Talking about inequality again…

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I know, it has been a bit of a theme recently; increasing inequality and the inevitable rise of poverty as the 1% grab more, whilst reframing the economic narrative around ‘austerity’ and creating fear of feckless insiders (benefits scroungers) and the undeserving outsiders (immigrants.)

The story of the decision of the UK government to cease involvement in rescuing immigrants from drowning in the Mediterranean sea has to be seen within this overarching narrative. We can send troops to fight Islamic militants in the (oil rich) middle east but saving the lives of people who are trying desperately to find a way to reach the promised land of wealth and opportunity will only ‘encourage more people to come’. More than 2,500 people are known to have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean since the start of the year; who knows what the real number is. The point is, not all lives are equal.

Some of the old dividing lines seem more fixed now than ever; North/South. Black/White. Man/Woman.

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The me-first mythologies behind understanding poverty, in which we come to believe that any measures to tip the balance back towards the have-not’s are somehow immoral, as they might somehow undermine human endevour/entrepreneurial effort, are pernicious heresies that have to be challenged.

Oxfam has started a new campaign, called Even it up, asking campaigners in 37 countries to unite behind the call for a more equal world.

How is it fair that a select few have more money than they could spend in several lifetimes, while millions of people around the world struggle to buy food for their families or send their children to school? Such extreme inequality is threatening to undo much of the progress made over the past 20 years in tackling poverty. Oxfam say that this inequality is not inevitable, rather is the consequence of economic and political choices being made in our name. Here are some of the facts as Oxfam sees them;

1. The world’s richest 85 people have as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity / half of the world
2. Since the financial crisis the number of billionaires has more than doubled and at least a million mothers died in childbirth.
3. Half a million dollars. That’s what the richest 85 people made every minute last year.
4. Today there are 16 billionaires in sub-Saharan Africa, alongside the 358 million people living in extreme poverty
5. Seven out of ten people live in countries where the gap between rich and poor has grown in the last 30 years.
6. A third of the world’s richest people amassed their wealth not through hard work, but through inheritance.
8. Every year, 100 million people are pushed into poverty because they have to pay for health care.
9. Getting all girls into primary school could cut the number of women dying in childbirth by two-thirds.
10. More than half of the world’s workers are in vulnerable or unstable work.
11. Without action it will take 75 years to achieve equal pay between men and women.
12. In 2013, tax dodging by rich elites cost the world at least €156 billion – enough to end extreme poverty twice over.
14. Developing countries lose billions of dollars due to corporate tax dodging.
15. Today, a small tax of 1.5% on billionaires could get every child into school and deliver health services in the poorest countries.

 

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UK kids describe what living in poverty is like…

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I read this article in the Guardian today. It was hard to finish it.

Firstly because it was heartbreaking reading about kids trying to get by, trying to transcend the shit that we subject them to. Trying to hide from the harsh glare of the hierarchy.

Secondly because I was one of those kids.

35 years ago however was a better time to be the child of a single mother living on benefits. They were worth more in real terms than they are now. There was also a generally more benign societal view towards the poor; it was the role of the state to try to support and assist- even though in many ways it always failed, still there was this desire to strive towards a more equal society.

But what I remember most of all was not the lack of stuff, the absence of material possessions, holidays, mobility, choices. What I remember most of all was the shame. I was a head taller than anyone else in my class and it was impossible to hide. I entered every encounter with a sense of being less-than. Things that came easy to others took huge effort. My awkwardness and alienation was like a force field which was every bit as visible as my odd clothing.

It comes to me still, in moments of vulnerability; we never quite escape the children we once were.  We are primarily social beings after all…

Perhaps gradation and discrimination over minor difference is a human characteristic- from the playground onwards. But poverty, this is the source of so much ordinary day to day evil. It is not motivating, it is not romantic, it does not forge any kind of community spirit. Poverty brutalises, degrades, isolates and defeats people. It perpetuates itself through a thousand small failures.

I got out. I clambered onto a ledge of safe solid respectability and mostly ignored the vertigo. Most of the others can not. My whole working life has been concerned with trying to grapple with the reality of this for huge sections of our population.

The scary thing is, it is getting worse.

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It’s all about poverty, stupid!

