Virtual Princes, Virtual Wealth

I start by asserting that the fundamental sources of true wealth are in the earth and the sea. Some people create new wealth by transforming the lives and minerals grown in and extracted from these two sources into useful things for themselves and others.

A third level of wealth arising from these transformations is created by those who transport these useful things over land and sea (and through the air, beginning the 20th Century) to those who will use them.

The land and the sea are our wealth, not money, and not decorations such as jewels and mansions and other excesses.

What stimulated this train thought was my reading of The Leopard, by Tomasi di Lampedusa.

The fictional, but real, “Prince of Salina (‘The Leopard’),” was a noble in the Southern Italian province of Salerno, Sicily, until it was co-opted then dissolved by the beginnings of the new Italian State in 1861.

The Prince owned land, inherited from his ancestors. The residents of his lands were his de facto subjects.

Historical kings and princes of both sexes were in their exalted and privileged positions because the wealth they possessed, the only true wealth—land and its fruits, and the means through which they are transformed into useful goods.

With privilege came the princes’ responsibility for their subjects, sanctified or at least supported by the Church, which also owned extensive lands. Some princes and princesses acted in ways to warrant respect and fealty from their subjects, others didn’t. The ones who didn’t were sometimes overthrown by their subjects, leaving political vacuums to be filled by other princes or by new forms of governance.

Today, princes no longer, for the most part, own land. They own… well what do they own? Shares in large corporations, both privately owned and investor-owned (i.e., with shares traded on stock markets).

The Prince was depressed (about the politicians and their soldiers dissolving the status quo and creating new, more complicated social and political structures). ‘All this shouldn’t last. But it will, always; the human ‘always’ of course. A century, two centuries … and after that it will be different, but worse. We were the Leopards and Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.

Who are the princes of today? Are they leopards and lions, or are they jackals, hyenas, or other animals? (Let us not discuss politicians who are, with exceptions, lackeys of today’s princes.)

Here is the net worth of the “top ten” (measured in billions of dollars, 2018; source = Forbes Magazine).

A few of these ten people hold real wealth, that is, land. Jeff Bezos, the Koch brothers, and the Larry Ellison family are among the holders of the largest privately owned tracts of land in the USA:

From: “AMERICA’S 100 LARGEST LANDOWNERS 2017” (Source)

1. John Malone
2. Ted Turner
3. Emmerson Family
4. Stan Kroenke
5. Reed Family
6. Irving Family
7. Brad Kelley
8. Singleton Family
9. King Ranch Heirs
10. Pingree Heirs

28. Jeff Bezos

55. Koch Family

91. (Larry) Ellison Family

What are these landholders doing with the land? In 2015, ninety percent of U.S. farms were small, family operated farms, with under $350,000 in annual gross revenue. These small farms, however, accounted for only twenty-four percent of the value of overall farm production. Large-scale family farms with at least $1 million in gross revenue made up only 2.9 percent of U.S. farms but contributed forty-two percent of total production. Nonfamily farms accounted for only 11 percent of agricultural production. (Source)

So, it seems that these landholders, are not, by and large, farmers or ranchers. (However, seeing the name “King Ranch” on the list warns me not to be too glib.)

Landholders in 19th Century Europe, and in prior centuries, tended to live on the land they owned or controlled on behalf of a monarch, each being a part of the community they dominated and supported. They presided over important cultural/religious events and defended their territory from invaders and usurpers who endangered the wealth, that is the land, which was truly the people’s because their lives depended on it.

Now, as seen above, in the USA ninety percent of land in production is owned and managed by small families. These are small but true principalities, insofar as state and national taxation and other laws will allow them to be so.

But back to the dollar-wealthy princes worth billions.

Many of the wealthy people and corporations listed above own things that create wealth, such as machines which serve farmers and miners and oil drillers and those who harvest the seas. Evermore, however, we see wealthy people who are in charge of keeping track of things and in holding and transmitting information. Information is now in the cloud; we have entered a new age of virtual, non-tangible reality.

Hence, we now have non-tangible, virtual princes to pay homage and fealty to. We have become dependent on the virtual tools and information they dispense. We see their corporate names throughout the world, and we see diminishing differences among capital cities.

The narrator of The Leopard makes these observations as the Prince of Salina lay on his deathbed:

“…  (T)he significance of a noble family lies entirely in its traditions, that is in its vital memories; and he was the last to have any unusual memories, anything different from those of other families…”