By Sushmita Bose
I was watching Season 10 of Friends, where there’s one episode when Phoebe (the crazy one — or the ‘wonderfully weird’ one, take your pick) and her boyfriend Mike Hannigan decide to not splurge on an expensive wedding. They visit a charity that caters to educational needs of poor children in New York City, and hand over a generous cheque — their entire wedding fund. And (rightfully) feel virtuous about themselves.
Then, they head home, and have second thoughts — egged on by their friends. Why not spend all that money celebrating what will (probably) be the “happiest one day” of their lives instead of being welfare agents?
So, they make their way back to the charity centre, and reclaim their cheque.
From thereon, ensues a moral dilemma.
Should they spend their money on a noble cause: give assorted have-nots a taste of what it would have been like if they had not been poor?
Or should they spend it on a big, fat wedding ceremony, which will last a few hours, tops, and not really change the lives of anyone (and lump the idea of having a simple and inexpensive court wedding)?
After much back and forth, they opt for the latter. “Who cares about stupid children — it’s your wedding day!” someone pipes up for good measure.
It’s all ha ha, it’s a sitcom, so we don’t have to get all wound up about the political incorrectitude.
But there’s a larger point here: if you are from the “privileged” class, do you actually feel strongly about sharing your wealth so there is less disparity in the world? How would you feel if you are, for instance, asked to pay wealth tax, mandatorily, every year, so some nameless, faceless kids in a poor colony can have a better life?
As human beings — frequently referred to as the most selfish species on earth — do most of us care enough to make a difference to the world’s poverty eco-system by sacrificing personal wealth? Poverty is alright as a talking point in rarefied living room environs, where the air-conditioner hums but dare not make a clunky sound. We all say a lot of socially-equitable stuff, and cite examples of billionaires who give away their wealth for charitable causes, but imagine doing away with your air-conditioner (which is still classified as a ‘luxury’ not a ‘need’) to make others’ lives better. Or forgoing your annual vacation. Or not upgrading to that new car you’ve been eyeing for months now.
Most importantly, by not doing all these things, not increasing your bank balance — but kissing your stash away for the cause of global good.
How many of us would want to do that?
I am well aware there are some extraordinary people who do not believe in the aspirational spiral. The next dream travel gig, the snazzier car, the bigger apartment — these don’t matter to them, and even as they are working harder and making more moolah, they are clear about their investment in making the world a better place.
But, here, I am talking about the majority of us — that, unfortunately, under the weight of sheer numbers, translates into “we, the people”.
Earlier in the week, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, development charity Oxfam released a report that imbeds what is being called a “wild stat”: the “26 richest people on earth in 2018 had the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population — about 3.8 billion people”.
According to The Guardian, Matthew Spencer, Oxfam’s director of campaigns and policy, said: “The way our economies are organised means wealth is increasingly and unfairly concentrated among a privileged few while millions of people are barely subsisting. Women are dying for lack of decent maternity care and children are being denied an education that could be their route out of poverty. No one should be condemned to an earlier grave or a life of illiteracy simply because they were born poor.”
But, “It doesn’t have to be this way — there is enough wealth in the world to provide everyone with a fair chance in life. Governments should act to ensure that taxes raised from wealth and businesses paying their fair share are used to fund free, good-quality public services that can save and transform people’s lives.”
Oxfam has called for a global wealth tax. And everyone who is making enough money to be liable to be taxed is running for cover.
Before we start debating how the likes of Jeff Bezos or Mukesh Ambani could do with some loosening of pursestrings at our next weekend party over canapés and fine beverages, do we also need to acknowledge that even we are, in a small way, (financially) fortified enough to do our bit?
Yes, I say, we definitely could — and should.
But, no, I know, we won’t.
Sushmita is editor, WKND. She has a penchant for analysing human foibles