Lessons for us to learn from afar

And so the debate on the British riots rolls on. At the weekend, former British prime minister Tony Blair put his two bob's worth in with an Observer article, reprinted on this page yesterday.

"... the big cause," of the riots he wrote, "is the group of young, alienated, disaffected youth who are outside the social mainstream and who live in a culture at odds with any canons of proper behaviour.

"The left says they're victims of social deprivation, the right says they need to take personal responsibility for their actions; both just miss the point.

".. the truth is that many of these people are from families that are profoundly dysfunctional, operating on completely different terms from the rest of society, either middle class or poor."

Mr Blair's observations have merit, but to backtrack a little, how did such a large group of young people come to be alienated, disaffected and outside the mainstream?

Why are so many families in the United Kingdom today "profoundly dysfunctional"?

Were they born that way?

Did they catch a bug growing up?

Or did they simply wake up one morning and think, "Good day for looting and burning. Now where's the action at?" And if so, why?

Could the answer at least in part lie in a little number called the "Gini coefficient"?

This is a measure used by economists (and quoted recently in Time magazine) to gauge "how equally (or unequally) income is distributed across a population".

By this measure, only Portugal outclasses the UK as the most unequal of all the developed nations. International Monetary Fund statistics from 2005 showed that 30% of the country's earnings went to the top 5% of earners.

It is, of course, too simplistic to ascribe the looting and burning that scarred the streets of Britain's cities to poverty. But for all the concentration by the media on the middle-class, university-educated people who joined in the mayhem, it is hard to dismiss entirely the notion of a disenfranchised and alienated sector of the population taunted by the bright lights and seductive come-ons of consumer society, yet utterly unable, legally, to participate in it.

This is in no way an excuse, but should there be such a surprise when they back away and begin to throw bricks?

There is a similar disparity in the earnings distribution in the United States with IMF statistics showing that 33% of that country's income goes to the top 5% of earners. And those who have followed the paralysis of Congress in addressing the US's fundamental economic issues will know that the spending cuts agreed to thus far - and those to come - will hurt the poor and the middle class far more than that top 5%.

And this, say some, is not right.

Sure spending cuts are necessary, but so too must the small matter of revenue - taxation - be addressed.

"I would leave rates for 99.7% of taxpayers unchanged and continue the current 2-percentage-point reduction in the employee contribution to the payroll tax," suggested one renowned American.

"This cut helps the poor and the middle class, who need every break they can get.

"But for those making more than $1 million - there were 236,883 such households in 2009 - I would raise rates immediately on taxable income in excess of $1 million, including, of course, dividends and capital." A regular socialist prescription?

Not a bit of it. These are the words of Warren E. Buffett, capitalist extraordinaire who, in a recent New York Times article, castigated politicians for failing to levy on himself and his fellow "mega-rich" a fair share of the tax burden. Mr Buffett evidently understands that civil society in liberal democracies is underpinned by an unwritten contract - and part of that is a sense of fairness, justice, opportunity and respect.

What's it got to do with us here, in this famously "egalitarian" country, a nation which has always prided itself on championing just such values?

There are no simple answers to our own social and economic predicament, but we shouldn't imagine the problems of the United Kingdom do not pertain in any way to us not when the unemployment figures among the young, urban poor are beginning to reach record levels. And not when the disparity in wealth continues to grow and tax cuts favour the already advantaged in our society.

There are lessons to be learned from afar. Best we study them seriously and decide whether we want to go down those paths; or find less divisive and inclusive ways into the future.

 - Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.


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