Thursday, March 06, 2008

A grand don't come for free.

Consider: "There were 469 US billionaires, worth a combined $1.6 trillion, while the 656 billionaires who live outside the United States are worth $2.8 trillion." That is the upshot of the latest Forbes billionaire list. Leave aside the thought that US troops probably kill more Iraqis every week than are on that list. I just wondered if it was possible to calculate how many man hours of labour produced the $4.4 trillion of wealth that is enjoyed by this very small number of individuals. Obviously, we could pretend that the canniness of these investors was itself the key magical ingredient that produced all this wealth, and then the problem would no longer exist. That claim has the grave disadvantage of being insusceptible to proof or disproof, of course, like most forms of magical thinking. On the other hand, if the value embodied in that wealth was principally produced by labour, then surely it would be possible to produce aggregate figures for all the man hours of labour that went into producing it.

Let's say, hypothetically, the average value produced by a single man hour of labour across the globe was $40. That would be 11 billion man hours of labour. I have no idea what the actual figure, supposing it was obtainable, might be, but I'm just trying to get a sense of scale here. For this 1,125 people to live in the manner to which they are accustomed, it really must take billions of man hours. Well, obviously they didn't do all that work between themselves. Let's put it another way. Warren Buffet increased his wealth by $10bn last year. That would be 250 million man hours right there. And say the average worker does 2,500 hours of work a year (that would be a 48 hour week every week), this would mean that Buffet's increase in income over twelve months was supplied by 100,000 people all working long hours without holidays - workers in Fruit of the Loom, Dairy Queen, Ginsu and other firms owned or co-owned by Buffet. Bill Gates got a $2bn increase over last year. At fifty million man hours of labour, that would be 20,000 workers going flat out to produce just his 2007 bonus. Again, these figures are entirely speculative, for the purposes of constructing some scalar conception of this wealth in relation to the work that made it. A grand don't come for free. $4.4 trillion took a mammoth exertion across many sectors of the international labour force to produce. In practically every newspaper and television report, the tone of the response to this annual Oscars ceremony for the uber-rich is laudatory, of course, and viewers are encouraged to admire the go-getters and dynamic wealth-creators who have locked up so much of the booty. Where, the commentariat gushes, did all this wealth come from? It's amazing. It's the touch of Midas. It's the Sage of Omaha. It must be magic. These men rule because of their godly prowess among mortals. It is the only explanation. All hail.