Inequality has grown to unimagined extremes in our world. A recent report by Oxfam dramatically protests about “Eighty billionaires controlling as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet”. Meanwhile, in Australia, the independent Fair Work Commission made a decision on 23 February to reduce Sunday penalty rates. The ACTU has dubbed this action imposed on Australia’s lowest-paid workers “the greatest cut to working people’s wages since the Great Depression”.
Whatever Australians feel about paying more for their cafe latte on a Sunday than during the week, there is a bigger issue here than the wage reduction – that is, the philosophical underpinning of the decision, and its implicit support from the federal government.
Most of us still enjoy Sunday as a day of rest, if not from a religious perspective any longer, then certainly from a family and recreational perspective. On Sundays, teachers don’t teach, children don’t go to school, the stock exchange is closed, parliament doesn’t sit, and professional folk have their feet up. Not so for those who need to supplement their incomes by working on Sunday. Our conventional understanding has been that if these workers are denied the opportunity of precious family time, then they should be fairly compensated.
Inequality is a slow-acting poison in our culture, and it’s still growing. In Australia, we witness the inadequacy of many government transfer payments to the disadvantaged. We see it in the tax breaks to the property investor, via negative gearing and generous capital gains tax provisions, while many first-home buyers are struggling or locked out of the market. Such economic settings are often taken for granted, rather than evaluated in terms of justice and social equity.
The essence of this conservative economics is a belief in the sacredness of the market, without situating the market within an ethical framework aimed at the wellbeing of all the people. The so-called trickle-down theory proclaims that wealth and success will generally cascade down from employers to employees.
On the contrary, one can argue convincingly that wealth and success often flow first to owners and shareholders, as opposed to employees, and that an increase in the wealth of the few entails the increasing marginalisation and impoverishment of many others.
Trump’s economic plans?
In the United States, under the new Trump Administration, more extreme views are heard. President Trump was cited in the New York Times in February as follows: “We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank, because, frankly, … friends of mine that had nice businesses, they can’t borrow money”.
The Dodd-Frank laws were introduced to curtail abuses in financial markets in order to try to prevent another economic crisis. They were crafted by the Obama Administration and passed by Congress in response to the massive human fallout of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and exploitation in the finance sector. Yet recent years have unfortunately seen the gradual absorption of this radical free-market form of capitalism into our culture.
Reactions to Pope Francis on inequality
That contemporary prophetic voice, Pope Francis, in his writings Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Sí, has criticised inequality directly. His sharp attacks on scandalous and extreme inequality have been met with some strong rejoinders.
The influential Murdoch press condemned Francis as being opposed to “a proven and successful economic paradigm” and even to economic development. An editorial in the Australian newspaper contended that “he appears to have swallowed a new, pernicious dogma, that of the anti-development, anti-free market global green movement … It deserves urgent rebuttal”. Around the same time, Rush Limbaugh, the conservative US radio commentator with 20 million listeners, accused Francis of “sprouting pure Marxism”.
However, perhaps as Joseph Stiglitz the Nobel laureate economist puts it, “one big part of the reason we have so much inequality is that the top one percent wants it that way”.
In our Australian democracy, the role of government is surely to reflect our belief in fundamental human rights and to operate in solidarity for the wellbeing of all our people. What we lack is the political will to refashion our nation into an equitable society.
Gary Harkin is a member of Social Policy Connections, and an occasional contributor to SPC News.