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Boris must eat the rich It's time the PM started levelling down

Washing down his cake (TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)


February 17, 2022   5 mins

I suppose, if you really wanted to stretch a point, Marie Antoinette’s proposal to “let them eat cake” could be cast as an early expression of the whole levelling up agenda. After all, that famous phrase could be twisted to mean “cake for all” — not, of course, that the revolutionaries would have been in the slightest bit convinced.

They would have recognised that the rhetoric of levelling up can all too easily be conscripted as a clever alibi for the maintenance of the status quo. It implies that those of us who are wealthy do not need to change our ways, that others can aspire to our level, that levelling up for some will not mean levelling down for others. Levelling up doesn’t frighten the rich. It implies that no one is going to take their precious cake away.

Of course, cake is the very last thing that the Prime Minister wants us to be thinking about now. Not only because it has become a symbol of the “one rule for us, another for them” thinking that has come to characterise his premiership. But also because he has ostentatiously broken the golden rule of class camouflage. As Keynes put it: “the capitalist classes were allowed to call the best part of the cake theirs and were theoretically free to consume it, on the tacit underlying condition that they consumed very little of it in practice.” Boris, meanwhile, has his cheeks stuffed full and has crumbs all down his shirt.

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So, desperate to avoid all mention of cake, Boris is off to Scotland for the half-term break to promote his levelling up agenda. It’s the great Boris rebranding exercise, a tour of less-well-off places that will benefit from his big plan. That is what we are supposed to think, anyway. It turns out that many of the places that have been awarded early levelling up funds are Tory-run areas that are relatively prosperous. Savid Javid’s constituency of Bromsgrove is set to receive £14.5 million and Nadine Dorries’s neck of the woods of Bedfordshire £26.7 million. Both of these areas are in the least deprived fifth of local authorities in the UK.

Economists like cake too, of course. Some think the important thing is that it is divided up equally. Others that it needs to be grown, with everyone getting a bigger piece even if that means some still get more than others. The Prime Minister — like pretty much all-mainstream political parties, with the possible exception of the Greens — is of this latter view. If the size of the cake remains the same, more for the poor will mean less for the rich. But if we grow the cake, we can support the poor without bothering the rich. One of these options is electoral kryptonite, the other is electoral gold.

There is a reason the Greens are the most sceptical about growth. As David Attenborough put it in his latest book: “Our first lesson from nature concerns growth. We have arrived at this moment of desperation as a result of our desire for perpetual growth in the world economy. But in a finite world, nothing can increase forever.” In other words, at some point the cake doesn’t get any bigger. Or rather, it gets bigger at the expense of the health of the planet. We all watch his lovely TV programmes, we ooh and aah at the cute images, we have a bit of a cry, we think of him as a national treasure. But we totally ignore the punchline.

The trouble with the growth is that is has been historically very bad at pricing in all the consequences of our comfortable lifestyles — things like carbon emission and nuclear waste. And if those, like Attenborough, who predict disaster are even half right, then the challenge for the foreseeable future will not be how to level up but how most of us can learn to level down. Levelling up is a luxury we can no longer afford.

No doubt the Tories will point to the fact that the levelling up agenda includes “£26 billion of public capital investment for the green industrial revolution and a transition to New Zero”. Which is another way of saying that the best way to get to less carbon is more and better capitalism, appropriately directed, supported by more and better technology. More gives us less. Of course we should be suspicious.

Tories will also say that Attenborough’s thought is dangerously watermelon-like: green on the outside, red in the middle. Some years ago, the philosopher Derek Parfit gave what is often said to be the decisive argument against egalitarianism: “Suppose that those who are better off suffer some misfortune, so that they become as badly off as everyone else. Since these events would remove the inequality, they must be in one way welcome… even though they would be worse off for some people, and better for no one. This implication seems to many to be quite absurd. I call this the Levelling Down Objection.” Equality, of the sort loved by the Left, makes no sense if it addresses the question of blindness by putting out everyone else’s eyes — so goes the Parfit objection to the levelling down agenda.

But this only works if we are sure that levelling up genuinely means aspiring to something better. Parfit’s levelling down criticism is an objection to equality as an end in itself. But the argument being put forward by radical Greens isn’t about equality; it’s that some version of levelling down — of the wealthy, even the moderately wealthy, having less, producing less, consuming less — is what we need to achieve in order for us to save the planet from catastrophe.

If Boris’s levelling up agenda is little more than a pork-barrel electoral ploy targeted at floating voters, and one that leaves a dangerous economic complacency intact, then “up” isn’t better, but just another meaningless metaphor — like growth itself — that reinforces our refusal to face what we are doing to the planet. If Attenborough is right, growth is killing us. So “up” isn’t always good. And we need more politicians brave enough to say it: we need to be talking more about levelling down as an aim, not as something to avoid.

