THE TROUBLE WITH BILLIONARES
Conner is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the
Globe and Mail, BC Business, the Comics
Journal and Lavalife.com. He currently spends
most of his time editing and publishing the arts and culture
Under Eisenhower, the tax rate for the rich was 91%. It's now
35%. Those of us in the 99.86 percentile of the population who
aren’t among the richest may never give thought as to
whether billionaires deserve their wealth. Linda
McQuaig asks that question in her new
book The Trouble with Billionaires (Viking Canada,
2010). The journalist, for whom the term “muckraking”
seems to have been invented, borrows a concept – to present
the distribution of income as a national parade in which everyone
marches in order of height – from Dutch statistician Jan
Pen that puts the wealth of these relatively few individuals
in terms we might be able to grasp. She then asks whether these
people truly deserve their fortunes, how these vast amounts
of wealth came to be and why this has wreaked havoc with the
The Trouble with Billionaires (written with tax law
professor Neil Brooks) is a provocative book; anyone to the
left of Glenn Beck will probably want to become an anarchist
five chapters in. We talked to McQuaig, whose other books include
It’s the Crude, Dude (how oil affects foreign
policy) and Holding the Bully’s Coat (the Canadian
government’s sycophantic relationship with the U.S.) in
Toronto about our casino economy, why no one wants to ask these
questions, and why hedge-fund trader John Paulson is walking
around a free man – and a billionaire.
CONNER: What do you think of the state of political discourse,
particularly in the U.S.?
MCQUAIG: It’s a mixed bag, some of it excellent, some
of it not. I don’t know too much about Fox News except
what I’ve see on the Jon Stewart show, but judging from
that, I’d say the level of discourse is appallingly bad.
no serious debate in the U.S. about the Middle East, about Israel
and the Palestinians; that subject is never treated with any
seriousness. And there’s no serious debate about U.S.
military involvement abroad, about whether there’s any
legitimacy to being in Iraq or Afghanistan in the first place.
terms of economic issues, there’s been a lot of debate
over Obama’s attempt to raise the tax rate on people with
income over $250,000, though it never gets beyond the superficial
level. Our book asks if there any justification for these huge
incomes at the top. And do the rich deserve their vast fortunes.
And why are these assumptions never questioned.
CONNER: It’s as if we’ve been collectively brainwashed
into believing you deserve anything you can get.
MCQUAIG: The assumption is that whatever the so-called market
has given you – and, as we point out in the book, the
market is just a creation of the state – is deemed to
be utterly fair and just. That’s a huge, huge assumption
which is never challenged in the media.
people, if they thought about it, would conclude there is something
intrinsically unjust or wrong or unappealing about the idea
of, let’s say, some guy working in derivatives trading
and who is making tens of thousands of dollars more than a nurse.
It’s just hard to imagine the argument, if someone was
forced to make it, how that derivatives trader – who by
the way risks bringing the whole financial system down, as we’ve
seen recently – how that person is contributing tens of
thousands of times more to society than a nurse. It boggles
the mind. It defies credulity. So better not to get into the
want to be too dogmatic and suggest there’s total control
of the media, but the mainstream media has a striking amount
of similarity within it. If you get into the corners of the
media, the margins, you get all kinds of interesting things.
But if you stick with the very mainstream, there’s a mainstream
narrative out there that is heavily influenced by those in power.
You get the odd deviations here and there, but by and large
the message is so overwhelming and constant and ubiquitous that
people without thinking go, “Yeah, people shouldn’t
have to give up their money to taxes, they earned it.”
They don’t really think through – “How did
they earn it? How did they come to earn so much more than anybody
CONNER: Where is the interest in the book coming from –
MCQUAIG: I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot
of interest in the corners. I have always made a point of trying
to be in the mainstream media. I’ve worked at the Globe,
the Star, the CBC, the Montreal Gazette, as
a reporter, producer, various things. And now I’m a columnist,
I’ve been one for over ten years now. I feel like I’m
in the mainstream, and in fairness I do get some attention from
the mainstream. At the same time, let me put it this way –
I don’t think the mainstream media has given the themes
of this book the attention they warrant.
CONNER: Seeing that this book will probably automatically be
labeled left-wing, is it indicative of where we’re at
as a society, since the questions are logical and non-partisan?
MCQUAIG: I think that’s true. There’s only been
one mainstream review of the book, as far as I’m aware,
and it was in the Toronto Star business section, which
is the wrong place because they’re automatically hostile
to it. All they do is attack the arguments and make it sound
like it’s a left-wing diatribe against business.
we’re just raising logical questions. It’s not a
big lefty book; we’re simply holding up, as examples,
of things that work(ed) much better -- a lot of hearkening back
to the early post-war years in Canada and the U.S. In the pre-1980s,
there was a much more egalitarian distribution of income, higher
taxes on the rich and more financial regulation. And it worked
much better and it was under a capitalist system. We are asking
why is it that the remuneration those at the top received back
then seemed to work, seemed to produce effective incentives,
and why can’t that work now? And how does that constitute
a radical socialist agenda?
CONNER: While researching this book, I assume you unearthed
some stories you weren’t familiar with. Does anything
stand out as particularly outrageous – I’m thinking
of that Paulson guy.
MCQUAIG. The U.S. government originally was looking into charges
against Goldman Sachs in connection with John Paulson, who knowingly
soft-peddled subprime mortgages to the vulnerable, to those
who couldn’t afford lawyers to explain to them the contract,
what the fine print means, who got in way over their heads and
lost their homes they shouldn’t have been allowed to purchase.
Last April the government finally laid charges and it looked
like they might even go after Paulson because he was part of
the scam, but they’ve backed off completely, which is
infuriating, especially when you consider the magnitude of the
destruction they (Paulson and Angelo Mozilo from Countrywide
Financial) wrought. Wall Street’s just walked away from
Paulson did was bundle together mortgages that were likely to
fail and then took out insurance betting they were going to
fail. It’s like playing in a rigged casino which the system
allowed. And now we’re massively in debt and we can’t
rebuild our healthcare and education systems.