This is a letter to the editor
We often hear about a proposed “wealth tax” in the news; the billionaires deride it, progressives love it. But we don’t hear much about what “wealth” is. The nice columnist, Margaret McDowell (See weekly column “Arbor Outlook”), offers sound investment advice to people who have money, but is that the same as wealth?
When I was teaching, the university took a portion of my pay for a pension plan. Over the years this accumulated; however, I did not learn until much later that I had the power to invest this money into various funds. When the financial crash of 2008 happened, my colleagues lost up to half of their pension savings. Because I was ignorant of the system’s features, all my money stayed in good old US Treasury bonds at a steady interest of about 3 percent. Because I was ignorant of the means to be clever and did not have advice of financial advisers, I now get to live on my sailboat, purchased in 2009.
When I taught in China, I could buy a good bowl of noodles for five yuan, about 60 cents US, but I earned yuan and did not have dollars. With my Chinese salary, I could buy 850 bowls of noodles each month. Interestingly, back home, I could buy the same good bowl of noodles for five dollars. By the noodle-exchange value, my salary would have been $4,250 monthly, which I did not make as an adjunct teacher.
So, dollars are variable and subject to fluctuations, bubbles, and crashes. Wealth, true wealth, is not.
Looked at dispassionately, all economic activity stems from just sun, air, land, and water through the conduits of agriculture and fishery. To derive benefit, we must have access to land. The sun and air are free benefits, but land and water are not in our culture. They are owned, either by individuals, corporations, communities, or the state. We value land especially, and ultimately, this property is wealth (although there are many other forms of property).
We take this idea of property for granted, but this has not always been so. In the Middle Ages, all property was ‘owned’ by the king, even the wildlife, i.e. “The King’s Deer.” This notion still holds in the case of state and federal lands, why we must get fishing and hunting permits.
In Apalachicola before the Spanish, the natives held their land communally. The conquistadores took the land for the king of Spain. He, in turn, made a grant to Scottish brothers John and Thomas Forbes (possibly using gold stolen by English pirates after the conquest of Mexico). The Forbes Company further dispossessed the remaining Apalachicola Indians by means of debt. The Forbes Land Company sold off land to settlers, and thus, the city of Apalachicola exists. This pattern of expropriation through conquest occurred throughout the United States, and some say is still occurring.
So, we hold this wealth because of the violence of our ancestors. As French philosopher Proudhon said, “Property is theft.”