Yes, there are very many people who do require a lot more economic support — some of whom live in this country, but most of whom don’t. The reduction of that tiny sliver of cake that this country used to give to the poorest in the world in foreign aid — from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5% — is an indication that Johnson doesn’t really give two hoots about levelling up the poorest in the world. So don’t be deceived: his levelling up agenda is just a smidgeon of Left-leaning cosplay to tickle up a few Red Wall voters. We should learn to despise this grinning cynicism.

Yet the proponents of levelling down still feel like grumpy Old Testament prophets, mad Green voices of doom crying in the wilderness. They are telling us something we do not want to hear. Something no one would ever vote for. I suppose Christianity has had a hand in associating “up” with something good and better and “down” with something bad. Up is towards heaven, down is towards the fiery pit and everlasting damnation. But these days, we are being led into fire by the language of more and of up.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

Economic growth is not predicated on infinite resources but is based on productivity gains, doing more with less. The computers and smart phones we are reading this article on, cost a fraction of what their ancestors did but have processing capacities thousands of time greater, since the First World War, farm land can produce 5 times as much food as it did before from the same number of hectares, the mechanisation of labour means that the same amount of work can be achieved with a fraction of the population. I could go on but the point is that the facile argument “you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet” is a straw man of no value to the debate at all.

This doesn’t mean there are no limits to growth, some resources are finite and environments do have a carrying capacity but these are stretched by population growth not economic growth, the solution to which does not lie in generalising poverty. Economic growth enables us maximise the productive capacity of the resources we have for the greatest number of people we can. It is the cure to, not the cause of the worlds ills.

As for levelling down. There will always be those who think that poverty is caused by wealth but this is rarely the case. The super rich have thousands of times more wealth than the average westerner but don’t consume thousands of times more materials. They don’t eat 50,000 calories a day or burn through thousands of times times more fuel. Most of their consumption is based on paying massively inflated prices for what is inherently rare. Taxing them more heavily would not increase food or oil production or free up any significant amount of resources, though it might shut down a few luxury boutiques and exclusive resorts. It would do nothing to move the dial on economic growth for the vast majority of the population.

Does this mean that wealth can’t be redistributed? No, but you can only efficiently redistribute between groups who’s consumption is similar. Taxing the upper middle class more could allow a redistribution to the low middle classes, as they compete for a very similar resource base. But then you have the problem of moral hazard. What if fewer people are willing to do complex and stressful jobs, when they can earn only slightly less doing far easier ones? This only increases the price of certain goods and services by making them rarer.

Giles thinks that the Greens and Attenborough are making hard choices to fix the world’s problems. They are not. They are peddling easy answers to complex issues and in doing so, they threaten to curtail the economic growth which is our best hope; and instead, bring about the very collapse they intend to avoid.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matthew Powell
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Good post, the problem is you totally misunderstand the world. You say:

“The super rich have thousands of times more wealth than the average westerner but don’t consume thousands of times more materials.”

The super rich are not what they were, throughout time they were ‘The Power Behind the Throne’, and in the 20th Century began to become the power behind the Global powers. Now in the digital age, and the day of Financial wealth, rather than wealth based on producing or loaning, they are evolved to be the ‘Global Elite’. A whole new species. Their thing is no longer $$$$ but Power.

The Elites own the capital – just these two years a dozen $ Trillion was created with debt on the plandemic – and passed into their hands. What we used to think of as ‘Money’ is not anymore, it is Finance – the Elites have $$$, and have it in Hedge Funds, Derivatives, Leverage and Margin, Fugazies of unimaginable power. Money is not now made by owning FORD stock, who make it by making and selling cars – it is made from ‘Financial Instruments’, it is digital imaginary stuff, but caries great power – and those with it, get more and more, as they have the monopoly on such things, and they own the control.

Now the Elites are not about $$$, or Money – they deal directly in Power. Devos, The WEF, the IMF, the FED, ECB, JCB, China Central Bank, they own those….

They are past money – now they work for one world government, one they will own, essentially – wile you will own nothing.

The Zero Sum Game Giles uses as a metaphor – that is over – now it is money at our level, and to the Elites, it is sheer Power they possess, and they have a monopoly on it. The world is a different paradigm now, digital, and we are obsolete in it.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I agree with you but I think of it still in terms of “money”. Money has always been essentially a symbol of energy to be exchanged. It is always in the picture of power whatever it’s form.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I agree with your assessment, not that of Matthew Powell.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago
Reply to  Karl Francis

The world outside your door agrees with Matthew Powell; actually, its the other way around. The world Matthew Powell sees actually exists.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Karl Francis

You agree with a conspiracy theorist who writes exactly the same comments in response to every single topic on the UnHerd forum? Who describes the population regularly as ‘sheeple’ though doesn’t seem brave enough to use his own name but a series of different pseudonyms….

