Portugal now has scenes of destitution not known in Western Europe since the second world war. Even those charities set up to assist the most impoverished Portuguese citizens are themselves facing bankruptcy as donations dry up. Tourists from richer European economies simultaneously contribute much needed earnings for the Portuguese economy, but also inevitably point up the disparities of wealth even more cruelly.
The financial crisis which has engulfed the world since 2008 has elicited a vast amount of analysis about causes, and an equal amount of conflicting prescriptions for recovery. In our own country, government austerity measures are disproportionately loading the “payment for the crisis” onto the poorest members of our society – not necessarily in cash terms but most definitely in terms of relative impact. It matters not that direct tax changes may indeed be taking more from higher earners than from lower earners. If you’re earning £15-20K even marginal losses are acute, even though the 50% tax rate on the richest may cost those individuals thousands of pounds.
As it is for individuals in our society, so it is for countries within Europe. The price being paid by the Greek, Irish and Portuguese economies for the Euro-zone bail outs is in turn visited on those societies’ poorest members. The cumulative effect of all this is a vast transfer of relative wealth from poor people to rich people. I don’t care about the technical difficulties, about the arguments that if we don’t continue to allow bankers to earn eye-watering bonuses they’ll take their bats and balls elsewhere. Watch my lips. It is simply wrong – unconscionable in fact, to take Messrs Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama’s word today in the different context of Libya – that people should be impoverished and stripped of their dignity to pay for mistakes they didn’t make, whilst those who did make those mistakes continue as if nothing happened.
It is simply wrong now. But it was equally, and just as simply, wrong before the crisis to allow, nay encourage and make a virtue of, enormous discrepancies of wealth in our economies. The world economic order is changing, in the sense that the balance of power is shifting inexorably eastwards, but in every other respect nothing is changing at all. China and India seem content, enthusiastic even, for their total economies to grow by the same method of tolerating massive and ever-increasing inequalities of wealth.
When all is said and done, we must stop listening to the economic technocrats whose siren voices continue to tell us that there is no other way. That economic growth cannot be achieved except at the expense of removing all constraints on the wealth of individuals, and by de-regulating the activities of companies. Watch my lips once more. I don’t care about your sophisticated defence of what is patently and glaringly wrong, corrosive and destructive. I don’t want to hear it. I want you to acknowledge that if the methods by which you want to raise the total well-being of whole societies in fact only do so by simultaneously impoverishing the majority and enriching the minority, then those methods aren’t good enough. Go back to your economic drawing boards and start again. Don’t come back until you have discovered another way, a way in which such distortions are avoided.
For a third time, watch my lips. Some things are just wrong. Understood?