Monday, December 19, 2011

If I were a rich man

Last week, there was a Forbes article entitled If I were a poor black kid, in which a wealthy white guy explained how poor urban black kids might pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This side of the pond, despite being in the middle of a recession, with all the random misfortune that entails for ordinary people, the UK government, peopled (though largely manned) by extremely wealthy, privately educated, white straight non-disabled Oxbridge graduates, are constantly talking about the fecklessness of the poor and the need to send out specialist trouble-shooters to deal with troubled families (which, according to the criteria, mine would be, if I had children). All of which seem to amount to the philosophical standpoint that states
If I were poor, I wouldn't be poor any more.
Then on Friday, David Cameron professed his own vague Christianity, and the importance of Christian values to fixing the country's problems. Presumably Cameron reads the New Testament (ha! As if he had actually read it!) as a morality tale: If only Jesus had knuckled down at his academic studies as opposed to learning to make rustic garden furniture with his father, he might have appreciated what the money-lenders were up to in the temple, and may have been able to afford a decent lawyer when he got into that scrape with the Romans.

I suppose I'm lucky. New Testament Christianity, humanist virtue ethics and the moral codes of almost all other world religions, put me in a rather privileged position. My responsibilities for doing good are greatly restricted by my energy levels and finances. I have the responsibility that comes with being rich relative to most people in the world, but I am surrounded by people who are much richer and far more capable of doing good than I am. As Lady Marchmain says in Brideshead Revisited, the poor have always been the favourite of God, whereas rich people have been desperately investing in camel-moleculising technology for centuries.

So from my position of almost innate virtue and particularly in the run-up to Christmas, when the world freezes over but Scrooge's heart thaws, I thought I should offer my wealthier readers some advice on how to establish a soul as sparkly clean as my own.

If I were a rich man...

Naturally, I would biddy-biddy bong for much of the day (though perhaps not all day long, as the song suggests – I'm no hedonist). Otherwise, there are a few things I would do to make sure that I fulfilled my responsibilities to the world which made me so wealthy.

I would

Pay every penny of tax I owed, publically volunteer to pay more tax and campaign for higher taxes for people like me.

All governments waste money, but there are lots of things which it is both most efficient and desirable to achieve through tax, as opposed to individual enterprise, charity, volunteering, private armies and so forth. Quite where the balance lies between what tax should pay for and what should be left up to individuals is up for eternal debate, and having a particular position in this debate is the foundation for some of our political parties. However, some of this stuff is the basis of a civilised society – like emergency services available to everyone, free school-age education, free healthcare and the welfare safety net.

In the UK, there is no mainstream political party who argues against the sanctity of these provisions, but the quality of them is fast being diminished by the current government, because of the crash. Frankly, this lot are attempting to solve the financial crisis by taking money from the poorest people and then scapegoating them as the root of the problem. This is having only mixed success; poor people are an easy target, but it won't help the deficit because poor people are not very costly and we will pay for them, one way or another.

The most obvious answer is that the very wealthiest people should pay more tax. They can afford to. The Robin Hood tax was a brilliant idea. The idea that we risk scaring away wealthy people is just daft. The only wealthy people we risk losing through high taxes are greedy bastards. So Scotland lost Sean Connery that way, but then I never found his accent convincing.

I'd also

Use, Support and Get Involved in my Local Public Services

All too often, wealthy people deny public services their social capital by sending their children to private schools, using private healthcare, living in gated communities and so on. Public services need wealthier people in order to survive and prosper. Public services are great! They are either free or massively subsidised at the point of delivery! They are interconnected and whilst not perfect, have developed with the public interest in mind over many decades. The private alternatives only want to make money out of the people who use them, which is why private healthcare-users are persuaded to have all kinds of bits and pieces removed - wisdom teeth, foreskins, appendices, self-esteem, life savings - regardless of medical need.

It's no accident that if you drive around London, public streets inhabited by wealthier people are better kept; they are cleaner, road surfaces are in better repair, they are safer. This isn't because councils quietly decide to privilege wealthier residents. But wealthier residents are more likely to be home-owners, they are more likely to consider themselves entitled to good roads, be able to organise themselves and make a fuss if there's a problem. And they are more likely to be listened to.

