By Amitabh Pal on January 23, 2014

Global inequality has approached an astounding level.

Eighty-five people at the top possess as much as the bottom 50 percent of the world's inhabitants, according to a new study (PDF).

"It is staggering that in the twenty-first century, half of the world's population -- that's three and a half billion people -- own no more than a tiny elite whose numbers could all fit comfortably on a double-decker bus," Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam, said in an advisory issued with the study.

The study has a chart that shows sharply rising inequality over the past three decades in a number of major countries, such as the United States, Japan, Australia, and Sweden.

It also delineates the impact of this rising concentration of wealth on the political process.

"When wealth captures government policymaking, the rules bend to favor the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else," it states. "The consequences include the erosion of democratic governance, the pulling apart of social cohesion, and the vanishing of equal opportunities for all."

Oxfam was astute enough to release the study during the annual gathering of the rich and famous at Davos, Switzerland. But the rich-poor disparity has reached such a stage that even the organization that puts together this yearly shindig is expressing concern.

"We cannot afford to allow the next era of globalization to create as many risks and inequities as it does opportunities," Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, wrote in a blog post recently.

And the organization actually commissioned a report on the phenomenon that warns of the social consequences of the gap.

"It's essential that we devise innovative solutions to the causes and consequences of a world becoming ever more unequal," its authors write.

There are a number of trends that are causing this widening chasm, says Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. First is the brand of austerity economics especially practiced in Europe that balances budgets on the backs of the poor.

"Excessive financialization also helps explain the soaring inequality," he adds. "In many countries, weak corporate governance and eroding social cohesion have led to increasing gaps between the pay of chief executives and that of ordinary workers. American innovations in rent-seeking -- enriching oneself not by making the size of the economic pie bigger but by manipulating the system to seize a larger slice -- have gone global."

Rounding out Stiglitz's list is the global corporate assault on wages and benefits.

What might be done to reverse this trend?

Oxfam has a number of suggestions. These include a progressive tax system, strengthened social safety nets, stronger workers' rights, and a crackdown on tax avoidance.

These are eminently sensible proposals, but the question is if governments have enough political will to implement them.

Photo: "Handsome man with money," via Shutterstock.

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Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.

On November 20 every year for the last fifteen years, transgender people gather for vigil ceremonies to acknowledge...

Yesterday the U.S. Senate narrowly defeated a bill that would approve construction on the Keystone XL pipeline.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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