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The Billionaire Backlash

The sharp rise in the number of billionaires results from a confluence of globalization, quick uptake of new technology, and regulations favoring large corporations.
by Futures team

16 June 2019

(This is the unabridged version of the article by Futures team published in The Future is Now, Quarterly Emerging Trends Report (Q1 2019).)

A 2019 report by Oxfam found that the wealth of more than 2,200 billionaires across the globe had increased by USD900 billion in the previous year, with a corresponding share of wealth reduction among the poorest half of the world’s population. The top 26 richest people in the world now own the same wealth as the lowest 50% [1].

Cultural winds seem to be shifting against this extreme wealth disparity worldwide. In the USA, there are proposals by mainstream politicians to significantly increase tax rates on high incomes and individuals with high net worth [2]. Mainstream newspapers are debating whether billionaires should be abolished [3,4]. In the developing world, public discontent against the ultra-rich has grown. Scandals over fuerdai, the second-generation rich in PR China, as well as the “billionaire Raj” in India are covered frequently in national news [5,6].

The sharp rise in the number of billionaires results from a confluence of globalization, quick uptake of new technology, and government regulations favoring large corporations and capital [7]. Meanwhile, incomes have stagnated or fallen for large swathes of the poor and middle class, and public services have suffered from chronic underfunding. In many places, decent education and healthcare are a luxury that only the rich can afford.

Whether these are temporary situations or a sign of a long-term attitude change against economic elites is unclear. It remains to be seen if countries move to limit the gains of the ultra-rich, and if so, what the long-term impacts will be on innovation, production, and social equity.

References
[1] Lawson, M., Chan, M., Rhodes, F., Butt, A. P., Mariott, A., Ehmke, E., Jacobs, D., Seghers, J., Atienza, J., and R. Gowland. Public good or private wealth? 2019. Oxfam International. https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/public-good-or-private-wealth, accessed on 1 March 2019.
[2] Hiltzik, M. America is falling out of love with billionaires, and it’s about time. 2019. The Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/ la-fi-hiltzik-billionaires-20190201-story.html, accessed on 1 March 2019.
[3] Manjoo, F. Abolish billionaires. 2019. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/06/opinion/abolish-billionaires-tax.html, accessed on 28 Feb 2019.
[4] Wilkinson, W. Don’t abolish billionaires. 2019. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/21/opinion/billionaires-innovation.html, accessed on 28 Feb 2019.
[5] Beam, C. Children of the yuan percent: Everyone hates China’s rich kids. 2015. Bloomberg Businessweek. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2015-10-01/children-of-the-yuan-percent-everyone-hates-china-s-rich-kids, accessed on 1 March 2019.
[6] Recode Staff. How India fits into the global economy: It may not be China, but at least it isn’t Russia. 2018. Recode. https://www.recode.net/2018/8/4/ 17649708/india-china-billionaire-raj-james-crabtree-book-recode-decode, accessed on 1 March 2019.
[7] Levine, S. Filthy rich, owing no taxes. 2019. Axios. https://www.axios.com/rich-companies-owe-no-taxes-6703e01a-4daa-44ce-9459-096c361a9c8d.html, accessed on 1 March 2019.

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