity of the individual, women’s rights, gay rights, racial justice, environmental justice and incredible advances in science, medicine and technology. Unfortunately, secularism has also brought us two world wars, nuclear and biological weaponry and an obsession with luxury, celebrity and wealth.  Religion, when not corrupted by misogyny, racism, materialism, superstition, tribalism, nationalism and dogma, can inspire us to seek and experience the sacred and holy aspects of life, to meditate upon the miraculous fact that intelligent life arises at all; it also has motivated people to think about the moral and ethical dimension of life, to see all men and women as our spiritual brothers and sisters.

Christ taught that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven”.   What does this mean exactly?  Is money evil?  If money is evil, does this mean that gold, silver, paper and electrons are evil?   This cannot be what Christ meant.  We know that money is a tool, a symbol of exchange value that facilitates trade and commerce; money can fund the building of libraries, hospitals, roads and museums, money can be used to feed and clothe people and provide medical care.  Surely, Jesus didn’t mean that money itself is evil.  I believe Christ means that the love of money, the love of wealth, is evil.   I think Christ means that we should make the quality of our relationships to one another the primary focus, that relationships are ends in themselves, and though the material side of existence is important while we are alive, when people are on their death beds, the material world drops away because we know whatever wealth and possessions we accumulate in this life will not be coming with us when we die.  I believe Christ taught that a person’s moral and emotional intelligence cannot be determined merely by how successfully one's earthly career unfolds, but more so by the intentions, decisions and values we live by and how we treat other human beings. Am I sensitive to human suffering?  Do I care about the state of the world and the quality of life for people who are strangers to me? 

When a civilization becomes such that wealth, profit and the acquisition of material luxury becomes the dominant purpose of society and access to wealth becomes so inequitable that hard-working responsible people cannot afford basic necessities, it is clear that society is in profound disrepair and decline.  This is perhaps what Jesus was referring to, when a person’s focus is on the acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake, that person is not just being “in the world” but also becoming “of the world”.  Herein lies the evil; misplaced priorities, valuing the lesser over the greater.  When a society views money not merely as a means to trade and conduct commerce but rather to bestow status, power and privilege, social systems generate unfairness and frustration. In most social systems, even going back thousands of years, wealth has always flowed in well-organized channels.  If one has access to these channels, their labor and talents may be well-rewarded.  But for someone with no access, regardless of their skills and abilities, they may not be rewarded at all for their contributions to society. This pattern seems fairly universal in all but the most primitive of societies.  The fact that there have long been shamans, priests, kings, queens and noblemen, and now CEOs, elites and billionaires--supports this idea of wealth flowing in well-organized channels.  

But what happens when these channels of wealth become too narrow?  Is it similar to how bad dietary habits and smoking cause our blood vessels to narrow and bring about a heart attack or stroke due to the constricted flow of blood?  When large numbers of people in a social system begin to suffer deprivation of access to food, health care, education and housing this constricts and damages the body politic.  And when a small minority become not only ridiculously wealthy, but so wealthy that their families have far more than enough for themselves for many generations to come while others whose jobs benefit all of us struggle to pay their bills, does this not create serious tensions that lead to other social problems such as increased loneliness and isolation, drug addiction, crime, suicide, divorce and a generally depressed and vulnerable population?  While a small minority bask in total comfort the majority is faced with increasingly harsh competition for the goods and services required for survival. Democracy and extreme wealth inequality are incompatible. A nation with nearly 800 military bases in over 70 countries is suffering from severely misplaced priorities. Democracy and empire are incompatible.  

The billionaires do not only have great wealth but their wealth gives them access to government decision-making policy and social control over media and the press.  They can purchase through lobbying, which is essentially legalized bribery, very low taxes, and weak business, environmental and labor regulations. The Supreme Court not long ago ruled that “money equals free speech”—the wealthier you are the more free speech you can buy.  This is how low we have sunk in terms of pretending to be a democratic nation.  The current incarnation of the Republican party now wants to prevent people of color, young people and poor people from voting, because Republican leaders know they cannot win free and fair elections.  As former President Jimmy Carter said not too long ago, America is an oligarchy.  And the Republicans are telling us to get used to it.  Can we really create a just society with such backwards-looking people in high office?

