Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Friday’s Last Word: Pull Pin, Throw Grenade, Run Away: A provocative thought to kick off the weekend…

By Major Matthew Cavanaugh

Many know Victor Hugo’s 1862 story, Les Miserables, particularly the tortured existence of the protagonist, Jean Valjean (depicted on screen by Hugh Jackman).  Valjean spends years in a French prison for stealing bread for his sister’s starving children.  The moral dilemma presented is an easy one to empathize with – taking some food from another, causing minimal harm – to feed several very hungry children, enabling maximum human benefit.  I don’t know of anyone that would disagree with such an action done in the spirit of the “greater good.” So why does Jean Valjean matter?

Image from the recent film Les Miserables, starring Hugh Jackman as Image from the recent film Les Miserables, starring Hugh Jackman as “Jean Valjean.”

Poverty causes otherwise good people to choose violence.  David Kilcullen’s most recent book identifies four megatrends which he believes will drive future conflict: 1. population increase and overcrowding; 2. littoralization – the desire to live near the coast; 3. electronically networked and physically connected people and groups; 4. lastly, cities – urbanization. I think he missed one – global poverty and inequality.

Let’s look at a snapshot of global poverty and inequality, and I think you’ll see why.  Oxfam International just released a report with some staggering statistics. Some include:

  • The world’s richest 85 people have more wealth than the bottom 3.5 billion.
  • The world’s richest 1% control approximately 50% of global wealth.
  • In the U.S., 95% of the post financial crash (since 2009) gains have gone to the top 1%.

On top of that, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich just gave a talk at the Commonwealth Club of California in which he stated that in the U.S., the top 400 individuals control more wealth than the bottom 150 million people in the country (roughly half the population).

We are living in an age of great inequality, which many consider on par (or greater) than in the “Gilded Age.”  These social and economic conditions can be powerful drivers for conflict, as Paul Collier has written,

“Conflicts are far more likely to be caused by economic opportunities [and lack of opportunities] than by grievance.”  Moreover, “if economic agendas are driving the conflict, then it is likely that some groups are benefitting from the conflict and these groups, therefore, have some interest in initiating and sustaining it.”

In short, more poverty and inequality means more violence – because Jean (and Jeanette) Valjean will not likely stop at picking up a baguette – they’ll reach for an AK47.