It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .(Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
The Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities is set in London and Paris in the years leading up to and during the French Revolution, roughly 1775–93. The introductory lines tell us of stark divides and widely different lives being led at the time. Central to the plot is the chasm between rich and poor and the suffering that results from such disparity.
Today we find ourselves in another growing economic chasm. Even before the pandemic, the scourge of super-yachts sailing by shanty towns was upon us. Gated communities, inhabited by owners of Lamborghinis and Maseratis, have risen up above crowded tenement blocks overfilled with extended families of workers hoping for some chance of upward mobility.
And as the ultrawealthy have ascended to the top in recent years, they have also often befriended government leaders, lobbying to pass new laws and regulations to cement their place above others. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and societies were shaken up, it therefore did not turn to the amassed wealth of the richest to fund vital healthcare and infrastructure projects for the betterment of the people. Instead, in many countries the poorest have borne the brunt of the pandemic as the wealthiest have seen their riches grow.
A recently released Oxfam report indicates that the 10 richest men alive have more than doubled their collective wealth since March 2020. That doubling began at a particularly low point, when stock markets around the world were reeling from early coronavirus worries. Nevertheless, while the markets have rebounded, with many hitting new highs, the fortunes of the bottom 90 per cent have not fared as well.
According to the Oxfam report, which drew from World Bank data, the pandemic has caused an additional 160 million people to fall below poverty levels. Where people have not fallen into poverty, they have recently faced consistent inflation, driving up household costs including food and childcare, new and used vehicle prices, and housing. The report also says:
• The pandemic is forcing developing countries to slash social spending as national debts rise
• Gender equality has been set back, with 13 million fewer women in work now than in 2019 and over 20 million girls at risk of never returning to school
• Ethnic minority groups have been hardest hit by Covid, including UK Bangladeshis and the US’s black population (BBC)
Even more dire, Oxfam reported that the lack of access to healthcare, hunger, gender-based violence, and climate breakdown all contributed to a staggering 21,000 deaths per day.
According to Buddhist philosophy, all things are intimately interconnected in webs of cause and effect. Global economics is primarily concerned with material wealth and the control and movement of resources. It is thus no coincidence that those with wealth and power were able to utilize the pandemic for their own material benefit. In an ideal world, we might see these billionaires giving handily to charity, in the same way that some wealthy landowners and royalty did in the time of the Buddha. This would underscore the Buddhist idea that wealth itself is not harmful and can be used for societal good.
However, we do not live in such a world. Instead, three of the world’s richest men, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, have built and flown rockets into lower-Earth orbit, with plans underway to open the experience to other super-rich space tourists at costs ranging from a few hundred thousand US dollars to upward of tens of millions.
When the director of the UN told Elon Musk that just 2 per cent of his wealth—some US$6 billion—could effectively solve world hunger, Musk asked for more details. The response was a cost breakdown of the World Food Program’s (WFP) estimate of US$0.43 per day, times 42 million people facing hunger, times 365 days. So, with just 2 per cent of Elon Musk’s wealth, the WFP estimates that it could feed all of the world’s most desperate people. Musk did not respond.
According to Buddhist economist Clair Brown, we must recognize not only our interconnections with one another but also our interdependence with nature in concert with the moral imperative to reduce the suffering of all beings. This, she notes, would require a courageous shift away from unsustainable business models and toward a more holistic ideal.*
As Brown notes, governments can play a key role in moving toward a more Buddhist economy, as they control the major flows of wealth in the way of taxation and spending. But people will be needed to help drive this movement.
As the pandemic drags on and many of us continue to live in uncertainty about what the future might bring, perhaps the greatest takeaway from this knowledge is a deeper understanding of our interconnectedness and in turn a greater intention toward cultivating contentment within our own lives along with compassion for others. After all, our greed and disconnection from those around us are key to our own role in the flow of wealth upward.
Hope can be found most immediately in the roots of our practice and in our confidence to grow in our wisdom and compassion. Armed with this, we can more effectively and meaningfully go out and make the changes needed in the world around us: in our lives, in the lives of our families, and beyond.
Wealth of world’s 10 richest men doubled in pandemic, Oxfam says (BBC)
Branson is trailing Bezos in space tourism, while Musk’s SpaceX competes in a league of its own (CNBC)
The UN tells Elon Musk how his money could end world hunger (World Economic Forum)
How $6 billion from Elon Musk could feed millions on the brink of famine (NPR)
Related features from BDG
The Wealth of Learning
Buddhistdoor View: The Rise of Non-Fungible Tokens
Measuring a Country’s Wealth by its Citizens’ Happiness
Buddhistdoor View: Global Commodities Versus Global Humanity
A Healthy Economy, Income, and Right Livelihood