26 Jan The one percent have outdone themselves. How do we redress the balance of power?
Mary Babic: So, how do we reverse course? Since the first edition, we’ve been saying quite clearly: Tax the Rich. But how do we make this happen? And is that enough? For example, taxation won’t raise wages in the US; as long as the Senate is beholden to corporate forces, it will stonewall an increase in the federal minimum wage, which I have to say (again!) has been stuck at $7.25 for nearly 14 years.
Nabil Ahmed: The most important point here is that we can reverse course: it’s a policy and political choice. It’s really up to governments to make the right choices.
And we must push our policy makers, across the political spectrum, to act. That is why we talk about policy and political choices. It’s why movements build power alongside making the policy case. After listening to a group of advocates who sought his support, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.”
That’s where we come in—winning the policy argument is crucial but it’s only one part of the process. Making them do it is necessary.
So what policies are we talking about? It’s taxing the ultrawealthy, sure, and a range of actions—proven by evidence, by history and by the practice of nations—can rein in extreme inequality. To name a few, it includes strengthening worker power and addressing corporate monopolies. It includes investment in public goods of healthcare, and education—which are rights for all, not luxuries for only the rich to enjoy.
As we’re saying this year, a strategic precondition to reining in extreme inequality is taxing the ultrarich and corporations. It’s mind-boggling that billionaires pay a lower tax rate than day-care workers and teachers.
Practically, that includes one-off solidarity wealth taxes and windfall taxes to end the kind of crisis profiteering that we’ve seen this pandemic. It includes permanent increases in taxes on the very richest one percent and above (these aren’t teachers and nurses and the middle-class but those at the very top) and it includes raising taxes on capital gains. And it includes permanent taxes, alongside income, on the extreme wealth of the very richest.
We know wealth is more pronounced than income inequality, and we can act strategically here in implementing sensible taxes on inheritance, property and land, as well as net wealth taxes, in a way that significantly addresses inequality. The wealth tax proposal, designed by leading economists and proposed by Senator Warren, is one example of how we can go about that.
Part of our job here is reckoning with a narrative that tells us it’s somehow extreme to tax the richest. Surely, the extreme thing to do is to live in a world of such extreme inequalities? In which 81 billionaires own more wealth than does half of humanity, or in which 140 million people are poor and low income in the richest country in the history of the world, or in which we allow democracy to be undermined by elite wealth.
I find inspiration in history. The last time things got so unequal, FDR rewrote the rules of the American economy. In the wake of World War II, he went to Congress urging a 100 percent rate on income earned above what would be $1 million today. They settled on 94 percent.
That approach continued under both parties, and it averaged 81 percent until 1981. In that period, while far from ideal especially along racial lines, we saw the US grow its middle class and put a man on the moon. There’s a huge amount we can learn here—and taking an approach to rewrite economic rules is core to that.
Mary Babic: Do you think the report does enough to lay bare systemic inequities? (Race, gender, geography, and so on.) It’s not insignificant that the vast majority of people disembarking from those private jets in Davos are white men. Cis white men. Cis Christian white men. You know the drill here. The inner logic of late capitalism contains a permanent underclass that has roots in structural divisions; how do we start to dismantle that?
Nabil Ahmed: First, inequality constantly and violently plays out along the lines of class, race and gender.
We saw this during the pandemic in the way, for example, that Black and brown communities were hit the hardest across the world. Be they Afro-descendant and Indigenous people in Brazil, Dalits in India, and Native American, Latinx, and Black people in the US, all faced disproportionate and lasting impacts from the pandemic. This has direct links to white supremacy and historical legacies of racism in slavery and colonialism.
Every inequality right now represents a frightening story. Alarmingly, the decades-long decline in extreme poverty has come to a halt. Closing the global gender gap is now further delayed by a generation: it will take 132 years to close the gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum. New data indicates that the US racial wealth gap is, after stalling, worsening.
But second, I think we need to be clear here that—while discourse often focuses on how marginalized groups are disproportionately impacted, which is true—there’s more to reckon with here.
Racism itself has been weaponized to advance free market fundamentalism, and to foment culture wars that divide people from all communities. We need to see it as a powerful enabler of today’s great chasms.
We see that take place within countries, sure, but also between countries. So many of us, including Oxfam colleagues, worked to challenge the monopolization of COVID-19 vaccines such that qualified manufacturers in the Global South could make them, too, in order to tackle the huge vaccine apartheid we saw.
Yet time and time again we heard the argument that Global South countries would not make safe vaccines, or that they’d be substandard—what was rightly described as “scientific racism” deployed to protect monopoly power. And conveniently overlooking the fact that the Global South had already made most of the world’s vaccines pre-pandemic.
But the third and final part I want to say here is that inequality is truly bad news for everyone. Sometimes we employ a narrow frame when talking about the impact of inequality. The reality is that the extreme concentration of power and money at the very top has pernicious effects on all of us.
When the world’s top one percent produce double the carbon emissions of the bottom 50 percent, everyone is affected—as we’ve seen in recent years, when floods and wildfires hit middle-class communities across the world, as well as poor ones.
We see it played out in trade rules: when rich countries undermine efforts to share technologies for climate mitigation and adaptation with low- and middle-income countries, and then hinder efforts to combat climate breakdown, it’s ultimately destructive for everyone, rich countries included.