• The Afghan Women's Orchestra "Zohra" performs at the closing ceremony of the 47th World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. (Gian Ehrenzeller, AAP)Source: Gian Ehrenzeller, AAP
You don't need an economics degree to understand that the wealth inequality gap has dangerously widened again, writes Helen Razer.
By
Helen Razer

25 Jan 2017 - 1:38 PM  UPDATED 25 Jan 2017 - 1:38 PM

It’s quite likely that your response to the phrase “World Economic Forum” is identical to mine. Which is to say, your eyes glaze like doughnuts which reminds you, it’s almost certainly time for a snack. The annual meeting in Davos, Europe’s most elevated town, promises nothing of interest to the likes of us. Talk of trade and of GDP is far less appetising than an afternoon treat.

This forum, which concludes today, is not only physically inaccessible to moist of us—it unfolds in a Swiss ski resort and entry is by invitation. Its reports are inaccessible as well. An everyday person, of the sort whose decisions it will impact, can’t hope to make much sense of this financial talk. I suspect that the WEF participants like it that way.

It’s easy, of course, to look at any discipline you don’t fully understand and say, “You’re speaking mumbo jumbo.” That many apply this impatience to climate science is fast becoming a tragedy. But, economics, which is not a true science, does seem to make every effort to conceal its intent. When an economist says, for example, “free market”, what is often meant is “a series of government and international regulations that allow companies to act in the interests of massive profit”.

After a little frustration with my own economic stupidity, I spent a few years reading texts. These did nothing to shrink my suspicion that money-talk was, very often, little more than a pile of glitter, as basically meaningless and distracting as the money form itself.

One of the most noble, and simple, public answers to Davos now comes to us annually from Oxfam. Just before the elite meet in Europe, this British-based charity offers us all a quick explainer. Every year since the financial crisis of 2008, Davos claims that it will address the topic of global wealth inequality. Now, every year, Oxfam reminds us in very stark terms just how extreme that inequality has become.

It’s hard to get one’s head around the movement of wealth and of debt. Oxfam has begun to make it a bit easier, without really sacrificing truth for the sake of a clickable headline. Last year, Oxfam mined the sensational data that showed us just 62 individuals in the world had the same personal wealth as the planet’s poorest 3.5 billion individuals. This year, they refreshed the list to find that just eight men together had that spectacular worth.

Klaus Schwab, founder and president of the World Economic Forum (WEF) opening the 47th Forum, in Davos, Switzerland

Davos has the word “inequality” included in many of its program sessions. What it doesn’t appear to have is any legitimate will to address it. Again this year, billionaire entrepreneurs, exempt from the problem of tax, give speeches on how to “innovate” our way out of a poverty that has now begun to afflict people in the West as it has long claimed the lives of people in the Global South.

Like a lot of the other sassy economics talk, “innovation” doesn’t really mean much more than preserving the rights of billionaires to fill their large companies with thrilling casual spaces for their most valuable executives. In this conversation, Google thrives, and even promises to give a little of its wealth back to the people, so long as it is permitted to “innovate”.

Here’s a secret I have unlocked from a few years of reading on the boring topic of economics: there’s no great scientific trick to bringing people out of destitution. No “innovation” or “hack” is needed. As Oxfam reminds us, we simply decide together if any single person can possibly have earned 90 billion dollars, or if certain regulations have actually helped him get there.

Last year, Oxfam mined the sensational data that showed us just 62 individuals in the world had the same personal wealth as the planet’s poorest 3.5 billion individuals. This year, they refreshed the list to find that just eight men together had that spectacular worth.

All the blokes on the rich-list benefited from market conditions. All the people on the poverty-list did not. In fact, it was their destitution that helped those blokes get rich. The fun thing for the people at Davos to decide is just how these blokes are going to stay rich. If the rest of us continue to experience real-wage decline—and this is the case for most of us around the world—we’ll simply have no money to buy their fabulous products.

Oxfam is to be cheered for its efforts in demystifying economics. It must be as simple for some of us as “these guys have too much precisely at the expense of billions who have nothing”. Their annual sets are, I reckon, really valuable.

As I was following the news from Davos on the way home from work yesterday, another illustration of inequality struck me. Here I was staring into this extraordinary piece of tech which brought to me instant reports on the discussion by the economic elite. This same piece of tech had just beckoned an Uber. The guy driving my Uber (five stars, Muhammed) had spent four years in a UNHCR camp. In Sudan, he had seen his father die in an act of war.

And here I was, with my phone assembled by people who sleep in factory dormitories, listening to his story and wondering how in heck the 2500 people in Davos can continue to overlook a widening gap that is so plain to Oxfam, to Muhammed and the rest of the planet.

 

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