Ed#426 If I Were a Rich Man (or Woman)

21 February 2013 Alan Attwood

Ed#426 If I Were a Rich Man (or Woman)

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. “They are different from you and me.” Of course they are; that’s part of their allure. Lifestyles of the rich and famous have more immediate appeal than, say, everyday doings of ordinary people. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby would have been less enticing had he been Joe Next Door instead of Jay in the glittering mansion. When things go wrong in the lives of the rich – as happened last year with a Rinehart family dispute, played out in public to the dismay of those involved – it becomes a kind of spectator sport. There is a measure of reassurance there, too: it seems money might not buy happiness, after all.

Many of the very rich would not have been pleased by some headlines gained by the international agency Oxfam in January, when it announced its new goal is “to end extreme wealth by 2025, and reverse the rapid increase in inequality seen in the majority of countries in the last 20 years”. Inequality was, of course, what we were on about late in 2011 with our cover story called ‘The Great Divide’, which outlined how – in many parts of the world, including Australia – the very rich had got richer while the very poor got poorer. Oxfam’s declaration of war on inequality has prompted us to revisit the subject. Has anything changed? Not a lot, it seems, when you read Oxfam’s report (The Cost of Inequality), which states that recent decades have sparked “an incredible feeding frenzy” among the very, very rich. Oxfam estimates there are around 1200 billionaires in the world. But rather than preaching revolution or class warfare, Oxfam has cast these billionaires as those with the answer to some pressing problems. It argues that the world’s poorest people could easily be lifted out of poverty if the world’s 100 richest individuals were to give away the money they made last year. Not their total wealth; just the income from 2012. It’s an appealing idea, though not without logistical complications. And who ever heard of billionaires sharing their wealth around?

Actually, it’s happening already. The biggest change since late 2011 is the momentum gained by ‘The Giving Pledge’, the move by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, ranked by Forbes as the world’s second- and third-richest people, to convince some of their wealthy peers to promise to give away half of their wealth. This is not about faith or religion, Gates has said: “It’s about human dignity and equality; the golden rule that all lives have equal value and we should treat people as we would like to be treated.” Forbes has estimated Gates’ net worth as being US$61 billion; it has also reckoned his donations, so far, to the fields of health and education amount to US$13 billion. So he hasn’t left himself on Struggle Street; a point freely acknowledged by Buffett himself (worth US$44 billion). He has declared that 1% of his wealth is more than enough, while “that remaining 99% can have a huge effect on the health and welfare of others. That reality sets an obvious course for me and my family: keep all we can conceivably need and distribute the rest to society, for its needs.”

Which brings us to Gina Rinehart, who only got a passing mention in 2011 as the first woman to top Forbes’ list of Australia’s richest people. Since then her personal wealth has soared. So, too, has the number of headlines about her, few of which would have pleased her. What has not increased, however, is any perception of her greater involvement in philanthropy – though perhaps she is just keeping it quiet. If she did decide to give it all away, well, the ripples would spread wide. Even wider than those Pilbara landscapes she loves.