This thing about 62 people owning half the world’s wealth – that’s weird, isn’t it?
I’m putting aside the fact it could actually happen: one of the big points about free-market capitalism is that wealth is supposed to trickle down to everyone else.
An Oxfam report says that, as these 62 people’s wealth has increased by $500 billion, the wealth of the poorest 50 per cent of the world has dropped by 41 per cent. That’s some fairly big stats on it not trickling down. Rather, it’s trickling up.
The table is tilted towards the already wealthy. Money makes money. That’s why the very rich are very, very rich.
I’m also putting aside the suspicion that the taxation system isn’t working. The “settlement” between the UK and Google – wherein Google paid £130 million in back tax: 3 per cent of its profits, as opposed to the 20 per cent corporation tax companies that are, to analyse it technically, “not Google” are expected to pay – highlighted a terrible structural weakness.
Death and taxes are supposed to be the two inexorable forces. When companies become so powerful they gain some kind of … financial immortality, you fear it will wreak psychological disturbance in countries where they operate.
Observe our lack of sympathy for corrupt Greece – unable to collect its taxes before the 2008 crash, because of a shrugging acceptance of tax avoidance. How will we change as a country when the next generation of British businesses follow the accounting precedent of Google, Facebook and Amazon?
And at what point will their 20 per cent tax-paying competitors have to follow suit – or go out of business? We face an ethical race to the bottom, when some of the world’s biggest businesses become too big to be taxed.
But I’m ignoring that, too. I’m ignoring all “Where has economic theory gone wrong?” implications of half the world’s wealth being owned by just 62 people. I want to look at the 62 people. What’s going on with them? What’s up with those guys?
Because it’s an odd thing – to want to be that rich. I think there is a presumption that a lot of their wealth will be accidental – that it’s just a happy by-product of having a successful business. But it’s not. To be one of the world’s richest 62 people, you really have to want to be one of the world’s 62 richest people.
It’s easy not to be – look at JK Rowling, who was on the world’s “100 Richest List”, then dropped off, as she’d given so much away. If you are one of the world’s 62 richest people, you have to make a decision, every day, to continue being one of the world’s richest 62 people. You could make one phone call and donate it all to Médicins Sans Frontières. Boom! It’s gone. But you don’t. You stay on that list. You might start a charitable foundation – like Warren Buffett, or Bill Gates – but you still stay on that list, with billions left over. Why?
Because it’s odd, the vocabulary we have around very, very rich people. We call them “rich”, and “wealthy”, and “prosperous”. But what they are really, of course, is hoarders. These are people who are hoarding insane amounts of money. If they were hoarding any other object, we would think they were unbalanced. Imagine if there were a report stating that just 62 people had hoarded 50 per cent of the world’s stamps, or china figurines, or cats. Our language towards them would be boggling. We would presume they were a bit dysfunctional, and damaged. A bit … sad.
But someone who collects money – uniquely, they have status. Even though the majority of that money is useless to them.
For past the first ten million or so, money becomes purely theoretical: you can only be on one yacht at a time. There’s a physical limit to the amount of champagne you can drink, or shoes you can wear. Once you have, say, $1 billion, you’re not even collecting money any more. You’re just collecting pieces of paper that say you have $1 billion.
And what you are ultimately hoarding is change. For money is an object whose properties change, depending on where it is placed. Money in a bank account – making you one of the world’s 62 richest people – is, to all intents and purposes, dead. It can do nothing.
Put the money somewhere else, however, and it becomes magic: it can build a park, transform a town, change a future, save a life. Save hundreds of lives. Save millions of lives. It can put books on shelves and lights in homes and food in bellies and clothes on backs – it can divert the courses of rivers. You could be collecting a million tiny revolutions and joys. You could be one of 62 people making 50 per cent of the world’s progress.
Instead, you keep all that potential locked in a vault, on perpetual standby – and you are, merely, one of the world’s 62 richest people. One of the world’s 62 most unfathomable people.