Billionaires. Is it inherently wrong to have that much money? Is it ‘obscene’ (as John McDonnell said today)? Should we get rid of billionaires as some pro-Corbyn commentators (notably Labour’s Lloyd Russell-Moyle on the Emma Barnett show) have observed in recent weeks? Or simply make it impossible to have more than a billion pounds in the uk?
Ok, so I doubt anyone reading this would disagree that the increase in economic inequality not just in the UK, but globally, is a massive problem. But is the answer to it (is the answer to anything?) to start a populist vendetta against a hundred and fifty people whose wealth exceeds what is essentially a random number, picked out of the air because it’s eye catching and easy to remember? I’m not pleading their corner – I’m simply asking the question.
Why do we have billionaires? Russell-Moyle believes that the mere existence of billionaires creates poverty. I watched Laura Parker from Momentum expounding on BBC2’s Politics Live the other day that the only possible way a person could accrue a billion pounds is by aggressive tax avoidance, exploitation and shabby employment practices.
I have no idea if all one hundred and fifty UK billionaires are guilty of this, although depending on where you research this JK Rowling’s earnings have topped a billion dollars and I would be surprised to learn that she was into any of those (although to be fair I don’t know that she isn’t, she could be up to all sorts of heathen and fiendish evil for all I know).
I tentatively suggest that other factors are at play here, notably maths and technology. Quite simply there are more and more people on the planet, who want more and more stuff and modern technology means that it is easier and easier to sell that stuff… to all of them. Meanwhile inflation has meant that value per unit of currency has fallen over the decades.
Obscene? Or just a thing which is the inevitable result of population growth, and global consumerism and the reality that supply isn’t – nor will it ever be – globally collectivised.
Not right. Not wrong. Just maths and technology. And, for sure, probably a bit of tax avoidance and general skulduggery along the way in some instances.
So. If we did agree that having a billion pounds or more was obscene and that ultimately anyone who fell into that bracket simply wasn’t acceptable as a citizen in the UK how would we set about dealing with that?
For a start is a billion the right number? Are we talking about a billion pounds, a billion dollars, or a billion euros? Or is it just the idea of unimaginable wealth that we don’t like? If we are going to use words like ‘obscene’ where does obscenity start and acceptability finish? I mean why not £640million or £569,482.83p? Is £379m just mildly distasteful?
For it to make any kind of rational sense, you have to set a figure – just as we set a figure for top tax rates. Without a figure it’s meaningless and that figure has to be based on some kind of rationale other than blind resentment.
Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell has made a step towards this. He has made it clear that under a Labour administration no Chief exec in the public sector would be able to earn more than twenty times the National Living Wage. That’s somewhere around £350,000.
That’s a lot of cash to most of us, but small potatoes in CEO land. And nowhere near a million, let alone a billion. Will it re-set the dial in terms of expectations? Possibly, but I doubt it. Will it stop the best people taking those jobs? I have literally no idea. My gut says that it would change the character of the type of person who applies for this kind of job, which could be a good thing… or not. I simply don’t know.
But there is an underlying message there from Mr McDonnell. We obviously want the best people to run the public sector but the acceptable remuneration for that is £350,000 per annum and no more. Implicit in this is that when you pursue more outside of the public sector you are effectively drinking and driving, you are using your mobile phone while doing 105 down the Motorway of life. Sort of like a premiership footballer, who earn, well, an obscene amount…!
Jeremy Corbyn Tweeted today: ‘Do you know what the establishment and the wealthy few are really afraid of? You.’
According to Wikipedia, depending on what sort of year I have, my annual earnings usually fall between the top one and two per cent on the UK earnings scale. In a good year, there are less than half a million individuals who earn as much as I do. Although technically speaking, I am on a zero hours contract… of sorts.
I really need to know who ‘the wealthy few’ are? I mean, if I’m one of them and I’m reading Jeremy’s Tweet… then according to him I’m AFRAID OF MYSELF!!!
If I feed my profile into the computers at Labour HQ I fear they will short circuit like the Nomad robot in Star Trek!
Let’s assume that all of this comes to pass, and having money – or even aspiring to great wealth and prosperity becomes a social no-no – and exceeding a billion squids (or whatever random number) is outlawed, what do we expect those people to do? There are many devout Corbynistas who say they don’t care and good riddance if the billionaires decide to bugger off. But is that really what we want? Whilst outlawing wealth reduces inequality on paper, it only does so by cooking the books and slicing off the top of the differential graph.
We have to remember what our objectives are. If they are simply ideological – ie billionaires can fuck off – then, for sure, we can achieve that, but there’s no guarantee that in doing that we alleviate poverty at the bottom of the income scale. If our objective is to alleviate poverty and redistribute wealth, then we have to keep the wealth in the country precisely so that it can be redistributed.
You can’t redistribute nothing.
Doing that isn’t easy, and there are a multitude of economic and political approaches to achieving effective redistribution. We could argue the toss about that for months, but I do know for sure that ‘banning billionaires’ or any associated Us-and-Themery won’t get us a millimetre closer to achieving that goal. It’s just populism. Divisive. Pointless. No different at its heart that the mentality of Donald Trump whipping up the crowd at one of his rallies, with the sole objective of fermenting yet moire hate. Are those the values of the Labour Party now? I do hope not.
Please can we be smart about this and think about what we want to achieve and not who we resent, or who we can blame simply for existing. We know exactly where that kind of thinking leads.
In the meantime, I’m going to ensure that my earnings stay at £999,999.99p and not a penny more. That way all my Corbynista friends will go on loving me.