Have We Reached "Peak Self-Glorifying Billionaire"?

Perhaps we should update Marie Antoinette’s famous quip of cluelessness to: “Let them eat space tourism.”

As billionaires squander immense resources on self-glorifying space flights, the corporate media is nothing short of worshipful. Millions of average citizens, on the other hand, wish the self-glorifying billionaires had taken themselves and all the other parasitic, tax-avoiding, predatory billionaires with them on a one-way trip into space.

Have we reached Peak Self-Glorifying Billionaire? If so, where does the downhill slide take us? Let’s start with a bit of history. Correspondent Jim B. summarized historian Arnold Toynbee’s study of the rise and fall of civilizations thusly: “Civilizations fail when their elites change from an admired dynamic creative class to a despised Establishment of corrupt rentiers, an entrenched governing class unfit to govern.”

Despised, check. Corrupt, check. Entrenched, check.

The 2013 book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Povertydiscusses the differences between failed states and successful states, and concludes that the failed states are fundamentally kleptocracies that answer to a self-serving elite while successful states are answerable to the broad populace.

To summarize: When the few benefit at the expense of the many, the resulting kleptocracy ends up a failed state. When states maintain meaningful, transparent ways of responding to public needs and demands, the result is a successful state.

This is of course a simplification. The perverse effects of colonialism linger, the development of civic organizations public institutions, values and identities that make up what I call the social ontology are not pre-ordained, and nations with low-cost surplus energy can be quite successful kleptocracies until their energy surplus runs out.

But in the main, the question remains: How did previously successful political, social and economic systems change such that they no longer generated beneficial synergies but slid into fatal synergies?

From the point of view of how systems fail to maintain dynamic stability, three factors pop out:

1. Elites become too successful in sluicing the nation’s income, wealth and political power into their own hands.

2. Since the system continues to thrive despite their dominance, then there is obviously no need to change anything–especially if it reduces their share of the nation’s wealth and political power.

3. The elites ignore the intangible decay of leadership, the real-world dynamics of scarcity and over-estimate their own capabilities and the resilience of the system.

I recently described the feedback loop that occurs when a wealthy elite can purchase political power: “as a result of their campaign contributions and lobbying, the elites’ wealth continues expanding, enhancing their political power to further expand their wealth, and so on.”

In a healthy system, there are mechanisms that limit elite ownership of wealth and political power to what the system can bear. Over time, the feedback I described increases elite wealth and power to a point where the limits are crushed and the elite feedback gathers momentum.

With institutional limits no longer in the way, the elite reaches the point where the political system no longer responds to the broad public at all, and the vast majority of income-producing wealth is already in the hands of the elite.

The U.S. is already at this final stage: Wealth/Power Inequality and the Slide Into Disorder.

Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens: “Contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.”

This dominance throws the system out of balance such that, as David Parsons recently put it: (Elite-dominated) “Capitalism makes everyone homeless and then makes award-winning movies about how resilient people are for living in their cars.”

The apparent success of the system even as it grows ever more imbalanced generates a self-serving confidence in the Elites that their dominance is not only benign but permanent.

But this self-serving view is illusory. Beneath the surface, major subsystems are attempting to re-establish stability, but the instability is so extreme that the measures being deployed are also extreme.

These policy extremes only push the system further out of balance in other directions, creating fatal synergies as mutually reinforcing imbalances pile up.

See the chart below of money supply as one example of many.

But the elite is blinded by their confidence and greed to these accelerating imbalances. They reckon that managing the narratives (a.k.a. propaganda), minor policy tweaks and creating more currency and credit are all that’s needed to maintain what they consider the optimal form of stability: they own 99% of political power and 97% of all the income from capital.

Monopoly Versus Democracy: How to End a Gilded Age: “Ten percent of Americans now control 97 percent of all capital income in the country. Nearly half of the new income generated since the global financial crisis of 2008 has gone to the wealthiest one percent of U.S. citizens. The richest three Americans collectively have more wealth than the poorest 160 million Americans.”

I’ve often noted that the wealth of Rome’s political and economic elite went from being 20 times the wealth of a landowning farmer or craftsman to 200,000 times the commoners’ wealth at the end of the Western Empire. Now that three individuals own more wealth than half the American populace, and the top 0.1% hold more wealth than the bottom 80%, I think we can safely declare we’ve reached the same extreme.

The first tranche of American presidents left office less wealthy than when they entered because serving in public office was understood as a noble and valued sacrifice of time and wealth. Now presidents leave office far wealthier than when they entered public service.

Per #3, the elite no longer sees any compelling reason to sacrifice their income, wealth and power to stabilize the system or benefit the common good. In the view of the billionaires, if any sacrifices are necessary, then they should be borne by the bottom 95%, or failing that, the bottom 99.5%.

Given their dominance, their willingness to use their wealth and power to protect their dominance dooms the system to destabilization and collapse, as the resources and value system required to successfully navigate eras of instability and scarcity are no longer available to the state or public.

In effect, the elite uses its power not to restabilize the system but to maintain its extreme dominance and protect it from any political threats.

A once vibrant ecosystem has become a monoculture whose stability is far more precarious than it appears on the surface, as the resilience of monocultures is entirely artificial.

Two recent books illuminate corners of this destabilizing inequality:

Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West

‘Jackpot’ Looks at How Inequality Is Experienced by the Very, Very Rich

We are in the final stages of this accelerating destabilization: the refusal of the elite to sacrifice any meaningful share of their wealth and power to save the system from fatal synergies guarantees collapse.

Perhaps we should update Marie Antoinette’s famous quip of cluelessness to: “Let them eat space tourism.” We all know where this cluelessness ultimately leads.

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