In spite of this terrible wealth inequality, I don’t paint all billionaires with the same brush.  There are people, rich and poor, who care deeply about the state of the planet.  There are many civic-minded wealthy philanthropists who contribute large sums of money to organizations that serve the public good. Yet is it also true that there are people, wealthy and poor, who are frighteningly selfish and some are criminal-minded, they will not hesitate to harm others for self-gain.  We recently suffered a U.S. President who fits this description perfectly. The CEO of a corporation that manufactures nuclear warheads is criminally-minded.  Not because of wealth, but because of a lack of conscience.  The products his company manufactures, if used as directed, will result in the immediate death of millions, in severe ecological disruption and countless people suffering and dying in the aftermath.   Nuclear warheads are obscene and defective products by their very nature.


A Nuclear War Will Be Very Bad for Business

The world is facing a dire situation:  The risk of nuclear weapons being used in the next large war is growing.  China, the United States and Russia are building up their militaries like there is no tomorrow. And if their weapons systems are employed in war, there may not be a tomorrow, at least not one most people could survive in. Billionaires have more responsibility than most of us to help make the world a more just and peaceful place because society provides the roads, airports, communication systems and energy that help them make their fortunes.  They ought to use their wealth to help alleviate the most serious danger humanity faces:  The threat of another world war.  If a major war breaks out between nuclear armed nations, it is hard to see how corporations that produce and sell consumer goods such as washing machines, cell phones and home furniture are going to benefit.  Who will buy goods from Amazon if there is no internet, no electricity, no running water, and cities across America, Europe and Asia no longer exist?  Who will fly to Europe on United Airlines if there are no more airports and if hotels are piles of rubble and those unfortunate souls who have survived are dying from starvation and/or radiation sickness?   Other than the corporations that have contracts with the military-industrial complex, a nuclear war is going to be bad, horrendously bad, for business. Surely the billionaires whose hearts and minds have empathy, imagination and concern for the world must realize this.   It is up to the wealthy to lead us to the abolition of war because they have the means to fund the struggle to create a lawful, just and non-violent world. 

For example, say George Soros decides to spend $300 million to fund the elimination of the veto power of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.  That would be money not only well-spent, but would also help increase the democratization of the United Nations.  The fact that ICAN has succeeded in getting 86 nations to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which, at least theoretically, makes the nine nuclear weapons states (USA, China, Russia, UK, France, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea) outlaw states, is an example of what the UN could achieve if we eliminate the ability of one nation to dictate its terms to the other 192 nations through the veto.  Billionaires could help change this through funding those NGOs and other organizations that are fighting to create a world where nations would be forced by global law to settle their disputes in court, without violence, just as individuals, families, businesses, corporations, cities and states within nations are expected to do. Why should nations, and the relationship between nations be exempt from the rule of law? Why should presidents, prime ministers, senators and generals be free to use violence when everyone else is prohibited from doing so?  The billionaires could help us by funding peace organizations, funding the education of the young in non-violent conflict resolution and funding the creation of a global constitution and global bill of rights that leads to the abolition of warfare.

Humanity is clearly at a crossroads.  Like a lost drug addict who hits bottom and either gets clean or poisons himself to death, the human propensity to unleash barbaric savagery and destruction on our fellow human beings is no longer viable.  We either come clean and renounce the violence that nationalism has perpetrated for centuries or we will die together in a global holocaust that will be our undoing. 

To all you billionaires out there: Please, fund the global movement for the abolition of warfare and help your fellow human beings. Even if you have your own private island where you and your family can safely live out WW3, think of the millions of children who will die, the millions of men and women, the teachers, artists, scientists, doctors, nurses, computer programmers, businesspeople, lawyers, bus drivers, construction workers, farmers and students who will perish—people who make positive and necessary contributions every day and ensure that our societies function.  People who have helped you get rich.  Can you afford compassion?  Can you finance reason and sanity? Can you invest in peace and a sustainable planet?  Please show us that your ethical intelligence is equal to your business acumen and help contribute to a governed world without war.  I cannot think of a better way to practice enlightened philanthropy at this critical time in the history of our species. 

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