Money and Power

In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.  – Tony Montana

I don’t think Al Pacino’s character from Scarface is a good person to emulate but he does capture something about how we often view the relationship between money and power. We know that having a lot of money gives people power. We know that even if we say that we are all equal under the law, some are more equal than others. 

What we don’t talk about enough though is the reverse relationship where having power leads to getting money.  I think in part, that is because it exposes a lot of truths that are even more uncomfortable.

For example, power can be used to just seize wealth by force either directly or indirectly. It turns out not everyone who is rich got that way by the sweat of their brow, but rather they found a way to use their power to simply take from others. That’s the story of colonialism, but also happens every day where people with influence get laws changed to allow them to “take” from the commons or individuals. Mostly the process is hidden in plain sight. Mostly the effects are just what we accept about the way the world works.

Last year in Nicaragua, I was riding my bike  beside a river while watching a farmer out in his field tending to his pineapples. I was thinking about how even when I go home to Seattle, the system will make it possible for me to potentially eat one of those sweet delicious fruits at a price I can afford.

The complex dance required for this to happen is a kind of miracle. The pineapple will change hands several times, maybe traveling by boat, train or truck, touched by different people and being “owned” by different companies until it shows up in a clean climate controlled environment that I can walk to and buy it for a few dollars. A long chain of commerce which ends with something affordable to me.

But thing that was bothering my while riding, was that in this long dance which brings the pineapple to me, where each person has a different role to play;  the farmer who planted the pineapple, cared for and watered the pineapple, cut the pineapple and loaded it on his cart to take it market, that farmer is the only person in that whole chain who doesn’t have indoor plumbing. He’s by far the person in the chain with the least amount of money.

That’s not because he’s lazy or that his work isn’t important. It is because he lacks the power to extract the value for the work. He doesn’t have the capital to scale up and control his distribution. The poverty and other structures in place make it hard for him to combine the tiny amount of power he has with others to get a better deal. People with more power have commoditized his labor and captured more of the value of his work.

Being rich gives you power but it takes a lot of money to be rich. It’s not so easy to acquire this kind of wealth working a job. Some people make it but most don’t. Most businesses fail. Waiting until you get the money before having power is going to be a long long wait for most people and it may never come. That’s because it is power that enables you to make money and enjoy real security.

This is why, for example, we’ve seen the rich and powerful do everything they can to demean, destabilize, and destroy the labor movement. Worker power reduces the profits for the people profiting off their labor. 

People with power feed the divisions in our system because they want us fighting over anything except something that will compromise their power. They want to be free from any regulations which stop them from acquiring more. They want to keep their tax breaks, their private communities, and their access to politicians. They denigrate the process of elections, they push to divide us over distractions, they scare us with fears that other people are coming to take our prosperity while they take larger and larger shares of the productivity the workers produce.

Until people see the game that’s being played, the elites will get away with it. The only real effective response is to try to build new sources of power.  We can’t solve problems around income inequality, or wealth inequality, without first addressing the power inequality. Giving people money papers over the problem. It helps but it keeps them dependent and scared. Power is the real source of any security for most people, not money.






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