The Proper Gander Column from the December 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
Considering how important our income is in shaping our life, talking about it can feel more embarrassing than a conversation about genital herpes. Channel 4’s How Rich Are You? aims to encourage some fiscal debate with its mix of interviews, pundits, comments from the studio audience and lots of statistics. Even when jazzed up with flashy graphics, the show’s stats give a depressing picture of our divided society. For example, poorer people die up to 12 years earlier than the rich on average, and just five families have as much wealth as 12 million other people. The widening gap between rich and poor is explained by a tendency for an increasing proportion of wealth to end up as capital rather than being paid as wages. This is illustrated with a replica of a machine built during the 1960s at the London School of Economics, which pushes cold tea through pipes into containers marked ‘taxes’, ‘capital’, ‘labour’ etc to represent how money flows round the economy. While much of this data would benefit from clarification, and terms like ‘rich’ and ‘wealth’ are often left fuzzily defined, the clear message is that the capitalists are still winning the class war. As one member of the audience says, while a minority are laughing their way to the bank, he’s on his way to the food bank.
One of the show’s richer contributors suggests that to get assets, you should ‘get off your fucking arse’, as if that’s how he acquired his inherited booty. As economist Dr Faiza Shaheen points out, effort and talent are less important in determining our income than the circumstances we’re born into. Social mobility has reduced as wealth inequality has increased. So, it’s now harder to break free of the constraining opportunities and life expectancy we grow up with. Dr Shaheen gives plenty of examples of how wealth inequality damages our wellbeing, but her disappointing conclusion is only that too much of a divide hinders capitalist growth. And presenter Richard Bacon’s two-penn’orth is to say that we need some rich people for society to function. Unfortunately, capitalism itself isn’t questioned by those participating in How Rich Are You?, only how it’s administered. Despite this, the programme still reminds us why the system doesn’t work in the interests of the majority.