The Grapes of Wrath are Filling and Growing Heavy...
"As humanity perfects itself, man becomes degraded. When everything is reduced to the mere counter-balancing of economic interests, what room will there be for virtue?"
In these times of so-called austerity, it has been presented as something of a forgone conclusion that everyone must tighten their belts. The coalition portray this as unavoidable. I spoke in a previous post of how this has affected our local mental health services, and indeed, not a day seems to go by now without some government minister announcing new austerity measures which, to my mind, seem consistently targeted at the poor and vulnerable, the latest of these being the introduction of a "bedroom tax", which, it appears, may affect some of my friends who have a history of mental ill health. Also, one Tory minister recently announced that it was "immoral" for people to pay workmen in cash, as it encourages them to avoid paying tax. This sort of thing is supposed to account for £2 billion in lost tax revenue (a figure seemingly plucked out of the air), which, the minister stated, presents as much of a problem as the whole of tax evasion itself. I suppose he just forgot to mention that tax dodging on behalf of corporations accounts for an estimated £25 billion.
And, I guess, this is my point. Why do all the cuts seem to be aimed at vulnerable groups, when the real money is all at the other end of the economic scale? To use just one example, our local mental health resource centre, The Bennett Centre, is now set for closure, which should save an estimated £2.5 million. But when you realise that the banks were quite recently once again bailed out by the tax payer to the tune of £140 billion, such savings begin to appear negligible. Indeed, could it be as my Marxist friend at the Pathways Group suggests, that this is really a vicious class war instigated by a bunch of toffs from Eton?
This point is made all the more clear in a recent book by the economist Joseph E Stiglitz, called, appropriately, "The Price of Inequality: The Avoidable Causes and Hidden Costs of Inequality". In it, Stiglitz describes how unrestrained power and greed are ruining our economies. It all began in the '70s and '80s, when "the Chicago boys", headed by Milton Friedman, developed their anti-regulation, small state, pro-privatisation thesis. Stiglitz shows how, with the aid of the IMF, they were given whole countries on which to experiment, including Thatcher's Britain, Reagan's America, Mexico and Chile. To cut a long story short, the result of this has been a massive concentration of wealth at the top, with little of it "trickling down" to the poor, huddled masses. To quote some statistics, in the five years up to 2007, the top 1% in the economic scale seized more than 65% of the gain in national income in the US. By 2010, their share had risen to 93%. Much of this gain was "rent seeking", actually not creating new wealth but taking it from others. Stiglitz points out that such inequality greatly damages the values of fairness, trust and civic responsibility.
Stiglitz also shows how such economic tyranny is justified by the propagation of various myths. For example, the demonisation of benefits claimants, or the much bandied about theory that higher salaries are necessary to retain high achievers, when in actual fact they are being rewarded for failure.
Indeed, there now seems to be a growing anger at such unfairness and unrestrained greed. The Greeks, apparently, had a word for the overreaching desire for more than one's share: pleonexia. In Ancient Greece such things were seen as a vice, and thus doomed by the gods to fail. But in our age, pleonexia seems to be working very well for some, and this is getting many of us, including yours truly, just a little bit annoyed. The Occupy Wall Street campaign, and the British protests outside St. Paul's Cathedral, were just two examples of the venting of such rage. Stiglitz, although not an advocate of revolution, none the less warns the pleonetic 1% that, if things continue in this fashion, there may be bloody times to come, for perhaps, as Steinbeck once said about the reaction to previous economic crises, the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.