social justice wealth

Wealth, greatness, and Donald Trump

Yesterday I read what is probably the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever heard from the mouth of someone running for office. No prizes for guessing who was speaking. Yes, of course it’s Donald Trump.

“My whole life has been money. I want money, I want money. Greed. I was greedy, I want more money, more money… Now, I’m going to be greedy for the United States. I’m going to take and take and take. (Then, over chants of ‘USA! USA!) We’re going to take, take, take, take. We’re going to become rich again and then we’re going to be great again … We can’t be great unless we’re going to make ourselves rich again.”

Like much of Trump’s rhetoric, this is meaningless. The US is the biggest economy in the world, it’s GDP per capita higher than it’s ever been (see below). It’s a rich country and to say otherwise is nonsense, but then we know who we’re dealing with here.

What’s remarkable about the quote is its breathtaking shamelessness. But if you think about it, Donald Trump’s conflation of wealth and greatness isn’t so very different from what every other politician says. He just says it more bluntly.

David Cameron talks about the “growth that will make our country a success in the Global Race“, which is scarcely different from claiming we need to be rich to be great. His government’s energy bill that makes it a legal obligation to ‘maximise economic recovery’ from the North Sea is just bureaucratic jargon for ‘take, take, take’.

When flotillas of fishing vessels from the EU visit African waters and leave nothing for local fishermen, that’s the take. Or all the oil from Nigeria or Myanmar, extracted with so few benefits to the community. Or corrupt land grabs in poor but fertile countries, to grow crops for richer dry ones. It’s the slow growth hardwoods from Indonesia or Madagascar, bought for a pittance and made into extravagant furniture for the world’s elite. When the treasures of ancient Syria and Iraq turn up in private collections, or when a country upstream drains a major river for irrigation and leaves nothing for those downstream. That’s the take at its most literal.

It doesn’t have to be so far away. The supermarkets that drive the price of milk below the cost of production and expect farmers to live with it, that’s the take, take, take that Trump lives by. It’s the sweatshop clothing on every high street. It’s the rare metals in our smartphones and batteries, dragged from the mud by desperate people in open mines run by warlords in the DRC. The food on our tables is produced in industrial scale agricultural systems that deplete topsoil and pollute waterways, taking from the earth with little thought to the future. The lights from our houses, the warmth from our heating, the exhaust from our cars, all take from the atmosphere without asking who owns it, and who will pay for what we use.

Donald Trump is a lightning rod for righteous indignation, and he thrives on that attention. His supporters love it, either not noticing or not caring that he has nothing else to offer beyond the egomaniacal bluster. But I’m not sure which is more dangerous – the demagogue that openly declares that they’re out to grab all they can, or those that disguise it in the language of national interest and economic growth? When we’re all so implicated in the take, do we have any right to feel morally superior to Donald Trump?

I don’t believe that our economy needs to based on empty promises of more, endless more. I don’t believe that our politics needs to be about securing our place at the top of the pile. It can be cooperative rather than competitive. There is such a thing as enough, and there are definitions of wealth beyond the financial. Rich countries can be generous. A restorative economy could replace our extractive one. All of this is possible.

A fairer and more sustainable world is possible, and it is also necessary. Donald Trump doesn’t want that world – but at least he’s told us in advance, so that nobody needs to vote for him and be disappointed.

us-gdp-per-capita

26 comments

  1. It is hardly immoral to want your country to be wealthy. The inhabitants of a wealthy country have better welfare and living standards that those in poorer ones. Countries who suffer economic decline or even relative decline have lower welfare and a less happy population. Look at Italy for a low growth country or Greece.

    The oil companies that pump oil from Nigeria pay a fair rent to the country. You can’t say it is their fault it doesn’t reach the population. The treasures of Syria aren’t taken by modern day Indiana Jones’s but local inhabitants who sell them on.

    Every exchange has two sides. Your condemnation of take, take take, requires give, give give. Let me reframe a point. Why should farmers expect to take, take, take from consumers in the form of higher milk prices?

    We do not live in an imperialist world where the rich countries take at gun point. Lenin’s ideas that western wealth is founded on imperial extraction has been shown to the false. The implication take the poorer countries don’t benefit from exchange with the richer countries is just wrong. Sweatshops are an indispensable step to development. They are better than the alternatives. Now I hope that after you have got this rant off your chest you know what you are arguing for is for us to be poorer and the poor to stay poor.

    You say there is an alternative but hoping that people will stop being people and be something better ultimately seems to be your hope. People are both selfless and selfish. Our current system works if they are either, your proposals need us repress our selfishness. The history of humanity shows that to be a dangerous fools errand, more dangerous than an idiot property developer in a bad wig.

