Culture

Why Russell Brand Is Wrong About (Almost) Everything

Russell Brand is witty and funny and can hold his own in a verbal confrontation. But whatever you do, don’t take him seriously.

By now, you’ve probably all seen actor/comedian Russell Brand’s appearance on BBC Newsnight last week, to plug his guest-edited edition of New Statesman magazine. Brand took both opportunities to rant at some length about corrupt politicians, the malicious elite, and why you shouldn’t vote. As always, he was very witty and entertaining; no one else could come up with a sentence like this:

“Hear you this, regular New Statesman reader, browsing with irritation that the culture of celebrity has just banjoed the arse of another sacred cow and a Halloween-haired, Sachsgate-enacting, estuary-whining, glitter-lacquered, priapic berk has been undeservedly hoisted upon another cultural plinth, but – young people, poor people, not-rich people, most people do not give a fuck about politics.”

So that would be fine, except that a lot of people seem to have taken him very seriously. “It is a sad reflection of the dire state of politics and the media that it falls to a celebrity comedian such as Russell Brand to speak truth to power — and an even sadder reflection that mainstream cultural commentators find themselves incapable of even understanding his key message,” said Nafeez Ahmed of The Guardian. “Mr. Brand’s rant struck a big, brassy chord; he’s given shape to an inchoate sense of anger and frustration, especially among the have-not generation,” said Elizabeth Renzetti of the Globe and Mail. “Don’t underestimate him,” warned Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post.

One person who did not take him very seriously was his interviewer, Jeremy Paxman—the British equivalent of a Tony Jones or David Speers. If you want the tl;dr version of this critique, Paxman managed to capture everything you need to know using only his eyebrows:

paxman

So if Brand’s rant was as ‘important’ as people have been making it out to be, why did it provoke a highly esteemed journalist to give the greatest ‘oh-my-God-you-cannot-be-serious’ face you’ve ever seen?

Well, in short, almost everything Brand was saying was just completely wrong.

Putting His Mouth Where His Money Is Not:

Brand: “I think the very concept of profit should be hugely reduced. David Cameron said profit isn’t a dirty word, I say profit is a filthy word. Because wherever there is profit there is also deficit. And this system currently doesn’t address these ideas.”

Is ‘profit’ really a dirty word? I can tell you one person who doesn’t think so: Russell Brand. That’s Hollywood star Russell Brand, worth an estimated $15 million. He has gone from a dirt poor drug addict to an exceedingly wealthy man, and he did it through accumulating profit.

“Profit is bad” is one of those strange things that a lot of people say, but no one really believes — or, at least, people aren’t against making profit themselves, but they tend to complain when other people do it. There are, no doubt, a lot of people who would argue that an actor like Russell Brand is disgustingly overpaid. Brand might say he agrees, but clearly he doesn’t agree all that much, seeing as he just spent $2.2 million on a new bachelor pad rather than giving it away to people on lower incomes.

Brand doesn’t object to being paid for the work that he does. He probably chooses movies based at least in part on how much they’re offering. If it’s below what he’s worth, he won’t do the work. Likewise, if he demands more than he’s worth, the studio will go with someone else. That’s the beauty of voluntary transactions: both parties will only agree to transact if they benefit.

Brand’s claim that “wherever there is profit there is also deficit” is patently absurd. Whenever there is profit, there is value added.

All Else Being Equal:

Paxman: “You talked vaguely about a revolution. What is it?”

Brand: “I think a socialist egalitarian system, based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment. I think the very concept of profit should be reduced.

Egalitarianism seems like a great idea until you start to think about what it actually entails. Brand is using a zero-sum calculation for wealth — i.e. whenever someone gets richer, everyone else loses. That’s not true at all. I’ll explain why using an observation that you might find surprising: reading this right now is, to you, the most valuable thing that you could be doing.

While you’re not paying any money to read this (at least not to Junkee; you paid your internet provider), you’re paying for it with your time and attention. If there was something more valuable for you to do, then you would be spending your time and attention on that instead. It’s what’s known as your ‘revealed preference’. It’s hard to put a dollar amount on the value you’re gaining, but if this piece says about as much as Jeremy Paxman’s glorious raised eyebrows, we can say it’s worth two ‘Paxman’s Eyebrows’.

The website that you’re reading right now exists because the corporation Sound Alliance identified a gap in the market for more sophisticated pop culture content, and figured that it would be profitable to make a website that could advertise to young adults with disposable incomes.

Without the prospect of making a profit, there would have been no reason to do that. Without the profits from the other Sound Alliance websites, there would have been no capital with which to do it. Everyone would have been worse off: the advertisers would have struggled to reach customers, the lovely people at Junkee would be unemployed, and you would be at least two Paxman’s Eyebrows poorer.

