I recently read the latest book by Peter Barnes, “With Liberty and Dividends for All: How to Save Our Middle Class When Jobs Don’t Pay Enough,” and was fortunate enough to get in touch with Peter to discuss his work.
As inequality is an issue with growing implications, I’ve been trying to devour everything I can on the subject. In doing so I’ve kept an eye toward radical ideas which look well beyond our current approach, and perspectives which transcend the false dichotomies which typically captivate our collective attention. Peter’s book fit the bill on both of those counts.
What’s the matter?
A new study from Emanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman suggests that the current rules for our economic system are pointing us toward dangerous territory as, “The top 0.1% (consisting of 160,000 families worth $73m on average) hold 22% of America’s wealth, just shy of the 1929 peak — and almost the same share as the bottom 90% of the population.”
There are plenty of other economic indicators to consider, and those tracking the quantity and quality of jobs available seem to be heading in a better direction, but viewing a trend which shows aggressive accumulation by the top .1% gives me pause. If this continues, what sort effects might it have on our democracy?
With that in mind, let’s jump to the questions.
CO: You’re known as a businessman and environmentalist, but you’ve headed in the direction of economics with your last two books. What led you there?
PB: My father, Leo Barnes, was an economist, and thanks to him I’ve always thought like an economist. I’ve also been fascinated by economic thinkers from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes to Herman Daly. And I’ve been strongly influenced by reading Henry George and E.F. Schumacher.
My main reason for going into business wasn’t to get rich, but to learn from the inside how our economy works — and how far its boundaries can be pushed. My first business was a worker-owned cooperative, and my second was in socially responsible investing. After 20 years I concluded that small islands of social responsibility can exist within capitalism, but the system as a whole — unless its fundamental rules are changed — will always destroy nature and widen inequality. So I wanted to figure out how to change the system as a whole.
CO: Inequality has really come to the fore in the past year. Do you think we’re nearing a time when serious changes will be made to help combat this growing issue? Will the long, slow slide most are currently experiencing be enough for them to demand change, or do you think it might take a catastrophic event to focus minds on the subject?
PB: The long, slow decline of our middle class will generate plenty of suffering and anger, but it will take a serious crisis to break the political gridlock that currently paralyzes us. The crisis of 2008 wasn’t big enough, so it will have to be something closer to 1929. And I think that could be coming.
CO: Your book advocates for multiple opportunities to change our economic systems, which might lessen inequality. How would you suggest that readers work to help bring such changes about? In other words, where might their efforts be most purposefully and efficiently used, so that they’re striking at the problem’s roots, rather than flailing at the leaves?
PB: While we’re waiting for the next big crisis, I’d encourage everyone to promote this simple idea: all persons have a right to equal income from common wealth. Talk about it, and writer letters to newspapers, web sites and Congress members. And if and when a movement for equal dividends arises, join it.
CO: What’s next for you? Do you have another book project that you can tell us about? What hill are you climbing?
PB: I have no new book project in mind. I want to spend the next several years promoting the idea of equal income from common wealth. It’s too soon to say where that will go, but I hope it catches on.
As a businessperson, environmentalist, and former journalist, Peter has successfully straddled lines which I think most folks see as non-traversable. Because of this he brings a unique perspective to the ongoing debate on economics and inequality. Peter packed his book with ideas that range from pragmatic to radical, as he explored existing frames and pulled possibilities out of the ether. It’s an enjoyable read that will leave you questioning whether some of today’s received paradigms are due for an update.
Our economic systems are not working for the bulk of humanity. Peter has done some heavy lifting to help us think about this and what we might do to create a better system. Please check out his book when you have the chance, and dig in whenever and wherever you can as this problem won’t go away until we deal with it.
I think we’re going to have to recast parts of our economic systems, as the alternative portends calamity. I can’t sit idle and let that happen, so I’m trying to learn all I can and to help others become aware of the problems in the hope that they’ll get interested in being part of the solution.
I hope you’ll join me as this is an all hands on deck situation.
I wish it were a drill.