What are the factors contributing to rising inequality and what can we do about it?
opinion | politics | equality
As the leaders of the World arrived at the Swiss ski resort in Davos last week, the UN's International Labour Organisation published a report stating over 473 million people worldwide lack employment opportunities. The struggle to find paid work is fuelling the rise in inequality and poverty. Global unemployment is set to rise for the first time in 10 years as economic growth weakens; 2019 saw the lowest global economic increase in a decade.
For people of working age, the report states that almost 165 million people are unable to find work that provides enough paid hours to meet their living costs. The effect that this could have on social cohesion is very worrying; we are already witnessing huge numbers of people taking to the streets in all parts of the World, protesting against increased austerity measures, tax cuts for the rich, governmental corruption and a lack of any real commitment on the issue of climate change. Coupled with the trade tensions between nations, this can potentially derail any efforts being made by the international community to tackle poverty in low-income countries. It also serves as a useful distraction from the very real matter of decarbonisation of the global economy.
630 million workers worldwide live in extreme or moderate poverty, with less that $3.20 per day, making it almost impossible for them to avoid falling into destitution. The ongoing threat of the introduction of trade tariffs is set to spill over into 2020, affecting government attempts to hit sustainability targets, and increasing the likelihood of further austerity measures that cut funding to desperately needed services. The knock-on effects of these tariffs and other economic decisions are wide-reaching, with people in developing parts of the World being hit the hardest. The emphasis is on all nations to seek an alternative, greener world economy, limiting carbon emissions and moving away from the use of fossil fuels altogether.
The rising threat of food scarcity and undernourishment of the most vulnerable in society should be the focus at Davos, along with the promotion and development of projects advocating sustainability; as well as seeking a way to eradicate the inequality plaguing the lives of millions of people.
The Social Mobility Commission in the UK has carried out a poll asking participants how they feel about their chances of social mobility. The deeply entrenched class system in the UK affected many of the respondents answers, with people in the north-east of the country expressing the view that they feel they have less of a chance to get on in life by staying in their own region. The south, and in particular London, is perceived as the city where people have the best life chances, with bigger opportunities for better jobs and a foot on the housing ladder.
Interestingly, another report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, found that those who stay close to the area where they were born, are statistically more successful career-wise. Less people within the UK are moving to the capital, having been dissuaded by the high rents, cost of living and lack of job security.
The inequalities people perceive, but are not statistically founded, have been felt by generations, and more than half of the people who took part in the Social Mobility Commission poll blame the government for failing to step in and assist the less well off. Economically, the middle class now finds itself in a very precarious position. The group that has traditionally been the biggest supporter of investment in health, education and other social reforms and institutions, finds its position in society teetering on a knife's edge. Their faith and trust in the traditional political movements of the left and the media is witnessing a downturn. Apart from those sitting at the very top of the economic pyramid, everyone is feeling very unsafe about their position in the World.
Pay inequality in the UK is particularly high in comparison to other countries, with wage-stagnation and the lack of affordable housing directly contributing to the high rates of suicide found to be linked to mental health issues and social isolation. The concentration of wealth at the top, and the extreme pressure being forced upon working families at the lower end of the pay scale, are the precise causes adding to the growing tensions within society, which will only worsen if the economic landscape isn't drastically altered to address the issue of fairness.
The lack of job security and an increase in the gig economy work model, coupled with zero-hour contracts, is leading to a feeling of social disconnection and anxiety about the future. It's not only the health of the people that is under threat, the health of democracy could also use a thorough check-up. A Pew Research Center Survey on Global Attitudes, found that 51% of the population are dissatisfied with how democracy is (or isn't) working.
Austerity measures directly affect people's health, as do the lack of any concrete changes to halt the environmental damage being carried out in the name of coal and oil extraction. Everything is connected, and we need to start looking at the picture as a whole instead of in small, separate boxes.
Since the 2008 global economic crisis, ordinary people haven't seen any meaningful improvements to their social conditions. This has had a direct effect on the behaviours people engage in. From eating unhealthy, cheap food and not getting enough exercise, to turning to the right in their political views as a way to (seemingly) have their voices heard on some level. The future isn't looking particularly rosy, with climate change being cited as the reason behind the next wave of refugees set to seek shelter and safety on European shores.
The rise of populist politicians on every continent, a surge in racially motivated attacks in Europe and elsewhere, and the government's continued refusal to acknowledge the effects of their own interventionist actions abroad, will only see the violence we're witnessing now increase in intensity. The overriding theme connecting all of these individual's grievances and desire to seek a better life elsewhere is inequality.
How Did We Get Here?
The Neoliberal economic policies of the 1980's led the way to the situation we find ourselves in today. In 1988, the then director of NASA, James Hansen, told the US Senate Energy Committee that:
"The greenhouse effect has been detected,
and it is changing our climate now."