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Nah, in the past the elites were driven solely by achieving power. They even killed their own families to achieve power.
Recent elites just want money.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Yes, quite simply, Sir Richard Attenborough is a charlatan, peddling lies and mis-information on the grounds of them being for the good of all of us. He has been called out in print by people who have proved that they know what they are talking about. He has ignored them in the hope that people will forget who the real scientists are.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

You are absolutely right. Maybe Giles should read one of Patrick Moore’s books, the original founder of Green Peace, who quit the organisation, once it was taken over by a Marxist Cabal. In his latest book, he points out some of the errors ( or plain lies) by Saint Richard A., who likes to bend facts, so they fit into his world view.

Last edited 2 years ago by Stephanie Surface
Penelope Lane
PL
Penelope Lane
2 years ago

We are not discussing Richard Attenborough. The article is about David Attenborough.

Mark Burbidge
Mark Burbidge
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Dickie was very good in Brighton Rock though !

Barbara Williams
BW
Barbara Williams
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Sir David Attenborough is sharing the reality of ecological overshoot which has resulted from the continued pursuit of growth after we exceeded the biocapacity of Earth in the 1970s. Any profit made nowadays is a further nail in our coffin and ecological collapse and the Sixth Mass Extinction are now well underway. Ecological overshoot – Wikipedia

Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

I can’t stand his endless lecturing about climate change.

Penelope Lane
PL
Penelope Lane
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

The article talks about Sir David Attenborough, not Sir Richard Attenborough.

Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Defensive guile.

Snake Oil Cat
Snake Oil Cat
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Eating 50,000 calories a day has obvious health consequences for those who want to stay around to enjoy their wealth. But there are plenty of ways the super rich burn thousands of times more energy and carbon than the ordinary toiler.
Private swimming pools
Private jets
Large yachts (not the sailing kind)
Grand building projects
And trips to space.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 years ago
Reply to  Snake Oil Cat

True, they can on specific days but my general point is that the material consumption of the super rich is not proportionate to their financial wealth. Just because an individual is worth billions does not mean that they are tying up a proportionate amount of goods and services which could be used by the wider population. The kind of wealth taxes which are advocated on the left would not lead to a general increase in prosperity.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Excellent comment.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

I’m always a little suspicious of anything that coincides so very neatly with an ‘eat the rich’ agenda. Hate the fat controller in his Rolls-Royce? Don’t work hard and get one yourself, just spit at his and tell him his big car is destroying the planet. See also holidays, big houses and wealth of all kinds.

That chippy spite has always been there. The old story of a Rolls being exported to New York. Scuffed in the UK docks by an angry docker, polished clean in NY as the dock worker admires it and says ‘Lads? One day, I’ll own a car like that.’

Shouldn’t we be at least a *little* suspicious when the desire to ‘save the planet’ maps so perfectly onto the hatred of oil companies, bonuses, capitalism – hell, good old fashioned excess and fun? These new puritans are too joyless to have sex or enjoy a sunset. The overlap must be one hell of a coincidence.

I do sometimes long for the days when working for Shell or ICI was a grand ambition, where cars were meant to be fast, where a lottery win meant a beach house and a pool, not just more guilt.

Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

No, not this time matey, the truth lies in the middle. I’ll have no truck with right or left bile on this one, it won’t wash.

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

Extreme poverty in the world has fallen from around 60% to 10% in the last 60 years as a consequence of economic growth; why does the article ignore this? If poorer countries reduce their birth rates to stability levels there would be even more improvement. Economic growth is determined by cheap energy production; why do Greens, Attenborough, Greta, et al ignore this? A mad rush to Net Zero will simply re-impoverish.
Levelling up will also be achieved by economic growth; redistribution via swingeing taxation will not achieve the same ends. Which is most valued and most motivating, an earned wage or a handout – have we learned nothing from the economic and oppressive failures of socialist experiments?

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

I find Giles Fraser’s loathing of Boris Johnson discombobulating. Should a vicar allow him/herself to loathe anyone ?
There is an association between Christianity and Socialism but I’m not sure of the best political route to a fairer world. It seems to be a matter of thrashing it out between us, doing the wrong thing for years, then the right thing until that stops working and becomes the wrong thing again.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Well said Claire!

Claire D
CD
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Karl Francis

Wish I thought so Karl, but thanks. I’ve deleted some of it, apologies to those who up-ticked for the sake of the deleted paragraph, if any.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

It was your last paragraph that got me, the Christianity/socialism bit. Also, your humility, uncertainty, hope and befuddlement. There’s too much arrogance rearing it’s ugly head in this debate. This matter is not clear cut, those who insist it is are peddling mere ideology. Again… well said Claire!