When wealthy people use their social capital to make a difference to other public services, they really do make a difference.  The great tragedy for our country at the moment isn't that the coalition is dominated by the Conservatives, a party which naturally leans towards the interests of the individual, but that we have a government dominated by youngish rich people who have never had to rely on the services that the rest of us use all the time.

I would also

Have a collection of electric cars and have a home which generates electricity.

Poor people have very few options when it comes to their environmental responsibilities. Unemployed people need to heat and light their homes whilst everyone else is at work. Disabled people are often unable to use public transport and have to use the pre-packaged or disposable option. Poor people often have no option to shop ethically and, especially in cities, poor people often live in tower-block housing where household rubbish cannot be sorted and there are no easily accessible recycling facilities. However, as a rule, because poor people buy less stuff, go out less, live in closer proximity to others and have fewer holidays, they generally have a lower than average carbon footprint.

For middle-income households (£40K is apparently now average for a household with two working adults – yikes!), some environmental matters are dead easy, but the bigger investments are difficult – you might be able to afford to install solar panels, or buy an electric car, but these things have a large initial outlay, which only pays you back over a period of years (and in the UK, government grants have just vanished). Meanwhile, as people who buy more stuff and travel about more, middle-income households are usually quite bad for the environment. I think it takes a lot of strength for someone in this bracket to do the right thing – so if you are and you do, well done!

If you are seriously wealthy, however, there is no excuse. People who own extensive land and property, but are still taking power from the grid as opposed to putting  itback, people who have a collection of cars and none of them are electric? Well they are a burden on the future of humankind.

I'd also

Make sure at least 10% of my income went to charity, including some to

  • schemes which make a massive difference to people's lives. For example, Deworm the World, which keeps millions of children in good health and in school or Camfed which ensures the education of girls. If you educate girls in Africa, then they are much more likely to have healthy and comfortable lives, they are much less vulnerable to HIV, they are likely to have fewer babies, which increases the prospects for them and their children, but it helps to slow down population growth with a view to saving the world. Giving girls an education is by far the most effective form of population control – more effective than even then most draconian measures.
  • schemes which help save lives. For example, organisation such as the Against Malaria Foundation are extremely open about how money is spent and really can save a lot of lives for your lolly.

For a long time, I imagined that all working people who considered themselves Christian paid 10% to charity – I thought it was in the rules, like Zakat in Islam. The conversation that disillusioned me was with someone whose household earnings were in excess of £50K, but who explained that they had a high mortgage and nothing to spare at all.  If Cameron was, as he claims, vaguely Christian, he might consider giving up at least 10% of his massive fortune and do so very publicly, to set an example to his colleagues and associates.

Poor people can afford to give little if anything to charity, but nevertheless give a far greater proportion of their income than richer people. If you are hard up but not stony broke, one way of helping others is through Kiva loans. You can loan someone in the developing world to improve their life or business, and you will get paid back.

Finally, if I were a rich man, I would

Apply vigorous ethics to all my business and consumer choices

Poor people can not always afford to make ethical consumer choices. For example, if I couldn't afford to buy Fair Trade teabags, bananas, chocolate etc., then I could do without and I buy almost all my clothes second hand. But when I need knickers, second hand isn't an option and I can't afford £10 a pair for Fair Trade – I have to buy cheap knickers that were probably made by people working in very poor conditions, paid much less than I have to live on. But it's those knickers or no knickers. If you do spend £10 on knickers, I suggest Who Made Your Pants?.

Rich people, however, not only have the money to make all ethical consumer choices, but they often have lifestyles which allow them to make a difference in all kinds of contexts. They can choose to look after their employees, even choose to employ people who others would not. They can choose to invest in good things and withdraw their investments from bad things – or use threats to withdraw in order to improve business practices.

Rich people can afford to to do so much good and they have a responsibility to do so. Making money is not, in and of itself, a virtue. Using money to make the make the world a better place, choosing to make less money than you would if you sacrificed the interests of other people and the environment, all that leaves a much more worthy and enduring legacy than the number of digits in the profit margin.

For better responses to If I were a poor black kid which actually address the American, urban and black kid bit, see
The Atlantic - A Muscular Empathy and
Pursuit of Harpyness - Uncle Whitey Explains It All with poignant David Simon quote.

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