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Some sobering news for education systems in Scotland, via the Joseph Rowntree Foundation;

  • The gap between children from low-income and high-income households starts early. By age 5, it is 10–13 months. Lower attainment in literacy and numeracy is linked to deprivation throughout primary school. By age 12–14 (S2), pupils from better-off areas are more than twice as likely as those from the most deprived areas to do well in numeracy. Attainment at 16 (the end of S4) has risen overall, but a significant and persistent gap remains between groups.
  • Parental socio-economic background has more influence than the school attended.
  • Children from deprived households leave school earlier. Low attainment is strongly linked to destinations after school, with long-term effects on job prospects.

We have been attempting to tout education as the means by which we make societies more equal for generations now. We tried a tri-partite education system, with children streamed by ability, then we switched to comprehensive education. We tried experimental community schools for a while (I went to one) then sort of gave up and said that the problem was caused by bad schools, bad teaching.

You could argue that the politicians employed the old divide and rule trick- they made schooling all about choice, individuality and parent power – none of these things bad in their own right, but they were sold to us using league tables (which masked the inequality by making inner city schools look like they were under performing.) The end result is that we as parents increasingly looked after our own. Those that could afford to send our kids to private education felt under even more pressure to do so.

What the Rowntree report makes clear is what we have always known- inequalities in educational attainment are not about bad schools or bad teaching, they are about one thing- poverty. It is not as if every piece of research in this areas has not told us this.

Equality is not something that can be promised to the next generation, no matter how much we hot house our kids through exams. Blair famously said that his three priorities in government were “Education, Education and Education.” The fool forgot that you can not treat a problem be focusing only on one of the symptoms.

The report mentioned above lists a whole set of things that it thinks government can do to narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor, but the reality is that the only guarantee of any kind of change is to bring greater equality of income into our society and lift poor people out of poverty.

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Economic lie no.6; inequality of wealth creates incentive and effort…

(The last posts in this series are here and here. Post no.4 dealt with similar territory. These posts are part of an on going attempt to search for alternatives to the economic status quo, which I would contend is costing the earth at the expense of the poor.)

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A recent book by French economist Thomas Piketty (Capital in the Twenty-First Century) has taken the issue of inequality on directly. So much so that the book has become something of a sensation amongst the movers and shakers of the economic world.

To recap- the world is becoming increasingly unequal. This from The Guardian;

Inequality of wealth in Europe and US is broadly twice the inequality of income – the top 10% have between 60% and 70% of all wealth but merely 25% to 35% of all income. But this concentration of wealth is already at pre-First World War levels, and heading back to those of the late 19th century, when the luck of who might expect to inherit what was the dominant element in economic and social life. There is an iterative interaction between wealth and income: ultimately, great wealth adds unearned rentier income to earned income, further ratcheting up the inequality process.

 

…the period between 1910 and 1950, when that inequality was reduced, was aberrant. It took war and depression to arrest the inequality dynamic, along with the need to introduce high taxes on high incomes, especially unearned incomes, to sustain social peace.

 

Now the ineluctable process of blind capital multiplying faster in fewer hands is under way again and on a global scale.

Take a moment to think about this- the rampant growth in the wealth of a tiny super rich elite has now taken us more or less back to the division of wealth that would have been familiar to an Edwardian farm worker or mill worker before the first world war. A world of vast country estates and stately homes serviced by an army of domestics. This is the world we are heading back to it seems.

How did this happen?

Consider the recent political reaction to the financial crisis- austerity hits public spending projects aimed at the poorest sections of society, whilst at the same time lowering inheritance taxes, refusing to reshape the council tax and boast promote ‘business-friendly’ low capital gains and corporation tax regimes.

They can get away with this for one simple reason- we have accepted a myth as truth- the myth of the wealth-creators, whose aspirations to accumulate are the engine of our national success. Set this in the context of the other myth- that national economies operate like household budgets, and the sense of looming crisis has meant that the current government has been able to slash and burn, whilst letting lose the greed of the few.

But back to Thomas Piketty. He has carefully analysed data from about 200 years of capitalist expansion, and came to this rather startling conclusion;

Capital, he argues, is blind. Once its returns – investing in anything from buy-to-let property to a new car factory – exceed the real growth of wages and output, as historically they always have done (excepting a few periods such as 1910 to 1950), then inevitably the stock of capital will rise disproportionately faster within the overall pattern of output. Wealth inequality rises exponentially.

 

The process is made worse by inheritance and, in the US and UK, by the rise of extravagantly paid “super managers”. High executive pay has nothing to do with real merit, writes Piketty – it is much lower, for example, in mainland Europe and Japan. Rather, it has become an Anglo-Saxon social norm permitted by the ideology of “meritocratic extremism”, in essence, self-serving greed to keep up with the other rich. This is an important element in Piketty’s thinking: rising inequality of wealth is not immutable.

