You’re (probably) wrong.

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…

Tom,

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.

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Published in: on April 19, 2011 at 8:26 pm  Comments (5)  

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  1. Thanks for reading and thinking about my article, Jon. I love you too.

    You seem to see me as a cartoon Conservative, which is partly understandable given that I am a full-on, fair dinkum one, but less understandable and agreeable when it means that you ascribe views to me which I have not articulated and do not hold. That happens every time we debate politics. By contrast, I never assume I know what your view on a given issue will be (and I mean that as a compliment, not a side-swipe).

    More often than not when I’m minded to post on politics it is because I don’t hold a conventional Conservative view. Are you confident that you know what the Conservative Party line is on a given topic? For example, it is not the case that the Conservative Party has abandoned the principle that healthcare should be free at the point of use according to clinical need – that’s not what private sector involvement means. And it is still in favour of state schools. (Healthcare and education have never been free though.)

    My politics are not “based on the protection, preservation and bettering of one’s own situation”. That is a component part of what I believe and what guides my politics, which are also founded on a belief that man is a social animal with moral obligations. I expressly made clear in my article that I believe we have obligations to other people and that some of these should be imposed by government – including the enforced redistribution of money through taxation.

    I’m not sure how you propose to stop people becoming multi-millionaires and billionaires. You could intervene and close down their businesses I suppose. Or you could say that no-one could amass more than a certain amount of money (in which case, unless you prevent them from doing so by force) many of them will move somewhere that isn’t so oppressive. And tax receipts will drop massively.

    It’s a bit rich to accuse me of relying on bluster when it’s your modus operandi. Subtle, sophisticated and well-informed – when it comes to politics – you ain’t!

    Do I really have to spell out the fact that I don’t approve of sweatshop labour?!

    You have missed the point about what I wrote about modestly-incomed people and their luxuries spectacularly. I was saying that they shouldn’t feel guilty. I just don’t want them to be hypocritical.

    I think it’s great that there are call centres in China and India. Why should a company prioritise British workers over a worker in one of those countries?

    My argument about the rich making more money available to the NHS than average wasn’t primarily a moral one but an economic one. As a nation we would be cutting off our nose to spite our face if we introduced punitive taxation rates that had the perverse effect of reducing the overall tax take. But yes, people who make a success of their lives can feel good that they also contribute lots of money to the Treasury, and who the Hell are you to assert that none of them care about that?

    Of course I admire a poor person whose charitable donation really costs them than someone who doesn’t feel any hardship from making it. You missed my point, as is your wont.

    You keep saying that no-one should have lots of money. I’m not at all clear what you would do about it, or why you don’t realise that a government that massively retarded an individual’s ability to maximise their earning potential would necessarily and inevitably be oppressive, intrusive and totalitarian. You’d embargo the products of someone who wanted to move country?! Dear God!

    Point me in the direction of a historical example of any hard left regime (and make no mistake, what you are calling for here is hard left even if you don’t see it as such) that was benevolent and where the people were happy.

    John Lennon was a monstrous hypocrite who through the song Imagine is celebrated for espousing values which he comprehensively rejected in his real life. He was nasty in other ways too, but they are less relevant to this debate.

    In short, I believe in the redistribution of wealth and that we owe duties to each other but also that these duties are finite and that what the state can effectively and justly enforce is more limited still.

  2. Tom,

    Thanks for replying, many points to address;

    If I see you as a cartoon Conservative, it is entirely based on exactly the kind of madcap blog you posted today. I found it vile and upsetting. Not just the point of view – everyone is entitled to their opinion – but the arrogance and smug condescension directed to a presumably middle class readership informing them that what they might perceive as the unfair leniency on the wealthy was actually hypocrisy. The very title ‘You’re (probably) a hypocrite’ sums up the ugly pomposity of what was contained within.

    I don’t generally make public assumptions about your points of view, this was merely a response based on what you’ve previously written but mainly what you wrote today. Yes, I think I have a fair grasp on the Conservative party line, I’m aware of their views on healthcare and state schools and I have my own opinions about those too but neither is the matter in hand.

    Do you see an inherent contradiction in your saying “My politics are not “based on the protection, preservation and bettering of one’s own situation”. That is a component part of what I believe and what guides my politics, which are also founded on a belief that man is a social animal with moral obligations.”

