At Whose Expense

Wondering about the karmic consequences of wealth acquisition

The modern mass media propaganda machine enjoys telling the lofty tales of people who’ve acquired fortunes, especially enormous fortunes. Meanwhile, one of the questions that seem worth asking whenever there is a news story about some person or a group of people acquiring such wealth is - at whose expense - did that person or those people acquire it?

The question, “at whose expense” is a question that is sometimes answered easily. For example, among the technology moguls of the past few decades, the source of their wealth is often readily apparent. For example, Microsoft founders Paul G. Allen and Bill Gates, (mostly their employees actually), developed, and redeveloped, personal computer operating systems that convinced nearly every person and corporation in western society of adequate means to buy them. By taking just a few hundred dollars out of the pockets of each of hundreds of millions of people, possibly even a billion or more people, Bill Gates is now the wealthiest person on planet earth. Similarly, Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle Corporation, acquired his fortune by convincing large corporations to buy his database management software systems. The fortunes of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin seem far less about having developed an internet search engine, which people mistakenly believe, and are more about having found a way to market advertising on search engine result pages to millions of companies from the tiniest to the largest. Certainly in those cases, the formula for amassing fortunes comes from finding ways to acquire just a modest sum from each of hundreds of millions of people. Wireless communications and pharmaceutical company executives appear to have developed similar insights.

Sometimes wealth acquisition stories aren’t quite so savory and appealing as are the now such legendary tales as the fortunes of the Microsoft founders. At the opposite end of the spectrum between positive and negative, good and evil are the obvious sorts of blood money stories about Latin American cocaine kingpins whose lives exist at knife’s edge and the business end of a gun barrel to survive. Alternatively, it seems like nearly every average person in western society is responsible for the wealth of thousands of middle eastern oil sheiks, as westerners gladly line the coffers of such Arab emirates via fossil fuel energy consumption, while the sheiks despise and deride the very “infidel” oil dependants whose money they have gladly taken, at the same time they happily consume the fruits of western labor and invention themselves, which they simultaneously condemn.

Alternatively, consider the example of the wealth generated for a privileged by the stock market. Consider that every time someone boasts of having scored a win in the stock market, there is somebody on the other end of those transactions that lost their money to that person. The images of people like Warren Buffet surely shine a little less under such scrutiny. Imagine as well the recent invention of the predator “pay day” lenders who bleed the poor dry with fees and interest rates that often exceed the threshold of financial usury by orders of magnitude. Take notice also of the manner in which Hedge Funds managers scoop twenty percent off the top of the profits from their investors, or that the CEOs of Wall Street firms almost invariably become billionaires, by operating like the proverbial biblical money changers so intensely demonized in that mythology.

Ironically, the world’s wealthiest people are often largely forgotten by history, and are even less often truly enamored, even as the average person reaches outward first for that brass before many others. In the long range of history though, it seems like attributes such as creativity, inventiveness, and altruism, are most memorable qualities of human beings. Consequently, when it comes to wealth, it often seems worthwhile to ask not how much, but better to ask by what means, and from whose pockets, in other words, “at whose expense” was someone’s wealth acquired, before envying whatever karma may accompany the spoils of their acquisitiveness.