Oxfam today released an analysis of global wealth that suggests eight men have a combined wealth comparable to that of the poorest 3.6 billion people on the planet.
The Telegraph provides interesting analysis of potential flaws in the research methodology but what is most interesting is that these eight men, these supposed symbols of the world’s inequality, are also some of the world’s biggest philanthropists. So are they the problem, or the solution?
Bill Gates’ name appearing on the list is perhaps the most interesting. Oxfam have been careful to note that he has called on the super-rich to pay their taxes and that he is indeed a world-leading philanthropist. Bill Gates has not only contributed philanthropically himself but set a new bar for the philanthropy of billionaires leading the “Giving Pledge” to encourage the world’s billionaires to give away a minimum of half their wealth in their lifetimes.
Alongside Gates on the list is Warren Buffett who has given almost $20 billion to the Gates Foundation and will likely go on to well exceed that amount. Also present are Carlos Slim, whose various foundations have assets in the billions, Mark Zuckerberg who kicked off his philanthropy at scale last year with a $3 billion pledge, Larry Ellison who has committed 95% of his wealth to charity and Michael Bloomberg who committed over $1 billion to his old University alone and has multiple other charitable initiatives.
The only people who aren’t obviously and publicly giving in the billions are Amancio Ortega and Jeff Bezos.
Today extreme poverty is in the single digits. This compares to 1990 when it affected one in three people on the planet. Bill Gates has alone has made a seismic contribution to this effort as a thinker, an activist and the world’s biggest philanthropist, not to mention the jobs he has created and the advances in computing software that he has pioneered. Sure, without him eight men would no longer have as much as the world’s poorest half, but that doesn’t make it a better place. Especially not for those in the bottom billion whose lives he is persevering to help.
However, this is not the end of the story. If we step away from these eight men – mainly tech, investment and retail entrepreneurs – and instead look at the overall cost-benefit of large wealth creators to the world’s poorest, it gets more complicated. Extreme poverty is compounded by large-scale tax avoidance, reckless business practices, private resource exploitation and the gross inequity between corporate profits and the salaries of that business’ poorest employees. All of these factors reveal a series of domestic economic systems and a prevailing global one that better protects those at the top than it does those at the bottom.
Whilst the world may be better off thanks to many of these men, it would be better off still with no philanthropy, more effective and progressive taxation, more secure and fairly remunerated employment and an end to gross corporate resource exploitation. Bill Gates is not the problem but that doesn’t mean inequality isn’t either.