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How Do We Measure Inequality?

It's Not Always About Money

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By DR McCrory

“Too often, inequality is framed around economics, fed and measured by the notion that making money is the most important thing in life,” reported Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme in their 2019 report.

“But societies are creaking under the strain of this assumption, and while people may protest to keep pennies in their pockets, power is the protagonist of this story; the power of the few; the powerlessness of many; and collective power of the people to demand change.”

A true measure of dissatisfaction with the status quo could be identified by an uprising, an open act of resistance, a rebellion, a revolt. What sparks a revolt? Strikes, and general strikes especially, indicate that economic conditions – everything that allows a person to live a life without want – are not meeting some basic needs and folks are suffering. At this point they’re not beginning to suffer. It’s gone on a while and has escalated from someone else’s problem to mine. A critical mass must be reached before desperation turns into anger and anger hits the streets.

There have been over 80 uprisings since 2000.

I have watched as uprisings appear across the globe. The 1989 confrontation in Tiananmen Square seemed to be the epicenter of upheaval. College students and common citizens  – members of Chinese unions – protested against a government that refused to share a rise in economic prosperity.  Though that incident was only one of many that year, the sheer fearlessness of the event’s participants was so shocking in such a suppressed culture, stood out for many of us, and may have planted a seed where others had had enough.

The year 1989 was marked by rebellion that swept the globe. Communist governments were deposed over and over again: Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was killed by his fellow Romanians and the Berlin Wall was taken apart brick by brick by sledgehammers and all the tools at hand.

Revolts continued into the 90s in Niger, Mali, Rwanda, Congo. The African continent was on fire, fighting oppressive governments and rising up against forces that has kept people in debilitating poverty for centuries. 

A UN 2019 annual Human Development Report titled “Beyond Income, Beyond Averages, and Beyond Today” strikes right at the heart of the matter:

            The wave of demonstrations sweeping across countries is a clear sign that, for all

            our progress, something in our globalized society is not working.

            Different triggers are bringing people onto the streets: the cost of a train ticket,

            the price of petrol, political demands for independence.

            A connecting thread though, is deep and rising frustration with inequalities.

These inequalities are measured by the Human Development Index , a composite measure that ranks countries by their ability to provide a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living. The measurement, developed by Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and Indian economist Amartya Sen, is used by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s Human Development Report Office and reported on once a year. A country scores a higher HDI when the lifespan is higher, the education level is higher, and the gross national income is higher.  The UNDP takes painstaking measures not to compare and contrast apples with oranges.

To ensure as much cross-country comparability as possible, the HDI is based primarily on international data from the United Nations Population Division (the life expectancy data), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Institute for Statistics (the mean years of schooling and expected years of schooling data) and the World Bank (the GNI per capita data).

When breaking down the statistics on gender development and inequality, they compare over a dozen points to accurately analyze each broad category. They repeat the process for every other category which is then weighed out in numerical terms for each reference point to arrive at the final number and ranking for that year’s report. One finding of the UN group that may shock some of us: “…there is no automatic link between economic growth and human progress.”

We will refer to these numbers in the coming pages, but anecdotal evidence will give the story some humanity, pitting numbers against a real-life background. A zero (0) represents the base, i.e., no score with one (1) as target. The United States, for instance, has a score of .920 and, like the UK, shares a ranking of 15th in the world on the 2019 report. That number drops to .797 (IHDI) and drops the US to 28th adjusted for income inequality. The IHDI was touted to be a more accurate number when the designation was introduced in their 2010 report.

We will also examine the economic effects that oftentimes bring an untenable situation to a boiling point. If you can’t feed your family because you have no job, are paid too little to live on, or your bills are skyrocketing, your life is miserable. If you have no way to better your condition and everyone you know finds themselves in the same or similar predicament, revolution may seem like a viable solution. 

Sometimes the causes and effects of history travel in a straight line and, in retrospect, the events that led up to that current predicament now look obvious and inevitable. An uprising may take the form of a strike or a boycott in the beginning and fester into a general strike in sympathy or as certain economic conditions affect more and more people: devaluation of the country’s currency, a tax hike or forms of oppression: citizens abducted in the middle of the night,  indiscriminate murders of drug users, or scapegoating an ethnic minority or the media.  

I have learned so much in candid conversations. I strongly believe in the marketplace of ideas so I would engage a Trump supporter on a right-wing Facebook group, a friend in Morocco shares his personal views of the rest of the Muslim world and changing dynamics in the Middle East or a young Facebook acquaintance in Bangladesh trying to start a clothing design business. The world is smaller and we’re much more aware of shared destiny where we have nothing and the rich and powerful have it all.

The following pages will examine conditions in several countries around the world. This list is not meant to be definitive or representative of every prevalent form of inequality or oppression. I’m choosing countries and governments that illustrate how the middle class is under attack everywhere and, banding together, we can reprioritize how our taxes are spent and begin to exert the influence we need to create the most good for the most people.

