Detail from the cover of Work, by James Suzman. Cover image: Ellsan/Shutterstock

Greed Isn’t Working for America, So Why Are These Democratic Senators Enabling It?

Sept. 29, 2021 — The Democrats’ battle royale over whether to raise taxes on the rich—and by how much—to pay for a progressive reconciliation bill has got me thinking a lot about greed.

It’s also got me thinking about a book I’m reading by the British anthropologist James Suzman titled Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots. I’m not to the robots yet, but I’ve learned a fascinating lot about hunter-gatherer societies such as the Ju/’hoansi “bushmen” of Africa’s Kalahari Desert.

Anthropologists once assumed that life in these communities was nasty, brutish, and short. But by spending time among them, researchers ultimately discovered that these nomadic peoples wanted for little, and enjoyed considerably more leisure than most of us do today.  

The secret to their contentedness was their studied rejection of greed, status, and material wealth—and the envy and jealousy that inevitably accompany those things. A Ju/’hoansi hunter who returned with a valuable kill was ritually insulted by the others—“You call that scrawny thing a giraffe?”—to bring his ego down a few notches; praise was reserved instead for the person who’d crafted the arrow.

There also was a custom in Ju/’hoansi and similar foraging societies that anthropologists call “demand sharing.” If a person had something desirable in their possession, another person could simply demand it without obligation. It was seen as intolerably rude to refuse such a request. This ensured resources were shared widely, and nobody ended up with too much wealth and power.

As Suzman pointed out in a fascinating recent conversation with the New York Times’ Ezra Klein, the famed economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that technology would advance to a point where modern people would work just 15 hours a week to meet their needs—similar to the Ju/’hoansi, whose needs are quite modest.

Instead, we find ourselves working more than ever, because, as has been the case ever since humans moved from foraging to an agrarian (and later, industrial) way of life, we have become hoarders, always scrambling for more—wealth, status, power, and stuff. The most successful hoarders, those who have accumulated more than they could ever possibly need for themselves, appear unable to slow down. Wealth becomes a scorecard for their own cleverness, and they employ minions—lobbyists, lawyers, accountants, and wealth managers—to maximize and protect their hoards and create dynasties.

Which brings us back to reconciliation. Senate holdouts Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema appear poised to throw a wrench into the Biden administration’s goal of tackling a wealth gap akin to that of the Gilded Age. The party’s proposals are modest in the wake of 18 months of a pandemic that has seen the insanely wealthy become insanely wealthier.

These proposals include a restoration of the top marginal income tax rate to pre-Trump levels, and a small surtax on incomes exceeding $5 million. There would be a minor increase—far less than Biden proposed—in the tax on investment profits. Some ridiculous tax loopholes, namely carried interest, that enrich hedge fund managers and private equity partners would be reined in. And we would eliminate the popular trusts—created in 1990 by a legislative error—that allow guys like Sheldon Adelson and Mark Zuckerberg to transfer billions of dollars to their heirs without paying a dime in gift and inheritance taxes.

Sinema has reportedly told colleagues she is unwilling to raise taxes on the rich—even as she solicits money from interests that stand to benefit from her unwillingness. This is more hoarding behavior. It’s how our system got rigged in the first place and how it will likely remain so. I just think, for the stability of our society and the contentedness of the American people, that we have something important to learn from the Ju/’hoansi ways. Because this nation is way overdue for a little demand sharing.

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