I suppose I first began to give some thought to the problems of Inequality when I visited South Africa on several occasions between 2007 and 2015. It was obvious that certain sectors of society had become incredibly wealthy during the last 20 years, while other sectors were still at least as poor as they were under Apartheid. I remember feeling that it was a situation that could not last. During this time I read an article by Ivo Vegter in the Daily Maverick in which he argued that Inequality (specifically as measured by the Gini coefficient – a simple but crude estimate of Inequality) was irrelevant. He used Namibia as his proof: Namibia is reckoned to have the worst Inequality of anywhere, and yet it has (or appears to have) a stable and reasonably peaceable society. I felt that the reason for this was because Namibia’s inequality had been that way for a very long time and Namibian society had come to accept it as “just the way things are”. I did not believe that the same would apply to South Africa, Zimbabwe and particularly Zambia where our societies are very obviously getting a great deal less equal. My unease remained at that level for some time until I obtained a copy of a book called “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, and this brought the problem into much sharper focus.
Wilkinson and Picket took data from the 25 richest countries and plotted it on simple X/Y graphs where the Y axis was various measures of Social Health and the X axis was Inequality. They did the same thing for the 52 states of America. Without exception the less Equal a society the worse the measures of Social Health – Physical Health, Mental Health, Teenage pregnancy, Incarceration of prisoners, Drugs, Crime etc. etc. The evidence is so compelling that a trust has been set up in the UK called The Equality Trust www.equalitytrust.org.uk which has spawned similar movements in many other countries. I have volunteered to be the contact person for Zambia.
I think many readers may assume that, because I support a more equal society, I must be a Communist, and they may stop reading at this point. Not so. Such readers will have fallen into the trap of Either/Or – Either you are a Capitalist (and accept that there will be Inequality) Or you are a Communist (and want to tie down any private entrepreneurs so that they don’t get any richer than anyone else). The truth is that there is a vast spectrum between these two extremes and our job, as members of Society, is to find the most appropriate ideology.
Where to start?
I think the best place to start is to read (and inwardly digest) The Spirit Level. Japan is the most equal society, closely followed by the Scandinavian countries . . . The Netherlands . . . . through to the UK and the US as the least equal. The trends are the same (I think there were a total of 9 different Social Indicators) the more equal a Society, the better these Social indicators were. Nobody would describe Japan or the Scandinavian countries as Communist, so, I suppose I could say I am Japanese in my Economic Ideology! These same trends were visible within the states of the United States, so there is very strong evidence that the social problems are indeed caused by the Inequality and not by some Government Policy – which is largely uniform across the US.
I would be very surprised if a person can read The Spirit Level and NOT conclude that a more equal society should be a desirable goal – though I AM aware of that line in a Simon and Garfunkel song “Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest”. Unfortunately, there is also a book out there called “The Great Leveler”, by Walter Scheidel. He argues that, throughout history, there has never been a peaceful way of achieving Equality. Equality has only been achieved by violence; either man-made (the French Revolution, the two World Wars) or natural, Tsunamis. Plagues etc. (I shall report more on this when I have received a copy of that book and when I have read the synopsis of a lecture he is about to give in Pasadena, California – where I am hoping he will be asked MY question: Does he have any hope that the Internet may help us achieve a more equal society without resort to bloody violence?)
Assuming that we, in Zambia, do decide that a more Equitable Society is indeed a desirable goal, how might we be able to avoid the lessons of History? How might we find a way of creating such a Society without recourse to violence?
The Spirit Level points out that Equality can be achieved in at least two ways: The Japanese way, in which the CEO of Toyota does NOT draw a salary that is out of sight of the workers on the shop floor. Or the Swedish way, in which the highest earners are taxed at much higher levels. I suspect that most readers will agree with me that, in the context of Zambia, the Japanese way is the more appropriate. Why? Because successive governments have not yet demonstrated their capacity to spend tax payer money in an efficient and transparent way – certainly nowhere near the capacity of the Scandinavian governments.
Therefore I believe we have to try to persuade the very rich in this country to voluntarily accept a lower Income. This WILL be difficult, but I do not believe it will be impossible. It will take a concerted effort to engage with these super-rich people and to convince them that a more equitable society is actually also in THEIR best interest.
So I intend to use the umbrella of The Equality Trust to help change the mindset of the super-rich. This will require that we engage with them on many levels and from many different perspectives.
Perhaps a starting point will be to bring to their attention the opinion of Daniel Kahneman Nobel Laureate author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” in which he expresses his conclusion that Success = a certain amount of Skill, plus a certain amount of Luck: Huge Success = A little more Skill, plus a Huge amount of Luck! As an example, he cites the founders of Google, who tried (soon after they had created it) to sell it for $1m. The sale fell through because the potential buyer felt it was too expensive. This left its creators with no option but to hang onto it until . . . . it is now worth about $670 Billion!
If we can convince the super-rich that their fortune depends at least to some extent on their good luck, then it might be easier to convince them to share some of that wealth with less fortunate sectors of society.
Another argument (that can be used) is to point out that earning a lot of money, so that they can display it in conspicuous consumption – expensive cars and luxury homes in the Zambian context (luxury yachts in the International context) – is guaranteed to actually disappoint them because there will always be someone else with a better car and a more luxurious home.
It will be worth pointing out that there is also a significant risk that, if the super-rich persist in chasing ever larger salaries, the problems of an unequal society might come back to haunt them in a very personal way. It might be their daughter who succumbs to a teenage pregnancy or their son who gets tangled in drugs.
Although I don’t approve of the Bill Gates strategy (of becoming filthy rich and then strutting the world as The Great Philanthropist) it is, in fact, a much better strategy. He will almost certainly achieve a much better feeling of satisfaction and a much more resilient self-esteem by helping the poor, than can ever be bought with a bigger yacht. (Yet I believe Bill Gates has it wrong on two counts: Firstly, I believe he should have left a great deal of his money within Microsoft, and used Microsoft as the vehicle of Philanthropy. Secondly, I believe he should be a great deal more humble in his approach – just because he was good at marketing computer software doesn’t mean he is an expert on Development. I came across a lovely saying recently: “Anything you do FOR us, if you don’t do it WITH us, means that you are actually doing it TO us”. I think this saying exposes the flaw in a lot of Top Down philanthropy – of which Bill Gates’ is but one example.)
Finally, I will be using The Equality Trust to try persuade the super rich not to adopt any Charitable Philanthropy but rather to look for opportunities to help improve the Institutions of Society. I have exceeded my limit, so, briefly, it is better to use their influence to eliminate Slavery than to form a Slave Support Group.
Bruce Danckwerts firstname.lastname@example.org