Everybody knows that middle-class incomes have stagnated while those of the richest Americans have skyrocketed, but the trend is even more pronounced when you look at the relative fortunes of the super-duper rich. Consider the Walmart heirs: Since 1983, their net worth has increased a staggering 6,700 percent. According to a report released today by the union-backed Economic Policy Institute, here's how many American families earning the median income it would have taken to match the Waltons' wealth in a given year:
In 1983, the Walton family's net worth was $2.15 billion, equivalent to the net worth of 61,992 average American families, about the population* of...
Correction: An earlier version of this article confused families with individuals, causing an under-estimate of how many individuals' net worth would equal that of the Waltons. Population equivalents in this story are based on the size of the average American family: 2.55 individuals.
Is this the year that voters will finally insist on knowing which supermarket foods contain genetically modified organisms? Activists in Oregon say the momentum is on their side for a GMO labeling initiative on the November ballot. "The electorate in Oregon has a greater awareness of this issue than in other states," says Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for Yes On 92, as the initiative is known. "We are approaching a tipping point."
In 2002, Oregon became first state to try and pass a GMO labeling initiative—Measure 27 lost by a margin of more than 2 to 1. But the more recent initiatives in California and Washington suffered far narrower defeats, despite a barrage of attack ads bankrolled by biotech, grocery, and ag conglomerates. Washington's I-522, the most expensive ballot measure in state history, lost by barely 1 percent—a mere 19,000 votes.
Washington's I-522, the most expensive ballot measure in state history, lost by barely 1 percent—a mere 19,000 votes
Oregon may now be poised to finish what it started: A poll released in July by Oregon Public Broadcasting put support for GMO labeling at a whopping 77 percent. Even if it wins, Oregon probably won't be the first state to require disclosure. A labeling bill approved in April by the Vermont Legislature takes effect in 2016, assuming it doesn't get overturned by a lawsuit. Maine and Connecticut have also passed GMO labeling laws, though they're contingent upon further regional support. Such laws are common outside the United States, and this year alone, according to Slate, 25 states have proposed 67 pieces of legislation related to GMO labeling. But the Oregon prop (and possibly a similar one in Colorado) would be the first directly enacted by voters—a major PR victory for the movement against GMO foods.
Despite the unpopularity of GMOs with consumers, the debate over their health and environmental impacts is far from settled. While the commercialization of GMOs has triggered few health complaints, long-term studies on the chronic health effects of GMOs have been sparse. The makers of pest- and herbicide-resistant GMO crops claim that they've boosted yields* around the world, benefiting farmers and the poor, but GMOs have also spawned chemical resistant "superbugs" and "superweeds."
The labeling campaigns are designed to bypass the thorny scientific debate by reframing the issue around the consumer's "right to know." This idea polls extremely well with voters, but not so well that it can't be overcome by an avalanche of spending on political ads. For instance, 66 percent of Washington voters supported I-522 in the summer of 2013, yet some $22 million in spending against the measure whittled support down to 49 percent by Election Day. A similar phenomenon is under way in Oregon, where a poll released by a Portland TV station last week showed that voter support for the labeling measure has fallen to 53 percent, with 16 percent undecided.
Oregonians also will decide on a pot legalization initiative, boosting turnout by the young voters who tend to back GMO labeling
Advocates for Oregon's I-92 remain optimistic, however. While rural areas of Washington and California are strongly opposed to labeling, that's less the case so far in Oregon, where GMO contamination incidents have angered farmers and two rural counties have banned cultivation of GM crops. The Oregon measure is also well timed: Young voters, who tend to support labeling, didn't turn out to vote last year in Washington, but Oregonians will cast ballots this year on a pot legalization initiative, which is seen as a potential magnet for the non-AARP crowd. Anti-GMO activists, for the first time, are also funding a registration drive to target young voters.
For now, at least, I-92's backers have raised more money than its opponents, but nobody expects that advantage to last. In Washington, the anti-GMO crowd was outspent 3 to 1, and the chasm would have been even wider were it not for the heavy involvement of a few organics companies, notably Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, which is shoveling money at the Oregon effort.
Unlike its opponents in Big Food and Ag, Dr. Bronner's hasn't entered the fight to retain its own bottom line, at least not directly—GMOs don't play much of a role in the soap business. Yet the company has become a fascinating model for how genuine corporate activism can increase sales and create a fiercely loyal customer base, as I noted last year in a profile of David Bronner, the family business' idealistic, third-generation CEO. About half of Dr. Bronner's profits go towards activism. "If we are not maxed out and pushing our organization to the limit," he asked me at the time, "then what are we doing?"
