The great inequality debate: are the super-rich heroes or villains?

Saturday 22 October, 13.45 - 15.00 , Cinema 1 Keynote Controversies

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Video and audio of this debate are available at the bottom of this page.

From the ‘new Versailles’ of Apple’s new Silicon Valley headquarters to the Rich Kids of Instagram, the super-rich have come to symbolise the excesses of 21st century capitalism. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century became an unexpected bestseller by giving academic credibility to increasing discomfort with growing levels of global inequality, figures fuelled by the increasing amounts of wealth concentrated in the upper echelons of ‘the 1%’ rather than the middle. Figures such as ‘Pharma Bro’ Martin Shkreli have become hate figures for rapacious price-gouging and corporate malfeasance. The leak of the Panama Papers earlier this year, meanwhile, seemed to confirm that the world’s wealthiest view themselves as standing apart from traditional obligations of citizenship and nationhood. A long queue of pop psychologists has formed to diagnose the new super-rich with a wealth of disorders ranging from sociopathy to ‘affluenza.’

Yet while campaigners and NGOs such as Oxfam call for increasingly powerful supranational institutions to regulate inequality, elsewhere the super-rich are hailed as capitalism’s saviours. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Peter Thiel are widely praised for their ‘blue-sky’ approach to innovation, using their personal wealth to circumvent a risk-averse corporate outlook towards development in everything from space flight to the electric car. Bill Gates has arguably become as well-known for his philanthropic foundation as for being business guru. A key factor in Donald Trump’s successes in the Republican primaries was a commonly expressed view that his personal wealth meant he ‘couldn’t be bought’ by supposed vested interests in the political establishment. Even otherwise wary liberal commentators cheer on ‘activist investors’ (once known as ‘corporate raiders’) for bringing good governance and a strong sense of corporate responsibility to boards.

Are we entering a new age of oligarchs? Is the increasing influence of individuals with assets to rival small nations a threat to democracy or a welcome alternative to inefficient state bureaucracies? Is their rise an inevitable by-product of free markets or a symbol of their malfunction? Does global inequality matter if living standards are also improving for the majority? Would a rediscovered spirit of ‘philanthrocapitalism’ – much touted before the economic crisis – offer a positive side-effect of their rise, or a dangerous distortion of markets? Are the super-rich a boon or a menace?