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Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Money

A few weeks ago, I highlighted Jason Hickel’s book ‘Less Is More’, which argues that our obsession with capitalist growth is doing untold damage to our planet in the pursuit of economic prosperity for the few at the expense – and potential annihilation – of the rest of us.  When I was looking for a follow-up read over the Easter holidays, I was therefore drawn to a book by the American political veteran Bernie Sanders called ‘It's OK to be Angry about Capitalism’.

This is an extraordinary book in many ways, not least because it provides a clear alternative to the way that America and many other countries are currently being governed.  It starts as more of diary of how Sanders failed to get elected to the presidency, which becomes increasingly understandable as you learn more about the true extent of his radicalism.  I found myself wondering how he ever got elected to any office at all if he has always advocated an agenda so significantly different from the mainstream.

The style is rather repetitive at times, with the same ideas being hammered home a little too often, which can make it a bit of a challenge in places to keep reading.  There are also times when his views seem a bit out of touch, for example when he cites Finland as a role model country for an education system, which somehow feels a bit dated nowadays.  But it is genuinely demoralising to read his analysis of how out of touch the Democratic Party in America has become in the last fifty years with the working people in the country, which explains why Joe Biden is struggling to connect to the voters who ought to make his re-election a certainty.

In the same way that the Labour Party in the United Kingdom often struggles to appeal to the working classes – unless it is led by someone like Jeremy Corbyn, who at the same time alienated the middle class voters he needed to have any hope of getting elected – so the working people of America have turned to Donald Trump as their hope of salvation.  Trump, of course, is rather more interested in helping his billionaire buddies get even richer and cares very little, I imagine, for the plight of the workers whose votes he courts.

Sanders tells us that the richest three billionaires in America own more wealth than the bottom half of society combined – some 165 million people.  At the start of 2022, the US Census Bureau estimated that there were 332,403,650 people living in the United States.  Roughly 90 per cent of the wealth of the nation is owned by one-tenth of one percent of that total – so 332,403 Americans own more than the other 332,071,247.  The top one per cent owns more wealth than the bottom 92 per cent and the CEOs of major corporations earn four hundred times what their employees make.  Three Wall Street firms – BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street – control assets of over $20 trillion and are major shareholders in almost every corporation in the country.

It was a bit disconcerting at one point when Sanders was talking about how his campaign was fuelled by the working classes and he identified teachers as being part of that group – alongside postal clerks, Amazon warehouse workers, nurses, small business owners, farmers and veterans.  With the so-called fiscal drag in this country caused by the freezing of income tax thresholds for the next few years, many teachers in the UK will find themselves in the higher tax bracket in the years ahead, which seems to contradict the idea of being working class, even if the impact on their salaries might suggest otherwise.

Sanders argues that the goal of any democratic, moral and rational nation must be to create a society where people are healthy, happy and able to live long and productive lives.  This should not just be the rich and the powerful, he says, but all people.  Greatness should be determined not by the number of billionaires who live in a country, the size of its GDP, the number of nuclear weapons it has or how many channels its people can receive on cable TV, which seem to be the criteria that those on the political right want to apply to judge the country’s progress. 

Rather, he says, America’s success as a nation should be judged by looking at the quality of life for its average citizens.  How healthy are they?  How satisfied are they in their work?  How happy are their children?  He demands that the country must move away from the economic mentality of scarcity and austerity to a mindset that seeks prosperity for all.  To those who say that, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, there is not enough to care for all the old people, Sanders responds that the answer must be: ‘That's absurd. Of course there's enough!’  With the explosion of new technology and productivity that is being experienced, he claims that the country now has the capability to provide a good life for every American.

It was hard to disagree with him when he argues that economic debates should not revolve around questions of resources, but around questions of intent and will.  If America is truly aiming to be a great country, it must strive to be a nation that has eliminated poverty, homelessness and diseases of despair, where hard work is rewarded with a living wage, and where those who are too old or too infirm to work are protected by a safety net that guarantees no American will be destitute. 

He makes the point that this is not a utopian vision or some foreign construct, arguing that the country should have the best educational system in the world, from childcare to graduate school – accessible to all, regardless of income.  It should have a top-quality healthcare system that allows all people to walk into a doctor's surgery and get the care they need without worrying about the cost, because the system is publicly funded.  Instead of spending more money on the military than the next ten nations combined, America should lead the world in diplomacy and international collaboration, especially when it comes to preventing wars and combatting climate change.

According to the words of its national anthem, America is supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Sanders did not actually say so in the book, but I think he would say that the current situation in the country allows freedom only to those who have the ability to make lots of money, and everyone else needs to be exceptionally brave to deal with the consequences of the economic reality that has been created in the USA.

I will conclude this week with one of the most powerful passages from the book, when Sanders passionately insists that greed is not good; massive income and wealth inequality is not good; buying elections is not good; profiting from human illness is not good; charging people the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs is not good; exploiting workers is not good; monopolisation of the economy by a handful of corporations is not good; ignoring the needs of the most vulnerable in society – children, the elderly and people with disabilities – is not good; racism, sexism and xenophobia are not good; for-profit prisons that make money by locking up poor people are not good; wars and excessive military budgets are not good; and carbon emissions that threaten our planet are, of course, not good.

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