The Three Richest Americans Hold More Wealth Than Bottom 50 Percent

Using data from Forbes’ annual ranking of the 400 richest Americans, the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning D.C. think tank, published a report last fall finding incredible wealth disparities in the United States. As Forbes reported:

Most dramatically, it found that the country’s three richest individuals—Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos—collectively hold more wealth than the bottom 50% of the domestic population, “a total of 160 million people or 63 million American households.” Roughly a fifth of Americans “have zero or negative net worth,” the authors wrote.

Bezos, Gates and Buffett held a combined fortune of $248.5 billion in mid-September, when numbers were locked in for the 2017 Forbes 400list. Since then that figure has risen to an estimated $263 billion, thanks largely to Bezos, whose worth has jumped more than $13 billion as the result of a surge in Amazon’s share price.

“If left unchecked, wealth will continue to accumulate into fewer and fewer hands, a trend we’ve been witnessing for decades,” wrote Josh Hoxie, one of the study’s co-authors.

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America’s Surprisingly Bipartisan Love of Foreign Aid

Fun fact: in these hyper-partisan times (to say the least), there is one area that continues to receive surprisingly bipartisan support: foreign aid. Despite the efforts of our isolationist administration to slash the foreign aid budget by a third, the GOP-controlled Congress maintained the budget from last year at $35 billion—the largest in absolute terms of any country in the world (though several countries, mostly in Northern Europe, donate more as percentage of their GDP).

In fact, programs for improving maternal health and combating tuberculosis actually saw increases in funding, and the Trump Administration recently announced a significant–and universally surprisingly–increase in U.S. foreign aid, as The New York  reported:

With little fanfare, Mr. Trump signed a bill a little over a week ago that created a new foreign aid agency — the United States International Development Finance Corporation — and gave it authority to provide $60 billion in loans, loan guarantees and insurance to companies willing to do business in developing nations.

The move was a significant reversal for Mr. Trump, who has harshly criticized foreign aid from the opening moments of his presidential campaign in 2015. Since becoming president, Mr. Trump has proposed slashing $3 billion in overseas assistance, backed eliminating funding for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and taken steps to gut the United States Agency for International Development, the State Department agency that dispenses $22.7 billion a year in grants around the world.

The president’s shift has less to do with a sudden embrace of foreign aid than a desire to block Beijing’s plan for economic, technological and political dominance. China has spent nearly five years bankrolling a plan to gain greater global influence by financing big projects across Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa.

Setting aside the realpolitik behind this move, it is worth flagging how this big new aid agency resulted from a bipartisan act of Congress that included die-hard Republican lawmakers, of the sort who would normally write off foreign aid as a waste of taxpayer money.

Perhaps just as surprisingly is that this level of broad, bipartisan support for foreign aid is not new: foreign aid more than doubled under George W. Bush. America’s AIDS relief program, PEPFAR, provides over 14 million people with access to life-saving medicine, while funding for anti-malaria measures has saved another six million lives.  And while the administration continues to propose slashes to foreign funding, Congress continues to stand firm; as recently as last month, Democrats and Republicans rejected an effort by the executive branch to claw back $3 billion allocated for foreign funding.

Even right-wing Republicans like Ted Yoho of Florida, who ran in opposition to foreign aid—often capitalizing on the fact that Americans exaggerate how much we spend on it—have often reversed their position once in office. In fact, the erstwhile Tea Party Republican was one of the principal sponsors of the act establishing the new $60 billion aid agency.

There are several reasons why something as seemingly polarizing as foreign aid remains stubbornly bipartisan. These include an attachment to American global leadership, a genuine sense of moral duty, and the perception of foreign aid as furthering national interest (part of the reason it got a boost under W. Bush is that the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan prompted conservatives to rethink the reliance on military power as the sole avenue of global influence).

Of course, these reasons also betray cynical motivations, as reinforced by Trump’s motive behind this latest aid agency: to further influence in certain countries and regions, especially against foreign rivals; to back projects that may enrich U.S. companies and businesses that provide these services; or to maintain a veneer of morality as a smokescreen over immoral policies.

The Anniversary of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance

On this day in 1892, the United States Pledge of Allegiance was first used in public schools to coincide with the opening of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing and America’s emergence as a world power. While originally composed by Captain George Thatcher Balch of the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War, the form of the pledge used today was largely devised by Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist and minister—an ironic fact given the Pledge is especially popular among conservatives. Continue reading

Humanity Has One Decade to Get Climate Change Under Control

According to the latest report of U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading authority on climate change, we are running out of time to do what is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. As The Washington Post reported:

With global emissions showing few signs of slowing and the United States — the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide — rolling back a suite of Obama-era climate measures, the prospects for meeting the most ambitious goals of the 2015 Paris agreement look increasingly slim. To avoid racing past warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels would require a “rapid and far-reaching” transformation of human civilization at a magnitude that has never happened before, the group found.