Be forewarned: After studying syndicalism and watching a video conference presented by the Socialist Party, and in the midst of a global pandemic experiencing a frenzied corporate and federal push to start the wheels of commerce spinning again at full force, I’m starting to think that not only does capitalism kill the middle class, a form of Socialism might be what’s needed.

Let’s examine the issue of capitalism on a global scale by examining four countries. One, Norway, is our control group: a country much like the US yet different in fundamental ways with no recent history of revolt or general strikes. People are hitting the streets – for exercise. There hasn’t been an uprising since the 19th century. Always at or near the top of the Human Development Report, the numbers may reveal how it has achieved that enviable position.

Norway is one of three constitutional monarchies that we will examine.

France, with its Yellow Vest Rebellion, is an example of a country that has achieved so much in everything from worker advances to a healthcare system that is the envy of many. How the country reacted when Macron began to strip citizens of these hard-won rights is a lesson in the fragility of agreements.

Thailand is a third-world nation in many ways, even as the city skyline reflects the upward reach of its commercial center. Other contradictions: Americans and others arrive on a daily basis for surgery that would cost much, much more in the United States while medical care for locals lags other countries.

Morocco, inspired by the uprisings of the Arab Spring, achieved some improvements in their own protests. How has Morocco improved? How can society get better? In many ways, it is still a third-world country, but more tolerant of other cultures than other Muslim countries.

Norway, the northernmost of the Scandinavian countries, stands at number one on the HDI chart. What has led to this year-after-year ranking? Life expectancy is the highest at 82.3 years, but that statistic is only one of the factors that contributes to Norway’s high ranking.

Coronavirus Pandemic

We have arrived at the end of the world as we know it. We could have come together in this time of crisis, reached out a helping hand to each other, but we failed to do so. Our petty, hoarding inferior natures prevailed. Even now, President Trump preens and boasts about his successful handling of the pandemic and plays the blame game with China.

I was in Bangkok shortly after China announced the discovery of the coronavirus. I had recovered from a mild bout of the flu just prior to my trip to Thailand via Xiamen, China. In China on a four-hour layover on January 16, I saw masks everywhere. Once in Thailand, I occasionally wore one. 

This was my first trip to Thailand in about four years. My friend Sombat showed me new experiences while working around his construction job. I flew to Cambodia for a couple of days. We even celebrated Chinese New Year in the middle of Bangkok’s Chinatown surrounded by thousands.

Somehow, I contracted flu-like symptoms. I started to see more masks being worn on the street. The desk clerk at my apartment building quickly called me a cab, which took me to the nearest hospital. I was examined, given some medicine for my symptoms and asked politely to return in the morning.

The next day I discovered that diseases are treated more seriously on Monday morning. I was trying to get directions to my appointment when suddenly everyone froze. What I can only assume was the national anthem was played while everyone stood stock still till it was over  then went about their business.

I made it to my appointment, heard my name horribly mangled while wending through Bangkok’s inexpensive but bureaucratic healthcare system and ended up following a serious nurse to a tent-like structure set up just outside the hospital. A doctor joined her and they broke out do-it-yourself hazmat outfits, took some blood, stuck a large Q-tip way up in my nasal cavity and gagged me with a tongue depressor.

“We have our protocols,” explained the doctor. “We will send out the tests to two separate labs and will let you know the results. Until then you cannot leave.”

“How long will that take?”

“Twenty-four to forty-eight hours.”

I needed to get word to Sombat and my phone wasn’t working until it was. I had the doctor explain to my friend what was going on. They brought me bottled water while I was waiting to see what my next move might be. An hour later, the doctor sans mask, informed me I had the regular flu and was free to go. Total cost for two exams, meds, tests: $31.11 USD.

In a word, ‘unprepared” indicated the level of understanding and the actions by those who had just an inkling of our present global predicament. In the beginning confusion, we in the U.S. looked to government for answers and a calm course of action that would keep us all safe. We looked for past precedent that would provide some hint on our path forward, but chaos prevailed and nobody knew what the hell they were doing.

Looking to the immediate future, it was likely that grassroots anger and intelligent response would provide a measure of logical steps to a safe and sane resolution and that soon life would continue unabated.

George Floyd was killed by police about two months into the coronavirus lockdown on May 25, 2020. Stopped for allegedly trying to pass a phony $20 bill, a Minneapolis police officer sat on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

The rage at another murder of a black man, anger at the loss of jobs and the half-assed attempt by this administration at arresting the virus at the expense of thousands of lives, the claustrophobia induced by orders to shelter in place, all these elements mixed together like so much kindling, flared up across the nation and boiled over into the streets in the form of marches with riots following in their wake in some cities. 

