A Nation of Careless Millionaires

The average American family is worth well over a million dollars. But they don’t know it. So they live in unnecessary poverty.

What asset do they possess that gives them this tremendous unrealized wealth? Their vote.

America is a nation of 200 million voters. Together, they hold absolute power over everything within its borders, just as shareholders of a corporation have absolute power over the disposition of that company’s assets.

When you buy a share of a stock, what you’re buying is the right to one vote of that company. A democratic vote. If you control more than 50 percent of those shares you can do whatever you want. You have absolute power. You can fire the CEO, issue bonds, sell all the assets, paint everything pink — whatever you want.

Most shareholders don’t think like that, of course. Most are careless with their power. They just buy their shares and go along with the program. Most of them don’t know what that program is. They figure that if they’re buying shares in a widget company, that company will keep paying its employees to make widgets and sell them to its customers. They don’t see that they have any particular power beyond just the ability to be part of that arrangement.

Savvy players know their power. They know that if they can control enough shares, they can do whatever they want to that corporation and pocket the proceeds. They can turn the company on its head, strip the assets, raid the pension funds, fire all the employees, and leave the whole thing on the scrap heap, and head off to their penthouses with pockets full of cash. Hedge funds and private equity investors do this all the time.

That’s why stocks have value. Because those who have them have a vote in the disposition of a valuable asset. Roughly speaking, the value of a share of stock is equal to the value of the company divided by the number of shares outstanding. General Motors, for instance, has issued 1.4 billion shares, which are worth $43 dollars each, so the whole enterprise is worth $60 billion.

Not every American has the right to vote as a company stockholder, because not every American owns stocks. But every American over the age of 18 has the right to vote as a citizen. And gives them the same total control over the country and everything in it as a corporate shareholder has over the company. Absolute power.

(Ah, but what about the Constitution, you say? Easy: The people have the power to change the Constitution using their votes. There is no functional restriction on the power of voters in a democracy.)

Economists tell us that the total financial value of the United States, public and private, is on the order of $123 trillion. This wealth falls under the absolute power of those 200 million voters. This means that voters command, collectively, $615,000 per person. For the average American household with two voters, that’s $1,230,000.

Most Americans see no benefit from this. Like careless shareholders, most American voters are blind to the power they command. They don’t know they have it, and if they realized it, they would be horrified at the notion of using it.

This is not their fault. The entire American political system has long been geared around making sure that people don’t realize that they have this wealth and power, and making extra sure that they don’t use it. Americans are trained from birth that property rights are sacred, and that when the government gives money to people this is socialism, which is another name for communism, which is another name for Satan worship.

But just as there are savvy shareholders, there are savvy citizens, too. They understand their power, and they use it to maximum advantage. It’s simply a matter of changing the law so that more of the collective value of the economy flows into their pockets. This can take the form of cutting taxes, or making it easier to exploit people, or just simply writing checks. Done properly, this means that all of the nation’s wealth will wind up in the hands of the savvy citizens. No wonder that during the pandemic, while most Americans teetered on the brink of catastrophe, the country’s 614 billionaires saw their wealth increase in value by $931 billion.

The great feat of American politics has been the savvy fraction’s success in convincing careless voters that it is wrong and bad for them to benefit personally from the country’s wealth, while they themselves nakedly behave to the contrary.

What would happen if America’s careless citizens were somehow to become savvy? It’s not too hard to imagine, because America used to be a country like this, and many developed nations are today. Healthcare would be universal and free. Education would be universal and free right up through college and beyond. Families would be protected and provided with the means they need to raise their children. People wouldn’t spend their lives burdened with debt and fearful that their a serious illness away from losing everything. Workers would have a say in how they were treated and how the profits from their labor was distributed.

Perhaps most importantly, politics and the media wouldn’t be totally under the control of the savvy citizens who know that, if the careless voters realize how much power they had, there would be less for themselves to hoard.

In America millionaires line up for food pantry handouts. (photo by RomanK Photography creative commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

Jeff is science journalist who lives north of New York City. He is the author of “The Taking of MH370” and "Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger."

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