Nigeria, like many countries, is a rich nation with a shockingly large number of poor people. This year, our national minimum wage was raised to about $80 per month. As you might imagine, millions of people have to get by on less.
On the other hand, our legislators are some of the highest paid in the world, earning $25,000 a month in basic salaries and an additional $450,000 every year in allowances.
This income inequality is egregious. Alongside other forces like evangelical "prosperity" gospel and the glorification of extreme riches in mass media, it has bred a certain hunger for wealth among Nigerians. We all want to be really, really rich. Teni, a famous, funny, young music star, recently sang "I want to be a billionaire." Those lyrics are hardly original.
Right now, the world is grappling with the social, political, health and economic implications of the coronavirus pandemic. We’re rising up against government failure, state violence, and normalised injustice.
We’re reckoning with how we got here: the large-scale forces, the structural playbooks, the systemic machinations. Suddenly – or at least, it feels sudden – people want to know why millions of people getting sick has somehow resulted in a few already immensely rich people getting richer.
Conversations about inequality can be cyclical and unproductive. Income inequality is no exception. Billionaires, who are the epitome of wealth-based inequality, are a hot – and bothersome – topic these days. What’s wrong with being a billionaire? What kind of taxes should they pay? Why do they tend to belong to certain demographics? Why do they seem to have governments in their incomprehensibly deep pockets? Why shouldn’t we aspire to be like them? What kind of liquidity do they have? What’s wrong with those of us who are not billionaires? How can we correct it so we too can become billionaires?
That last question is my favourite one. To my mind, the delusion that anyone can become a billionaire is essential to protecting the system that produces billionaires. We can’t all become billionaires, and the vast majority of us will never ever ever even remotely approach the possibility. It’s such an impossible idea that I am convinced that it is being deliberately fed to people.
What is a billion? Until writing this newsletter, I thought it was a million millions. So, to get to a billion, I figured you’d have to get to a million ... one million times. It makes me laugh out loud to think about the absurdity of it. It’s been said by commentators that part of the problem with understanding egregious income inequality, and billionaire status in particular, is that we literally can’t understand it. Our brains can’t effectively compute a billion units of anything. We don’t know what it means, numerically. As it turns out, the commentators were right: a billion used to mean a million millions, but now means only a thousand millions. What a relief!
If I had nothing better to do, I might ask someone to explain what Jeff Bezos’s wealth means, but even if they could I’d get a headache trying to wrap my mind around it. He’s at hundreds of billions of dollars (ie, a thousand millions, in more than one hundred places. A thousand millions stacked on top of one hundred and thirty thousand millions). Hundreds of billions of dollars is, like, I dunno, trillions of Naira? I don’t know. I’ve stopped laughing. My head hurts.
The problem with Jeff’s mind-boggling monies isn’t just that his wealth is mind-boggling, of course. It’s that mind-boggling monies don’t just happen. There’s a process that produces this result. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: it’s an unjust process. And since unjust processes shouldn’t exist, neither should their results.
In January 2019, 26 humans had the same combined wealth as 3.8 billion humans.
That’s one busload of people, versus half of the world’s entire population.
One noisy primary school classroom in Mogadishu, versus the whole of Africa – if we had three Africas.
My daughter has been able to count to 26 since she was four. To even be able to live for 3.8 billion seconds, she would have to make it to her 121st birthday. (For context: four years is more than 126 million seconds.)
I don’t know exactly how these numbers have changed since the pandemic happened, but the situation is definitely worse.
The billionaires probably worked hard for the money though, right?
Till next time,