Opinion: Rich lists and wealth, tax avoidance and trusts, shareholdings and conflicts of interest are getting a level of media attention. The other side of this, the daily grind facing those at the bottom, is not as attention grabbing.
Talking to a rich lister this week, I was asked why I kept talking about problems. Poverty, they said, was something that would never be fixed, we should focus on prosperity instead.
It was something I have often heard and there is sense to accentuating positive options rather than a negative or “deficit” focus. But it is not always the case.
The idea that poverty always exists is longstanding and was even, according to the Bible, and another person in the conversation, voiced by Jesus.
My religious education is sparse but I went searching. It turns out that these words attributed to Jesus were recorded in the Gospel of Mark but were themselves a reference to Deuteronomy in the Old Testament: “There will always be poor people in the land.”
So far so defeatist.
But the verse continues: “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”
So in biblical terms the invocation is not to accept poverty but to be generous towards it.
As it happens I don’t pay much attention to the annual rich list. I am aware this list is split between those trying to avoid attention and those vying for the attention of joining the list, often with some vigour. From either group the wealth numbers are about as accurate as self-reporting of alcohol consumption to your doctor.
But other research as well as anecdotal evidence confirms that there is a small group of very rich people in our country and a much bigger group with not enough. The largest numerical group is that between the two extremes where there are those aspiring and striving to enter the top rung, and those aspiring and striving not to join the bottom. This large group is the marketplace in which the major political parties largely ply their trade.
The Green Party has just released its “wealth and income” policy. I went along to listen to the launch and liked what I heard. For today’s purpose the details are not that important. The thrust is to raise incomes at the lowest level significantly through government actions and to impose higher taxation on higher income earners and the wealthy to fund this. I guess in the terms of the Bible we have learned (or at least the Greens have) that the wealthy have too often ignored God’s invocation and the government must step in to assist them to do so.
The Greens have staked out a ground on which any Labour Party member mindful of their own constitutional principle that “people are always more important than property and the state must ensure a just distribution of wealth” would have to feel at home with.
They might recall that in 1938 their revered leader Michael Joseph Savage described their social security reform as “applied Christianity”. Who knows but even a fundamentalist Christian politician might feel that way if they followed the right bits of the Bible.
What my religious education lacked was replaced by a bit of socialist education. Karl Marx is often credited with the injunction “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Which seems consistent with the redistributive ethos, with the idea of a caring community. In other words we should all contribute what we can and make sure everyone is looked after.
Adam Smith, much admired by “free market” advocates, was not too worried about inequality as such but he was concerned about poverty. He would not much have liked the rich list, writing that “the disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor or mean condition” is “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments”. He went so far as to describe the true measure of a nation’s wealth as not the holdings of an affluent few but rather the wage levels of “the labouring poor”.
So there we are. The Greens would seem to have God, Jesus, Karl Marx and Adam Smith in their corner. Not many current votes in that group but a “coalition of care” which covers a pretty wide range of thinking.
The Greens were keen to portray the policy as radical and in local electoral terms it may be but there are many other countries that are managing to work with such imposts on those who can afford it. Their stance is a vital counterweight to the idea that lowering tax rates for all and hoping that the benefits of higher incomes and wealth will somehow spread to those in need. Not even Adam Smith believed in that “invisible hand”.
If we choose to leave poverty and inequality as they are, to persevere as somehow inevitable, they will be. There is no free lunch. Some people have no lunch. Others can pay for multiple lunches. The Green tax and income policy is saying those who can pay for lunch, should.