By Zubeida Mustafa
OURS is an unequal society. The more unequal we become, the more fiascos will visit us as we have been witnessing lately. How correct was Justice Louis Brandeis of the US Supreme Court when, many decades ago, he famously said words to the effect ‘you can have extreme inequality or you can have democracy — you cannot have both’. We love to delude ourselves with the belief that we have democracy in spite of inequality.
Today, the world’s attention is focused on the issue of inequality which has become a major subject in the global economic discourse. In 2015, the UN Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, one of which states that by 2030, governments will progressively achieve and sustain the income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average.
Thereafter, inequality has been addressed by the World Bank, the World Inequality Report in 2018 and The Commitment to Reduce Inequality Index produce by Oxfam and DFI in 2017.
Mercifully, it is now widely realised that inequality of income and wealth affects the poorer sections of the population drastically and prevents upward mobility. In other words, those at the bottom rung remain at the bottom for generations to come. Various economists now recognise that inequality can be addressed — and also measured — by evaluating the government’s investment in education, health and social protection, introducing a progressive taxation structure and improving the labour market and wage standards.
Policymakers are biased against the poor.
So far the criteria used are economic and monetary, which can be quite misleading in countries like Pakistan. We know very well that simply increasing funding for public-sector education has not ensured quality education for all. Similarly, corruption has nullified tax reforms that have not brought about transparency or prevented tax evasion as promised. But as the World Inequality Report warns, “… if rising inequality is not properly monitored and addressed, it can lead to various sorts of political, economic, and social catastrophes”.
Hence it is time for governments to act. It will have to be each state’s own policymakers who have to determine the level of inequality that is acceptable to them and their people. The problem in Pakistan has been intensified by several factors such as corruption, obscurantist religious and cultural practices and a patriarchal and misogynist mindset.
The fact is that whatever our national poet may say about Mahmood and Ayaz standing in the same row, we know that our social and political structures have inequality ingrained in them. Policymakers are biased against the poor.
Out of the 152 countries ranked on the CRI Index, Pakistan is a lowly 139th. Heading the list is Sweden and at the bottom is Nigeria. Pakistan performs poorly in its education and health spending while its labour and taxation criteria are rated slightly better.
It is not just the economic repercussions of inequality that are devastating. Sociologists who study the psycho-social, emotional and political impact of inequality find it more damaging. Poverty hurts people by denying them access to resources. It is also the ostentatious display of their wealth by the rich that wounds the dignity of the poor and robs them of their confidence and self-respect. Television intensifies these negatives. People, especially our leaders, have little sensitivity regarding the stratification of people and have no understanding of the connection between inequality and ostentation. This was brought home to me by an interview prime minister-to-be Imran Khan gave to the BBC in June. He was asked a question in the context of poverty and inequality which was at the core of his campaign. I quote verbatim.
BBC: “You yourself may say things on the campaign trail like this, a civilised society is not known by how many big houses are constructed but how people in the slums live. Yet you live in a beautiful villa in the hills overlooking Islamabad which is worth [millions of] US dollars. And that kind of jars with your message….”
IK: “In whatever house I live, if it is [built with] my legitimate earnings, my tax paid earnings, if I live the way I like that’s is my business. It doesn’t mean that I cannot have compassion for the people.”
With this attitude, it is not surprising that some analysts have previously said that the PTI has not managed to win the support of the poor. Can we expect the government to make our laws any less iniquitous? The country still has a long way to go to make the playing field level for all. Equality is determined by how the revenues are collected and how they are spent. Will the incoming government be able to slash the burgeoning defence budget to set up the welfare state Imran Khan promised in his victory speech? Similarly, with a pro-private sector approach, can the government ever increase corporate taxes or improve the conditions of the working class?