There is no documented historic precedent” for the sweeping change to energy, transportation and other systems required to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote in a report requested as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

At the same time however, the report is being received with hope in some quarters because it affirms that 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible — if emissions stopped today, for instance, the planet would not reach that temperature. It is also likely to galvanize even stronger climate action by focusing on 1.5 degrees Celsius, rather than 2 degrees, as a target that the world cannot afford to miss.

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The Courageous Voters of Afghanistan

In the face of threats of violence by the Taliban, ordinary Afghans are risking life and limb to cast their votes in upcoming elections. However flawed, ineffectual, and corrupt the system may be, for most of the country’s beleaguered citizens–who have endured decades of successive warfare, strife, and theocracy–it is the least bad option available–and worth dying for. As Al Jazeera reports:

Awrang Zib Zierak, a 38-year-old labourer in Afghanistan‘s capital city of Kabul, has decided to vote despite concerns about transparency and security.

For Zierak, an election with risks of fraud and security threats is better than no election at all. He believes voting is his right.

“Because of the lack of resources, constant threats from the Taliban and insincerity of our politicians, a fair chance is never given to a sincere person who wants to do some good for the country.

“But we must change the situation ourselves. If we don’t go out and express what we want, we will always be under a forced regime or a foreign invasion,” he told Al Jazeera.

Since campaigning kicked off on September 28, hundreds of banners and posters featuring the candidates have been hanging across the capital and surrounding cities, highlighting their mottos and slogans.

The parliamentary polls were originally set to be held in early 2015 following presidential elections but were delayed to July 7, 2018 and were then pushed to October 20 due to security fears and reforms in voter registration.

Despite his understandable cynicism towards Afghan politics, and the very real and horrific existential threat that hangs over anyone who dares vote, Zierak likely spoke for many fellow citizens when he told Al Jazeera why he was willing to go to the polls: “I want to make sure I have played a role in any kind of development in this country.”

 

America’s Most Enduring Foreign Relationship

America’s longest unbroken foreign relationship is with Morocco, which was technically the first country to recognize the U.S. as an independent nation.

Sultan Muhammad III—who had just consolidated his reign after years of instability and turmoil—wanted to establish fruitful trade relations; so, in 1777, just as the American Revolution was heating up, he declared Morocco’s ports open to American ships, promising them safe passage into the Mediterranean and protection from pirates—even from fellow Muslim nations. (Even France, which would become our biggest ally and the first country to sign a treaty with us, had not openly declared support at this stage.)

In 1786, the two countries signed the Moroccan–American Treaty of Friendship (Treaty of Marrakesh), which has lasted over 230 years–longer than any other treaty.

The provisions of the treaty are incredibly progressive and amicable, relative to our perception of Christian-Muslim relations at the time (let alone today). In addition to reaffirming protection of one another’s commercial vessels, it obligates the two nations to never to assist the other’s enemies, to allow safe travels to each other’s citizens within their territory, and even provides a procedure in the event their nationals dies in the other’s lands without a will.

France Calls for More Global Unity

Following what turned out to be a literally laughable speech from Trump at the U.N.–which had the usual anti-globalist rhetoric, albeit with soft praise for the U.N. overall–France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, followed right after with an indirect but clear rebuke of nationalism and insularity.

“What will bring a real solution to the situation in Iran and what has already stabilised it? The law of the strongest? Pressure from only one side? No!” exhorted Macron. “We know that Iran was on a nuclear military path but what stopped it? The 2015 Vienna accord,” he said.

[…]

While Macron did not name his US counterpart during his address, the focus of his speech – including highlighting the dangers of unilateralism that helped lead to the birth of the UN – centred on international dialogue and cooperation.

Noting that “nationalism always leads to defeat”, Macron urged his fellow world leaders not to “accept our history unraveling”, adding: “Our children are watching.”

It may seem idealistic, but the threats of climate change, nuclear war, and technological disruption–to name but three big examples–can’t be tackled without international cooperation. It is no coincidence that the creation of the U.N.–and the subsequent development of international legal and diplomatic norms–has coincided with an historically significant decline in war.

The Cities and Countries with the Most Super Rich

According to a report from Bloomberg, Hong Kong surpassed New York City with the highest population of people worth at least $30 million:

The former British colony saw its number of ultra-wealthy increase 31 percent last year, to about 10,000, research firm Wealth-X found, higher than the nearly 9,000-strong population of the U.S.’s largest city. Tokyo came third, while Paris beat out London to take the European crown as Brexit weighed down the U.K. capital.