    So, it’s a component part, but not a basis of your politics? You expressing a belief in taxation is really not a radical departure from dyed-in-the-wool Conservatism. It does not give your politics a unique or cuddly edge. Maybe you agreed more with the great Tory invention of Poll Tax?

    At no point did I say people should stop becoming multi-millionaies or billionaires, I said I wasn’t ‘OK’ with it. That’s a different thing. I wouldn’t close down their businesses at all but I would be sure to impose a level of taxation and corporate law that stopped them becoming as powerful as the state. No person or corporation NEEDS to be that big and no private interest should be so powerful. Let them move somewhere less oppressive – they’ll have difficulty generating so much income and as for tax receipts dropping massively? No. Without huge corporations holding a monopoly, smaller ones would fill the gap and generate the same levels of tax, if not more considering the huge breaks and tax relief we give to these monolithic organisations.

    “It’s a bit rich to accuse me of relying on bluster when it’s your modus operandi. Subtle, sophisticated and well-informed – when it comes to politics – you ain’t!” You kind of prove my point there.

    Yes, you do have to spell out the fact you don’t approve of sweatshop labour. By endorsing the nurturing of large profit generating corporations to prop up our economy, you endorse their methods of operation.

    What exactly was the point I missed about the modestly-incomed? They shouldn’t feel guilty, they should just be aware that they are hypocrites for thinking the super-rich should be taxed more because they have the luxury of a nice bed and a dishwasher? That doesn’t make them hypocrites. It makes you a hypocrite because you’re saying that people should appreciate what they have and think about what they contribute whilst saying ‘lay off the super rich, they can do what they want with their money because we need them about!’

    I note with interest how on one hand you say we should value these people for the jobs they provide and on the other ask why they should prioritize British workers over those in China or India. As a simple, human, answer I would say it’s repugnant that in the quest not just for profit but ‘more’ profit they are prepared to create mass unemployment in the UK and mass exploitation abroad. I don’t think we should be encouraging that kind of behaviour.

    I didn’t assert that none of the rich care about contributing – if you had read more carefully I made a point of saying that many of them are philanthropists. Which, I imagine, it would be rather easy to be once that rich. I also at no point talked about ‘punitive’ taxation. I think at the point someone is making multiple millions in profit taxing them above fifty percent is not punitive as they still have more than enough money and power to achieve a super-human state of achievement. I’ll tell you what IS punitive taxation – and that’s inheritance tax which is levied on any estate over about 300k at 40%. Of course the super-rich have many lawyers and loopholes to protect their estates from such barbarity. It’s only the average family who have no chance of becoming financially stronger generation to generation.

    I’ve attempted to discuss free trade with you before and your response is usually ‘interesting, I’ll get back to you’. Free trade is a lovely idea but, inevitably it means the powerful will become more powerful and the corporation must work as a profit machine to satisfy its faceless shareholders. The supermarkets have killed British agriculture and squashed local, even national. identity. What have we gained from that as a country? Employment? Really? You should watch that film. I think I know why you don’t.

    Isn’t it better that a government be ‘oppressive, intrusive and totalitarian’ in it’s dealing with outside forces looking to profit from its country whilst contributing the bare minimum than we welcome in these hugely powerful corporations to behave oppressively, intrusively and in a totalitarian fashion within us, unchecked because of the precious jobs and tax they might provide? It’s not all just about the tax.

    I don’t keep saying ‘no-one should have lots of money’. I think people should. I’d like to have lots of money myself. I’m saying it’s dangerous when individuals get an obscene amount of money.

    I’m not calling for a ‘hard left’ regime. You know I’m not. I’m talking about one issue and one issue only – the taxation of the super-rich.

    Back to John Lennon, once again, you hold hypocrisy up as a worse crime than the exploitation of the poor or the dominance of the few over the many. I’m well aware of Lennon’s reported failings as an individual. He was a fucked up man, for sure. But if you assess his impact in the world, it was probably far greater than any of the billionaires you favour. He definitely left it a better place than it was before him. Whether he believed it or not, he encouraged a generation to embrace peace and he made music which continues to bring a great deal of joy to an awful lot of people.

    Your final point, in summation is: “I believe in the redistribution of wealth and that we owe duties to each other but also that these duties are finite and that what the state can effectively and justly enforce is more limited still”

    Which starts out trite and ends ludicrous. Like your initial blog.

