The Mint:         Good morning, Max. And thank you very much for giving some time to The Mint to talk about your work.

Max Lawson:    Oh, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity. Really appreciate it.

The Mint:         So I was wondering if I could start with going back and hearing, how did you initially get involved in working on the issue of inequality?

Max Lawson:    It was kind of a… If I’m honest, you want the honest truth. It was basically a bit of an accident. I mean, I had a boss at Oxfam at that time, lovely woman, Barbara Stocking, and she used to go to Davos every year and Davos was really a kind of hobnobbing thing. And we used to dread it ’cause she’d come back from Davos with all these business cards, with these corporate execs and say we had to build some kind of positive relationship with all these evil corporates. And I managed to persuade her, I mean. It was partly the time ’cause it was 2013.

                        And if you imagine the world out there, her son at that time, I think he was in his early 20s, he was really into Occupy and he had that atmosphere out there in the world of inequality was back and he just had Piketty’s book and so he was pushing at a reasonably open door and we thought, okay, why… ‘Cause we never used to do media work around Davos, we’d just send Barbara there. So we thought, let’s put out a press release with a fact or two and just see how it does ’cause we’d never really done that before.

                        I remember talking to the head of media about it and saying, let’s just give it a go. And I think to this day still, it was some biggest media moment. I think we had one that was slightly big about three or four years later. And I’m talking biggest media moment in our history.

The Mint:         Wow.

Max Lawson:    We came up with this killer fact, which was that 85 men owned the same as half the world. And I remember looking at my Twitter feed and it was up… I just typed in 85 men and it was updating so fast and it was just a blur. This is what it must be like to be a celebrity or something, and have millions of followers. He’s like, you got an insight into what their life is like. And it was just incredible and it had loads of anecdotes.

                        But my favourite is our head of campaigns. He lives in Hanoi and he’s lived there for 20 years, he’s married to a Vietnamese woman. And he was stood at the bus stop in Hanoi and this grizzled, old Vietnamese man came up to him and started immediately saying, “Have you heard this shocking fact? I’m absolutely appalled. 85 men own the same as half the world.” And of course no idea that it came from Oxfam, no attribution, it just became a massively thing.

                        I think it was quoted by Obama, it just hit the moment. And that was how we ended up campaigning inequality. It was a complete accident. And then we suddenly realised that as an organisation it was a really… And I think for all NGOs, it’s a really important way to shift your perspective and put on a different pair of glasses if you like, because up until that point I’d been very much a part of make poverty history and the kind of anti-poverty movement and amazing things achieved. But it was a campaign with no baddies really.

                        It was all about ending poverty, but the great thing about it, inequality focus is it asks you about who’s winning, not just who’s losing. And it makes you look to where the power is on every issue. And I think that was really profoundly important. And I think the other… And that’s why it’s lasted for us as a kind of overarching frame and it’s spread into much of our other work like climate change. And then the other thing I would say is that, and I still think this is really important and it is always a balancing act, is at that time it was just after the financial crisis, you had austerity in Europe and brutal austerity here in the UK.

                        It was a recognition also that inequality gives you an ability to talk about poor people in rich countries and what they’re going through, and rich people in poor countries and how corrupt they often are and how crooked they are. And so it enables you to shift away from a frame that can be somewhat simplistic sometimes and it is still important one, but the idea that everyone in the rich world is fine and everyone in the poor world is suffering, is also something that inequality forces you to challenge.

                        So I think just for lots of reasons, it ticked lots of boxes. Yeah, so we’ve kept going ever since. January this year will be our 10th Davos report. And I joke about the fact that as head of inequality policy now is what I’m at Oxfam. I wasn’t then, I was head of campaigns at OGB. We didn’t have this job then, but it’s a wonderful job. I love it, but I’m glad it’s not performance related pay because in the 10 years we’ve been working on inequality, the number of billionaires has doubled, their wealth has doubled.

The Mint:         Yeah.

Max Lawson:    Particularly since COVID-19, you’ve had this absolutely insane increase in wealth at the top. So it’s been a great campaign. We’ve got to keep fighting, but to be honest, we’re running to stand still, if that, on inequality at the moment.

The Mint:         But it’s interesting. I wonder, have you thought why had no one before 2013 talked about inequality? Because it’s not a new thing. I mean, how had it disappeared off the agenda, or was anyone else campaigning on inequality prior to that?

