Friday, January 20, 2012

An Ever Widening Gap

It is another new year on a very old planet and some age old problems still haunt humanity. The greatest one of them being poverty. Through out human history there have always been those who have had more than most and a majority have gotten by with very little. Ever since the barter system of commerce moved to a system of currency and capital, the ill effects of poverty have only exacerbated. Centuries of colonialism and exploitation made sure poverty in parts of the world remained a growing phenomenon. Social experiments like communism tried to combat the problem but failed miserably, as the poverty of freedom turned out to be more dire than the poverty of resources. Poverty has many causes, and no simple cure. In today's world where the mantra of globalization dictates progress, poverty and its causes have become more complex. The deficiency of free speech, resources, capital, information and education have made it an almost impossible malady to solve. But there is no question that the root of all social upheaval now and in the near future will arise from the ever widening wealth gap between nations, peoples and neighbors.

If poverty could be solved directly by taking from the rich and giving to the poor, then to a large extent the problem would have been solved and the world would be a better place. It is in human nature to be exploitative and therefore the causes of poverty cannot be solved by just attacking it with economic solutions. Yet we try to respond with virtues of human rights and dignity. Those that we have collected as a conscious reaction to centuries of blood shed, famine and extermination.

The suffering of fellow human beings does not look good on television, and the consequences of mass poverty and destitution threatens the survival of those who have it good causing guilt and shame among the good natured. Even the bible contains more than 300 verses about god's concern for the poor. Therefore every one agrees that poverty needs to be eradicated for the very survival of the human species even though the human race does not seem threatened. Therefore the concept of the "poverty line" was devised to keep everyone's aspirations and desires in check. According to a 1995 United Nations declaration, absolute poverty is a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services.

As the global population reaches 7 billion and the struggle over finite resources reach desperate levels, the stark fallout of an unequal planet begins to show its ugly face in almost every part of the world. As the financial health of once mighty nations crumble there is a worry that the impact on the widening "Wealth Gap" will be even more devastating. The excesses in the past two decades in the western world have clearly brought the situation to a brink. The recent "Occupy Wall Street" street protests in America and other capitals of the west, brought the issue of the widening wealth gap to the forefront. In a recent BBC documentary titled The Wealth Gap an appalling piece of statistic was made apparent. The income disparity today in England has reached the levels of Edwardian and Victorian times, where the top 1% make 145 times the base wage of ordinary working citizens.

While more and more wealth gets concentrated at the top and less and less trickles down a situation begins to brew which through out human history has led to mass uprisings and ultimately revolution. In today's world it is a common belief that globalization and technology spreads prosperity and the trickle down effect can eradicate poverty in many deprived parts of the globe. In the recent past India and China have taken advantage of this fact and have declared them selves developing nations, and many experts have predicted that the age of American/European dominance is in decline. India and China are the next frontier, the virgin territory where the potential for growth and consumerism is limitless by virtue of their gigantic populations. While this may be true to some extent, what we are beginning to see is that prosperity is again becoming concentrated at the top. The economic insecurities of the many are still prevalent. Rural poverty in China is fast becoming urban poverty with human stress levels quadrupling. China recently declared that 51% of its population now lives in urban areas, which is a devastating trend for the planet as the demand for resources will increase pressure and pollution. This trend is being witnessed across all nations that are going through rapid transformation as a result of globalization.

Recently it was reported that the luxury car maker Rolls Royce sold more cars in 2011 than any year since 1978. And a bulk of them were bought in China. Other luxury brands like Bentley, Aston Martin and Lamborghini reported the same. In the last decade unprecedented wealth has been witnessed in India as well. From luxury yachts to private jets, India has produced a market of its own for extravagant goods and there has been no shortage of buyers.

In the midst of corruption scandals and a total dysfunction of his government, the Indian Prime Minister released an important survey conducted by a non-profit organization that made a known fact absolutely certain. The HUNGaMA (Hunger and Malnutrition) survey which was conducted across 112 rural districts in India covering almost 20% of all children sent shock waves through a booming nation. The report revealed that in the 100 or so focus villages, 40% of the children were underweight and 60% were stunted and 92% of the mothers had not heard the word "malnutrition". While India is a large nation with complex problems and a messy democracy, this report made one thing clear. India is broken and there is very little that is being done in the way of policy to fix it.

It is election season in America and the noise is getting louder. The economy and unemployment are the make or break issues in the race for the presidency. A nation which prides itself on being the economic engine of the world, where virtues of capitalism and profit are seen as markers of success and accomplishment, its recent economic woes are calling into question the core principles on which the economic engine operates. In America everyone grows up with the notion and mythology that if you work hard anything is possible. There are narratives that are relentlessly celebrated in popular culture making the point that the "American Dream" is still alive and all you have to do is work for it. Sportsmen, Steve Jobs, President Obama, Oprah and everyone in between are often sited as examples of that dream achieved. So everyone is asked to boot up and soldier on and everything will be alright.