    1. @DevonChap surely it is immoral to want the richest country in the world to become even richer when you know that that has to be at the expense of the rest of the world. Surely it is also immoral to want to take more riches for your country when your country has such massive inequality of wealth that, if the wealth was spread more evenly it would look to 90% of your own population as if the country was much, much richer.

      1. America becoming richer isn’t at the expense of other countries. It is America innovation and acumen that has made it such a rich country. America now is far richer than the entire world was 100 years ago. Therefore it can’t have just taken its wealth but has created it.

        Now Trump is a mercantilist who thinks wealth is a fixed pie and thinks he can make America richer by making others poorer but experience tells us tariff barriers and isolation will make America poorer so he will fail in his own terms.

    2. You never see a justice issue you don’t want to get the wrong side of, do you DevonChap? Your prerogative, but it makes you part of the problem as far as I’m concerned.

      If you think my views make me more dangerous than the Donald, then this blog really isn’t for you.

      1. Demanding that the world be ordered to (and the people in it believe in) a specific set of moral values has quite a bad history. At least with Trump he isn’t wrapping himself up in his own moral superiority.

        You and Trump are closer to each other than either of you to me. You both believe that wealth is taken by the rich from the poor rather than created by human ingenuity. Trump thinks American wealth was stolen by China, you think African wealth was taken by the West. For both of you free trade is a zero sum game. You are both demonstrably wrong.

        Trade isn’t exploitation. Even when one side of a deal is poorer than the other both sides gain. There is no justice making poor people poorer even if you think you are doing the opposite.

        1. You’ve completely misjudged the tone of this post. The whole point is that we have no grounds to feel morally superior to Trump. Read it again if you must.

          Neither is it an anti-wealth post. It’s anti exploitation. If you can’t tell the difference, you have a problem.

          1. It is my turn to suggest you read my comment. I didn’t say you were anti wealth, but that you think wealth comes from exploitation, just like Trump. And you are both wrong. Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage passed both of you.

            You suggest David Cameron is more dangerous than Donald Trump then jump up to say this is a Justice issue. Not much moral humility on offer.

          2. Don’t presume to tell me what I think DevonChap. I’m well aware of Ricardo’s theory and I don’t think trade is a zero sum game. This post is about exploitation, and about the attitude of just taking what we want – forcing other people to pay, as Trump likes to say. Therefore all my examples are of exploitation, of unjust ways to getting rich. It’s not an exhaustive list of ways to make money, so your protests are severely misdirected.

            It’s would be naive and false to say that America exploited its way to success, but it’s just as naive to say “America becoming richer isn’t at the expense of other countries”. It’s clearly both. The slave trade, the appropriation of indigenous lands, America’s historic dealings in central America, its wars of aggression, and dumping of subsidised grain in poorer countries, all of these are predatory. Those things have gone alongside all the gifts of innovation and free trade. You can’t ignore either side.

            As you will note, Trump isn’t up on his box calling for American innovation and trade, or not in this speech anyway. His appeal is based on protectionism, special status, and screwing over other countries whenever possible. Which, I think we can agree, is a bad idea all round – both on your principles and mine. The challenge for us is to look at ourselves, and see if he’s calling out an ethic of exploitation and entitlement that exists in our politics more widely, that he just talks about more blatantly.

          3. Many of the things you consider to be morally reprehensible exploitation are in fact just mutually beneficial exchange, that only qualify for the word exploit in the economic sense, not the way you use it.

            This is why Ricardo is so important, yes we are richer than those who work in sweatshops but they gain too compared to the alternative.

            There is no painless route to development without actual development. It is not just a correlation that the greatest poverty reduction in history happened at the same time as the greatest expansion in world trade and globalization.

            We now live in a time when globalization is being rolled back, with nativists like Trump in one side and those who, at best, hem and haw about fair trade on the other. Free trade needs to be defended constantly if we are to keep the global poverty reduction continuing.

            So rather than focus on historical wrongs I look to the hear and now.

          4. There’s nothing on my list that isn’t exploiting either people or planet. It’s entirely possible to run garment factories that treat workers with dignity and pay them a fair wage – we’re talking pennies in the pound to make the difference. Entirely affordable for business and consumers.

            By all means cast yourself as the defender of free trade if you wish, but if by free trade you mean free to exploit people and the environment, then you’re just being an apologist for injustice and greed. And that’s a shame, because you clearly spend a lot of time leaving comments on the internet. You could be using that time and energy to make constructive suggestions on doing free trade well, building development and human rights at the same time. Instead you’re voice is a cynical and destructive one, and that’s a waste all round.

          5. So in summary, only agreeing with you is acceptable. Anything else is just bad stuff. Talking morality and justice allows you to avoid evidence and reasoned argument: its just wrong, so there!

