McQuaig, Linda & Neil Brooks. THE TROUBLE WITH BILLIONAIRES. 2010. Viking, Canada.

The Trouble With Billionaires by Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks: A Book Review by Theresa Wolfwood.

Photo from ´Occupy London´ camp at St Paul´s. © Theresa Wolfwood.

“Today many influential progressives insist that poverty, not inequality, should be the focus and that how well the rich are faring is irrelevant.”

McQuaig, Canada´s leading political journalist, always witty and perceptive, and her co–author, an academic and tax expert, show us just how narrow is the focus on poverty. We really should be looking at wealth – massive wealth because this inequality is what creates poverty. The 1% is packing in the billions at the expense of the 99% – particularly the 20% at the bottom of heap.

Yes, the rich have always been with us, but as the authors so graphically illustrate with the image of parades where people´s height reflects their income, but today´s wealthy are truly gigantic. For example, in 1978 the lowest earners were getting about $7000 per year – pensioners, welfare recipients and part–time workers. The richest person, CEO of Imperial Oil, was getting $453,820. In 2007, the lowest were not getting much more, but the richest earner was Michael Lazaridis, CEO of Research in Motion, with a take–home pay of $51,000,000.  Looking at it in its simplest form: in 1978 the top earner got 65x more than the poorest; in 2007 the richest person (and many others close to him) earned 5100x more than the poorest. We are only quoting earning here, not assets – high rises, shopping centres, yachts, private airplanes, homes in the Caribbean, ski lodges etc.

All this wealth came from somewhere, as the authors show; it came with the complicity and laws of our governments. The rich need laws.

“Only with the complex set of laws governing property, inheritance, contracts, banking, stock, exchanges and other commercial relations…can the rich be secure in holding possessions and enjoy comfortable lives that come with those possessions.”

So the rich do love big government as long as it serves their interests; usually the government are the people they pay handsome campaign donations to, who also have a revolving door relationship with corporations, before and after their stint in government.

For this reviewer the trouble with billionaires is that they exist at all and this book reveals the hypocrisy and hidden support that creates billionaires – who claim that somehow they deserve it because they are, “uniquely talented people whose contribution is so great that they deserve to be hugely fabulously rewarded.” And further that the upward mobility in our freer, supposedly classless society is actually blocked for the majority of citizens, the book says it is easier to be upwardly mobile in Sweden than it is in North America. In fact when Canada was more egalitarian after the war, economic prosperity boomed – contrary to all the dogma broadcast by conservative thinkers (is that an oxymoron?) and politicians.

“A society top–heavy with billionaires may seem like a paradise of upward mobility, but it is actually closer to being a boneyard of broken dreams for all but a lucky few.” .We may not all dream of becoming billionaires but most of us dream of some right to higher education for ourselves and our families, for work that supports a family, owning a home, some degree of job satisfaction and security; all this is denied to many by the few at the top of the money heap.

McQuaig and Brooks devote much of the book to the issue of taxation, in particular, income tax. At one time it was and still is, thought by some to represent a form of governance that is, “central to democracy.” Taxation, when fairly administers makes our social structures possible – from pensions to schools to healthcare, a security which allows us to live and work together cooperatively. Now thanks to Regan and Thatcher, taxes are considered evil and only useful for well–chosen handouts. The broader public interest is ignored. This is what we have come to. This is why we have billionaires; our laws, including tax laws, protect them; the richer they get, the lighter their tax load.

In their final chapter “Revamping the Ovarian Lottery”, the authors tackle the problem (and explain the origin of that title). They write that, “By declining to protest the concentration of wealth, progressives have conceded important ground. At the centre of their case should be a strong moral argument about the illegitimacy of a small number of people gaining control over too large a share of society´s resources, and with it, control over society.” We cannot expect conservatives to condemn policies that benefit them, but where are the progressive politicians and social leaders who speak and act against unjust wealth accumulation at the expense of the majority of citizens?

The authors make a number of useful and practical suggestions, with excellent explanations for each idea, for those who are willing to take on the issue of inequality. They propose higher income tax rates for incomes above $500,000; close the loopholes and remove tax preferences that now riddle the income tax system and almost exclusively benefit the rich; support the international implementation of a financial transaction tax (the Tobin tax); support international measures for a clampdown on tax avoiders and evaders; enact an inheritance tax, and use the proceeds to introduce a new education trust for every Canadian child; and perhaps the most important, difficult but hardly revolutionary, idea that we should strive to bring about a change in social attitudes towards taxation and its essential role in a democracy. Not so much a new way of thinking as a revival of long–established notions of justice and democracy.

The book concludes with a call for Canadians to wake up and grasp our future, they write, “Canada could emerge” with the notion that, “society is a community and that everyone in the community should have a chance to live their dreams.”

The Trouble With Billionaires: A Book Review by Theresa Wolfwood

Photo from ´Occupy London´ camp at St Paul´s. © Theresa Wolfwood.

The Trouble With Billionaires: A Book Review by Theresa Wolfwood

Photo from ´Occupy London´ camp at St Paul´s. © Theresa Wolfwood.

The Trouble With Billionaires: A Book Review by Theresa Wolfwood.

Photo from ´Occupy London´ camp at St Paul´s. © Theresa Wolfwood.

Filed under Book Reviews, Linda McQuaig, Neil Brooks