Last edited 2 years ago by Karl Francis
JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

Point of order, Mr Fraser. The UK foreign aid budget has done very little good at all, except to a few dictators, offshore bankers, and tax advisers , oh, and arms manufacturers. Good on the Tories for solving 2/7ths of the problem, but the only way it can be morally justifiable and economically sensible is to get the money directly to the poor, pursueing the old dictum about giving folks cows or fishing boats so that they can be economically productive and create wealth. Also of course to directly fund education and health care.

Even better, abolish state foreign aid altogether, give tax relief at rate of £1.50 for every £1 directly donated in line with those cow/boats/schools/clinics etc structures. It’s never generous to give away other people’s money, but that way the natural generosity of the reasonably well off would align with their natural goodness and common sense to make sure the money got where best needed.

David Barnett
David Barnett
2 years ago

Sorely lacking from most people’s education is the Cantillon Effect. In its narrow original formulation it explains how those closest to the source of new money benefit hugely at the expense of those downstream. So he who spends newly minted money first, in essence, gets something for nothing and the people downstream don’t yet realise that the money supply has been inflated. The recent “quantitative easing” is a classic example of enriching the privileged at the expense of the masses.
However, tax and redistribute simply cannot work, because of a Generalised Cantillon Effect. Whenever you concentrate resources by, say, taxation, those closest to the concentration point (i.e the government bureaucracy and its cronies) benefit first. This is why organisations such as the NHS have flourishing administrative layers and starving frontline workers.
Ultimately, we need to distinguish between the deserving rich (who became rich by innovating clever ways to the needs of their fellows) and the underserving rich who use politics to create a rigged system that allows them to parasitise the economy.
It requires careful analysis to discover and undo the apparatus of disguised banditry. However, I suggest the kinds of places to look are where the “rules of the game” restrict the entry of competitors to privileged incumbents (eg in banking), and where the incumbents are are shielded from meaningful liability for any malpractice (again, “authorised” banks are an example).
I would also argue that bureaucratic regulation is the friend of the parasites.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Barnett
Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

Interesting. BBC, in particular, Gary Linneker and Fiona Bruce salaries being close to a rigged bureaucratic taxation point. They are neither innovative nor deserving while definitely parasites and would argue the end of the licence. However, Owen Jones and other Guardian journos don’t need careful analysis. In old Russia they would be off to a gulag. No MSM journalist of either creed suffered financially from Covid. Neither did the shielded Civil Service. Which scrapheap do these ‘undeserving’ go on? They outnumber the multi millionaires by far. Do we punish the lucky by destroying them? The poor might get a tenner each from redistribution and the tradesmen and nannies would suffer with swathes of all ilk on the dole. I imagine the only undoing of disguised banditry would be natural disaster or nuclear war where the far worse underworld would rise to take their place.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Zorro Tomorrow

I’ve never understood the point of the BBC paying premium salaries for ‘stars’. It’s a public service broadcaster which should have a key goal of developing talent who we watch because of the quality of the tv programmes. And then that talent will move on to better salaries with other production companies.
But the BBC spends a fortune on the developed stars, who become complacent, and consequently have far less money to spend on quality programmes. So quality of programme and the presenters reduces.

Al M
AP
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Zorro Tomorrow

I think we’d be ok with regard to competition for traditionally working class jobs. Don’t expect many who get cast off from The Blob would end up retraining as sparkies, brickies or plumbers; even fewer will roll the sleeves of their boiler suit up and tackle a fatberg in the sewers. Paying them dole would, however undesirable, still be a vast cost saving.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

Witness the money to be made from allowing wind turbines on your land. Nice work if you can get it!

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago

“The reduction of that tiny sliver of cake that this country used to give to the poorest in the world in foreign aid — from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5% — is an indication that Johnson doesn’t really give two hoots about levelling up the poorest in the world. So don’t be deceived: his levelling up agenda is just a smidgeon of Left-leaning cosplay to tickle up a few Red Wall voters.”

Why should the British government care about levelling-up the poorest in the world? What was the enshrining of ‘0.7% of GDP to foreign aid’ into law if not a smidgeon of Left-leaning cosplay to tickle up a few Lib Dem voters?

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

I see no point in sending money abroad to arm warlords and bolster Swiss bank accounts. We’ve had Comic Relief for years now. There should be a school and running water in every village in Africa by now. Instead we send fat comedians like Lenny Henry and Dawn French to rub it in and pay charity CEOs 6 figure salaries to pontificate in high rise London Offices.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

When Attenborough explains how walruses can climb a cliff face, I might be prepared to listen to his other views. If he, and his followers, believe that we have damaged the Earth then I would like him to paint a picture of life without the use of fossil fuels. We would have none of our modern conveniences. He wouldn’t have been able to jet around the world and he would be looking at a British countryside without any trees because we would have used them to keep warm. Attenborough’s views are a danger to civilisation.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

I think with the current state of technology we can probably transition slowly away from fossil fuels towards an energy mix based on nuclear, with renewables providing the variable component. There are good reasons to do this beyond addressing climate change: energy security and air pollution,
Without nuclear, I don’t think it can be done, except at huge cost to the poorest, to the economy and to the reliability of the grid.

