The suffering that marks the lives of billions of poor people around the world today will be significantly reduced by the year 2035, because that's when Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates says there will be "almost no poor countries left in the world."
“The belief that the world can’t solve extreme poverty and disease isn’t just mistaken,” Gates recently wrote in his optimistic annual letter as cochair of the Gates Foundation. “It is harmful.”
Gates' pronouncement of what the future will look like is particularly mind-blowing when you consider this week's reality check of current global wealth inequity, from the humanitarian group Oxfam International: The richest 85 people in the world have amassed as much wealth as the world's 3.5 billion poorest people, or half of the world's population.
Left unchecked, the income disparity creates a dangerous situation in segments of the population that are left behind, said Sanford Schram, a political science professor at Hunter College.
When those disparities continue to grow, and there's nothing left to lose for those at the bottom of the pay spectrum, not only whill there be a drive for workers to "protest more and go on strike more, but they’re going to take other kinds of actions as well,” he said.
Financial deregulation and skewed tax systems were among the factors that helped widen the vast income disparity between the filthy rich and the downtrodden, Oxfam's report found.
To put it in Occupy Wall Street–friendly terms, the total wealth of the top 1 percent amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population, according to Oxfam.
People are always going to make money in a capitalistic system, but the problem is the government isn’t doing enough to help society benefit from singular successes, Schram said.
“The main issue is that we have made it harder for people to work and earn a decent living” since 2007's financial meltdown, aka the Great Recession, he said. Further financial deregulation has "only exacerbated an already large technological shift and redistribution of wealth upwards.”
Schram, like Gates, feels optimistic the world is moving toward solving its wealth disparity problem, adding that people are becoming more aware of the issue in this country and elsewhere.
“There’s a lot we can do: bring jobs home, to improve the pay and the benefits that are associated with them, to give people government benefits when those jobs are insufficient and [give] them the resources they need [to] thrive,” Schram said. “The real solution is to have the government be more involved in restructuring economic growth.”
That doesn't rule out the work of philanthropists such as Gates and Warren Buffett, who are calling on fellow billionaires to take more active roles in philanthropy through a campaign launched last year called “The Giving Pledge.” Fellow tycoons are invited to give away 50 percent of their net worth in a lifetime or a will.
In a speech last month, President Barack Obama called income disparity a bigger threat to the American economy than the federal budget deficit.
More Americans are feeling the pinch: A recent Gallup poll showed two out of three Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed in the U.S.
In the U.S., the Oxfam report found that since 2009, the wealthiest 1 percent have captured 95 percent of post–financial crisis growth, while the bottom 90 percent have become poorer. Meanwhile, the percentage of income held by the richest 1 percent in the U.S. has grown nearly 150 percent from 1980 through 2012.
The U.S. is a leader in producing this kind of inequality in the last 30 years based on the way it’s changed the tax laws, its regulation of finance, and rewarding people for making more money, Schram said.
But is it possible for rich Americans, who love their land of opportunity, to be addicted to money?
“It’s always been part of our folklore, part of our culture and value system, that we prize our freedom—freedom to go out and make as much money as we can for ourselves,” Schram said.
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