Max Lawson:    Not really. I honestly think that it was the financial crisis that changed everyone’s view of life up until that point. Even those on the left, including me, we were thinking, okay, the world is a terrible place, but things are broadly getting better in one way or another. And then after 2008 it just didn’t. And ever since then it hasn’t felt that way, has it? And I think for those working on climate change, that wasn’t the case, obviously. People campaigning on climate change were perhaps not as Pollyanna as those working on aid, or ending poverty. It was a big shift at that time, if you remember to tax as well, and tax fits very well with the inequality frame.

The Mint:         Yeah.

Max Lawson:    So yeah, I just think generally there was a coalition of things that made the world think about it. But I think to the extent that the global narrative is driven by a kind of powerful elite, which it is, I think so just saying that the IMF just at their big meetings just in October this year. Their head of the IMF, we’ve got used to the fact that in every one of her opening speeches, she linked to inequality, her concerns about inequality. And this year she didn’t mention it.

                        And yeah, inequality’s worse now globally, worse now in the developing world than it’s been in a very long time. So I think in a sense it doesn’t really suit their narrative at the moment. Their narrative is about the war, the energy crisis, inflation, and they’ve kind of moved on. So yes, I think in some ways we’re struggling more to put inequality on the map at the kind of official level than we were even five, six years ago. Which is quite revealing in a sense. You think that once something’s on the agenda, it stays on the agenda. But we live in a fickle world. So yeah, let’s see.

The Mint:         And I suppose they can turn that neatly to say, well inflation is making people poorer. And then they try and forget who’s actually gaining from inflation or who’s getting increases above inflation.

Max Lawson:    Yeah, they could be doing some… The staff have also, if we talk about the IMF in particular, they had an amazing head of research and they put out a series of amazing papers in 2013, 14, 15 that could’ve been written by Oxfam, except they were cleverer. I mean, inequality harms growth. They even put out a paper saying that neoliberalism was a mistake.

The Mint:         Yes, I remember.

Max Lawson:    So it was an amazing moment of shifting.

The Mint:         But that was just their research on it, wasn’t it?

Max Lawson:    It was just their research groups. So there was a lot of… There were one or two odd progressive mission chiefs as well. And one or two things done at country level, but really it was their research team. But I remember hearing from a friend about, they put out their paper on neoliberalism and there was a absolutely excoriating editorial in the Financial Times aimed at the IMF. And this guy who was the head of research, he said to me that it almost got him fired because it accused the IMF of wearing a baseball cap on its head backwards and pretending to be an NGO or something. It was kind of… And you could tell they really rattled the kind of neoliberal consensus-

The Mint:         Yeah.

Max Lawson:    And it was a glorious moment, glorious moment. But I do think there’s absolutely no factual reason to move away from inequality now. If anything, there’s a lot more of a reason. So two things I would say. The first one is, one thing that we didn’t really dwell on enough, I think in 2013, 14, we just looked at the scale of inequality. We didn’t really look at the causes, is the incredible impact of quantitative easing on driving up asset prices and the wealth of those at the very top.

The Mint:         Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Max Lawson:    So when you saw that second enormous injection of money into the world during COVID-19, which of course was necessary and protected so many jobs, and not for a second would I say I was against it, but it does all… Instead of trickling down, it all floods upwards. And as a result that’s driven the first explosion in wealth. And now the second one, as you rightly point out is there are very big winners from inflation. And we’ve got new numbers coming out for our Davos report next year looking at the… There are solid studies from the ECB, in the US that 50% of the increase in prices is because of corporate profiteering. So this is more of a cost of profit crisis than a cost of living crisis. So there are big winners, there’s always big winners, Henry. There’s always people making out. And it seems to me like no matter what happens, the richest people seem to get richer. So I think that’s what we’re trying to draw attention to in our next report and really make the point that this crisis has got some really significant winners.

The Mint:         It was noticeable actually that Liz Truss, in her brief period in the headlines, talked about the fact that people have been talking about inequality too much and they had to talk about growth now. And I wonder in some funny way that she actually caught that she was representing a sort of mood on the right to try and close off the discussion of inequality.

Max Lawson:    What if she was, I mean the fact that she failed so badly-

The Mint:         Might be a good sign.

Max Lawson:    Which is probably a good sign. And I do think out there in the world it’s really… I mean, we’ve just got this cast of insane characters of billionaires that are just a gift for campaigners. So I think in the popular imagination, at least the idea there are these super rich people at the top that are a little bit mad. But I think people… I mean, Elon Musk has probably got as many fans as he’s got detractors.

The Mint:         Yeah.

Max Lawson:    And there’s a lot of people that, particularly the developing world, we hear this a lot that people are, in polling terms they call it, I think they call it polyphasic. So you can have two thoughts at the same time.

The Mint:         Yes.