Mark Vernon
MV
Mark Vernon
2 years ago

‘I suppose Christianity has had a hand in associating “up” with something good and better and “down” with something bad.’

It’s not Christianity per se but a flatland reduction of it that seems to dominate now. Like everyone else, the church seems to have lost its way in the “reign of quantity”: the kingdom Jesus heralded has come to mean numerical survival and, preferably – because it is taken to be indicative of truth and blessing – numerical growth.

But there is an infinite version of reality. Actually, it’s not a version. William Blake, modernity’s greatest prophet, called it divine vision, in which a grain of sand is as lovely as a world. To see eternity in an hour is to embrace the reign of quality – to level up to the perception of God, discovered by stepping through heaven’s gate, built in Jerusalem’s wall.

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
2 years ago

Every time I see Attenborough the word ‘hypocrite’ comes to mind. Those luxury TV documentaries must be planting huge carbon footprints even as they are making a tidy sum for him and the BBC.

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago

If a new factory is built for the purpose of making, storing or distributing something and it employs ‘x’ number of people who were previously jobless then that is a ‘good thing’ surely?
With numbers, a £100 million investment could provide 50 people with an average wage with prospects for promotion for some and that money spent in local shops and services. For years.
If the government does it the Minister gets applauded. If a billionaire does it he’s a finagling devious capitalist. Why bother when the money markets can pay nearly as well without all the trouble?
Levelling down means nobody gets a Ferrari. No Rolls Royces means dozens of skilled tradesmen end up painting and decorating or window cleaning. For cash. Levelling up means training young people to do something worthwhile like building jets or fusion reactors instead of being £’000s in debt for three years of pointless media studies and *sporting injuries courses. (*Traditonally a bucket of cold water and frozen peas).
Attenborough, bless him, is a media luvvie and, at his age, his presence in a jungle involves a green screen. And quite rightly so.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  Zorro Tomorrow

Nobody daft enough to spend three years on media studies would be of any use helping to design fusion reactors.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

Stick to your church duties, Giles, and leave the woke propagandising to the experts. This article could have been written by the Labour Party executive, with their deep insight into poor people, the global climate and how the economy works.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

The Vicar of Bray is about to start a new verse, it seems.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 years ago

What about ‘levelling over’. If the market dictates that a landlord can charge £700 a month for a grotty flat in Deptford, why does it mean that they have to charge that much? Greed, maximisation of profit, looking after ones investment, all involve screwing over those with less security & ready cash in their lives; like most people below the age of 30.

James Chater
JC
James Chater
2 years ago
Reply to  Alex Stonor

It’s a massive scandal. Owning land just to rent, to make maximum income, is theft. I am lucky enough to have grown up in an era with the general guide: no more than 30% of net income should be paid in rent. I was also lucky enough to be able to get out of even paying this kind of sum. Mortgages were so much easier to secure.

Last edited 2 years ago by James Chater
John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

“Owning land just to rent, to make maximum income, is theft.”

Nonsense, sorry.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Alex Stonor

The market doesn’t dictate it. The market dictates that he can’t charge £1,000 or any other amount plucked from his bottom, and that he will let to the highest bidder. It’s the buyers who decide what the rent will be, not the seller.

James Chater
James Chater
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

If only buyers could (co)operate like that. Now, it’s always the seller’s market when comes to housing. It’s completely wrong. It must hurt local economies and other businesses when so much is simply filched by landlords.

Last edited 2 years ago by James Chater
John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

Once again, nonsense. We presently have a sellers market in property for the simple reason that central planning has created a shortage of property.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

By ‘central planning’, do you mean God?

David Lewis
David Lewis
2 years ago

Two years ago when the world faced a crisis, one group in our country reasoned: “I am a trained healthcare professional with the skills to help others during this crisis. Despite the personal risk to myself and my family, I will continue going to work to do my job and, indeed will even put in more hours and effort in view of the crisis.”
A second group said: “Wow, what an opportunity! I’ll borrow a coupla hundred grand off a mate, buy forty containers of dodgy PPE from a warehouse in Korea owned by another mate who happens to know a virologist in Wuhan. Then I’ll flog the dodgy PPE to the NHS and make enough cash to fund a dynasty, buy a knighthood, and never need to work again.”
Surely we need a mechanism within our society to applaud and reward the former group, and make the behaviour of the latter group impossible in the future? Furthermore, the latter group needs to be made to understand that their behaviour was EVIL.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

