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​Of elephants and men

Gadfly | February 11th, 2016

What makes billionaires think they know what’s best for society? Could it be lots of money?

When 2,500 billionaires and global leaders met in Davos, Switzerland, in January of 2016 to discuss who was going to get the largest slices of the economic pies baking in the ovens of capitalism, the dominant topic in both daily discussion panels and nightly bar rooms was TRANSITION, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The founder of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, described it as “the fusion of technologies across the physical, digital and biological worlds which is creating entirely new capabilities and dramatic impacts on political, social and economic systems.”

You betcha! I bet the word “economic” raised the blood pressures of the billionaires. I wonder if any of them thought of the 5,500 logging elephants in Myanmar and their owners who have been put out of a job because the government has determined it can no longer decimate Myanmar forests. The former Burma had been the world’s leader in the export of teak and other precious hardwoods for hundreds of years because elephants helped extract huge logs from almost impenetrable jungles that modern logging machinery could not even penetrate. Now the world’s largest captive elephant population and their “owners” or “handlers” have been in the unemployment lines because three years ago all export of raw timber was banned. Now elephants and men work only a few days a month, if at all. I imagine someone in government must have asked the question: “What do we do with 5,500 unemployed elephants?”

With most decisions come unintended consequences. Logging elephants always seemed to like the hard and heavy work. Some have become involved in other work, but 2,500 are presently jobless. Weighing about 10,000 pounds, they need 400 pounds of food a day to maintain strength. A 2008 study proved that logging elephants were healthy elephants because they had a rather strict regimen of work and play. Myanmar elephants live twice as long (median 42 years) as elephants in zoos (median 19 years). Some logging elephants have lived into their 60’s.

Elephant behavior specialists say: “It all comes down to nutrition and care. Elephants often display a sense of purpose in logging work, and act demoralized if they lose their jobs.” One owner said elephants have great difficulty handling unemployment. Another owner who owns eight unemployed logging elephants added: “They become angry a lot more easily. There is no work, so they are getting fat. And all the males want to do is have sex all the time.” Reminds me of another species……

The British labor code on elephants drawn up in colonial times in Asia

Myanmar has been governed by a brutal and ruthless military dictatorship for many years. It has been only in the last couple of years that pre-dawn democratic thoughts infringed upon the rights of the military. Myanmar currently has the first democratically elected government in 50 years. We all have heard of maltreated elephants going rogue and bonkers, killing owners and handlers, or conducting raids on farms and towns looking for food. (There are still 3,000 wild elephants loose in Myanmar.) For centuries men have known that unemployed, mistreated, or overworked elephants are very dangerous.

The Brits, ruling Burma since 1824, drew up a strict labor code for elephants with the help of native experts that has been strictly observed for 150 years. It’s an amazing document covering elephant labor: (1) eight-hour work days and five-day weeks, (2) retirement at 55, (3) mandatory maternity leave (gestation period is 22 months), and (4) retirement communities run by government.

This code, of course, does not apply to humans. To avoid dangerous humans, it might be wise for global economic leaders and the One Percent to adopt the same rules for all employees in the world—before they become really dangerous—and bonkers.

Some bankrupt elephant owners have sold their workers to Asian businesses, elephant shows around the world, and resorts touting elephant rides and “treks.” Many of the new owners do not have the experience or training to handle elephants.

On February 2, a 13-year-old male elephant called Rambo stomped, gored, and killed a Scottish tourist in Bangkok, Thailand, and severely wounded his 16-year-old daughter and the “mahout,” the driver. The mahout had dismounted to take a picture of the two on top of the elephant. The two injured are still hospitalized. I thought the Rambo’s punishment for his killing rage was a bit unusual. He was given 15 days off and then will be moved to another “trekking” company in Thailand. Elephants are still valuable as tourist attractions. However, “trekking” elephants have killed six tourists in the last six months in Thailand alone.

U.S. billionaire hedge fund manager at Davos: “The U.S. is in some kind of protest moment!”

Stephen Schwarzman, chairman of the financial firm the Blackstone Group, is worth about $12 billion today, and has been in the financial news since he famously said in 2007 when he was worth only $7 billion: “I don’t feel like a wealthy person.”

He said this after spending $5 million on his own 60th birthday party at the New York Armory on Fifth Avenue, featuring singer Rod Stewart and hundreds of Wall Street guests. Stewart got a cool $1 million for performing “Happy Birthday!”

At the annual meeting of the World Economic Union at Davos, Schwarzman gave a speech where he asked why the (little!) people were so upset. He’s a lifelong Republican, went to Yale with George W. Bush and then to Harvard and an MBA—just like W.