He linked the effect to human activity and his warnings have been accepted, in the scientific community, as being completely accurate.
We had an opportunity 30 years ago to make radical changes, perhaps preventing the catastrophe we now face. The explosion of neoliberal politics and economics on a global scale, simply didn't fit with the idea of reigning in profits in order to save the earth. Neoliberalism released traditional economics from all of its restraints, and the very idea of attempting to introduce stiff regulations on the big polluters and investing in society as a whole, to benefit the many and not just the few, was not even a blip on the radars of Thatcher, Reagan or Friedman.
"We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.
We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe - and would benefit the vast majority - are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets."
Naomi Klein | Article for The Intercept
Over 50% of global emissions are created by the richest 10% of the World's population. The fallout of these emissions hurt the poorest members of society first, which in turn leads to increased migration to the richer parts of the World. This migration adds fuel to the flames of the right-wing extremists and we go around and around in circles, with the elite sitting at the top of their pyramid remaining virtually untouched, keeping themselves safe in their "wealth bubbles", ignoring the effects their pursuit of unrestrained profit is having on the rest of us.
One idea that has been touted at Davos is the idea of a global "digital tax", which would effectively force the tech giants to pay their fair share of taxes like everybody else.
"We just can't go on any longer with a taxation system in which the richest companies, those making the biggest profits,
are paying the least tax."
Bruno Le Maire | French Economy Minister
It is estimated that by 2050, more than 140 million people from sub-saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia will have been displaced due to the effects of the climate crisis. Many of them will remain in their own countries, but some will try to make a better life somewhere else.
The wealthiest countries have the possibility (and, some may argue, the responsibility) to make a real and lasting change, not only to make the World a better place for themselves and their citizens, but also for poorer countries who are feeling the full brunt of the climate disaster. Instead, the use, promotion and acceptance of toxic ideologies is only serving to deepen the crisis. We can ask where this rise in right-wing violence is coming from and how the perpetrators are being radicalised, but the answer is staring us in the face. The language we hear daily from the likes of Trump, Salvini, Orbán; the policies and treatment of refugees and human rights activists in Italy, Greece and Turkey; the reinforcement of hard borders in the UK, US, Canada and Australia to deter migrants; the blatant denial of the climate emergency by many World leaders; it's easy to think that violence against minorities, women, the LGBTQI community is acceptable if the people with the power to set the examples are committing this violence themselves.
What Can We Do?
Seeking green deals that tackle economic inequality and injustice is the only way forward, yet the energy companies and many governments are doing everything in their power to avoid admitting that we need radical change. The call for support to take on the big polluters has never been louder, yet our screams appear to be falling on deaf ears. Workers and consumers are no longer ready to foot the bill for the increases in fuel costs and transportation, with the companies using the flimsy excuse that green energy costs more. When the energy conglomerates and their shareholders and CEO's receive huge bonuses at the end of the fiscal year for generating huge profits (by charging consumers more for their energy), those consumers get mad. They believe (and I do too) that the energy companies, automobile industry and transportation concerns should bear the cost to move from fossil fuels to wind, solar and all other types of renewable energy.
Fossil fuel subsidies need to be scrapped, tax rates should be adjusted so that the highest earners pay more, and the profits these corporations make, instead of going into the pockets of the aforementioned shareholders and CEOs, should be equally distributed to pay for community investment projects, local services, green housing initiatives, education, healthcare, roads and other infrastructure, helping to pull the individuals under the most economic stress out of debt and poverty. These plans would create jobs, not destroy them and would improve social cohesion. New technology needs research and re-training for workers to learn new skills centered around the implementation of green energy in their communities. There is a whole new economic model just waiting to be uncovered!
This idea has universal reach. If the big players, especially the US and China were to start introducing this type of Economic Green Deal, the rest of the World would (hopefully) be inspired to do the same. Bernie Sanders is running his presidential campaign on this exact platform.
The UN's recently released World Social Report supports the argument for increased investment in green energy and a move away from the use of fossil fuels. The report predicts that such a move towards a greener economic model could help people escape poverty and assist in combatting the rise of global inequality, with the potential for 24 million new jobs in the green energy sector.
This report also mentions the rise of populism and the role it plays in inequality. The increased backlash against globalisation from the left and the right could be the one possible point where both sides agree that a change is urgently needed. Whether they can agree on the same sort of change remains to be seen.
What all of us need to remember is that none of these things can be altered in isolation; by one country, one group and certainly not by one individual. We're facing unprecedented changes to the world as we know it, and if we don't face them together, collectively, then we have no chance of success.
This post was published on Medium on 06.03.2020