Wealth Distribution Goes Awry

wealth inequality -99 get smart

We are living in a time and a nation where there is a disparity in wealth distribution, when the distribution of wealth has gone awry. We have all heard that the top 1% have wealth that is out of all proportion to what the other 99% of us share. We see what such a disproportionate access to economic resources does to every aspect of our society. When the rich fix the machinery of the economy so as to deliver the main share of wealth, that is supposed to circulated throughout the culture, into their own pockets, bank accounts, investment instruments, and perhaps their businesses, the entire economy is disrupted.

Rich folks seem to be emboldened by their wealth to believe that they have done something to deserve the riches they have amassed; that money equals entitlement and is proof that they have been somehow chosen. It could be that wealthy people have poured money into politics to get laws passed that ensure that wealth moves up the ladder; that they get all the cream off the top. But then they have some kind of selective amnesia and they forget that they made sure that the croupier would shovel the largest share of chips in their direction.

Once a few individuals come to feel that they are superior to all of the lowlier folks in their culture, once they are isolated into a class of their own they, of course, do not want to lose any of the wealth they have amassed. Since they see everyone else as less worthy they become disinclined to offer benefits to the unlucky and the lazy, which means everyone poorer than they are. They want to pay workers as little as possible because it comes out of their pockets as they see it. They lose sight of what will happen if there are no consumers in the marketplace. They seem to think that their funds will magically keep multiplying.

They don’t like things like unemployment insurance, health insurance, a minimum food and housing allowance. Since they do not live in the same neighborhoods as poor members of their culture the problems of poverty that affect middle class people do not impinge on the wealthy. They lose their empathy. And they forget that everything is interconnected; that eventually the filth and disease of the neglected will infiltrate their privileged domains. They buy land and build an isolated and self-sufficient kingdom. But will their kingdom rely on the labor of the less-well-off? If their paranoia makes such an arrangement suspect they might actually have to become laborers again at some point. Perhaps they don’t entertain profound thoughts at all while yachting and partying and paying lobbyists and super PACs to keep the right people in power.

Without consulting history it seems as if this problem is unique to 21st century America, but obviously this is not so. Wealth distribution can fail whenever wealth and power get concentrated in a relatively small group of citizens of a nation. When wealth gets stuck in the pockets of a group of powerful people eventually something happens to redistribute that wealth. It could be accomplished with sensible laws and raised taxes on the wealthiest class. It could be accomplished by order of a dictator like Mao who turned the Chinese economy upside down with his Cultural Revolution. It could be accomplished by a war which brings all classes together with a common purpose so that the classes mix, and empathy and community feeling are engendered. Or a revolution.

I keep hoping we will find a relatively benign and political solution to our own growing wealth inequality that is creating a greedy class and is pinching everyone else. Democrats are the party that would like to find ways to distribute wealth more fairly but Democrats are out-of-power. They have won a toehold in the House of Representatives but, without any support from the opposition in the Senate important initiatives will not be enacted. Our only hope is to prepare an agenda and find a path to win a majority in both houses of Congress and, the Presidency in 2020. We have had plenty of wars but they are not the threat-to-all-humanity kinds of wars that serve as class equalizers. And we might get ourselves a dictator but the current applicant for the job will have no interest in redistributing any wealth.

I have been reading Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts and there is Winston Churchill dealing with this exact situation early in his political career (1909-1910). He was born to the aristocracy, but his family had no money. His father was a well-known political figure but he stayed with his class. Winston switched to become a Liberal and defied his class and was subjected to predictable criticism, fortunately minimized because he was such a great speaker and original thinker with more energy than anyone else in government at the time. (It is even more bizarre to be reading this as the Brexit deal fails and Theresa May loses, not her seat but her power.)

Churchill also lost his bid to redistribute wealth in 1910 and he called for the government to be disbanded and for a new election. He did win a seat in the new election and he was given a post in the Home Office. The ‘People’s Budget’ eventually passed but reform was slow. We know that the British did pass social reforms that offered a safety net to British citizens.