 

Societies can indulge it or they can challenge it.

Piketty goes further however- he argues that this indulgent greed, this ‘meritocratic extremism’ will be the end of Capitalism itself. Those of us familiar with the Marxian view of the progression of history will remember this- how eventually those of us with little will get sick of a society that requires us to work to maintain the wealth of the few.

Anyone with the capacity to own in an era when the returns exceed those of wages and output will quickly become disproportionately and progressively richer. The incentive is to be a rentier rather than a risk-taker: witness the explosion of buy-to-let. Our companies and our rich don’t need to back frontier innovation or even invest to produce: they just need to harvest their returns and tax breaks, tax shelters and compound interest will do the rest.

Capitalist dynamism is undermined, but other forces join to wreck the system.

 

Piketty notes that the rich are effective at protecting their wealth from taxation and that progressively the proportion of the total tax burden shouldered by those on middle incomes has risen. In Britain, it may be true that the top 1% pays a third of all income tax, but income tax constitutes only 25% of all tax revenue: 45% comes from VAT, excise duties and national insurance paid by the mass of the population.

 

As a result, the burden of paying for public goods such as education, health and housing is increasingly shouldered by average taxpayers, who don’t have the wherewithal to sustain them. Wealth inequality thus becomes a recipe for slowing, innovation-averse, rentier economies, tougher working conditions and degraded public services.

 

Meanwhile, the rich get ever richer and more detached from the societies of which they are part: not by merit or hard work, but simply because they are lucky enough to be in command of capital receiving higher returns than wages over time. Our collective sense of justice is outraged.

 

The lesson of the past is that societies try to protect themselves: they close their borders or have revolutions – or end up going to war.

 

Piketty fears a repeat.

His solutions- a top income tax rate of up to 80%, effective inheritance tax, proper property taxes and, because the issue is global, a global wealth tax- are difficult to imagine at present. The elite are too comfortable in their neo-Georgian luxury.

But if Pinketty is right, the seeds of destruction are at the heart of capitalism- and it is the result of greed.

Jesus would have a few words to say about this too I think…

 

I am getting angrier…

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You are supposed to get more placid, easy going, calmer as you get older but I think I might be bucking the trend.

People have always described me as a calm, easy going person- particularly, it has to be said, those who do not know me well. Perhaps the reality was that for much of my younger years I was scared of my shadow and far too keen on showing a calm competent exterior to cover over the insecurities within. Simply put, I wanted to please people, not to draw attention.

But at the age of 46, I find myself in a place where life has done most of its becoming, some of its being and may even be looking into its declining. Life, for the most part, has been very kind to me. I am loved (despite it all) and I have learnt how to love in return. I have what I need plus a little bit that I do not. I live in a rich country that has known internal peace and stability for my whole life.

So what makes me angry? I can not pretend towards being totally absent from grumpy old man syndrome so this might well be a factor. However, the anger in me is pushed by a conviction that this world we live in has contained within it some terrible disappointments. Is this really as good as it gets? Is there not more than this, better than this?

Growing up I was told that God would sort everything out- probably soon (a second coming of Jesus) but certainly ultimately. The second coming has been delayed it seems and if we do live in the ‘end times’ then God is taking his own sweet time to get it all over with. And in the meantime there are all those peddling a kind of religion that sees itself as a great big hoover for the righteous and the rest can just go to hell. And it makes me angry.

I grew into a society that despite the looming possibility of nuclear war still thought that all of the world’s problems could be solved by technology. But then came global warming and we seem powerless to change our greedy needy addiction to consumption even though it is killing us. Technology seems to be a means of giving separation from the problems; they look different when viewed through a screen. And it makes me angry.

But what makes me angriest of all at the moment is that despite a thousand years of history, we in the UK seem to becoming ever more feudal. The rich barons gallop by in their Ferrari’s and sneer at the great unwashed. And to convince themselves of their rightful place of election they demonise, denegrate and stereotype. They make poor-porn like the unbelievable shite that is Benefits Street. And whilst the poor lose out in a thousand cuts, the rich get richer. They get more stuff. And it makes me ANGRY.

I heard a story today of someone who had been without benefits for three months. The person had been working previously, but mental health problems had made it increasingly difficult and they lost their job. A shattered self confidence was made worse after a ATOS assessment regarded the person as fit for work. The end result was that they stopped leaving the house. The machinery of unemployment benefit was impossible. It was hard enough to breathe. Hard enough to think. Every day becomes a competition between distraction and overwhelming dread. Death seems a valid option.

