Is Seattle the capital of global income inequality?

The world's eight richest people: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Amancio Ortega, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Carlos Slim and Michael Bloomberg. Number one and number three live right here in the Seattle area. (Photo from Reuters)
The world’s eight richest people: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Amancio Ortega, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Carlos Slim and Michael Bloomberg. Number one and number three live right here in the Seattle area. (Photo from Reuters)

Seattle is a mercurial place, a city often defined by one thing and its opposite at the same time. Is our city progressive or provincial? Is our weather oppressive or ideal? Is our population diverse or homogeneous? Is our football team brilliant or overrated? Often the answer is … well, both.

And economic inequality — also on Seattle’s list of ambivalent characteristics — just got another spotlight.

Anti-poverty powerhouse Oxfam International published its yearly report on growing global inequality this week, and the results are stunning: Just eight men own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity.

And two of them — Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos — live right here in the Seattle area.

“We want to be this center of humanitarianism,” says Tom Paulson, founder of Humanosphere, a Seattle-based publication covering global aid and development. “And at the same time we’re the home of two of the eight poster boys for wealth inequality.”

But at least one of those “poster boys” is as well-known for giving money away as for amassing it. Bill Gates is also a founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in the world.

It’s a point critics of the Oxfam report are quick to make, adding that the mega-wealthy often donate generously to charities, while also growing industries and fueling economies.

“In addition to the hundreds of thousands of jobs that their businesses have created, most of these names are major philanthropists by anyone’s definition — in the billions of dollars — supporting a range of community needs,” said Nicole Neroulias Gupte of Philanthropy Northwest, referencing the list.

“Five of the eight have also signed The Giving Pledge, a commitment to give away most of their money,” she continued by email. Philanthropy Northwest is a Seattle-based network of foundations and corporate-giving programs, including Microsoft, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Bezos Family Foundation (run by Bezos’ parents).

“The trend is that the very tip top of the economic pyramid is pulling away from the rest of society, the rest of humanity, really.”

But Oxfam says philanthropy alone can’t save us from a rapidly widening gap between the world’s richest and poorest people — a gap they say is a result of economic growth that favors only the rich, instead of lifting all boats.

“The trend is that the very tip top of the economic pyramid is pulling away from the rest of society, the rest of humanity, really,” says Gawain Kripke, director of policy and research at Oxfam America. “And, meanwhile, the rest of humanity is just standing still or barely improving their income over time.”

Kripke says factors like globalization and the recent growth of the financial sector have created opportunities to amass immense wealth. He believes “systemic solutions” are needed to make sure some of that trickles down. He mentions tax reform and government guarantees of basic services, such as health care and education, as well as labor protections and a commitment to tackling discrimination.

And these aren’t just issues for poor countries to worry about, Kripke says. He believes the instability that comes with wealth inequality is reflected in populist movements like President-elect Donald Trump’s candidacy and the isolationism seen in Britain’s recent “Brexit” vote.

There are examples even closer to home. Seattle is awash in tech money. But frustration percolates over homelessness, gentrification and some of the country’s widest wage gaps.

“I think Seattle is weirdly home to a lot of these issues,” says Paulson. “We’re putting a lot of effort into finding the solution, but we don’t talk about structural problems, like taxes.”

One of the things I’ve always loved about Seattle is its complexity. I like that we’re hard to pin down, difficult to explain, always changing.

More than that, I love this city’s compassion: Seattle is a place deeply concerned with what is right. You can see it in our fights for gay marriage, a fair minimum wage and, yes, even in the generosity of (some) of our wealthiest citizens.

But are we really applying that compassion, our famous innovative spirit and our superlative concentration of the world’s wealth toward addressing the root causes behind this shocking gap between rich and poor?

We should be. Because if there’s one thing I’d like Seattle to be unequivocally known for, it’s a commitment to equality.

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

1 Comment

  1. The one, single , most effective thing that can be done to increase the purchasing power of the middle class – empowering the middle class to grow the economy the way it did in the 1950s and 1960s, is to have a progressive tax structure similar to the one we had in those decades.
    But neither political party will touch this idea. It is a “taboo” subject. Thomas Piketty made the point repeatedly in his book “Capital in the 21st Century”. His brilliant research of income tax records in the entire western world since they started being kept shows that a more progressive tax structure empowers the middle class, and that middle class growth is the driver of prosperity in democratic societies.
    Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are willing to try to make the tax code as progressive as it was during the glory days of America’s economic superpower history.
    And because they don’t, indeed, largely because of this one thing, the middle class does not have the purchasing power necessary to really restore our economy to that kind of robustness.
    We hear a lot about consumer culture, but really, that’s not our problem. Most people can barely afford their basic needs, let alone have a bunch of cash on hand to buy frivolous stuff with.
    On the other hand, the wealthy have been being funneled, through the regressive tax code we have, obscene amounts of money which they have to find something to do with. So they invest it in the Next Big Thing, – the internet (1998)? Real estate (2005-8)? This in turn drives the creation of huge speculative bubbles, which then of course crash and create more economic misery.
    Without a progressive tax code, the rest of the talk is window dressing only. The house will remain in disrepair. The middle class will be able to purchase less and less, and work ever more hours to support their ever-decreasing purchasing power.
    So far, no one even wants to talk about this, let alone do something.

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