The Rise and Role of Concentrated Wealth – Tom-Atlee’s posterous

Most people — at least in the US — think of wealth as a source of happiness. Rich people can, seemingly, get what they want, secure themselves from suffering, and improve the lives of others through their philanthropy. While this story true in many ways, it is also very incomplete. The lives of many rich people can be as filled with suffering, stress, alienation, and constrained humanity as the lives of poorer people. But beyond these individual considerations, I want to highlight the historic role for concentrated wealth, a role often overlooked in popular imagination. Concentrated wealth has power, and that power inevitably shifts things in the way societies work, for better and/or for worse.

History demonstrates that concentrated wealth plays a significant role in the evolution of societies by being a source of (a) social injustice, (b) distortions of democratic process and/or (c) positive social transformation. All too often, this evolutionary impact is accompanied by — or even invoked by — tremendous suffering and destruction. If we want societies to evolve more consciously — that is, with more awareness, compassion, intelligence, wisdom, and collective choice — we might work to minimize the injustice and erosion of democracy (a and b) and maximize positive social transformation (c).


The concentrated energy contained in concentrated wealth is like the concentrated energy contained in fossil fuels. Coal, oil, and natural gas contain the solar energy of ancient sunlight stored for millions of years and then tapped to fuel the industrial and technological revolutions and the globalization of economy, culture and destiny that have totally transformed our world. Concentrated wealth contains the energy of billions of laborers, thinkers, creators, and players of economic games. It was born from and feeds the industrial, technological and global revolutions. It is almost as if the concentrated energy of fossil fuels has been transferred into concentrated wealth to induce further transformation of society.

This immensely powerful energy has the potential to release the forces of conscious evolution at the whole-society level. As we know, it also has the potential to accelerate the degradation of our earthly home along with the human communities and cultures that live here. And, of course, it has the potential to become historically irrelevant, to dissipate itself in the pursuit of trivial material pleasures and possessions or in charities that serve only ego, the status quo, or current generations at the expense of future ones.


The articles below explore different dimensions of the newly rising concentration of wealth.

1. The Rise of the New Global Elite –

While long, this article from the Atlantic is an extremely readable, revealing, and riveting glimpse into the world of “the new global elite”. Along with its extensive chronicle of this elite’s isolation from “regular folks” and the rise of middle classes in some developing countries as America’s middle class collapses, it points out that old inherited wealth is rapidly being replaced by young entrepreneurial wealth. Increasingly, the new hyper-wealthy are not so much basking in pleasures while protecting their investments, as they are ambitiously working to create impacts, often motivated by social vision. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the article, to me, was the author’s suggesting that what excites and motivates these folks is the challenge of finding “‘the new new thing’ — the insight or algorithm or technology with the potential to change the world, however briefly.” Heaven knows, there are some truly remarkable innovations emerging for social evolution that could give such people legacies that would be remembered for centuries.

2. Twenty-two Statistics That Prove The Middle Class Is Being Systematically Wiped Out Of Existence In America –

This short piece is a litany of statistics demonstrating the now obvious erosion of the US middle class and consequent increase in both wealth and poverty. For me, the three most thought-provoking numbers were
* The bottom 80 percent of American households hold about 7% of the liquid financial assets and
* The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth, while
* 83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.

What is the significance of this dramatic economic disparity for the majoritarian dynamics of a democratic republic? It naturally raises issues of economic justice and social power. But it also shifts attention from government as the primary source of resources for the “general welfare”. Given how much of the nation’s wealth is controlled by the top 1-20% of the population, how they use their concentrated wealth becomes a legitimate concern of the bottom 80-99%. And it is obviously a source of immense potential energy for catalyzing a more just, sustainable, and consciously evolving civilization — one way or another.

Both of these first two articles, taken together, raise provocative questions — questions that should be engaged urgently and very thoughtfully by Americans, among others — about the most useful and realistic role the U.S. might play in the world, given the current seismic shift away from its former dominant roles. With conscious attention to this, the U.S. could become a source — or, perhaps better yet, a clearinghouse or catalyst — for inspiration and innovation in new realms. Without such conscious attention, it seems clear the U.S. will swirl down into an increasing mess largely of its own making, generating more pain for the world as it goes, especially if it attempts to maintain its exceptionalism and bloated military in the process.

3. A Modest Proposal to Transition to a “Cater to the Rich” Economy –

This one is satire that rides uncomfortably close to reality. Acknowledging the realities described in the first two articles, it explores the emergence of a “cater to the rich” economy. In each of the last several years there have been between five and ten million households in the U.S. with assets exceeding one million dollars. That’s a sizable group of consumers! How might each of us non-wealthy people survive better by developing or working in niche markets for these extremely wealthy people? Furthermore, the author of this odd article asks how the government might help develop programs that allow the super-rich to hire poor workers for life, with all the security and discipline that would entail. With tongue firmly implanted in his cheek, the author dances on the edge of one of the oldest traditions in human societies — slavery — and manages to make it seem not only reasonable but attractive. It is a spooky sign of how far we have come…

4. The Surprising History of Federal Taxes on Wealthy Americans –

Unbeknownst to most Americans, today’s tax rates on the wealthiest Americans — $30-40% — are LOWER than they’ve been in almost 80 years. They are the lowest since the “roaring ’20’s” that led to the Great Depression, when the top rate was 25%. And I am fascinated by this mind-boggling data-point: FOR ALMOST TWO DECADES — from 1945-1963 — the richest people — those in the highest tax bracket, making over $200,000 — paid 91-94% of their income in taxes! Only in 1987 — after 50 years — did the top tax rate drop below 50%. No wonder the days of major infrastructure development and ambitious national projects like the moon landing are fading into history.

I offer these four articles and my commentary above as one more tree trunk swirling in the flood of events — hoping that, if it catches on something else in the flow, it just might help shift some of that flow into new directions that truly serve the Seventh Generation after us.

Blessings on the Journey…