Thursday, November 10, 2011

Money Laundering

World's First Billion Dollar Home

Money is laundering. When the cost of something is discussed only in units of impersonal currency, said discussion is divorced of context, and left largely meaningless.

For example, consider the "home" in the link referenced in this post, the actual cost of which approaches $2 billion. Imagine a mere $100 million invested in a fund for, say, the children in Africa. Imagine that this fund, after deducting administration expenses (and reinvestment to keep up with inflation), had a very conservative income of only $5 million a year. Call it the African Children's Fund. This $5 million comes in every year, year after year, for as long as our market system lasts.

Now, imagine that this fund spent this conservative $5 million a year on $500 a year/job training, $1K a year/child rice, $1K a year/child medical care. That's $2.5K per year, which may be a gross overestimate in price given the continent, but let's go with it anyway.

Simple math, here: $5 million/year income and $2.5K a child means that 2,000 children in Africa could eat, receive medical care, and receive job training. Every year. Forever.

The numbers would be a lot bigger if that $100 million went to them right away, but through investment, the gift could keep on giving. Every year, another 2,000 people would have job training; would be healthy; would have plenty to eat. And this would come at no additional cost after that first gift. These would be children who would starve to death; who would join militias in search of food; who would die of tuberculosis for want of a 50 cent vaccine. And that could all be stopped forever for a mere $100 million, with the gift that keeps on giving.

Of course, this example could seem more powerful than rescuing a mere 2,000 African children if all the money were spent up front. But we're going for sustainability, here.

So, if the Ambani family could settle for a mere $1.9 billion home, they could accomplish great things for those 2,000 people a year in Africa.

Let's not stop at Africa, though. Let's say that, being Indians, the Ambani family decided to create such a fund in India for $200 million--twice the amount they invested in Africa. 4,000 Indian children could eat, see doctors and have productive jobs, instead of starving. Add that to the 2,000 African kids, and you have 6,000. And remember: this lasts forever, as the trust fund keeps kicking out income.

Meanwhile, those people are paying taxes, becoming stable members of their communities, etc.

If the Ambani family could settle for a mere $1.7 billion home, they could accomplish great things for those 6,000 people. Every year. Forever.

Maybe they're feeling extra generous. They decide to fund perpetual hope for another 4,000 kids in China. How about another 2,000 in South America? They're at $1.4 billion on their house. Maybe they'd decide to invest $100 million in renewable energy. Maybe another $100 million to give huge raises, in perpetuity via trust fund, to all of their impoverished employees. $1.1 billion. Maybe they build an extravagant, world-class, tourist-drawing art and architecture museum open to all Indian citizens. Provide free beer and peanuts at all movies shown in Dehli--forever. Build an entire network of modern schools and medical stations across their entire country. Down to $1 billion flat.

If they could settle for just $1 billion for their house, they could do all of the above.

So, here's a better article: Ambani Family Runs Rampant: starves 12,000 children and their heirs; ravages solar plant; scraps museum plans; closes down national museum; reduces employee benefits substantially; cancels popular "free beer at bollywood" program; levels India's schools and hospitals.

All of these things are true, because by taking $2 billion and spending it in a certain way, all its other possibilities are removed. It is within the power of the Ambani family to settle for a mere $1 billion home, or even--gasp--one that costs only $100 million, or $50 million, or--I'm about to choke, but here it is--only $10 million.

That is what money is: it is opportunity; it is tallies of influence. When massed together, it has all the potential to direct people to do things like build schools and hospitals, feed children, educate and uplift, and even brew and drink beer. But when we decide that one person or one group has a disproportionate amount of money, they can scuttle all money's other possibilities in the pursuit of their own hideously avaricious ends.

Money can only do this because of its laundering effect. There is no way--no conceivable way with any technology we now have--that the Ambani family, either individually or with every one of them that ever lived, would be able to actually construct a $2 billion skyscraper. It takes the effort of many, many more people, skilled in many different things, to approach such a project. If all their efforts were added up and valued, it would be a total of creativity, labor, passion and struggle that would obviously not be attributable to the Ambani family.

