What Is Wealth?

I’ve always had something of a soft spot for Tony Benn, the Labour prime minister Britain never had. I think it may be because he smoked a pipe. And he kept on smoking it even when he was touring the country giving talks after the smoking ban.

However I also have a bit of a soft spot for Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung (Zedong?) for the exact same reason. So maybe judging people by whether they smoke or not isn’t a foolproof method. Although it works quite well with Hitler and Michael Bloomberg.

I’ve never heard anything that Tony Benn might have had to say about the UK smoking ban, or smoking bans in general. He died in 2014, so he’d had 7 years experience of it, and must have had an opinion.

But, anecdotally, I read somewhere once that when No Smoking signs started appearing in British Rail train carriages he was riding in, he used to just stick something over the signs, and then light his pipe.

A week or so back I came across a YouTube video of him speaking (in 2008, I’d guess). In the short 10-minute speech he set out his view of the world, and what needed to be done about it.

One passage, 2 minutes and 15 seconds into the video, set me thinking. He said:

“The only real wealth in the world is land, and the resources that lie under it, and the people. They are the real source of wealth.”

What is wealth? Is that really what wealth is: Land, resources, and people?

I came to a very different opinion in Idle Theory, in which all wealth was idle time, and the wealthiest people were the idlest people, and the poorest were the busiest. Wealth didn’t consist of land, resources, and people, but instead of something intangible (idle time) that people made of the land and its resources.

Here in England where I live, we have the exact same land and resources as we had one thousand years ago, and we have pretty much the exact same people, only a lot more of them. In 1000 AD the population of England and Wales was about 1.6 million: now the population of Britain (which is a bit larger than England and Wales) is about 65 million.

But even given the same land and resources, Britain now is (in my view) a much, much wealthier country than it was a thousand years ago. We all live much easier and idler lives than we did back then. So what has changed? Is it just that there are 40 times as many people than there was back then? Shouldn’t that mean that we should be 40 times poorer, with so little shared between 40 times more people? Or is it that a country becomes richer the more people that are living in it?

What’s changed is the technology that is available to us. We now have engines and vehicles and communications and computing power that was completely unavailable to anyone 1000 years ago. Back then, pretty much the entire population was working the land with hoes and simple ploughs. Now a farmer with a tractor and other engines only needs a few extra hands to manage a large farm. It’s one reason why most of the population has become concentrated in cities. It’s also the reason why we can support 40 times as many people as before.

So wealth isn’t just land, resources, and people. It’s more complicated than that. Or perhaps it’s simpler than that.

There seems to be an almost universal propensity to see wealth as something tangible: land, property, gold, money, treasure, cattle, whatever. But I think the only wealth that anyone ever has is the idle time in which to do as they like. And even multi-billionaires like Donald Trump or George Soros can only ever have, at most, all the days of their life as idle time in which to do as they like.

Later on (4:25) in his brief talk Tony Benn said something else that I questioned:

“In wartime there are no economic arguments at all. I’ve never heard a general say that I can’t bomb Baghdad this month because I’ve exceeded my budget. In wartime you do whatever is required. And we should adopt the principle that in peacetime you do whatever is required.”

Is it true that no economic arguments apply in wartime? The way I see it, all wars are economic wars. When a city is besieged, and the supply of food to it cut off,  that is an economic constraint placed upon it, and a very powerful one indeed. And furthermore, in all the wars in history, it has required money to buy the food and armaments and other supplies needed to keep any army in the field. In ancient Rome it was rich men like Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus who were able to field such armies. In WW1 and WW2 Britain borrowed heavily from the USA to maintain its war effort, and spent the next 50+ years paying off the debt.

From the point of view of Idle Theory, it is the idlest countries which can raise the largest armies. And it was because their social idleness was so high that Britain and France and Germany could in WW1 and WW2 raise huge armies of millions of men that were far larger than any ever seen before in human history. Prior to that time, most armies consisted of 10,000 men or so. And only campaigned during the campaign season

I used to be a bit of a left-winger in my younger days. And that was because I was a bit of an idealist (like Tony Benn), as most young people are. But these days I’m far less concerned with how the world ought to be than with how it actually is. I’m a realist rather than an idealist. I’m interested in understanding the real world, not cooking up fantasies of what it might one day become. And I think that all the harm in the world is always being done by idealistic fantasists with one or other wacky plan they’ve got for everybody. And the EU is another one of these wacky fantasies. And so also is the War on Smoking. And far too much else as well.