Reading Junkee is actually a trade. Sound Alliance is giving you two Paxman’s Eyebrows of content in exchange for your time and attention. They sell your time and attention to, say, Stereosonic, for the chance to advertise to you while you read this.

Say you decide to buy a Stereosonic ticket for $240. From reading this article, you have therefore spent $240, and in exchange you have received one Great Day (I hope), and two Paxman’s Eyebrows. The profit from ticket sales will go towards the next Stereosonic event, which will pay to advertise on Junkee, which will pay people like me to give you more Paxman’s Eyebrows.

See, in order to make a profit, people need to produce something that has enough value that other people will give something up in exchange. People pursue profits for themselves, but they can only ever make profits by benefitting others. As Adam Smith famously put it:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”

It can be hard to get your head around this idea, but it’s true: people cooperate best when each is working for their own self-interest. The more value you can provide for others, the richer you will get. That’s why Brand was wrong about profit. Time to tackle inequality.

It’s Not All That Bad:

Paxman: “I’m not having a go at you because you want a revolution; many people want a revolution. But I’m asking you what it will be like.”

Brand: “What it won’t be like is a huge disparity between rich and poor, where 300 Americans have the same amount of wealth as the 85 million poorest Americans; where there’s an exploited and underserved underclass that are being continually ignored.”

Let’s go back to our example from before, and look at who has gained what. The people who bought the tickets have one Great Day and two Paxman’s Eyebrows. Stereosonic and Sound Alliance have both made good, old-fashioned money. If you didn’t buy the ticket (maybe you couldn’t afford it), all you got was two measly Paxman’s Eyebrows. This is inequality. Should the others be forced to give you something?

The thing is, you’re already getting two Paxman’s Eyebrows from them for free. This is a trivial example, but the same principles apply on a bigger scale. Even if you ignore welfare, people without means benefit from gains made by society as a whole.

Not so long ago, the mega-wealthy used to travel in horse-driven carriages, pay musicians to perform in their houses, and have servants cook meals for them, while all of these luxuries were denied to everyone else. Now, even someone living in poverty can travel by bus, listen to music by stereo, and order food cooked by someone else (sure it’s Pizza Hut and not a Michelin Star restaurant, but the point stands).

Those advances were all initially paid for by rich people, but their effect has been to raise the standard of living of the poor up to something resembling how the rich used to live. Income inequality may have grown, but inequality in the standard of living has narrowed.

Talkin’ ‘bout A Revolution:

Let’s say you still think that everyone else should be paying you for not buying a Stereosonic ticket, since everyone who did buy one is having such a great time. There then needs to be someone in charge of this redistribution. Here are Brand’s thoughts:

Paxman: “Who would levy these taxes?”

Brand: “I think there needs to be a centralised administrative system but built on…”

Paxman: “A government?”

Brand: “Yes, well, maybe call it something else. Call them like the Admin Bods so they don’t get ahead of themselves.”

Paxman: “And how would they be chosen?”

Brand: “Jeremy, don’t ask me to sit here in an interview with you, in a bloody hotel room and devise a global, utopian system. I’m merely pointing out that the current…”

Paxman: “You’re calling for revolution!”

Brand: “Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I’m calling for change. I’m calling for genuine alternatives.”

A revolution leading to a group taking power and dramatically redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. That sounds familiar. I think I saw it once in a Youtube video?

In fact, they’ve tried that in quite a few places. China was one. Sadly (from Brand’s perspective), they abandoned the idea and started moving towards the whole ‘capitalism’ thing. It’s hard to tell for sure since the Communist Party are too embarrassed to release the figures, but the best estimates say that China’s income inequality has been skyrocketing ever since. Even under the dubious official figures, income inequality is substantially higher in China than in America.

Redistribution didn’t work out all that well for China. In fact, when the central government decided to end property rights and make everyone totally equal by force, thirty million people starved to death. Since then, some property rights have been returned and trade has been liberalised in part, which has allowed China to lift itself out of poverty. I doubt whether they would be too keen on the idea of redistribution anymore.

Well, He Was Wrong About Almost Everything:

The one legitimate complaint that Brand did raise was of corrupt politicians and crony capitalism. Those things do exist. The problem is, Brand’s revolution would make it much, much worse.

Crony capitalism is what happens when a small number of people have too much power. Contrary to popular opinion, that is not the same as when they have too much money. The difference between having money and power is that money can only buy things. On the other hand, those in power can enforce their will using the police and the military. If you aren’t buying what private individuals are selling, there’s not much that they can do about it, no matter how rich they are. The government on the other hand can have you arrested and thrown in jail.

