The glossary of greed

Published on Pambazuka News, by Joan Baxter, March 30, 2011.

With the 2011 Forbes List of the world’s billionaires recently released – and acutely aware of the huge volume of unaccounted for money found in offshore havens – Joan Baxter discusses the ‘highly stratified world that has become treacherously top-heavy’ … //

… In this gilded age, where so few own so much (and can avoid paying taxes by hiding their wealth in tax havens) and the rest suffer or are left to their own devices to merely survive, a new vocabulary – a glossary of greed – has developed around and for the super-rich. It speaks volumes about the new globalised order where disparity and extreme inequality reign supreme, just like the global over-class.


First, it’s important to know that there are official terms for the very rich. They are known as ‘high net worth individuals’ or HNWIs. These are people who can, at the drop of a hat, put their hands on a million US dollars in ‘liquid assets’,[10] also known as cash.

The HNWIs’ numbers have started to grow again, following the global financial crisis of 2008, which a good number of them helped bring about with their reckless and woolly get-rich-on-bad-debt and derivatives schemes. In 2009, there were 95,000 HNWIs in the world (at least ones that we know of – many crime bosses, despots and dictators would certainly swell this number were their wealth not hidden offshore). Between 2008 and 2009 their net worth rose 18.9 per cent – to $39 trillion.[11]

But all is relative when it comes to wealth. Just as the world’s majority – the average person in Africa, Latin America and Asia – can still be considered extremely poor (monetarily) next to the average person living in Europe or North America, so are the run-of-the-mill HNWIs relatively poor when compared with the UHNWIs. These are the ‘ultra high net worth individuals’, people who can produce $30 million cash at any moment.[12] UHNWIs have also seen their fortunes soar in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In 2009, their wealth rose 21.9 per cent.[13]

These days, however, given that 1,210 individuals now possess fortunes in the billions – far in excess of the lowly cut-off point of $30 million for UNHWIs – perhaps it’s time to come up with a new term to accommodate the swelling ranks of billionaires. Perhaps RAUHNWIs, ‘ridiculously, appallingly and unbelievably high net worth individuals’?



A final important term is that coined by Naomi Klein, ‘disaster capitalism’, to describe the men and women who may help create disasters, often through neoliberal economic policies and the political turmoil that ensues and then profit from the ‘opportunities’ the disasters offer them.[30]

Disaster capitalism nicely captures the business of alternative investment firms such as Emergent Asset Management,[31] ‘which offers hedge fund and private equity strategies.’ [32] In his book ‘Breaking the Code of History’, Emergent’s chief investment officer David Murrin analyses geo-politics and major risks and trends around the world. He says he wrote the book because he has children and wants them to have a future.[33]

Does Emergent Asset, however, call for a concerted global effort for human beings to try to head off these disasters and solve the problems that will surely cause suffering for children all over the world?

No, anything but. Instead, Emergent offers its wealthy clients a whole new series of funds designed to take advantage of each of the ominous global trends outlined in the book. Funds will be designed to ‘benefit’ from expected growing military spending and be built around both Western and emerging defence contractors, as Murrin says China will be at war with the US within 15 years.[34] He sees great profiteering opportunities in the decline of empires as they tend to suffer from more epidemics, so the fund will buy shares in pharmaceutical companies. And there are also great ways to capitalise on climate change and food shortages, which Emergent is doing by grabbing vast swathes of farmland in southern Africa.

Disaster capitalism. Banking on catastrophe. At least vultures wait until after death to feed on cadavers.

The glossary of greed reveals a great deal about the upside-down values that have created a world where wealth is worshipped, compassion and sharing are disdained, and where greed, vanity, selfishness and cold-blooded ruthlessness are not vices – they have become virtues. They produce and prop up a highly stratified world that has become treacherously top-heavy. So few people now control such a large proportion of the world’s wealth because they’ve reshaped the world for themselves – subverted democracy and laid the groundwork for global turmoil and suffering, laughing all the way to the (offshore) bank. (full long text and Notes 1 – 34).

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