Why cuts make sense

2012-10-24 00:00

YOU have to give the president some credit for his brass neck. He must have known that an appeal to executives to freeze their salaries would be met with irony if he was lucky, and sarcasm if he wasn’t. Time will tell if he’ll freeze his own salary to confound his critics. Those whose salaries are being targeted may take comfort in the cynicism of journalists, but it’s too easy to shoot the messenger when he’s so exposed. It’s more difficult to ask whether the message has any merit in itself.

Economist article, “Cry, the Beloved Country: South Africa is sliding downhill while much of the rest of the continent is clawing its way up”, is another voice we might heed. We may not like being told that we’re a “sad” country from such a lordly, foreign voice but, again, it might be worth asking whether this influential journal’s message contains any truth.

Economist says about the wage gap that is exercising the president’s mind: “Inequality has grown since apartheid, and the gap between rich and poor is now among the world’s largest”. Well, we all knew that, including the president. The difference now is that Marikana has happened, there is general unrest in the mining industry, the rand has declined and economic growth fallen. What was a cliché — “one of the most unequal societies in the world” — has now become a crisis.

There’s a global context which also cannot be lost on our leader. From the so-called Arab Spring to the so-called Occupy movement to the street battles in the capitals of southern Europe, a common factor is unemployment, especially among the young. Another is that this is happening in a world in which some people are stratospherically rich. Historians have observed that it’s not just the poverty of the poor that causes anger: what really enrages is the insouciant excess of some of the super-wealthy.

Added to all this is the slowing down of the world’s economy, including even China’s. While the pie is growing, politicians can hold out hope to the poor of a better life. British journalist George Monbiot states the problem elegantly: “Governments love growth because it excuses them from dealing with inequality ... Growth is a political sedative, snuffing out protest, permitting governments to avoid confrontation with the rich, preventing the construction of a just and sustainable economy.” But when it stops growing, the only way they can address inequality is by broaching the politically perilous question of redistribution, which the president effectively has.

The challenge for the one who would moralise in favour of a “just and sustainable society” is to find good reasons to urge a change among the target audience. So, here goes. The most obvious motive for equalising our society is self-interest, since social instability is bad for everyone. This the president understands and he would like to do something about it, even if only self-interestedly to save his political bacon.

The good news is that greater equality doesn’t just make us more secure, but it is good for us, even for our health. Researchers of the benefits of greater equality point out, however, that if levels of inequality are such that those at the bottom are hungry and can only look up an infinitely long ladder in despair of ever climbing it, you will have the kinds of problems that we are currently experiencing. If, on the other hand, those at the bottom have their basic needs met and can reasonably believe that they or their children can do better, then society is likely to be less troubled.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, two British health researchers, believe that this common-sense notion is borne out by the statistics. They compared equal and unequal societies, and found that, for almost every social issue, equality makes things better and inequality makes them worse. Teenage pregnancy rates, longevity, disease, imprisonment rates, violence, even obesity — all of these are higher in unequal societies than in more equal ones.

And the fascinating thing is that even those on the higher income end in unequal societies also suffer from these ills. It’s not just that they have to put up with the violence or the strikes or the resentment of the have-nots — which of course they do — but, despite their superior incomes, they also have higher rates of mental and physical illness, obesity, teenage pregnancy, family violence, and imprisonment, etc. than their economic peers in the more equal societies.

, The Spirit Level, is subtitled: “Why Equal societies Almost Always do Better”. Their research has sparked an absorbing debate on the merits of greater equality. It’s a crucial conversation for our time, and, I would suggest, for our beloved country. Whatever his motives, it’s good that the president has initiated it.

• Chris Chatteris is a Jesuit based in Cape Town.

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