A 1.5% tax on billionaires could educate all the world’s children

Fair enough.
Fair enough.
Image: Reuters/Muhammad Hamed
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Just how rich are the very rich? UK-based charity Oxfam quantified the answer in an update today to its annual inequality report. Per the report (pdf), today’s global billionaires:

  • increased their wealth in 2017 by $762 billion—the biggest jump in history and enough to end global extreme poverty seven times over,
  • are seeing their wealth rise six times as fast as the incomes of ordinary workers,
  • and are so wealthy, a 1.5% tax on their wealth could pay for every child in the world to go to school.

That last claim is, of course, dependent on specific calculations, which Oxfam laid them out in a previous paper (pdf) on the case for a billionaire tax, explaining how a global 1.5% tax on individual net wealth in excess of $1 billion would be enough to cover basic education and health services in poor countries.

While the universal education proposal may deftly illustrate the gap between rich and poor, the starker statistic in the report is the comparison of billionaires’ wealth increase to worker wages.

Between 2006 and 2015, the 2,043 billionaires in the world increased their wealth by around 13% a year—while workers saw their incomes rise only an average of 2% a year, according to Oxfam calculations. In a poll of 70,000 people in 10 countries, three-quarters said the gap between the rich and the poor is too large, two-thirds said it should be addressed “urgently,” and 60% said they believe it is the government’s responsibility to reduce it.

There are several ways to go about relieving income equality, which can usually be divided into two broad methods: diminishing the income of the top 1% with tax and pay rules, or raising income for workers at the bottom with subsidies and minimum wage increases. (The idea of a universal basic income falls into that second group.) Individual companies like Walmart are also trying out alternative strategies to get poor workers more money in the free market, without government intervention.

However much disagreement there is over how to fix inequality, the pressing nature of the problem is a rarely a matter of debate. Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima has called billionaires’ wealth boom a “symptom of a failing economic symptom”; political economists and academics also warn, increasingly, that extreme wealth inequality is one of the early indicators—if not causes—of societal collapse. The issue isn’t that billionaires are getting richer. It’s that no one else is getting a chance to catch up.