By Raffique Shah
October 31, 2022
Nothing I wrote last week in my “Pensioner’s plight” column must be misconstrued as suggesting that chief justices, other judges, prime ministers and other Cabinet ministers—in other words, holders of the highest public offices in the country—do not deserve the levels of compensation, allowances and retirement benefits they currently receive.
Clearly, those who hold such offices must have met certain standards in their respective disciplines, maybe even excelled at them. Judges, for example, must win the confidence of their peers and litigants or the accused in criminal matters over which they preside. And while there are no minimal standards that politicians must meet to qualify to run for office, ultimately they are answerable to the public, to electors, if they are to win elections and form governments.
The considerable retirement benefits they receive when they step down from the bench, in the case of judges, takes into account that they cannot return to practice at the bar where unimpressive attorneys who remained in private practice win briefs that can reward them with many times what those who held public office make in, say, one year, or likelier, never seen in a lifetime. Buried deep inside this mountain of manure that suppresses the stench of unfairness, injustices that most of the population must live with is an issue that may be larger than climate change and its devastating impact on humanity—income inequality.
From time to time, politicians and social scientists who, in instances, have assumed the role of conscience of nations in which they live and operate, allude to it, rumble about tackling it. Last week, I heard a short news item that quoted Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley making reference to income inequality.
Whatever he said was clearly not impressive enough to match the current great debate over the shenanigans of senior members of the law fraternity in one of many court matters that bring into focus, if only fleetingly, the tonnes of money those rascals literally mint right under our noses, fleecing the national coffers of billions of dollars over the years.
University degrees factored out of the income equation—often, they hardly make a difference between an engineer and a highly trained, experienced technician, whose compensation package is grossly inferior to that of the former. In the public service and in some quasi-state enterprises, the opposite holds sway.
By cleverly manipulating “overtime”, “double-time” and similar outrageous sums that hourly-paid employees enjoy, they easily ramp up their wages way higher than their monthlypaid bosses in a kind of inverse injustice that rewards brazen workplace banditry, adds to inefficiencies in enterprises, quite likely leads to their demise, which hurts everyone who has a stake in them.
Income inequality, which, in my interpretation, does not mean or imply that correcting it requires that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”, to misquote George Orwell in his classic novel, Animal Farm. The idealists’ dream of re-shaping the world into a political and economic impossibility that Karl Marx had conjured in fashioning a communist manifesto—”from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”, is so easily dismantled, in retrospect, I am surprised that I, in my early 20s, believed it could work.
I shall not pursue that discourse here. I set out last week to show that the opposite to Marx’s communism, free-wheeling capitalism disguised as neo-liberalism, has equally failed mankind. It has institutionalised inequality much as it has created the oligarchs. These are reincarnations of the courtiers of medieval times, except whereas Sir Lancelot, Cardinal Richelieu and their likes peddled influence with royalty; today’s oligarchs are filthy rich, some having created their empires out of ideas and visions, others by not-so-fair means, indebted to the ruling classes for their start-ups that soon boomed and bloomed, and yet others gifted conglomerates that owned the rights to strategic resources and industries. In return, they poured funds into the main political parties that vied for power in countries big and small, rich and poor.
The state of the masses in such countries, invariably poor and wretched, mattered not. They were, to put it bluntly, poor and stupid, the well-funded leaders led them like herds to do whatever the leaders wanted done. They would muster to protest some issue their leaders deemed important to display the leader’s strength.
In reality, these working people, many without jobs, and all struggling to put food on their tables, to educate their children, and later, to retire infirm, their pensions not even meeting the cost of their medications, far less food, not to add the beverages they once imbibed, courtesy their leader.
And the status quo remains intact, as Blood, Sweat & Tears sang eons ago: “What goes up, must come down/spinning wheel…” The poor (and stupid) will always be there. And always there will be fools like I, fighting lost causes…