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More compassionate economics, anyone?

Image: BBC

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As we face multiple challenges, may we try and create a kinder, more compassionate future for ourselves and coming generations, pleads Wong Soak Koon.

In his riveting play, An Inspector Calls (1934), which explores moral and social responsibility in class relations, the British writer J B Priestley has his manufacturing tycoon Mr Birling say angrily, “There’s a great deal of silly talk about these days — but — I speak as a hardheaded businessman … the way some of these cranks talk and write now, you’d think everybody has to look after everybody else, as if we were all mixed up together like bees in a hive — community and all that nonsense”.

At the risk of sounding like a crank or worse, I am going to plead the case for more compassionate and kinder economics — not because it will be easy but because the global economic recession and the hardship borne by many the world over mandates reflection and rethinking.

The worldwide Occupy movement, which takes diverse forms, is the cry of ordinary people for a more equitable distribution. Unemployment and enforced austerity measures as well as spending cuts by governments impinge tragically on the lives of the majority of the people while the minority of 1 per cent or 2 per cent garners ever more wealth.

Many among the poor or newly poor and dispossessed take to the streets out of desperation: “Enough is enough.” Some have lost not only their jobs but their homes as well and have no access to any form of health care. The vivid close up of a jobless young woman in Greece on television, who subsists on two meals a day and who has lost most of her teeth as she cannot afford dental care, remains in my memory.

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In the same way, a photo of a feisty 76 year-old former maid, whose story appears in a magazine, caught my attention. She lives in a tiny attic room, which is all she can afford, given her minuscule pension. The irony is that her room is in a posh part of Paris. The Vion Whitcom Avenue in the 16th arrondisement in Paris has a strange set up as far as accommodations go.

It is a posh, plush residential area and yet, on the top floors of its luxury apartments, there are tiny rooms, once for maids and now rented out to sundry financially strapped folk. What an amazingly telling and dramatic juxtaposition of the haves and the have nots!

These tiny rooms, many without showers or toilets, sit atop the residences of the affluent. There is something reminiscent of a Charles Dickens’ novel in this juxtaposition. Daily, our 76-year-old former maid climbs up dozens of stairs (130 in all) to reach her tiny haven where she has lived for 33 years: “How could I pay rent for a decent flat with my pension?”

The top 1 per cent of the world tends to acquire an increasing share of the global income while the bottom percentage very often suffers a reduction in real wages. Are governments brave enough to right this balance through a more equitable distribution of national income and so help boost aggregate demand?

It seems that governments are more prepared to serve corporate interests, fearing a massive exodus of business to tax havens elsewhere. As Mr Birling would insist portentously, profits have to be increased and costs kept low. And in this, someone like Birling is ably assisted by the agencies of government.

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Priestley’s brilliant critique of greed reveals clearly that such an avaricious and selfish attitude can be its own worst enemy. The patience of the have-nots has reached its limit, more so when they see taxes used for bailouts and witness scandals of unbelievable magnitude in the banking system.

One example would be the manipulative fixing of interbank offered rates as in the Libor case. To the layman, it is odd that a vital financial bench mark should be supervised not by government but by the bankers’ own trademark association. To me, someone totally unschooled in finance and banking, this smacks of a cosy old boys club.

Trust has been eroded and the people rightly demand more transparency and accountability. Morever, this interbank market has evolved into an opaque, impersonal multi-trillion dollar creature. And yet it touches the lives of many ordinary citizens.

In her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong notes that “in many ways compassion is alien to our modern way of life. The capitalist economy is intensely competitive and individualistic and goes out of its way to encourage us to put ourselves first”.

Be that as it may, the continuing global economic crisis, whose end is not clearly foreseeable, encourages rethinking. Taking us back to the teachings of Confucius, Armstrong refers to the great value the sage puts on “shu” (a quality that may be translated as “consideration for others”).

A better translation would be “likening (others) to oneself”, which makes us less narcissistic and more caring. Thus, “shu” helps us to empathise with others even if they are from a different class, race, gender and so on. Confucius, says Armstrong, teaches us that “people should not put themselves in a special, privileged category”. Only with humility and openness can they merit the title of “ren” or a human being.

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As we face the challenges yet to come, whether economic, social, political or ecological, may we be aware of the need to reassess those modes of thinking shaped by self-centred economic imperatives. May we give room to the quality of “shu” as we try, however hard, to create a kinder, more compassionate future for ourselves and coming generations.

Dr Wong Soak Koon is an Asian Public Intellectuals 2003 cohort.

Source: The Edge

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