This piece originally appeared on Truthout.
“Property is theft,” French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously declared in 1840 – a judgment clearly shared by many of those involved in the occupations in the name of the 99 percent around the country, and especially when applied to Wall Street bankers and traders. Elizabeth Warren also angrily points out that there “is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.” Meaning: if the rich don’t pay their fair share of the taxes which educate their workers and provide roads, security and many other things, they are essentially stealing from everyone else.
But this is the least of it: Proudhon may have exaggerated when, for instance, we think of a small farmer working his own land with his own hands. But we now know that he was far closer to the truth than even he might have imagined when it comes to how the top 1 percent really got so rich, and why the 99 percent lost out. The biggest “theft” by the 1 percent has been of the primary source of wealth – knowledge – for its own benefit.
Knowledge? Yes, of course, and increasingly so. The fact is, most of what we call wealth is now known to be overwhelmingly the product of technical, scientific and other knowledge – and most of this innovation derives from socially inherited knowledge, at that. Which means that, except for trivial amounts, it was simply not created by the 1 percent who enjoy the lion’s share of its benefits. Most of it was created, historically, by society – which is to say, minimally, the other 99 percent.
Take a simple example: In our own time, over many decades, the development of the steel plow and the tractor increased one man’s capacity to farm, from a small plot (with a mule and wooden plow) to many hundred acres. What changed over the years to make this possible was a great deal of engineering, steelmaking, chemistry and other knowledge developed by society as a whole.
Another obvious example: Many of the advances that have propelled our high-tech economy in recent decades grew directly out of research programs financed and, often, collaboratively developed, by the federal government and paid for by the taxpayer. The Internet, to take the most well-known example, began as a government defense project, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), in the 1960s. Today’s vast software industry rests on a foundation of computer language and operating hardware developed, in large part, with public support. The Bill Gateses of the world might still be working with vacuum tubes and punch cards were it not for critical research and technology programs created or financed by the federal government after World War II.
The iPhone is another example: Its microchips, cellular communication abilities and global positioning system (GPS) all flowed from developments traceable to significant direct and indirect public support from the military and space programs. The “revolutionary” multi-touch screen was developed by University of Delaware researchers financially supported by the National Science Foundation and the CIA. It is not only electronics: of the 15 modern US-developed “blockbuster” drugs with over $1 billion in sales, 13 received significant public research and development support.
But taxpayer-financed government programs (including, of course, all of public education!) are only the tip of the iceberg. And here we are not talking rhetoric, we are talking the stuff of Nobel prizes. Over the last several decades, economic research has begun to pinpoint much more precisely how much of what we call “wealth” society in general derives from long, steady, century-by-century advances in knowledge – and how much any one individual at any point in time can be said to have earned and “deserved.”
Recent estimates indicate, for instance, that national output per capita has increased more than twentyfold over the 200-plus years since 1800. Output per hour worked has increased an estimated fifteenfold since 1870 alone. Yet the modern person is likely to work each hour with no greater commitment, risk or intelligence than his counterpart from the past. The primary reason for such huge gains is that, on the whole, scientific, technical and cultural knowledge has grown at a scale and pace that far outstrips any other factor in the nation’s economic achievement.
A half-century ago, in 1957, economist Robert Solow showed that nearly 90 percent of productivity growth in the first half of the 20th century alone, from 1909 to 1949, could only be attributed to technical change in the broadest sense. The supply of labor and capital – what workers and employers contribute – appeared almost incidental to this massive technological “residual.” (Solow received the Nobel Prize for this and related work in 1987.) Another leading economist, William Baumol, calculated that “nearly 90 percent … of current GDP [gross domestic product] was contributed by innovation carried out since 1870.”
The truly central and demanding question is obviously this: If most of what we have today is attributable to knowledge advances that we all inherit in common, why, specifically, should this gift of our collective history not more generously benefit all members of society? The top 1 percent of US households now receives far more income than the bottom 150 million Americans combined. The richest 1 percent of households owns nearly half of all investment assets (stocks and mutual funds, financial securities, business equity, trusts, nonhome real estate). A mere 400 individuals at the top have a combined net worth greater than the bottom 60 percent of the nation taken together. If America’s vast wealth is mainly a gift of our common past, how, specifically, can such disparities be justified?
Early in the American republic, Thomas Paine urged that everything “beyond what a man’s own hands produce” was a gift that came to him simply by living in society, and, hence, “he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.” Another American reformer, Henry George, challenged what he called “the unearned increment” that is created when population growth and other societal factors increase land values.
To be sure, someone who genuinely makes a real contribution deserves to be rewarded. But Proudhon is right on target for many, many others: when what is created by all of society for many centuries gets turned into wealth, and, somehow, directly or indirectly, shunted away from the 99 percent by the 1 percent, much of that process, in fact, is reasonably described as “theft.” The demand of the occupations that this theft stop, that it be reversed, is also right on target – both in what we know about how wealth is created, and, above all, in what we know about how a just society ought to organize its affairs.