Oxfam’s latest bombshell on how unequally the world’s wealth is shared

STWR
19 January 2015

Twitter feeds and newspaper headlines were again dominated this morning by new statistics on growing wealth inequality, as released by Oxfam ahead of this week’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

It is now customary for Oxfam to publish new research on how severe the gap between the 1% and the 99% is growing, prior to the gathering of billionaires and politicians at the Swiss ski resort of Davos. The latest research has heralded another media coup for the anti-poverty charity, demonstrating how extreme is the lack of sharing in our societies when just 80 rich people have the same wealth as the bottom half of the planet.

This is in contrast to the 85 billionaires that held the same amount of wealth last year, according to wealth data drawn from Credit Suisse that also grabbed news headlines in January 2014. (Interestingly, Forbes magazine – who publish the annual billionaires list – later contended that it was actually 67 people who own as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion).

Oxfam estimate that in 2014, the richest 1% of people in the world owned 48% of global wealth, leaving just 52% to be shared between the other 99% of adults on the planet. However, almost all of that 52% is owned by those in the richest 20% of the global population, leaving just 5.5% for the poorer 80% of people. If current trends continue of an increasing wealth share to the richest, the top 1% will have more wealth than the remaining 99% of people by 2017.

Oxfam’s short research brief, Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More, illustrates this staggering inequality with a series of graphs that show how the wealth share of the top 1% has continued to increase since 2010, while the bottom 99% have experienced a decline in their share of total global wealth that is set to fall significantly further over the next 5 years. The wealth of the very richest continues to expand at an inconceivable rate, typically increasing by over a billion dollars per individual between March 2013 and March 2014 – or $4 billion in the case of the Italian pharmaceuticals magnate, Stefano Pessina.

In the words of the paper’s author, senior researcher Deborah Hardoon: “The extreme wealth at the top of the distribution… is not only mind-blowing, but quite obscene when compared with how wealth is distributed to the rest of us in the world.” The main reason for this upward redistribution, according to the brief, is the entrenched cycle of wealth, power and influence that enables the super-rich to create an environment that protects and enhances their interests, particularly through government lobbying activities and campaign contributions.

The most prolific lobbying activities in the US are on budget and tax issues, which Oxfam states can directly undermine public interests where a reduction in the tax burden to companies results in less money for delivering essential public services. In other words, the billions that are spent on lobbying is increasingly moving society away from the direction of economic sharing and redistribution on behalf of the common good, a pernicious trend that is set to accelerate without a dramatic change in government policy and business practices.   

The reality of extreme global inequality and the case against it has now been well made in any number of books, reports and conferences, from Thomas Piketty’s tome of analysis to the annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank last year, where the chosen theme was ‘shared prosperity’. But the need for real action from policymakers to share wealth and resources more equitably is ever urgent, especially in the midst of ongoing austerity measures, wage cuts and high unemployment in many high-income as well as low-income countries.

As STWR has often remarked, this will inevitably require government intervention, regulations and laws that guarantee fairness and equity in society, however anathema this may remain to the neoliberal rulebook still held by most of today’s politicians. Although the richest 1% had an average wealth of $2.7 million per adult in 2014, we cannot expect the members of this global elite to voluntarily share their wealth as a response to world poverty, one that is based on charity instead of justice and structural reform. Indeed as Oxfam acknowledge through their many sensible recommendations, the policy solutions for reducing inequality are plentiful and widely known. So if 2014 was the year when the need to tackle inequality went mainstream, perhaps 2015 will be the year when a call for economic justice and sharing becomes the presiding theme of political conversation.