And so we get crony capitalism. If you wreck the environment, you go to prison — unless you can pay enough to bribe the authorities. Cab companies pay the government hundreds of thousands of dollars a year per cab, and the government arrests anyone who operates a taxi without paying. The existing cab companies effectively pay the government to maintain their monopoly and keep prices high. I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea.

So what prevents this kind of corruption? Two things, both of which Brand hates. The first is voting. Democracy does not eliminate corruption, but it definitely reduces it. The second is to limit what the government can do. For reasons I won’t go into, the market is not very good at taking care of the environment, but the corruption in the taxi industry could easily be prevented by saying that the government is not there to regulate taxis.

If the government is doing less, it will be much easier for honest citizens to keep an eye on them, and make sure that everything is in order. If the government can be voted out, that means it will have to be careful not to upset too many voters.

Brand laments the apathy of the ‘disenfranchised’ in our society. He blames uninspiring and unrepresentative leadership for the boredom that he and so many others have with politics. The thing is, if it was actually all that bad, people wouldn’t be bored. Pick any Middle Eastern or African country and I can tell you two things about it: first, the leaders are neither inspiring nor representative, but they are very corrupt. Second, each of their citizens cares about politics.

Our apathy is not because our leaders aren’t inspiring, or because we’re disenfranchised. Brits and Americans are all enfranchised. Australians not only have a democratic franchise, we get fined for not using it. We’re apathetic because our lives are so comfortable. For most people, paying attention costs more effort than it’s worth. If the system really needed to be changed, more people would care more about changing it.

Things Can Only Get Better:

The crux of Brand’s rant was how bad everything is getting, and how desperate action is needed in order to prevent the apocalypse. I completely disagree: despite the GFC and climate change, things have never been better. On one level it sounds bad that the wealthiest 300 Americans are more wealthy than the poorest 84 million, but it’s not so easy to be critical if you bear in mind that the bottom 5% of Americans (around 15 million) are richer than 95% of all Indians, 85% of all Chinese, and 55% of all Brazilians — more than two billion people.

In fact by some estimates, no one in America lives in poverty. Brand said that politicians are doing nothing for the poor. That is true nowhere. You could (and I do) argue that what they are doing is not working as well as it should, but after entitlements, welfare expenditure is the largest budget item in Western countries. We do a lot for poor people.

By American standards, someone is ‘impoverished’ when they live on $30 per day. In developing countries, the poverty rate is $1.25 per day. A billion people live under that line. Not one of them lives in America, Australia, or the UK. In countries like ours, the poorest can earn several times that by begging, meaning that they are several times better fed, clothed and housed than people living in poverty in India or China — and yes, that includes people we call homeless.

But the number of people globally living below the poverty line has halved in the last two decades. If it continues to fall at the same rate, global poverty will reach 1% in 2030. The redistribution attempts throughout the 20th Century only created more corruption and poverty. The progress of recent years has been achieved through market liberalisation and economic growth.

I’m also quite sanguine about the environment. Brand thinks that the world is being destroyed, but he’s not the first one to think that — and climate change is not the first ‘world-destroying’ threat that we’ve faced. In fact, people are constantly coming up with new reasons why the world is ending. We have been predicting that the food is running out at least since 1798. We had the Ozone Layer, the population bomb, a nuclear winter, peak oil, killer bees, SARS epidemics, and too many others to mention.

The only thing that we do better than predicting the apocalypse is averting it. Each time, the threat has been overblown or we have found our way around the problem. Human ingenuity is an extremely powerful thing. The only way that it has been successfully stifled is through the use of coercive force by ideologues with too much power.

The 20th Century repeatedly showed what happens when socialists take over a country by force: they hold onto power through brutality, and impose ideas that cause people to starve to death in their millions. That is what Brand’s ‘revolution’ actually looks like. That’s the vision that so many found inspiring.

Brand is an entertainer. He’s witty and funny and can hold his own in a verbal confrontation. By all means watch him, laugh with him, and enjoy the show.

But whatever you do, don’t take him seriously.

AUTHOR CLARIFICATION 31/10/2013:

While I’m overwhelmed at the response to this article and very grateful to everyone who has been ‘liking’ and sharing it, I feel like I need to respond to two points in the comments which misrepresented what I said.

First, I never claimed that poverty is not a problem or that it had been solved. I was just trying to point out what we consider to be ‘poverty’ in the developed world is a much higher standard of living than ‘poverty’ in developing countries. That does not mean that poverty is at all desirable or that we shouldn’t be doing everything we can to help alleviate it. In fact, I was writing in support of the one thing that has done more to combat poverty than any other measure: trade liberalisation leading to economic development.

Second, I never “denied” climate change, all I said was that I am optimistic about finding a solution and I don’t think it’s quite the apocalypse that some are making it out to be.

Daniel Katz is a Sydney-based writer, law student, and supporter of a free society.