There's nothing like income inequality to fire up the left.
Today, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has given the progressive movement some new ammunition by releasing the estimated financial fortunes of B.C.'s 10 richest families.
"Together, they have the same wealth as the bottom 1.32 million British Columbians combined, more than a quarter of the province’s population," wrote Alex Hemingway and David Macdonald. "In fact, your typical top-10 BC billionaire is a whopping 5,845 times wealthier than the typical (median) BC household."
They based their estimates on a Canadian Business magazine article and data from Statistics Canada.
Hemingway and Macdonald concluded that these billionaire households "increased their net worth by an average of $299 million each between 2012 and 2016".
The reality is that nobody except these families' accountants probably knows how much these people are truly worth.
It could be far higher or it could be considerably lower than the estimates of staff at a business magazine.
Business magazines routinely rank the richest people in various countries. Their figures are based on such things as the value of shares of companies for which they're "insiders"—i.e. they own more than 10 percent of the stock or they're directors or officers—and the value of their known real-estate holdings.
But these estimates are often a mug's game, given how much money is being stashed offshore these days. It's particularly tough to estimate net worth when it comes to owners of privately held companies who aren't required by regulators to reveal shareholdings, revenues, assets, and liabilities.
With all that in mind, Canadian Business concluded that Jim Pattison, owner of the privately held Jim Pattison Group, was B.C.'s richest resident in 2016 with a fortune estimated at $5.7 billion.
He was followed by the Aquilini family, whose holdings are mostly privately held, and the Gaglardi family, whose holdings are also mostly privately held. In fourth place was the Lalji family, whose holdings are also mostly privately held.
In fact, the only person on the Top 10 list with substantial public holdings was Chip Wilson, a large shareholder in lululemon athletica.
But even Wilson's net worth is hard to estimate because he's invested heavily in real estate in recent years through his privately held Low Tide Properties. His home on Point Grey Road was assessed at $78.8 million last January.
Inequality breeds instability
That's not to say that income inequality isn't an important public-policy issue. Every year, Macdonald provides an intriguing snapshot into executive pay at large Canadian corporations, which is based on publicly available data.
These reports demonstrate that CEOs sometimes make more in a few hours than their employees make in a year.
"International evidence also shows that inequality is corrosive for society and is associated with a host of negative social outcomes," Hemingway and Macdonald wrote. "This research shows that countries with more income inequality are likely to have lower life expectancy, worse health outcomes, higher crime rates and lower levels of social trust.
"These outcomes appear to be worse up and down the income scale—not just for the poor—suggesting that inequality is bad for everyone, including those who are better off."
Income inequality has sparked the recent yellow-vest movement in France. It could easily be replicated in other countries as poorer people continue to feel like they've been dealt out of the political process.
A 2014 study by Princeton University's Martin Gilens and Northwestern University's Benjamin Page showed the extent to which oligarchs massively benefited from government initiatives. It was based on a meticulous study of nearly 2,000 policy changes between 1981 and 2002.
"Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise," Gilens and Page wrote in their conclusion. "But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened."
Hemingway and Macdonald made a similar point in today's essay, linking inequality to the loss of political confidence, political instability, and the rise of right-wing populist movements.
"If a bold agenda tackling massive inequalities in wealth and power is not advanced, these more ominous political forces seem poised to fill the vacuum," they wrote.
Their prescriptions include shutting down tax loopholes that favour the rich, progressive property taxes, inheritance taxes, and capturing wealth from escalating land values for public benefits.
"To find a path out of what is an increasingly frightening political moment around the world, we need to act decisively against extreme inequality," the two CCPA researchers declared.More