What Use Are The Rich?

There were two good pieces of advice given to the rich folks in Davos last month. The first came from Chuck Collins, the US inequality activist, who urged the rich to forsake Davos and, instead, invest in their communities, pay their taxes and support social movements. The second was a sharp challenge from global inequality expert Branko Milanovic (who refuses to attend Davos) saying: “If rich people really wanted to solve inequality, they should use the lobbying power and money they have been using for the past quarter century to get better deals for themselves to do something for the working class.”
As Chuck Collins’ article makes clear, the rich have a potentially huge role to play in fixing national and global inequality but they need to come to the table, engage with the rest of humanity and use their wealth for good. Some of the Davos jetset are beginning to get it. Some of them worry about inequality a lot and some have seen pitchforks coming for years even if others seem more interested in littering outer space with automotive junk.

Recent events in the UK beg similar questions. In jagged contrast with our crises of rising homelessness, growing hunger and widespread poverty we have grossly iniquitous corporate failures, outright greed and tax dodging from rentier landlords, and billionaires acting like reproachful toddlers handing back their broken and unprofitable train sets. Feather-bedded socialism for the rich and devil-take-the-hindmost capitalism for everybody else is not a recipe for long-term stability or happiness. 

We know that the wealth to fix our social problems (many times over) already exists. It’s just concentrated in too few hands that too often seem unwilling to work for the common good, either through productive investment or by paying taxes. The upshot is an increasingly divided and sclerotic economic and social system. Torsten Bell from the Resolution Foundation in a recent article on UK wealth inequality (paraphrasing the French economist Thomas Piketty) comments that “who was born with what and who marries whom might make for a good Jane Austen novel, but it can’t be an acceptable answer to the kind of country we want to build.” 

So, the rich in the UK and across the world have a choice: they can either continue to see people and planet merely as resources for them to exploit for their own enrichment, or they can join in the efforts to slash inequality, eradicate poverty and transition to a sustainable economic model. If they continue to make the wrong choices then more and more people will inevitably ask: what use are the rich and why do we tolerate them?

Bill Kerry – Supporters & Local Groups Manager