Max Lawson:    So people think that all these billionaires got there through corruption and crookedness, but at the same time they’re quite proud of them. And my friend, Ana Aranda, she was living in Mexico, working for Oxfam when one of… I think our second report came out. And during that time that for a brief period, Carlos Slim was the richest man in the world. And she remembered being in a public minibus when it came on the radio and everyone cheered, these are poor people to Mexico cheering because their guy’s the richest man on earth.

                        But yet polling in all of these countries will show you that the massive population, they really support higher taxes on the rich. They absolutely think rich people should pay more and they think they’re all got there ’cause they’re crooks. So we live in a messed up world in terms of people’s imaginations. But I do think it’s very hard for inequality to completely disappear no matter how much elites might want that to happen. And hopefully that Liz Truss moment showed that really clearly here in the UK.

The Mint:         And so the trend in terms of the popular imagination, has the trend in terms of caring about inequality been going up over the last 10 years, or is it now dipping as well?

Max Lawson:    No, I think… I’ll tell you, it depends which audience you’re talking about-

The Mint:         Yeah, yeah.

Max Lawson:    But I think where the really exciting energy is and where the coalition of interest is coming is between the anti-inequality movement and… Well, I’d say two things. I’d say firstly, I think economic inequality I think for the last two, three years has taken a backseat to… And when I say economic inequality, I mean at a national level. So between rich people in Britain and poor people in Britain, or rich people in Kenya and poor people in Kenya. I think it’s taken a backseat to the return of a really robust and important discussion about colonialism, and the extraction of wealth from the global north to global south, which actually think is really important and timely. And that was really wonderful to see, but it’s about keeping that balance between those two things.

                        And then the other thing that’s really exciting and so it’s almost like another kind of inequality is taken centre stage. And then I would add that I think the thing we were doing recently, we just put out a paper just ahead of the COP, looking at the [inaudible 00:14:06] of billionaires and we’ve been doing more and more work on climate and inequality. And we interviewed a guy for our podcast actually he’s an Extinction Rebellion protestor in the Netherlands, young guy, he’s 19, history student. And he’d been part of that amazing group of people that occupied Schiphol Airport and they broke in through the fence, and they didn’t just block the airport, which would be making a statement about climate change, they actually blocked the private jets. And I think that was really symbolic.

The Mint:         Right.

Max Lawson:    The fact that… For them, it was a natural kind of illusion if you like, between the super rich, their appalling consumption, their [inaudible 00:14:40] disregard for the future of the planet and the kind of inequality in climate just came together very, very clearly for them. And I think that really excites me ’cause I think that’s where the passion and the energy is with young people. I think that’s where the global movement is. So if we could see it kind of more and more the coming together of a [inaudible 00:15:00], if you like, an economic inequality based analysis and the fight against climate breakdown and one that really looks at the rich and powerful people that are driving our fossil fuel future, as well as the kind of important but dominant narrative about the rich world being the bad guy and the poor world being the good guy.

                        I think that will only help because I think, well of course I would think that, I’m just a sad, old Marxist. I do think that we need to look at the power and influence of the ruling class in every issue because they’re the ones who control everything. And also from a more practical point of view, if you just want to do good climate policy, it’s a mistake to have policies that are blind to income differentials. To have a flat tax on carbon or that in any form of policy making, ignoring the distribution is crazy. And that’s what the French saw with the Yellow Vests movement. And if we end up in a world where doing the right things for climate change are associated by the mass of the population with the ruling class being additionally unfair on them, then that would be a terrible state of affairs, wouldn’t it? Because then the right wing would seize on that and then doing anything green is seen as kind of elitist.

                        And so I think it’s profoundly important that we force governments to make climate policy in a way that quite obviously makes rich people pay a much higher price. And if we do that then I think society will be more bought into the kind of big transition that we need.

The Mint:         I think it’s very interesting this interaction between the environmental and social inequality sort of agenda, isn’t it? Because I find that some people, environmentalists are quite uncomfortable about that. Of course they care about the environment and they do recycling et cetera. And then when you start pointing out the sort of differentials and inequality and racism even in climate change and so on, I found a real sort of discomfort with that.

Max Lawson:    Yeah, I mean it is the kind of… It’s as old as the left, if you like. The struggle between red and green, isn’t it? And I think on both sides, and I think people like Jason Hickel have been amazing at bringing those two agendas together, really challenging both sides of the equation. I think others have been less good at it, to be honest. And we have those debates inside Oxfam and I think Oxfam in particular has a role to play, bringing the perspective of the poorest people to the table. We’re ultimately a development organisation, not a historically green organisation. And I think that has some profound and important implications. And we’re having a big debate internally for instance, about what do we think about African countries exploiting gas reserves, for instance.

