March 8, 2014
How Many Billionaires Does It Take To Fill A London Bus?
Like New York’s Yellow Cabs, London’s Big Red Bus presents an iconic image that helps define a city in popular imagination – and yes they do still run. I use them regularly on my visits to the capital but now, after reading a recent report by the charity Oxfam, when I board one I check out all the passengers and wonder if any of them are billionaires. The conclusion is always the same – how the hell would you know? The Oxfam paper Working for the Few came up with the arresting idea that the world’s wealthiest 85 individuals could be squashed into a London bus. They were using this image to try to symbolize global inequality. Those 85 people between them have a total wealth of over one trillion pounds or around 1.66 trillion dollars. That is equivalent to the total worth of the world’s poorest 3.5 billion people. I did my own calculation just now and I reckon that it would take 41,176,470.58823529 big red ones to carry those poorest billions. Yes, one bus for the super-rich and over 41 million for the super-poor.
OK, we get the message and it’s a neat one. But what’s behind the numbers and the symbols? It is of course the growing problem of inequality as identified by the Oxfam research which encapsulates the issue nicely. Their figures indicate a widening gulf between rich and poor with the infamous top one per cent of the global population owning 65 times that of the poorest half and the gap is getting bigger. Oxfam sees this as a huge problem but others may not. Inequality is unquestionably a key driver of ambition and enterprise but at what point does it become problematic? I suppose the answer is when the gap becomes so big that it threatens social, political, and economic stability. Most religions in the world enshrine some sort of concept of caring for the poor or those whose life has brought them pain and suffering – call it Christian Love or the Buddhist idea of Compassion along with many variations from other creeds. For those of us who do not have a religious belief system and moral code to frame our opinions it comes down to the existentialist or humanist consideration of what is right or wrong and for my part I think a system in which billions of people starve or struggle to survive when there is enough wealth in the world to prevent it is wrong. I don’t think I know a single person who would walk past someone obviously starving to death in the street. But all that stuff will get us nowhere in the jungle of world economics and global power-players, corporate or individual, where the top few have cornered the market and where, as Oxfam explains, the rich elite have executed a “power grab” by controlling the political process to stack the odds in their favour when it comes to influencing the global economic system.
What will drive change towards greater equality? After all what is at stake is personal, national, and international health. Social conscience is unlikely to cut the mustard. Altruism and philanthropy will be cosmetic at best. Economic planning on a global scale is something of a white elephant. If the scientific basis of economic predictions were to be trusted we would have seen the last global recession coming and if that is anything to go by economics is a failed science. There are only two kinds of forecasters – those who don’t know and those who don’t know they don’t know, said J. K .Galbraith. No, if any lessons from the past can help us change the future they are the lessons of history when all empires eventually crumbled, felled by the weight of decadence, over-stretching, and inequality. It’s the thought of all those poor countries and poor people fighting back and causing problems for national and global stability that might just make us sit up and take notice – if we suddenly saw all the occupants of those 41 million London buses pouring out into the streets.
Image Credit: william87 / Thinkstock