Monday, January 19, 2015

Sweeping the Problem Under the Rug

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam, will apparently be co-chair of this year's World Economic Forum. On the surface this looks like she will have a bully pulpit to bring serious issues about world poverty to the attention of the rich and mighty. However, I have come to believe that, when the rich and mighty gather, they are interested in little more than becoming richer and mightier. Thus, while her pulpit may have a prominent location, she may discover that most, if not all, of the congregation has gathered in another chapel.

Consider a recent Oxfam statistic that merited an article on the BBC News Web site. The basic finding is that by 2016 the wealthiest 1% will control more than 50% of the world's wealth. In other words that 1% will be wealthier than the total of the remaining 99%. However, before gasping too deeply, we should consider the work of the BBC's own statistician, Anthony Reuben, who calculated how much wealth it takes to be part of that 1%. The answer is "just over half a million pounds." To put that in local terms, just about anyone owning a house in San Francisco will qualify.

The problem is that there is now a distinction between "rich" and "super-rich," which, thanks to the ability of the super-rich to control the media (and, as a corollary, world governments) is being conveniently ignored. What we might call "extreme wealth" is limited to a very narrow slice at the top of that 1% category. How narrow is that slice? This would require deeper statistical study than has yet been made public. My guess is that those in that slice know how narrow it is and also know that they have the power to maintain it, if not make it narrower. Do we really expect that they will apply any of that extreme wealth to evening out the overall distribution, perhaps to a point at which we no longer have to worry about statistics for extreme poverty?

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