In 2014 Blackstone finally paid a fine of $39 million because the Securities and Exchange Commission caught it lying and bilking customers during the recession. Blackstone admitted no guilt, of course, and no executives went to jail for those offenses. And he wonders why millions of people resent what Wall Street has done to them while he chalks up billions in profits? And pays federal income taxes as if he makes less than $38,000? He doesn’t understand why the 99 Percent is pissed because five million homes were lost and untold millions of workers lost all of their retirement funds? “Come in! Come In! Planet Earth?”

Hooray! The Koch brothers are going to revitalize society by having Us all “stand together.”

Why do billionaires think they can cure the world’s problems, such as malaria, education, religious and civil wars, climate change, environmental degradation, economic inequality, and the destruction of the middle-class? Is it because making lots of money equals making lots of sound decisions about problem-solving and the improvement of societies?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously revealed an “open” letter he wrote to his infant daughter announcing he will donate 99% of his family’s Facebook shares worth about $45 billion to “philanthropic purposes” over the span of their lives. He says he’s doing it because “We want you to grow up in a world better than ours today.” Of course, that leaves them only $450 million to live on—but I suppose it can be done.

Then I think of the hundreds of New York billionaires who fly over New York public schools in their commuting helicopters daily, that have roofs that leak only when it rains or snows, and shelter 40 coat-wearing students in first grade classrooms. These billionaires put billions into foundations sheltered by The Best Congress Money Can Buy to save taxes and spend a measly 5% on “good” programs such as art museums, operas, music halls, symphony orchestras, theaters, and Rockefeller Center, Kennedy Center, and other temples to wealthy families.

The famous Koch brothers Charles and David (each worth about $45 billion) will spend as much on the 2016 elections as both the Democratic and Republican national committees. In other words, as long as money equals speech, these two actually run the most powerful political “party” in the U.S.

Besides funding many groups that support libertarian, conservative, and far-right-wing causes, the Koch brothers are now focusing on a new organization they call Stand Together which will focus on “strengthening the fabric of American society.” Executive Director Evan Feinberg says “the sole purpose of Stand Together is to make a real difference in real people’s lives by actually solving the problems they have.”

Charles, the CEO of Koch Industries, the largest privately held company in the U.S, says this organization “will work to address deep-seated social ills such as poverty and poor educational quality, and concentrate on revitalizing civil society.”

Do we really want the Kochs to rule us? Koch Industries is one of the leading polluters in the U.S. The Kochs oppose unions, environmental regulations, Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, renewable energy represented by solar and wind, universal health care, and almost any program associated with a safety net for the poor and the unemployed, such as food stamps and unemployment insurance. Sure sounds like a group that will “vitalize society!”

Are all these foundations started by billionaires always a force for good?

Many foundations around the world came into being because the founders approved murder and mayhem against workers in order to get rich and save taxes. Both Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, as examples, fought unions to the death of workers and hired guns on the picket lines to pump more oil, mine more iron, and forge more steel. Both paid billions to remove the soot, blood, and terrible reputation from their names by establishing colleges and universities and thousands of public libraries across the United States. Can foundations be a force for good? Sure—if controlled and restricted in size and wealth.

The Great Britain research group Global Justice Now has just reported that “enormous wealth and influence wielded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is distorting the direction of international development in a global vacuum of accountability.” The group calls the Gates foundation an “experiment in philanthrocapitalism” because with $43.5 billion in assets it is the most powerful actor on issues of international health (malaria), environment and agriculture, sanitation (development of compost toilets), and acts in an undemocratic and unaccountable fashion that supports corporate power and global inequality in Africa and Asia. The Gates foundation distributes more aid for global health than any democratically-elected government in Africa or Asia.

According to the report there is a direct relationship between the tax-dodging practices of Microsoft and the granting of money by the Gates foundation. In 2012 Microsoft used several offshore subsidiaries to avoid $4.5 billion in taxes, but paid out only $3.6 billion in grants the next year.

According to economists, the relationships among corporations, billionaires, offshore tax havens, foundations, and other taxes are deep and very cloudy. The report also emphasizes that “the philanthropic vision of the Gates Foundation seems to be largely based on the values of corporate America and it relentlessly promotes big-business based initiatives such as industrial agriculture that uses genetically modified seed systems.”

What about the richest family in the world at a $160 billion, the Waltons of Walmart? They are rich because the taxpayers subsidize the lousy pay of Walmart employees with food stamps, health care, and housing to the tune of about $1 million a year per store. This only emphasizes the fact that the U.S. has become an oligarchy—a country run at the expense of its citizenry by and for the super-rich.

Year after year the UN report on international wellbeing places the U.S. way behind the Nordic countries on matters such as democracy, civil and political rights, and freedom of expression and the press. We rank at the bottom of the top dozen countries in affordable housing, education, health, life expectancy, voter participation, employment, and quality of life. We are the most unequal of all developed countries.

The Nordic Model concentrates on a deep commitment to equality and democracy. Not a single American foundation is working on those two qualities.

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