“I would like,” said the woman who, for the purpose of this blog, we’ll call Boudica, “to make money. That’s why I’m doing this degree. When I graduate, I want to go into a well-paying job, and make money. I know it doesn’t sound as good as saving orphans, but it’s what I want, and it doesn’t do anyone any harm in wanting it.”
“But what will you do with your money?” I asked.
“I think I’ll invest in property.”
“Because that’s where you can reliably turn a profit.”
“And what will you do with the profit?”
“Re-invest in property, of course.”
It was a conversation not unfamiliar to the corridors of the London School of Economics, and at the time it made me rather sad. Sad, partially because I was studying my degree course because I thought – and still think – it was awesome. History Is Cool. If you’re going to spend three years immersing yourself in a subject to a very high level, then it seems groovy to aspire to immerse yourself in something which will expand mind and soul, as well as (potentially, though not always) future income. More importantly, the conversation made me sad because at the end of the day, I get upset by the notion of money for money’s sake.
Wealth is a very difficult subject; one of the few taboos left in society. You almost never ask someone their salary, or their savings, or the value of their house, unless the topic is broached in the most courteous tones possible. Going to a pretty posh girl’s school as a kid, it was easy to tell the very rich kids because, if asked how rich they were, they would inevitably reply that they weren’t that rich at all, really, and only had three homes because they were in the family. By contrast, ask any of the kids on assisted place what their financial situation was like, and the answer would come back – ‘we’re alright. Not loaded, but okay.’
For a while, I resented the wealth of my compatriots at school, until a friend pointed out that, if we were given the choice, would we really, really say no to a chauffeur-driven ride every morning to the school gate, and a pick up in the evening, instead of the three hours I spent on the underground and bus every day? The socially-minded part of my soul rose up in defiance… and the lazy, practical part of me, wearied from leaving the house at 6.40 a.m. every day, conceded the point.
Huge unhappiness has arisen, as Douglas Adams so aptly put it, from the movement of small bits of green paper round the world. (Which seems odd, he pointed out, as the small green bits of paper weren’t actually unhappy.) Wars have been fought, lives lost over wealth but then, rather like democracy, no one seems to have worked out a less bad system on which to run society. However, there’s plenty about wealth to get people angry, not least the vast, obscene gap between the richest and the poorest of the world. Such a gap might almost be tolerable, if the possession of vast sums of money entailed an equal possession of a social conscience, but alas, it seems, having silly money seems to bring with it silly sensibilities. After a certain amount of income, it seems, the mind seems to forget that it probably doesn’t need gold-plated showers, silly cars and caviar at every meal. Sure, these things are fun… once in a while… but when once in a while becomes routine and routine becomes habit, that habit becomes dull and before you know it, more and more money is spent on sillier and sillier things until, to cut a long story short, Rome falls, society totters and four wheels, one engine and some metal to surround it can cost £125,000. Or, to put it another way, enough to feed five households moderately well for a year, including maybe a brief family holiday in Southend. There are noble counter-examples – Bill Gates stands out, as a man who has given billions to charity, and the world thanks him. I hasten to add at this juncture that I do not stand for a return to Victorian values, where the state essentially stood back with a cry of ‘let the generous wealthy support our society on their own terms’ simply because for every Bill Gates, or Rowntree and Booth that steps forward, there’s a hell of a lot of impoverished, starving kids left behind, and that’s economic history.
Make no mistake, luxury is fun, and I want it. We all do, and it would be hypocritical, as established, to say no to the chauffeur simply because we’ve not got one. I confess right now – I save my money ruthlessly with a cry of ‘but what if I get writers block?’ and only two charities benefit from my measly once-a-month donation. It is easy to look at a bank statement and go, ‘I’m okay now, but tomorrow I might not be’, or even more exciting, to go, ‘yes, I will care for the planet with my wealth, but only once I live in a small terraced house within transport zone one and own my own bicycle.’ But money with no purpose other than the gratification of a single soul, or money simply for the sake of making more money with no agenda to it, no supporting others, no wider picture of a greater good, seems a little obscene. And why? Because at the end of the day, money is power, of a sort, and yes, it does come from somewhere. Like energy, it isn’t created or destroyed – except in times of great economic crisis, witness the moment – but flows from someone to someone else, and let’s face it, that flow is mostly from the poor, to the rich.
I get very angry when I hear our – very, very rich – politicians inform the general public that their low salaries or small state benefits are more than enough to ‘drag yourself up by your bootlaces’. Tales of poor families overcoming their poverty to triumph against all odds are beloved of conservative politicians everywhere, failing to take account of the sheer grind and anxiety that day-to-day poverty brings to the vast majority who have no boots to pull on. ‘You have enough within yourselves to triumph!’ is the phrase, but what damage it has done. Sure, you have enough money to buy this week’s bread and pay next week’s rent, if you’re lucky, but when even opportunity has a price tag, what are you to do with the 20p you have left? Money can buy education. An evening class, £45 for ten French lessons, and that £45 a £45 too far. It can buy health – healthy foods priced 50p more expensive than the cheap food that’s slowly killing your internal circulation, or a swim once a week which will stop your joints crumbing and keep the blood flowing into old age. It can buy freedom of speech – the power to speak out against a tyrannical landlord, for example. It can buy travel, a broadening of the mind, or books on new ideas and modes of thought. It can buy a bus fare to the hospital, flowers for a loved one, and perhaps, if you have enough of it, it can start to buy trees for the forests, beakers for a laboratory, food for the hungry and shelter for the dispossessed. And here, therefore, is the point – the accumulation of wealth is not, nor should not be mistaken for a mortal sin. But the accumulation of wealth for the sake of no more than profit, with no sense of what it means, nor no proportional comprehension of what you have, and what others lack, should probably have been ranked up there by Moses.