The Mint:         Yeah.

Max Lawson:    Because half of Oxfam, and I’ll be honest, the northern European bit of Oxfam wants to join with everyone else and demand that Africa leaves all that gas in the ground, in the interest of the planet. But many of our African colleagues are saying, well that’s incredibly unfair, you’re busy investing hugely, particularly since the war. Europe’s pouring money into gas facilities and whatever.

The Mint:         Yeah.

Max Lawson:    I mean, I think this is official because the IEA have said it, I think it’s pretty much agreed on both sides of this debate that whatever Africa does is fairly inconsequential to 1.5 degrees. It’s not going to make or break the future of the planet, it’s what the rest of the world is doing that is going to make a difference. So that’s a really live debate and that is a classic example of that balancing act between people and planet. But I think then again, inequality is really important because there’s some amazing work that’s been done looking at what would be needed for everyone on earth. And I mean that’s eight billion people to live a reasonably decent standard of living, have universal healthcare, see their kids educated, have a roof over their heads, electricity and maybe a laptop. There’s some great work done in nature looking at this and looking at the energy required and what that would mean.

The Mint:         Yeah.

Max Lawson:    And it’s quite heartening in a way. It’s actually really possible for us to do it, but the only way to do it is to massively tackle inequality because we have… And invest in the kinds of policies that can do it at a very low carbon footprint. So it gives you another whole set of arguments for public services instead of private services for instance, because you can deliver a much greater quality of life for a much lower per capita GDP. If you think in Costa Rica or indeed Cuba, you could get universal health coverage. And I remember going to Cuba years ago and just seeing all the old people doddering around because their healthcare… You don’t need to see a Potemkin health centre or [inaudible 00:20:04] ’cause it just looked completely different to any developing country I’d ever been to, ’cause there were just old people everywhere and they were really healthy and chatty.

                        So you could do that for very low per capita GDP, but you can only do it if you invest in universal public services. You can’t do it through the private sector-

The Mint:         Yeah.

Max Lawson:    You can’t do it through privatising. And so it’s just another whole reason for the… If you’ve only got a certain amount of carbon to burn and a certain amount of GDP growth that’s possible, if we are going to stay within planetary boundaries, then you need to make sure that is as fairly allocated as we possibly can to make sure that we are not living in a world that beats climate change but only at the cost of insisting that 60% of the population are literally on the edge of starvation. I mean, that can’t be right, can it? So I think again, it’s another good reason to bring the inequality in the climate frame together and fight for a fairer world and our planetary future at the same time.

The Mint:         But I suppose when people get nervous about the future and what they’re facing, there can be a sort of instinctive feel to look after their own to the exclusion of others, that maybe we’ve seen that in Trump and so forth. Where people begin to group more and start othering others, knowing that there’s a sort of resource crunch and that they face loss if they’re going to share this stuff with people who they don’t feel to be part of their tribe.

Max Lawson:    Maybe, but I think I just… I don’t know why, but I was just born with an immense faith in the rationality of ordinary people and the fact that it is manipulated consistently. And I think what’s more the case is that the left has failed to capture the imagination of ordinary people around the world. That’s true. And so the riots capitalised on their fears. So I think that is true too, but I think it’s also a deliberate policy of consistent distraction, as we know we see all the time in Britain, don’t we? It’s whatever you do, don’t look at those rich people. Look, it’s immigrants, it’s this, it’s that. It’s anything but the thing people should be focused on. And that’s incredibly powerful, particularly when you look at the direct relationship between the ownership of the media and country after country and very powerful people. So I don’t think you need to be a conspiracy theorist to know that people are being consistently and systematically misled in country after country.

                        And I suppose I thought, deep down, I believe that if people weren’t misled that generally people are really nice, but maybe I’m just too positive and I think given a chance that people like each other and they want the best. My favourite Oxfam story is from, it was the second campaign that Oxfam ever worked on and it was in 1948, and it was together with lots of others. But the publicist, Victor Gollancz, who wrote for The Observer, he did a photo diary from the ruins of Germany and he was Jewish and this was literally 1948.

The Mint:         Wow.

Max Lawson:    So imagine, literally the war is just over and Germans were starving, they were literally starving and they had tens of thousands, they were on like 700 calories a day and there was this huge flood of sympathy from across Britain and people wanted to send food parcels to Germans. So they didn’t want the government to do it. They wanted to take their own already meagre rations and send some of that food to starving Germans. And our campaign along with others was to force the labour government to allow that to happen. And we won and loads and loads of food parcels were sent from ordinary people in Britain to Germany. And to think of the sympathy and the-

The Mint:         Yeah.

