We live in a culture that values people based on their economic power. It is not the value of how that money was earned, or how it is deployed, but the money itself. This is how we are able to entirely respect people whose wealth came to them by chance – via inheritance, by gambling, by using money to make money out of other people’s money. To make a fortune from share dividends is perfectly socially acceptable. Never mind that the pressure to create dividends pushes down wages and quality in order to cream off a layer, and undermines scope for re-investment. Never mind that the desire to make money at all costs is trashing the planet.
If we valued people in terms of the actual contribution they make to society, we might be able to look at whether the massively rich are as useful as they claim to be. We are told that affluence trickles down (I see Smaug on his pile of gold jealously watching the one coin bounce away). We are told that the wealthy create jobs and affluence for others. Only if we stop assuming this to be a truth and start looking at it will we be able to see whether or not its the case, but I have my suspicions. The gap between richest and poorest is growing all the time. If wealthy people were good for us all, surely we should all be gaining materially at about the same pace, not seeing a widening gap?
Money, as economist Molly Scott Cato has been pointing out a lot recently, is a social contract. It is about trust, and the means to move resources around in a community. Money exists to get things done, and can be very useful indeed in this regard. We can use it to measure how much we value something, and it saves having to get the right number of chickens when you fancy a new rug. Money as an expression of exchange can be a great social enabler on many levels.
On those terms, valuing a person in relation to their money makes sense. They are worth what the people around will pay for the things they make or the things they do. Money could therefore be expected to flow towards a person who is really useful and highly valued. However, what we’ve been able to do as a culture, is manufacture scarcity. When things are hard to get, exclusive, or rare, their value goes up. The person who can control the flow of resources can therefore create extra wealth. Not by adding more value to the world, but by artificially pushing up the cost. Keeping land vacant can be a way of pushing up land prices to make more money off it, for example.
We have the resources to feed, clothe, educate and power everyone, modestly. However, that doesn’t allow a minority to stockpile wealth. The desire for wealth has broken the trust-contract that money was created to represent. We don’t move things around fairly, and we push up the prices to make profits, and squeeze down wages, and that is having the effect of starving cash flows in our economies. We need to look very hard at our system that allows people to make money by moving money about, rather than by doing something useful. If we valued what people contribute a bit more, and valued their bank balances a bit less, we might have a cultural revolution on our hands, quietly and with no bloodshed.