As we enjoy a more comfortable standard of living than our parents and grandparents, and have a wide choice of consumer goods, exciting new technologies and better chances of a healthy life as medical knowledge improves, we assume that all is well with the world. That is until we start to think and observe events around us.
Australia to date has, with a few historical exceptions, such as during the Vietnam War and the Great Depression, enjoyed a relatively calm and peaceful existence. Even then it was not subject to the deep division that many other societies have experienced.
Factors are accumulating which could change this happy picture.
Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International warned that an explosion in inequality is holding back the fight against global poverty at a time when 1 in 9 people do not have enough to eat and more than a billion people still live on less than $1.25-a-day. [18 January Al Jazeera]
In 2010 just 388 people owned as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. That was down to 80 people by 2015 and the 18 January 2016 Report showed that 62 rich individuals own as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people. At this rate, by 2020 only 11 people could own as much wealth as half the world.
Dr Helen Szoke, chief executive of Oxfam Australia said: "The actual global checks and balances that might have once achieved the kind of reasonable equality that occurred after the Second World War have broken down….” Oxfam said it would call for action to tackle rising inequality at the Davos meeting, …including a crackdown on tax dodging by corporations and progress towards a global deal on climate change. [21 January ABC The World Today]
The concentration of wealth means concentration of power, so governments will respond to the needs of the most powerful. As Oxfam pointed out: “At the moment in our domestic context, and in many other contexts, [the burden of tax] falls on labour and consumption. We're saying if you have this concentration of wealth, we really need to look at capital and wealth tax.”
Winnie Byanyima warns: “The consequences of this extreme economic inequality are far-reaching. If inequality is not dealt with, we could see more social unrest across the world, a brake on growth and all the work that has been done in the last quarter-century on poverty halted - potentially reversed.
What this means to you and me is a more unstable, unequal world with fewer people able to escape poverty.”
Present wealth imbalance is now similar to what it was in the 1920s. That was the period of the rise a strong labour movement, as working people felt the pinch of deteriorating standards of living, and it witnessed the rise of the fascist and Nazi right-wing to suppress it. Combined with the Great Depression, which this wealth imbalance did much to create, the 1930s to the 1940s became a nightmare of unemployment, war and starvation. The ILO has revealed that 61 million jobs have been lost since the 2008 GFC and its World Employment and Social Outlook- Trends 2015 report said an extra 280 million jobs would have to be created by 2019 to close the gap created by the financial turmoil. The great difference is that this time around it is the Muslims, rather than the Jews, who will be the scapegoats for the crisis.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Oxfam is calling on government to adopt a seven point plan to tackle inequality:
1. Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals
2. Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education
3. Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards capital and wealth
4. Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers
5. Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal
6. Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum income guarantee
7. Agree a global goal to tackle inequality.