UPDATE: Tom Philpott tells me that the claim that GMOs boost crop yields is still disputed by some scientists
Botto Bistro wants to be the worst-reviewed restaurant on Yelp. Fed up with the site's alleged manipulation of consumer reviews, owners David Cerretini and Michele Massimo have been offering a 25 percent discount at their Bay Area Italian eatery for each excoriating Yelp review, the Richmond Standardreports. Here are some recent entries from Botto Bistro's Yelp page:
Yelp has for years been accused of soliciting money from mom-and-pop restaurant owners in exchange for hiding negative customer reviews. In response to a lawsuit over the alleged practice, a court recently ruled that Yelp has the legal right to manipulate reviews and engage in "hard bargaining"—practices restaurant owners have called extortion. Yelp denies that it accepts money to alter or suppress reviews.
According to Inside Scoop SF, Yelp's only response to Botto Bistro has been a boilerplate email from its customer service division (see below), to which the restaurant sent a tongue-in-cheek rejoinder:
Jim, Alice, and Rob Walton at 2012 Walmart shareholders' meeting
The Walmart heirs are infamous for their wealth and penny-pinching. Christy, Jim, Alice, and Rob Walton wouldn't be the sixth-, seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-richest Americans, respectively, if not for Walmart's relentless exploitation of its low-wage workers. But the Waltons' stinginess also extends to their philanthropy. According to a new analysis by the union-backed Making Change at Walmart campaign, the Walton scions give way less money to charity than other über-rich Americans. In fact, the six other richest Americans have each donated many times more money to philanthropic causes than all four Walton heirs combined:
Making Change at Walmart
Typically, the extremely wealthy give a higher portion of their incomes to charity than middle and upper-middle income Americans. After all, you can only buy so many yachts, vacation homes, and Teslas before you start to look for other ways to spend money. But that doesn't seem to be true for the Waltons, who've redefined what it means to be a Scrooge. Americans' average net worth is about $650,000 per household (the median is only about $70,000), and the average annual charitable donation is about $3,000 per household. Meanwhile, the average Walton has a net worth of $36 billion and gives about $730,000 to charity each year. This means that the four richest Waltons have, on average, a net worth that's 55,000 times higher than that of the average American household, yet give, as a percent of that wealth, about 1/230th as much to charity in a typical year:
With Thursday's Scottish independence referendum too close to call, opponents of an independent Scotland have been stressing the would-be country's lack of a reliable currency. An independent Scotland could either keep using the British pound and lose control of its monetary policy, join the eurozone's well-known squabbles, or create a new national currency that's almost certain to be weak. But there's an intriguing fourth option: adopting an online crypto-currency such as Bitcoin.
Scotland actually has some historical experience with this sort of thing: Instead of relying exclusively on the British pound in the 18th and 19th centuries, many Scottish banks issued their own currencies—a fact noted by Guy Debelle, the assistant governor of Australia's central bank, at a recent conference on digital currencies in London. Here's Debelle in the Guardian:
"The Scots can go back to experimenting with a multitude of currencies, Bitcoin and the like, and we can just sit back and see how it goes. A nice natural experiment about the future of money in Scotland—again. Because, as I said, they tried this in the 18th and 19th centuries. It worked for awhile, but eventually fell apart."
In the ensuing discussion, David Birch, the director of the digital currency consultancy Hyperion, argued that Scotland's currency experiment was more successful than one might think. From the Guardian:
"The economic research shows that in Scotland, the bank failures were fewer, and less disruptive, than the bank failures in England at the time," he said. "Competing note issue in Scotland didn't end because it collapsed: it ended because of an outrageous extension of the Bank Act of 1844, which extended the Bank of England's monopoly over note issue north of the border."
But ending the Bank of England's monopoly might not be the biggest problem with Bitcoin. A national Bitcoin-based currency would, practically speaking, resemble one based on gold: Bitcoins are designed to function as a limited commodity that becomes harder to acquire over time. In either case, the result is a highly inflexible national currency that often can't keep pace with economic growth. As Felix Martin points out in the New Statesman, one of the first people to identify this problem was a Scotsman: The economist John Law of Lauriston emigrated to France, became that country's minister of finance, and in 1719 replaced the gold standard with paper money printed at the discretion of the government.
No matter: Edinburgh-based venture capitalist Derek Nisbet recently launched Scotcoin, which is offering 1,000 free Scotcoins to every resident adult. "Our motivation is to empower the Scottish people with an alternative digital currency opportunity," he told the Guardian, "which may be used as a medium of exchange, should the need or wish arise."
For now, at least, it seems like Bitcoin's biggest use in Scotland is as a marketing gimmick. In May, the London electronics retailer CeX got a load of free press when it introduced Scotland's first Bitcoin ATM and briefly turned its Glasgow store into a "pound free zone": For a few days, it only accepted Bitcoin payments. "The trial is turning the Scottish High Street [location] into a Bitcoin laboratory," a CeX spokesman told the website CoinDesk, "highlighting alternative forms of currency should Scotland vote 'yes' in the forthcoming referendum."