The Price of Inequality

Recently, the United States has had a glut of school shootings, and you may be wondering what that has to do with the title. I am going to suggest, quite a lot, indirectly. It also illustrates society’s inability to reason. There are continual calls for gun control, and while I agree there is a rather bizarre lack of responsibility in the ability to buy guns in the US, I do not think that is particularly relevant to what has happened. When I was a boy, I had access to a 22 calibre rifle that I used to go rabbit shooting (rabbits are a real pest in Australia and New Zealand because there are no controlling predators) and yes, I went out and shot rabbits, as did some of my friends, but nobody even thought about going out and shooting a person, let alone a bunch of school children. Why not? Because we all were looking forward to joining society, and we had ambitions. Not big ambitions, but we saw our future place. Of course it did not turn out as we envisaged, but it never does.

So, what is different now? My guess is that too many of the younger generation do not see a future they want. In the US, they see the rust belt, they see the jobs have gone to Asia. Of course the more capable ones see a future, but my betting is the shooters are the very disgruntled ones that see themselves heading to the bottom of the heap. They see nothing to live for, so their warped thinking says they should take out some others first.

And here I come to inequality. What can a young person aspire to, if they are of the pessimistic style nature? In many places, house costs have risen hopelessly so as to price out such ownership from the below average income earner, and worse, more and more people are becoming below average. That is because all the wealth has rocketed into the hands of a few. They see the elderly coming to the point where they cannot retire because they cannot afford to. It is all very well to say that the elderly like working. Some do, but many have started a decline in their health and can’t. Too many people spend most of their income balancing a debt problem. Now you may say, that is their fault, and to some extent it is, but what sort of society are we if there is no way out for the tolerably useful?

An added problem is that as the general income declines, and governments seem determined to lower taxes on the rich, who, by and large, pay surprisingly little anyway, then we see a decline in social welfare, like healthcare, pensions, and an increase in education costs. And what is bizarre, and shows that in a democracy you cannot go wrong by assuming the general population is mathematically illiterate, we find the poor voting for a tax cut that will save them the odd few dollars a week only to find their costs for social services have risen astronomically. And a further odd thing about this is that governments tell their people that they are making progress by privatising such social requirements. “The private sector does things more efficiently,” the economists say, without bothering to check whether the private sector is actually doing it for any but the rich. If you don’t believe me, check the US drug prices, and compare them with many other countries with a state-run single buyer system. Of course the private sector is more efficient but that is at making money, its only real objective.

So, what we see are a few who are making money in truly gross amounts by taking from the many. By and large they are not adding anything to society. Since when did credit default swaps increase the general well-being? And this is what the young see. Something needs to be done, but they feel helpless. Except for the unfortunate monster with a gun.

Democracy? Do the people have a say?

One of the themes of my futuristic ebooks is to look at different forms of government. We believe, or are continually told, that democracy is the best form of government, but that is merely an assumption. We know Plato did not think so, despite living in something much closer to a democracy. In The Republic he makes the excellent point: if you and a number of others were lost at sea, do you want a navigator or a vote?

But that leaves open the question, do our forms of government really have democracy, and if so, to what degree? Two events have sparked this thought. The first involves military action against Syria. There were good signs, in that in the UK, while the Prime Minister was quite gung ho over action, parliament turned around and voted against it. There are also less good signs. When President Obama suggested that Congress should vote on the issue, John McCain immediately implored the Republicans to vote with the President so as not to weaken the US image overseas. That might have been the right thing to do, but surely the decision as to whether to kill so many people should be made on grounds better than, “Let’s keep our image strong!” Surely a decision like that should be made on the basis of whether the situation will be better with the act than without it, and whether there is something else that could be done that would be better still. Logic says that at the very least, if you are going to do something, there should be a net benefit, not a net liability.

The second event was local to New Zealand. There is a question as to whether the government should partially sell infrastructural assets that it owns. There are a variety of views on this, the government saying it will give it more cash to do more, to which the cynic might suggest that it is selling assets to do things that make it look good at the next election, which is essentially the government trying to buy votes. The reality is that the government has latched onto the right wing “privatize everything” theology. Now, in an effort to get some democracy, some citizens have initiated a referendum, which, unfortunately, is not binding on the government. The government has said it will ignore the referendum, which it is legally entitled to do, but what message about democracy does that send to the citizens? The government says it was elected, and that gives it a mandate to sell the assets, since it mentioned this in its electoral policy statements. Is this argument valid? 

In my opinion, the answer is, “No.” In any such election, there are a number of issues, and in my opinion, the real reason why it got elected was that it had lowered income tax rates, and those that voted for it wanted to cement that in. It is funny how a little extra for the wallet leads so many to overlook so many other things. A subsidiary reason was that the opposition was still somewhat unpopular, having previously earned some ire during nine years in power. As for the tax, only too many overlooked the fact that those taxes had been made up with other taxes, such as an increase in the goods and services tax.

The problem with an election is that everyone gets one vote, but they have to spend it on a politician. The net result is that the people can choose their temporary autocrat, but they cannot selectively vote on policy. The referendum concept gives the people the right to vote on an issue, but autocrats tend not to like that. Yes, I know it would end up being messy, with everyone voting for mutually incompatible policies, but surely there must be some level of policy that citizens could vote for?