OK, this post is a rebuttal to a blog posted today by my friend Tom Greeves. You should go and read that first, there is really no point in reading any more of this post until you have read his. Click here:
I love Tom dearly, he is a good friend and a good man but we have very little common ground politically. He is a Tory. He works for the Conservative party in various roles and, as a blogger/writer/media pundit generally espouses their party line, although he’s not afraid to criticise the actions of various MPs, it is usually in defence of the wider good of the Conservative common cause. I don’t know what I am. I have never successfully allied myself with any one political party. I’m certainly to the left of centre. I think I’m probably, in the traditional sense, a liberal rather than a socialist. I’m certainly not a communist, I don’t believe in enforced equality of wealth, I do believe that people should have the right and motivation to improve their quality of life. I believe in the welfare state as a structure of support rather than a choice of dependency. I think the elderly and ill should be taken care of and everyone else should work and support themselves. I think that our until-recent policy of free healthcare and free education was almost an evolutionary step in the development of the human race.
Tom’s blog bothered me. It bothered me because, although I believe it was written with sincerity it patronizes the reader into potentially believing that they have missed the point of the taxation issue whilst fundamentally missing the point of the wealth issue. He accuses modern political discourse as looking at things “myopically and one-dimensionally.” and then goes on to enforce that by doing so himself. He misses the biggest picture of all. As, I feel, most right wing politics often do. When your politics are based on the protection, preservation and bettering of one’s own situation, it acts as a refusal to see yourself in the broader context as part of a community, country, species and planet.
I should start by saying that he raises some salient points which I agree with. We both believe in progressive taxation (although, to say you didn’t would be like writing ‘I’m a horrible wanker’ on your face). I also wholeheartedly agree with his sentiment “Ministers should consider what taxation levels are fair and reasonable at the same time as calculating what they should spend – and what they can afford to spend.”
But that is where our common ground ends.
Here is the fundamental that prevents me from agreeing with him: I do not believe that any individual should be allowed to amass or control an obscene amount of wealth. I should probably define ‘obscene’. It might surprise you to know that I have little beef with millionaires. I don’t think a million pounds goes terribly far these days. My tiny house is worth a third of that. Most of us who are middle class will probably be millionaires by the time we reach old age. But that is due to inflation. The term ‘millionaire’ is now archaic. The level of relative wealth a million pounds represented in previous decades to today is vastly greater. I’m fine with millionaires. I’m less fine with multi-millionaires. And I’m really not OK with billionaires.
I’m going to address the rest of this directly at Tom, so forgive me the grammatical switch…
Your argument is awful. It relies entirely on bluster and fails to address the actual issues that you are dancing around. Early on in your piece, you take care to emphatically state the sentiment “there must be a limit on what one human being can demand of another”.
This is a hugely interesting statement. Context is everything, of course and there are contextual examples in which I would agree with this statement. One of them would be the fact that, in parts of this world, young children work very long hours for very very little money to produce cheap clothing to sell on our high streets. I don’t believe business moguls should be allowed to demand that of them. Closer to home, our healthcare workers have had a pay freeze and as routine work longer than their contracted hours with no overtime in increasingly difficult working conditions. I don’t believe the prime minister should be allowed to demand that of them.
The context you choose to use that quote in is that the ultra-rich should be allowed to harbour an amount of money which they couldn’t ever use for their own material wants even if they were spending hundreds of thousands each day.
There is no shame in success and I see no moral problem in people who have acquired an amount of personal wealth living extravagantly from it. But it is obscene. Obscene for any one person to just squirrel away that kind of money, more money than they could ever need to live or spend to be happy, which could make a significant difference to the greater population. That kind of wealth is destructive.
After a quick google, I found the figure that the richest 10% in the world own 85% of the world’s wealth. That could be a wrong figure – maybe the top 3% own 70%, either way we all know a statistic akin to this is true; a small amount of people own the largest amount of the wealth and power. That is not a good or fair thing.
So, to quote you, maybe I am, at this point, on the edge of my seat, waving my fist at the screen and bellowing “As long as there are people starving in the world we should soak the wealthy! I wouldn’t give a damn if Sir Richard Branson was reduced to owning one very large home and a modest island – he’d cope!”. Maybe I am. Personally, I’d allow him a bit more than that. But he’s worth 4.2 BILLION dollars. That’s a millionaire four thousand times over. I’m not saying that he is a bad man. He is clearly a philanthropist and I believe he is ethical in his dealings. I just don’t think it is ethcial or acceptable within a society that one person be that separated from society in terms of wealth and power.