            The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, which you are full of. Good ideas, not so much.

            I think we should leave the discussion here as you have got on your threadbare moral high horse.

          6. The whole point of the post is that none of us have a high horse to be on, if you’re paying attention.

            There are 101 points of agreement between your position and mine, if you weren’t in such a hurry to take offence, so don’t flatter yourself that you’re bringing evidence that I dismiss. Read back over your own comments and you’ll see that all you’ve done is accuse me of not understanding Ricardo, which would be irrelevant even if were true. Then you’ve moved straight from that to calling me a moralist. It’s on that basis that I’m not interested in ‘debating’ with you.

            So yes, that’s enough of that. You and I have irreconcilable points of view.

    3. @DevonChap have you ever stepped foot outside of your own home and been to Nigeria, or Syria in the past 5 years and had a conversation with someone who earns less than $1.90/day living in extreme poverty? I invite you to come join me in rural Kyrgyzstan working with TB patients to put some reality and experience to write your words.

      1. Sadly family commitments mean my traveling days are over.

        It did me a wry smile to be invited to a country recovering from 70 years of enforced equality to be educated about the ills of inequality.

        1. Fair-play to that comment, that is actually pretty funny.
          However I wouldn’t say Stalin’s desire, or those that preceded him, for the USSR were for equality, except maybe the oppression they inflicted. But it is interesting to see the stark inequalities within these countries today that have taken time to work out capitalism and some of whom have now taken to it big time. When I was here 15 years ago even the rich people were poor and the inequality wasn’t within the country it was just in comparison to the rest of the world but they did and do have access to free education and health. The rich are certainly rich here today and the poor are still poor.
          Lots of angles to look at the same thing I suppose…?

  2. Jeremy:
    As a US citizen I will need to be bodily restrained from casting a vote for our Democratic candidates. Devon is correct in at least one sense, that humans are both selfless and selfish. Beyond that I never thought it virtuous to celebrate our basest instincts. Inequality is theft. Share the wealth isn’t some kind of nicety but the only way to ease human suffering. And to continue a humankind with any spark of enlightenment.
    Steve

    1. Yes, humans are both selfish and selfless, but I’d always want us to be aspiring to our better side. The sight of people cheering and then voting for straight-up greed is thoroughly depressing.

      1. Yes, it never occurred to me the magnitude of fellow citizens consumed by fear, righteousness, jealousy and violent tendencies as our society has somehow produced. I do think that this may, bring out, in opposition, more voters in the final election. Airing this greed will force a reckoning with what is the worst of our corrosive human nature. It’s a law of physics.

  3. I voted for Bernie yesterday. He still lost Massachusetts by about 20k votes.
    I don’t think the Republicans can stop him now. What bomb shell could he possibly drop that he hasn’t already?
    What a campaign, we have a clown and a Canadian running for President.

    1. And I think the Republican leadership are kicking themselves over mishandling him. He may well divide the party – he certainly should. I don’t see how moderate Republicans could get behind him as a presidential candidate.

  4. Thank you Jeremy. This post is the epitome and importance of my favourite blog: Make Wealth History. I am absolutely against wealth – not the wealthy but the pursuit of wealth. I don’t see how it has a positive impact on anyone including the wealthy themselves.
    Surely we know by now that happiness is not attached to financial wealth? Happiness from necessity, from just enough, from access and opportunity to the basics in life – absolutely.
    If you don’t feel rich in the western world then you should check your habits, priorities and aspirations.
    I won’t hold back in the face of this disturbing outburst from a moron like Trump and in the rhetoric we are fed softly through the words of economic growth, prosperity or looking after our own.
    If there is to be an enemy of the current world I would put it as extreme wealth and the pursuit of it…

    1. It’s an interesting one, because wealth can do an enormous amount of good. It’s all about how you make it and what you do with it. I know people who are great at making money and enjoy it, and that’s fair enough. The question is what they’re going to do with it, and whether they can resist getting drawn into it to the point that it becomes their identity and self-worth.

      I do agree that the pursuit of extreme wealth is our main problem, in an age of climate change and gross inequality. And there’s a categorical difference between someone in Britain and someone in Madagascar saying their country needs to pursue economic growth.

  5. All over the world nationalists (and Trump is one of these) are jumping on the discontent that people have with globalisation and making promises they know they cannot keep. What is so odd is that the very people who are being screwed by the likes of Trump are going to vote for him. Apparently the Forbes rich list shows the first decline in the wealth of billionaires since 2008. I’m so upset. Trump has been trying to claim he’s worth more than $10 billion repeatedly but has failed.

    1. There’s a theory that Americans vote for things that favour the rich because they all believe that one day they’ll be rich too. There’s got to be some kind of explanation for it.

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