Who will look after the super-rich and think about their needs? It’s not easy for them: the 1 per cent of the world’s population who by next year will own more global wealth than the 99 per cent. Private security costs a fortune, and with the world becoming an increasingly unequal place a certain instability increases. It could be dangerous!
Very smartly, Oxfam International is raising such questions at the World Economic Forum at Davos, where the global elite gather to talk of big ideas and big money. Oxfam executive director, Winnie Byanyima, is arguing that this increasing concentration of wealth since the recession is “bad for growth and bad for governance”.
Ineqaulity hurts the rich too
What’s more, inequality is bad not just for the poor, but for the rich too. That’s why we have the likes of the IMF’s Christine Lagarde kicking off with warnings about rising inequality.
Visceral inequality, from foodbanks to empty luxury flats, is still seen as somehow being in the eye of the beholder by the right - a narrative in which poverty is seen as an innate moral failure of the poor themselves has taken hold.
This in turn sustains the idea that rich people deserve their incredible riches. Most wealth, though, is not earned: huge assets, often inherited, simply get bigger not because the individuals who own them are super talented, but because structures are in place to ensure this happens.
We're economically dyslexic
Most of us - I count myself - are economically dyslexic. The economic climate is represented as a natural force, like uncontrollable weather.
It’s a shame that the planet is getting hotter, just as it’s a shame that the rich are getting richer. But these things are man-made and not inevitable at all. In fact, there are deliberate and systemic reasons as to why this is happening.
The rich, via lobbyists and Byzantine tax arrangements, actively work to stop redistribution. Inequality is not inevitable, it’s engineered.
Many mainstream economists do not question the degree of this engineering, even when it is highly dubious. This level of acceptance among economists of inequality as merely an unfortunate byproduct of growth, alongside their failure to predict the crash, has worryingly not affected their cult status among blinkered admirers.
Even the mild challenge of Thomas Piketty, with his heretical talk of public rather than private interest being essential to a functioning democracy, is revolutionary in a world which buys the conservative idea that the elixir of “growth”simply has to mean these huge extremes in income distribution.
That argument may now be collapsing. The contortions that certain pet economists make to defend the indefensible 1 per cent are often to do with positing the super-rich as inherently talented and being self-made. The myth is that everyone is a cross between Steve Jobs and Bono; creative, entrepreneurial, unique. The reality is cloned inherited wealth and insane performance-related pay, eg the bankers who continue to reward themselves more than a million a year after overseeing the collapse of the industry.
There are always those who will side with the powerful against the powerless, and economists specialise in this. No wonder Prof Gregory Makiw’s Harvard students walked out of his class following his ludicrous insistence that the system is not gamed for the rich. Such “theorists” flatter the rich by granting them some superpower, which is why they like rock star comparisons.
In fact, international finance is peopled by interchangeable guys who are essentially just paying themselves double what they were 10 years ago. They may need to think of themselves as special. We don’t have to.
Neoliberalism - a stage of capitalism
When we talk of neoliberalism, we are talking about something that has fuelled inequality and enabled the 1 per cent. All it means is a stage of capitalism in which the financial markets were deregulated, public services privatised, welfare systems run down, laws to protect working people dismantled, and unions cast as the enemy.
Oxfam’s suggestions at Davos are attempts to claw back some basic rights, with talk of tax, redistribution, minimum wages and public services. But isn’t it rather incredible that a charity has to do this? The Occupy Wall Street movement has dissipated, but we are seeing in Europe, primarily in
Oxfam can appeal to the vanity of billionaires, but the truth is that’s not enough. The neoliberal project may fail not because of huge protest, but because reduced income means reduced demand. Never mind the angry proletariat, a disappointed middle-class is something all politicians fear.
Inequality is not inevitable
To stem inequality, it is imperative to stop seeing it as inevitable. It’s a choice. A choice very few of us have any say in. The poor are always with us. And now the deserving and undeserving super-rich are too? That’s just the way things are? No. This climate can also change.