- Beyond the Ethics of Wealth and a World of Economic Inequality
Analyzing the ethics of wealth and the relationship between the dominant ethics of wealth and economic inequality is vital to creating a humane mode of global life. We are living during a period in which the unequal concentration of wealth—which is to say, the unequal concentration of the resources that make human existence, development, and fulfillment possible—has never been greater.1 The World Bank reports that almost “1.3 billion people remain below the extreme poverty line with an income of US $1.25 or less a day. Close to 2.5 billion—more than one-third of the world’s population—live on less than US $2 a day, another common measurement of deep deprivation,”2 and a staggering 80 percent of the world’s population struggles to survive on less than US $10 dollars a day.3 Credit Suisse’s 2012 Global Wealth Report indicates “the bottom half of the global population [or more than 3.5 billion persons] possess barely 1 percent of total wealth . . . In sharp contrast, the richest 10 percent own 86 percent of the world’s wealth, with the top 1 percent alone accounting for 46 percent of global assets.”4 Given the history of international colonial and neocolonial relations, it comes as no surprise that wealth is highly concentrated in Western Europe and North America, while the overwhelming majority of individuals living in poverty are concentrated in Africa, India, Asia, and Central and South America.5
The wealth gap between the top 10 percent and the bottom 90 percent is, however, also reaching record levels in developed nations. While in 2012, the United States had the seventh highest average wealth holdings per adult in the world, “among nations with at least a quarter-million adults, only Russia, Ukraine, and Lebanon are more unequal” than the United States.6 A Reuters investigative report published in 2012 reveals that “inequality has risen not just in plutocratic hubs such as Wall Street and Silicon Valley, but also in virtually every corner of the world’s richest nation: Inequality has increased in 49 of 50 states since 1989,” with Mississippi being the only exception, even as it still “ranks worst in the nation on both counts.”7 In 2010, “the top 1 percent of households (the upper class) owned 35.4 percent of all privately held wealth, and the next 19 percent (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 53.5 percent, which means that just 20 percent of the people owned a remarkable 89 percent, leaving only 11 percent of the wealth for the bottom 80 percent [End Page 125] (wage and salary workers).”8 In The Price of Inequality (2012), Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz indicates that the “six heirs to the Walmart empire command wealth of $69.7 billion dollars, which is equivalent to the entire wealth of the bottom 30 percent of U.S. society.”9 In short, six individuals possess more wealth than do ninety-six million individuals—though this figure is misleading inasmuch as most of the ninety-six million own almost nothing but mounting debt. Most significantly, the top 10 percent own between 81 percent and 94 percent of all stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and almost 80 percent of non-home real estate.10 G. William Domhoff makes the vital point that inasmuch as “financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets,” that is, control of the means of producing wealth, “we can say that just 10 percent of the people own the United States of America.”11 Meanwhile, according to the latest census, fifty million Americans qualify as poor and another 100 million qualify as low income.12
The concentration of the lion’s share of wealth in the hands of a tiny fraction of humanity is devastating for the majority of people living on the planet and ultimately for everyone. On the ground, capitalism’s champagne glass–shaped distribution of wealth means that hundreds of millions of persons have barely enough of the basics necessary to exist. Between 24,000...