Columns / Discourse / February 19, 2014

Including wealth inequality in our worldview

Carlos Slim, Mexican television company owner. Amancio Ortega, Spanish fashion industry executive. Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong business investor.

        What do these three people have in common? I intentionally picked them because they are from countries other than the U.S., and the average U.S.-born Knox student probably won’t know who their names offhand. But here’s the answer: they belong to the same group of immensely wealthy billionaires as Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and Charles and David Koch. The three names I’ve given you can each be found on a list of the world’s 85 richest people.

        What’s significant about the 85 richest people on the Earth? I’m sure no one was asking this question two months ago, but a January 2014 study by Oxfam (one of the world’s largest international justice organizations) found an answer: those several dozen people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the entire world population (3.5 billion people).

        I did a little digging on the internet to try to give some flesh to this reality, and found the following statistic: if all seven billion people on the earth were confined to one district with the population density of New York City, this hypothetical city would require an area about the size of Texas. So imagine this monstrosity of a metropolis. There are skyscrapers and packed apartment complexes stretching all across the homeland of our former President, who will have to take the subway out to Louisiana if he wants to spend some time on the range. Imagine that he occasionally visits a tiny, quaint town of around a hundred people just outside the border. Its residents, ludicrously, have the wealth and power of half of the entire city-state of Texas-NYC.

        In this imaginary world, every person on the planet has suddenly become a New Yorker. But in real life, we are spread all across the globe from India and eastern China where we live in incredible numbers, to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and almost every other land on Earth.

        Still, about 85 people own the same wealth as half of the world.

        In the 21st century, when technology is erasing boundaries that have divided the world for millennia, it has never been more important to think of ourselves as international citizens. Here at Knox, we’re ideally placed to develop an understanding of our place in the world at large. Many of us have come from other countries. Many of us from the U.S. plan to study abroad, and the rest of us are still studying next to fellow students from other countries. But we need to go even further, and integrate the reality of the world’s wealth distribution into our personal worldview.

        This one column could never do justice to the mechanisms of corruption, wealth consolidation and corporate injustice that faces the world at large. For now, it’s enough to emphasize one obvious fact: Bill Gates, Amancio Ortega and their peers did not gain such colossal wealth and power from the free flow of the world market. They gained it through participating in a world order that is actively engaged in pushing a third of the world into poverty in order to consolidate wealth into the hands of just a few people: a handful of people whose health and well-being will never improve through the acquisition and exploitation of another natural resource or community commons.

This world order is still grinding on, as two other findings from the Oxfam report emphasize: first, that seven out of ten people on Earth live in a country where the wealth gap has grown over the last three decades. Secondly, that in the United States,“the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.”

        As international citizens, it’s imperative that we come face-to-face with the stark reality of world inequality. Yet, we must also believe that another world is possible. It starts with a shift in consciousness. We must give our support and our empathy to our fellow people across the globe. We must have hope for a world where instead of personal wealth and power, it is one another’s health and happiness that comes first.

Leland Wright

Tags:  99 percent billionaire class classism inequality inequity one percent Oxfam wealth wealth gap

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