As the Republicans rally their candidates to take on President Obama in the upcoming election, a constant accusation is made against the president. An indictment that in four years he has fundamentally changed the course for America. As a Democrat his entitlement programs and welfare policies such as universal health care are taking the work ethic away from the people and making the American dream a thing of the past. And therefore America needs a Republican CEO like Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich who will bring America back on track by lowering taxes for everyone, including the rich, and creating jobs. This narrative is gaining momentum among many, even though the economic problems America faces today are very much a result of an eight year Republican presidency that preceded Obama.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the Wall Street man who's net worth is close to a quarter of a billion dollars, is making the argument that his wealth is a mark of his success and he should not be called out on it. And if he were elected president he would bring America back to a time when anyone could become rich by chasing their dreams like he did. While he paid only 15% in taxes on his $49 million 2011 income, and most middle class Americans paid close to 35%, he still thinks that rich people create jobs when they are allowed to keep their money in offshore investments and pay low taxes using loopholes like he did. Therefore he wants to decrease everyone's taxes down to 15% when he is elected president. Everyone in their right mind knows that this is not possible. But the pipe dream becomes fodder for many in an election year and the political double speak becomes real for those who cannot see the truth.

Big money is playing a very destructive part in this upcoming presidential elections. Money funneled on both sides through Super PACs (Political Action Committees) is corrupting the electoral process like never before. Since the courts ruled that Super PACs could legally collect limitless amounts of money from anonymous donors as long as a presidential candidate or his campaign does not directly have any relationship with the committee, they have had a windfall. Money from all sorts of questionable sources has poured into Super PACs and with that they have been able to influence the electorate by buying indiscriminate amounts space in the media sphere. At a time when many in America are unemployed and sliding into poverty, a most shameless election awash with dirty money is taking shape. It is only bound to get worse as we get closer to November.

In hindsight big money has always decided elections in America. Obama's election campaign was one of the most expensive in US history reaching almost a billion dollars and most elections in most democracies are bank rolled by the wealthy. This years American election is estimated to cost almost 11 billion dollars. When big money gains access to political power, there is very little wiggle room for real comprehensive change that could level the economic plane. And when a political leader makes an attempt to move in the direction of real change he is branded a socialist, even when he is not. The only thing that can change the status-quo is campaign reform, where all candidates get the same resources to make their case to the electorate. As we have seen in America and elsewhere, the capitalist system that pulls the reigns of power will never allow that to happen.

What we see in the current economy of the globe is that even as things get desperate, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It is very easy to stigmatize a person who is disenfranchised and poor by saying he or she is a failure because they did not work hard enough. The wealthy are better off because they earned it and therefore they should get to keep it with no shame. What one seldom fails to recognize is that when someone becomes successful, they do have a certain talent to make money, but more importantly they have an edge. Sometimes that edge is ones race, religion, caste, creed, tribe, gender and pedigree. More often it is a head start given to them by their ancestors or in the case of nations some sort of exploitation through colonization. On an individual level most often the edge comes through education, ancestral wealth or sometimes pure luck. Rarely is it a divine chain of events or pure industriousness that makes someone wealthy.

There are efforts being made all around the world today to narrow the wealth gap via social programs and policy. These efforts started at the dawn of the 20th century when colonialism ended, monarchies were abolished or overthrown and ideas of democracy, capitalism and communism were experimented with. While the west made tremendous progress in building a more or less economically homogeneous society, it never fully succeeded. Europe through its socialist programs made greater strides but its future hangs in the balance in this century. America on the other hand showed great promise after the great depression, but yet again seems to be slipping. Japan after the second world war almost succeeded with technological grit and dominance. In developing nations like India the struggle is barely beginning for many even though the technology fueled boom did bring a huge swathe into the consumerist middle class. Today another grand experiment is underway in India to account for a billion people by giving them unique identity cards with retinal scans. The UID (Unique Identity) scheme will utilize biometric data to log every individual and in the process give a real face to the poor so they can receive public services without being taken advantage of by middlemen who often skim away resources. The plan is to give the poor a real place in society so they can be more than a nondescript vote bank, but can actually demand their fair share of the pie. One small step towards stemming corruption and closing the ever widening gap.

The world is a place of imbalance. There is a serious imbalance across the spectrum. There is an acute imbalance of tolerance when Salman Rushdie cannot visit his own country for speaking his mind, Alexander Aan an Indonesian civil servant is imprisoned for being an atheist and women in Malawi are beaten for wearing pants. There is acute imbalance when war comes to those who are most vulnerable and unfortunate, there is imbalance when developed nations cause the earths atmosphere to heat up and the underdeveloped nations sink into the sea as a result. And there is imbalance when the rich get richer because they can and the poor get poorer because they cannot help it. Much like global warming everyone recognizes that the widening wealth gap is a pressing problem. In some places it is in your face, in others it is hidden but its effects always reverberate. Fixing it will always be humanity's greatest challenge. It is what it is.