Churchill, pg. 129

“The paternalist in Churchill wanted, in Masterman’s critical but essentially accurate phrase, ‘a state of things where a benign upper class dispensed benefits to an industrious bien pensantand grateful working class’”

Pg.129-130

“In April 1909 Lloyd George unleashed the naked class war that Churchill had predicted five months earlier, with his Finance Bill, soon nicknamed by Liberals the ‘People’s Budget’. In order to raise the extra £16 million, income tax would rise from 1s to 1s 2d in the pound (that is from 5 to 5.83 per cent), a supertax would be introduced on high incomes, as well as taxes on tobacco alcohol, motor cars and petrol, and a halfpenny per pound on the value of undeveloped land, with death duties of 25 per cent on property valued over £1 million, and a 20 per cent capital gains tax on land. This represented wealth redistribution on a scale unprecedented in recent British history…” “If that opposition could not be mollified or overcome and the Lords refused to pass the budget there would be a profound constitutional crisis.

“Tomorrow is the day of wrath!” Churchill told Clementine on 28 April, before a key vote on the Finance Bill. “I feel this Budget will be kill or cure: either we shall secure ample pounds for great reform next year, or the Lords will force a Dissolution in September.”

Pg. 130

“If I had my way I would write the word ‘insure’ over the door of every cottage and upon the blotting book of every public man, because I am convinced that by sacrifices which are inconceivably small, which are all within the reach of the very poorest man in regular work, families can be secured against catastrophes which otherwise would split them up forever… when through the death, the illness, or the invalidity of the bread-winner, the frail boat in which the fortunes of the family are embarked founders and the women and children are left to struggle helplessly in the dark waters of a friendless world.”

Pg. 131

“’The wealthy”, he said, in the course of a nearly 7000-word speech, ‘so far from being self-reliant, are dependent on the constant attention and waiting of scores and sometimes even hundreds of persons who are employed in ministering to their wants.’

In a speech in Leicester

“The issue will be whether the British people in the year of grace 1909 are going to…allow themselves to be dictated to and domineered over by a miserable minority of titled persons, who represent nobody, who are responsible for nobody, and who only scurry up to London to vote in their party interests, in their class interests, and in their own interests.”

“He now wanted the House of Lords to be stripped of its equality with the Commons, and therefore no longer capable of vetoing legislation sent to it by the democratically elected lower Chamber.”

“Churchill’s speech shocked many Tories, and led to protests from both the King and Prime Minister.”

Pg. 132

“In October, Churchill stoked the fire further and told a Dundee audience that it was ‘an extraordinary thing’ that 10,000 should own practically the whole land of Great Britain and that the rest should be trespassers on the soil on which they were born.”

Pg. 133

“On 4 November 1909, the People’s Budget passed the House of Commons.” (Paraphrasing)-If the Lords turned down the Budget the consequences would be a general election.

Pg. 134

“The Budget was rejected by 350 to 75. Parliament was dissolved two days later and an election called, voting to get under way on 14 January 1910, which the Liberals would fight on the slogan ‘The Peers versus the People.’

Pg. 135 (some early 20thcentury trash talk)

“Curzon complained that Churchill had the ‘manners of a mudlark’. Lord Newton spoke of the ‘nauseous cant of Winston Churchill’ and the Duke of Beaufort said he would like to see Churchill and Lloyd George ‘in the middle of twenty couples of drag hounds’.” (Since Winston and his wife Clementine belonged to the aristocracy, although they were quite poor, they suffered social setbacks as a result of Churchill’s politics, but Clementine was supportive of her husband.)”

I will read on and see if Churchill deserves any credit for the benefits Great Britain offers today. It seems like history is a sort of time machine which reminds us that we fight the same fights over and over again; that class struggles have existed as long as there have been human societies. It was both stunning and discouraging to see the parallels between the beginning of the 20thcentury and the beginning of the 21st. A Churchill, however, seems to be exactly what we need right now and I hope the Democrats find one.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – 99 Get Smart

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