    I guess we will always ultimately have different opinions as to what ‘just’ means.

  3. Tom just tweeted me:

    “@videojon Thanks, but we could go round and round for ever on this and we’re not going to agree.”

    My response:

    “@tomgreeves I’m always open to being proved wrong and if you have conviction in your beliefs you should be keen and able to do so.”

    He has disabled comments on his blog, so I guess that’s the end of the ‘discussion’.

  4. Tom, Jon, Great stuff.

    However, Jon, you make a mistake when you equate somebodies “wealth” with them having, effectively, “excess” resources. You quote Branson as having £4.2 billion dollars as if he is sat on a pile of gold, jewels and banknotes. He isn’t, he owns shares in companies which provide jobs to hundreds of thouands of people.

    If you tax him to denude his wealth, you simple make it harder for him to be in business. Ultimately, the companies get shut down and those poeple who work for his companies get fired.

    Alternately, he just hands most of his empire over to his children – he’ll live long enough not to pay Inheritance Tax, so we’ll see none of it – and then what? If he has three kids (I think), then they get 1.4 bn each – is that too much? Maybe the grandkids get something too? (Has he got grand kids? I don’t know.)

    Or you leave him with his money and he invests it again, starts another business, helps another entrepreneur and creates another ten thousand jobs. What’s wrong with that? He might lose some of it. He has in the past, but then you never get really rich wihtout losing everything at least once.

    And what if he gets bored? what if he decides to retire? Will he just go to Neckar Island and juggle emeralds all day? I doubt it. More likely, like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates he gives most of it away to needy causes around the world. Can’t do that it you’ve taxed it all away to feed the State-spending machine.

    Sorry, there is no money left for AIDS or Malaria, 4,2 bn dollars, The UK Govt spent that while I was typing this post.

  5. Hi John,

    Thanks for stepping in and picking up the baton for Tom.

    If you re-read, you’ll see that I didn’t quote Branson as having 4.2 billion dollars, I said he was WORTH that amount, I of course know that it is not all in a pile of gold, jewels and banknotes. That said, shares can be, and regularly are, sold, so it isn’t like he can’t cash in at any point to boost his gold, jewel and banknote pile – indeed he regularly has sold off his stock in Virgin strands.

    Once again, the sole argument used to support the liberation of the super-rich is the jobs they provide. Time and time again, these people have proven that those jobs are far from safe. I’ll often hark back to documentary examples but you should really take a look at a film called Roger & Me, which showed how effortlessly General Motors pulled it’s operation from Flint, MI rendering the whole city unemployed and destitute. If your party (I see you’re a Conservative candidate) values these people’s contribution so much as to give them extremely favourable tax relief, what are you doing to safeguard the jobs these companies provide? That’s a genuine question, by the way. I have no idea if such legislation is in place. Is it? What do we get from their tax relief? Apart from jobs.

    I think the job argument is fairly bunk anyway since, as I’ve already said, I have no doubt that if these people took their business elsewhere, groups of smaller committed British companies would fill that void.

    Besides, when did the Tories suddenly start caring about jobs? There are a lot of ex miners, shipbuilders and auto workers whose jobs weren’t particularly prioritised last time you were in power.

    It’s a two way street. These big businesses need access to us to make that money. They should be taxed appropriately and not kow-towed to or worshipped.

    The point is that he is not compelled to reinvest that money back into the UK. The relief we give him is just an offering to a commerce god.

    Your final two paragraphs suddenly change the super-rich from independent businessmen to charitable foundations. Indeed, they may well indulge in charity should they choose and I know Buffett and Gates do great things – they can well afford to. But shouldn’t it be the governments funding AIDS and Malaria research? Shouldn’t the tax breaks they give the ultra rich in the hope they hang about go straight into the coffers of the charities rather than the pockets of the few to be seen to donate?

    You see, John, I’m instantly skeptical of Tories who engage in this debate. Like Tom, they tend to wither away under scrutiny because, at the heart of the issue, is greed. The reason the rich and the powerful are allowed to stay unfairly rich and powerful is because people legislate in their favour either to ingratiate themselves with them or because they one day hope to become one of them.

    Look at what Rupert Murdoch gets away with and all because he can buy anything or inspire anybody to follow the dream of becoming like him.


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