DAS KAPITAL: Billionaires’ Ball, Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality – By Linda McQuaid and Neil Brooks

Source – lindamcquaig.com

The Trouble With Billionaires, How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World and How We Can Take It Back (Published in the US under the title BILLIONAIRES’ BALL:
Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality):

“A devastating expose of the real-world impact of extreme wealth concentration from two of our most rigorous, knowledgeable and humorous chroniclers of corporate excess. An indispensable read for this political moment.”
  – Naomi Klein, author, The Shock Doctrine

 – The glittering lives of billionaires may seem like a harmless source of entertainment. But such concentrated economic power reverberates throughout society, threatening the quality of life and the very functioning of democracy. It’s no accident that the United States claims the most billionaires – but suffers among the highest rates of infant mortality and crime, the shortest life expectancy, as well as the lowest rates of social mobility and electoral political participation in the developed world.

Our society tends to regard large fortunes as evidence of great talent or accomplishment. Yet the vast new wealth isn’t due to an increase in talent or effort at the top, but rather to changing social attitudes legitimizing greed and government policy changes that favour the new elite. Authoritative and eye-opening, The Trouble With Billionaires will spark debate about the kind of society we want.

From The Trouble With Billionaires

Imagine this: you are given one dollar every second.

At that rate, after one minute, you would have 60 dollars. After twelve days, you would be a millionaire – something beyond the wildest dreams of most people on Earth.

But how long would it take to become a billionaire?

Well, at that rate, it would take almost 32 years.

Being a billionaire isn’t just beyond the wildest dreams of most people on Earth, it’s likely beyond their comprehension.

Another way to grasp the sheer size of the fortunes of billionaires is to imagine how long it would take Bill Gates, generally considered the world’s richest man, to count his $53 billion fortune. If he counted it at the same rate – one dollar every second – and he counted non-stop day and night, he would have it all counted in 1,680 years.

Or another way to look at it: if Bill Gates had started counting his fortune at that rate back in 330 AD – the same year the Roman emperor Constantine had his wife boiled alive and chose Byzantium as the Empire’s new capital – he would just be finishing up now.


Book Review: The Trouble with Billionaires – By J. Peter Venton

In this book, the authors present a comprehensive and detailed case against the extreme inequality in the distribution of income and wealth that has developed in the U.S. and, to a lesser degree, in Canada over the past thirty years.  In the U.S. the share of income earned by the top 1% of income earners increased from just under 10% in the postwar years to 24% in 2008. The case is supported by evidence-based research by economists, political scientists, other social scientists and epidemiologists as well as many factual anecdotes.

The authors maintain that the increases in inequality in both countries have been largely driven by  wealthy elites who have captured the political agendas.  Inequality has not been the result of forces inherent in the free market capitalist economic systems.  In both Canada and the U.S. the authors document how the wealthy elite have subverted democracies by advancing their economic interests at the expense of the values of the majority.

For example, U.S polls around 2000 showed that 74% of American voters preferred spending surpluses on social security to tax cuts. Nevertheless Republicans implemented tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. In a March 2001 survey, 73% of Americans favoured tax cuts that would be aimed more at middle income Americans than across- the- board cuts that would give the largest share of the cut to wealthy Americans.

Despite these preferences, the richest 0.1 percent of Americans saved 284 times more from the Bush tax cuts between 2001 and 2010 than people in the middle 20 percent of the U.S. income distribution.” For Canada the authors describe how business men and the wealthy succeeded in pressuring the federal government to eliminate  estate taxes in 1971, how they blocked attempts of finance ministers in 1972 and 1981 to make the income tax more progressive,  how they influence the change in rules on family trusts in 1991 that saved wealthy families untold billions.

Increasing inequality has created a lot of collateral damage.  It has been bad for the health and social well being of citizens.  It has reduced social mobility which is at the heart of the American Dream.  And it has been bad for the economy as it has reduced economic growth and increased unemployment.  Indeed increasing inequality was one of the primary factors causing the Great Depression of the 1930s and the financial crisis of 2008.

A central argument in the book is that the wealthy elite deserve only a fraction of their legally- earned income.  Much of the success of billionaires can be attributed to past scientific and technological  breakthroughs that properly belong to society as a whole rather than to individuals.  Another part of the  success of billionaires results from government policies that enhance markets for their products and services by enforcing property rights and by giving them degrees of monopoly power (e.g., through patent legislation on pharmaceuticals and computer software, and  copyright laws).

Government regulations  on international trade, banking and commerce also contribute to their success.  Last but not least, the authors’ analysis of billionaires Bill Gates, John Paulson and Warren Buffet reveal  instances where their  success has been, to a significant extent, the result of just plain luck,  connections or government bail outs rather than hard work or innovation.

To reverse inequality in Canada, the authors propose an inheritance tax, increased marginal tax rates of 15% and 25% on incomes over  $500,000 and $2,500,000 respectively, and the elimination of tax loop holes.  In addition they propose that Canada support international measures for a clampdown on tax avoiders and evaders that would involve the establishment of a simple international system for reporting financial transactions.  Finally they recommend (that Canada) support the international implementation of a financial transaction tax (often referred to as the “Tobin tax”).  Such a tax would impact primarily on the wealthy, raise much needed revenues for governments and curb short term financial speculation that adds little value to the economy.

