Whose money is it anyway?


When attempting to embarrass the filthy rich into parting with a few ducats from their dragon hordes, timing – which is, itself, the fount of all great wealth – is everything.

Oxfam knows this, which is why, on the eve of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (a swank soiree for the world’s movers and shakers, or, depending on one’s political leanings, satanic masters of the dark arts), the international anti-poverty organization has released its most recent research paper on the unequal distribution of mammon across the planet. And the tale it tells might curl a philanthropically inclined billionaire’s toes.

As the summary document, Woking for the Few, plainly states, “Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one per cent of the population. The wealth of the one per cent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.”

Meanwhile, “The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world. Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years. The richest one per cent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012. In the US, the wealthiest one per cent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis

growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.”

Oxfam allows that some inequality can be a good thing, as it tends to “drive growth and progress, rewarding those with talent, hard earned skills, and the ambition to innovate and take entrepreneurial risks.”

Overall, though, that’s not how the world is working.

“Widening inequality is creating a vicious circle where wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs from the top table,” Oxfam’s Executive Director Winnie Byanyima told the Guardian this week. “In developed and developing countries alike we are increasingly living in a world where the lowest tax rates, the best health and education and the opportunity to influence are being given not just to the rich but also to their children.”

As the report points out, runaway economic inequality creates permanent upper and lower classes, which constrain the flow of capital to deserving and innovative programs and projects. That, in turn, dampens overall growth and exacerbates poverty and homelessness. It also tends to widen existing gulfs in opportunities, particularly those between women and men.

What’s more, the research reports, “In many countries, extreme economic inequality is worrying because of the pernicious impact that wealth concentrations can have on equal political representation. When wealth captures government policymaking, the rules bend to favor the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else. The consequences include the erosion of democratic governance, the pulling apart of social cohesion, and the vanishing of equal opportunities for all.

“Unless bold political solutions are instituted to curb the influence of wealth on politics, governments will work for the interests of the rich, while economic and political inequalities continue to rise. As US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, ‘We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.’”

The question, of course, is: How much more concentrated can the world’s wealth become before any notions of democracy or, for that matter, market capitalism – which theoretically, at least, encourages fair and open competition – become quaintly invalid.

Still, many who perch at the right end of the political spectrum prefer to propagate the specious argument that fortune favours, by and large, the talented, hard-working, well-educated, and courageous, (not, as is more often the case, the entitled, corrupt and protected).

The rest of us shouldn’t envy hordes of wealth, but celebrate them as beacons of hope and inspiration: There, but for the failure of our own character, go we.

If only that were true. And Oxfam is not the only, or even most influential, voice pointing out the patently obvious on this subject.

“Through the tax code, there has been class warfare waged, and my class has won,” Warren Buffett ruefully observed in 2011 It’s been a rout.”

Of course, as the third-richest man on the planet, he can afford to be embarrassed.

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