Marches and rallies have been seen around the globe in shared indignation and anger. These killings reveal the systemic racism that prevails in our society, and worse, in our law enforcement.

Will these events be catalysts for change? We have seen peaceful and violent protests and counter-protests and, at the same time, a flare-up of the virus. Tumultuous times are upon us throughout the world and we’re all sharing some of the pain.

The trials of these days cry out for some form of revolt.

Do strikes or general strikes lead to revolt? Do they lead to political/economic change? Can we make an educated guess that several of these general strikes may lead to revolution at a later time? The revolts we’re covering may not have revealed themselves to us through any prior action, but in retrospect the conclusion seems so obvious.

The yellow vests movement in France or Mouvement des gilets jaunes, was a grassroots protest that began as a revolt against governmental policies that seemed to affect the working and middle classes disproportionately. The cost of fuel was rising and the new president, Macron, seemed deaf to the cries of “unfair” from his fellow countrymen.  An online petition attracted almost a million signatures.  Protestors hit the streets in November 2018.

The yellow vests are required in all vehicles by French law for roadside emergencies and, since everyone is required to own one, the organizers considered them “a unifying thread and call to arms.” They are highly visible and a common tool of the working class.

The protesters wanted lower gas taxes, an increase in the minimum wage, and a reinstatement of the Impôt de solidarité sur la fortune or ISF, also known as the solidarity tax on wealth, levied yearly on incomes exceeding 1.3 million Euro and, except for two years, has been in place since 1981.  The movement also called for the implementation of some 42 initiative referendums, giving citizens the ability to dictate or revoke certain laws.

The protestors came from the right and the left. High fuel prices affect everyone.

Protestors flooded the streets, causing some of the most violent riots since 1968 when, even then, students were protesting the excesses of capitalism, consumerism,  and American imperialism. 

Protesters around the world have adopted the yellow vest as their symbol.

Were the issues that spurred France’s uprising in 2019 universal in nature or an internal conflict that only affected France? Thailand and Morocco, too, felt the ravages of injustice and took to the streets. Morocco was swept in a fervor during the time of considerable turmoil in the Middle East.

If we were to try to prognosticate based on flare-ups in the last decade, Spain would be a lucky bet. General strikes and protests have brought economic conditions and issues of sovereignty and independence to the streets and to everyone’s awareness. Catalonia is home to many who consider their region a separate nation not part of Spain. They have been trying to leave Spain since the 1850s. In 2010 the Spanish constitutional courts ruled that several articles in a 2006 Statement of Autonomy agreed upon by Spain and Catalonia were unconstitutional. That action resulted in a renewed interest in independence for the region and 550 symbolic referendums. A 2010 demonstration of one million brought Catalans to the streets with another occurring in 2012 that broached, once again, the issue of independence. Again, the Constitutional Court of Spain ruled against their sovereignty and again, Catalan decided its own course and elected member of their own Parliament. That was the course of action by both sides for the next few years. In 2017, the Catalan parliament decided to again bring the issue of independence to the people. This time, Spain acted preemptively, but the referendum was conducted and triggered further action. Spain arrested activists and shut down the Catalan government. Catalan also had had enough and general strikes brought Catalan to the streets in October and again in November. To date, after five general strikes in Spain, there is no resolution. Prediction: a revolt within the next five years.

In the United States, the issue of systemic racism, an issue that claimed the lives of Malcolm X, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others, has claimed more lives at the hands of law enforcement. The response from the black communities has been, understandably, anger and frustration. Against the backdrop of peaceful marches and reports of riots and looting, the issue of property over people has threatened to cover up why these marches are happening: black lives matter just as much as everyone else’s.

Will these demonstrations lead to general strikes and, finally, true positive change? Cynics laugh as the police circle the wagons and the band-aids come out:  some variation on thoughts and prayers, more cops brought to justice. Some may draw frustrating parallels to Catalonia, but the issue of race in America has a much older, more brutal arc in history.

So, welcome to the end of the world as we knew it. Companies have gone under, employment and family finances have suffered new lows, and the future is uncertain.

We are faced with the question how best do we gauge the influence of inequality in most nations? The 2010 Human Development Report was the first time the report attempted to measure the impact of inequality to the quality of life in each country. The figures were adjusted to introduce the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI). While the simple HDI remains useful, the report stated that the IHDI was more accurate, and “the HDI can be viewed as an index of ‘potential’ human development (or the maximum IHDI that could be achieved if there was no inequality)”. The index does not take into account several factors, such as the relative quality of food and clothing in a country. Without considering these other factors, the report ranks some first world countries lower than expected.

This is an excerpt from Capitalism: the Global Edition to be published in late 2021, the sequel to Capitalism Killed The Middle Class: 25 Ways The System Is Rigged Against You copyright 2019. Published by Xlibris.

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