The pernicious influence of the Rich List

By Sam Tomlin

Greed“One more dollar.” – The answer John D. Rockerfeller reportedly gave to the question ‘How much is enough?’

The latest Rich List came out the other day with news that the number of Billionaires had surpassed 100 for the first time. According to Martin Vander Weyer of the right-leaning Spectator, this should be celebrated. The main thrust of the argument is that it is ‘not about money, it’s about success’: the younger generation, who may have the audacity to believe that they are ‘starting out at a massive debt-laden disadvantage compared to their parents, who have wrecked the economy while accumulating lavish entitlements that their offspring will have to fund’, should be inspired to ‘achieve’ like those who have climbed the fiscal cliff that is the Rich List.

No problem that social mobility in the UK is among the lowest in all OECD countries with strength of parental earnings still significantly predicting earnings of their children, ‘The key point is that every generation makes its own its future and gains nothing by blaming its predecessors.’

There are, in fact countless faults in the argument for which there simply is not time to address. I briefly wanted to explore the deeper impact the Rich List on society, namely the normalisation of greed, of which the Rich List is perhaps the epitomising example.

The fictional character Gordon Gekko is famously quoted as saying: ‘The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.’

Almost interchangeably, Boris Johnson revived Gekko’s spirit in November when he said he valued inequality and hailed greed as a “valuable spur to economic activity”.

This is where compassionate fiscal conservatives get very nervous and try to argue away this self-seeking element of neoliberal capitalism: we require people to want to make massive profits as it benefits all of us by creating the wealth the rest of us minions rely on to live as it trickles its way down. At least Boris was being honest.

The issue is that without knowing it, greed seeps into our very essence and changes us. It tells us that we never quite have enough and so can never be fully satisfied. It gradually takes us away from the things in life which really matter, our communities, families and friends. We may not all necessarily have aspirations to be billionaires, but even on smaller scale it creates a fear that without copious money or things we will be unhappy.

It makes us justify seemingly absurd situations; for example, we have now created enough wealth to ensure everyone has a decent standard of living around the world and still have those at the top being vastly wealthy. The rights of the super-rich to hold onto what they have ‘earned’ is held higher, however, than the literal life and death situations in much of the sub-continent. How much more wealth will we need to create in order for world poverty to be eradicated? One would have thought the £1trillion owned by the richest 85 people might be approaching it. Apparently not.

Money is not always the answer to poverty of course. Perhaps what is needed to really create a better, fairer world is a change of heart and a more outward looking approach to prosperity and wellbeing. The antidote to greed (on a personal as well as societal level) is establishing what is ‘enough’ in life; taking time to properly relax and stop thinking about the price of things, but their value (the purpose of the Jewish concept of Sabbath); investing in relationships and prioritising them above work; thinking, at a deeper level, about the purpose of life – something our society rarely gives us the opportunity to do.

But as long as lists exist which celebrate the accumulating of vast wealth (can there be another word to describe this than greed?), or at least ‘success’ if you are Vander Weyer (defined curiously in terms of money..), it is questionable whether we will be able to reach that point.

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