How Many Billionaires Does It Take To Fill A London Bus?

Mar 08, 14 How Many Billionaires Does It Take To Fill A London Bus?

Like New York’s Yellow Cabs, London’s Big Red Bus presents an iconic image that helps define a city in popular imagination – and yes they do still run. I use them regularly on my visits to the capital but now, after reading a recent report by the charity Oxfam, when I board one I check out all the passengers and wonder if any of them are billionaires. The conclusion is always the same – how the hell would you know? The Oxfam paper Working for the Few came up with the arresting idea that the world’s wealthiest 85 individuals could be squashed into a London bus. They were using this image to try to symbolize global inequality. Those 85 people between them have a total wealth of over one trillion pounds or around 1.66 trillion dollars. That is equivalent to the total worth of the world’s poorest 3.5 billion people. I did my own calculation just now and I reckon that it would take 41,176,470.58823529 big red ones to carry those poorest billions. Yes, one bus for the super-rich and over 41 million for the super-poor.

OK, we get the message and it’s a neat one. But what’s behind the numbers and the symbols? It is of course the growing problem of inequality as identified by the Oxfam research which encapsulates the issue nicely. Their figures indicate a widening gulf between rich and poor with the infamous top one per cent of the global population owning 65 times that of the poorest half and the gap is getting bigger. Oxfam sees this as a huge problem but others may not. Inequality is unquestionably a key driver of ambition and enterprise but at what point does it become problematic? I suppose the answer is when the gap becomes so big that it threatens social, political, and economic stability. Most religions in the world enshrine some sort of concept of caring for the poor or those whose life has brought them pain and suffering – call it Christian Love or the Buddhist idea of Compassion along with many variations from other creeds. For those of us who do not have a religious belief system and moral code to frame our opinions it comes down to the existentialist or humanist consideration of what is right or wrong and for my part I think a system in which billions of people starve or struggle to survive when there is enough wealth in the world to prevent it is wrong. I don’t think I know a single person who would walk past someone obviously starving to death in the street. But all that stuff will get us nowhere in the jungle of world economics and global power-players, corporate or individual, where the top few have cornered the market and where, as Oxfam explains, the rich elite have executed a “power grab” by controlling the political process to stack the odds in their favour when it comes to influencing the global economic system.

What will drive change towards greater equality? After all what is at stake is personal, national, and international health. Social conscience is unlikely to cut the mustard. Altruism and philanthropy will be cosmetic at best. Economic planning on a global scale is something of a white elephant. If the scientific basis of economic predictions were to be trusted we would have seen the last global recession coming and if that is anything to go by economics is a failed science. There are only two kinds of forecasters – those who don’t know and those who don’t know they don’t know, said J. K .Galbraith. No, if any lessons from the past can help us change the future they are the lessons of history when all empires eventually crumbled, felled by the weight of decadence, over-stretching, and inequality. It’s the thought of all those poor countries and poor people fighting back and causing problems for national and global stability that might just make us sit up and take notice – if we suddenly saw all the occupants of those 41 million London buses pouring out into the streets.

Image Credit: william87 / Thinkstock

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Eric Hopton is a writer, musician, artist, and photographer. He has a degree in Social Anthropology and has always been passionate about travel, having so far visited 73 countries. His music and sound work has been used in many projects around the world and can be heard on Bandcamp and Freesound, where he has contributed over 1,300 sounds under his sonic alter ego, ERH.

