Friday, 9 February 2018

The Unbridgeable Gap?

When Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post, tipped over the $100 billion mark this week to top even Bill Gates as the world's richest man, I don't know whether to congratulate him or to shake my head in resignation. 

Honestly, and I know it's not all liquid cash, what do you do with that much money in one limited lifetime? 

At some point, don't you think the extra dollar added to your millions or billions adds nothing to deepen the existential meaning of your life, your personal fulfilment, and most importantly, the length of your mortal life? 

Of course, Jeff Bezos can't really stop his astronomical wealth growth because he had started a technological revolution decades back with no plans to become this mega-monstrously rich like he is today. 

Same applies to the Zuckerbergs of our flatten world of transformative technology and "winner-takes-all" economy.

But like it or hate it, he is reaping it all in now with a vindictive giant harvesting sickle. 

I guess somewhere in the above paragraphs, my readers can discern the congratulatory and resignatory part - not to mention a quiet pout of disgruntled envy thrown into the cauldron of mixed emotions for good measure.

Yet, I guess if you have a choice of being rich and happy, and being poor and happy, maybe being rich and happy is happier? 

Or is it oxymoronic to put "poverty" and "happiness" together in the first place, that is, a non-starter?

Today's article entitled "Left behind in land of equal opportunity" is about the poor, the very poor, and also the extremely unhappy. 

Nirmal Ghosh, the author, started off the article with a drug user who did jail time and has been living 15 years on the street. 

41-yr-old Kaels Raybon (an American) has already accepted his fate, and resigned to the fact that he will never get out of the poverty trap. 

His wife and four kids have left him, his other family members have died, and with a criminal record, no one will employ him. 

Kaels recalled that his kids once came to visit him, but he was torn. "I wanted them to stay, but at the same time I didn't, because I have nothing to offer them. Emotionally, I'm a wreck most of the time. I see kids and dads, and I want that too. But it's just not in my cards."

Mind you, in the land of the American Dream and also Abundance (of millionaires and billionaires), there are 41 million Americans living in poverty (that is, below $16k in annual income). Some even much lower than $16k. That's about 12.7% of the total American population, and some 46% of them live in "deep poverty".

In fact, US has the highest child poverty rates - 25% in the developed world - as reported in the article. 

Now, according to Ghosh, two factors have made poverty even worse for people like Kaels - that is, Trump's recent drastic tax reduction and the culture of the rich.

Just before Christmas, Trump passed the tax reform bill that literally handed over US$1.5 trillion (it's a "T" and not "B") to the super rich.

Although he claims that the middle class will be assisted, analysts are however saying that the benefit will disproportionately end up with the top echelon of the society. 

And guess who is paying for that disproportionate handover of US$1.5 trillion? 

Yes, the poor are paying for it in welfare, the poor is getting even poorer. So much for safety nets for the poor. It's now the bottomless pits that welcome them. 

Then, there is culture. Ghosh wrote about "caricatured narratives" when he said this about the American culture:-

"The rich are seen as "industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic, and the drivers of economic success". The poor are "wasters, losers and scammers". As long as you have the mindset that we're all on our own, it becomes possible that when my own brother falls off the cliff, I'm able to say, 'Well, he had the same opportunities as me. He's failed, he has to cope with it,' instead of saying, 'I can't let that happen. I've got to do something.""

Lesson? Just one. 

When Jesus said that the poor you will always have with you, the same can be said about the rich. They just exist in much fewer numbers. 

But between the poor and the rich, it is "hope" that bridges the gap. And this hope comes in the form of the middle class. 

In my view, everything flourishes if you have (or maintain) a robust, fluid and transitioning middle class. 

A society that has such a robust middle class is unlike a Dead-Sea society where all the resources flow in one direction and stagnate at the top, leaving the other regions dry, parched and starving (for hope). 

The middle class also breathes life into democracies by empowering the masses to fight for change for the betterment of all. 

But if you hollow-out the middle class, then you also strangulate hope, and burn the bridges that allow the poor to move up one day to become well off for themselves and their children. 

When the rich gets richer and the poor poorer, what you end up is a society with an anemic middle class, and a hollowing-out of the middle class means that you are left with two nefarious developments - abandonment and tokenism. 

The abandonment comes with its own self-preserving and self-justifying culture (or narrative) for the rich who views the poor with seething indignation as deserving of their lot in life because they are generally "wasters, losers and scammers". 

And tokenism is the superficial (self-driven) act of charity or generosity without the accompanying transformation that Jesus talked about when he hinted to a passage in the Old Testament to his listeners:- 

"For the poor you will always have with you in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ (Deuteronomy 15:7-11)."

I believe there are two ways to do charity. One is to offer what crumbs you have left on the banquet table after the feasting is over. And the other is to invite all to feast with you at the banquet table - it's free, equal and fair seating for all. 

One is therefore about a change of heart that Jesus talks about, and the other is just a show of a change of status. 

Alas, my concern is that this may be happening in Singapore since when it comes to income and social inequality and the insidious social divide, we are up there in the charts or trend. 

I am also concern that our leaders in engaging in the politics to draw the rich into our land, and in turn, prospering in their own ways in such engagement, may have duly acknowledged that "the poor we will always have with us" without the accompanying deutronomist conviction that one should always open wide one's hand to his brother and sister, to the needy and to the poor, in his land.

Are we then washing our hands over the poor as an acceptable collateral casualty on the one-track road to economic prosperity while hiding behind the parliamentary rostrum to preach about the many token attempts to close the rich-poor gap?

In other words, should our middle class be thinned out due to the rapidly widening income and social divide, will our leaders take our country to a stage where the rich only shares the crumbs on their banquet table to satisfy their pricked conscience while leaving the poor to fend for themselves out in the cold?

Food for thought? Or food for mass feasting? Cheerz.

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