lördag, februari 27, 2010

The Billionaires and James Petras

The Billionaires and How They Made It. Meet the Global Ruling Class
By James Petras

This book is not new and it has been commented many times before.

However it's a book with a great deal of contemporaneity, seen in relation to both the so called economic crisis in the economically more developed countries, the actual crisis under which poor countries in the world suffer meaning starvation, death caused by diseases that could have been cured and death caused by unstable political circumstances.
It's also a book that deals with the economic growth in China and India and other fast growing economies in the world.
As I haven't read this book myself I rely on the different articles I've read commenting this book.

One of Petras cornerstones is that there in the world today (and 'yesterday' to some extent, depending on the historical perspective) are individuals with such great economical power, that they could - if they decided to do so - eleviate the poverty by giving away 90% of their fortunes (or more) and still live in extreme wealth for rest of their lives.
The book also deals with the question about the power these people hold just through the fact that they are rich (not a new insight).
According to Petras the number of billionaires grew from 793 in 2006 to 946 in 2007.
Today we have 2010 and I guess that the number of billionaires has increased, in spite of the 'crisis'.

India had (when this book was written in 2007) 36 billionaires and thereby being the country in Asia with the highest number of billionaires. Their total wealth amounted to $91 billion.
China had 20 billionaires with $29,4 billion.

In spite of these facts, the number of people being poor in these two countries is still very high and constitutes a major problem.
When talking about China and India, I feel that we often focus on the major cities in these countries, cities where the economical development has gone faster than on the countryside and the middle class is growing stronger and stronger.
By doing so we forget that this is the two largest countries in the world when talking about inhabitants.
This means that those living in small communities or on the countryside to a lesser extent are affected by the economical progress.

According to Petras the wealth of what he calls the "global ruling class" grew by 35% per year with its peak in 2007 (when his book was published) at $3,5 trillion!
At the same time he claims that income levels for the lower 55% of the worlds 6 billion (or 6,5) people declined or stagnated.
He rephrased it as if one hundreth millionth of the world's population owned more than over 3 billion people.

More than half of the billionaires (523) came from 3 countries: USA, Germany and Russia.
He also states that the 35 per cent increase in wealth mostly came from speculation on equity markets, real estate and commodity trading, not from technical innovations, investments in job-creating industries or socials services.

He focuses to some extent on the youngest and most fast-growing group of billionaires, namely the Russian oligarches, today in their forties, starting - many of them (67%) - their concentration of wealth in their mid to early twenties.
This was made possible during the infamous 1990's and the quasi-dictatorial rule and corrupt leadership in Russia at the time.
The whole of Russia - almost - was put up for sale and the 'political prize' - as Petras calls it - was far below its real value, 'thanks to' gangster tactics, assassinations, massive theft and seizure of state resources, stock manipulations and buyouts.
Petras means that the, then, future billionaires stripped the Russian state of over a trillion dollars worth of factories, transport, oil, gas, iron, coal and other formerly state-owned recources.
Almost all the billionaires initial sources of wealth came from other operations than such as building, innovating or developing new efficient enterprises.
It was all very closed followed by and supervised by 'free market' Western 'consultants' (Gaidar/Chubais), showing these oligarchs to come how to profit from a weak national-political system.
Mafia methods were used by university graduates who capitalized on corrupting, intimidating or assassinating senior officials in the state, among other things.

Over a hundred billion dollars a year was laundered by the mafia oligarchs in the principle banks of New York, London, Switzerland, Israel and elsewhere,­ funds which would later be recycled in the purchase of expensive real estate in the US, England, Spain, France as well as investments in British football teams, Israeli banks and joint ventures in minerals.
Petras further points out other parts of the world where the same mecanisms has been used to augment the fortune of a few.
In Latin America for example, Petras claims that Mexico and Brezil are the two countries with the greatest concentration of wealth and the rise of the Latin American billionaires.

Personally I can say that at least Mexico, from different reports and informations, seems to be one of the most corrupted states in the world.
Brezil is a c country being more respectable - at least on the surface.
These two countries has also privatized the most lucrative, efficient and largest public monopolies, according to Petras and hereby gained there wealth.
The wealth of 38 families and individuals exceeds that of 250 million Latin Americans; 0.000001 per cent of the population exceeds that of the lowest 50 per cent. In Mexico, the income of 0.000001 per cent of the population exceeds the combined income of 40 million Mexicans.

In the articles the ideas of Petras also include the fact that:
"If we add to the concentration of $157 billion in the hands of an infinitesimal fraction of the elite, the $990 billion taken out by the foreign banks in debt payments and the $1 trillion (one thousand billion) taken out by way of profits, royalties, rents and laundered money over the past decade and a half, we have an adequate framework for understanding why Latin America continues to have over two-thirds of its population with inadequate living standards and stagnant economies."

The content and aim of this book is to show that the wealth of these multi billionaires has been made possible by illegal methods, weak governments, dependance on the more wealthy nations, the latter meaning that when asking for loans the less rich governments, in all these countries, had to comply to some demands including denationalization of enterprises, selling out of industries and so on and so forth.
To this can be added other forms of external involvment in the internal affairs of these countries, not only from the powerful USA and other Western countries but also the IMF and similar organizations and institutions.

Of course Petras book is biased to some degree as he has an agenda of his own, as have we all but on a general basis I agree with him concerning the fact that poverty in the world could be solved if money was used in a more altruistically and productive way.

It's not a question wether it's possible or not to solve world poverty more a question concerning the lack of will, cowardly or corrupt politicians or rather both cowardly and corrupt politicians and a detached public, that is to say you and me.

The world is facing a lot of problems that could be solved by using the total amount of fortune in a more useful way but as the capitalist, market economy-countries to a large extent is governed by anti-intellectuals, like economists and 'professional' politicians, it's not likely that this will happen.

We have to change the structure of society, meaning that economists and other market-liberals have to be put aside when it comes to deciding how to run the economy and the states.
Today politicians in all countries listen less to philosophers, historians, sociologists and other representatives of the Humanities and this has lead and will lead to recurring problems in the world concerning economy and the distribution of wealth.

Economists and other representatives of the so called free market economy are not interested in the poor world, their only interest is to accumulate money with them who already have a surplus.

The free market economy isn't free either as we all know. It's governed by multi national corporations and companies with their enormous lobbying power, more or less dictating the political agenda.

The 'invisible hand' that was supposed to regulate the market, was a theoretical model and has never existed in the market economy of the 'real life', lived here and now.

The primary data for the essay from wich I'm extracting my information is drawn from Forbes Magazine 's "List of the World's Billionaires" published March 8, 2007.

"Behind every great fortune is a great crime." (Honoré de Balzac).

(Photo James Petras copied from: http://radiouniversidad.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/jamespetras.jpg)

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