“What good’s a god who gives you everything you want? … It’s the HOPE that’s important. Give people jam today, and they’ll just sit and eat it. Jam tomorrow, now — that’ll keep them going for ever.”
- Terry Pratchett, Hogfather
Of the people alive today, if there is one I find most terrifying, it is Gina Rinehart. Australia’s richest citizen and the world’s richest woman, Rinehart is the Executive Chair of Hancock Prospecting, a lucrative iron ore mining concern that has a turnover of A$870 million every year. In addition to being fabulously wealthy, Rinehart is politically very outspoken – putting her money and influence to work in opposing measures that seek to reduce climate change, yet threaten her company’s bottom line. For example, she has actively campaigned against Australia’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, and has funded the creation of ANDEV, a climate-change sceptic lobby group. To make matters worse, she has recently purchased significant shares in both Fairfax Media and Ten Network Holdings; two of Australia’s most influential media conglomerates. A variety of commentators have expressed concern that Rinehart has acquired these interests in order to push her own neoliberal views. And recently, Rinehart has nailed those views to the mast – claiming that there is no real obstacle to anyone seeking to get rich.
“If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain,” she said, in her regular column in Australian Resources and Investment magazine, “Do something to make more money yourself — spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working.” As a final, encouraging note, Rinehart assures us “There is no monopoly on becoming a millionaire”.
The idea that the deserving poor are, in fact, deservedly poor – and that all that they need to get rich quick is to work more and do everything else less, is very common. One might expect Rinehart to spout straight-up Hayek; arguing that growth has the potential to lift everyone out of poverty; because as the rich get richer, they pull everyone else up by generating jobs – both by spending their money, and by needing employees for their successful businesses. However, a second (and less pleasant) aspect of this “trickle-down” model is that inequality remains in place – the poor remain at the bottom. Of course, its supporters claim that this is no bad thing; the presence of a thrusting economic elite is beneficial, because they generate more “stuff” for everyone. They deserve a bigger slice of the pie, so the theory goes, because they make the pie itself bigger.
But what’s odd is the Rinehart isn’t saying this at all. She claims that “there’s no monopoly on millionaires”. Now, if she means that there’s nothing stopping people from striving for that status, then Hayek would agree with her. But if (as she appears to be hinting at), it is possible for everyone to be a millionaire, if they work hard, then she’s clearly mistaken. If we all became millionaires in monetary terms, the purchasing power per unit currency would plummet due to inflationary pressures; more money does not necessarily mean more wealth. And the rather grim fact is that there simply aren’t enough resources in the world for us all to be as fabulously wealthy as the likes of Gina Rinehart – we can all live well, perhaps, but not that well.
In addition to being hideously out of touch with the lives of ordinary people and the realities of living on planet Earth, this kind of overoptimistic work ethic doesn’t even reflect Rinehart’s own life history. If she were a self-made woman, preaching of this kind would at least be rooted in something substantial – but she’s not. She didn’t earn her position of vast privilege; she inherited it from her father, Lang Hancock. Hancock himself owed his success as much to luck as hard graft – when his family bought up large tracts of central Pilbara district in Western Australia, nobody knew some of the largest deposits of iron ore in the world lay beneath the dusty ground. And let us not forget that landowners such as the Hancocks claimed their stations under the ropey legal pretext of terra nullius – something which amounts to little more than outright theft from Australia’s indigenous population. The Aboriginal people of Pilbara, it should be noted, have benefitted little from Hancock Prospecting’s operations in their country.
The story of Rinehart’s wealth is illuminating for a number of reasons. It reveals a basic flaw in her reasoning – people don’t make succeed just by working hard; the wealthy frequently benefit from inheritance, structural inequalities in the rest of society that favour them personally, or even just blind luck. And the odd occlusion by her of a crucial aspect of trickle-down economics – the preservation of inequality to drive the engines of economic progress – tells us something else; perhaps rather than revealing the “secret” of “investing in Australia’s future”, she’s actually keeping a deeper secret – that she’s essentially invoking the power of hope to hoodwink the poor. As Terry Pratchett points out in the quote above, the promise of jam tomorrow is a powerful thing, that can be even better at controlling people than the bread-and-circuses principle upon which Rome was run. If you give the mob what they want, they’ll be satiated for a day. But if you parade your wealth in front of them, and then promise them that, if they work hard, they live as you do; they will follow you forever.
And that tells us that the monopoly on millionaires is not just a fact of nature – a restriction imposed by a lifeboat Earth of limited resources – it is a social fact, too. People like Gina Rinehart are not above using misinformation and bad economics to justify their own avarice, and to deny the rights of all of us to enjoy this world’s bounty equally.