Every January, to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Oxfam tells us how much richer the world’s richest people have got. In 2016, their report showed that the wealthiest 62 individuals owned the same amount as the bottom half of the world’s population. This year, that number had dropped to 42: three-and-half-dozen people with as much stuff as three-and-a-half billion.
This yearly ritual has become part of the news cycle, and the inequality it exposes has ceased to shock us. The very rich getting very much richer is now part of life, like the procession of the seasons. But we should be extremely concerned: their increased wealth gives them ever-greater control of our politics and of our media. Countries that were once democracies are becoming plutocracies; plutocracies are becoming oligarchies; oligarchies are becoming kleptocracies.
Things were not always this way. In the years after the second world war, the trend was in the opposite direction: the poor were getting richer; we were all getting more equal. To understand how and why that changed, we need to go back to the dying days of the conflict, to a resort in New Hampshire, where a group of economists set out to secure humanity’s future.
This is the story of how their dream failed and how a London banker’s bright idea broke the world.
In the years after the first world war, money flowed between countries pretty much however its owners wished, destabilising currencies and economies in pursuit of profit. Many of the wealthy grew wealthier even while economies fell apart. The chaos led to the election of extremist governments in Germany and elsewhere, to competitive devaluations and beggar-my-neighbour tariffs, to trade wars and, ultimately, to the horrors of the second world war....