Oh dear me! What an abysmal, 4th form – worse, truly infantile – level of economic understanding. Giles, YOU are RICH compared to the vast majority of the world’s population. Do you give away half your income? If not, given your strong moral arguments for ‘equality’, why not?
Socialism, well, THAT always works well, doesn’t it? Did China lift millions of people out of poverty by becoming more socialist or more capitalist? And as for foreign aid, again, nations don’t become richer because of development aid but by following sensible policies favouring growth, avoiding becoming kleptocracies, and encouraging the private sector rather than nationalising every industry in site.
It truly beggars belief that any commentator can still come up with this garbage, but of course socialism is the ‘belief that never dies’.
Add to that the hysterical claims of the Greens and fallacious claims of resources running out, entirely ignoring the whole history of the beneficial effects of market pricing and technological development, just adds to the embarrassment.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

the argument being put forward by radical Greens isn’t about equality; it’s that some version of levelling down — of the wealthy, even the moderately wealthy, having less, producing less, consuming less — is what we need to achieve in order for us to save the planet from catastrophe.

The reason why some of us call bu115hit on Greens is that they are closet Marxists whose public utterances are deceitfully back to front. They don’t think the solution to “climate catastrophe” is levelling down. They just want levelling-down, and to fool people into tolerating it, they must pretend the “planet” faces catastrophe and expanding poverty is the solution.
Climate change is a grossly-overstated minor nuisance at worst, net beneficial at best, and in any case easily dealt with by switching to natural gas and nuclear power.
Maastricht was what lit the fires of Euroscepticism; you didn’t really hear of Eurosceptics before that. It took 27 years for Maastricht to bring about Brexit. Give or take, I’d give the shameful envirowhackjob political consensus about as long to collapse likewise. You didn’t really hear about climate change sceptics until the early 2000s, so I would say 2030 or soon after is when ecofascism crashes into the wall.

William Murphy
William Murphy
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

In 1993 I stayed at a lodge near Crater Lake in Oregon. The owner and I discussed the lack of global warming around the lake at the end of June. The road around the lake was closed by feet of snow, so I could not enjoy the spectacular scenery as much as I had hoped. The lodge owner noted how it was unlikely that the planet was warming significantly, as the global vegetation coverage was steadily increasing. As it has continued to increase for the last 29 years. Give them another 29 years and even the Greens might notice.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

“There is a reason the Greens are the most sceptical about growth. As David Attenborough put it in his latest book: “Our first lesson from nature concerns growth. We have arrived at this moment of desperation as a result of our desire for perpetual growth in the world economy. But in a finite world, nothing can increase forever.” In other words, at some point the cake doesn’t get any bigger. Or rather, it gets bigger at the expense of the health of the planet. We all watch his lovely TV programmes, we ooh and aah at the cute images, we have a bit of a cry, we think of him as a national treasure. But we totally ignore the punchline.”

This comment is a bit tangential to to article, but I’m going there anyway.

The hypothesis behind the above argument is wrong. It confuses economic growth with physical consumption and then extrapolates an oversimplified projection from a static view of today’s economics and technologies. Physicists a century ago were making a vaguely similar mistake in trying to predict when the sun would burn out by assuming it was powered by combustion, and came up with a maximum lifespan of 100 million years, which obviously placed a hard limit on the age of the earth itself and which conflicted with the evidence from the fossil record at the time. Once it was realised that the sun was a nuclear fusion furnace, things started to make sense.

I mention this example because clean limiltess energy, which we’ll probably achieve in our lifetimes, is the key to consuming ever more while making ever fewer demands upon the planet itself. It is true that at present our energy isn’t clean (and getting worse because of renewables too), we produce waste that we bury in the ground (or if we’re in the far east just chuck in the sea) and we farm in ways that displace ecosystems and take too much away from the natural order to be sustainable if the human population keeps growing.

However it is still completely wrong to take a snapshot of the present and categorise it as the mistake of expecting infinite growth on a finite planet. It makes three principle mistakes, the first mathematical, the second economic, and the third physical. The physical one I’ve dealt with already in the form of arguing that we could consume ever more by moving to depending upon endlessly recycled resources as opposed to depending upon depletion of irreplaceable ones – this is already happening, but requires plentiful, clean and above all cheap energy to complete. Once we crack clean nuclear power, that box is ticked.

The mathematical fallacy is simple: infinite growth does not require infinite resources, it only requires that incremental growth never quite ceases, in the same way that the progression towards 2 from 1 by successive halving of the increment never quite reaches 2. Infinite progression within finite boundaries is not merely possible but available in a simple proof.

The economic fallacy of course is the one that’s most relevant to the article, and it’s also fairly simple: it’s that as societies get richer, increasing amounts of economic output don’t depend upon physical resource use anyway, so societies can get wealthier – and hence display economic growth – without placing new demands upon physical resources.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

I must object to the penultimate paragraph – the reduction of the foreign aid budget in no way signifies that the levelling up agenda is not sincere. In fact if anything it supports it, by demonstrating a charity-begins-at-home mentality on the part of the government.

