Why We Can't Afford the Rich

The following is an excerpt from the new book  Why We Can't Afford the Rich  by Andrew Sayer (Policy Press, 2015). 


The deregulation and spectacular growth of finance are central to neoliberalism and the rise of the rich – and to the biggest economic crisis since the Great Crash of 1929. There has been a small avalanche of books on the financial crisis of 2007, some of them illuminating, many merely providing superficial narratives of successive financial disasters and the key players in them, served up with journalistic brio. Some critiques have targeted the hubris of the financial sector, identifying mismanagement, poor judgement and questionable legality. But some have seen the credit crunch and recession as evidence of something more basic – capitalism’s crisis-prone nature.

It [doesn't just come down] to the financial crisis, dire though it is. It’s about what underpins and generates such crises – the very architecture of our economy. It treats the economy not merely as a machine that sometimes breaks down, but as a complex set of relationships between people, increasingly stretched around the world, in which they act as producers of goods and services, investors, recipients of various kinds of income and as taxpayers and consumers. The problems are as old as capitalism, though they have become much more serious with the rise of finance over the last 40 years. It goes beyond a focus on irrationality and systemic breakdown, to injustice and the moral justifications of taken-for-granted rights and practices. It’s not only about how much people in different positions in the economy should get paid for what they do, but about whether those positions are legitimate in the first place. Is it right that they’re allowed to do what they’re doing?

There is of course a long history of critiques of capitalism aimed at different targets: alienation, insecurity and poverty; the treadmill of working and consuming; economic contradictions and irrationalities; and environmental destruction. There are useful things to learn from all of these critiques, but at the current time, when the rich have increased their power so much, and inequalities have widened, I believe we need a new line of attack, one that focuses on the institutions and practices that allow this to happen.

The rich get most of their income by using control of assets like land and money to siphon off wealth that others produce. Much of their income is unearned. What’s more, over the last 35 years, particularly with the increasing dominance of the economy by finance – ‘financialisation’, as it’s sometimes called – the rich have become far richer than before by expanding these sources of unearned income. We can't afford the rich.

...

To show why we can’t afford the rich, we need to go into some basic economic matters, but in a different and yet simpler way than usual. Most basically, we need to remember something that has been forgotten in modern mainstream economics: economics is about provisioning. As anthropologists and feminist economists have reminded us, it’s about how societies provide themselves with the wherewithal to live. Provisioning requires work – producing goods, from food and shelter through to clothes and newspapers, and services, such as teaching, providing advice and information, and care work. Almost all provisioning involves social relations between people, as producers, consumers, owners, lenders, borrowers and so on. It’s through these relations that provisioning is organised. Some kinds of provisioning take place through markets; some do not.  The market/non-market boundary does not define the edge of the economy: unpaid work in preparing a meal for someone is as much an economic act as preparing pizzas for sale – or selling computers or insurance. 

Most economists and political theorists think of economic actors only as independent, able-bodied adults, forgetting that they all started off as helpless babies, unable to provide for themselves and dependent on others, and who sooner or later reach a stage where, whether for reasons of illness, disability or age, they become unable to contribute to provisioning themselves and others. There is nothing exceptional about these conditions. We all go through them: they are universals. We can never pay back our parents for all the work they did for us, just as future generations will never be able to pay their parents back. Dependence on others, particularly across generations, is part of being human; it derives from the fact that we are social animals, ‘dependent rational animals’, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it; we cannot survive on our own. Robinson Crusoe depended on having been brought up in society; the newborn Crusoe wouldn’t have lasted more than a few hours on his own. And like Crusoe we depend on the resources of the earth to survive; we cannot flourish if we damage the planet.

No one would deny the right of children to be fed (‘subsidised’) by their parents when they are too young to contribute anything in return. But would it be OK for me to buy up the company that currently provides your water and slap an extra 10% on your bills so that in effect you subsidise me, enriching me greatly? Would that be a defensible form of dependence? Or if I seized a park or beach that you had visited regularly all your life and charged you for access, would that be all right?

