Sharing the Wealth

You may have noticed that some American billionaires are actually anxious to give away some of those billions to help those who fall, well, billions short of having a half-decent chance at something even close to the good life. Are the guys with the big bucks “bucking for the finals” as one wag has suggested, as they get closer and closer to a final judgement on how they shared their wealth?

When I checked out a list of Canadian billionaires, the only ones I actually recognized were Lino Saputo (cheese), James Irving (you name it), Glen Weston (pharmacies and food, often under the same roof) and David Thompson (media magnate, who is by far the richest man in Canada with a fortune pegged at $32.5B). Only three were listed as philanthropists, Weston being the only one familiar to me. I doubt, though, that most on the list of richest men in Canada are not also generous with their cash.

Ray Dalio runs the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, and is worth about $18B. In a recent appearance on CBS’ 60 Minutes, he suggested that capitalism, as practised today, is not working, given the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, and said he fears the divide could ultimately lead to an “economic and social upheaval” similar to that of the 1930s. He argues that the wealth gap “is at its widest point since that period”, something that obviously applies in Canada as well, in that the top 1% own more than the bottom 90% combined.

Bill and Melinda Gates (source: The Giving Pledge)

Bill and Melinda Gates (who are worth $90B) and Bernie Sanders ( who is not) agree that, as Sanders put it, “the fairest way to reduce wealth inequality is to enact a progressive estate tax on the inherited wealth of multi-millionaires and billionaires.” Bill Gates insisted in an interview on CBS’ The Late Show With Stephen Colbert that since “great fortunes were not made from ordinary income,” you probably have to “look to the capital gains rate and the estate tax if you want to create more equity there.” A handful of New York-based millionaires are actually asking for “a new multimillionaires’ tax to fund important priorities like affordable housing and schools.” Now that’s remarkable!

 

And then, speaking of remarkable, what to my wondering eyes should appear but Jeffrey Skoll, the man who was the only Canadian among the initial group of billionaires to sign The Giving Pledge, an open invitation issued in 2010 by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to the super rich “to publicly dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.”  Speaking on CBC Radio’s The Current this week, Melinda Gates explained the thinking behind the pledge (which 204 billionaires in 23 countries have now signed) this way: ” If you have a billion dollars you can afford to give away half of it … You were lucky to grow up in the country you grew up in and you need to give something back.” Jeff Skoll met with three dozen of those billionaires in Santa Barbara, California in 2012. As Skoll told the Globe and Mail at the time, people like that “already know how to write cheques.” What he wanted them to sign on for was “impact investing,” which meant “channelling funds into projects that yield a tangible social benefit as well as financial returns.”

Jeff Skoll described his path to wealth in that G&M interview, saying he went from “living in a house with five guys, eating their leftovers when they weren’t watching… to having $1b-plus on paper.” That came about after Skoll graduated from Stanford University with his MBA, and was hired by Pierre Omidyar to develop a new venture he’d founded, called eBay. Skoll eventually became president of the company. In 2001, he left eBay, but retained his $500M investment. He’d established the Skoll Foundation in 1999, hoping to “tackle social problems in new ways,” which involved assisting social entrepreneurs with long-term “unconditional grants.” At the time of his interview with The Globe, Skoll was supporting 74 such entrepreneurs, battling climate change, water scarcity and pandemics, as well as investing in the development of things like electric cars and solar panels. In a profile in Forbes magazine in October 2018, Jeff Skoll is described as spending nearly all his time since leaving eBay “trying to help change the world.” When he’s investing, according to Kerry Dolan, staff writer for Forbes, “Skoll wants every dollar to make a difference.” Skoll was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2011, for ‘his commitment to social causes and his innovative practice of philanthropy’.

