Just in time for the “Occupy Bay Street” protest this weekend, Canadian Business magazine has come out with its annual listing of the richest 100 people in Canada. So in honour of the protestors and their noble cause (demanding more attention to the 99%, instead of the 1%), let’s peruse together the sordid details of Canada’s ultra-rich.
Indeed, if there wasn’t already a grass-roots surge of outrage against the excesses and privilege of the wealthy, this magazine alone could spark one. It is so unselfconscious and uncritical in its slavish reporting of the wonders of wealth, that one wonders if Canadian Business’s editors have any awareness whatsoever of how most human beings actually live.
For example, there’s a special spread on the latest trends in ostentatious consumption by the super-rich, including their penchant for buying entire towns (like the recent purchase of picturesque Buckskin, Colorado by the infamous Koch Brothers), and yachts over 200 feet in length (which are now distinguished from plain ordinary superyachts by a new term “gigayachts”).
A few pages further along is another offensive feature: a fawning article, illustrated in oak-paneled hues, about the benefits of setting up your own “family office.” The rich, it seems, actually need a “family CFO” to manage all their wealth and investments. “Taking care of wealth is a business in itself,” the article writes in wonder. That’s why you need a “personalized C-suite,” with multiple staff, to keep track of all those zeroes. (And who said they just sit around clipping coupons?)
Of course, it’s not just this obsequious magazine that fosters an unquestioning idolation of private wealth and privilege. It’s imbued throughout the entire popular culture of neoliberalism. And in some ways, features like this accurately reflect the true patterns and priorities of today’s distorted economy. Consider, for example, the headline on the front page of the business section of today’s Globe and Mail: “As economy stalls, luxury car sales surge.” It’s true, luxury car sales are surging, so don’t shoot the messenger on this one. More dispassionately than Canadian Business, the Globe is simply reporting on the economics of plutocracy.
Now let’s get to the main attraction: the Canadian Business ranking of the richest 100 Canadians. The list provides the magazine’s estimate of the current financial wealth of each, along with some invariably flattering little snippet of information about them: their best deal, their biggest influence, their gutsiest move, their most “noble act” (ie. charitable donation).
Indeed, the magazine’s sycophantic reporting on the charitable activity of billionaires is especially galling for its absence of perspective on the contrast between the privilege of this tiny group of individuals, and the enormous needs of the vast majority of society. Let’s take just one example: Canadian Business warmly applauds Hal Jackman for establishing a family foundation that’s given $13 million over two decades to arts and education organizations. Relative to his $1.06 billion wealth, therefore, his foundation gives out an average of about 0.06% of the current value of his wealth each year. (I have no doubt that Mr. Jackman, a highly committed philanthropist, donates more than this to a wide range of other causes, all of them worthy … but I am just using the magazine’s own numbers.)
If I apply that same “giving ratio” to my own modest accumulated net financial wealth, I would only have to give $75 in charity per year. (In practice I give 50 times that much.) An impecunious single mom who spends $2 on a chocolate bar for her child’s school fund-raiser, has given more of her wealth to education than Mr. Jackman has. So when will Canadian Business commend the rest of us for our own “noble acts”? The complete disregard by the media (not to mention by the recipients of this benevolence) for the social context of billionaires’ charity, aims to coat the whole endeavour with a filmy veneer of humanism. But it doesn’t remotely legitimate the precarious and painful imbalances that are reshaping society around us every day.
Hence the Occupy Wall Street moment.
OK, let’s cut to the numbers. Drooling over all that cold hard financial data on the super-rich is why we pay the special issue’s price ($6.95 plus HST). I will limit my commentary to those on the Canadian Business list who need 10 figures to measure their wealth: that is, the billionaires.
- There are 61 Canadian billionaires on the list. That represents under 0.0002% of the national population (far smaller than the 1% targeted by the protestors).
- Their combined wealth is $162 billion. That is approximately 5 times as large as the federal government’s 2010 deficit (which was just reported this week at $33.4 billion for fiscal 2010-11).
- Those 61 individuals own about 6% of all personal net worth in Canada (which totalled some $2.8 trillion in 2010). In contrast, the bottom 50% of Canadians owns about 3% of all personal net worth, according to the most recent survey on the distribution of wealth (which was conducted in 2005). Those 61 individuals therefore own twice as much wealth, as the bottom 17 million Canadians. (Source: Statistics Canada CANSIM Table 378-0051, and Catalogue 75-001 December 2006.)
- Almost half the billionaires live in Ontario. That puts a slightly different spin on Ontario’s new status within Canada as a “have-not” province!
- Average billionaire wealth (across the 61, unweighted) grew by 8.4% in the last year. That’s over three times as fast as the 2.5% increase in average hourly earnings for Canadian workers in 2010. (Source: Statistics Canada CANSIM Table 281-0030.)
- The average wealth of billionaires increased (on a weighted basis) by just under $100 million each in the last year. In contrast, average household net financial wealth per capita in Canada grew by $524 in 2010. (Source: Calculated from Statistics Canada CANSIM Table 378-0051.) So while the average billionaire became $100 million richer in 2010, the average Canadian became $524 richer. (And that is the national average, which is unduly pulled up by those enormous gains at the top end. We’d need a more detailed breakdown to estimate how the typical Canadian fared on that score.
- The biggest winner on the Canadian Business list this year was Chip Wilson, owner of Lululemon, whose wealth more than doubled (to $2.85 billion). The biggest “loser” (if you can even be a “loser” in a club of billionaires!) was RIM’s Jim Balsillie, whose wealth (consisting mostly of RIM shares) plunged 39% in the year, to $1.11 billion. (Given recent events, sadly, he’ll be right off the list by next year.)
- It would take 8.7 million person-years of employment, working at Ontario’s current minimum wage ($10.25 per hour) to produce $162 billion: the same value as the combined wealth of the 61 billionaires.
That’ll give us something to chew on tomorrow morning, as we meet up at the corner of Bay and King, and hundreds of other privileged intersections around the world, to demand a new way of running things.
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