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Money Makes the World Go Round

If, like me, you have subscribed to Private Eye magazine over several years, your view of the world almost inevitably takes on a similar slant to those who write and edit the articles.  It is called confirmation bias, and it happens to all of us.  It was the same reason my parents chose to read the Daily Telegraph because it reinforced their existing opinions – though I always enjoyed the sports section, which was by far the best of all the newspapers when I was a teenage football obsessive.

The editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, and his team clearly view those who are known as ‘Non-Doms’ as people who are taking advantage of the country’s tax system to suit their own ends.  The decision by Jeremy Hunt in the recent budget to change this tax status will no doubt therefore be treated with a degree of satisfaction at the magazine and elsewhere, despite all the loopholes that are bound to be exploited, though it could also be argued that this may lead to an exodus of wealth from the country just at a time when we need all the money we can get.

I confess that such issues are largely beyond my limited comprehension, and indeed my interest, but it all reminded me of a book I read last year called ‘Butler to the World’ by Oliver Bullough, which highlighted how we have become a nation that is little more than a giant financial services machine.  More than a fifth of recent British university graduates, for example, work in banking and finance, three times as many as go into manufacturing, and the financial industry employs more than two million people.

Boiled down to its essentials, Bullough tells us, finance always does the same thing.  It takes money from people who have it but don't need it and gives it to people who need it and don't have it – and earns a fee for its trouble.  Banks are shops where money is bought and sold, to the advantage of the sellers, not the buyers.  Just think how much more interest is charged for a mortgage than is offered on a savings account.

Governments try to regulate this process, to direct the funding towards the causes they care about, and financial institutions try to avoid those rules so they can direct the funding towards the causes that will pay the largest fees.  That is financial innovation, the author argues, which is simply an artificial way of exploiting artificial rules governing the artificial thing we call money, and normally involves finding mismatches between regulations in different countries.  It is clever, but it adds nothing to the sum of human achievement.

Bullough says that there still seems to be a general impression that the British Empire was a more or less benevolent Victorian invention, dedicated to teaching English, banning slavery and making trains run on time.  The truth, he argues, is very different: the empire was about profit, and about eradicating anything that stood in the way of that profit.  

Unlike the empires of most of its European rivals, the British version made its money from trade, rather than by extorting taxes from peasant farmers, so it was possible to expand further and faster than anyone else, without having to impose complex administrative structures on the places they conquered.  That is how the empire became so very large and yet could be ruled by so few administrators, though it is increasingly difficult to find credible people nowadays who will defend what happened as being a positive development, particularly for those places whose people and resources were exploited.

During a speech in 1962, in which he looked back on the Suez humiliation and British decline, former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson let slip a pithy epigram: ‘Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.’  The phrase set off a storm of fury in Britain, and has resounded ever since, but Bullough argues that Acheson was wrong.  Britain may indeed have lost an empire, but it had already found a new role as an amoral servant of wealth wherever it could be found, using the skills it developed over centuries of empire-building to help the owners of wealth avoid having to account to anyone but themselves.  

The author tells us that even by the most conservative estimate, hundreds of billions of pounds of criminal money flow through the City of London every year, most of it stolen from vulnerable people in some of the world's poorest countries.  The annual cost of organised crime to people in Britain itself is estimated at £37 billion pounds, with fraud costing another £193 billion, which is almost £4,000 for every adult in the country.  All this money is laundered, and only a fraction of it is ever recovered.

The development of the gambling industry in the United Kingdom is offered as another example of a blind eye being turned, and money once again being judged as more important than people.  Between 2014 and 2019, apparently, the amount of money gambled online in the United Kingdom increased from an annual total of £13.4 billion, which is already more than £200 for every person in the country, to a scarcely imaginable £121.3 billion – not far off £2,000 per head.  Over the same period, the bookies’ online profits rose from £1.5 billion to £5.5 billion, mostly from the casino games that proved so addictive on the so-called Fixed Odds Betting Terminals.

Official studies suggest that somewhere between 250,000 and 460,000 people are – to use the term favoured by the UK government – ‘problem gamblers’.  That is almost certainly more than are addicted to opiates and crack cocaine put together, but it underestimates the problem, since for every gambling addict a whole circle of relatives and friends are affected too.  Bullough says that some 55,000 children are already addicted to gambling and, away from the old male-dominated world of the betting shop, women gamble online almost as enthusiastically as men.  

He highlights that surveys of the homeless show they are disproportionately likely to be addicted to gambling, as are ethnic minorities and people with the least to lose.  Those in the lowest income quintile were spending an average of 12 to 14% of their net income, compared to only 2% or less in the highest quintile, a study by the House of Lords found.

One estimate of the financial cost of gambling addiction to Britain puts it at between £260 million and £1.2 billion, which is such a widely spread estimate that it demonstrates how much additional research is needed before we know exactly what is going on.  The government meanwhile earned around £3 billion from the industry, around 0.4% of its total tax take.  It is remarkable how, when parliament debates gambling, MPs are more concerned about the interests of racehorse owners than they are about gambling addicts, as Private Eye highlights in almost every issue.

Gambling companies regularly issue press releases to showcase how much money they donate to charities devoted to reducing the harm they cause, but the total is just £8 million a year, compared to £97 million provided to support racehorses.  That means the industry provides owners with £7,000 a year per horse, and meanwhile it spends as little as £19 annually per gambling addict, while making almost ten times that much in profit – every second.

Money may well make the world go round, but its massively uneven distribution, and the failure of those who have the power to do something about it, leaves this as yet another dismal tale of the world we have created for ourselves.  If our history were a computer game, most of us would probably have pressed ‘Quit’ by now and tried to start a new game that offered a bit more hope to a lot more people, but unfortunately such a simple solution is not yet readily available to us.   

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