Why is J.K. Rowling so rich?

February 18, 2019 (850 words) :: Because modern-day capitalism is extremely bad at effectively allocating resources.
Tags: intellectual-property

This post is day 49 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

If we lived under a halfway decent economic system, J.K. Rowling would not be a multi-multi-millionaire, because writing books wouldn’t be the financial equivalent of purchasing a lottery ticket. There is no good reason that someone who happened to write some popular children’s books should be that rich.

The fact of Rowling’s extreme wealth doesn’t even make sense on capitalism’s own terms. Her very existence undermines the typical justifications that legitimate capitalism’s dominance, because it’s meant to be the best way to incentivise innovation and allocate resources. But how is Rowling’s massive fortune in any way a useful allocation of resources on a macro scale? What about her ability to create fantasies that happen to appeal to nerdy kids makes her qualified to control almost a billion dollars’ worth of investment on behalf of society? What do we expect her to even do with that money, other than hoard it, or give it away to charity, or have it taxed away?

In 2012, Rowling dropped off Forbes’ billionaires list, apparently because of the “extremely high British taxes she is forced to pay and her hefty donations to charity”, according to BusinessInsider. I think this characterisation is supposed to make me feel gratitude and respect for her ostensible generosity, while also being angry about Britain’s high taxes? If so, it’s not working. Clearly these taxes are not high enough, if she’s able to donate $160 million to charity and still be a multi-multi-millionaire (estimated at $700 million in 2018).

But shouldn’t she have the liberty of dispensing of her own money according to her personal preferences, because she earned it? Fuck no. Nobody ‘earns’ a billion dollars. That $160 million she was able to give to charity shouldn’t have been hers to begin with. She was able to amass a billion dollars simply because of the truly idiotic way the publishing industry works, where an extremely restrictive intellectual property system allows publishers to extract monopoly rent through distributing stories as commodities and then pass on some royalties to authors. I suspect even pro-free market thinkers like Milton Friedman would be appalled - there’s no semblance of market competition when you can copyright the text and also trademark every atom in the entire Harry Potter universe, with the rights persisting until long after the author is dead.

Now, I’m in favour of decommodifying books entirely (along with other art forms), and funding their production through non-market mechanisms. Of course, that’s pretty far from where we are now, and getting to that point will almost certainly require incremental changes to the current market system that could serve as non-reformist reforms. So here are some suggestions for alleviating the inequality generated by the book publishing industry that could be immediately implemented along market lines, while still incentivising the creation of popular works:

I want a world where anyone who wants to write a book has the resources to give it a shot, and nobody who writes a book becomes a billionaire as a result. Having the chance to write a book that affects millions of people is enough of a reward in itself. Anything else is both superfluous as a means of incentivising good writing, and foolish as a means of distributing buying-power.

In case you’re wondering why I’m suddenly so angry at J.K. Rowling: it’s because of the recent news about the new centrist party in the UK, which J.K. Rowling is rumoured to be funding or supporting in some way. I don’t know how true that is, but she’s expressed enough anti-Corbyn sentiment that it wouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone. Obviously, there shouldn’t be any billionaires at all, but I always found it really interesting that J.K. Rowling attained her (former) status through writing, and I wanted to unpack that more. Also, the politics of her books are terrible.

[Edit, the next day: Edited to clarify that my problem with Rowling’s wealth has to do with her wealth relative to that of the average person, rather than with the position of a children’s author in the wealth rankings, as the earlier phrasing implied.]

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