The Other Side of The Coin

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“extreme wealth and income is not only unethical it is also economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive.”

This is Oxfam‘s scathing review of the modern wealth gap, not mine. (Although I wish I’d written it…) The international organization out to end poverty and injustice has put what seems intuitive to most of us in no uncertain terms. And what’s more, they’ve provided the research and the branding to back it up.

In their latest media brief, discussed here on Al Jazeera and linked above, the Oxfam press room implores the world to set goals for tackling both extreme poverty and extreme wealth.

We’ve been working on ending poverty for a long time. Oft forgotten, it’s the motivation that brought Adam Smith to the Wealth of Nations in 1776 and gave us the simple but world-changing principals for the end of mercantilism and the beginning of economic freedom. But the world’s powerful quickly noted that the whole effort could be extremely profitable. The international development industry we know today was largely born of cold war diplomacy, and we know which economic structure won there…  We’ve tried many different strategies since then, from Live Aid, to Dead Aid, to the MDGs. But the countries we (the Global North) profess to aid are by and large trapped in the same poverty and conflicts of the last half century.

So perhaps Oxfam is on to something with a completely new idea. The first step in change is envisioning it, and the second step is communicating it. Taking the lead from a fun mix of bedfellows – The Economist, The IMF, and Occupy – Oxfam is pointing the spotlight on the other end of the spectrum. We’ve spent over 200 years talking about the problem of poverty, but it may now finally be time to talk about the problem of wealth.

To speak of inequality is no longer revolutionary (although those of us that do are often treated like rebels). But I must say I’ve been surprised on the subject in two big ways (relatively) recently. First, I was shocked when a protest of inequality in America, of all places, managed to occupy Manhattan’s financial district for more than about five minutes. Second, I was surprised to find the headline “Funnel down, don’t trickle down,” on a blog at the Wall Street Journal. (Could the paradigm shift be real?)

In truth, conversations about ending poverty have been less about aid recently and more about social enterprises, micro-loans, and building markets. These bottom-up solutions are likely to be the most empowering and sustainable. But are they hindered by extreme wealth? Is the top-heavy economy holding us all back? And if so, what are we to do when he who has the gold makes the rules?

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