Commentary: As billionaires gather at Davos, it’s worth examining what’s become of their


Billionaires were not important enough to be seen as a major problem back in the early 1990s. In 1991, as communism collapsed, Forbes Magazine assessed the total wealth of the world’s five richest people at less than US$70 billion. And the most prominent billionaires at the time were relatively appealing figures like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

But since then, while US prices have doubled, the wealth of the top five has climbed tenfold. And they have become less interested in the idea that others should benefit from the system that has benefited them.

A case in point is Jeff Bezos who is number three on the rich list with net wealth of US$114 billion and runs Amazon whose brutal working conditions and anti-union stance are detailed in the Oxfam report.

Another is Elon Musk, number two on the rich list with US$180 billion, who could once have been seen as merely eccentric, but his recent embrace of neo-Nazis goes further.

And, appropriately for what Oxfam calls the gilded age of division, another is the very richest man in the world, Bernard Arnault, whose family owns luxury goods brands including Louis Vuitton and Sephora.

Arnault embodies the resurgence of what Thomas Piketty has called patrimonial society. He took over the management of his father’s business and intends to pass his business on to his sons.

All have benefited from what is sometimes called neoliberalism: The mix of ideas including privatisation, financial deregulation and tax cuts that was meant to deliver stakeholder capitalism.

What neoliberalism has given us instead is greater division – something the billionaires gathered at Davos ought to consider this week as they reminisce about forums past.

A reasonable set of fresh ideas would be that put forward by Oxfam: Direct government intervention to reduce inequality including but not limited to reasserting the roles of governments as regulators and service providers abdicated on the advice of gatherings such as the one in Davos.

John Quiggin is Professor at the School of Economics, University of Queensland. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

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