About Frank Davis

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9 Responses to What Is Wealth?

  1. Joe L. says:

    OT: Here’s an article posted today on a website called “Pharmaceutical Processing” (hmm, I wonder if it has an Antismoking bias?):

    Anti-Smoking Plan May Kill Cigarettes—And Save Big Tobacco


    Imagine if cigarettes were no longer addictive and smoking itself became almost obsolete; only a tiny segment of Americans still lit up. That’s the goal of an unprecedented anti-smoking plan being carefully fashioned by U.S. health officials.

    But the proposal from the Food and Drug Administration could have another unexpected effect: opening the door for companies to sell a new generation of alternative tobacco products, allowing the industry to survive — even thrive — for generations to come.

    The plan puts the FDA at the center of a long-standing debate over so-called “reduced-risk” products, such as e-cigarettes, and whether they should have a role in anti-smoking efforts, which have long focused exclusively on getting smokers to quit.

    “This is the single most controversial — and frankly, divisive — issue I’ve seen in my 40 years studying tobacco control policy,” said Kenneth Warner, professor emeritus at University of Michigan’s school of public health.

    The FDA plan is two-fold: drastically cut nicotine levels in cigarettes so that they are essentially non-addictive. For those who can’t or won’t quit, allow lower-risk products that deliver nicotine without the deadly effects of traditional cigarettes.

    This month the government effort is poised to take off. The FDA is expected to soon begin what will likely be a years-long process to control nicotine in cigarettes. And next week, the agency will hold a public meeting on a closely watched cigarette alternative from Philip Morris International, which, if granted FDA clearance, could launch as early as February.

    The product, called iQOS (pronounced EYE-kose), is a penlike device that heats Marlboro-branded tobacco but stops short of burning it, an approach that Philip Morris says reduces exposure to tar and other toxic byproducts of burning cigarettes. This is different from e-cigarettes, which don’t use tobacco at all but instead vaporize liquid usually containing nicotine.

    For anti-smoking activists these new products may mean surrendering hopes of a knockout blow to the industry. They say there is no safe tobacco product and the focus should be on getting people to quit. But others are more open to the idea of alternatives to get people away from cigarettes, the deadliest form of tobacco.

    Tobacco companies have made claims about “safer” cigarettes since the 1950s, all later proven false. In some cases the introduction of these products, such as filtered and “low tar” cigarettes, propped up cigarette sales and kept millions of Americans smoking. Although the adult smoking rate has fallen to an all-time low of 15 percent, smoking remains the nation’s leading preventable cause of death and illness, responsible for about one in five U.S. deaths.

    Anti-smoking groups also point to Big Tobacco’s history of manipulating public opinion and government efforts against smoking: In 2006, a federal judge ruled that Big Tobacco had lied and deceived the American public about the effects of smoking for more than 50 years. The industry defeated a 2010 proposal by the FDA to add graphic warning labels to cigarette packs. And FDA scrutiny of menthol-flavored cigarettes — used disproportionately by young people and minorities — has been bogged down since 2011, due to legal challenges.

    “We’re not talking about an industry that is legitimately interested in saving lives here,” said Erika Sward of the American Lung Association.

    But some industry observers say this time will be different.

    “The environment has changed, the technology has changed, the companies have changed — that is the reality,” said Scott Ballin, a health policy consultant who previously worked for the American Heart Association.

    Under a 2009 law, the FDA gained authority to regulate certain parts of the tobacco industry, including nicotine in cigarettes, though it cannot remove the ingredient completely. The same law allows the agency to scientifically review and permit sales of new tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. Little has happened so far. Last year, the agency said it would delay the deadline for manufacturers to submit their vapor-emitting products for review until 2022.

    The FDA says it wants to continue to help people quit by supporting a variety of approaches, including new quit-smoking aids and opening opportunities for a variety of companies, including drugmakers, to help attack the problem. As part of this, the FDA sees an important role for alternative products — but in a world where cigarettes contain such a small amount of nicotine that they become unappealing even to lifelong smokers.

    “We still have to provide an opportunity for adults who want to get access to satisfying levels of nicotine,” but without the hazards of burning tobacco, said FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb. He estimates the FDA plan could eventually prevent 8 million smoking-related deaths.

  2. Philip Neal says:

    I think Benn was a romantic at heart. Though his heyday was the 1970s, which were hardly an advertisement for socialism, he always seemed to think it was still 1910 and that the country was dominated by dukes, bishops and generals. He was somehow blind to the present, like all those people who visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s and managed not to see the reality which was all around them.

