THE BLOG

Let Them Eat Cake!

22/01/2014 11:54 GMT | Updated 23/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Though the origins of this statement are dubious and frequently attributed to Marie Antoinette, it is believed to be based on a passage found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's twelve volume autobiographical work Confessions written in 1770 in which he recalls that a "great princess" was so oblivious to the plight of starving peasants that she simply said that they should eat pastry instead.

I am reminded on this in thinking about the fact that some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the world are currently meeting at the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in extremely expensive resort of Davos-Klosters, Switzerland including our own Prime Minister.

Davos, as it is commonly called, provides a valuable opportunity for some of the 2,500 delegates to meet at the numerous 'black tie' parties and other lavish events laid on so that they can agree business deals that will add to their personal fortunes.

For political leaders it is a chance to hobnob with the 'great and good' and, perhaps, to agree on policies that will garner some votes at the next election.

A major part of every WEF meeting is to consider issues that have a wider societal significance and the title of this year's summit, 'The Reshaping of the World: consequence for Society, Politics and Business', shows that there is an explicit intention to better understand the causes of the forces that continue to shape the lives of people around the globe.

One of the issues being considered this year at Davos is inequality.

As Klaus Schwab who is the founder and chairman of the WEF has acknowledged, many of the established economic order and geopolitical relationships are under serious threat from a pervasive sense that the gap between the rich and poor is ever-widening:

"The slowdown is taking place against the backdrop of rising economic inequality, owing to the declining share of national income going to labour, a worldwide phenomenon - resulting from globalisation and technological progress - that poses a serious challenge to policymakers. Systems that propagate inequality, or that seem unable to stem its rise, contain the seeds of their own destruction. But in an interdependent world, there is no obvious solution, as the high mobility of capital fuels global tax competition."

The charity Oxfam has just published a report, Working for the few, which it is argued that the richest 85 people in the world collectively possess about £1 trillion in wealth which is equivalent to the poorest half of the world's population; some 3.5 billion people.

Whether those attending Davos have either the will or the way to address such inequality is questionable though I won't hold my breath.

However, Oxfam are absolutely right to draw attention to what is a disgrace.

As Oxfam believe, the increased inequality has been driven by what they describe as a 'power grab' by the elite to ensure that the political process works in such a way as to ensure that they get richer and, sadly course, the poor get increasingly poorer.

Oxfam's chief executive Winnie Byanyima believes that increasing inequality simply exacerbates injustice whereby those who can have most are able to exploit taxes laws to their advantage and gain access to the best education and health to ensure that they and their children continue to enjoy the privileges that comes with power and which, of course, excludes the opportunity for those on low income to progress and 'better themselves'

This leads Byanyima to assert, "Without a concerted effort to tackle inequality, the cascade of privilege and of disadvantage will continue down the generations. We will soon live in a world where equality of opportunity is just a dream. In too many countries economic growth already amounts to little more than a 'winner takes all' windfall for the richest."

Inequality has a long tradition in this country and is increasingly prevalent as a consequence of the economic chaos caused by the impact of the global financial crisis.

Apparently poverty in this country is similar to that of Edwardian times.

For many of the bankers and property speculators who were responsible for creating the crisis the recession has been an opportunity to exploit the market and in many cases allowed them to emerge even wealthier.

This cannot be said for the majority whose wages have declined in real terms and face a struggle to feed themselves or their families let alone pay the utility bills that have dramatically increased in the last couple of years.

As various bodies, most notably the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) shows, in an index of inequality of 34 member countries, we are 28th.

We are told that the economy is growing and that as a society we will benefit provided we stick with austerity (and don't allow too many foreigners to enter the UK and enjoy our over-generous benefits though rich billionaires who enjoy reduced tax rates and buy our football clubs presumably are).

So when the 'well-heeled' attending Davos including David Cameron consider inequality they might want to think about some really radical and adventurous solutions to reducing it throughout the world and especially in this country.

Unfortunately we will get the usual pious words stating that how terrible inequality is and that something urgent needs to be done; but only once the recovery is secure.

In the meantime the poor can eat cake!