When the rich fix the rules, the poor lose

opinion January 23, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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The global trend of worsening inequality will only be reversed if we can prevent economic elites from hijacking government policy

Almost half of the world’s wealth is owned by the richest one per cent. The wealthiest one per cent have amassed $110 trillion (Bt3.3 quadrillion), which is 65 times the total wealth of the poorest half of the globe’s population.

These figures were published in an Oxfam report, “Working for the Few: Political Capture and Economic Inequality”, released on Monday ahead of the World Economic Forum being held in Davos, Switzerland.

The international charity revealed that half of the planet’s population – about 3.5 billion people –possess less wealth collectively than the 85 richest people in the world, who boast a combined worth of $1.7 trillion.

This concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is a phenomenon common to both developed and developing countries, says Oxfam, which has raised the alarm over the growing problem of inequality.

Oxfam also warns that wealth influences governments to bend the rules in favour of the rich. With checks and balances weakened, political institutions are undermined and governments overwhelmingly serve the interests of economic elite, to the detriment of ordinary people. “Unless bold political solutions are instituted to curb the influence of wealth on politics, governments will work for the interests of the rich, while economic and political inequalities continue to rise,” the charity says.

But across the globe there is a growing public awareness of this “power grab”, it adds. In surveys conducted for Oxfam, most respondents believe that laws are skewed in favour of the rich.

In Thailand the problem is severe. Here, the super-rich have not just attempted to influence policy but have become politicians themselves and even launched their own parties.

We cannot expect a government whose policy-making is in thrall to the wealthiest in our society to sincerely serve the interests of our poorest people. Rich politicians and the lawmakers under their influence are unlikely to pass legislation that damages their or their associates’ business interests or wealth status. With such people in power, there is very little chance that Thailand will change the law to bring fairer taxes to bear on rich landowners or large inheritances.

Voters are lured by politicians’ promises, such as higher rice prices for farmers and increased wages for workers, but they often end up disappointed. While rice millers and exporters are making big profits from the government’s price-pledging scheme, farmers have not been paid for the rice they sold to the government under the programme. Meanwhile business operators and factory owners are enjoying higher profits and reduced corporate tax, but their workers are having to deal with higher living costs that the minimum-wage rise does not cover.

But with such disappointments comes the hope that voters will learn to spurn sham offers of financial gain, and be more sensitive to the presence of self-serving and corrupt politicians. A stronger civil society can help push for progressive taxation on wealth and high incomes, in addition to curbing the influence of the rich on political processes and policies.

A group of American multi-billionaires – including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, investment guru Warren Buffett and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – has pledged to offer half of their wealth to charity. We in Thailand might not expect such generosity from our wealthy people. What we can hope for instead is that richer Thais agree to a system that shares wealth more equitably, one in which politicians are also prevented from helping themselves to taxpayers’ money.