Dawn of the Planet of the 1 Percent

Charles "C.J." Jones warms himself by a fire Jan. 9 in a tent city that homeless people have established near downtown Detroit.

As the World Economic Forum was about to convene in Davos, Switzerland, a new report highlighted growing global inequality and seemed set to challenge the delegates to do something about it. The respected and influential international NGO Oxfam, which holds one of six co-chairs at Davos, predicts that, on current trends, 1 percent of the world’s population will possess more wealth than the other 99 percent by 2016.

In an interview with Britain’s Guardian daily, the, executive director of Oxfam International Winnie Byanyima said the increased concentration of wealth seen since the deep recession of 2008-09 was dangerous and needed to be reversed. According to Byanyima, “The message is that rising inequality is dangerous. It’s bad for growth and it’s bad for governance. We see a concentration of wealth capturing power and leaving ordinary people voiceless and their interests uncared for.”

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The report made headlines in the British media Monday, eliciting a considerable level of comment yet, as is so often the case in our times, practically disappearing as the news-cycle moved into Tuesday. Oxfam’s report showed that the world’s least well-off 80 percent own just 5.5 percent of its wealth, while the share owned by the best-off 1 percent has increased from 44 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, in Britain, there is growing concern about downward  pressure on living standards especially among the working poor, and the rise of foodbanks even as an economic recovery of sorts appears to be under way; while research has revealed that the UK’s richest 100 families own as much as 30% of UK households.

The flow of news like this, backed by solid research, should and does give rise to reflection—are we to accept such figures on this inequality as inevitable? Is our global economic model inexorable and individuals powerless in its face? Indeed, are there links between this situation and the rise of terror and is the source of that terror a segment of the world’s population that feels itself materially left behind, but articulates its alienation in pseudo-religious language? It’s time for a serious debate about this.

As Oxfam Director Byanyima put it, “Do we really want to live in a world where the 1 percent own more than the rest of us combined? The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering…” Pope Francis, more than once, has warned of the damage that unrestricted inequality could do but other leaders are not yet responding. The world, not least people of faith, needs to decide if this state of affairs is acceptable; and what the consequences might be of just accepting it and doing nothing.

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Robert Lewis
3 years 8 months ago
You know, I hobnob with folks in that "1%" (indeed, parts of my family belong to it, and, as an international school instructor outside of the U.S., many of my students' families belong to that "1%" in their countries), and, when I try to talk to them about the growing social inequalities in the developed and developing worlds, their constant refrain is,"Well, the poor of the developed countries are rich, compared to the poor who live in places like Kolkota and Addis Ababba." What does one say in the face of such insouciance? These people--including my own brother and sister--believe they're improving the world by letting their hedge funds collapse industries and move them to places where they can "provide jobs" to people whose cultures and societies are demolished by those so-called "jobs." At some point, there's bound to be a social revolution because of these perceived injustices, and, at that time, I'm worried that the heads of some people I know are going to be on the chopping block. Many years ago, now, John F.Kennedy said that the reason we have social welfare and social democracy is to avoid social revolution. I wish more people--including more "New Democrats" and FAUX-:liberals" who think that "transfers of wealth" are Marxist and "gender politics" are all "Progressivism" amounts to--would remember what JFK said. HE was a real "social democrat" compared to what we have now, as leaders.
Joseph J Dunn
3 years 8 months ago
David Stewart expresses a hope for world debate and action on wealth inequality and concentration. Thomas Piketty raised similar hopes about a year ago. Perhaps that will happen someday, but there is a simpler opportunity, closer at hand, particularly in the United States, where wealth and its concentration are among the most intense in the world. This is not wishful thinking; it is the lesson of history. In 1840, when Stephen Girard, the richest American of the day, went to his eternal reward, he left the bulk of his vast estate in trust to the City of Philadelphia to establish a home and school for orphans--a way for them to avoid the horrors of Dickensian child labor, learn a trade and get a solid start in life. That school still functions today, funded by the same estate. At the start of the twentieth century, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were the wealthiest Americans. They owned a major part of the country's GDP. Each of them dedicated major parts of their wealth to philanthropy on a scale never before seen, including the complete modernization of the professional training of American physicians, the establishment of endowments for numerous universities, and the creation of major foundations that continue to fund non-profit efforts in our country and abroad. The Ford Foundation received ninety percent of Henry's massive fortune when he and his wife passed away; their son Edsel had died earlier. There are numerous other examples. Today, the two wealthiest Americans, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, have committed the major portions of their wealth to charitable works that are making life better for millions around the world. By tradition, much of the top of the "1 percent" pyramid of American wealth finds its way back into society, often in ways neglected by governments, and with zeal, imagination and persistence found in those who build great businesses. That means that the redistribution of large sums of money has, and will, take place whether or not the world comes to an intelligent debate, or agrees upon a workable plan. People of action and of conscience, including many of the "one percent" and many who hold lesser wealth, already find existing programs, causes and institutions or establish new ones. Today, whether inspired by Pope Francis or simply hearing the call of their own conscience, many among the nation's wealthiest are already deploying their wealth to benefit the less fortunate. How might we acknowledge, publicize, and celebrate this tradition in the hope that many more will follow?

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