Sunday, 8 February 2009

The anger and the inequality

Two weeks after I wrote a blog on Slumdog Millionaire, I was struck by an op-ed in today's New York Times titled Slumdogs Unite. The article, by Frank Rich (who has been a columnist for the Times since 1994), tries to capture the seething populist anger within the United States against the double standards of Washington. The anger is directed against bankers who continue to receive large bonuses; officials like Tom Daschle who had to withdraw his nomination for Secretary of Health due to overdue taxes; or others like Timothy Geithner, the new Treasury Secretary, who also had a tax issue. But more importantly, the anger could be directed against Obama too if his rhetoric is not matched by his deeds and that of his deputies. Rich makes his point clear:

The public's revulsion isn't mindless class hatred...But we do know that the system has been fixed for too long. The gaping income inequality of the past decade — the top 1 percent of America’s earners received more than 20 percent of the total national income — has not been seen since the run-up to the Great Depression. This is why “Slumdog Millionaire,” which pits a hard-working young man in Mumbai against a corrupt nexus of money and privilege, has become America’s movie of the year.

As I wrote earlier, everyone would like to make good on opportunities. That is the basis of a meritocratic society. Americans are angry because they do not see the merit in the vast inequalities that have developed on the weak foundations of dodgy banker-created paper assets. And even in America, inequalities are not restricted to income: 45 million Americans lack health insurance, African American children are twice as likely to die before their first birthday compared to white children, and there is wide divergence in the life chances of babies born to rich and poor families.

Adam Smith wrote, 'No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.' America is not India, but the anger over unequal opportunities and, worse, over undeserved rewards seems increasingly universal.

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