The number of ultra-rich worldwide rose 13 percent last year, according to Wealth-X, totaling about 256,000 people with combined assets of $31.5 trillion. Asia saw the fastest growth, driven by mainland China and Hong Kong, the study’s authors wrote. Reflecting the region’s rise, its share of the global population of people with at least $30 million rose to just over one-fourth, up from around 18 percent a decade ago.

[…]

Women accounted for about 35,000 of the ultra-rich last year, a record-high share of nearly 14 percent, the study found.

While Hong Kong topped the city rankings, nowhere in mainland China made the top 10, despite the country being third in the list of nations. That’s because China’s wealthy are widely dispersed, illustrated by the fact it was home to 26 of the 30 fastest-growing cities for the ultra-rich.

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Although the world’s wealthiest tend to concentrate in major cities — since they are centers of global trade, politics, and commerce, as well as leisure and recreation — they are dispersed enough to change the results when one looks at a national level: for example, countries like Canada and Germany are home to some of the world’s largest communities of millionaires, even though none of their cities are in the top ten:

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Similarly, no city in mainland China made the top ten, despite the country being third in the list of nations. That is because China’s wealthy are widely dispersed throughout the numerous economic and metropolitan hubs across the country — in fact, all but four of the 30 fastest-growing cities for the ultra-rich are Chinese.

Moreover, Bloomberg notes that the sheer scale of wealth is being pushed ever upward: though billionaires are of course still rare, they are less so than they used to be; the same goes for millionaires of all levels.

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One should ask how it is that the global economy can produce such unfathomable concentrations of wealth into a sliver of individuals and communities, when literally half the world remains mired in poverty (and most of the remaining half teetering). Around the same time that Hong Kong climbed to the top spot as home to the ultra-wealthy denizens, its poverty rate has increased to one out of five residents.

How Al Qaeda Reinvented Modern Terrorism

It’s easy to forget that until 1993, until the World Trade Center was a target [by Ramzi Yousef, terrorism and assassination and guerrilla warfare stood in direct antithesis to slaughter on an industrial scale. The specificity of the target had been at the heart of political murder for nearly a millennium. The original assassins were Ismaili Muslims, who killed rulers rather than armies. The capitalists and fascists and imperialists led subservient masses into meaningless death; the terrorists knew whom they killed. The essential nature of the propaganda of the deed was that it waged war against those responsible for the system rather than those who suffered under it. Russian anarchists believed that insurrectionary acts against the ruling classes would bring about revolution, but their targets were, as a rule, individuals. (There were exceptions, such as the bombing of the Liceu Theater in Barcelona in 1893, but they were rare.) Carlos the Jackal targeted OPEC leaders and the people who ran Zionist organizations. The forces of guerrilla warfare attached a strategic as well as a symbolic value to individual life. Their smaller numbers meant they could not waste themselves except at a high price.

Yousef saw that the World Trade Center’s brute scale, its sheer bulk, expressed better than any other building the banal dominance of modernity. His letter to the New York Times after the 1993 bombing explicitly described it as an attack from “the fifth battalion in the Liberation Army,” and the political movement to which he was an inheritor belonged to the Russian anarchists, Lawrence of Arabia, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, the June 2 movement in Germany, and Carlos the Jackal. It is essential to understand the necessary framework for guerrilla informational war: To wage diathetics, you have to belong to the culture you hope to distort, and you have to hate that culture at the same time. Diathetics can only be waged both inside and outside a culture; to know what effects a spectacle will have, you have to comprehend the context into which it will be received. Lawrence was a prime example of an inside-outside man and so was Yousef. Yousef was not a good Muslim: He drank, womanized, never prayed, and never fasted. Almost everyone involved in the 9/11 conspiracy was stuck between the West and Islam. On Sept. 10, 2001, Mohammad Atta checked out of his hotel in Boston, rented a car, and drove with one of his co-conspirators, Abdul Aziz al-Omari, to Portland, Maine, where they shopped at Walmart and ate at Pizza Hut. No one knows why. Like salesmen in town on business, the Saudis left in Boston tried to call for prostitutes but didn’t end up hiring any because the prices were too high. Al Qaeda’s ideology was Islamist, but its techniques and ideas were Western.

After the 1993 attack, the symbolism of the World Trade Center took on a significance far beyond itself. Various dreams of its explosion scattered like a billion dark seeds over the global soil. “Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade,” Biggie Smalls rapped. Because it had survived, the center became a point of pride for U.S. counterterrorism officials. After his capture, when Yousef was transferred on an FBI helicopter to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan for trial, the SWAT team took off his blindfold as they were flying down the Hudson River. “You see, it’s still standing,” one SWAT member said, indicating the World Trade Center.

“It wouldn’t be if we had had more money,” Yousef answered, shrugging.

— Stephen Marche, Al Qaeda Won, Foreign Policy Magazine