It is probably entirely specious to connect the two things at all, of course, because the levelling up agenda is not actually charity anyway, but an economic transformation project that woudl eventually pay for its initial costs in the form of higher growth. That’s the theory anyway, the problem is that nobody quite knows how to achieve this through government action, and if they did, Marxism would actually work.

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
2 years ago

Capitalism, despite it’s imperfections, is still the best way to add value to human endeavour. No incentives in the form of money or acclaim, no extra effort and no investment in improvement.

Last edited 2 years ago by Deb Grant
Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
2 years ago

If Attenborough is right, growth is killing us. So “up” isn’t always good.

Attenborough is pretty much wrong about everything. And the author’s grasp of economics is remarkably basic. Resources are replaceable with different resources that are applied differently when economic reality requires them to be.

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
2 years ago

In about 50-100 years time the western population will be declining. Africa will still be growing but the world population is likely to peak and then come down. AI, robotics and life sciences will increase productivity geometrically cure all ills and the humans alive then will have energy budgets undreamt of today. Creativity will blossom and the humans alive then will be fat happy and entertained for free for over 100 years each. Nirvana!
What happens after that? Well the AI takes over and we die out like the Neanderthals. Just one more short term evolutionary step on the road of discovery.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Just a few disconnected observations- probably subjective- from Singapore visiting family. Life is unfair. The Indian labourers and Philippina helpers are amazing. Just born into a culture where caste and religion and corruption have produced a passive set of Stakhanovites. A capitalist’s dream. Insane land prices and insane house prices. Young Singaporeans have been told to work hard and get the dream. It’s beginning to pale. But you’re better off than living in Malaysia which should be far richer but it’s a theocracy. Remember: Ottomans doing science and Europeans doing religion. Ottomans triumphant. Then it swapped. Result? Crazy consumerism: new taxes mean elite cars for $200k will cost maybe $400k. As the legislator said here- ‘it won’t make any difference to the ultra rich’. You really don’t need a pink Lambo on this island with max 60km speed limit and nowhere to drive. You can vroom the engine to accelerate for 100m. You’re paying $300k to go vroom vroom. Oh dear. Ex pats are well paid and love 20% taxes. Then moan about very high school and medical costs. They are high. Other son in Finland. Higher taxes but fantastic pre school almost ‘free’ and ‘free uni’. Finnish families probably happier. Demographics are happening here too. Raising taxes a bit or you will have old people in the streets.Young Singaporeans not having kids. Too expensive. Finally, food. Quality of life depends on enjoying a tasty meal and talking with friends. Turns out ‘home economics’ and fitness in school really must be core curriculum. So, random and snapshotty views. Singapore on Thames anyone?

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago

In my opinion, legislation to require 0.7% of GDP to be spent annually on foreign aid is indefensible as a government policy. For a start, unlike many other countries, we habitually must borrow this before we can spend it, and the great majority of countries don’t spend this anyway.
And why is this applied uniquely to aid, rather than health, education, defence, scientific research, or even for civil service pensions?
Why is it not applied in a more common sense way, with under or overspends permitted to avoid last minute scrambles to shovel money out of the door and to maintain a reserve for exceptional events such as tsunamis or hurricanes?
Why is so much channeled through ‘charities’, with their administrative burdens and political activities?
This is either political bias, or an attempt to acquire virtue by spending someone else’s money, as was the original legislation, and that didn’t work either.

Last edited 2 years ago by Colin Elliott
James Chater
JC
James Chater
2 years ago

Yes, ‘in the wilderness’…
Envy and amour propre, plus the need for differential are not instinctive but still clearly the main drivers behind growth and huge profits. There might be some hope when the benefits of moderation are at least shown by those we elect.
Tragically in this country with its profound inbuilt social inequality it is true, people like Boris Johnson talking about ‘levelling up’ is a sick joke, a provocation.

Dan Gleeballs
DG
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

This is such an interesting site sometimes. Surely ‘inbuilt social inequality’ will be with us as long as people remain individuals with different levels of health, intelligence and capacity for work. No society can help everyone, not including the lazy, feckless and constantly violent.

