Income inequality is wrecking the world but a great rebalancing may be coming

Are they sure this is over?
Are they sure this is over?
Image: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi
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What is a first world problem? As an American who on Thursday celebrated Thanksgiving, I’ve had a lot of recent opportunities to ask myself that question. Its gravity began to weigh on Wednesday evening, when an emptied out New York became a playground of parties and gatherings for those not leaving town. The bars and restaurants were open, hospitality workers sacrificing as usual for one more night of tips, which make up the bulk of their wages.

As the cooking began in earnest on a fuzzy Thursday morning, the question was not how to fill our dinner plates, but how to avoid overfilling them. What items should stay in their packaging, to leave room for the 14 pound turkey and its trimmings? Even as inequality grows, and as many struggle with hunger, poverty, and lack of opportunity, some of us are extremely fortunate to live in a world of relative abundance.

And yet, though a quarter of Americans volunteer or donate to help others, their efforts, on a structural level, are doomed to fall short. That’s because 1% of of US families control 38.6% of the nation’s wealth. At a Thanksgiving dinner for 100 people, it’s one (likely old, white, male) who gets a heaping slice of the pumpkin pie—and everything else. (It’s worse globally: the 1% control 50.1%.)

An old American rule of polite dinner table conversation is not to discuss money, religion, or politics. That norm has been evaporating for years, most recently thanks Donald Trump’s evangelical-powered victory, which has led America to the brink of a corporate tax cut proponents claim will increase wages—but which looks like a giveaway to nonpartisan economists and business leaders.

The first world problems I felt guilt over—a day off work, a full dinner plate—are actually basic human needs that are out of reach for a growing share of the population. Few politicians or executives seem to recognize that—at their peril. When the history of our time is written, the economically-driven protests of Occupy Wall Street, the global refugee crisis, and the political upheaval in authoritarian regimes around the world, most recently Zimbabwe, might read less like a handful of disconnected events than the opening shots in a great global rebalancing that is only starting to unfold.

This was published in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief, our news summary that’s tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe and Africa, or the Americas. Sign up for it here.