Notes From a Native Son: Unless We Create an Equal Society We Will Have Serious Social Problems
Lawyers and public commentators in Barbados have now discovered the concept of human rights, but missing from public political and economic discourse is any reference to inequality, the moral foundation of a fair and just society. The nearest we come to any mention of inequality in public space is the flawed reference to so-called free education, which disciples of the late Errol Barrow hold as the mark of his great contribution to post-war Barbados. But, after dominating public discussions since the Black Power era and the student rebellion of the 1960s, both Left and Right have returned to look at the relevance of equality in modern society. Some people have even intimated that in the post-Obama world the battle over equality has been won and we should move on. It is disingenuous. Even someone as radical as Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the Harvard professor and former minister of strategic affairs in Brazil, has called on progressives to abandon equality and replace it with something called deep freedom.
The posing of equality against freedom and human rights is a false dichotomy. What do we mean by freedom? Freedom from what? What do we mean by human rights? The idea of ‘freedom’ is a vacuous philosophical concept that has no grounding in the day-to-day lives of people living in a liberal democracy, despite its imperfections. A minority in control of an oppressive police force or military can understandably talk of freedoms, but that is a misinterpretation of the illegal behaviour of a powerful institution. A good example of this is the stop-and-frisk in New York or its equivalent stop and search in Britain, which has replaced the old Sus law, under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, introduced to control begging by deformed soldiers who had returned from the Napoleanic Warts. But the concept of equality has a firmer philosophical meaning, since it does not mean equality of outcomes, but of opportunities. It is also superior to the concept of human rights since embodied in equality are all the rights under the portmanteau term human rights.
It also goes much deeper since it must be embedded in the very everyday thought of the society, as the declaration after the French Revolution of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Even in the gangster capitalism of Russia we see this disparity in wealth. In this nation of kleptomaniacs, 35 per cent of the nation’s wealth is in the hands of 110 people (See the Guardian October 9, 2013). Only when a society sees equality as a right, as a natural as their right to citizenship, would it have any popular meaning and form the very foundation of all our decision-making by the state.
Housing and Wealth:
In real terms equality can only be measured by the opportunities given to all young people, to fail or succeed under their own steam. However, if obstacles are put in their way, from the cradle to the grave, then that society is not fair and just. Some organisations have done great work on the study of inequality, covered under the umbrella of poverty. The Sutton Trust has done so particularly in regards to educational opportunities since the quality of education a young man or women receives often determines the opportunities they will get in adulthood. According to Sutton Trust, in the UK, despite making up only seven per cent of the school population, 35 per cent of members of parliament went to elite private schools; 51 per cent of doctors; 54 per cent of leading journalists; and, 70 per cent of high court judges. These figures will replicate themselves in Barbados if we were to replace British elite private schools with our former First Grade and Second Grade schools. Education leads to opportunities and in every Western society it is the norm for a university graduate to have a higher income than a non-graduate. In simple terms, a sound education has been the passport for upward social mobility in most societies. This imbalance in the distribution of education is also reflected in the kind of jobs, salaries, homes and other material possessions people obtain in adult life. Sometimes the reality is smothered in official obfuscation and statistical fog; for example, the figures for youth unemployment do not reflect the reality since we know that the wealthy and well-connected know how to get their children in jobs.
On the other hand, I know of graduates of UWI that have been unemployed for nearly a year after coming out of university. Why does UWI not produce figures on how long it takes for graduates to find jobs? Throughout the Western world housing, the biggest investment for the average person, has been the vehicle used by ordinary working people to accumulate wealth, especially in a political environment in which there is no inheritance or death taxation as a form of re-distribution. Instead, for perverse reasons or economic ignorance, Barbadian governments of both colours have used ordinary taxpayers to subsidise the super-rich who have colonised the West coast of the island in the hopeless belief that they make a bigger contribution to the nation’s development than they really do. We do not seem to factor in when analysing tax burdens, the many services that the super-rich obtain disproportionately to the demands they make on the system. In many instances, they buy residential homes through commercial companies, which give them huge advantages; that should be outlawed.
It is with the objective of redistributing wealth that we should be concentrating carefully on how we spend our national education budget: on important but unpopular undergraduate disciplines, more post-graduate research, more post-doctoral research, more teaching and research jobs. In this way the rising tide will lift all the boats in the harbour, and with it the nation as a centre of excellence and enterprise.
Analysis and Conclusion:
For those who have an interest in socio-legal issues, it will not pass unnoticed that we have drifted from civil rights, sex equality, race relations, do disability rights, to diversity now to human rights. In so doing, at least in the former colonies, there is very little discussion of wealth re-distribution. Inequality of wealth is one of the dirty little secrets that Barbadian politicians and public intellectuals do not like to discuss. It is one of the national myths that we pretend do not exist; in reality not only does it exist, but it is chronic and getting worse as the economic crisis prolongs. What certainly does not help is the lack of sound empirical evidence on household wealth in Barbados. The Inland Revenue sits on a mountain of data about tax returns, the land tax office similarly sits on big data, the mortgage lenders sits on lots of good financial information, although that does not include cash buyers and the central bank is almost irresponsible in the way it gathers and publishes information. It is only if the society is well informed that people will be able to discuss these pressing issues with confidence. The price of ignorance is being kept in the dark.
In truth, the life-cycle earnings of the vast majority of people would not even allow them enough to save for a reasonable retirement. It is a result of the in-built bias in liberal democracies, which starts the moment a child is born: children are graded from infant school, implicit in that grading is separating the sheep from the goat, those earmarked to succeed and those who will make up the unskilled. However, the real division is made at secondary examination level, with most examining bodies have a pre-determined percentage of passes and failures. All these obstacles combine to prevent the vast majority of poor children from accessing opportunity. Poverty also impacts on health with poor people having shorter lives.
Finally, we know from the disgraceful way in which Mr Barrack has been treated by this government that not all public sector creditors are equal; it is almost impossible to think that this or any other government would treat Kyffin Simpson, Jada, COW Williams or Bizzy Williams with the same contempt. To a certain extent we must put the blame for this firmly at the door of Mr Barrack and his legal and financial advisers. For, as I have suggested in the past, he should take the legal battle outside the Barbados jurisdiction by selling the debt to a hedge fund or distress debt fund, and be prepared to take a hit. For example, if the original debt was Bds$50m, and the accumulating interest has added a further $30m, then sell the entire debt for Bds$50. As Argentina, Antigua and others have found out, distress financiers will take them through the courts, in New York or elsewhere, inflicting further damage on the credit ratings of the nation. Of course, there is a way out of all this: give Mr Barrack a draw down facility at the central bank of a maximum of Bds$250000 a week, that will allow him to pay his bills and run his business without any real pain to the economy.
The economic crisis was a moment for Barbados to re-think the constitutional independence settlement and re-frame the social compact between the state and citizens. In a society in which equality is at the very heart of the social compact, it is important that all policy decisions focus on providing fair and equal opportunities and that the entire nation buys in to the notion of objective outcomes. Unless there is a revolution, and Barbadians are too conservative to even consider such radical developments, the only peaceful way of changing the socio-economic dynamic is through the mechanism of wealth re-distribution.