In pointing out that, by the end of next year just 85 billionaires will have the same wealth as half of the world’s population, Oxfam Great Britain has shown just how extreme global inequality has become.

The Globe and Mail points out that the top 1% has wealth that equals that of the other 99%.

The Globe and Mail points out that the top 1% has wealth that equals that of the other 99%.

Oxfam’s study comes during debate about inequality within countries and globally. The debate was sparked in part by the Occupy movement and by the French economist Thomas Piketty, whose concern is that the wealthiest people—not just the one-per-cent, but the one-thousandth—are gaining too much control over our political systems. Governments find they can no longer make decisions to protect the health or the environment of their citizens because of provisions in free trade agreements that protect the largest corporations.

Canada’s participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Mexico has made ours the country that is most often sued in trade tribunals.  Meanwhile, tiny El Salvador is the object of a $300-million suit by a mining company over the government’s decision to ban open-pit mining as a way to protect scarce water resources. In fact, a majority of disputes in trade tribunals involve investors challenging a country’s environmental law.

As debates about inequality and trade continue, the crisis brought on by climate change calls for solutions that will require us all to change our behaviour. Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, proposes some solutions that, like Piketty, involve changing how we think about taxes, and how we think about life in community on this fragile planet—shared and fragmented at the same time.

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“I’m poor.” Subway art in Buenos Aires.

Signs of change

In the past year, with regard to taxes at least, we see signs of change. If expanding social justice is the social way of showing love for our neighbours, then we need to understand—as Alex Himelfarb and Jordan Himelfarb put it—that “taxes are the way we pay for the things we do together that we could not do at all or as well alone.” Think of health care, education, public transit and pensions.

U.S. President Barack Obama says he will tackle inequality by closing tax loopholes that benefit only the wealthiest people. This approach would provide tax breaks to low and middle-income earners.

Meanwhile in Canada, there were questions (even from The Globe and Mail) about the wisdom of the federal government’s pursuit of a balanced budget ahead of the election. Isn’t now the time we should take some of Naomi Klein’s advice—“we have a fundamental conflict between what the market demands and what the planet needs to remain stable”—and turn our economy away from, over time, its dependence on fossil fuels? Even Preston Manning (former leader of Canada’s Reform Party) is calling for a carbon tax—except he says we shouldn’t call it a tax.

And questions continue about the Canada Revenue Agency’s on-going audits of registered charities: why not go after people who put their money in tax havens with equal vigour?

Through the World Council of Churches, KAIROS, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and other ecumenical groups, we are also looking at new ways that an “economy of life for all” might be sustained by changing tax laws and global financial architecture (everything from trade agreements to the World Bank). Meanwhile, inequality, climate change and the rights of women are key points of action in the “We Can do Better” campaign by the Canadian Council for International Cooperation.

This moment, while oil prices are down and attitudes about taxes are shifting, provides a new opportunity for change.

 

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