Global political and business leaders are gathering this week (Jan. 23-26, 2018) in Davos, Switzerland for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. The agenda will cover a wide-range of issues on industry, geostrategy, economics, environment, and more. These leaders meet at a time when the wealth gap continues to grow at an alarming rate. Oxfam’s new report, “Reward Work, Not Wealth,” reveals how the global elite acquire massive wealth while hundreds of millions of people struggle to earn a living wage.
According to the Oxfam report:
Eighty two percent of the wealth generated last year went to the richest one percent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world saw no increase in their wealth. This research includes the stunning new finding that the economy created a new billionaire every other day over a period of one year.
This is the largest increase of billionaires in history. Their $762 billion in new wealth could have ended global extreme poverty seven times over. While the top 1% saw massive gains in wealth, the bottom 50% saw no growth at all. Everyone in the middle limped along. Most troubling is that the growing wealth gap is at the expense of workers who make the creation of wealth possible in the first place.
According to Oxfam’s website:
[T]he report outlines the key factors driving up rewards for inherited wealth, shareholders and corporate executives at the expense of workers’ pay and conditions. These include the erosion of workers’ rights, the excessive influence of big business and wealthy interests over government policy-making, and the relentless corporate drive to minimize costs in order to maximize returns to shareholders.
As an economist I have long been concerned about the growing income and wealth gaps. The concentration of income and wealth held by a small percentage of the population undermines economic stability and democracy. As a Christian I am equally concerned as the disparity in wealth and income is unjust, immoral, and tears at the fabric of human decency. We must do better.
If Jesus attended the World Economic Forum I believe he would demand change to the systemic structures which reward the massive accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense of the many. The best evidence for this is that he challenged just such a system during his own day. I touched upon this as part of my Moral Economy series when I wrote:
The vast majority of the population in New Testament times were economically impoverished. For many, this meant they were also socially “poor” as they lacked power and dignity. Those with power had wealth. Because it was a limited good society, for a person to have more (power, wealth, dignity), someone else had to have less (power, wealth, dignity). In the New Testament, “poverty” or being “poor” were often associated with being powerless and vulnerable.
Those who acquired more power and wealth were seen as greedy. In order for them to have more, someone else had to have less. As biblical scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh explain: Being powerless meant being vulnerable to the greedy who prey on the weak. The terms “rich” and “poor,” therefore are better translated “greedy” and “socially unfortunate.” (Social Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, p. 398)
It is within this context that Jesus speaks of “rich” and “poor.” His message of economic justice is one where balance must be restored between people in a society of limited goods (power, wealth, dignity). The “rich” (greedy) must return to the “poor” (socially unfortunate) a measure of power, wealth, and dignity. This is clearly in keeping with his Jewish tradition of God’s distributive justice. God provides enough for all. If there are any who have more (power, wealth, dignity), then they have it at the expense of others.
If Jesus attended the World Economic Forum he would have a lot to say about 82% of the world’s wealth going to the richest 1% of the world’s population. Given his teachings within the context of his own day it is clear he would not be on the side of the global rich and political elites. If Jesus attended the World Economic Forum he would be advocating for changes to structural injustices of our global economic system. Jesus would demand an end the vast disparities of income and wealth.