Friday, March 9, 2007

On Being a Bastard at Steve's Forbes' Party

I first heard the results of the latest Forbes "billionaire club" survey last night on the BBC. Since then I have been struck by how much media attention it has been receiving. For example, on the basis of my own informal sampling of RSS feeds, it seems to be taking priority over this morning's Washington Post story of the latest abusive practices of the FBI in the alleged "interests of national security." Some of this probably has to do with both the statistical implications of the Forbes report and some of the specific instances behind the statistics. The basic statistical result was the lead paragraph on the BBC NEWS Web site:

A record 946 billionaires - worth a total of $3.5 trillion (£1.82 trillion) - now exist, up from 793 last year.

This was followed by a broad-brush attempt at analysis giving voice to editor-in-chief Steve Forbes:

Forbes put the increase in wealth down to surging commodity prices, real estate and strong equity markets.

"In the last five years... despite all the turmoil in the world, all the conflict in the world, the global economy in real terms expanded over 25%," said Steve Forbes, the magazine's editor-in-chief.

"Never in history has there been such an advance."

Another interesting statistic, reported on the broadcast but not on the Web page, is that the average age of these billionaire is decreasing: billionaires are getting younger. They are also cropping up in unexpected places:

Forbes Billionaire list now features 53 nations, including its first billionaires from Serbia and Romania.

Once again, the BBC turned to Steve Forbes for comment:

"This growth in the billionaires list is a mere reflection of a dynamic global economy. More people are better off on this Earth than ever before," Mr Forbes said.

"This boom goes beyond commodities. One of the things that has facilitated this global boom, bringing hundreds of millions of people into the global economy is of course technology," he added.

"This is the richest year in human history."

It has been a while since I actually picked up a physical copy of Forbes; and they are not my Web site of choice for financial reporting. So all this prompts me to reflect on the past (back when Malcolm was in charge) and ask if Forbes still promotes itself as a "capitalist tool." As I tried to argue in my post about the currency situation in Somalia, assertions about wealth or, for that matter, being "better off," rarely rest on anything more solid than the stories that are told by way of support. It is axiomatic that a magazine that calls itself a "capitalist tool" is going to tell different stories than, for example, one that runs an analysis under the title "Does Communism Work After All?" Since I continue to believe that the only way to undermine a narrative is with a better narrative, this kind of "dueling storytellers" is inevitable where highly subjective and culture-dependent concepts of wealth are concerned.

Where I live it is not hard to find counternarratives. I suppose most real estate agents would use the adjective "luxury" in listing my condominium; and, as far as I am concerned, there are enough amenities (which I shall not enumerate) to justify that use. However, living within sight of the San Francisco City Hall dome (and directly across the street from a state government building) means that a short walk to the east takes you right into the heart of the Tenderloin; so, if I say that I live on the boundary between wealth and poverty, I am being more literal than metaphorical. When I take such a walk, I have a hard time swallowing phrases like "the richest year in human history" or Christian platitudes about the poor always being with us.

Instead, I continue to reflect on Baudrillard, who followed up on his trenchant observations about objects by then turning to our obsessions with simulacra (which, in turn, led to the harsh language of America, based on analyses of Las Vegas and Disneyland as purveyors of simulacra). From this point of view, "asset portfolios," whether they involve bank account, equity shares, or what-have-you, are the ultimate collections that Baudrillard is attacking in Le Système des Objets; and, in light of his later thinking, they are collections of simulacra, more virtual than those salt shakers I discussed in yesterday's post. In that respect I would argue that everyone on the Forbes list is, drawing upon the language of my interpreted of Baudrillard, "obsessed" with an "asset portfolio collection." Whether or not I then follow Baudrillard's analysis to the conclusion that such people are "impoverished and inhuman," I still reserve the right to question whether or not they are really making this "the richest year in human history." Instead, I think of Cle Sloan's assertion in Bastards of the Party that we now use prisons as a place to store people who cannot contribute to the economy. I worry that those who hold the most wealth are also the ones who determine what it means to "contribute to the economy;" and I believe that such thinking can only widen that gulf between wealth and poverty that is already far wider than it ought to be.

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