The Political Origins of Inequality

December 22, 2015
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“How To Spread the World’s Wealth beyond Corporate Elites,”
from The Political Origins of Inequality:

We have reached a crossroads in our history. For all the achievements and riches of our time, the world has never been so unequal or more unjust. A century ago, at the time of the First World War, the richest 20% of the world’s population earned eleven times more than the poorest 20%. By the end of the twentieth century they earned seventy-four times as much. Today, despite seven decades of international development, three decades of the Washington Consensus, and a decade and a half of Millennium Development Goals, our world is even more divided among the haves, the have-nots, and—as President George W. Bush once quipped in an after-dinner speech—the have-mores.

When it comes to wealth, rather than income, the picture is more extreme. Globally, the richest 1% now own nearly half of all the world’s wealth. The poorest 50% of the world, by contrast—fully 3 billion people—own less than 1% of its wealth. Anyone with assets of more than $10,000 a year is an exception to the global norm and is better off than 70% of everyone else alive. Yet most of us are so preoccupied by the relative few with more that we rarely stop to notice this. There is growing awareness today of the consequences in rich countries of rising income inequality: we know what it means to talk of the 1% there. But when it comes to the much greater gaps between rich and poor the world over, we confine ourselves still to talk of “global poverty”.

How often are we told that, if only we could see what life is like in a cramped slum in Dhaka or on some scrabble of land in rural Chad, we would be moved to help? But the problem is not one of our empathy. We are all familiar with the shape of a human body in hunger. The details, like glass paper, scarcely catch the imagination any more. It is not one of distance, either. A growing number of the wealthiest people in this world live in high-rise apartments that tower up and over the slums below—and they know only too well that before all the “beautiful forevers” will be lived a thousand impossible todays.

The problem, rather, is one of perspective, of what we choose not to see. There is no shortage of books telling us “why nations fail” or what “the bottom billion” on this planet must do to succeed, no shortage of policy papers from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund saying much the same. But we still have not properly confronted how the poverty and suffering of a great many are connected to the wealth and privilege of a few. We are slow to admit that the problem is one not of poverty traps at the bottom of the pyramid but of a great confinement of wealth at the top. Total global wealth was estimated at $263 trillion in mid-2014, up from $117 trillion in 2000. That was the same year that the world agreed to bind itself to achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 (with the headline ambition of halving the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day). Those goals end this year, in 2015, in many cases not having been met. Meanwhile, global wealth keeps on growing: by 8.3% from mid-2013 to mid-2014 alone.

There is a politics to this, but it is all too often ignored in a debate which to date has preferred to focus on the economics of who has what. The [it’s time to] paint this wider political context back into the picture, since our problems stem less from market forces than from the failed policies behind them. If this is partly cause for despair, then it is also cause for hope: our present predicaments are more amenable to change than we are often encouraged to believe.

But acting on this requires first grasping the full scale of the problem before us. Few of the world’s richest people intentionally exploit the world’s poor, it is obvious to note, and none of us is personally responsible for the plight of distant strangers. But some of us have not earned the base privilege we enjoy in this life: it is ours by fortune of inheritance and geographical luck, for the most part, and it comes at the cost of others.

To read the full excerpt at Alternet, click here.

To read more about The Political Origins of Inequality, click here.

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