Counting billionaires must be one of the Mayor of London’s most important responsibilities. Why else would Boris Johnson have raised the topic only twenty seconds into his interview with Stephen Dubner on the Freakonomics podcast?
Johnson boasted that London is home to 72 billionaires, versus 43 in New York, 18 in Paris and 40 in Moscow. He concluded by saying “London is to the billionaire as the jungles of Sumatra are to the Orangutang. We’re proud of that. “
He then remembered that he was speaking publicly, not at the Bullingdon Club or the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, and offered the qualification that ‘we’ were only quite proud of it.
Sensing that Johnson was floundering, Dubner interjected to save him.
“I‘m sure you like your poor people too though.”
“Exactly right” said Johnson, before going on to provide a particularly limp account of the utterly discredited trickle down theory of economics.
”…. the argument we make is that the presence of these exotic creatures – the billionaires – is good for the whole ecosystem they support by their billionaire activities, you know asking people to bring the car round to the front of the hotel, or whatever they do, that adds to the economic activity in the city, as I’m sure you understand.”
The person who brings the car round to the front of the hotel is what Alain de Boton’s Book of Life would describe as being misemployed, engaged in labour that generates capital, but makes no contribution to human welfare and flourishing.
Johnson’s assertion that billionaires are good for the ecosystem is as demonstrably false as the trickle down theory with which he attempted to justify it. Andrew Sayer’s new book ‘Why We Can’t Afford the Rich’ describes how as you move towards the top of the top 1 % you observe an increased reliance on unearned income. Sayer describes how many of the ‘exotic creatures’ feted by Johnson
‘. . .get an income by extracting wealth from the economy simply through their control of key resources that others need but lack, and by charging them for their use . . . Access to mechanisms of wealth extraction, rather than wealth creation, is what marks (the rich) out.’
Our country’s attractiveness to billionaires is not a good measure of the quality of our society, our institutions or our leaders. We should focus our efforts on preserving and improving the habitat of the many, not of the few. To use the phraseology of the School of Life, we should be deploying human capital admirably, allowing individuals and businesses to direct their labour, and make profits, in meaningful areas of the economy, such as improving mental health and building an environment that satisfies the soul.
Dubner flattered Johnson, pointing out that thanks to his having been born in New York he could become both Prime Minister and President. I sincerely hope that he attains neither position.