Capitalism deserves zero credit for making the world a better place

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People in Khlong Khwang, Nonthaburi, Thailand compete with the excavator to collect recyclable items and sell them. Image: Thibaud Saintin/Flickr

One can understand the desire to be positive, especially at the end of a pretty grim year. Even so, this headline from the usually thoughtful New York Times left me gasping:

"This has been the best year ever: for humanity over all, life just keeps getting better."

Images of the increasingly comfy life inside Third World shacks danced in my head.

The New York Times piece recycled the narrative, peddled by the billionaire crowd, that the well-being of the human race has never been better.

Amid growing criticism of extreme inequality, expect to hear lots more about how today's capitalism is benefiting the world -- especially next week when the global elite meets for their annual self-celebration in Davos, Switzerland.

It's a powerful narrative. If capitalism is working wonders for humanity, maybe it doesn't matter that a small number of billionaires have an increasing share of the world's wealth.

But is the narrative true?

The billionaire crowd is correct in arguing that, along with the rise of capitalism in the last five centuries, there have been significant advances in human life expectancy.

But should capitalism get the credit?

No, according to British anthropologist Jason Hickel, who notes that the dawn of capitalism plunged much of humanity into misery, with reduced nutrition. As a result, life expectancy actually fell in Britain, dropping from a lifespan of about 43 years in the 1500s down to the low 30s by the 1700s.

Life expectancy only began to improve towards the end of the 1800s -- and only because of the public health movement, which pushed for separating sewage from drinking water. This extremely good idea was vigorously opposed by capitalists, who raged against paying taxes to fund it.

So sanitation, not capitalism, may be humanity's true elixir.

Indeed, things only truly got better, says British historian Simon Szreter, after ordinary people won the right to vote and to join unions that pushed for higher wages and helped secure public access to health care, education and housing -- again over the fierce objections of capitalists.

This suggests that it's not capitalism but rather the forces fighting to curb capitalism's worst excesses -- unions and progressive political movements -- that have improved people's lives.

Hickel also argues that, when properly measured, global poverty has increased in the last four decades, contrary to the claims of triumphant capitalists.

All this is central to a burning question: is today's unbridled capitalism serving us all, or just those at the top?

The question is suddenly in play in U.S. politics, with millions of Democrats supporting presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who openly advocate significant new taxes on the superrich.

Public polling -- in the U.S. and Canada -- show strong support for such taxes.

Even if billionaires are losing public support, they have a fallback threat: Don't even think of taxing us, because we'll just move our money offshore.

But this might be changing too, according to Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, economists at the University of California, Berkeley.

In their influential new book, The Triumph of Injustice, they argue that advanced nations could effectively clamp down on tax havens if they co-ordinated their efforts, just as they do in other areas, like trade policy.

Saez and Zucman point out there's nothing to prevent advanced nations from simply collecting the corporate taxes that the tax havens don't.

Recent reporting requirements make this possible. "It has never been easier for big countries to police their own multinationals," they argue. "Should the G20 countries tomorrow impose a 25 per cent minimum tax on their multinationals, more than 90 per cent of the world's profits would immediately become effectively taxed at 25 per cent or more."

One can understand why the corporate crowd resorts to threats and bogus claims. Without them, it's hard to defend today's unbridled capitalism.

How does one, for instance, justify this: While most people saw little or no gain last year, the world's 500 richest people saw their wealth grow by an astonishing 25 per cent, so they’re richer this year by another $1.2 trillion (an average of $2.4 billion each).

It's hard to argue that money couldn't have been better directed somewhere else -- almost anywhere else.

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author of The Sport & Prey of Capitalists, which explores the different energy policies of Alberta and Norway. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Image: Thibaud Saintin/Flickr 

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