In capitalist nations, it can feel like there is no greater measure of success than financial wealth. While the mystics and common sense tell us otherwise (love and spiritual wealth are ultimately far greater), the fact remains that material wealth is still a major yardstick in terms of measuring who is getting ahead in the modern world.
It is therefore concerning when that wealth is as concentrated as it has become.
A year ago, poverty-fighting organization Oxfam came out with a report stating that 62 individuals controlled half the world's wealth.
This year, that number dropped to 8.
Oxfam presented its findings on the eve of the World Economic Forum, the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) gathering in Davos, Switzerland of the most powerful political and business minds from around the world. On the findings, Oxfam's Executive Director Winnie Byanyima had this to say:
"It is obscene for so much wealth to be held in the hands of so few when one in ten people survive on less than $2 a day ... Inequality is trapping hundreds of millions in poverty; it is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy."
According to Oxfam, the wealthiest individuals in the world are:
- Bill Gates
- Amancio Ortega (Spanish founder of Inditex)
- Warren Buffett
- Carlos Slim (Mexican businessman)
- Jeff Bezos
- Mark Zuckerberg
- Larry Ellison
- Michael Bloomberg
Now consider something remarkable: six of the eight individuals are American, and four of the eight (half the list) come from the American tech community -- Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Ellison.
Depending on your perspective, this is cause for either alarm or hope. Alarm because of the extreme power conferred upon the uber wealthy in the form of these four men. Hope because if innovation is truly a foundational tenet of tech leaders, perhaps such wealth can be put to good use.
It's also interesting to consider that four of the arguably most powerful people on the planet weren't elected, and some of them work actively to fight poverty and injustice. Again there is that question of perspective.
At the end of the day, this is about something larger than a few wealthy individuals. If people don't have a real living wage, they can't build wealth. If they spend their lives in debt because of a shortage of affordable healthcare, they can't build wealth. If they struggle just to get a job in the first place due to discrimination, they can't build wealth.
Wealth for all can only happen when we engage our collective political and social will to distribute it fairly.
Oxfam offered a short list of solutions it wants American leaders and those around the world to prioritize to help the billions who are struggling. They are:
- Stop offshore tax dodging. It costs the U.S. and developing countries more than $100 billion each year -- money that could be used to help fund critical initiatives
- Raise the minimum wage so working families can make a real living wage
- Secure equal pay for equal work, and battle discrimination in all its forms
- Do what is necessary to ensure that every person has access to quality, affordable, healthcare and education
- Establish, protect, and invest in a social safety net for all
Billionaire leaders in the tech community obviously can't fix everything. But they can make certain choices and act as role models.
They can get serious about hiring far more women and people of color in their organizations (especially at the top). They can ensure a living wage for everyone that works for them and contribute to causes that advance the same elsewhere. They can provide quality healthcare coverage to their own employees and hold others accountable to doing the same. They can not dodge taxes themselves.
Along with the list, Oxfam issued a warning: Unless the growing gap between rich and poor is addressed, the world can and should expect more political unrest, rage, and the kind of backlash many say led to events like Brexit and Trump's election.
In an era in which political changes are happening swiftly, it's good to remember that champions can come in all forms, billionaires and members of the middle class alike. May we all feel empowered to do whatever we can to fuel the advancement of all.
"We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now." Martin Luther King Jr.