Surely, our historic success came from providing opportunity to as many as possible, so a poor boy like Wolseley (?) can rise to court, or the son of a middle-class glover could put on plays for kings and queens, or Clive Sinclair, or Alan Sugar etc. The ambition is all theirs, but the chance to succeed – and the culture – is the result of centuries: the Ltd company, stable banking, engineering clusters, merchant navy etc

James Chater
James Chater
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

I am not thinking about natural inequalities between individuals but inequality of ownership and power, established and maintained through inheritances.
Yes, everyone should be encouraged to support themselves, but count themselves lucky. How often are the ‘lazy, feckless and constantly violent’ victims of misfortune not of their own making.
Yes, those who work harder, who are more innovative, deseve more but I’d argue they don’t ‘deserve’ infinite amounts. The gross inequalities which we read about may inspire some but often they demoralise us.
I don’t envy others but I am entitled to be repulsed by excess. I wish earnings were more equitable, to create a more mutually respectful society than this one for example, based as it is on ancient oligarchy and their access to power through land & titles.

Last edited 2 years ago by James Chater
Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

“I wish more of us earnt more like the same as each other, to create a more mutually respectful society than this one.”

This reminds me of the old Churchill line about democracy being the worst system, except for all the others. How would you enforce this respectful society where we all earn the same? Because mankind is competitive. Some of us will work harder or have more valuable skills. In your fantasy society, will you scalp that advantage back to equality? It’s been tried once or twice.

My point is that our society has done wonders to raise all boats. I can’t buy Picassos like Jeff Bezos, but I can pay my bills and taxes, run a couple of cars and eat heathily. So why should I care about Elon Musk and his space programme? The top 1% pay around a quarter of all taxes, I recall. Not a bad golden goose.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

I’m usually in agreement with your view, and your general defence of capitalism is no exception; and yet something does seem to have gone wrong.

The grotesque excesses of the ultra rich were not a feature of my teens and twenties, but neither was every shop doorway being a home to some wreck of a life.

Part of my career was in M&A. We bought small businesses and integrated them into a more powerful entity. This consolidation has happened in many industries. In my experience it wasn’t positive for clients or employees. It did enable a small number at the top to amass huge wealth. It also meant they were far removed from the the coal face with all the arrogance and poor decision making that always results.

Of course the people at the top of these things usually finish up with inappropriate political influence.

The answer, for me, lies in much more rigorous legislation round coy size, competition law, legislation to even the playing fields between small and large businesses in dispute situations and serious time limits before a politician can take up employment in a sector he regulated.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

The more you prescribe the more will go wrong in response to your prescriptions. Big government does not work.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

The entire legislative system underpins capitalism. It cannot exist without contract law, patent law, IP legislation etc etc.

The idea there is some jungle out there, and government can only interfere with a natural order, is nonsense. The Government actually sets out the playing field – the size of the pitch and the rules of the game.

If they try to manage the teams you’re right, disaster results, but if it becomes apparent one side is playing with a much smaller goal, then action is relevant.

Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Exactly, balance not bias, thankyou.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Nuance? 🙂 One of the reasons I like Unherd is because of the thoughtful nature of many responses. I shouldn’t imply that I’m perfectly happy with the sort of situation you describe – there is a role for both regulation and taxation in promoting that level playing field, definitely. Otherwise every green belt field would be filled with flats and every small business would be ruined by ruthless competitors who can afford compliance teams.

My ‘lean’ always tends to be away from interference, but I accept some bureacracy is necessary. I couldn’t live in one of those countries where bribery and favours are the currency – Nigeria, Italy, Russia etc However, all of your suggestions are sound, as far as I can tell.

James Chater
James Chater
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

‘How would you enforce this respectful society where we all earn the same?’ I wouldn’t enforce it. Humankind is not inherently ‘competitive’ everywhere, always.

Last edited 2 years ago by James Chater
Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

“Humankind is not inherently ‘competitive’ everywhere, always.”

Can you name a place where they’re not?

James Chater
James Chater
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

Lots of places where people see that full-on perpetual competition for economic survival isn’t inevitable.
As we know Co-operation is not Socialism.
International Cooperative Alliance | ICA

Last edited 2 years ago by James Chater
Dan Gleeballs
DG
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

I suppose I *did* let you use the widest possible definition. We were talking about societies, if you read back. They are all competitive, because human beings are. However, there are Quaker meetings and book clubs where cooperation exists. It just doesn’t disprove the thesis.

James Chater
James Chater
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

This ‘competition’ is over. Circular arguments…

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

That’s very gracious, thank you.

Barbara Williams
Barbara Williams
2 years ago

Thank you Giles Fraser for a helpful perspective in a magazine that usually panders to the herd mentality. Sir David Attenborough is sharing the reality of ecological overshoot which has resulted from the continued pursuit of growth after we exceeded the biocapacity of Earth in the 1970s. Any GDP growth nowadays is a further nail in our coffin and ecological collapse and the Sixth Mass Extinction are now well underway. Ecological overshoot – Wikipedia. We need a new measure of well-being that will tell us whether we are restoring ecological balance or simply increasing the ecological debt. No banker would squander capital in the way that we are squandering ecological capital. We cannot eat money, once our eco-systems collapse no amount of money will keep us alive.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

You first into the volcano, Babs.