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By Adjiedj Bakas
Worldwide the concern about rising inequality is growing. When asked by the Pew Research Center
what problem forms the biggest threat to the world, 32 percent of Europeans and 27 percent of Americans mention rising inequality. For the rest of the world this is 18 percent. The Global Attitudes Survey 2014
reported a comparable outcome: together with the problem of religious and ethnic hatred, rising inequality is seen as the biggest threat to the world, with 24 percent of respondents mentioning it as their top concern. The statistics about rising inequality in our societies are well known: in 1973 the richest 1 percent of American society earned 25 percent of the generated wealth; they now earn 40 percent. The popularity of Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus Capital in the 21st Century
is not a surprise.
To me, inequality per se
is not the problem. To some people a world where everybody earns exactly the same would be a paradise. Not to me. I think God abolished paradise because it was too boring. Of course there is one large “but”. Inequality is only ok when rising on the social and financial ladder is open to everybody. In recent years this has not been the case, mainly because elites had the disproportionate advantage of the globalisation of our economies and the deregulation of our financial markets. In the olden days, when an entrepreneur made a lot of money with his business, he spent his wealth by employing construction workers who built him a new house. He gave parties, and thereby brought work to the bakers and wineries in town. He employed gardeners, cooks and other employees who, by earning a livelihood, benefitted from the wealth he gathered. Nowadays elites cream off their profits and stick the newly accumulated wealth in bank accounts and in warehouses. In Switzerland old bunkers are now used to store their expensive wines and whiskeys, their gold bars, jewellery and the like. There are more paintings by famous painters stored away in places like the Swiss bunkers then there are hanging in museums. This way, the created wealth is extracted from society and nobody benefits from it anymore.
The constant introduction of new, disruptive technology is also a very visible reason for the growing inequality in the world. Technological innovation has always been a driver of economic growth – it makes production more efficient and cheaper, and thereby creates wealth. It has been like that since the industrial revolution. But now technological disruption is piled on technological disruption. Companies and society at large do not have the chance to find a new equilibrium, because after the disruption there is no longer a stabilization of the new situation. One of the effects of is that the wealth created by new technology is only accessible to a small group of privileged: the disruptors, the minds behind the new technology, be it the inventors and implementers or the investors. We see that with a company like Whatsapp. In February 2014 the company was bought by Facebook for $19 billion, it has 600 million users and employs only 55 people! The profits are not distributed among thousands of workers but shared between the 55 employees and the shareholders. With these changes, worldwide unemployment surges, wages stagnate or drop and productivity and corporate profits rise.
These visible indications that we live in a time where abundance is not distributed in a fair way explain the popularity of Piketty’s book. People think that the cause of this inequality must be in the working of our financial-economic system. So they turn to the theory of economics, to better understand what is wrong with the world today. Another reason for Piketty’s popularity is the emancipation of the masses. People nowadays accept less than they did twenty, thirty years ago. It is a revolutionary time, and Piketty’s book is like a weapon that people add to their arsenal, to fight the injustice they experience but do not yet understand; they fight to overcome the hell of not having a fair chance.
is a Trendwatcher, author and speaker
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Dit artikel verscheen in idee nr. 6 2014: A Divided World
, en is te vinden bij de onderwerpen kansengelijkheid