It’s been seven days since I promised some pals that I would publish this piece within twenty-four hours – so true to form I’m late. It’s not been a week of lounging by the pool drinking margaritas I might add. It’s been a week of studying documents, reading newspapers, and scouring the web for information. I’ve also taken the time to contemplate my own thoughts rather than gut instincts, scrape the crispy dried bits from the edges of my brain, and sieve out the facts from the conspiracy theories of my own suspicious mind.
And after all that research, heart and head searching I’m still left with the first three words I started with.
It’s not fair.
You might be aware of the latest Oxfam campaign targeting inequality. It was launched in true Oxfam style with a headline grabbing title that coincided nicely with Davos (Not to be confused with Davros, who was the maker of the Daleks not the rich persons playground in Switzerland).
The campaign introduces the fact that the distribution of global wealth has been getting smaller, and that if this trend continues then by 2016 over half of the world’s wealth will be owned by 1% of the worlds population.
It’s a shocking statistic, and you may think that by presenting these figures Oxfam is somehow sensationalising over simplified data to amplify their continuous and (some may say) monotonous drone about poverty. But it made all the headlines, for a day. It made some people look up from their smartphones for a minute, so I guess it did what it was supposed to do – point out a problem.
If you want to highlight the dangers of obesity in children you don’t show a picture of a slightly tubby toddler, nor if you want to emphasise the diseases caused by smoking do you demonstrate a lung with a little bit of disease. You illustrate the points with the fattest kid you can find and plaster the cigarette packets with the nastiest lungs you can imagine. And likewise if you want to get serious about highlighting inequality then you might as well start at the top, and then trickle down from there.
I’ll admit I feel slightly patronised by the image of the double decker bus Oxfam uses to illustrate that the 80 richest people in the word own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world (3.5 billion who would fit on forty-three million seven hundred and fifty thousand buses, or fill Wembley stadium thirty-eight thousand eight hundred and eighty-nine times over – if info-graphics are your thing)
But one of the problems of a few people holding onto this incredible amount of wealth that this handy graphic, or headline doesn’t explain is that this money isn’t actually doing that much, it’s certainly not being spent. I mean, how is Warren Buffet going to spend his entire wealth of $58.2 billion? Impossible. I would imagine his money is generally sitting around gathering dust and multiplying each year. Buffet increased his wealth by 9% from 2013 to 2014 ($4.7 billion – enough to buy twenty four thousand seven hundred and thirty-six London Double-deckers!)
So inequality isn’t just unfair, it’s inefficient as well.
This massive pile of electronic cash held by Buffet and Gates and the rest isn’t doing a great deal for the economy (nor sadly the makers of the Routemaster bus). Isn’t demand led consumption one of the fundamental aspects of capitalism? If we stop spending money, then how can the system work? If half of the worlds wealth is tied up with the richest 1%, doesn’t that suggest that a lot of that money isn’t going to be spent.
There must come a point when you’ve earned so much money that you can’t really spend any more – yes you can buy jets, and jewels and Jacobean jugs – but real spending that actually benefits the economy rather than benefitting some other rich people who sell luxury items, must be fairly limited at that end of the scale. As the number of people holding a greater percentage of wealth gets less, the amount spent globally must surely get less, (I’m no economist) but if Buffet gave his $4.7 billion bonus to the poorest 50%, they’d spend it on stuff. Real stuff like food, or I don’t know what ever you can buy for $1.3 a head. Surely that would do more for the global economy than just sitting there as ever-increasing numbers on his computer screen.
And it must be unhealthy attaining all this money, like a compulsive hoarder who has to climb over the piles of phone directories and local newspapers just to get out of his front door, or the middle-aged man surrounded by boxed Star Wars figures. This obsessive amassing of cash must eventually limit you in what you can actually do, obviously you’ve moved out of your mums back bedroom and got a girlfriend, but how real is life from behind those bullet proof sunglasses, does your obscene wealth come at the cost of losing touch with humanity?
Oxfam says there is only one solution – global tax reform.
Fair do’s it’s a big ask, but you don’t get if you don’t ask.
And I guess you don’t get uber rich without jumping through a few tax loopholes now and again. I’m sure the more regulations that are imposed in taxation the more loopholes can be found, still it wouldn’t do any harm for companies such as Amazon, Vodaphone, Nike, Starbucks etc to start contributing to the tax revenues instead of just filling their shareholders Ermine-lined purses.
But I don’t think concentrating on taxation is enough.
I remember at my secondary school we had a cock of the school, hardest lad I’ve ever seen. He ruled the roost, just him, a couple of grunts against the rest of us, and we could have been army five hundred or more strong. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that collectively we were stronger and more powerful than him and his gang, but we never thought about it like that. We accepted the bullying, and the pocket money pinching because that’s the way things were. If we’d lined up and all stuck a communal boot up his arse he wouldn’t have been in charge anymore; we might not have had to hide our tuck shop money in our socks. But we never did. He’s probably a politician now, a respected member of the community, actually no, I think he’s in prison. Same difference.
So what do we do? What do the charities do? Do we accept the status quo; keep plugging away trying to solve inevitable global poverty? Do we work on practical tasks to “improve the livelihoods and opportunities of the poorest” whilst working out ways to persuade those “extremely rich individuals (rather than alienating them) to do something progressive or helpful with their money?”
Or do we kick em up the arse!
