‘Boomtime for billionaires’ in latest ranking

Money, money, money: Philip Green (£2.8 billion), Adele (£125m) and Lewis Hamilton (£131m).

It takes the world’s top billionaires just one minute to earn double the annual salary of an average European or American. Is there a level of wealth beyond which it becomes morally wrong?

Since 1989, journalists at The Sunday Times have scoured financial records and interviewed millionaires to unearth the wealthiest 1,000 people and families. And every year, when the Rich List is finally published, the newspaper’s circulation jumps by around 10%.

The 2017 list came out yesterday, and it was as compelling as ever. It was topped by brothers Sri and Gopi Hinduja (worth £16.2 billion), who are currently converting Winston Churchill’s Old War Office into a luxury hotel.

New entries included Adele, Calvin Harris and 50 Shades of Grey author EL James. Sir Philip Green and Mike Ashley — retail bosses hit by scandals last year — lost over £700m between them.

Overall, it was a good year for the wealthiest people. As the list’s compiler Robert Watts put it: “While many of us worried about the outcome of the EU referendum, many of Britain’s richest people just kept calm and carried on making billions.”

Their total wealth rose by 14% to a record £658 billion. There are now 134 billionaires on the list, more than ever before. The top 20 richest people earned £35.18 billion in the last 12 months.

The list also features more women, ethnic minorities and people from “surprising walks of life” — like egg farmers, pet-food makers and car dealers. In other words, Watts says: “It is no longer dominated by obscure aristocrats and bankers.”

But the Rich List is not just about comparing the wealth of celebrities and bosses. It is also an important window into inequality; while billionaires “boomed” during the last year in Britain, 100,000 more children fell into relative poverty.

Throughout human history, some people have more than others. Enormous wealth has distinguished Roman emperors, medieval barons, and modern business tycoons from ordinary people. But the gap between richest and poorest has fluctuated. Currently, it is getting wider.

Is it morally wrong for some people to have so much money?

Filthy rich?

Of course not, say some. If they earned it legally and honestly, while contributing to the society they live in, then what is the harm? Rich people pay far more in taxes, which helps to keep schools and hospitals open for everyone. Many also give generously to charity on top of that. What they do with the leftovers is up to them — after all, they earned them.

The amount of money on display in the Rich List is obscene, say others. There is no way that anyone needs £16.2 billion to enjoy their life — in fact, economists think that it only takes around £49,000 per year to reach peak happiness. When people are starving, having any more than that and choosing not to give it to others is simply wrong. The only explanation is greed.

You Decide

  1. Is being rich immoral?
  2. How much money is “too much” for one person to own? (Is there such a thing?)

Activities

  1. Imagine you earn £1m every year (after your taxes have been paid). Divide it up into the following categories: housing, essentials, leisure, savings and charity.
  2. Choose someone on this year’s Rich List and produce a short report explaining how they got their money, and how they spend it.

Some People Say...

“People with more money are more selfish.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Watts says that the increase in wealth for the richest people in Britain is linked to the stock market, as many companies’ shares “soared” after the Brexit vote. This is because the lower value of the pound makes overseas profits worth more, and shares more affordable to foreign buyers.
What do we not know?
How long this boom for shareholders will last — and whether that wealth will “trickle down” to ordinary people.
What do people believe?
Some say that the super rich help make everybody richer — by buying more products, creating jobs, and paying high taxes. This is simply how modern economies work. However, others think that the difference between the lowest and highest earners is now too large, and that it is fuelling resentment towards elites in politics and elsewhere.

Word Watch

Old War Office
The former British military HQ is found in Westminster; Churchill had an office there during the second world war. The government sold the building to the Hinduja Group for £350m last year.
Scandals
Green sold BHS for £1 in 2015. When the company went bankrupt last year, Green was widely vilified for his role. Meanwhile, Ashley was accused of running Sports Direct like a “Victorian workhouse”.
£658 billion
All according to The Sunday Times’ own analysis. This year the top 500 on the list are wealthier than the entire list in 2016.
£35.18 billion
This works out at £66,933 per minute. The average wage in Britain is £27,600 per year.
Inequality
The Equality Trust says the richest 10% of households in the UK own 45% of the country’s wealth.
100,000
According to UK government figures in March. It is an increase of 1% and brings the total number of children in poverty to its highest since 2010.
£49,000
A study by economist Angus Deaton in 2010 found that happiness increased with income up to $75,000 (£49,000) but after that, adding more money did not improve a person’s mood.

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