Sunday, May 17, 2015

The tightening fortress world; too much "fend" not "enough "glue"

This is the original (longer) version of an editorial in BODHI Times 48, the newsletter of the NGO I co-founded in 1989.

I recently watched and listened to a British programme starring Jacques Peretti called “The super rich and us”. It’s very good, though I think it’s a bit too simple to say that the concerted attempts to rig the economic system started only in the last ten years, leading to the global financial crisis. I think it can be traced much earlier, since the events which led to ascent of Mrs Thatcher in the UK and President Reagan in the US. The theme of this two hour long documentary is depressing. It’s consistent with with my PhD thesis, completed in 2002, called “Inequality and Sustainability”, in which I likened civilisation to the Titanic, destined to sink after colliding with the iceberg, in part because of the recklessness of those living on its upper decks, those who hold the greatest political and economic power, prepared to take great risks, especially with the lives of others. Speaking of the Titanic, there are claims that it was not the Titanic that sank, but that its sister ship the Olympic was deliberately sacrificed in an insurance fraud. One review of a book about that, is, however scathing.

I haven’t been able examine recent economic data in the way I did in my doctoral thesis, when I found a marked rise in global income inequality between 1960 and 2000. There is considerable evidence that the inequality I documented then has gotten worse, such as from the French economist Thomas Piketty and a very positive review of his bookCapital in the Twenty-First Century” by Nobel Laureate in Economics Paul Krugman. Another form of evidence is the rise of the “precariat”, a term popularised by Guy Standing, who used to work for the International Labour Organisation of the UN. For example, there is now an increasing number of people paid to work on freelance “microjobs”, some of which offer paid employment lasting only for an hour. Peretti interviews an entrepreneur who set up a website called “people per hour” – this person said on camera that he supports a world with no minimum wage, and no safety net. The documentary claims there are up to two million such freelancers in Britain alone.

A third line of evidence of growing global inequality is the increasingly strident calls and support for a “fortress” or “enclave” world. Australia has for years now aggressively repelled asylum seekers, people who, under an international treaty, ratified by Australia, are legally entitled to seek refuge in the “lucky country”. Thailand (which has not ratified this convention) has long treated Rohingyas fleeing poverty and persecution in Myanmar by boat even worse. In May 2015, Indonesia and Malaysia joined with Thailand (and Australia) in denying refuge to a reported 8000 desperate people from Mynamar and –reportedly – Bangladesh, seeking landfall. No one wants these people. In the last two years, perhaps a million people have fled poverty, war and misery in Africa and the Middle East, seeking safety and opportunities in Europe. Joseph Chamie, the former Director of the U.N. Population Department, is stated as believing that there are at least 50 million "illegal" or "undocumented" migrants in the world today. (I met Joseph in 2011, when we were both speakers at a meeting hosted by the Foundation for the Future, in Seattle, to mark “7 billion day”. I found him unusually sympathetic to my “carrying capacity” arguments.) 

In response to the growing pressure on its borders, Europe is inevitably going to try to make it harder for people to enter, to increase its “fend” signal. I don't fully disagree with this, though the extent of cruelty that Australians and others are collectively capable of to people it locks out of the fortress approaches that of a totalitarian state. What upsets me more is that there is far too little thought to how to enhance the“glue” determinant of migration, including by reducing inequality and slowing the pace of climate change. For millions of people in Africa, the Middle East and Myanmar it already seems too late. Even if that is the case, targeted aid can give hope, and slow the rate at which things are now clearly deteriorating.