  3. beobrigitte says:

    Joe, VERY interesting!!!
    For anti-smoking activists these new products may mean surrendering hopes of a knockout blow to the industry.
    In short, every ban we, THE PEOPLE, have to suffer is because some people HATE the tobacco industry.
    I personally have problems with our meat and milk industry simply because I wish that the animals that feed us have A LIFE, even if it is shortened by our need for food. What I am going to do about it? I have reduced my meat intake further – and therefore APPRECIATE a steak blue when I decide it is time for one.I’m also digging out old day, often meat free, recipes and must say that my spoiled palate is enjoying them.
    Still I am not setting out to destroy the much hated mass animal farming, I am advocating that the animals are given A LIFE prior to slaughter and the milk cows can enjoy grass in a field. (Yup, more work for the farmers).

    Anti-smokers are a different kettle of fish – they are on a run of destruction. Human casualties are just collateral damage to them. Obsession rules the anti-smokers, so on the long run they are doomed.

    What Is Wealth?
    A good question! Most people associate this with material things and when they have it, the worst aspects of their personality becomes their lives.
    There is a wealth of knowledge which is usually gathered in times of least material wealth. Then the aim was to be a happy and content person with stability, e.g. job security etc.
    Food for thought, because the “new” wealth of knowledge fed to us is basically FEAR of EVERYTHING.
    How many people live on this planet who are HAPPY and CONTENT? The very few that are are the wealthiest people….
    It all depends on the kind of wealth one seeks……

    And I think that all the harm in the world is always being done by idealistic fantasists with one or other wacky plan they’ve got for everybody. And the EU is another one of these wacky fantasies. And so also is the War on Smoking. And far too much else as well.
    Back in the days I did (naively) think that the EU was about trading, people from the different EU countries moving to and living amongst the different EU countries’ individual cultures, learning about them and take out old prejudices.
    Perhaps initially this was the Idea of the EU. But then, nobody had thought about INDIVIDUALS IN POWER of such an EU. And how susceptible they are to the concepts laid out by e.g. the anti-smoking industry, the climate change industry and other power hungry clubs, all of them siphoning cash out of that union to fill their personal coffers.
    Voila! Todays mess was born.

  4. Peter Carter says:

    “Pre-industrial workers had a shorter workweek than today’s

    One of capitalism’s most durable myths is that it has reduced human toil. This myth is typically defended by a comparison of the modern forty-hour week with its seventy- or eighty-hour counterpart in the nineteenth century. The implicit — but rarely articulated — assumption is that the eighty-hour standard has prevailed for centuries. The comparison conjures up the dreary life of medieval peasants, toiling steadily from dawn to dusk. We are asked to imagine the journeyman artisan in a cold, damp garret, rising even before the sun, laboring by candlelight late into the night.

    These images are backward projections of modern work patterns. And they are false. Before capitalism, most people did not work very long hours at all. The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed. Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure.”


    • Frank Davis says:

      Today when I climb in my car to go go shopping, my car will save me the work of walking to the shop and back, and there will be nothing mythical about it at all. And the same will be true when I put my clothes in the washing machine, and have it save me the work of scrubbing them clean.

      • RdM says:

        Today when I climb in my car to go go shopping, my car will save me the work of walking to the shop and back, and there will be nothing mythical about it at all.

        OTOH, the car has excised the exercise and possible enjoyment of a walk.
        But I admit that walking for shopping can be a chore, although still maybe enjoyed.

        It would depend on the distance… I have a close supermarket, 10 min walk, and a further away one much larger & with much cheaper coffee, 20 min walk, both each way.

        I used to walk to the latter happily enough, but since becoming a pensioner qualifying for free city bus fares I notice I’ve happily availed myself of them, there and back close by, and enjoying the comfort… probably no time saving though, walk to the bus stop, wait.

        Your shop might be quite a bit further away… probably the car is entirely reasonable.

        Grateful for the washing machine…

        But I’ve never used the dishwasher in this flat in the 3yrs+ I’ve been here.

    • RdM says:

      Somewhere around here I have a book on the history of clocks, timekeeping.
      Certainly people only wanted to work enough to fill their needs, in cottage industry.
      The advent of industry, clocked days in factories, changed all that for the workers.

  5. Darryl says:

    “the wealthiest people were the idlest people, and the poorest were the busiest.”

    First comes the wealth, then comes the idle time. The wealth buys the idle time. The poorest are the busiest because they have no wealth to buy idle time.

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