Dependence can be defensible or indefensible; it depends. Because we are so dependent on each other, there are always likely to be questions of fairness and justice where economic activities are concerned. Are you being paid fairly? Is it right that some get so much/little, and pay so much/little tax? Should students pay for their university courses? Should you get interest on your savings? Should there be more/less/no child benefit? More money for carers, or none? Who should pick up the bill when a company goes bankrupt, and who should pay for clearing up a derelict site left by deindustrialisation? Who should pay for pollution?

These and other such questions are about moral economy. I believe we need to think much more about them – about whether our familiar economic arrangements are fair and justifiable, instead of taking them simply as immutable facts of life – or equally bad, as matters of mere subjective ‘preferences’, or ‘values’, beyond the scope of reason. Individuals may sometimes give more than they get, or get more than they give, for justifiable reasons, as in the case of parent–child relations, but sometimes they do so for no good reason other than power. Sexist men free-ride on the domestic labour of women for no good reason. This free-riding is particularly likely where people or organisations are very unequal in power. Minority control of key assets that others need is a crucial source of power and inequalities.

The Rule of the Rich

Economic power is also political power. The very control of assets like land and money is a political issue. Those who control what used to be called ‘the commanding heights of the economy’ – and increasingly that means the financial sector – can pressure governments, including democratically elected ones, to do their bidding. They can threaten to take their money elsewhere, refuse to lend to governments except at crippling rates of interest, demand minimalist financial regulation, hide their money in tax havens and demand tax breaks in return for political funding. Investigative journalists have revealed the circulation of individuals between political posts and positions in key financial institutions, and the role of powerful lobby groups in maintaining the dominance of unregulated finance, even after the crash.

Prominent financial institutions have been involved in illegal money laundering, insider dealing and manipulation of interest rates, yet in the UK no one has been prosecuted and, where banks have been fined, the fines have not been imposed but arrived at by negotiation, as ‘settlements’! They have infamously pocketed gains while the losses they have incurred have been dumped on the public, who have suffered substantial drops in income and services as a result. Of course, many politicians are already from an upper-class background in which supporting the rich is as natural as breathing, but even if they are not, ‘our representatives’ have become increasingly unrepresentative of the majority of the population at large. Even if they want to resist, they face an environment dominated by financial interests.

Spending It

The problem of the rich goes beyond issues of how they get their money, to how they spend it. Their massive spending on luxuries distorts economies, diverting producers from providing goods and services for the more needy. It’s a waste of labour and scarce resources. In some cases, it makes things worse for those on low incomes, for example, by driving up house prices beyond their reach. The superrich have so much that there is no way they can spend all of it on things they can use, so they recycle the rest into further rounds of speculation, buying up property, companies and financial assets that generate little or no productive investment, and merely siphon off more wealth that others have produced.

No one treads more heavily on the earth than the rich. Private jets and multiple mansions mean massive carbon footprints. Yet the inconvenient fact is of course that even though most of us have smaller footprints, in the rich countries they are still seriously in excess of what the planet can absorb. Even if we could afford them in money terms, we cannot afford high-carbon, high-consumption life-styles if we are to stop runaway global warming.

We are in deep trouble, not just because of the economic crisis, but because it’s overshadowed by a bigger and more threatening crisis – climate change. The solution to the economic crisis is widely thought to be growth. But that will only accelerate global warming. The rich countries need to switch to steady-state or ‘degrowth’ economies to save the planet, but capitalism needs growth to survive; it’s in its DNA. Soviet state socialism proved no better environmentally. We need a different model.

If that seems a gloomy conclusion, there is a very important and positive counter message: that beyond a certain level, attained already by most people in rich countries, well-being is not improved much by further increases in wealth, and well-being tends to be higher in more equal countries. Above this threshold, well-being is improved by greater equality, reductions in stress, exercise, being with others, both caring for and being cared for, developing interests and skills and projects and experiencing the world at large beyond the confines of narrowly defined jobs. Ending the rat race will do us, and the planet, a lot of good.

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