The world economy is in difficulty and has been for many years now. Debt is embedded in the system: individuals owe money to banks (who live off lending them more), nations owe money to the financial markets. All measures of wealth show that the richest are getting richer and the poorest are getting poorer. (See Austerity is working II).
People agree that the ideal is not a flat distribution of wealth. They think that the distribution of wealth favours the rich too much, but in reality it favours the rich much more than we realise:
But is there a problem with this? It depends on your personal philosophy.
For instance, if I think it is right that one human being, through no effort of its own (e.g as a result of who its parents are and where they happen to live) should be 1 million times richer than another, then this data in itself will not worry me.
Similarly, if instead of comparing myself to those who have more income than me I compare myself to those with less then I will not enjoy any feelings of being ‘hard done by’.
Opinions vary, but it seems that around $50000 is an ideal income for happiness. http://www.learnvest.com/knowledge-center/the-price-of-happiness-50000-123/ and a 2012 UK headline stated that “Families need £36,800 to live acceptably, study says” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18770783 Anyone earning more than that is likely to feel very comfortable.
So, in the rich West, most people are basically happy most of the time, cocooned by an income where financial concern is limited to sustaining the present level of comfort rather than worrying where the next meal is coming from. Most of the time the inequality of wealth doesn’t really impact, apart from leading to a few grumbles and jealous thoughts about those who earn more than we do. Passivity rules until or unless a crisis occurs which affects us as individuals, and then we get to see how difficult the situation really is for those who the system exploits and tramples… the poorest.
As I said in my earlier post (Austerity is working?) the current crisis has not noticeably affected the rich. Maybe there has been some mild discomfort for the better off, but the brunt of the austerity is taken, as usual, by the poorest.
Most of us realise that this is profoundly unjust.
Most of us want something to be done about this, but we look at our politicians and realise that they simply don’t understand. They are not even in the ‘mild discomfort’ bracket, and simply cannot empathise with those who have NO money at all to feed their family; those who have to get the basics for survival from the multiplying food banks. The people want the politicians to understand, hence petitions challenging MPs to experience living on low income: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/iain-duncan-smith-iain-duncan-smith-to-live-on-53-a-week
The gulf in understanding is emphasised when the rich Mayor of London advocates greed:
Johnson called for the rich to be hailed for their contribution to paying for public services as he said that the top 1% of earners contribute 30% of income tax. “That is an awful lot of schools and roads and hospitals that are being paid for by the super-rich. So why, I asked innocently, are they so despicable in the eyes of all decent British people? Surely they should be hailed like the Stakhanovites of Stalin’s Russia, who half-killed themselves, in the name of the people, by mining record tonnages of coal?”
The mayor added: “It seems to me that though it would be wrong to persecute the rich…. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/nov/27/boris-johnson-thatcher-greed-good
What exacerbates the injustice is the despair that there is no hope of changing the system. Those who have the power are those who benefit from the present system, and they have no intention of changing it. The democratic process which in theory would allow the people to choose honourable and just leaders offers no serious alternative. The traditional parties are basically indistinguishable, and so people begin to jump at any possibly credible alternative, such as the right wing UKIP party – not realising that the basis of the policies of UKIP is as flawed as the traditional parties.
And here we approach the reason for our problem. Economics works by trying to predict the behaviour of the masses to different financial laws and environments. And behaviour of the masses responds to the moral climate generated by the media and politicians. Changing the moral climate is a necessary part of the solution, but at present there are few trying to instigate the essential global climate change.
Governments are afraid of doing anything to damage the economy. They will only introduce humane policies if the pressure against the injustices of the system becomes too strong: if there is sufficient discomfort that we ordinary people are jogged out of our passivity; and when the politicians are at risk of losing their power. Today, ordinary people are stirring, but as yet they don’t see any way of ousting the politicians. In the past, these sorts of frustration have led to revolution and bloodbath.
Is there any alternative?
For an answer I look at the most recent success of humanity over greed and selfishness. I look at the transition from an evil apartheid regime ruling South Africa to a Rainbow Nation. I look to what made the difference between a bloody revolution and a peaceful change.
Mandela realised that trying to force a powerful opponent who had suppressed and oppressed millions of fellow human beings to hand over power by violence would lead to immense human tragedy. The mind-set of all oppressors includes fear of retribution, indeed, doesn’t justice demand retribution on the oppressor? Doesn’t justice demand an angry and violent response to injustice? That is the response of human nature. And if you are like me, you will have an inner core of anger at the injustice in our country today. It would feel right to ‘persecute the rich’, and the frustration at not being able to do so makes the anger and bitterness deeper. We are justified in feeling that – justice demands a fairer system.
But that is not the way. “An eye for an eye makes everyone blind”.
Mandela changed the hearts and minds of those in power.
The first step was to jog the world out of passivity, to show the world the oppression and to campaign for justice. The South African government could no longer claim ignorance about their unjust position. They realised that apartheid was untenable and so the barrier to change moved to one of fear of retribution if they were to lose power. We see the beginnings of that same fear in Boris Johnson’s comment that “it would be wrong to persecute the rich” – but I think we are in the situation where world leaders are still convincing themselves that the present system is OK. ”Economic Apartheid” is working just fine!
Mandela’s second step was to graciously talk with those in power. He was willing to forgive their past injustice, and to lead his followers to forgive. He was not prepared to accept future injustice, future oppression of either the blacks or whites by the other group. He presented the vision of a rainbow nation, and inspired both blacks and whites to embrace that vision. Mandela gave up justified bitterness for the sake of the people, and he taught his nation to do the same. We need to learn from his approach.
So where are we today? We know that Economic Apartheid is unjust, but too many people have adopted the Johnson mantra ‘greed is good’, or are not sufficiently discomfited to shift from passivity. There is not yet enough voice crying out against economic injustice, and there are too many who justify it or ignore it. That needs to change. You and I need to change. We need to speak out.
Then we need a vision for a “Rainbow Economy”, and a change in mind-set that underpins it. That will be the topic of a future post.
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