Saturday, December 09, 2017

How can we, the 99.99%, in order avoid suffering the tragic consequences of any awful leveling events, coexist in a friendly and mutually beneficial way with the extremely wealthy 0.01%?

Edoardo Campanella reviews five books debating “the growing wealth gap between a narrow upper class and the rest of the human population” that which he argues may be the greatest economic challenge of our time. “Inequality and the Coming Storm” Project Syndicate, December 8. 

The books reviewed are: The Great Leveler, by Stanford University historian Walter Scheidel; Global Inequality, by CUNY economist Branko Milanovic; The Vanishing Middle Class, by MIT economist Peter Temin; The Broken Ladder, by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill psychologist Keith Payne; and Plutocrats, by the former journalist and current Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland.

There are many origins of that wealth that feeds inequality, some abominable and odious, like crime and corruption, other, like Chrystia Freeland writes, “built their fortunes through hard work, talent, and discipline. But, once that wealth has been created, it can be destroyed by what Walter Scheidel calls the “Four Horsemen of Leveling”, exemplified by “the twentieth-century world wars, the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, the fall of the Roman Empire, and the Black Death, respectively. 

Surely the consequences of such horrendous levelers, especially for the much more numerous poor, cannot justify us ever wanting to get rid of inequalities that way… that is except if we have a need of a schadenfreude with masochistic characteristics. 

When Scheidel argues, “all societies eventually reach the level of inequality they can tolerate. Once this pain threshold is breached… Only carnage, chaos, and destruction can restore fairness in the system… extreme inequality yields only to extreme equalizers” our first and only concern should be, how on earth can we learn to live well and prosper in a world of runaway inequalities? 

Campanella, seemingly agreeing on that goal writes: “What can be done? Many commentators recommend improving the availability and quality of public education. Others have proposed more effective ways to tax wealth, such as a global tax on capital income, higher marginal tax rates, more aggressive estate taxes, or even a tax on robots. And still others are calling for a universal basic income (UBI).”

But Campanella is no optimist… “none of these will be a panacea. Educational policies take years to gain traction; taxing the global super-rich would require a level of international cooperation that does not exist today; and a UBI is simply unaffordable for most – if not all – governments.”

I instead, hopefully since I see no other remedy, think we do have a chance to coexist in a friendly and mutually beneficially manner with the unbelievable wealthy. But for that to happen there are some requisites:

1. We appreciate what inequality might produce. For instance when Campanella writes “Most of the great temples, royal palaces, pyramids, castles, and other monuments of history are the lasting evidence of past wealth disparities”, we should immediately ask ourselves whether those monuments would have existed at all without rampant inequality and, if our answer is no, would the world have been a better world for all of us? 

In this respect I had a wake up experience a couple of years ago when reflecting on a beautiful richly adorned but totally useless shield at the Museum of Louvre, it dawned upon me that most of it would not exist were it not for immense inequality. I suspect that Thomas Piketty, as a Frenchman, would not want to have sacrificed Louvre either, in the name of some unknown equality…we know the inequality we have.

2. We begin to understand that much of the wealth that exists cannot just be redistributed without the possibility of serious unexpected consequences. For instance what harm can it do that one person has now decided to freeze on a wall, with a sort of voluntary tax, US$450 million of his main-street purchase capacity, in Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi? If anything we should go after those who got the US$450 million and see what they do with it… and if they pay their taxes. Those US$450 million on the wall should also help to raise expectations about the value of art, which might lead to some thousands of painters getting a dollar or more for their paintings, something which though it might not decrease inequality much, would in general be very good. (Disclosure, my daughter is an art consultant J)

3. We fully comprehend that all that wealth that, if it were ours, would surely help us to solve many of our daily problems, does not really guarantee its current owners one iota more of happiness.

4. We fight against all that hinders opportunities, like the risk weighted capital requirements for banks with which regulators have basically decreed inequality. In the same vein we need to combat all criminal or unproductive accumulation of wealth, like that obtained by means of corruption or the excessive exploitation of monopoly elements. 

5. And finally (especially as a Venezuelan) we have to fight tooth and nail against all the redistribution profiteers, those who instigate envy and class hatred only in order become themselves the neo-Plutocrats.

PS. And though for much more than reducing inequality, I do believe in a Universal Basic Income.