Well that might be a headline grabber, but it isn’t going to win Oxfam many supporters, so perhaps the only way that they think that WE can make a difference is to correct the mistakes in the system by advocating for a global taxation system that is more difficult to manipulate and avoid. You know, closing the tax havens where large corporations are based, and facilitate a way that greater tax revenues can be obtained from the super rich, instead of constantly hitting the poorer and less powerful at every opportunity.
In the mean time whilst we are collectively lacing up our boots, and Oxfam are cleaning their whiteboards and going out for sushi, perhaps instead of pandering to the ultra wealthy, doffing our caps at their undeniable talents at wealth creation, worrying about upsetting and alienating them. Perhaps we should be looking at ourselves, looking long and hard into our IKEA mirrors and considering whether perhaps we are part of the problem as well as the solution.
And I don’t argue with the Oxfam headlines approach, in fact my only complaint is that they haven’t gone quite far enough. Global tax reform? What we need is Global humanity reform, and that is a long-term solution. Change our thinking; change our perceptions of each other. Change the world.
The problem isn’t those few very rich people; it is the system that facilitated their position. This is the system that we adhere to, that we embrace because we know no different. The system that we have been brain washed into by its shiny-disposable-consumerist-trinkets.
And it’s the only system that works, we know that because we’ve been told.
These super rich, this 1% they are in this position because we have allowed it to happen.
And I don’t need to go into the details of how these elite few made their money. Did they make it out of thin air? Or did they utilise unethical monopolies that negatively affected innovation for decades? Did they asset strip companies like they were pulling petals from a daisy, or did they just speculate on numbers on a computer screen, harming no one but those that suffered due to the eternal struggle to maintain investor profits and share prices, whilst reducing costs? Perhaps they earned that money through good hard graft, and a decent bonus as the banking system collapsed around their ears like tower 7, or perhaps they received it from daddy, just after he had expired. However they did it, it followed the rules of the capitalist system, our system.
Whatever the stories behind these bejewelled few making it to the top of the tree, the overused rhetoric here is that we should emulate them, want to be like them, and want to be them. Win the lottery, marry a footballer, hit the jackpot, make it rich. “This time next year Rodders…”
Maybe we should even “humbly be thanking the super rich,” just like Boris said we should!
Does having this gang at the top of our tree preclude the rest of us from obtaining wealth? Well no, it doesn’t completely. There are always going to be people that can create wealth for themselves, the innovators and inventors and so forth. But does it limit the amount of opportunity we have? Yes absolutely. The absence of wealth dictates the schools and universities we can go to, the members clubs and societies we can join, the networks we can mix and mingle in and ultimately the jobs that we attain. It also seems to limit our access to climbing the political ranks if the current government is anything to go by.
A lack of wealth, more importantly, influences the lack of power that we as individuals have. If you think that over six billion dollars was spent in total on the 2012 American presidential elections, (that’s more than the GDP of the poorest 60 countries) money that was gifted to the campaigns of the two parties? Who would have that kind of money to splash on a chance to change, or keep the government? And why would they want to spend that kind of money on an election? What is in it for them? Is this democracy in action? Did we vote for the right party at the end of the day? Did the voting even matter?
Or for example in the UK two billion was spent last year on lobbying. This being the process in which government policies are shaped for the benefit of the majority of the population. But also where regulations, deregulations, tax havens, lower tax rates, public sector cuts are influenced by those with less public minded interest. Tobacco companies, pharmaceuticals companies etc.
Remember the cash for honours scandal?
Lobbying is a legal, and vital part of the democratic process, but one that is manipulated by the wealthy. When the government was questioned by the charities about the way they are changing the lobbying rules they got a bit narked. In fact the Civil society minister Brooks Newmark said:
“The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others…we really want to try and keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realms of politics.”
Hang on a minute, its OK for the wealthy, the weapons manufacturers, and the energy companies to lobby the government for changes to regulations that favour themselves, but not for charities to question this on behalf of those without money and power? Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Sort of the wrong way round?
It seems the more money you have, the more important and valid your opinion is, or certainly how much easier it is to be heard; be it with regards rules, regulations and laws, or which political party gets into power. And lets not forget that 90% of the mainstream media (TV and newspapers) in the US is owned by 6 people (alright six corporations headed by six people) and that in the UK 70% of the newspapers are owned by three people. That’s a lot of news, and not a lot of opinions.
This sensationalised 1% Oxfam headline on inequality isn’t just about wealth or diamond encrusted bidet taps. It is about winning elections, education opportunities, economic inefficiency, access to information. It is about the system, it is about our role in that system and the limitations of our opportunities to understand and influence the system that is skewed in favour of others.
It is about power. Or more importantly, a lack of power.
If you or I had the opportunity to escape the earth on a space craft with a thousand other people from all over the globe to set up a new colony from scratch on a far away planet. To get the chance to start again with a whole new way of thinking, and no ties to the old earth historical systems. Do you think that collectively we’d agree that 10 of our party would be allowed to amass as much wealth as the other 990? And with that immense wealth they would then be able to use that to benefit the continued growth of their wealth by influencing the politics, the laws and the decision makers, and avoiding taxes, writing the news and manipulating our thoughts, whilst systematically destroying that planet?
Absolutely not, it’s madness, we’d never agree to that in a million light years.
So why do we continue to let it happen here?
If it’s not fair.
Perhaps it’s about time we did something about it.