Lynn Ashby

THE BOAT SHOW – Do I want a SuperSpiffy MegaBoat or an Ocean Mangler? That depends on how many helipads I need. Maybe a ballroom or a sauna. I am here picking out some baubles to go with my solid gold glider and a 6-acre spread in River Oaks. Those are a few signs of my new role as an oligarch. You know how they are all the rage now that the U.S. government along with much of the rest of the civilized world is sanctioning Russian oligarchs because of their support of “peacekeeping” in the Ukraine. Or as Stephen Colbert said, “The Russian peacekeepers are keeping a piece here and keeping a piece there.”

So there are now openings for new oligarchs. But who, exactly, are they? Is there an Oligarchs Club with dues in dollars, bitcoins or gold bars and you have to be worth so much to join? As your intrepid reporter, I decided to find out. First, the name, oligarch. My ace research staff (me) found the title comes from the person who made billions in outdoor restaurants, Al Fresco, only his kitchen staff couldn’t say the name of his restaurant, Olive Garden, so they said “Oligarch.” Actually the staff couldn’t say a lot of English words. Further research found that an oligarch is a Greek word that means “rule by a few.” So just being rich is not enough. You have to be rich and politically powerful. Arab oil billionaires fit that description, although in their cases the rich are the countries’ ruling families who keep their nation’s treasury for themselves. 

How many are there? By the end of 2020, there were 56.1 million millionaires in the world and the U.S. had 20.2 million of them. The world had 2,755 billionaires. The U.S. had 724. Seven billionaires in the U.S. are Black. In 2021, Jeff Bezos was named the world’s richest person with a net worth of $189.3 billion, although Austin’s own Elon Musk may have gone ahead. But to be an oligarch you must also have to be politically powerful. The Koch family springs to mind. They are the second-richest family in the nation with a net worth of $100 billion, and are always spreading their cash to very right-wing political candidates. The richest is the Walton family (Walmart, Sam’s Club) with $247 billion, but they donate relatively small amounts to both Republican and Democratic causes and candidates.

As for power, the aforementioned Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, but doesn’t seem to bother with its editorial stance. One editor was quoted saying that Bezos calls up occasionally to see how the Post is doing, and that’s it. Elon Musk and Bill Gates are rarely mentioned in political fund-raising. George Soros might qualify as an oligarch. He has given millions to liberal and Democratic causes – are they the same? – and, as a result, has been linked to all kinds of conspiracies by right-wingers. 

So America may have lots of billionaires, although not many try to become politically powerful, and thus oligarchs. Then there is Donald Trump. No one seems to know his worth, but several law enforcement agencies, including the IRS, are trying to find out.Trump's net worth increased by $600 million since he left office, Forbes estimated. This was mostly due to his new social media platform, Truth Social, as a replacement for more mainstream networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Both networks banned Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol which tanked Truth Social. The subscribers left, so did top executives and the whole plan is behind schedule. So Trump may or may not be an oligarch.

This brings us to Russia’s oligarchs. A 2017 study estimated that they held as much as $800 billion in foreign properties and banks which was roughly equal to the wealth of the entire rest of the Russian population of 144 million people. By 2022, according to Forbes’ estimates, 30 percent of oligarchs’ total net worth is parked outside Russia in huge yachts, private jets, luxury real estate – they love London’s mansions -- and stocks. Forbes put83 Russians on its 2022 billionaires list, with 69 of them considered oligarchs. But invading a neighbor can cause problems for the invader. Another 19 were billionaires before Russia invaded Ukraine, but they have lost too much money to still be members of the club. Forbes estimates that these former oligarchs -- worth a collective $290 billion as of March 11-- have lost nearly half of their prewar net worth since January. As of March 28, western sanctions have confiscated more than $23 billion of their holdings.

It seems the toys of the Russian oligarchs are yachts, but many of them have been seized. Alisher Usmanov’s Dilbar, a 512-foot yacht worth nearly $600 million, has been stuck in a shipyard in the German port city of Hamburg since October. It has two helipads and cabins for dozens of guests. Usmanov, an early investor in Facebook, was sanctioned by Western nations. He had to lay off his entire crew. 

There are two problems here. One is that it’s almost impossible to determine who owns what. These riches are hidden behind layers of false flags, obscure ownerships and off-shore shell companies. And, two, if they try to buy or sell any of their mansions and yachts, their rubles are now practically worthless. These oligarchs are aptly known as “Putin’s People” because they are close to him, but what about Vladimir Putin himself? His official salary is $140,000 annually, and he supposedly lives in a Kremlin apartment. But leaks keep leaking that Putin has a plush hideaway in Siberia, 20 other properties  including a $1 billion estate on the Black Sea, dozens of luxury aircrafts, four yachts -- one is a 459-foot super yacht valued at $700 million complete with two helipads, marble baths and a Jacuzzi, and 11 wristwatches valued at $700,000.

Hey, Vlad, got the time? 

Ashby oligarchs at ashby2@comcast.net

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(1) comment

mobarr

isn't Oligarch a Spanish/Portuguese word that means "I don't have to pay any taxes "

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