Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: inequality

Getting Better?

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday June 1 2018.


I recently purchased the 50th anniversary remastering of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I am enjoying hearing Paul McCartney optimistically sing “It’s getting better all the time” with John Lennon cynically commenting in the background, “Couldn’t get any worse”. Is it getting better?

Sometimes the unkindness of humankind makes me weep. A gang of disreputable dogs hangs around the shopping precinct near my home. I would not blame the shopkeepers for chasing them away. If you are trying to make a living by selling food, you do not want a pile of dog turds covered in flies in front of your establishment. Most of the shopkeepers tolerate the dogs and even feed them. Anonymous strangers see that the dogs get veterinary attention when necessary. There is kindness. I am thinking of the sort of mentality that would allow someone to dump a dog on the street.

There are many who lament the state of the world today and bemoan the cruelty of modern humans. Steven Pinker is not one of them – he is an optimist. In his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Pinker, a Canadian cognitive scientist who teaches at Harvard, covers similar ground to that trodden in his 2011 book The Better Angels of our Nature.

In the 2011 book, he argued that violence in the world has declined. He specifically rejects the view that humans are inherently violent, but cites reasons for the decline in violence, reasons which have to do with controlling human behaviour: the rise of the modern nation-state and judiciary “with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force”; the rise of “technological progress [allowing] the exchange of goods and services over longer distances and larger groups of trading partners,” – people tend not to want to kill their customers; increasing respect for “the interests and values of women”; the rise of forces such as literacy, mobility, and mass media, which “can prompt people to take the perspectives of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them”; an “intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs,” which reframes “violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.”

The books were generally very well-received (fans included Bill Gates and Peter Singer) but there were dissenting voices. John Gray described Enlightenment Now as “embarrassing and feeble”. Statistician Nassim Taleb wrote:  “Pinker doesn’t have a clear idea of the difference between science and journalism, or the one between rigorous empiricism and anecdotal statements.”

Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct, agrees with much of what Pinker says but finds the books dangerous because of his unearned influence with the world’s movers and shakers –  a “coterie of neoliberal technocrats “. “His work offers an intellectual rationale for many in the elite to continue practices that imperil humanity.” Lent accuses Pinker of being blasé about the fact that humankind is destroying the planet. When Pinker does address the issue, he relies on a combination of market-based solutions and technological fixes, ignoring the fact that “Transnational corporations, which currently constitute sixty-nine of the world’s hundred largest economies, are driven only by increasing short-term financial value for their shareholders, regardless of the long-term impact on humanity.”

Pinker claims that “racist violence against African Americans… plummeted in the 20th century”. Lent dismisses this: “Instead, it has become institutionalized into US national policy” with African- American males six times more likely to be arrested than white men and one in every three African-American men can currently expect to be imprisoned in their lifetime.

The greatest flaw is Pinker’s assertion that “income inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being”. In 2017, the richest 10 percent of Americans owned 77 percent of the nation’s wealth. The wealthiest 1% experienced nearly 65 times the absolute income growth as the poorest half of the world’s population. Economist Mujeed Jamaldeen has calculated that it would take over 250 years for the income of the poorest 10% to merely reach the global average income of $11/day. There is enough evidence that inequality is harmful. In blithely dismissing it Pinker undermines his whole case.

Another economist, Ganesh Sitaraman, in his book The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic , argues that inequality brings “an erosion of trust as people become more dissimilar, interact less, and begin to see themselves as different from others in society. In political terms, the elites soon begin to believe they are more capable of governing society. This kind of thinking is inherently at odds with republican government, which is rooted directly in the right of the people to govern themselves.”

The Trump presidency is increasing inequality and class conflict. Throughout the US, young people are sinking into addiction and jobs are disappearing. Gun ownership is increasing and people are joining militia groups. Armed confrontations have taken place in Montana, New Mexico, Texas, and California. There were more than fifty attacks on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service employees, including two by snipers, between 2010 and 2014.A militia leader from Utah was arrested in 2016 after trying to bomb a BLM outpost in Arizona. How will these people react if Trump is ousted?

Someone was evil enough to mercilessly and persistently beat a dog that lived rough near our shops to the extent that the poor creature’s spine was damaged. Another human was good enough to take the dog home and care for it. It is now happy and healthy. Evil people carried out the Sri Lankan pogrom in 1983; decent people were courageous enough to risk their own lives to protect Tamil strangers. During every disaster, including the current flooding, individuals take risks to help their fellow humans. Let us be optimistic about the altruism endemic to what Isaiah Berlin called “the crooked timber of humanity”. Keep an eye open for the


Inequality -Europe and the Precariat

A version of this article appeared in the July 2014 issue of Echelon magazine


European Values and Inequality

In theory, the core of the EU project was opportunity. Free movement, competition, a single market and non-discrimination should be pillars of an equal society. Nevertheless, socio-economic inequalities in Europe are greater today than in the 1980s and many who oppose free movement were recently elected to the European Parliament.