Max Lawson:    Yeah, what does that say about the British public? And then you look at the response when we had the Syrian refugees and when we had the Ukrainians. Then the media tells us all the negative things but the huge upwelling of support and people accommodating refugees and yeah, I think I choose to think that people are basically nice.

The Mint:         I’m with you on that. So just a last, what do you think, since you talked about your most successful campaigning moments, back when you published that 85 men had all the wealth of 50% of the world. Looking forward, how are you going to get attention? What do you think, in terms of your campaigning strategies and images and so forth, how are you going to keep this up there as an issue?

Max Lawson:    Such a great question and really timely. I mean, Davos is still delivering for us.

The Mint:         Yeah.

Max Lawson:    So it’s still our biggest moment of the year and we’ve had a very strange couple of years ’cause Davos was online for a couple of years and then the fiscal meeting happened in May instead of January. I mean, it is the perfect moment of the year as well because nothing else is going on.

The Mint:         Right.

Max Lawson:    So let’s see how we do this January because it has been… We still done okay. I mean, we did a couple of great reports on the inequality virus, the impact of COVID on inequality and feeding off inequalities. So that’s still going to be a big moment for us, but I think the thing that really interests me is trying to build up, I’m learning from previous movements, whether it’s tax justice, or debt, or trade. If group of progressive governments that are willing to speak out on the issue and challenge other countries. I think we were getting somewhere on that before COVID hit and now we want to kind of revive that and obviously the big ray of hope is in Latin America.

The Mint:         Right.

Max Lawson:    But they tend to be very, very insular. So you get working with them to… With the exception of Lunar, actually. Lunar was the reason we have an SDG on inequality is almost entirely because of Brazil. So they’re a bought a lot more outward looking, but I think if you’re asking me, one thing I’d like to achieve on inequality in the next couple of years is that people are hearing from Oxfam less and more from a group of inspiring leaders from north and south who are saying that unless we tackle inequality, we can’t fix the problems of the planet, we can’t reach social justice and they have to be done together and that they start to also implement policies.

                        ‘Cause I think we’ve shifted the dial on lots of policies. I think there is a sense in which for instance, talking about greater taxation of the rich is now pretty well accepted across the political spectrum. And of course the backlash to this trust in a sense shows that, doesn’t it?

The Mint:         Yep. Yeah.

Max Lawson:    And I think that’s true in lots of countries. So I think doubling down on that and getting some countries to… We worked out, I shouldn’t really say this ’cause it’s a fact under embargo, but I think half of the world’s billionaires live in a country that doesn’t even have an inheritance tax. There are many, many countries worldwide that don’t have inheritance taxes, that don’t have property taxes, that tax capital gains and a fraction of the amount they tax income. So there’s some really low-hanging fruit as well for lots and lots of countries in sense that it wouldn’t take much for every country on earth to have a decent property tax.

                        And property taxes are very progressive and very often paid significantly more by rich people. Every country to have an inheritance tax to stop the emergence of a new aristocracy. So the campaigner in me thinks that the future is with government speaking out and then successes at national level that become a sense of kind of momentum, if you like. And I think that could be really positive. I feel really positive about those kinds of things happening because I think there is a real desire people can see. Perhaps it took two crises on the [inaudible 00:27:52] because in COVID we saw loads and loads of money poured into the economy, but we didn’t see an increase in taxation on rich people. Like 95% of countries.

                        We do a survey, it’s called the Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index. And we look to 164 countries and we found nine that increased taxes on the rich during the crisis, which students of inequality will all tell you that the key moment to jack up taxes on the rich is at the time of war or crisis because they’re on the back foot and it’s a feeling of solidarity.

The Mint:         Yeah. Yeah.

Max Lawson:    And so the government’s massively missed an opportunity there. But in a sense the fact that we’ve rolled straight into another crisis means that I think we are more likely to get… And we’ve already seen significant windfall taxation on energy companies in Europe, that we’ve got lots of proposals from various different governments on increases in tax and corporates. And I think we will continue to see pushes to increase tax on rich people. So I think that’s good and I really hope we get there.

The Mint:         Brilliant. Well, that’s a great note to end on and I look forward to seeing how Davos goes for you in January. And thank you very much for talking to us.

Max Lawson:    Oh, it’s a pleasure. I love talking about inequality.

The Mint:         Brilliant.


Max Lawson

Max is Head of Inequality Policy for Oxfam.  He is a regular writer and blogger and co-hosts the podcast EQUALS. He has helped author some of Oxfam’s most high-profile papers …

Read More »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *