“I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason we’re in trouble,” former Vice President Joe Biden told an audience at the Brookings Institute in 2018. It was a few months before he’d officially declare his candidacy for president, but Biden’s position was clear: “The folks at the top aren’t bad guys.”
After Bernie Sanders said that “Billionaires should not exist” during a 2019 New York Times interview, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, himself worth approximately $80 billion, took pains to defend the supposed goodness of the ultra-wealthy, including in a live-streamed employee Q&A at Facebook and on Fox Business News.
Amid the evergreen insistence that the world’s richest deserve to stay that way, and just as the World Economic Forum—the annual gathering of political and economic elites—gets underway in Davos, Switzerland, Oxfam, the global charity, has released its annual report on global wealth inequality. Its title could double as a demand to the likes of Biden and Zuckerberg: “Time to Care.”
"Extreme wealth,” the authors say, “is a sign of a failing economic system.”
Using data from Credit Suisse Research Institute’s “Global Wealth Databook (2019)” and the 2019 Forbes billionaire list, Oxfam found that just 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people combined. The report also focuses on how sexism and other forms of discrimination exacerbate inequality. For example, the 22 richest men in the world have more wealth than all the women in Africa.
The authors also calculate that women and girls perform 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work, including caring for their families, “a contribution to the global economy of at least $10.8 trillion a year, more than three times the size of the global tech industry.”
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As Oxfam India CEO Amitabh Behar said in a statement ahead of the report’s release, “Our broken economies are lining the pockets of billionaires and big business at the expense of ordinary men and women. No wonder people are starting to question whether billionaires should even exist.”
Behar will represent Oxfam this week at the World Economic Forum, whose guest list is wide enough to encompass both environmental activist Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump. It’s the kind of place where attendees theoretically discuss the world’s greatest economic problems, but in practice, they often come by private jet to make deals that only enhance their exorbitant wealth.
As Dutch journalist and historian Rutger Bregman said, regarding a 2019 panel discussion he moderated at Davos, “I hear people talk in the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency, but then … almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share. I mean, it feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one is allowed to speak about water.”
Behar’s job will be to speak about the metaphorical water, to demand that attendees talk openly about inequality, and to advocate for Oxfam’s recommendation that governments worldwide raise taxes on the richest 1% of their citizens by 0.5% over the next decade. According to the report, it would be enough to create 117 million jobs, in fields such as education and health care.
The authors make additional recommendations, including investing in a national care system with set wages for caregivers of all kinds, plus health care and paid time off, all of which would require extensive government support and intervention. Oxfam believes that’s the only way to make change: “The gap between rich and poor can’t be resolved without deliberate inequality-busting policies,” Behar says, “and too few governments are committed to these.”
Read the full “Time to Care” report here