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The Super-Rich Can't Hide From the Rest of Us

02/03/2015 07:54 am ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015
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My friend Craig Zobel just premiered his new movie at the Sundance Film Festival. Z for Zachariah is based on a young adult novel from the '70s about a post-apocalyptic world and a woman who lives on a farm in a remote valley. A geographic anomaly, the valley has been isolated and protected from the nuclear radiation that devastated the rest of humanity. But then a man arrives and, a while later, another. You'll have to see it.

Craig's movie is the latest in a long line of such stories about faraway, idyllic places trying to fend off human wrongdoing -- from Aristophanes' Cloud Cuckoo Land and the pre-serpent-and-apple Garden of Eden to the Shangri-La of James Hilton's novel, Lost Horizon. In the classic, 1937 movie version, Shangri-La's High Lama says to the hero, a British diplomat, "Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is! What blindness! What unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity, crashing headlong against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality." Sounds like a typical night at Fox News.

Z for Zachariah was filmed on New Zealand's South Island, about as close to a distant Paradise on Earth as I've ever been. Which apparently is part of the reason why, according to former hedge fund director Robert Johnson, "I know hedge fund managers all over the world who are buying airstrips and farms in places like New Zealand because they think they need a getaway."

And not just a getaway for a couple of weeks of vacation fun. No, the British newspaper The Guardian reports, "With growing inequality and the civil unrest from Ferguson and the Occupy protests fresh in people's mind, the world's super rich are already preparing for the consequences."

In other words, they're getting ready to run away from the mess they've helped create. But instead of holding off the barbarians at the gates, they are the barbarians. Take your ill-gotten gains behind the walls of your Fortress of Solitude, you ubermensches, and pull up the drawbridge behind you.

Johnson's remarks about hedge fund managers seeking refuge were made at another greed fest, the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, high in the Alps, the perfect combination of attitude and altitude. He's head of the Institute of New Economic Thinking, a board member of both the Economic Policy Institute and the Campaign for America's Future, and a former managing director at Soros Fund Management.

Jim Wallis, founder and president of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners, was at Davos, too, and has a more benign view of the proceedings. He's on the conference's Global Action Values Council, which holds daily sessions on ethics. But writing in The Huffington Post, he, too, saw evidence that the rich and influential are running scared:

Those who control the world seemed to feel, and be, out of control and unsure how to deal with growing and frightening global instabilities and the violence that keeps emerging. Terrorism and blatant inexcusable barbarism arise out of grievances and injustices that nobody wants to confront or seem to know how to address. In theological language, sin begets sin, and we don't seem to know how to deal with that.

Robert Johnson recognizes that rampant inequality could be the death of us all. "People need to know there are possibilities for their children, that they will have the same opportunity as anyone else," he said at Davos. Johnson continued, "There is a wicked feedback loop. Politicians who get more money tend to use it to get even more money."

That's the money they get from the plutocrats who pull their strings; in the past three elections alone, the financial sector has given $256 million to Republicans and $153 million to Democrats. USA Today recently editorialized, "Wall Street got its swagger back not long after the bailout, which is no surprise. Its culture is built on greed and ego. What is more surprising is how quickly Congress again became Wall Street's errand boy."

That's not really surprising either. Dangle enough cash before their hungry eyes and most elected officials turn into Labradoodles begging for stray bits of bacon. In exchange for treats, in just the last few weeks, the wealthy have been granted a ten-fold increase in campaign contribution limits, a weakening of the Dodd-Frank bank reform law, proposed legislation to hinder environmental and other safety regulations by weighing them down with burdensome cost-benefit analyses, and the move to fast-track trade treaties that will make the rich richer while sucking more jobs from America. And that's on top of the tax breaks and loopholes that have allowed the 1 percent to horde excess billions, rather than paying their fair share of taxes or investing those dollars in jobs and better wages, education, infrastructure, rebuilding the middle class and helping the poor.

Instead of spending their mega-fortunes on luxury hiding places to escape the mob, better to use that money to improve the conditions that have the populace thinking about tar and feathers or worse. But no, as DePaul University's Paul Buchheit writes, "Even though corporate profits are at their highest level in 85 years, corporations aren't pumping it back into the economy. Instead they're holding it. S&P companies last year spent an incredible 95% of their profits on stock buybacks to enrich executives and shareholders." Wages grew just 1.7 percent last year, "the slowest rate since at least the 1960s," Bryce Covert at ThinkProgress reports. "That's not because American workers are slacking off, though. While they have seen an entire decade of stagnant or falling wages, they've increased their productivity by nearly 25 percent."

We've learned this past week that 16 million kids in this country relied on food stamps last year -- that's one in five, a rate higher than before the financial meltdown. We've learned that, as Buchheit notes, "almost two-thirds of polled Americans said they didn't have enough money to cover a $500 repair bill or a $1,000 emergency room visit." And that, as economist Justin Wolfers writes at The New York Times, "The concentration of income among the richest Americans remains at levels last seen nearly a century ago... so far all of the gains of the recovery have gone to the top 1 percent."

Meanwhile, Michael Fletcher at The Washington Post observes, "... black families who worked painstakingly to climb into the middle class are seeing their financial foundation for future generations collapse." And across the country, a Los Angeles Times headline reads, "More homeless camps are appearing beyond L.A.'s skid row." The paper's Gale Holland reports:

Over the last two years, street encampments have jumped their historic boundaries in downtown Los Angeles, lining freeways and filling underpasses from Echo Park to South Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a city-county agency, received 767 calls about street encampments in 2014, up 60% from the 479 in 2013.

Unlike the rich -- especially the ones who, according to a Pew Research Center poll, think the "poor have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return" -- these impoverished, desperate people have no place safe to hide.

And as for those hedge managers Johnson was describing at Davos, the wealthy ones buying up those remote retreats far from the madding crowd, they shouldn't be hiding out of fear. They should be hiding out of shame.