As far as statistics go, this was the full, gob-smacking, eye-popping jaw-dropper. The combined wealth of the 85 richest people in the world, according to a calculation in an Oxfam report published this week, is the same as the combined wealth of the world's poorest 3.5 billion. To put it another way, 85 people, a group you could fit in the Wynyard Loop tram, are as well off as half the world's population.

That's not the notorious top 1 per cent - more like the super-elite 0.000001 per cent. But the standard 1 per centers are doing okay, too, thank you very much. Their sum wealth, estimated at US$110 trillion ($132.7 trillion), is about 65 times that of the poorest half of the world.

Statistics often have a distancing, dehumanising effect, but in this case, the numbers - and there are plenty more, all stomach-churning - paint an overwhelming picture of a wildly skewed world, if not a morally debased one. Somewhere along the line, we've really stuffed things up.

Since the late 1970s, the world has witnessed a kind of economic match-fixing on a global scale. The rich have seen their tax rates cut, opportunities to dodge paying it flourish, and employment laws handily eviscerated. But in part thanks to strenuous efforts by centre-left parties in the developed world to placate and win over the rich and powerful, as best encapsulated by Tony Blair wingman Peter Mandelson's now infamous assurance that Britain's New Labour was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich", those who decried the growing gap between the rich and poor were until recently routinely waved away as embittered, deluded or naive.


Increasingly, the condescension lavished upon critics of inequality has begun to look nakedly self-serving and silly. Today, "trickle-down theory" is a lazy punchline to a hoary gag, an idea with comfortably less credibility than the tooth fairy. The only discernible trickles from the gulf of inequality are economic instability, encumbered innovation, ill health, crime; and not just social disharmony but in many cases social unrest.

In the last few years, the Economist, a publication committed to open markets and free trade, has consistently warned of the dangers of domestic and global inequality. Even the high-temple of networking for the wealthiest and most powerful, the World Economic Forum, held in Davos, Switzerland, are on to it.

The masters of the universe who descend annually to the alpine resort, prompting waves of complaint from locals about the incessant buzz of private jets, this year have inequality as their principal theme. The greatest threat to the global economy over the next decade, in the words of the WEF, is "the chronic gap between the incomes of the richest and poorest citizens".

Their most powerful motivation, of course, is neither altruistic nor empathetic, but existential. The veteran Financial Times economic commentator Martin Wolf last week compared the scenario to the lead-up to World War I.

"Complex societies rely on their elites to get things, if not right, at least not grotesquely wrong," he wrote. "If elites continue to fail, we will go on watching the rise of angry populists. The elites need to do better. If they do not, rage may overwhelm us all."

The details vary from place to place, but a unifying element in protests around the world in the last five years is disgust at the wealthiest few engorging themselves with impunity. More of the same, and it could be that Athens, Cairo, Rio, Madrid, and the Occupy movement are looked back on as curtain-raisers.

New Zealand's finance minister, Bill English, is in Davos this week, too, rubbing shoulders with those elites, and getting fiscal with celebrity guests Bono and Matt Damon. His boss, John Key, speaking yesterday in the slightly less opulent setting of West Auckland, stressed that "income inequality has been declining ... It is simply not true that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer." It's unlikely that English will be trumpeting that line much between sups of Gluhwein in Davos, however. Because, of course, the overwhelming trend of the last three decades, under governments blue and red, is precisely and unmistakably a widening gap between rich and poor.

The Oxfam report places New Zealand in the middle of the pack in terms of the proportionate increase in wealth of richest (the US is way out in front). NZ's top 1 per cent, for example, saw their share of overall income rise by 30 per cent from 1980 to 2010. There's nothing to suggest the richest won't also be the great beneficiaries from the predicted economic recovery of 2014.

The Oxfam report was deliberately published on the eve of the Davos forum, and its authors helpfully set out some approaches to help the political and economic giants of the world halt the growth of that "chronic gap".

Business leaders have been asked to sign a pledge to support progressive taxation, not to dodge their own taxes, to act transparently, to ensure a living wage is paid in their companies, and more. For their part, politicians are urged to crack down on tax dodging, invest in universal education and healthcare; and commit to a global goal to end extreme inequality. Some might do that. It's safe to say they'll devote considerable energy to talking about it, and being seen to talk about it. And have you seen my new Learjet?