Yet, while there is no realistic way the Ambani family could amass all that effort, because of the social construction of money, we allow them to direct it. Because the output of labor and creativity has become faceless paper, such horrendous, deadly mismanagement of our species' resources is glorified and celebrated.

Yes, yes, division of labor enhances what we can all accomplish together (and thoughts on how that justifies the disproportionate rewards of those who benefit most from the system shall be postponed). But even considering for division of labor, there is still no way. This is far too extravagant for even a stretched rationality to justify.

Just like the net worth of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet: even allowing that they are a great deal "better" than people with less money, and therefore deserve much more in the way of resources, there is no way to straight-face justify the amount of money they have in relation to your average joe. Their skill at gambling, be it with the odds of a company's success or the odds of someone else's product's success, is not so prodigiously more worthwhile to the rest of us, or the planet, to justify them having, say, 10,000,000,000.00 times more value than said average joe.

We accept this all much easier because of the faceless character of money. By equating effort and output with money, we allow "effort" and "output" to be consolidated in unnatural ways, so that one person can eventually end up with more "output" than even a thousand people could realistically produce. One person can own more houses than they could ever live in; one person can own more food than they could ever eat.

Money is necessary for "ownership" to be sustained in modern society. Just as mobsters "launder" money to disassociate their wealth with illegal activity, large-scale owners launder effort and creativity to dissociate their wealth with the people who actually created it. And when they spend it, and talk about "dollar amounts," their atrocious lavishness is laundered a second time, as their misuse of resources becomes merely "spending money" rather than what it actually is: taking resources in extreme disproportion to the rest of humanity (/the world).

The total dollar amount wasted is only illustrative; it does not matter in substance. A king of old Egypt might have spent 90% of his population's effort on building himself a massive palace or tomb, while his people starved or languished in slavery, filth and need. That is now common practice, except that instead of viewing it as slavery, which we now view as wrong, we view it as the "decision to spend money in a certain way" (if we even bother viewing it or contextualizing it at all).

When one person builds a third palace and another starves, we may subconsciously rationalize the difference as one of the "worth" of the person, but most no longer challenge the assumption that such behavior is right. It is "right," to most, simply because it is "freedom" of the one to spend his or her money as s/he wishes.

Because the choice is actually made at a deeper level, it is often ignored, or perceived as not about choice at all. Of course, who wouldn't build a palace if they could? Everyone likes living somewhere nicer. The choice is made at the stage of allocation of money; once we decided to allow such a system, the inevitabilities of one person "spending" on a redundant palace while thousands of children starve/languish is merely a symptom.

As in the issue of tax theft, though, because the crime has been designed by the racketeer aristocrats to be less visible, it is harder for most people to perceive that they have been had. Threaten a man and then take his money, and he will feel robbed. Institute a tax system for everyone, then give yourself an exemption, and the same man will pay his taxes and feel less robbed (even if he is still upset and complains). Whereas most people might violently resist the theft, or plot against you to stop it the next time, most people will be lulled by the tax scheme into paying up.

Similarly, call a man a slave, and tell him you own him, and order him to labor to build you palaces, and he will hate you, and may violently revolt. However, if you call him a free worker, and tell him you will pay him to build a palace, he will perform the same labor in the same conditions, and thank his lucky stars that he has a job and that he is not one of the others you did not select, who are starving.

In the meantime, the situation hasn't really changed, except that most of the aristocracy dropped their titles of nobility for those of republican governments.

Martin Luther King realized, after American blacks had won the right to sit at lunch counters, that the freedom to sit there did not matter much when you could not afford the lunch. He challenged war, and they shot him to death and then glorified him, and we may all now congratulate ourselves at the freedom to sit at as many counters as we wish, while the "money" system continues to tally up its skewed results and order output and effort in as wicked a way as it used to under its old guise.

Continued in Money Laundering, Part 2.

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