We live in a world where the 85 richest people on the planet are worth $110 trillion whether they decide to get out of bed or not. Their net worth is equal to the collective net worth of 3.5 billion people around the world who either have nothing or subsist on less than a dollar a day.
This comparison is dubious, according to some critics, because most of the people reading this column probably have more net worth individually than nearly half the people on the planet, too.
Interesting bit of sleight of hand, isn't it? This is how the tolerance for global inequality works.
Whenever a scandalous fact about wealth and inequality is trotted out, apologists for the status quo try to reframe it in the most benign way possible. They insist that comparing the world's 85 richest people to the bottom half of the world's population is apples and oranges.
Yet, intelligent people nod in agreement. Even though the collective wealth of everyone reading this column doesn't come anywhere near the net worth of 3.5 billion people, the argument for symmetry is persuasive to those inclined to be flattered by it. People want to think of themselves as being on the fast track to the .000000001 percent of the richest 1 percent.
There's a line from that great movie "The Usual Suspects" that speaks to this situation: "The biggest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." I would amend this to say that the devil's biggest trick was convincing the average American that becoming one of the 85 people whose collective wealth is equal to half the planet's is a matter of drive, talent and self-discipline alone.
That's why a lower-middle-class worker in the South hates unions and consistently votes against his own interests. He has been convinced that the rich pay enough taxes already and that once he becomes a success as a result of his own hard work and industry, he, too, will have to deal with onerous scrutiny from the IRS.
To even suggest that the system is rigged against him is to risk accusations of "class warfare" or, worse, being called a socialist, as if that were some kind of irredeemable moral defect.
Recent pronouncements by Pope Francis about unfettered capitalism and the pernicious side of wealth have put a lot of folks on the defensive. They're used to religious leaders being handmaidens to the wealthy and the powerful, not critics of a rigged system that pours money into the pockets of elites around the world while fomenting social instability.
This week, Oxfam International released a report containing unpleasant facts about the growing scourge of income inequality in the world:
* Seven out of 10 people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the past 30 years.
* The richest 1 percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries between 1980 and 2012.
* In the U.S., the wealthiest 1 percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.
This isn't a bad outcome at all for the One Percenter forced to labor under the allegedly oppressive boot of President Barack Obama. If Mr. Obama is a socialist, like so many in the Tea Party insist he is, then he's exceptionally bad at it. Though the 1 percent have seen their wealth skyrocket during Mr. Obama's presidency, it would've shot up even more under a Republican. Mr. Obama is an impediment to their reaching their full potential. Everyone wants to be one of the 85 people who own half the world's marbles.
Oxfam has a few suggestions for the super-rich meeting at Davos in Switzerland this week about changing the global economic imbalance before people get resentful enough to grab their pitchforks and torches:
Close all off-shore tax shelters and crack down on tax dodging that takes trillions out of the world economy; don't use economic wealth to leverage political favors that undermine democracy; adopt progressive taxation on wealth and income; use tax revenue to fund universal health care, education and social protection for citizens; provide a living wage for every worker; strive to end extreme economic inequality in every country; regulate markets to promote sustainable and equitable growth; and strengthen unions and increase women's rights.
This is not going to happen. While individual members of the "85 Club" like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates might see the wisdom of dismantling a rigged system, most of these billionaires did not become rich by playing fair. They will hire enough politicians to protect their interests and call it a day.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631. Twitter @TonyNormanPG.