Escalating inequity is a ticking bomb - The concentration of wealth

YOU would not have to be an old-school Trotskyite, an unrepentant Maoist, a blazing Bolshevik or even one of the mild, low-octane socialists sheltered by the Irish Labour party to recognise, instantly and instinctively, that the figures published this weekend showing that the richest 62 people in the world own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population — some 3.6bn people — describe an unsustainable outrage and a ticking timebomb.

A report from Oxfam, a charity dedicated to fighting poverty and inequality, points out that the richest 1% — around 73m out of the world’s 7.3bn people — own as much as everyone else put together. The report was published ahead of the annual World Economic Forum of the great and the good of world politics and business in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.

The figures are cold, chastening and unavoidable. The gap between rich and poor had widened “dramatically” in the last year. At the start of the decade the combined wealth of the 388 richest people matched that of the poorest half of the world, but that number fell to just 80 last year and stands at 62 today. The total wealth of the poorest half of the world fell by a trillion dollars since 2010, even though this group of people grew by 400m.

The wealth of the super-rich 62 rose by more than half a trillion dollars during that time to $1.76tn. This equates to an average of around £20bn for each of the 62, who include just nine women. Although the number living in extreme poverty halved between 1990 and 2010 globally, the average annual income of the poorest 10% has increased by less than three dollars a year over the past 25 years.

It is impossible to consider these terrible indicators of such profound inequity in purely material terms. They describe an inhumane lack of opportunity, insecurity, and possibly a life-defining exclusion from education or health services. They describe a situation that manifests itself in the great, surging movement of people — migration — changing the face of the world. It manifests itself in a swing, counterintuitively, to the right in politics, a change epitomised by the odious Donald Trump. It manifests itself when you stand beside a sick and distressed elderly parent waiting what seems an interminable period for a hospital bed. It manifests itself in a shortage of school places and teachers. It manifests itself in other ways too, like the pre-Christmas Bank of England survey that found that for the first time more than half of middle-class people in their 30s — those with a disposable income of almost €100,000 a year — believe they will never own their own home and that they will have to pay rent all of their lives. This is a fundamental shift and a huge threat to the social contract underpinning social stability. Oxfam said action on tax should form part of a three-pronged approach, alongside increased investment in public services and action to boost the income of the lowest paid — with priority given to ending the era of tax havens. It is incomprehensible that national governments and the EU do not confront these issues far more forcefully, because history is littered with examples of how they are resolved either peacefully or violently.


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