The people are in debt. Their governments are in deficit. The pension liabilities are practically impossible to pay. The drastic re-skilling of workers needed to make economies competitive is unaffordable. Increasing revenues by raising taxes on a debt-ridden populace battling high unemployment would seem, for any democratic regime, suicidal. This then could be the story of almost any rich country one would care to pick. Given that most conventional methods of reducing deficits seem fraught with risks for these governments, perhaps they should start considering unconventional measures.
The Roman Emperors when faced with an empty imperial treasury would sometimes adopt an interesting remedy. Round up the wealthy citizens of Rome and extort huge sums of money from them. And surely, the prospects of rounding up fat-cat Wall Street bosses in say Guantanamo and lightening them of the burden of their ill-begotten bonuses, would sound like a temptingly just recompense to many. Perhaps similar fat-cats from the “City” can be brought in by means of extraordinary rendition? In any case, as fair as it may seem – this may not be the right thing to do. But the fact remains that huge amounts of wealth remains concentrated in the hands of a few. By some estimates, as of 2004, the top 1% wealthy families in the US owned a staggering 34% of the total wealth in that country! The bottom 40% on the other hand possessed a mere 0.2%.
This problem of highly unequal distribution of wealth – with a few wealthy people amassing immense fortunes – is not easy to resolve. In theory at least, the possibility of amassing such wealth often motivates much innovation and entrepreneurial risk taking. It may not be wise policy to threaten such a powerful motivation. Its also equally regrettable that few amongst the wealthy are prone to philanthropic distribution of wealth a la mode Mr Gates and Mr Buffet! But that could be the trick – is some way could be found for the very wealthy to willingly part with their wealth to fund such initiatives as deficit reduction, poverty reduction, education, basic infrastructure, healthcare, and so on.
Vanity could be the clue. As is natural for high-status individual – rich folk are bound to have a good measure of pride and perhaps vainglory. Could that be used to tap into their wealth? Perhaps it could – because governments through the ages have been vested with the power to confer status by awarding titles. Knights, barons, Counts, Earls, Rajahs, Nabobs, Rai-bahadurs, Amirs and Baigs! I am sure there would be many rich folk who would love to purchase such titles. And the Government could, if it played its cards well, turn in a handsome profit! Titles could be auctioned, elegant ceremonies where these are bestowed on the recipients can be organised, the mystique can be built up to drive up the prices!
In all likelihood – I suspect this already happens on a small to moderate scale. Governments only need to make this a grand spectacle and a great revenue earner!