Income inequality has suddenly become a hot topic. Think tanks worldwide are releasing studies on the issue. In this country, the President has made it a political issue in the mid-term elections. This week in Davos, the World Economic Forum will take up the gauntlet as well. It’s about time.
Two years ago readers may recall my four-part series on the growing inequality here at home and throughout the world. You were shocked to learn that America ranks last among all developed countries in income equality. As a nation, our income inequality is about equal to that of the Third World sandwiched between Uruguay and Cote d’Ivoire. States such as Massachusetts ranks about equal with Mexico, Connecticut with Venezuela, New York with Costa Rico and New Hampshire with Cambodia.
This week Oxfam, a non-profit confederation of 17 organizations in 90 countries, released a study that indicates that 85 of the richest people in the world own as much as the poorest 50% of humanity. Think of it, a double decker busload of one percenters control $1.7 trillion, equivalent to the combined wealth of 3.5 billion people. Seventy percent of the world’s population lives in a country where inequality has increased over the past thirty years.
In the United States, the gap between the have and have not’s has grown at a faster pace than in any other developed country. The top 1% captured 95% of all the post-recession growth since 2009, while 90% of us became poorer, Oxfam’s report mirrors several other studies including a University of California, Berkeley study, the Pew Research Center’s findings and the IMF. The results are essentially the same.
At the tiny Swiss town of Davos, 2,500 participants from almost 100 countries will be flying in on their private jets and limousines. In years past attendees were largely billionaire tycoons, business executives, the rich and famous, in essence a genteel gathering of the world’s one percent. Supposedly, this year, they will be joined by some of the rabble. Representatives from international non-profit organizations, members of civil society and spiritual leaders, academia and the media have been invited.
This will allow for a larger cross-section of political, cultural and societal views but, excuse my cynicism; it is still essentially a rich man’s club. As such, how serious will its members address income inequality when it is they who have profited the most from the trend? Granted, the fox may express its concern and sympathy over events in the hen house, but do we really think he will stop eating the hens?
In our own country, politicians on both sides of the aisle are honing their stump speeches. The Republicans will be preaching how free markets are the answer to income inequality while conveniently ignoring the failure of thirty years of “trickle down” economics. The Democrats will argue that the nation needs more social programs and even greater redistribution of income in order to level the playing field. Of course, they will dodge the fact that three decades of government-sponsored social initiatives have failed to even slow the growth rate of inequality in this nation. Could it have something to do with the fact that the average elected official in this country is a millionaire and thus part of the 1%?
Riddle me this reader, what happens to societies when inequality reaches a critical mass? The think tanks use words like “explosive”, “serious damage” and “instability” in explaining the outcome. They are all code words for revolution, armed conflict and massive upheaval. Usually, a leader appears to lead the revolt, maybe a Robespierre or a Hitler or someone worse.
It surprises me why more people fail to see the connection between the growing income inequality and recent global uprisings in the Middle East, Asia and other places. I’m hoping this recent concern is more than a passing fad or a sop for the masses because the stakes are high, ladies and gentleman, and getting higher every day.