Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Inequalities rising

In Chapter 1o of Animal Farm, George Orwell wrote that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Orwell, of course, was satirizing society as he saw it during his time. His perception has not changed much, the harsh truth remains: some people are really more equal than others.

Animal Farm by George Orwell. Courtesy of  Ben Templesmith.
Social polarization has never been more acute than today. There is truism in the popular observation that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.

Nothing could be more persuasive than the trend over the last three decades showing a massive transfer of income and wealth from the middle class and lower class to the rich. Contrary to claims of advocates of trickle-down economics, the trickling is actually toward the other direction: up instead of down. And the bad news is that more and more evidence indicates that this resultant inequality has a wide range of negative effects on economic and social issues, as well as it undermines the foundation of our democracy.

In the United States, for example, the wealthy and large corporations have not been content with the Bush tax cuts. With the Republicans taking control of Congress, President Barack Obama was forced to cave in and agree to roll-over the Bush tax cuts through the end of 2012. This only exacerbates inequalities because the only way to pay for the tax cuts is by cutting essential programs that benefit the poor, the sick, the elderly, women, and those at risk.

Increasing Inequality Chart. Courtesy of the New York Times.
Tax cuts to the wealthy and big business corporations are not uniquely American. Canada, under the Conservative government led by Stephen Harper, is replicating exactly the American experience and the rich are using their power to get their governments change the rules by redirecting economic benefits to themselves – thus resulting in greater social inequalities. And this is also the general rule in countries where the state and the economy are in the hands of the elite who determine public policies and decision-making.

Recent studies show that less equal societies almost always have more violence, more disease, more mental health problems, higher infant mortality rates, reduced life expectancies, as well as less social cohesion. The effects are more pronounced at the lower levels, but they are evident throughout society.

Philippine society is a case in point of the impact of inequalities on its social fabric. The Maguindanao massacre of November 2009, otherwise known as the Ampatuan massacre, is a clear example of the culture of impunity that political power in the hands of a few, or a family dynasty, breeds. The Ampatuan clan has used violence to expand their control and eliminate threats to the family’s rule, and former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo tolerated their abuses. They have been linked to at least 56 other killings over the last 20 years, apart from the November 2009 massacre. After more than a year, the trial of those accused of the Ampatuan carnage moves at a snail’s pace, prompting one Philippine senator to remark that with nearly 200 defendants and 300 witnesses, the trial could take 200 years.

Some are truly more equal than others. The Marcos and Singson political dynasties of Ilocos are just two glaring examples of Filipino families that have used their political and economic clout to keep themselves within the circles of power in the Philippines.
 Maguindanao Massacre, November 2009. Photo courtesy of
After the death of Ferdinand Marcos who ruled the Philippines with an iron fist for almost 20 years while plundering the nation’s coffers, his wife Imelda and children Imee and Ferdinand Jr. are back in positions of power to return another Marcos to the presidency. There is even an indecent proposal in the Philippine Congress to allow the remains of the deposed dictator to be buried in Libingan ng mga Bayani (Cemetery of Heroes), a grave insult to all Filipinos who gave up their lives for their country. To deem Marcos as a hero seems a radical idea for all loyalists and remnants of his regime who have survived the EDSA Revolution. More than twenty years after the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos, no member of his family has ever been accused of any crime related to the family’s plunder of the nation’s economy.

The Singsons of Ilocos Sur who have survived violent internecine feuds with the Crisologos, their blood relatives, continue to hold their grip of political power in the province under the leadership of the family’s strongman, Luis Crisologo Singson, more popularly known as Chavit Singson. Chavit is the current governor of Ilocos Sur and at one time also served as a member of the House of Representatives. His son, Ronald Singson, used to hold a seat in Congress but later resigned after being convicted by the Hong Kong High Court of drug trafficking. Note that the young Singson was sentenced to a year and a half in jail for trafficking cocaine last February 2011. A month after, three Filipinos, ordinary and poor overseas workers, were executed by lethal injection by the Chinese government on similar charges. There were also many allegations of Chavit’s brushes with the law, including the jueteng scandal that brought down Joseph “Erap” Estrada from the presidency, but he was never brought to justice. Indeed, some are more equal than others.

Former Congressman Ronald Singson and girlfriend Lovi Poe.
 Photo courtesy of kathy_o885.
Plenty of instances abound where children or members of political families in the Philippines have been involved in crimes, business or government scandals and irregularities, but they have all been served well by their connections and social status. If ever convicted, presidential pardon is easy to get, as in the case of Joseph Estrada who was impeached and later convicted of economic plunder and corruption while holding the highest office in the land. So, if you are a poor Filipino without political connections, you could be detained as a political prisoner if you insist on fighting the government or you could languish in jail for a very long time. Or sometimes, you can just disappear or get extra-judicially killed.

Even in more affluent and advanced countries such as Canada, inequalities are not unheard of and have a debilitating effect on the lives of those at the bottom of the ladder. There is little upward mobility today in either Canada or the United States. Thus, if you want your children a chance to actually live the American dream, someone suggested moving to Sweden instead.

Democracy has never been more threatened by inequality than at present. There is no limit to campaign contributions by large U.S. corporations to political candidates friendly to their interests, and the U.S. Supreme Court says that is free speech protected under the First Amendment. In a less equal society, to limit campaign contributions and expenditures so that the wealthy don’t drown out the voices of those who are less well off is not easy. Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien tried to tighten campaign contributions but not enough to solve the problem.

Photo courtesy of RepublicanDirtyTricks.
The clout of the “haves or the haves-more,” as George W. Bush would call them, is clearly evident in the shaping of public policy decisions. It’s not the teachers, electricians or transit workers who can effectively influence political leaders. It’s the wealthy that can sway which way government will decide. The wealthy can threaten to leave the country if taxes are not lowered for them. Conrad Black, then at the top of his game as a media baron, promised to leave the province of Ontario if the New Democratic Party was elected and he did.

There is a torrent of change happening in America today. Democratic institutions are being challenged by the far right, which the wealthy supports and reinforces. Public service employees in the state of Wisconsin have been stripped of their right to form a union. The Ontario parliament recently declared the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) as an essential service, effectively depriving the transit workers their right to strike.

According to recent studies, Canada is no different from other advanced capitalist economies, where wealth has been continually redistributed from the working people to the rich over the past two decades. Consequently, increasing levels of homelessness, poverty and despair are being witnessed across the country. Linda McQuaig wrote in the Toronto Star “that Canada has become a highly unequal society.”

The concentration of economic power in the hands of the wealthy constricts our democratic rights, and the inequalities it creates are rising and becoming more insurmountable. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis aptly put it: “We can have democracy…or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few. We cannot have both."


No comments:

Post a Comment