Canadian billionaire Jeff Skoll pictured with former Governor General David Johnston. May 25, 2012. (source: The Governor General of Canada)

 

Here in Canada, there are a lot of people for whom every dollar could make a difference –and who could benefit from a more equitable sharing of wealth. 3.4 million Canadians (9.5% of the population) lived in poverty in 2017 — down, however, from 10.6% in 2016, due in part to the Canada Child Care Benefit (CCCB) and an increase in the Guaranteed Annual Supplement, both of which began in July, 2016. The CCCB, unfortunately, had no effect in Nova Scotia, where in March of 2018, 25,773 people, 31% of whom were children, made use of a food bank. I go back to Karen Theriault, communications director with Feed Nova Scotia, who said that there is an apathy toward poverty. An apathy, I would add, that contributes to the fact that Nova Scotians demanding more government action to alleviate poverty are often few and far between.

One such group is the newly formed Nova Scotia Action Coalition for Community Well-Being (NSACCW), who held a press conference May 3 on the main floor of the Nova Scotia Legislature, hosted by Susan LeBlanc, NDP MLA for Dartmouth North. The group is made up of 19 organizations, including Sydney’s Every Woman’s Centre, which, I believe is the only Cape Breton-based group among the 19 mentioned. The NSACCW’s stated goal is to establish a Nova Scotia where “no one lives in poverty” which, in itself, is a laudable undertaking, given the figures quoted above.

Alec Stratford, Executive Director/Registrar Nova Scotia College of Social Workers (source: NSCSW website)

At the press conference on Monday, Alec Stratford, the executive director and registrar of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers (a member of the Coalition), told media: ‘When our system allows the top 100 CEOs in Canada to make more money by 10:57 AM on January 2nd than most Nova Scotian workers will make this entire year, while 17.1% of Nova Scotians under the age of 18 are living in poverty, it is clear that we must make different political choices.”

The group’s website says the Coalition will work “actively resist and work to remove the attitudinal, social, environmental, economic and policy barriers that maintain systemic poverty.” Its impressive “Goals and Desired Outcomes” include dignified employment, income and social security, housing security, public education, health and social services. A tall order to be sure. While the Coalition points out many of the causes for poverty in Nova Scotia, they don’t list definitive ways in which to overcome the current situation. A change in various government policies regarding assistance payments would be a good start.

I was surprised to see that Feed Nova Scotia does not seem to be involved in this venture given that Executive Director, Nick Jennery, is clearly familiar with the state of poverty in our province. He had hoped, when he took on the job in 2014 that by 2019, Feed Nova Scotia would have become “a solutions centre – “a combination of government, industry and community” working to produce “an integrated plan to alleviate poverty and hunger.” (The Spectator, May 8 2019) I feel he would have much to offer to the new coalition, as would Lars Osberg, a professor of economics at Dalhousie University, and author of “The Age of Increasing Inequality: The Astonishing Rise of Canada’s 1%.” His view, as referenced here, is that “the elimination of poverty is quite within the realm of fiscally feasible policies,” and he does the math: “it would cost the top 90% of earners $378 per year to lift as many as 5.2 million Canadians above the poverty line.” This money could be delivered to those living in poverty in the same way that the Canada Child Care Benefit and the Income Supplement are, so that those whose income is well above any poverty line would have that money clawed back. Until those who can afford the deduction are legislated to do so, a Guaranteed Annual Income is one answer to assist in reducing poverty, one for which I hope the NSACCW is ready and willing to fight.

Locally, United Way Cape Breton unveiled its Strategic Plan 2015-18, with a stated ‘overarching objective’ to reduce child poverty around the island by 5% over 5 years. They have been raising money to that end in various ways, including an annual gala which, since the inaugural event in 2016, has raised over $1.1M. Many groups have benefited from United Way support (you can find a detailed list for 2018 here). What’s not clear is how close they are to accomplishing their 5% reduction by 2021.

Perhaps the NSACCW will be more successful also in overcoming the apathy on the part of the “haves” to the ever-increasing number of “have-nots.” After a while, banging your head against a brick wall begins to hurt even the most dedicated.

 

 

Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.