Five years of austerity policies have led to a further deterioration of living standards. Europe’s social model of welfare will no longer be sustainable if a majority of citizens can barely scrape by and have no security or opportunity. In Greece, infant mortality is up 43% because of stringent cuts to healthcare services. In Spain, over 400,000 families lost their homes. There were 4.5million people in Ireland on Census night (10th April 2011). There are an estimated 1,300 ghost estates in Ireland with 300,000 houses lying empty. There are plans to demolish these estates. In 2012, Focus Ireland, a charity for homeless people dealt with 8,000 customers.


Spending on education has effectively dropped in most EU countries. Youth unemployment affects a quarter of young Europeans and in Greece and Spain, 50% of the young are unemployed.

A study launched by UK deputy PM (at time of writing) Nick Clegg (educated at the private Westminster School and Cambridge University), shows that in Britain, one child in five is on free school meals. Only seven per cent of children attend private schools, but these schools provide 70 per cent of High Court judges and 54 per cent of FTSE 100 CEOs.

David Boyle, a fellow at the New Economics Foundation think-tank, warned that rising property prices would effectively render the middle classes extinct as the dream of home ownership becomes ever more distant. The “squeezed middle”, would need to take three or four jobs just to make ends meet and no longer have time for cultural activities.

Causes of Inequality

Over the last few decades, large international corporations have been powerful generators of inequality. By the early 1980s, the CEOs of the largest 350 US companies were getting 30 times as much as the average production worker. By the start of the 21st century, they were getting between 200 and 400 times as much. Among the 100 largest UK companies, the average CEO received 300 times the minimum wage.

The EU encourages cuts in social spending, even presenting them as preconditions of recovery. They argue that recovery depends on “employer-friendly practices”. “Labour flexibility” really means crushing trade unions. More than a third of all workers in the private sector were union members forty years ago; now, fewer than seven percent are members of a trade union. France and Spain used to have powerful unions, but today less than ten per cent of their workforce is unionised.


Employment is becoming increasingly unstable. Privatisation of government services, short-term and part-time contracts, temping agencies and low wages undermine job security. The British economist Guy Standing has coined the term precariat. Professor Standing argues that the dynamics of globalization have led to a fragmentation of older class divisions. The precariat consists of temporary and part-time workers, interns, call-centre employees, sub-contracted labour – those who are engaged in insecure forms of labour that are unlikely to help them build a desirable identity or career or guarantee them secure accommodation.

Spirit Level and Malignant Growth

The Spirit Level is a book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published in 2009. The book argues that there are “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. The authors claim that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in unequal rich countries.


Capital in the 21st Century, by French economist Thomas Piketty, focuses on wealth and income inequality in Europe and the US since the 18th century. The book’s central thesis is that inequality is not an accident but rather a feature of capitalism that requires state intervention to reverse. The book argues that unless capitalism is reformed, the democratic order is in danger.

Piketty predicts that the rise in inequality under neoliberalism will increase throughout the 21st century, reaching Victorian levels by 2050. He argues that if growth is low, labour’s bargaining power weak, and the returns on capital high, this will encourage speculation rather than entrepreneurial risk-taking or working hard to accumulate wealth.

Arguments against Promoting Equality

Companies are reluctant to implement equality measures because of what they see as heavy costs, which reduce their profit margins and impede their investment capacity. Equality and anti-discrimination contradict the ‘freedom’ of their enterprise, as executives would not be free to hire and do business the way they choose. They argue that inequality is not systemic but a failure of individuals to be resilient.

The engine of the neo-liberal system is widespread discrimination, and inequalities of class and geographical location. Globalisation so far has ensured that cheaper labour can always be found somewhere else. Some entrepreneurs have been cynical enough to claim that discrimination makes perfect business sense and should be acknowledged as such. From this perspective, removing inequalities would bring this very profitable system (for a few) to collapse.

Arguments for Equality

Almost all production and wealth creation is the result of cooperation. Society as a whole and its infrastructure contributes to everyone’s income and living standards. Accumulated technical and scientific knowledge, an educated population, transport systems and electricity supplies help the wealthy to become and remain wealthy. The combined efforts of vast numbers of people affect the living standards of even the rich.

Promoting equality is an investment. Excluding able individuals entails a huge loss of talent and skill when the economy needs to harness all potential creativity. A 2012 talent shortage survey found that around one in three employers around the world found it difficult to fill vacancies. Talent is often wasted because of discrimination.


In a speech to the Sutton Trust, Mr Clegg admitted that the Coalition “cannot afford” to leave a legacy like the current position. “Morally, economically, socially: whatever your justification, the price is too high to pay. We must create a more dynamic society.” Clegg’s statement is part of thetherapeutic management of inequality”- the officially sanctioned smokescreen of seeming to promote fairness, social justice, social equality, and equal access to education. A fear of what UK PM David Cameron called a “broken society” is the organising principle behind a wide range of measures to regulate supposedly dysfunctional behaviour. The “middle” sees itself as living in a nightmare world being ripped apart by greedy bankers at one extreme and sub-human Chav ‘trailer trash’ at the other.

