He is known for his tongue-in-cheek comments, shameless publicity and boundless ability to cause a stir on any given day – whether it is being stranded 10 meters above ground during a botched zip wire stunt, likening women beach volleyball players to “wet otters,” or describing his support of fellow Conservative David Cameron as “purely out of cynical self-interest.”
London Mayor Boris Johnson has previously sprung to the defence of the 1 per cent – or the super-wealthy, as he did in a newspaper column earlier this month.
Last night, Mr. Johnson went further – reflecting on greed, envy and inequality in a speech to a London think-tank commemorating the legacy of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
While the “Gordon Gekkos” of London – a reference to the character played by Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street – should do more to help the underprivileged, greed is a “valid motivator,” he argued, adding that economic equality was an impossible goal and that envy arising from inequality is a valuable spur to economic activity.
His comments come as he reportedly contemplates becoming a member of parliament. Political observers believe he has ambitions to lead the Conservative party and be prime minister one day. Elections are to be held in about 18 months.
But the capital that Mr. Johnson presides over has also come under criticism for being a refuge for the global super-rich. London house prices have seen double-digit growth recently, with more than a third of new construction being snapped up by foreign buyers from Russia, China and the Middle East – and raising fears of a housing bubble.
One American expat lamented the exodus of families unable to afford London life. “This is what happens when property in your city becomes a global reserve currency,” wrote Michael Goldfarb in the New York Times.
Mayor Boris Johnson has said the capital could see 4 per cent growth next year, outstripping the OECD forecast of 2.4 per cent for the country overall. In his speech, he said hoped a boom in London would be accompanied by a “sense of community and acts of prodigious philanthropy.”
But it was his comments on wealth and inequality – and especially on IQs – that caused the biggest stir.
Below is a selection of his comments – via the BBC and Guardian newspaper – as well as reaction to last night’s speech. The full prepared text of his speech can be found on Centre for Policy Studies web site and video excerpts can be found here.
Individual IQs and equality
“Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85 while about 2 per cent ... 16 per cent, anyone of you want to put up your hands? [some laughter in audience] … 2 per cent have an IQ above 130.
“And the harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.”
'Spirit of envy'
“I stress – I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”
Greed is good
“I hope there is no return to the spirit of Loadsamoney heartlessness – figuratively riffling banknotes under the noses of the homeless – and I hope that this time the Gordon Gekkos of London are conspicuous not just for their greed, valid motivator though greed may be for economic progress, as for what they give and do for the rest of the population, many of whom have experienced real falls in their incomes over the last five years.”
The “Loadsamoney” reference is to a money-obsessed 1980s British TV character.
Global competition and inequality
“No one can ignore the harshness of that competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates, and I am afraid that violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth.”
The 1 per cent paying 30 per cent of all income tax
“That is an awful lot of schools and roads and hospitals that are being paid for by the super-rich. So why, I asked innocently, are they so despicable in the eyes of all decent British people? Surely they should be hailed like the Stakhanovites of Stalin’s Russia, who half-killed themselves, in the name of the people, by mining record tonnages of coal?”
Tolerating the wealth gap
“It seems to me that though it would be wrong to persecute the rich, and madness to try and stifle wealth creation, and futile to stamp out inequality, we should only tolerate this wealth gap on two conditions. One, that we help those who genuinely cannot compete; and two, that we provide opportunity for those who can.”
The strongest reaction came form the British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and leader of the Liberal Democrats, who said the mayor’s comments revealed a “careless elitism.”
“The danger is if you start taking such a deterministic view of people and start saying because they’ve got a number attached to them, in this case an IQ number, somehow they’re not really going to rise to top of the cornflake packet. That is complete anathema to everything I’ve always stood for in politics.”
Labour Party supporter Alistair Campbell, who was Prime Minister Tony Blair’s director of communications and strategy, tweeted this morning: “Sense that @mayoroflondon is worried his star is falling. Starting to panic. Saying very stupid things but with very negative impact on him”