Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Has Christmas left you poor? Really?

So it’s that time again. That time of peace, goodwill, tradition. Of over-eating, over-drinking. Of shopping.
Of buying too much stuff for people (especially, but not only, the kids) who already have more stuff than they know what to do with.
And soon it’ll be Boxing Day, that traditional time of worrying about your waistline. About where to put all the stuff you (and the kids) have just received. About the recycling (and the landfill). And the bills you’ve just run up.
Especially, perhaps, the bills.
But hey, it’s Christmas. It’s only once a year. You can afford it. Can’t you?
Do you feel well off? Or do you worry about your financial future? I’d have to own up to a “yes” answer to both those questions.
Of course, I’m not remotely well off compared with many people in business, government or “celebrity” circles. I’m not as comfortable as some in my line of work, and positively poverty-stricken by comparison with some – maybe most – of the people I was at college with.
But in world terms, or in historic terms in Britain, I’m fabulously wealthy. As you are too.
The brilliant Swedish statistician Hans Rosling put it rather well on telly a few weeks ago in his talk “Don’t Panic: The Truth About Population”. (Originally shown on BBC2 last month, it was repeated last Friday at a silly time, but you should be able to catch it for a few days on iPlayer. If you can, do.)
Dividing up the world’s seven billion people along a yardstick of wealth, he showed that the richest billion (which includes nearly everyone in the UK), lives on an average $100 a day. The middle billion lives on just $10 a day. The poorest billion has just $1 a day.
“The problem for us, living on $100 a day,” he says, “is that when we look down on those who have $10 or $1 they look equally poor.
“I can assure you, because I have met and talked with people who live down here [at the bottom end of the scale], that the people down here know very well how much better life would be if they would move from $1 to $10. Ten times as much income is a huge difference.”
Apart from considering the truth of what Rosling says, it’s also worth noting whose problem he says it is.
The bigger problem is for those who can’t rely on being able to feed themselves (or the kids) each day. Who aspire to owning shoes. Who have no reliable access to safe water.
Still think Christmas has left you poor?
A  prominent news story last week said Britain’s current thirty-or-fortysomethings would be the first generation to be poorer in retirement than their parents. I’m sure I will be.
But why should we expect to go on getting richer generation after generation? It can’t go on indefinitely.
It’s often said – I said it here myself a few weeks ago – that the planet can’t sustain such a large human population. It should be obvious that it could sustain a lot more at, say, the average Indian living standard than the American. 
But there’s a perspective problem even there. From here all Americans look rich – and it’s true that on average they are 26.3 per cent better off than us. But that average figure hides some huge variations.
In fact, of all the countries in the world only Russia, Ukraine and Lebanon have a greater gap between their richest and their poorest citizens than the USA.
That is according to Credit Suisse, the Swiss bank whose research department is the source of most of the global financial statistics relied on by markets, governments (and journalists) around the world.
Also according to Credit Suisse, the poorer half of the world’s population owns just 1pc of global wealth. The richest 10pc of people own 86pc of the wealth, with the top 1pc alone accounting for 46pc of all the world’s assets.
It’s an unfair world. And it’s getting more unfair fast.
Food banks in Britain, handing out free parcels to people in desperate need? A few years ago it would have seemed a gloomy fantasy, or perhaps history. Today it’s reality.
Meanwhile in America, employees of Walmart are encouraged to hold “food drives”, buying items from the store and giving them to the poor so they can enjoy a good Christmas. Very Dickensian.
The poor, in this instance, are other Walmart employees. The in-store posters call them “Associates in need”.
If Walmart paid them a living wage they wouldn’t be in need.
And the store wouldn’t get the profit from every tin or packet bought for them by colleagues who may be little better off themselves.
Walmart, which trades here as Asda, is the largest retailer in the world and the biggest private employer in the America. It is 50pc owned by the Walton family, whose combined wealth this year topped $150 billion, making them the richest family the world.
Six of them – Christy, Jim, Alice, Robson, Ann and Nancy Walton – have the same net wealth between them as the bottom 41pc of the entire US population.
They earned it the easy way. By being born to it.
They keep it through the efforts of the workers – sorry, “associates” – who subsist at the other end of the American wealthometer.
Happy Christmas.

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