Thursday, April 18, 2013

Global Wealth Inequality

Political decay, poor farming and agricultural methods, a shrinking population, weakening military forces and a gradual decline in economic activity are some of the reasons why the Roman Empire fell. These are often presented alongside statistical or anecdotal evidence illustrating the extent to which Roman civilization had degenerated before eventually succumbing to the relentless barbarian invasions. It is tempting to look back upon the failures of past eras with a modern smugness that ignores the signs of our own decline. How will the fact that the combined wealth of today's richest 300 humans exceeds that of the poorest 3 billion be remembered by future generations as they learn about our era? 

The accumulation of such a vast amount of wealth (equal to the combined wealth of China, India, Brazil and the US) in the hands of such a small group of individuals is unprecedented, and has only been made possible by the rise of globalised free-market capitalism, which allows capital to extricate itself from its historically more permanent commitment to the labour it supplies. Before the invention of money, the interests of capital and labour could only be separated as far as one could carry one's pig to the local market. The replacement of bartering with a widespread currency created a level of fluidity between capital and labour that allowed economies to flourish, but nevertheless ensured that capital's interest (excuse the pun!) was still somewhat bound up in that of labour.   But in a post-industrial age, capital's ability to tap into and out of markets with such remarkable volatility threatens to produce the kind of economic absurdities that future generations may well look back on with the same smugness that we have towards those foolish Romans.  

South Africa can be seen a microcosm of the world's problems in this regard.  The solution clearly isn't to obliterate capital by means of nationalisation, which merely replaces one ruling class of capitalists with another (something that the ANC foresaw would be the chief challenge of post-apartheid South Africa), but rather to find ways of successfully recapitalising the people.  So far our government, via strategies like BEE, has accomplished transferring capital to a new black ruling class (as well as a brain drain of white professionals), but has failed dismally to reunite capital with labour, with the fruits of such a failure being on display to the whole world throughout the duration of last year's strikes.


  1. Hey Jono,

    Rad article, shot. Don't you think that the rich aren't nearly as rich as they used to be? Consider Genghis Khan owning half of Asia, there is no-one like that to-day. I read a simple book called "The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs" which suggested that poverty is lessening. I do believe conditions for the poor are getting worse in many ways, but I do think the (percentage) amount of rich are increasing in a good way, and I'd surmise that the worlds' middle class will always continue to increase too. I've never really been a big fan of Gini coefficients and such stats, perhaps the way we classify "poor' today has been the reason we keep treating the wrong symptoms. Thoughts?

    Ps. Written without too much thought :)

  2. I guess Abraham, Job, Solomon were wealthy. Wealth isn't bad, neither is it unBiblical for people to be given way more, as a few parables suggest. They will be judged more, though, with how they use it. I take comfort from that verse in Ecclesiastes that tells us that wealth from sinners is stored up for the righteous - 2.26, I think.

    As for how the poor have such a hard time getting out of poverty, well, it's both a cause of this terrible system we're in - which could be worse, let's be honest. But also, 'poverty is the ruin of the poor' - is another revealing verse showing how hard it is to get anywhere when you have no "capital" (in most senses of the word) to do anything about it.

    I for one am convinced the easiest way for most of us to handle all of this is do the little we can to the "neighbours" we come across - simple acts, in faith, and in love. There will come a day when people at governmental level make great, and impactful decisions in SA and then it will be much easier for us all, but until then, we've got a hard task ahead.

    I get my first full salary today. I believe my tax is between 0 and 3.3% - when you have a nation that does what is right and a government too, it's incredible the things a nation can accomplish. If only they had beautiful architecture here and some more Christianty in their collective worldviews...!

    Ps. Didn't really answer the question, did I? :)
    Pps. Let's go teach in the Transkei in five years! I know a mission station/hospital that is in need of a school.

  3. Ha ha, I could move to the Transkei tomorrow!

    Ok, I see your point more clearly now, especially after watching the video ;) I guess in certain situations you do what you can, but in others you need to remove yourself from "the system". I've thought about it for ages now, and I guess it depends on the individual as to which route they want to take. Move to the sticks and try and re-create a simple society, or try break the machine from the inside out. One thing I am convinced of, either way, is that if people's hearts are right, any solution or system will work.

    Although we'll always live in a world where this isn't the case, I've been realising (and reminded) again of how much one person can do. I've begun to question how much use it is to participate in mass petitions, and marches rather than just simply pursuing what I believe the right thing for me to do is. Something that I was reminded of was that famous Chinese man who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen square, and the power of his message. It made me want to research who makes greater change: individuals, or groups. A pity the research will take years and undoubtedly be inconclusive! Anyway, maybe we can flip Stalin's saying "If one man dies it's a tragedy, if a million people die it's a statistic" and see people in need as individuals, who need help as unique as they are. Stories of people always seem to move peoples hearts more than any other.

    I will also always be somewhat sceptical of massive statistics that are based on things like money. Who is to say a child in Mozambique who learns to fish with his father and never has a phone, degree, car, fridge, overseas holiday etc etc (and all the problems they bring) is in any way poorer than a western kid. Quite obviously, that kid is fine if he is not subject to the exploitation of overseas capitalists (who may steal his fish offshore, forcing him to take a dirtbag job etc etc) and I suppose that is my conclusion: if it is possible, let's recreate an idealistic society somewhere if it gets unbearable (or impossible) to live where we are. Think of all the people (ourselves included) who are living where they are as a result of industrialisation, and other such forces of history. Perhaps it's time to give in, and return to the countryside!