The Rich and the Poor

Some weeks back, a fellow St Mary’s College Old Boy created
a group on Whatsapp for some of those who were in our year group.  For those who do not know, Whatsapp is an Instant
Messaging application for your phone.
Anyway, one of the big topics in the group has been around the shrinking
middle-class and the perception, rightly or wrongly, that those who have, care
little about those who do not have.

There is little doubt that this is perhaps one of the bigger
debates facing our generation.  After decades
of progress in reducing social inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean,
there is concern that it is increasing again.  Statistically speaking, the Gini coefficients
(an economic measure of social inequality within a nation) suggest that
inequality is on the increase in the US and the UK.

In the United States, the plight of the middle class has
been the subject of much focus during the Presidential election.  Documentaries like David Guggenheim’s Waiting
for Superman and those from Michael Moore have demonstrated that for many, the American
the dream is a delusion as the health and education systems are biased against
those with fewer advantages.  Both in the
The UK and the US governments have responded to the economic slowdown by making
legal immigration more difficult, and increases in emigration have been noticed
and discussed in some media.
American Tax Singapore

In Trinidad, after the protests by residents of East Port of
Spain and Laventille, I saw so much online commentary about residents being
lazy and about them suffering from some sort of dependency-syndrome, which is considered
to be the fault of the policies of previous administrations.  Some social observers remind us that ‘the
poor’ are always with us but that during economic slowdowns it is natural for
the stress associated with austerity measures to fall disproportionately on
their shoulders.  After all, it is those
who are not wealthy that benefit more from government social services such as
public health care and public education, as well as the various social

Regardless, there is a strong correlation between social
inequality and social disorder.  Author
John R Bradley points out that if we were to look at a graph of the world food price index over the last seven years, we
would see two massive spikes, one in 2008 and the other in 2011.  These spikes match almost exactly with the
worst global riots.  In a recent article,
Bradley goes on to cite the New England Complex Systems Institute, whose study
suggests that with a food price surge, more global political violence is all
but inevitable.  Of course, none of
this is really new as the proof of the link between food prices and revolution
is written in history for those to see it.   Bradley references the 1848 European
revolutions, long regarded as brave new political ideas about
freedom. He points to a bad harvest in 1847, which saw a massive food price
shock in Austria, France, Hungary, Prussia, and Switzerland the next year.  Revolutions followed.  At the same time, there was no such price
shock in Scandinavia, England, Russia, or Spain — and no revolutions.   Bradley concludes that while food inflation
may not provide the brains for an insurrection, it does supply the brawn.

For those who live comfortably, it is easy to forget that the food bill is a smaller percentage of their overall
income for wealthier households, so food inflation of over 20% impacts them less.  Some leaders understand
this.  I am reliably told that a former Prime
Minister of Trinidad and Tobago once called a secret meeting with business
leaders in Port of Spain.  He explained
that inequality was rising, and unless both government and private sectors worked
together to address it, not even the highest walls could protect us from the

I remembered the report I heard about that alleged meeting
as my wife showed me a Facebook comment from a former neighbor of ours last
weekend.  While we lived in Trinidad, we
lived in a gated community with high walls.
Our former neighbor used Facebook to speculate that hiding in the
the bubble created by gated communities is not the solution, and that we ignore the
greater reality at our own peril.

Returning to our St Mary’s past students group on Whatsapp,
its composition is like our College itself.  There were boys from quite prestigious
backgrounds and boys from humble backgrounds at CIC – all studying and playing
together.  Whatever the solution to the
issues facing us, an important part must include everyone stepping out of their
bubbles to engage with fellow citizens.

Despite our current
challenges, I continue to have the audacity of hope that we will all enjoy a
brighter tomorrow.

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