Standing noted that, lacking any work-based identity, or sense of belonging to a labour community, the psychology of the precariat is liable to be determined by anger, anomie, anxiety, and alienation. Perhaps the precariat will rise up but they are not the real vandals. The one per cent or ten per cent’s constant looting of the middle classes as well as the working class engenders resentment. In a context of too much debt and slow or no growth, austerity weakens the body politic rather than strengthening it. Austerity only really helps those who are wealthy enough to take advantage cheaper asset prices and sell the assets back later.

The EU needs to remember its founding principles and take action to complete the banking union, protect small savers from the banksters, create decent jobs, implement a realistic investment policy, and protect consumers and the environment. Equality must be at the heart of every European policy.


Reconciliation in Canada

And yet where in your history books is the tale

Of the genocide basic to this country’s birth?
–Buffy St. Marie

Readers of this series may be surprised to learn that Canada has a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Canada has the image of a civilised beacon for human rights. In Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index Canada comes in at a saintly number nine compared to UK’s 17, USA’s 19 and Sri Lanka’s 79. Canada is never shy of berating Sri Lanka on human rights.

Why does Canada need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Actually, the TRC is focused on a specific issue rather than on human rights in general. In June 2008, the Canadian government undertook an effort to understand the history, abuses and intergenerational impact of the Indian Residential School (IRS) system that operated in Canada for over 100 years.

The IRS system consisted of a nation-wide network of church- and state-run schools focused on separating  indigenous (First Nation, Inuit, and Métis)  children from their cultural heritage. From 1920 into the 1960s, attendance was mandatory for aboriginal children aged 7 to 15. Priests and Indian Agents forcibly removed many children from their families and sent them to the schools. It is estimated that more than 150,000 children went through these schools.

Children were severely punished if they used their native language. Food and medical services were inadequate. Overcrowding contributed to the spread of disease. The mortality rate for residential school students was 40%. Children were often subjected to severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

One theory suggested that the name of Canada came from the Spanish cá nada,  meaning there is nothing there. There may have been no gold or silver but there were people. Scientists believe  that bones and artefacts prove  First Nations people have lived in what is now Canada for more than  12,000 years.

Canadian prosperity has long been tied to the existence of an “extractive frontier” where population densities were very low, and natural resources were abundant, untapped and essentially free. Inexpensive access to new lands depended upon a policy of keeping Aboriginal peoples separate and unequal, with neither the rights nor the power to demand full value for their labour and materials – or the land which was stolen from them.


According to Reverend Kevin Daniel Annett, there was a “Canadian Holocaust” and mainstream Christian churches were and are complicit in it. Annett claims  that the total number of aboriginals killed in the Canadian genocide by the British Crown is approximately 25 million people. Annett claims that over 50,000 aboriginal children are still missing and unaccounted for from the residential schools operated by the Catholic and other churches on behalf of the British Crown. Many believe that Annett is a charlatan or a madman. (He does bear a remarkable resemblance to mad poet Robert Lowell!).

How do the descendents of those people who occupied Canada 12,000 years ago fare today? The effects of the forced introduction of European culture and values, the dispossession of Aboriginal lands, and the imposition of alien modes of governance are still felt today. Underlying the problems of poverty, poor health and substance abuse is a loss of identity and helplessness from having their values oppressed and their rights ignored.

As of the 2006 census, there were 1,172,790 Aboriginal people in Canada, or 3.8% of the national population. In 1995, 55.6% of Aboriginal people living in Canadian cities were poor. 52.1% of all Aboriginal children were poor in 2003. First Nations people experienced a disproportionate burden of many infectious diseases. Similarly, the tuberculosis rate among First Nations people remained eight to ten times that seen in the Canadian population as a whole. Only 56.9% of homes were considered adequate in 1999­.

In 2012 three UN expert committees rated Canada’s  performance on meeting rights commitments — and found it wanting. An Amnesty International report found “a range” of “ongoing and serious human rights challenges,” especially for indigenous peoples. There was a disproportionate number of missing or murdered indigenous women on Vancouver’s downtown East Side from 1997-2002, and their cases did not receive equal treatment by police. AI says that UN recommendations have too often been ignored, and the implementation process is so “cloaked in secrecy” that most Canadians have no idea whether the government plans to act on them. Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch said that “the epidemic of violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada is a national problem and it demands a national enquiry.”

An interviewer who met Annett described his “unexpected demeanour and the intelligent clarity of his words”.  She  asked him what he wanted. “A war crimes trial. Returning the children’s remains, first of all, for a proper burial”.

Rather similar to what Canada wants from Sri Lanka. Canada has had longer to think about it.

Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

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