In what has become an annual tradition, Oxfam has released its yearly “Time to Care” report. And in what is becoming another annual tradition, the report is meaningless garbage. You probably haven’t heard of the “Time to Care” report, but you’ve almost certainly seen its headline finding:

“The world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population, reveals a new report from Oxfam today ahead of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.

Global inequality is shockingly entrenched and vast and the number of billionaires has doubled in the last decade. Oxfam India CEO Amitabh Behar, who is in Davos to represent the Oxfam confederation this year said: “The gap between rich and poor can’t be resolved without deliberate inequality-busting policies, and too few governments are committed to these.”

Oxfam’s report, ‘Time to Care’, shows how our sexist economies are fuelling the inequality crisis —enabling a wealthy elite to accumulate vast fortunes at the expense of ordinary people and particularly poor women and girls:

  • The 22 richest men in the world have more wealth than all the women in Africa.
  • Women and girls put in 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work each and every day —a contribution to the global economy of at least $10.8 trillion a year, more than three times the size of the global tech industry.
  • Getting the richest one percent to pay just 0.5 percent extra tax on their wealth over the next 10 years would equal the investment needed to create 117 million jobs in sectors such as elderly and childcare, education and health.

“Our broken economies are lining the pockets of billionaires and big business at the expense of ordinary men and women. No wonder people are starting to question whether billionaires should even exist,” Behar said.”

Naturally, this is grabbing headlines worldwide. So, how are the figures put together? And how questionable are the conclusions?

First, the figures. Here’s what Oxfam says:

“Oxfam’s calculations are based on the most up-to-date and comprehensive data sources available. Figures on the share of wealth come from the Credit Suisse Research Institute’s Global Wealth Databook 2019. Figures on the very richest in society come from Forbes’ 2019 Billionaires List. Billionaire wealth fell in the last year but has since recovered.”

The problem with that is fairly obvious: The Forbes Billionaire list is no more than an educated guess. This is what Forbes themselves say:

“The Forbes World’s Billionaires list is a snapshot of wealth using stock prices and exchange rates from February 8, 2019. Some people become richer or poorer within days of publication. The fortune of Tsuyoshi Matsushita of Japan ($1.3 billion on our list) fell by nearly $600 million by February 18, as shares of his fitness and beauty-products firm, MTG, tumbled. Just over a week later, Singapore’s Forrest Li jumped into the 10-figure club when the stock of his online gaming firm Sea increased 45% in days. We list individuals rather than multigenerational families who share fortunes, though we include wealth belonging to a billionaire’s spouse and children if that person is the founder of the fortune. In some cases we list siblings or couples together if the ownership breakdown among them isn’t clear, but here an estimated net worth of $1 billion per person is needed to make the cut. We value a variety of assets, including private companies, real estate, art and more. We don’t pretend to know each billionaire’s private balance sheet (though some provide it).”

Two things there: First, whether many of these people are billionaires is highly dependent on what the stock market is doing from day to day. They’re rich, sure, but many of these people can become billionaires overnight without adding an actual penny to their bank accounts, and lose tens of millions without noticing any losses. That’s because their wealth is in volatile listed assets. Very few of them actually have billions of euros, or dollars, or yen, sitting in an account. They have shares that they could, in theory, sell. Are they very rich? Sure. Could you just take that money from them and give it to someone else? No.

Second, as the second bolded part makes clear, most of this is guesswork. While some rich people are eager for everyone to know just how rich they are, most are not. Some because they’re much richer than advertised, and a great many because they’re much poorer than advertised. A simple example: The Forbes list does not take into account debts. A builder like Sean Dunne would have made this list in 2008, even as he owed hundreds of millions to banks. It’s a guess, and not a very accurate one.

Oxfam have no way of knowing how rich you are, for example, unless you tell them. Why would anyone think they know exactly how rich some random Indian businessman is? They don’t.

Now, from this garbage data, Oxfam draw a range of equally garbage conclusions. Here’s the most obvious one:

  • Getting the richest one percent to pay just 0.5 percent extra tax on their wealth over the next 10 years would equal the investment needed to create 117 million jobs in sectors such as elderly and childcare, education and health.

First, note that this is 0.5% over ten years. Not one year – ten. Second, who is actually going to create these jobs? Government? The vast majority of the world’s Governments are in debt, and a 0.5% wealth tax wouldn’t make much of a dent in the budget. In Ireland, for example, the most optimistic projections by supporters of a wealth tax are that it would raise €2billion annually. Last year, the Irish Government spent €81.98 billion. The national debt is €228billion. A wealth tax, even if it worked exactly as its proponents suggest, wouldn’t make a dent.

And what if it did not? A wealth tax is a tax on assets, not on incomes. This makes it relatively easier to avoid, if you have the wealth to transfer the company that holds your assets for you outside the state, as most of these people do.

The sums just do not add up.

Is it the case that the world’s richest people are very rich indeed compared to the world’s poorest people? Yes it is. But that’s only half the story. The other half of it is that the world’s poorest people are getting richer and richer:

So what do the “real data” on poverty tell us? Starting with that $1.90-per-day measurement, the level of extreme poverty fell from 42.2 percent of the world’s population in 1981 to 8.6 percent in 2018. In 1981, 1.9 billion people lived on less than $1.90 per day; in 2018, the number was around 660 million.

A lot done, more to do. But that’s not as attractive a story as misery porn, is it? You’re going to hear about this Oxfam report everywhere for the next few days. Just remember, as you do, that it’s absolute nonsense.