A generation or two ago, when the threat of purgatory or limbo carried more weight, the renewing process of self-restraint, abstention, and repentance was recognised and celebrated.
Most religions had a cleansing process. In many Christian traditions, it began on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Just as the old gods are less celebrated today, these ceremonies are not as central as before. Nevertheless, just like the old gods, they have been replaced in a general, catchall way that still speaks to the idea of social justice — or social conscience, as it was in the old gods’ time.
It may be wildly naive to suggest that the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, which begins today, has replaced Lent as a cleansing process. However, it is not as difficult to argue that the annual Oxfam report on the widening chasm between the uber-rich — far fewer than 1% — and the rest of the world should be the catalyst for one. The report, published on the eve of Davos, challenges winner-takes-all capitalism, the kind running today’s world. It screams the ideas of restraint, abstention, and repentance at a system that, for all its great gifts, is leaving millions upon millions in its wake and, as an aside, is destroying our planet. Like a pulpit-thumping Redemptorist, the report is difficult to ignore.
This year’s report records that the world’s 26 richest people hold the same wealth as the poorest half of the global population (the 43 richest did in 2017). The concentration of wealth continues apace and unhindered. Billionaires’ wealth increased by €791bn, while 3.4bn people had less than €4.83 a day.
Billionaires’ fortunes grew by nearly €2.2bn a day, while the world’s poorest’s assets shrunk by 11%.
This trend is relentless and provokes the simplest question: Is there, among those with the power to do so, any real will to reverse it? Which provokes an even darker question: Has any democratic government the power, assuming it has the will, to turn the tide?
In the context of those questions, the idea of transnational tax harmony to help governments achieve this, assuming they have the will to do so, seems undeniable. It will be interesting to see how we square that idea with our corporation tax rates, as the EU demands tax solidarity.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar might discuss those ideas with today’s keynote speaker, the right-wing Brazillian President Jair Bolsonaro, at one of the famed Davos cocktail parties, though those happy events will not have the lustre Donald Trump or Theresa May might have brought, as they are busy at home. Those soirees will be alive with discussions about China’s slowing economy. Last year, it grew at its slowest annual pace in nearly three decades, on foot of a trade war with America, a worrying trend reflected in Europe and America.
Proposals from New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for a 70% wealth tax will no doubt be the butt of many a nervous Davos joke. Though that audience undoubtedly understands the lessons offered by the collapse of so many liberal democracies, as epitomised by Bolsonaro’s rise, they are not ready to change capitalism to prevent it going the same way. That old Redemptorist warning was never more relvent: Change or repent at your leisure.