The dysfunctional society: US billionaires on the rise–roads, bridges in decay

22 March 2004 | World Socialist Web Site

by Jamie Chapman and Kate Randall

Two recent reports cast light on the impact of growing social
inequality in the US. The first, the annual inventory of the very
rich compiled this month by the business magazine Forbes,
tracks the wealth of the world’s billionaires, and their
increasing numbers in the US. The second is the “report card”

issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) on the
state of the infrastructure in the United States.

Together these studies provide a devastating exposure of the
price being paid—in the form of basic necessities of daily
life—for the ongoing process of diverting ever-greater sums
of the national wealth into the personal investments portfolios
and bank accounts of the super-rich in America.

Forbes reports that the world’s billionaires counted
691 among their number in 2005, an increase of over 100 in just
a year’s time. The aggregate wealth of this handful of men
and women reached $2.2 trillion, an increase of $300 billion in
just one year. On average, the net worth of each is nearly $3.2

More than half of these billionaires—341—are in the
US, a jump of 69 over last year
. But while the ranks, and personal
fortunes, of these super-rich has risen, there has been a corresponding
deterioration of the basic infrastructure relied upon by ordinary
Americans in their everyday life—roads, railroads, public
schools, and other basic necessities. In many cases, these structures
are literally crumbling.

The US billionaires’ club this year has some familiar
faces and some new ones, and the amounts pulled in by its members
are staggering. Thirteen of the top 25 billionaires in the world
are US citizens. New York City and its suburbs remain their residence
of choice, boasting 44 of them.

Perennial leader of the pack is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates,
whose fortune last year held virtually steady at $46.5 billion.
Not far behind is the American investment guru Warren Buffett,
at $44 billion.

Only one of the heirs to Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame, eldest
son Robson, made the top 10 this year, at $18.3 billion. Last
year his widow and three other children also ranked among the
10 wealthiest, but a drop in the company’s stock reduced
the others’ fortunes to around a mere $18 billion each.

The Forbes report provides a glimpse not only of the
obscene amounts of wealth accumulated by these individuals, but
of the property and personal possessions they have amassed along
the way as an essential component of their extravagant lifestyles.

One of the individuals featured in Forbes is Las Vegas
casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who at $15 billion is the 19th richest
person in the world. He recently opened up shop in the former
Portuguese colony of Macau, which reverted to Chinese control
in 1999. Cultivating connections with the Stalinist apparatchiks,
Adelson has won approval to build a $6 billion casino, hotel and
convention center complex on prime island real estate there. Last
year Adelson increased his net worth at an average rate of $1.6
million every hour!

The richest new member of the billionaires’ club is Texas
natural gas tycoon Dan Duncan, who debuted on the list at number
93 with $5.1 billion. He ranks just ahead of New York City Mayor
Michael Bloomberg, with $5 billion.

Oracle’s Larry Ellison has a 450-foot yacht on order for
$250 million. He will then beat out another Microsoft co-founder,
Paul Allen, as the owner of the world’s biggest yacht, now
the 414-foot Octopus.

In contrast to this glowing picture of prosperity provided
by Forbes, the American Society of Civil Engineers’
“report card”
delivers a just-above-failing grade on
the state of the infrastructure in the United States. Overall
the ASCE assigns a grade of “D,” a slight drop from
the “D-plus” it awarded when it last issued a report
in 2001.

The report examines 12 categories of infrastructure, including
roadways, bridges, dams, drinking water, wastewater treatment,
railroads, navigable waterways, public school facilities and the
power grid
. The authors state that a total investment of $1.6
trillion (not counting needs to upgrade for recent security concerns)
over the next five years will be required to bring the US up to
minimum standards.

In a statement introducing the report, ASCE President William
Henry explained, “Americans are spending more time stuck
in traffic and less time at home with their families.”

The advisory council of 24 civil engineers which prepared the
report found that the average American spent a full week stuck
in traffic on overcrowded roads and waiting out long construction
delays. Drivers in Kansas City are estimated to spend $500 a year
in time and extra gasoline. In Los Angeles, the cost shoots up
to $1,660 year. Motorists also spend some $54 billion a year—$275
apiece—in repair and operating costs from driving on roads
full of potholes.

The US rail network has not kept up with demand either. Besides
being more expensive, shipping by truck adds to highway congestion
and road maintenance costs. ASCE estimates that up to $195 billion
in investments will be required over the next 20 years to maintain
the current share of freight shipped by rail and to allow for
anticipated increases in volume.

Passenger rail service fares no better. The heavily used Amtrak
Northeast Corridor line will have to be shut down within two years
if three bridges are not repaired. In New York City the heavily
traveled East Side subway line was shut down no less than three
times in a single day this month due to separate power failures.
The next day another line was closed while workers investigated
smoke in one of the system’s old, narrow tunnels.

With the current state of disrepair, the condition of infrastructure
is also matter of life and death, not just inconvenience and economics.

In July 2004, a slab falling off a deteriorated bridge in New
York City critically injured a motorist on the parkway below.
More than one in four highway bridges are now considered structurally
deficient or functionally obsolete.

The number of dams rated unsafe has risen to 3,500, and there
were 29 dam failures in the United States in the past two years.
In March 2004, the Big Bay Lake Dam in Mississippi failed, destroying
100 homes.

The nation’s wastewater systems are also sorely in need
of repair. Eight hundred fifty billion gallons of raw sewage are
released annually into rivers, streams, lakes and oceans
. In Pima
County, Arizona, a sewer line break in 2002 forced 90 homes to
be evacuated and closed part of a busy street for six weeks.

As for drinking water, each day 6 billion gallons of treated
water disappears due to leaky pipes and old water mains. A break
in a 40-year-old main in Northbrook, Illinois, left the town without
drinking water for 15 hours. Federal expenditures on treatment
plants for fiscal year 2006 will equal less than 10 percent of
the annual demand.

As the ASCE president summarized in his statement, “We
need to establish a comprehensive, long-term infrastructure plan
as opposed to our current ‘patch and pray’ method.”

But any such systematic approach to tackling infrastructure or
any other societal problem is inconceivable under capitalism in
decay, when the only concern of those wielding the levers of industry
is how to exploit the vast majority while pampering themselves

The burgeoning ranks and fortunes of the US billionaires come
under conditions where the social infrastructure of society is
under relenting attack from corporate America, the Bush administration
and Congress, in the form of job cuts, attacks on health care,
pensions and education. This is coupled with growing rates of
personal indebtedness and bankruptcies for working families.

The degree of waste and squandering of vital resources by the
super-elite personified by the Forbes billionaires—and
the protection of their right to do so by the political establishment,
including both big business parties—is an indictment of the
profit system.

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