World turned upside down
What is happening out there? Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, in a recent interview with the New York Times, called for the ‘mega-rich’ like himself to pay more in taxes. Is this a rare case of turkeys voting for Christmas?
Buffett noted that the mega-rich pay income tax at 15 percent on most investment income but practically nothing in income tax. Most workers in the USA pay between 15 and 25% in income tax. Buffett says he knows many of the mega-rich well, and most wouldn't mind paying more in taxes, especially when so many of their fellow citizens are suffering. He also said he has yet to see anyone shy away from investing because of tax rates on potential gains. ‘People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off,’ he said.
Then we have Nouriel Roubini, a New York University professor, arguing that Karl Marx's critique of capitalism is being played out in the present global financial crisis. ‘Karl Marx got it right,’ he says, ‘at some point capitalism can destroy itself. We thought markets worked. They're not working.’
He characterises the free market as: ‘The rich run a global system that allows them to accumulate capital and pay the lowest possible price for labour. The freedom that results applies only to them. The many simply have to work harder, in conditions that grow ever more insecure, to enrich the few’. Roubini earned himself the nickname ‘Dr Doom’ for being one of the first economic commentators to declare that there was something rotten and the core of the world's economic system.
These are not isolated cases. Leading newspapers in many countries are today discussing Marx, only a few years after the ‘end of history’ was declared with the demise of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe.
However, the real power brokers - most global financial institutions and political leaders are still advocating wholly orthodox approaches to managing budget deficits and economic instability. The truth is perhaps too scary for them to contemplate. Either that or the temporary winners in the current system are simply filling their pockets with as much as they can before the next even bigger crash.
While the recent riots can hardly be described as working class uprisings, they do reflect the dire situation the present capitalist system finds itself in despite their inarticulacy and wanton vandalism. Those, like Cameron and his fellow Bullingdon boys, who regard these riots as ‘criminality pure and simple’ will see no connection between Roubini's declaration that Marx was right and young people from the inner cities lifting TVs and brand labelled goods from high street shops.
Few would argue that those who took part in the riots were motivated by any higher sense of political insight, but for many it was probably a gut response to a system that pampers the richest and most privileged while ignoring their concerns. They might not be able to list the reasons for their anger and preparedness to simply rob to get what they want, but the unashamed greed, corruption and venality at the top of our political system cannot have completely passed them by.
Schools Minister Michael Gove raged against ‘these criminals’ on Newsnight. This is the same Michael Gove who confused one of his houses with another in order to avail himself of £7,000 (or £13,000, depending on which house you think was which) of taxpayers’ money to which he was not entitled.
Or take Salford MP Hazel Blears, who was loudly calling for draconian action against looters. Is there any ethical distinction between Blears’s expense cheating and tax avoidance, and the robbery carried out by the looters? She cheated apparently forgot which house she lived in, and benefited to the tune of £18,000. Then there was Gerald Kaufman who submitted a claim for three months’ expenses totalling £14,301.60, which included £8,865 for a Bang & Olufsen television. And I could go on listing many more offences committed by our ‘outraged’ leaders. We have to ask who the real looters in our society are.
Even the police, charged with preventing crime and prosecuting criminals are up to their necks in corruption. Former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman thought nothing of enjoying free champagne dinners with those he was meant to be investigating, and then joined Murdoch’s company on leaving the Met. Or Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson who accepted £12,000 worth of health spa treatment from Champneys, which had an ex-executive editor of News International on its board. Nothing wrong with that, he claimed with outraged dignity. Can these people really be surprised when the country’s culture is swamped in greed and a lust for consumer goods of the most base kind?
We also have the chief political commentator of the Daily ‘Torygraph’, Peter Oborne, in his commentary on18 August, giving his readers a rare dose of home truth. What is the world coming to?
In his piece he said, ‘the moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom.’ He went on: ‘there was also something very phoney and hypocritical about all the shock and outrage expressed in parliament. MPs spoke about the week’s dreadful events as if they were nothing to do with them. I cannot accept that this is the case. Indeed, I believe that the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society. The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite. It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat. An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up.’
He wrote of the ‘feral rich’ who live in their safe enclaves of Chelsea and Kensington. Surely this must be like writing a suicide note? It will certainly have had the dowagers and city gents spewing up their croissants as they read his words over breakfast.
Rotherham MP Denis MacShane remarked that, “What the looters wanted was for a few minutes to enter the world of Sloane Street consumption.” This from the man who notoriously claimed £5,900 for eight laptops, but of course, as an MP he obtained them legally through expenses.
Cameron speaks of morality, but only as something to be applied to very poor: ‘We will restore a stronger sense of morality and responsibility – in every town, in every street and in every estate,’ he intoned.
As Oborne put it, ‘These double standards from Downing Street are symptomatic of widespread double standards at the very top of our society. The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the police and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.’
No, the recent riots are not the early sparks of a coming revolution, but they are the pus seeping from the ulcers of a system in terminal decay.