“Each billionaire evidences our great success and failure.” Discuss.
Extreme inequality doesn’t jive well with democracy, liberty and progress. Nor does revenge and retrospective action. Both extremes run the risk of unforeseen consequences that spawn illiberal and divisive ripples into our future.
We should limit ourselves to disabling billionaire egregious rent extraction on a prospective basis. New beginnings not a reshaped past – no matter the urge for “just” revenge. Channel our inner Martin Luther King – not a form of politically-expedient, hindsight billionaire-ism that will take us outside safe societal operating conditions.
What bad might ripple from revenge exacted on the billionaire few? The main problem is that it will not be productive and bear the fruit desired while feeding a general societal revenge narrative. If enough cannot be extracted from the evil billionaires who should be razed next?
The majority of western billionaire wealth is effectively stranded and ultimately chimeric as it’s asset valuation with an extraordinarily high intangible element. What makes the same nice house worth £200,000 one place and £2m somewhere else? It’s really not much more than vibe (sentiment and perception) and for a variety of complex socioeconomic reasons and errors we are willing to feel an awful lot of value in many assets at the moment.
Many billionaires are being minted on the back of vibey intangible behemoths. Our partially successful strangulation of the Wall St greed machine post 2008 has let the outrageousness slip the regulatory leash and find its way to Silicon Valley. It’s perhaps most egregious in the private market of unlisted companies where countless “unicorns” (start-ups valued at more than $1bn) exist but have never made a real profit.
“What bad could ripple from revenge exacted on the billionaire few?”
And Jeff Bezos’s wealth comes from his ownership of shares in Amazon – a company valued at nearly $900bn while making only about $10bn profit a year even after its olympian tax dodging. A market capitalisation that is ninety times (inflated?) annual profits is stupendously high, built upon the magic of very positive, yet thoroughly intangible, outlook and feelings.
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook is another example but the communication highway represented by Facebook and all the virtual retail outfits attached to it are much less secure and tangible than the super real and physical wealth in and around Nineteenth Century railroads. Tangible physical assets and wealth could be requisitioned from those old railroad barons, but going after Zuckerberg or Bezos will just see a lot of intangible wealth evaporate. Not a bad thing in terms of a return to reality but the “value” can’t be requisitioned and deployed for the many from the few.
You may wish the state to replace many “evil” rent extractors across the economy, but for the sake of the many do not ignore the repercussions of a bludgeoning approach. The implosion of intangibles would repeat at smaller scale across our modern economies particularly in the democratic and, to date, dominant Western economies.
“Going after Zuckerberg or Bezos will just see a lot of intangible wealth evaporate.”
Ironically, it is the despots and non-democrats of the world that hoard real tangible asset wealth as they need the security of tangibility knowing that they cannot rely on those mysterious western good vibes for wealth.
Perhaps the most profound, even foresightful, example of lust for the tangible is the massive transfer of gold from West to East. If our Western currencies were to decline alongside an intangible value implosion, we may find that our relative economic and geopolitical power evaporates overnight.
For economies that rely on imports of tangible commodities and goods this could be devastating. By all means build a fairer and better New Jerusalem but don’t believe it can be done by taking the building bricks from our billionaire’s Gomorrah. Failure is not just. Revenge does not lead to enlightenment. Better to co-opt these billionaires to the plan in some way.
Emotionally I tend to align with progressives on most issues but I’m intellectually unnerved by increasingly strident and impatient demands for revolutionary step change. I fear it as a potential catalyst for despotism. After all, many despots start out with good(ish) intentions.
When it comes to societal engineering I view adaptation with the grain of society to be judicious as it seeks improvement without overly risking what we have. Analogous to a cautiously-experimental scientific method.
The mysterious binding fabric of society could be irrevocably torn rather than magically healed by revolutionary zeal. The hugely intangible UK with its reliance on global finance could easily catch the maladies of a Failed State particularly if the shock is idiosyncratic and internally driven by a local socialist-populist revolution that is globally asynchronous.
Argentina, a sophisticated country whose economic model ran aground many decades ago, is a good cautionary proxy. In Argentina the emotive political immediacy of crisis and restorative justice for the many have long been promulgated by an amorphous populist political potion of great durability, despite repeated failure, called Peronism. What many western progressives are selling today feels uncomfortably close to our version of Peronism.
Arguably, our progressive revolution could be perfectly apposite in construct and application but the unbiased historical odds are stacked against that. Do we need, and can we afford this gamble? And if it unravels where will we be left? Still in our flawed but liberal democracy or sliding down a more destructive gradient that we cannot scramble back from?
I want to embrace a progressive plan that is impactful but more modest, focused and tangible. Actions that make things a bit better now and can be built on in future with gathering pace. Something that can really enjoy support from a broad coalition of voters regardless of their political tribe.
That thing in the UK is housing. We should put all our focus and energy into fixing the issues around housing such that everyone can have a safe and secure home that is compatible with their needs (family, life stage, work, etc) regardless of wealth. Genuinely tackling the inequalities of housing will cut deep into our environmental, social, educational, health and financial inequities providing a platform for individual lives and our country to build from.
An equitable housing solution will mean that a moderately-affluent £100k pa dual-income couple can no longer aspire to a £1m four bedroom semi-detached house. The cost of change cannot be borne by billionaires alone. Sadly, most ‘progressives’ will baulk at this reality and seek solace in more abstract revolutionary revelry that displaces the cost on some undeserving evil other. We want change and we want it now! Just not with personal responsibility.
“An equitable housing solution will mean that a moderately-affluent £100k pa dual-income couple can no longer aspire to a £1m, four-bedroom, semi-detached house.”
The inequity of unseemly wealth is obvious but a cleansing bonfire of the billionaires in the name of progress is unproductive divisive madness. Billionaires should contribute more in the west as the great peaks of their wealth is intrinsically tied up in the intangibilities of the liberal and democratic system we have. Billionaires would be wise to take the initiative before someone irreversibly motivates rabid pitchfork bearers.
Sadly, if we plebs do get the pitchforks out we will discover much less on the end of them than we hoped and find ourselves kowtowing for alms in a very real and unfair global power game.