26 ultra-rich people own as much as the world's 3.8 billion poorest

The Oxfam report prompted Anand Giridharadas to tweet: "Don't be Pinkered into everything's-getting-better complacency."

  • A new report by Oxfam argues that wealth inequality is causing poverty and misery around the world.
  • In the last year, the world's billionaires saw their wealth increase by 12%, while the poorest 3.8 billion people on the planet lost 11% of their wealth.
  • The report prompted Anand Giridharadas to tweet: "Don't be Pinkered into everything's-getting-better complacency." We explain what Steven Pinker's got to do with it.

A new report by Oxfam argues that inequality around the word is so out of hand that it is putting progress at risk. The report offers a scathing indictment of policies advanced around the world over the last few decades. The authors propose vast expansions of public services paid for by increasing taxes on the super wealthy to remedy the problems they examine in their report.

Inequality for all?

Oxfam inequality infographic report

Credit: Oxfam

The report, titled 'Public Good or Private Wealth', praises the progress that has been made in eradicating extreme poverty around the world over the past few decades. It then warns us that the problems we face today place that progress at risk and even threaten to undo the efforts of countless individuals, governments, and NGOs.

It begins by revealing that the number of billionaires in the world has doubled since the financial crisis of 2008 and that they collectively grow richer by 2.5 billion dollars a day. This is made possible, it explains, by the ever-decreasing tax rates on high incomes and corporations. The choice to cut taxes means there is less money in the coffers to pay for public services and comes at a high cost to those who need them the most.

The figures explaining that cost are shocking. In the last year, the world's billionaires saw their wealth increase by 12 percent while the poorest 3.8 billion people on the planet lost 11 percent of their wealth. All of the wealth those 3.8 billion people do have adds up to the same amount held by the 26 wealthiest people on the planet.

As a direct result of lack of public services, people die and the poverty trap becomes harder to escape. The report explains that 10,000 people will die today due to lack of proper medical care, 262 million children will not be allowed to go to school for lack of funds, and the poorest women on the planet will do millions of hours of unpaid care work.

Oxfam inequality infographic report

Credit: Oxfam

All of this means it should come as no surprise that the rate of poverty reduction is half of what it was in 2013. Even while the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day – the World Bank's line for extreme poverty – has continued to drop, 3.4 billion people still live on less than $5.50 a day, which is the benchmark for extreme poverty in an upper-middle income country. The authors hasten to add that in Sub-Saharan Africa the extreme poverty rate has started to increase.

While the report focuses on devolving nations, it references conditions in the United States several times. It mentions how social mobility in the United States has been declining for some time and how a black child born in the United States is more likely to die before their first birthday than a child born in Libya.

The report firmly lays the blame for these facts at the feet of declining public services, inequality, and policies that favor the rich, arguing that "Inequality is a political and a policy choice" and that the growth of the top 1% is preventing the reduction of poverty. One section in the report explains the poverty mentioned above:

This is a direct result of inequality, and of prosperity accruing disproportionately to those at the top for decades. The World Inequality Report 2018 showed that between 1980 and 2016 the poorest 50% of humanity only captured 12 cents in every dollar of global income growth. By contrast, the top 1% captured 27 cents of every dollar. The lesson is clear: to beat poverty, we must fight inequality.

The report also explores how these problems tend to harm women more than men. Since women tend to own less wealth than men, policies that benefit the rich are less likely to help them. Women are also expected in many cultures to take care of children, the sick, and the elderly – tasks made much harder if public services like health programs and childcare are cut back.

The Oxfam report tells us that if a corporation did all the unpaid care work the women of the world do and charged people for it, that business would be 43 times larger than Apple. If this work were to be supported by public services, we are told, women around the would be able to spend that time more effectively improving their situation.

How do they propose we fix this problem?

The report does not merely complain without offering a way forward. The authors point to the places where progress is being made on these issues and conclude that increased funding to public services financed by taxes on the super-rich will go a long way in solving them.

For example, a wealth tax placed on the top 1 percent of income earners would provide 418 billion dollars each year, enough to ensure that every child on the planet has access to an education – a necessity if global poverty rates are going to be reduced.

They propose universal health care and education, an end to privatizations of public services, public pensions and child care, and investments in public utilities to help fix inequality. They advise that all of these policies must be implemented in ways that "also work for women and girls" if they are to be successful.

What do Big Thinkers have to say about all this?

Anand Giridharadas, an author who has written extensively on inequality, took to Twitter to comment on the report. He has argued in his books that inequality prevents society from making progress on certain problems because the people with the most wealth will use that wealth to keep the system that made them wealthy in place, even at the cost of inhibiting social reform.

In line with his previous comments on inequality, he argues that these figures are a sign that:

"The tremendous gains that government action, markets, aid, labor unions, philanthropy and other things have made in improving the human condition are now imperiled by the wealth concentration those improvements have left unbothered."

He also takes aim at those who think this is a glitch in the system or that the problem will solve itself. In one particularly scathing tweet, he warns: "Don't be Pinkered into everything's-getting-better complacency."

What's Steven Pinker got to do with it?

Giridharadas' tweets mention Steven Pinker, a Canadian psychologist and author, who has yet to comment on the report publicly. Pinker is known for taking a nuanced but controversial attitude toward inequality.

In his book Enlightenment Now, Pinker explains why he doesn't think inequality is inherently bad. Instead, he argues that we should focus on questions of poverty and unfairness which are tied to the discussion around inequality. In one section he cites philosopher Harry Frankfurt to explain his stance:

"Frankfurt argues that inequality itself is not morally objectionable; what is objectionable is poverty. If a person lives a long, healthy, pleasurable, and stimulating life, then how much money the Joneses earn, how big their house is, and how many cars they drive are morally irrelevant. Frankfurt writes, "From the point of view of morality, it is not important everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough." Indeed, a narrow focus on economic inequality can be destructive if it distracts us into killing Boris's goat instead of figuring out how Igor can get one."

How he would feel about a report which argues that massive inequality is itself causing an increase in poverty is an open question since it does move beyond viewing inequality as bad in itself and focuses more on how that inequality causes other problems. In the past, Pinker has critiqued those who say inequality is doing that by pointing to absolute improvements in living conditions over time, but he might not be able to do that for much longer.

Anand Giridharadas' above-mentioned "everything's-getting-better complacency" is a reference to Pinker's view that the world is getting better due to the scientific and humanistic worldviews that gained prominence during the Enlightenment. In his words, "the Enlightenment worked," and we are living in one of the better parts of human history because of it. He isn't blind to today's problems, he is just optimistic that those problems can and will be solved.

He also takes the view that the negative side effects of the systems that created these benefits, effects like the building of the atomic bomb, imperialism, and world wars, are "glitches" rather than the results of endemic problems. He has a history of giving various metrics for how the world is improving over time and is likely to continue to do so as long as we keep our Enlightenment worldview.

The global tendency to cut taxes and public services came at a high cost for the poorest. Now, inequality is so high that it threatens to cause progress in poverty reduction to stall or even reverse. While the question of how lousy inequality is in itself remains open, the fact that it has reached a level where it is causing other problems has been settled. What we do next may prove definitive in the battle against poverty or it may halt the progress of the last few decades.

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.

Lapses

Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.