“There has been class warfare going on for the last twenty years, and my class won” Warren Buffett, Business Magnate
As I write, winter bears down on the four year conflict in Syria. More and more Syrians are facing the prospect of an agonizing death from starvation, and more and more women are making the long hazardous trek towards the Jordanian, Lebanese and Turkish borders in search of safety and security for their children. Global estimates about the next generation suggest that:
- The number of displaced children, trapped in conflict zones across Iraq, Syria, Gaza, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere now reaches two million,
- They will join the existing 25 million displaced boys and girls worldwide, the largest number since the end of World War II,
- Some 15 million school-age girls will become child brides, forced into marriage against their will and some 14 million boys and girls will be forced to work in the most hazardous social, economic and environmental conditions.
These girls and boys begin their lives with the worst imaginable set of disadvantages – and dire prospects, they will make up the bulk of the poor in the generations to come.
Andy Baker leads on Oxfam’s Syria crisis response, he observes: ‘When populations are displaced they are subject to all sorts of new inequalities and the gap in education, health care, income, career and other norms of life damages their prospects and sets them up for a future of poverty. This has to be of concern for all of us, not least because societal inequality is often a driver of conflict’.
While Oxfam’s humanitarian work is in great demand, the organisation is also advocating for change at the political and policy level. Oxfam’s report (2014) Even it Up: Time to end Extreme Inequality identifies the growing income gap as a pressing concern for the world’s governments to be addressing.
In their report, Oxfam’s calculation that a billionaire like Bill Gates earned $4.2 million a day is pretty accurate. Bill Gates owns roughly 330,000,000 Microsoft shares worth about $15 billion. The dividends per share are $1.24US. Mr. Gates earns $1,121,095.00 per day just from his Microsoft shares alone; his other assets push his net worth over $77 Billion US. His creation of the world’s most richly endowed foundation helps to offset taxes on the incomes he receives from various streams.
Oxfam is taking action to ‘level the playing field by implementing policies that redistribute money and power’ as one way to tackle ‘extreme poverty and market fundamentalist’. Pushing the rich to pay their tax dues is not a new thing, and is only a partial response to income inequality; it acts as a means of wealth re-distribution. The Queen of England didn’t pay any taxes until recently. Prince Albert pleaded poverty to Parliament during the early reign of Queen Victoria and the Crown paid no income tax until Queen Elizabeth “voluntarily” agreed to pay. Prince Charles also pays income tax voluntarily, but only on a small portion of his income.
In an economic system that consistently rewards those who have surplus income (with rates of return on capital -rents, dividends and interest- far above the rate of growth in the world economy), and penalizes those who own little and can save nothing, it is no surprise that inequality in income continues to grow. The wealthy have the advantage of earning higher investment returns than those who have small amounts of savings to invest.
What will tax redistribution do to change the two-tier system that characterises inequality: private education and health services, organically grown fresh foods, income security and mobility for the wealthy; low quality education, sub-standard housing, high mortality rates, low value foods, lack of choice and no contingencies for the poor? Will it address inequalities in social and power structures and the separation of people from their natural environments? Will it do anything to tackle the root causes of poverty – including the highly exploitative production systems in plantations, mines and factory lines? Will it defend the interests of the ‘small people’; will it champion the rights of workers and peasants?
It will not do these things, but Oxfam’s campaign is important because those in power are not going to give up their power and privilege without a struggle, it is important because governments continue to sanction the power structure of big banks and big business. The campaign will be one of many other parallel campaigns that are bringing together people to hold their oppressors to account.
I support the campaign because this campaign presents one more avenue for joining ranks with the poor to change an inequitable system and because people want to hold their governments to account on multiple fronts. The women in rural and informal economies that I interview in the course of my work are desperate for change, and are prepared to lead and own their vision for change. They want more public awareness and conscientization at the grassroots about taxation and fiscal compliance – as a means to hold governments accountable. I believe that this kind of consciousness might also extend to other economic variables like royalties (from mining), land rental values, wages, and all the socio-environmental values that are essentially priceless.
We need to take a leaf from Pope Francis’s recent Evangelii Gaudium:
“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.’