Oxfam International released a report this week, just as the World Economic Forum opens in Davos Switzerland, which projects that by 2016, 1 percent of the population will control more than 50 percent of the wealth. As Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam's executive director said in a statement, "The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering, and despite the issues shooting up the global agenda, the gap between the richest and the rest is widening fast."
President Obama, in Tuesday's State of the Union Address, took on the issue of income inequality. He proposed increasing the top tax rate from 25 percent to 28 percent, raising taxes on capital gains and limiting tax breaks for the wealthy. The odds of any tax reform measures being signed into law this year are most likely in the realm of impossible. In fact, the issue of taxation in our country is fraught with political rhetoric. Just breathe the word "taxes" and you are immediately locked in a stalemate where rational discussion and the possibility of reform screeches to a halt.
Certainly, civil discourse on the issue is very difficult to come by in today's political climate -- at a time when civil discourse is most sorely needed.
It was Aristotle who recognized, "The most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control and outnumbers both of the other classes." The poet William Yates put it more poetically in his work, The Second Coming. As he wrote, "turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." The gyre is being deeply tested as the far distant fringes, as 1 percent of the world's population hold in their hands the majority of wealth. Without a strong center, nations do not endure.
Civility is sown from fertile middle ground, and it is going to take all of us being able to once again breathe the word "taxes," without becoming cemented on one side or the other of the issue. We need our elected officials to have the difficult conversations about equitable tax policies and then be able to enact these policies for the good of us all.
According to the Oxfam report, the richest people in the world saw their share of the wealth increase from 44 percent to 48 percent since 2009. In response, Oxfam's Byanima asked the question, "Do we really want to live in a world where the 1 percent own more than the rest of us combined?"
That is the question in grave need of civil discourse and civil solutions. The "gap between the richest and the rest," is a gap that can seed unrest, violence, poverty and pain. We need our center to hold, and civil debate is the glue that can move toward that end.