The book concludes with an exhortation to strive to change current social attitudes about the role of progressive taxation in a democracy – attitudes that neoconservatives have successfully propagated with fallacious arguments.  The following fallacies stand out.

1.The assertion that the wealthy work harder  is not supported by systematic evidence.  At the anecdotal level, individuals on minimum wage who have two jobs to make ends meet work harder than many CEOs.  Moreover it is illogical to assume that Canadian CEOs who work 60 hours a week or 1.5 times a 40 hour week of an average Canadian deserve pay that is 45 times greater than the average Canadian.

2. The assertion that extreme pay levels are necessary to motivate high performance is not supported by any systematic evidence.  Are the top 400 U.S. earners in 2006 who were paid 19 times more than  the top 400 U.S. earners in 1961 (in 2006 dollars) more motivated?  Where is the evidence?

3. The assertion that high CEO pay for performance is analogous to the pay of sports superstars is false.  Sports superstars’ pay is based on measures that are objectively related to their  performance;  there are no such realistic measures of performance for CEOs of large corporations.

4. The slogan about “tax freedom day” gives the false impression  that taxes completely eliminate the freedom of businesses to exchange in markets. It ignores the  fact that at least a majority of citizens have freely chosen through their  elected  representatives government services over private services.  They may have chosen government services because they are less costly than  private  services (e.g., education) or because it is simply not  feasible to provide the services in private markets (e.g., defense and policing services)  or because they are  less  risky (e.g., municipal water).  So tax freedom day should be repositioned as “paid  up” public services day.

5. One of the rationales for taxation is to fund activities that are in the public interest. Neoconservatives rely on public choice theory to suggest that there  is no such thing as the “public interest” (only a collection of private interests) in order to discredit their rationale for taxation.  However the authors point out that public choice theory is based on two false assumptions:  (1) humans are  exclusively concerned  with their own welfare and (2) individual  welfare depends solely  on material  goods.

The authors’ exhortations to change social attitudes about taxation are directed to the left and the progressives who have abandoned the moral high ground for protesting against the concentration of wealth. Apparently  they view it as a losing proposition and an unwise political strategy.  In this regard they are advised to develop moral counter arguments to the neoconservatives’  “moral” positioning of progressive taxation as  “class warfare” and “the enemy of hard working citizens trying to live the American Dream”.   The authors have explained how the American Dream has already been compromised by the loss of social mobility.  The more recent charge of “class warfare” completely ignores the democratic polity’s aim of fairness.  This aim was embodied in the implicit social contracts in postwar Canada and the U.S. that combined highly progressive taxation systems with good economic growth where both business and labour were in relative harmony.

In his book The Conscience of a Liberal Nobel prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman states that (in the U.S.) “This age of economic equality roughly corresponded to the golden age of political bipartisanship “.  In this context the implicit social contract could be said to be truly democratic and hence legitimate.  The book presents a coherent explanation of how the wealthy elite breached this contract. In this light the authors’ proposals can be positioned as a remedy to correct a class action suit for breach of contract.

In my view the analysis and proposals in this book provide a good foundation for the development of a coherent historically- buttressed ideological narrative for progressives and the left in Canada.  In contrast with the neoconservative ideology it would be evidence-based and resonate with the aims and aspirations of a majority of Canadians.  Such a narrative might serve as a manifesto for beneficial change that would address the frustrations of the participants in the Occupy Canada movement.


Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment.
As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989 for writing a series of articles which sparked a public inquiry into the activities of Ontario political lobbyist Patti Starr, and eventually led to Starr’s imprisonment. And as a Senior Writer for Maclean’s magazine, McQuaig (and Ian Austen) wrote two cover stories probing the questionable business dealings of Conrad Black in connection with a US takeover bid in the early 1980s. An irate Black suggested on CBC radio that McQuaig should be horsewhipped.
In 1991, she was awarded an Atkinson Fellowship for Journalism in Public Policy to study the social welfare systems in Europe and North America.
From 2002 to 2013, McQuaig wrote an op-ed column for the Toronto Star. Since April 2014, she has been writing a weekly column for ipolitics.ca.
She was the NDP candidate in the federal by-election in Toronto Centre in November 2013.
She is author of nine books on politics and economics – including six national bestsellers – such as Shooting the Hippo (short-listed for the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction), The Cult of Impotence, All You Can Eat, and It’s the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet. Her most recent book, co-authored with Neil Brooks, is The Trouble with Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World (and How We Can Take It Back).


2 thoughts on “DAS KAPITAL: Billionaires’ Ball, Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality – By Linda McQuaid and Neil Brooks

  1. Pingback: DAS KAPITAL: ‘Buttons & Rainbows’, The Enduring Myth of ‘Heroic Capitalism’ in the Twenty-First Century | RIELPOLITIK

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