Add into this the current nastiness in the media, and in the mouths of government ministers, about scroungers, wasters, smokers, gamblers, and the self esteem of people already near rock bottom falls further. Anyone who has seen this kind of defeat close up, or experienced it for themselves, knows these words to be what they are- pure propaganda used to justify a social policy geared towards wealth creation for those who already have wealth.

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And it makes me incandescent.

Lest I give the impression that I am some kind of Jesus, turning over tables of injustice in the white heat of righteous indignation, I also get angry at computers that do not work, at my wife when she does not deserve it and my kids when they do.

Cowboys and Indians…

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There are parts of the UK that operate like some kind of holding tank for radioactive waste. Except that the waste is made up of people.

Some would call these people skyvers, wasters, people who live on the edge of criminality and addiction. They are the bastards of the welfare state; half lives created out of the fissive heat of market led capitalism.   They are gathered together where the housing is cheapest, closest together. Even when new, it is housing no one wants to live in.

And because it is irradiated, those who live in these places become defined by it, cursed by it, captured within it.

What to do?

This has been the subject of study in sociology for decades- ever since the slums were replaced by high rise flats, which in turn were torn down and replaced by housing association faux-villages with their ragged green bits and broken picket fences.

The problem is not welfare even though there are problems with welfare.

The problem is not worklessness even though work is next to impossible to find if you are irradiated.

The problem is lack of hope.

The problem is caused by abandonment, by casting outside, by removing worth, by categorising as ‘other’, ‘less than’. By the death of dreams.

Today the Chancellor announced cuts of £25 Billion to welfare budgets and I want to scream out loud with anger at it all.

But who knows what to do with the radioactive waste? It is too expensive to clean.

I turn to writing as this is the only way I know how to scream. Here is another one of the poems that I am calling ‘protest poems’.

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Cowboys and Indians

 

The wagons circled in that wild place

Under the kitchen table

Brambled by spiders’ webs

Stalked by wrinkled peas

 

He always wanted to be a pioneer

To ride the range, and

Eat beans beneath the wandering star

But no-one ever leaves this place

 

His cowboy became Red Indian

His range a reservation

In the streets below roam no buffalo

The distant drums

Lie silent

 

 

Poverty UK, revisited…

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image from The Guardian

There have been a series of stories in the press over the past few months, setting an agenda that goes something like this;

Austerity is necessary, we all need to pull in our belts for the sake of the nation

Poverty is avoidable if you work hard. Only those who are lazy live in poverty

We can not afford to continue to pay benefits to scroungers

It is the working ‘squeezed middle’ we need to feel sorry for- those people whose taxes are being used to buy easy lifestyles to people on benefits

This blame the poor attitude is pervasive and seems to play remarkably well- giving us someone to blame, easy scapegoats for the economic woes that assail the nation. Never mind the facts.

We already know that the rich are getting richer.

And that a third of the workforce have held on to their jobs through accepting pay cuts, in a manner unprecedented.

Today, we hear that an extra one million people are now regarded as living in poverty in the UK, including 300,000 children- this from the governments own stats.

One strange stat however is that most of these new children who live in poverty come from working households. All those benefits cuts to council tax benefit, housing benefit, etc, squeezed wages. This from the Guardian says it all;

Oxfam’s Katherine Trebeck said: “It is unacceptable that in the seventh richest country on the planet, we’ve seen the number of people living in poverty increase by nearly a million. With cuts to public services and social security in the pipeline, the number of people living on absolute low incomes will only increase over the years.”

Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: “Despite all the talk about ‘scroungers’ and generations of families never working, today’s poverty figures expose comprehensively the myth that the main cause of poverty is people choosing not to work. The truth is that for a growing number of families, work isn’t working. The promise that work would be a route out of poverty has not been kept as wages stagnate and spending cuts have hurt low-income working families.”

Barnardo’s chief executive Anne Marie Carrie said: “This year many of these households will be pushed into financial chaos when the cap on benefits increases take effect, compromising the health and life chances of children as they are forced to grow up in poverty.”

Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “It is shameful that, as one of the richest countries in the world, child poverty is being allowed to increase.”

All these charities are working at the cutting edge of poverty in the UK. The so called ‘squeezed middle’- those of us who might  be forced to alter one or two consumer decisions as a result of cut backs- we rarely come into contact with this kind of poverty.

Angry? We should be.

Decisions taken by our present government are not victimless.