Because for every Branson – for every benign and charitable billionaire, you have another one who is greedily using his gains to the detriment of the world. I direct you to a DVD I lent you several years ago called ‘Wal-Mart the high cost of low price’ (the rest of you can watch the whole film for free on youtube and I strongly recommend it.) It shows how one family have used their fortune to destroy thousands of families and communities across the world. The Walton family, who still privately own the whole company, are 4 people who are each individually worth about 20 billion dollars a piece. Rather than indulge in philanthropy, these people profit from global exploitation. They have ruined whole towns, put whole communities out of work in America whilst enslaving families in the far east to produce their low cost crap. They have a stranglehold in every area they have a shop and they siphon all of each community’s money into their private bank accounts. They also are heavily subsidised by local and national government and have cost the country millions in healthcare and other expenses. That shouldn’t be allowed. But back to your specific points…
To tell people of modest, average incomes that they could be doing more themselves rather than point out the MASSIVE inequality of wealth is patronising and cold-hearted. Nobody who does an honest day’s work for an average wage should be made to feel guilty about the few luxuries they can afford – a nice bed, some DVDs and a dishwasher. Shame on you, Tom. The top 10% whom you defend have those things AND enough in the bank to buy them another several hundred million times over. Those who work and save for a nice bed and a dishwasher are not in the wrong for doing so and you should feel bad for intimating so.
Especially when you really break it down. The widescreen TV you use as an example for us normal folk to feel bad about? Well, we wouldn’t have wanted it if the ultra-wealthy hadn’t seen a way to make money by needlessly marketing needless technology to us in such a way that we feel socially and culturally backwards for not owning such items.
It’s your defence of such obscene wealth that amazes me. You slam the average man for railing against the billionaires, defending them on the ground that the government has more money as a result of their existence. Well, I question that. You see, the wealthy are greedy and they like to maximise their wealth. So, I think, whenever I have to deal with a call centre in India or see ‘Made in China’ that maybe they aren’t supporting this country so much.
Not to pretend that we have the rosiest past here but Britain was once a manufacturing and agricultural centre. We were a completely self-sufficient country and there was a huge amount of employment. Obviously, even back then, the rich exploited the working class but had we protected agriculture and manufacturing, by now, we’d have a happy country with full employment. We should get MORE from the ultra-rich. Equally global corporations shouldn’t be allowed to appear in our high streets and providers and siphon money away to other countries without being taxed far higher on it.
Out of everything you wrote, this is the most offensive: “They may not feel the pinch like you do, but they’ve made more hospital beds available than you have.” You miss the point that charitable contribution is relative. If a billionaire gives a million to charity, that’s the equivalent of an average person giving £20. Ten million? £200 – do you see where I’m going with this?
Although ten million is a huge amount to give to a charitable cause, to do so whilst retaining nine hundred and ninety million in your bank account is almost insulting. Nobody should have that much money. Oh, and the products, services and jobs they supply to us? Don’t for a second think they do so out of a sense of civil obligation.
“The wealth creators WILL move elsewhere” you tell us. We must bow down to the wealth creators lest they leave us. Well, they can only be wealthy if they get our money. So we should stop them from being able to. If they move elsewhere, we embargo their products. They should not be allowed to hold a whole country to ransom.
The fulcrum of your argument is “It’s human nature to put oneself and one’s family and loved ones first. That isn’t going to change”. Well, you know what? A progressive, civilised society should rise above human nature. It is also human nature to kill, to rape, to steal, to hurt. It has taken a long time to create a society which promotes co-operation amongst people rather than engaging in our base animal instincts. To create a legal structure which protects individuals and communities from the human nature of certain elements within it. Just because it is human nature to jealously guard one’s huge wealth whilst others suffer, it doesn’t mean society should not find a way to protect itself from such behaviour.
The one person you single out for abuse is John Lennon. Which is curious because he is one of the smaller breed of ethical millionaires. A musician who made a lot of money because the music he created resonated with a lot of people worldwide. I think that’s rather nice. He didn’t have to exploit or destroy or change anything to amass a fortune. he just had to compose some songs and sing them. And he’s the one you hold up for abuse. In your book it’s worse to sing a song saying ‘imagine there were no possessions’ whilst owning possessions than it is to amass and retain a fortune through global exploitation.
You see, the skew of your article is all wrong. You’ve written an article berating people for being hypocrites but defending people for hording wealth.
I know which I think is worse.