Something has been itching at me for a few weeks and I hadn’t been able to put it into words until now. Even now the best words aren’t my own, they belong to David Crosby (he of the Byrd’s and Crosby, Stills and Nash) when he told Marc Maron recently: “I have no respect for labels at all; because they are generally a way to not think about a thing”. Boom!
Labels are a lazy way for us to explain away, dismiss or belittle something that challenges our inherent biased world view. They are nothing more than a convenient way to reinforce confirmation biases and give the labeller a sense of superiority.
How often do you hear dehumanising labels such as “economic migrants”, “so called refugees”, “left wing loony” and “far right fascist”? These are some of the more common ones, but I’m sure we all hear and use some every day. My own personal weakness is to label “the centrists” as “I’m alright Jacks”.
It’s trite and lazy; many of the middle have valid concerns about the polarisation of politics and societal change. Just because I don’t share those fears, does not mean they are not real! An interesting thing happens when you stop using the comforting crutch of labels; a new self-awareness allows you to enter an open dialogue with those who you ideologically oppose.
I’ve read horrendous pieces this week, one that even put the word children in inverted commas, because the children in question were foreigners? We’ve seen refugees reclassified as “mobs” and “a plague of feral humans”. In echo’s of recent dark history we’ve heard calls for dental checks on Children from Calais. Never mind the economic fact that net migration always results in net growth for the country of resettlement.
I’ve seen this weekend factions on the Left squabbling over whom has the highest of high moral ground over refusing or reusing the pay rises for politicians. This infighting feeds into the label of the Left as divisive and disorganised. He said, she said politics belongs in the school yard.
There are several labels bandied about on a daily basis, but there is one that is so ubiquitous, so pervasive as to be perverted that I must once more address. That of course is the much loved by the commentariat “Populist”.
I’ve written before about how whenever you read or hear Populist used, you should substitute in the word Democracy and see what effect this would have on the sentence. For example, consider when the Lame Duck Taoiseach enda kenny told the Super-duper World Economic Forum in Davos that “It’s very easy to lose all that hard-won gain and recovery by drifting towards a sense of populism (democracy) without clarity about what that might deliver”.
Now apart from enda trotting out his favourite buzzwords, recovery and clarity, what he said is that all the indicators are that growth is back and that tinkering with the democratic blueprint now would put that at risk. In summary, democratic calls for change risk changing things.
But he has, not for the first time, missed the point entirely. He has mistaken Growth for Progress, or to simplify it, he has mistaken Economic Progress for Poverty Eradication.
What is actually happening is economic growth that is exacerbating poverty.This is not unique in history, in fact, it is a well documented, often repeated mistake of Government. Most famously it was exposed by Henry George’s Progress & Poverty.
At the end of the nineteenth century industrialisation had dramatically changed the face of America. New technologies were opening up new frontiers and global trade meant access to the best bits of the wider world. Wealth mushroomed and luxury items from foreign lands arrived in US ports several times a day. But, not unlike today, something counter-intuitive was also happening. People were getting poorer.
You see, as George explains, the relationship between progress and poverty is not symbiotic, in fact it can be very parasitic. The three factors of production are Land, Labour and Capital.
The person with productive/valuable land (land here includes all forms of natural resources) is worth a fortune, the Labourers (wealth producers) get only a small fraction of what they produce and the owner can suppress the wages in line with the high demand for these jobs.
The labour works efficiently at the land/resource/company to where productivity increases. This drives demand that results in rent also increasing and thus actual wealth of the labour falls.
Think about it, a large employer, paying low Corporation Taxes, with its pick of the labour market, uses its natural resources/wealth/share of a market to garner higher productivity, that in turn leads to higher (low taxed) profits, higher rents for the workforce and lower standards of living for the wider community.
Most of the benefits (low taxation, free infrastructure and favourable enterprise deals) are done in order to help the land owner. These they use to raise higher profits while driving down wages in real terms. The inevitable next step is industrial unrest. Workers, finding themselves left behind, see the large profits, hear talk about economic “recovery” and naturally want some of this growth for themselves. It was true in the late nineteenth century and it is very true today.
What is more, the solutions offered back then are as simple and relevant as they are today. George maintained that all men and women of this earth are equal and should be allowed access to the “land”. He points out that it was not nobility or human superiority that gave land, but possession of land that gave humans nobility and a sense of superiority.
Now I know in a global market we cannot go around ripping up trade deals, grabbing natural resources from those who control them or forcing Multinational’s to distribute all of their stateless profits. But we can use the laws, taxation and legal, to decrease the gap over time. We can lessen taxes on productive industries that will agree to make strategic choices that mean labourers share in the successes. We can incentivise production by taxing unused land/resources, eliminating speculators and thus creating more opportunity for more people to benefit.
Over time, such strategies will lead to land/resources changing hands more often. We’d have more people able to partake in new industries we haven’t even created yet. We would see a more motivated labour force, one that sees a more equal society. Wealth would still increase, but it would do so in such a way as to be of a wider benefit.
There’s no such thing as equality of opportunity, it’s a myth. But there can be such a thing as opportunity of achievement. Enda and the populist bashers are miles away from the types of policies that could lead us to this system. They’re still stuck in the loop of boom/bust and in trusting in trickle-down economics.
We are seeing advances in technology that will automate many jobs in the near future. We will need to have a real and serious debate on the basic income model within the next ten years. These ideas are not Populist, they are facts that have yet to materialise.
Besides, Populist is a just a disrespectful label, used as a way to not have to address democratic and economic realities. Today’s reality is that a Recovery is not a Recovery if the people are left behind and if thinking there’s a better way to build a better society labels me a populist, then so be it.
Anybody can call names. I’ve yet to hear a lazy commentator offer workable solutions. At least populism comes with progressive ideas.At least populism gives pause to the growing inequality. At least populism is about inclusiveness.
A funny thing about Henry George and his late nineteenth century realignment cohorts, they were also labelled Populists. So I’m in good company.
Tony Groves October 2016
Image stolen once more from the excellent @Feckthelottom