In a dilapidated shack in Nairobi, a young woman makes her confession to the BBC reporter eager to hear her story: “I don’t know why God allows some people to be poor while others are rich.”

The fifth wealthiest man in the world, Mark Zuckerberg, whose gross value has been estimated at 70 billion dollars, said in a public meeting at the Facebook headquarters in 2019 that, from a certain point onwards “no one deserves to have that much money.” In this particular context, one of his employees had asked him how he, as a billionaire, relates to the statement of an American presidential candidate who said that “billionaires should not exist.” “I understand what made him say that”, says the Facebook CEO. “I don’t know if I have an exact threshold on what amount of money someone should have, but on some level no one deserves to have that much money”. The billionaire, who previously promised that he would give up to 99% of his fortune to charity projects, added that, in his opinion, “if you do something that’s good, you get rewarded, but I do think some of the wealth that can be accumulated is unreasonable.”

“It’s not fair that we have so much wealth when billions of others have so little. And it’s not fair that our wealth opens doors that are closed to most people”, said Melinda Gates in the same year, in an open letter in which she and her husband, magnate Bill Gates, answered the ten toughest questions on money they had received in 2018.

The Gates together have an estimated fortune of 92 billion euros and own one of the most famous humanitarian organisations: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation was set up in the year 2000 and it’s the world’s largest charitable organisation, known especially for its efforts to ensure the well-being of and decent medical conditions for people in Africa. Asked whether it’s not unfair for the two of them to give away so much money, the Gates responded by putting their fortune in perspective: “Even though our foundation is the biggest in the world, the money we have is very small compared to what businesses and governments spend. For example, California spends more than our entire endowment just to run its public school system for one year”, Bill Gates declared.

We would be the same, you and me

“I don’t know why God allows some people to be poor while others are rich”, said Esther, a young woman from Nairobi, for whom the opportunity to make ends meet comes from cleaning, usually somebody’s house, but preferably a restaurant so she can also earn something to eat. The young woman, who comes from the countryside and does not have a formal education, however, speaks like a person who life has shaped with dignity: “I wish employers knew we are human beings too, like them. It’s just that we do not have money. You know, if we had money, we would be the same, you and me. Life would be good for us too.”

The great thing is that Esther, despite having no formal education, knows that there is no qualitative difference between her and people who do not lay their heads on a pillow of worry every night and fall asleep on an empty stomach, wondering what tomorrow will bring. It’s a great thing because people with an extensive and in-depth education are not able to understand this. The claim is not at all emotional; on the contrary, it resembles a scientific observation.

American researcher Michael K. Kraus and his colleagues discovered that people who benefit from a relatively high socioeconomic status are less able to read the emotions on other people’s faces, not because they do not care about how others feel but because they don’t see the emotional clues on their faces. It’s like they’re blind. Keely Muscatell, UCLA neurologist, supports this hypothesis because it has been documented by brain activity scans. He proved that, when looking at photographs of children with cancer, people with a high standard of living have much lower brain activity than is seen in poor people. Both studies were quoted in an eloquent analysis published in Wired, by Christopher Ryan, author of the book “Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress”.

Ryan also quotes an essay written by Michael Lewis, who observes that “extreme wealth is bad for everyone—especially the wealthy”. “There is an obvious chicken-and-egg question to ask here. But it is beginning to seem that the problem isn’t that the kind of people who wind up on the good side of inequality suffer from some moral disability that gives them a market edge. The problem is caused by the inequality itself: it triggers a chemical reaction in the privileged few. It tilts their brains. It causes them to be less likely to care about anyone but themselves or to experience the moral sentiments needed to be a decent citizen.”

The tenet of Ryan’s analysis is that there is a cultural gap between rich people and poor people, a gap which the rich are increasingly unable to overcome mentally compared to the poor. The author invokes numerous studies showing that, as they distance themselves economically from others, people who get rich also distance themselves emotionally, to their own disadvantage. Ryan speaks about an “insulation” of the rich who, in their rush for the comfort wealth brings, come to isolate themselves from anything which would disrupt their comfort, including other people. “We use money to insulate ourselves from the risk, noise, inconvenience. But the insulation comes at the price of isolation. Our comfort requires that we cut ourselves off from chance encounters, new music, unfamiliar laughter, fresh air, and random interaction with strangers,” Ryan writes.

A majority-oriented economy

The New York Times columnist David Leonhardt notes that for the first time in comparative statistics’ history, the top 400 richest Americans paid lower taxes to the state than any other income group.

