The 0.1 Percent Solution

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The most recent issue of the New Yorker has two articles that piqued my interest. The first is the periodic financial column by James Surowiecki, titled "Soak the Very, Very Rich." The second was a longer article (subscription required) about a dealer in exotic foods located in Las Vegas. I found this second piece more about how these very, very rich folks manage to spend all their money.

Surowiecki presents some startling statistics. I knew the top of the income spectrum lived in rarified air, but I was stunned with the numbers. The top 0.1% earn as much as the rest of us put together (120,000,000). Not only has the income distribution become more unequal for the whole population, but has also for the those at the top. These very, very rich have put a big margin between the merely very rich. That's the first part of the story.

The second is replete with tales like that of a single fish garnering $5000 when served up. It was an ombrina, whatever that is. I certainly have never seen one in the restaurants I frequent. Another example is a collection of perfume vials holding balsamic vinegar from 1890, "most likely served to high rollers, after supper, on mother-of-pearl spoons." The subject of the article, Brett Ottolenghi, mainly deals in truffles, with these other exotic items thrown in. The deal making involved makes the specialty food biz in Las Vegas sound like Chicago during Prohibition.

It's nothing to have stuff airfreighted from France or gotten via a round trip van ride to the Santa Monica (CA) Farmer's Market or "flown in as often as five times a week from the Mediterranean, in coolers equipped with microchips to monitor the temperature during the voyage." Not only is this whole scene reminiscent of the obscenity of the story I posted a few days ago about Slum Tourism, it contributes to climate change far in excess of the mere transactions. I can't think of much else, except perhaps the diamond trade, where the contribution to global warming per ounce is greater. Those involved know what they are doing to the globe. The famous chef, Paul Bartoletta-the Med fish buyer-"has no patience with sustainability. He quips that "Las Vegas is a pilot project to see if man can live on the moon."

This alone would be enough to accentuate the folly of hyper consumption and vast inequality, but there is another indirect implication and possibility for sustainability. My Marlboro class has been grappling with the conflict between the need to attain a steady-state economy, which is consistent with the resources of the one planet we occupy, and the pain many would suffer in the process of getting there. Unemployment and support of retired and elderly people in general become more problematic if the economy were to stop growing. This problem is frequently cited as one reason that a steady-state economy is not realistic and so we must work harder to make this one more efficient. Wrong solution to a difficult problem.

But just imagine if instead of eating all that beluga caviar, the very, very rich would accept just being plain, old rich. I don't have the numbers to make an accurate calculation but I am guessing that there would then be enough money to offset the transient hardships of getting to a no-growth state. The development of such great disparities in income and the ability to flourish is one of the contradictions of capitalism This example turns the theory into a stark reality.