You are here
The human instinct to embrace inequality
A SECRETLY stupendously rich man falls in love with a poor girl. His mother declares her a gold-digger. Much gnashing of teeth ensues. Beyond its simple romcom plot, however, the film Crazy Rich Asians has a less palatable aspect to its story: inequality and our apparent acceptance of it. For all the indigestible wealth on awkward display, the film attracted much praise and positive interest from critics and audiences alike, despite it being so far removed from the hoi polloi.
As far back as October 2013, then-US President Barack Obama called rising inequality and the lack of upward mobility in society "the defining challenge of our time". More recently, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was even more blunt in a parliamentary speech. "We must discourage people from flaunting their social advantages," he said. "We should frown upon those who go for ostentatious displays of wealth and status, or worse, look down on others less well-off and privileged."
Social imbalance and inequality is a problem that continues to plague human society in the 21st century. And the gulf between the haves and have-nots cannot be starker than in Asia. According to a BBC news article, the Asia-Pacific is now home to the greatest number of millionaires and billionaires in the world, yet it also hosts about two-thirds of the global working poor. The region's income Gini coefficient, a number that measures inequality from 0 (most equal) to 1 (most unequal), rose from 0.37 to 0.48 between 1990 and 2014. In 2017, 79 per cent of the wealth created in China went to its top 1 per cent, who now hold almost half of the country's accumulated wealth.
THE "STRUGGLE" AGAINST INEQUALITY
The bedevilment of inequality manifests itself in today's intellectual heroes and political rock stars. A mere 25 years ago, Thomas Piketty and his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century would have been branded "communist" for recommending that governments adopt a global tax on wealth - to prevent soaring inequality contributing to economic or political instability - and banned in many a country. Similarly, just 15 years ago, Bernie Sanders's socialist election platform would not have posed a challenge to Hillary Clinton's candidacy.
Instead, Piketty has been anointed to celebrity status and politicians railing against social inequality are lauded as progressive. Income inequality is no longer a tired shibboleth trotted out by hippy socialists. That is because ever-increasing inequality has fostered a greater distrust of politicians, governments and corporate leaders, whose promises of better times ahead seem never to materialise. In extreme cases, this has resulted in populism and the embracing of demagogues.
1,888 years ago, Roman Emperors kept the common people in check by providing entertainment in the form of gladiatorial contests and chariot races, and distributing free bread. The act of hurling loaves into the heaving masses is, however, no longer an option for the governing class. So in its place, politicians feed the voting public a diet of commitments to affordable medical care, housing and education, assuring them of rising incomes and "decent paying jobs" for the "middle class".
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN
One would have thought that amid all this hand-wringing about inequality, humans would naturally reject measures or initiatives that derogate from the fundamental principle of egalitarianism. There is evidence to suggest the contrary.
The economies of some of the most enlightened and democratic countries appear to have little difficulty introducing systems that are specifically designed to be unequal. Take, for instance, dual-class shares, in which holders of a special class of shares have a larger number of votes per share. All the major stock exchanges embrace dual-class shares as a necessary component of the market. No politician in a democratically elected government of today would dare to suggest such a system of electoral voting; yet a clearly differentiated and class-based voting system is seen as defensible, even justifiable, in profit-driven companies.
In our modern age where governments struggle to control information circulation and sharing, almost a quarter of the world's population live under an authoritarian regime, absolute monarch or military government without even the basic right to vote. Significantly, a good majority of this 25 per cent exhibit little overt ambition to change the status quo. Another 12 per cent of the people in the world continue to accept the imposition of a caste system. Unsurprisingly, many of the countries where these occur have very high levels of income inequality.
The issue does not seem to be one of simple indifference. On the contrary, our species seems to have an unhealthy, almost primordial, attraction to inequality and celebrating it. Like the proverbial moth drawn to fire, our modern and informed society seems entranced by enshrining differentiations, class and inequality, or at least not wrestling against them. Think about the success of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Real Housewives of New York, and the constant fascination with toppled politicians' wives and their treasure troves of luxury goodies.
Perhaps Pope Francis expressed it best in his apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium" when he wrote: "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"
All may not be lost. That the conversation about inequality continues and occupies such a significant part of our current narrative is a sure sign that the issue remains in focus. Maybe our present-day obsession with how the one-percenters live, fed by constant Internet updates, and the constant refrain about inequality, will ultimately see lasting adjustments to society that allow the "Top One" to co-exist peacefully with the middle class without any significant ructions. One can always be hopeful. After all, Rachel and Nick did get engaged in Crazy Rich Asians.
- The writer is partner and head of construction and engineering at TSMP Law Corporation. This was first published in TSMP Forefront.