Almost half of the world's wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population, according to a new Oxfam International report, Working for the Few: Political capture and economic inequality.
Oxfam calls on leaders at the 2014 World Economic Forum at Davos to take steps to counter the growing tide of inequality. In political terms, the report argues, this kind of extreme gap between the few with wealth and the many poor is dangerous. "The World Economic Forum has identified economic inequality as a major risk to human progress, impacting social stability within countries and threatening security on a global scale."
Will 'calling on leaders' actually work?
Biblically speaking, probably not. As Jesus warned, you have to choose. Either money rules you, or your highest values rule you. There's no middle ground. "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." (Luke 16:13)
Jesus was not a capitalist.
God's rules on economics, as articulated both by the prophets and Jesus of Nazareth, are strikingly clear. Not small concentrations of great wealth and the vast majority of people in poverty, but 'each under their own vine and fig tree, living without fear.' (Micah 4:4) Jesus announces his ministry as "good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18), that is, the "Jubilee," the really radical redistributive economic strategy of ancient Israel.
So, is it likely the leaders gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos serve that vision, a vision of a reasonable abundance shared by all, or are they in service to the vast accumulated wealth of the 1 percent? Is it going to be possible for people at that meeting to enact policies that start to close this disastrous economic gulf between the rich and the poor?
The extremes of between wealth and poverty are not an economic problem. They are, as Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argues in his book, The Price of Inequality, a political failure. It is, in fact, the control that money has over politics. "While there may be underlying economic forces at play," he writes, "politics have shaped the market, and shaped it in ways that advantage the top at the expense of the rest."
Stiglitz insists that kind of politics is subject to change, but while his book calls for reform, the tone of the last chapter is decidedly downbeat. "America is no longer the land of opportunity," he sadly notes. The economic reforms he proposes are splendid, from tax reform to full employment strategies and many good suggestions in between. But, again, the economic policy is not the problem. "The economics is clear; the question is, What about the politics?" he asks, as well he should.
Appealing to those gathered at Davos has little chance of effecting real change. The luminaries who come (or who refuse to come) are the very same leaders who are driven by moneyed interests. I do not think substantial change will come from there.
So how will change come, if it can?
Could it be that religious leaders will increasingly be the voice of conscience on the dangers of gross economic inequality? Pope Francis has created a stir by his economic messages on eliminating poverty, but even this Pope looks to the elites to make the necessary changes. "I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor."
Not gonna happen. Politicians today have moneyed masters.
It is through non-violent mass movements for economic change, often spiritually inspired, where change can occur from the bottom up. This is the way the world has even a chance of rectifying these gross inequalities. Mahatma Gandhi knew this. Cesar Chavez knew this. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this, as Dr. Obery Hendricks argued so well earlier this week in The Uncompromising Anti-Capitalism of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Unregulated market capitalism has only one master, and that is money. And that is why 85 people control half the wealth of the whole world.
That is a scandal, and, in my Christian faith, an offense to God.
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