The amount of taxes paid last year by the first 400 rich people did not surpass 23%. This means that, in total, rich people paid maximum a quarter of their total income. In the 1950s, the tax rate of the richest people in the United States reached 70%, but it has gradually declined over the decades. Families in the middle class or poor families have not experienced a similar drop.

Leonhardt says that, in the past 75 years, the tax system in the United States has become radically less progressive. The columnist is convinced that progressive taxation is a solution for the economic flaws that are currently plaguing America. To support this he quotes the work of two highly reputed analysts, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, both teachers at the University of California, the Berkeley campus. In The Triumph of Injustice they write that, over time, the debate over the tax system in the US has been polarized between those pushing for an increase in taxes for the rich and those who want to protect their fortunes. Their stake is mirrored in Leonhardt’s claims that the “economy just doesn’t function very well when tax rates on the rich are low and inequality is sky high. It was true in the lead-up to the Great Depression, and it’s been true recently. Which means that raising high-end taxes isn’t about punishing the rich (who, by the way, will still be rich). It’s about creating an economy that works better for the vast majority of Americans.”

Awakening to inequality

The economic inequalities between the citizens of the Unites States turn the legendary motto “the land of opportunity” into a memory, believes Joseph Stiglitz, economic Nobel Prize winner in 2001. Typically, economists have explained the differences in living standards by attributing them to the “theory of marginal productivity,” says Stiglitz. This theory claims that all citizens who have a bigger contribution to society’s well-being earn more money. Still, Stiglitz warns, history teaches us that those who really transform society through considerable technological progress earn very little. Rarely have inventors gotten rich on account of their inventions, says Stiglitz, citing those who invented the laser and the Turing machine or those who discovered DNA. Financial entrepreneurs, however, who have produced innovations on Wall Street are highly remunerated, although they have brought the world economy to the edge of a precipice. Stiglitz made these claims at least five years before Facebook became an economic colossus; otherwise it is likely that he would have also included other companies from the Silicon Valley on his blacklist.

The economist disagrees with theorists who say that economic differences are a natural result of the market. He says numerous other countries succeed in maintaining economic growth while reducing class inequality. “Markets are shaped by the rules of the game. Our political system has written rules that benefit the rich at the expense of others,” Stiglitz says.

The bare minimum

Meritocracy, which has called itself a legitimate bridge over the gap between the rich and the poor, presents itself as an independent solution to inequality; the mechanism individuals can turn to while skipping the need for political interventions, which is long overdue, although they do not seem to depend on political ideology. Barak Obama said in his 2013 investment speech that he remains committed to “our belief that when a little girl is born into the harshest poverty, she still has the same chance of success as anyone else.” And Donald Trump translated this equality in the labour field when he said, also in his investment speech, in 2017, that “we must create a level playing field for American companies and workers.” However, analyst Clifton Mark, who noticed this similarity in the political speeches of the two heads of state, said that meritocracy, as a legitimate social ideal, “is morally harmful”.

Clinton Mark builds his argument on numerous sources showing that, even if it worked (although he offers eloquent examples to prove the contrary) meritocracy would not turn us into better people, but would get us drunk on the feeling of our own greatness, which would turn us into egocentric and antisocial individuals.

Beyond the analyst’s argument, which points to a perverse psychological effect, we must not lose sight of the premises of those promoting a meritocracy. Essentially, meritocracy is a guilt game in which politicians pass the responsibility from the system, built specifically for citizens’ welfare, to individuals who, if they do not manage to come through, are blamed for their own failure. Such a shift in emphasis is unethical, because if the state is the result of a social contract and aims at the well-being of all its citizens, then it has the obligation to do its best to achieve its goal. In this paradigm, meritocracy is the bare minimum. It’s a minimum which is catchy in political speeches because it appeals to the innate human ego. We all want to know we have succeeded on our own and we would like everybody to know it and to admire us for it. Reality, however, comes with numerous challenges leading us to a modesty foreign to popular impulses.

It is said that, to raise a child it takes an entire village. And it’s true. It is equally true that the village is necessary in numerous other human endeavours. We advance faster when we work together. We overcome obstacles easier when we work together. We are happier when we are in solidarity. Unfortunately, all these truths are reduced to clichés or truisms when society stubbornly expels them to the cultural periphery, the same place that it relegates those who have missed their path to economic prosperity.

Mark Zuckerberg said that, from a certain point onwards, no one deserves to have that much money. But who gets to decide where this point is? And why, in this whole story with an American twist, does no one say that there are other ways to prosper, which have nothing to do with the value of shares on the stock market, but with the value of one’s own actions?

Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.