Words: Corinne Allott (She/Her)
Artwork: Magdalena Kosut
As the cost of living crisis draws students further into their overdrafts, and forces 6.7m families into choosing either eating or heating, the sickening reality of the global super rich continues to be mythicised and trivialised. Ninety-nine percent of workers globally earned less money in 2021, but the 10 wealthiest men enjoyed a doubling of their fortunes. Even more worryingly, the percentage of billionaires in Britain has risen by a fifth since the beginning of the pandemic.
Brian Cox’s series How The Other Half Live, and Rowland Atkinson’s book Alpha City, have started to shed light on this world we know so little about. Alpha City establishes how transport, security systems and business complexes are structured to uphold the wealthiest, which Samuel Strong describes as forming an ‘urban ecosystem for protecting and privileging the super rich.’ All the while, Ken Loach’s film Sorry We Missed You demonstrates the consequences of unfettered capitalism on everyday life: a billionaire profits from workers unable to eat properly, go to the toilet, or even speak to each other while on shift. While the film does not directly refer to the company’s name, it almost exactly mirrors the conditions endured by Amazon workers.
Given the UK’s economic climate of inflation and austerity, how do its billionaires continue to escape not only unscathed, but all the better for it? My answer is that, until recently, I didn’t even know what the term “super rich” meant. The lack of education on the international wealth gap is fundamental to how it grows. Oxfam research shows that the combined wealth of 183,000 households worldwide – fewer people than the population of Aberdeen – totals $36.4 trillion. If one of the super rich, Jeff Bezos, personally paid each of his 876,000 Amazon employees a one-time $105,000 bonus, he would still be as wealthy as he was pre-pandemic.
While charity donation is a possible solution to this injustice, it has been argued that much elite philanthropy merely benefits the super rich, because it focuses on elite causes. Wealthy philanthropists ultimately want to better their own incentives, such as knighthoods or other social capital. Whilst philanthropy sometimes exacts positive change, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributing to the eradication of malaria, Mark Zuckerberg’s donation to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation overlooks big tech companies, like Facebook, causing the area’s housing crisis in the first place.
There is a huge movement amongst top earners to reinvest their wealth in their own charities. Offering donations, as opposed to paying tax bills, means that their funds can be diverted into areas of their own interest or intended prestige. Less money is therefore given in taxes to be distributed in a potentially fairer way. Taxation is the most intuitive method of combating the wealth of the super rich because this eye-watering accumulation of wealth is a systemic issue. For example, applying an annual wealth tax with a structure that includes a 5% further tax on those earning over $1 billion, would raise the United States $2.52 trillion annually. Compare this to Jeff Bezos’s pledge to donate $10 billion over 10 years to the Bezos Earth Fund. While this initially seems like a large amount of money, it actually represents a tiny percentage of his net worth. Bezos’s fake charity is therefore just another cog in the super rich machine, revolving cyclically to produce perpetual self-betterment, whereas an annual wealth tax would be enough to lift 2.3 billion people out of poverty, and deliver universal health care for all the citizens of lower income countries.
Despite these demonstrable benefits, UK politics is still far away from adopting a progressive approach to taxation. In his mini budget, former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng proposed a reduction in the tax rate of those earning over £150,000 a year to 40%, rather than 45%. While those earning £1m annual would gain £55,000 a year from the tax cuts, those earning £20,000 annually would only gain £157. With members of the UK government continuing to be among the super rich themselves – current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is very nearly a billionaire – this laissez-faire approach to taxation could attempt to uphold their own wealth, or that of their mates, and donors. But this does not mean that younger generations should lose hope. By being aware of the global wealth disparity, and recognising the realities of the super rich through education, we can start to challenge the consensus that there’s no such thing as having too much money, and strive to deliver a world where there are no billionaires, and no one living in poverty.