As a self-help author, I am clearly not the foremost authority on politics or economics. At the same time, as someone interested in helping people live better lives, I feel the need to state a few observations on what is happening in the economy — particularly for Americans, with the hope that some alleviation can be found for an impending crisis that is political, economic, and definitely social.
Most of us are aware that the middle-class, the heart of American society, is shrinking. We, as Americans, have never seen this in our history before. The notion is so new as to be inconceivable. Yet this is clearly taking place, as is evident from just taking a casual look around and watching a week’s worth of business news. We are well into an age of outsourcing, in which anything that can be outsourced will be outsourced. We are in an age where companies care not about staff, little about clients, and all about the shareholder. We are in an age in which wealth has become so deified as to justify rampant, guilt-free irresponsibility on the part of banks, and as to warrant their forgiveness by our government.
Roles of Rich and Poor
The effect of all this for the average citizen is that jobs for middle-class professionals – educated, white-collar people – are paying less and becoming fewer in number, as are also lower-skilled jobs. Meanwhile, prices continue to rise. The result is an increasingly polarized economy, as we had in the Middle Ages. In other words, an Age of Neo-Feudalism.
The role of the poor in a neo-feudal state will be simple: to survive. What this means is theft, violence, and ultimately a life which Hobbes described as “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
But what about the role of the rich? Perhaps it is absurd to talk about the “role” of the wealthy, as it is generally the wealthy who create the circumstances in which we live. They are the playwrights rather than the actors. Regardless, the question is: What can the wealthy do in this neo-feudal state to prevent it from descending into disorder?
Rich people will need to be taught how to be more generous, how to be more humanitarian. Their Darwinian perspective of survival of the fittest, voiced as “If I made it by myself, so can everyone else” will not be relevant anymore. While the division between rich and poor will be like feudalism, unlike feudalism there will not be the abundance of low-skill jobs. Technological unemployment is on the rise, and the robotic age will eliminate more and more jobs. The wealthy will have to learn how to part with a greater share of their money in order to preserve society.
This will not happen through taxes. The concept of a “tax on wealth”, i.e. a tax on people’s savings and assets, as propounded in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, will never happen in America. Our culture is too resistant to the notion of being taxed twice, especially as most people resist the notion of being taxed at all. Furthermore, many rich people have devised ways to legally evade taxes. Warren Buffett has commented that he pays less tax than his secretary. True, he gives a great deal to charity, but most wealthy tax-evaders are not of the same level of benevolence as Warren Buffett.
The Obsolescence of Meritocracy
It is questionable whether American society will allow itself to descend into feudalism willingly. On one hand, built into our culture is the concept of meritocracy, which says that you get what your efforts deserve. Looking at this concept in our present economy — one which grows slowly, along with a country that is no longer expanding as in the 19th century — we see that a rigid belief in meritocracy will encourage the middle class to believe that it is their “fault” for economically suffering.
On the other hand, the principle of “you get what you are worth” may likely not be enough to quell the anger of intelligent, hard-working people who are struggling to survive on meager wages or on no jobs at all. No one wants to see a lifestyle taken away from them. As stated above, feudalism had an uneducated population and an abundance of unskilled jobs. Even if our population stopped being educated, we still don’t have the unskilled jobs to accommodate a large unskilled workforce.
The new feudal period will require wealthy people to perceive that it is their generosity which will prevent society from crumbling into a revolution or simply a violent, crime-ridden land where the rich live behind gates protected by security guards. A good book on this phenomenon is The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, which shows how having a 1% dominated economy has a negative effect on nearly everything, including education, healthcare, and life expectancy.
Hopefully, that is not the kind of society that the wealthy want. It is the society of third-world countries, in which there is no respect for public property, where people are easily able to justify theft, even armed robbery, in the name of needing to survive. Rich people will need to learn to be generous for the simple sake of preserving a peaceful society. They will need to learn to give without expecting anything in return, to give money to people who have worked hard but not “made it”, and to give money to people who simply don’t deserve it. The era of justified meritocracy is over.
Textbooks should emphasize that the wealthy have a duty to those less fortunate. This should be drummed into children from a young age. The children of today’s wealthy parents will not have to worry about getting rich, as they will be able to live off their inheritances and assets. Thus, it is imperative that we inculcate this into the minds of those who, due to their wealth, will be playing a large role in the running of our country.
Our Founding Fathers believed that we had a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And one cannot be happy without decent food, clothing, and shelter – all of which are under threat. Hopefully the rich will see generosity as something that comes with the territory of being wealthy, and something necessary to save a society.
Tom McKinley is the author of self-help book Winning the Fight to Be Happy.