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  • Harami Khan

    So, Eric, besides dramatising the “problem”, you’re solution to this intolerable injustice, also known as the gift of life, is what? Write another Chicken Little article? More redistribution and/or more regulation? If so, you’re playing checkers in a world of chess. Regardless of our well-intentioned social tinkering, with its always disastrous effects on the individual, society is never going to be financially equal any more than everyone is ever going to be equally intelligent, equally hard working, or equally honest. Has any society ever been practically equal? Only in Russeau’s “Noble Savage” fantasy land.
    Equal is merely a constantly shifting law of averages. Do you want to be average anything? Be my guest. Rather than the inconceivable mathematical analogies (41 million buses) that you offer to illustrate the unacceptable injustice you perceive, how about proposing solutions for equal opportunity and leave nature to sort the rest?
    You employ the phrase ‘ I think” very frequently in your article.. (Pause for yawn). If you want to be a valued journalist, “I think” your efforts would be more valuaable if you suggested realistic innovative solutions, rather than merely telling us what you think. Raise the bar a bit.
    Good luck

    • http://www.hardlightmedia.com John Valenzano

      Or better yet, Harami, maybe you should look up the difference between “journalist” and “blogger.” Since this is a BLOG, Mr. Hopton’s personal opinions and thoughts are the focus and perfectly appropriate.

  • Harami Khan

    Hi John,
    I followed your helpful suggestion, and did look it up. thank you. I am not addressing Eric’s efforts per se, but the anatomy of BLOGS which can be ambiguous creative devices to explore wonder, news and exchange information. They can delight and inspire. Blogs are not limited to, nor exclusive of, nonprofessional ramblings of dubious benefit to anyone. They don’t have to be void of the holy grail of creative and analytical thinking i.e. ORIGINAL thought. Even as a humble BLOG in a scientific website, if it isn’t even news and it isn’t original, what’s the point?
    Eric describes himself as a writer, neither journalist nor blogger. So presumably, both. redOrbit has categories for Science, Space, Health and Technology. With all due respect, where did Eric’s blog fit into that agenda? With over 25 years experience as a publisher and editor of hard copy post-grad and ph.d research literature, dialogue with writers and researchers on how to improve their craft is part of my profession. I understand you’re also an the editor at redOrbit, so I appreciate the opportunity for this polite exchange. How does a writer distinguish himself when exploring problems but not offering solutions? How does a reader, who possibly hasn’t been spared the ravages of higher intelligence, benefit? I could be aiming too high here, but reiterating a perennial issue with old wine in new bottles isn’t what should satisfy Eric, his editors, and certainly not his readers. Being constructive, original, enlightening and inspiring are lofty, worthy aspirations. They are also significant and distinguishing, which I presume are the goals of every serious writer . And, frankly, I’ve come to expect redOrbit to deliver more to its readers and advertisers than reflections by a nonprofessional on an Oxfam study. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I thought redOrbit was about scientific news. I’ll repay your helpful suggestion with a request that you refresh your literary standards with a few pages of Stephen Hawking or Carl Sagan.That is what Eric and redOrbit should be aiming towards. Going for the gold, not content with average anything. Good luck to you, Eric and redOrbit.

    • http://www.hardlightmedia.com John Valenzano

      Harmi, while we certainly do appreciate your feedback, we ask that you broaden your expectations a bit when it comes to the blog part of the site. We play things a lot “looser” with our blogs than we do with the hard news. We provide a lot more leniency here, as noted by the additional topics that are added in the upper right-hand dropdown menus. If you wish to stay only with the core topics, you’ll find those linked horizontally across the top of the site. You’ll note that this particular blog post is NOT in the Science, Space, Tech or Health categories. It’s in the Lifestyle category, which only exists here on the blog site. Additionally, it’s part of Eric’s “An English Angle” column, which basically means it’s purely his views as a Brit on whatever floats his boat at the time. I do not mean to sound sarcastic or insulting, but if you take exception with this style of writing, I would say don’t read his column. There are several others here that would probably be more appealing and better fit the criteria you listed (which are quite reasonable, I might add). As for Hawking and Sagan… well, we DO cover Hawking on the main site whenever he makes the news. Sagan is, unfortunately, no longer with us, so he rarely makes the news these days, but we ARE looking for someone to write about the “rebirth” of Cosmos. redOrbit is going through transition at the moment and you will be seeing major changes on our sites in the coming months.