I gave this speech in the NSW Parliament on 21 June 2012:
We live in a world where iPhone cases can be bought for $US2,680 for raw titanium, or $US3,810 for gold, or $US4,430 for something called black carbon, while more people go hungry every day than the populations of the United States, Canada and the European Union combined. We live in a world where, for every Altruistic Precision iPhone case sold, the company Brikk will donate one metric ton of rice to “those in need through select NGOs.”
We live in a world where people who buy a phone cover for $US4,430 can feel that they are making the world a better place. According to Oxfam, the number of people in the world without enough to eat could soon top one billion. That is one in seven of us. The World Resources Institute states that some 1.3 billion people are living on less than $US1.25 per day with 900 million facing hunger.
Here in Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS] Australian Social Trends for March 2012 found that in 2009-10 1.6 million children aged 0 to 14 years—38 per cent—lived in low economic resource households, with 3.3 million people aged 15 years and over—19 per cent. And conditions are getting worse, not better, for people from low socioeconomic households. After adjusting for inflation, the net worth of low economic resource households had not increased significantly since 2003-04, while the average net worth across all other households had increased by 29 per cent.
Meanwhile, you can buy a Magic Mushroom USB key by Swiss jeweller Swawish with white gold, emeralds and white diamonds for $36,900—if you can afford it.
Or a dessert in a New York restaurant described as: “A fine blend of 28 cocoas, including 14 of the most expensive and exotic from all around the world with five grams of edible 23-karat gold dished up in a goblet lined with edible gold, the base of which is an 18-karat gold bracelet with one carat of white diamonds, all eaten with a gold spoon decorated with white and chocolate-coloured diamonds, which can also be taken home.” And it will cost you is $25,000.
Or you could buy a toilet encrusted with Swarovski crystals—72,000 pieces of them—for $130,000, while one in seven people in the world go to bed hungry tonight.
According to the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the average total remuneration of a chief executive officer of a top 50 company listed on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2010 was $6.4 million, or almost 100 times that of the average worker. Meanwhile, company profits as a share of national income are now back to the record levels of 2008, while the wages share is the lowest since 1964.
One measure to address inequality is capping chief executive officers’ salaries. The Australian Greens have suggested capping them to 30 times that of the average wage paid to that company’s employees and for a top marginal tax rate of 50 per cent on salaries over $1 million a year.
Other measures that could be implemented right now if governments were courageous enough would be an estate tax, increasing taxes for higher income earners, increasing the unemployment benefit and other welfare payments and increasing taxes on multinational coal and oil companies so that they begin to pay their fair share of the common resources they exploit.
We all know that, with multibillionaires in this country in charge of traditional media or taking on those that do not agree with them, it would be a brave government that takes genuine measures to address just some of the worst excesses of inequality. But they will need to very soon and for that to happen the nation needs to have a conversation about growth, and we need to have it now.
We need to have a conversation about growth if we are to have any hope of making a significant dent in the gap between the rich and poor. As Economics Commissioner at the Sustainable Development Commission and author of the excellent report, “Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy”, Professor Tim Jackman, writes:
The global economy is almost five times the size it was half a century ago. If it continues to grow at the same rate the economy will be 80 times that size by the year 2100.
An economy 80 times the size it was in 1960 would be a disaster for the majority of humanity and would mean irreparable damage to our planet. So we must have a conversation about growth.
We are seeing the earth ripped apart, species wiped out and the earth’s delicate climatic system wrecked so that multimillionaires can become billionaires and so that billionaires can top the most rich lists.
This is happening to support our houses with five bathrooms and too many clothes and too big waistlines, while 1.3 billion people are earning less than $1.25 a day.
The Occupy Movement is one response to the displays of obscene wealth we are witnessing across the globe. So too is the rapidly growing movement of resisting consumer culture, buying local and reconnecting with local communities.
It has become extremely urgent for governments to be open to new economic and societal models, ones that recognise the value of community wellbeing and health over increasing shareholder dividends and wealth creation. Governments should be leading the debate in this regard, but they are not.
Perhaps, like climate change, they will scoff, delay, deny and delay some more. In the meantime all of us who are comfortable now need to challenge how we have become so and we need to start thinking of ways we can give away much more than one ton of rice.