We need to find ways of stimulating people to debate inequality

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Donald Trump has pulled off a masterstroke of marketing for the film Parasite. I would probably have gone to see it anyway, but once I’d heard his sniffy “Can we get Gone With The Wind back?” I was duty-bound to see it.

Having now seen it, I’m not its greatest fan.

It’s certainly original, but I can’t help feeling its missed a trick. It does make for uncomfortable viewing at times. For Trump, that discomfort probably comes from the massive differences in wealth between the two central families in the film, and the beautifully ambiguous meaning of the title leaves you asking “Who is sucking the blood out of whom?” – a level of self-reflection the 45th president is probably not used to.

We need films that force us to discuss inequality in today’s world. The differences between the richest and poorest even within a single company are at times obscene, and it’s not just liberals who reach the point where they wonder how far the disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest can get before it indicates a dysfunctional society, if not the pre-conditions for social revolution.

As a good liberal, I believe in equality of opportunity. I realise that won’t lead to equality of outcome, and I’m OK with that as long as earned wealth doesn’t tamper with the basic rights of everyone in society (eg. we are all equal under the law, we are all of equal human value even if some have different economic values compared with others, etc). I know wealth currently does buy privileges it shouldn’t (look at the law!) but I’m talking about the society we should be striving for.

That leads me to wonder whether we should put limits on wealth discrepancies. If we put limits on harmful emissions, why can’t we limits the extent to which the top-earner in a company can be paid compared with the bottom-earner? That’s as harmful for society as emissions. It’s hard to create the sense that everyone in a company is pulling together if the big cheese is earning more than 500 times what the courier is earning.

Would a manifesto commitment to limit the discrepancy to, say, 100 or even 50 times be good social liberal politics?

At the same time, as a good liberal, I struggle with redistribution of wealth. I have no difficulty with wealth redistribution as a corrective to wealth that’s been unfairly amassed. But if we get our basic society right so that all wealth is legitimately earned, surely wealth redistribution shouldn’t be necessary? If we create equality of opportunity, value people who work at all levels of society and industry, and don’t allow the build-up of riches to confer unfair benefits, then surely any discrepancies of wealth will be a natural result of human differences, no?

Given the importance of the equality debate, a film like Parasite that creates a rich family that is infiltrated by a poor family solving their financial problems by using their guile to gain employment with the rich family (albeit dishonestly) should be at the centre of social debate. And up to a point it is.

The problem is that, having created this fascinating situation, the director Bong Joon-ho then goes and spoils it by turning his potentially mind-opening denouement into a bloodbath, which is both horrifically gory and comically farcical. It means the point where everyone has to confront the morality of their actions never comes, because it descends into bloody and implausible slapstick.

 

Bong himself won’t worry. He’s walked away with a number of Oscars, including best picture and best director, so within the realms of his art he’s hit the heights. And people like me have to recognise that cinema isn’t always about social stimulation but sometimes about sheer entertainment.

 

It’s just a shame, because those of us seriously worried about inequalities of wealth are always seeking popular ways of getting people to think.

Parasite could have been one of them. Oh well, back to the dull and boring ways of trying to build a harmonious society.

* Chris Bowers, a former director of the Environmental Transport Association and communications consultant to the European NGO umbrella Transport & Environment, oversaw the development and writing of the transport chapter of the 2019 review of the Liberal Democrats’ climate change policy. He is standing as a target seat candidate in the East Sussex County Council elections.

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12 Comments

  • william francis 6th Mar '20 - 4:32pm

    I’d be on favour of wage differental caps for executives either based on the median salary in a firm or on the lowest paid full time worker.

    Otherwise, it will a huge disincentive for firms to hire part-time workers. In addition measures should be taken regarding firms using outsourcing to get around these caps.

    However , think the easiest solution to reducing ultra high salaries are ultra high top marginal rates of taxation for ultra high incomes. Like what we and the US had in previous decades.

  • In theory, yes, if we had a mostly equal distribution of wealth, then we wouldn’t need to redistribute very much.

    However, as it’s more straightforward to make money when you already have money – being poor is expensive – some level of redistribution is always going to be needed to stop it naturally unequalising over time.

    Similarly things like sick pay, disability support payments, etc. are always going to be necessary under anything resembling our current economic model.

    And in the meantime what we have is a highly unequal distribution of wealth, so in the short- and medium-term we need more redistribution, not less. Even a 50:1 payment ratio would still allow a CEO to be paid a million pounds a year directly while keeping most of their staff on near-minimum wage. They could then supplement that by taking large dividends on company shares (which their minimum wage workers don’t have the disposable income to afford), putting savings into high-interest investments (their workers don’t have savings to invest), and perhaps outsourcing their lowest paid staff entirely to keep them off the books (to pick an obvious loophole that’s tough to close).

  • One thing that is often studiously avoided by those shouting about inequality in the UK the loudest, is that even the poorest in our society are fabulously wealthy compared to the vast majority of their fellow citizens on this planet.

    The logical endpoint of all this is that “we” should give all “our” wealth to other countries around the planet, even the poorest. Hmm?

  • It is very unfair that one is born ugly, another handsome, one intelligent, another stupid (if that word is still allowed, these days), etc. etc… it is all terribly unfair but that’s life, I guess!

    If you want to be really democratic you could have a turnover tax on companies set at zero but that could be increased by the popular vote via the internet… so say you have an energy company paying its directors millions and ripping off consumers then by popular vote that turnover tax could increase to 5-10 percent until such time as prices and salaries fall. Or a company sells products that fail as soon as the guarantee runs out, or one that charges sky-high loan rates… the list is probably endless.

    Another thing, if someone earns over 100k, say, then they would have to pay the top rate of tax on their total income with no allowances, or rollovers, or using dividends, pensions contributions, etc to avoid that rate of tax.

  • William Wallace 7th Mar '20 - 12:11pm

    Gross inequalities of wealth are also gross inequalities of power. We are seeing the impact of such inequalities in US and UK politics and political debate, with right-wing politicians, think tanks and media dominant partly because they are so generously funded – often from offshore accounts. It’s hard to maintain a democratic and open society if the concentration of wealth becomes too great. Francis Bacon put it well: ‘Money is like muck; it is best if it is widely spread.’

  • Gross inequality of wealth and income is the breeding ground for anarchy and popular revolt to bring about change. Liberals believe in equality of opportunity. Everyone needs the opportunity to be able to get a job that pays enough to support themselves and their family and the opportunity to be able to have a decent home that they can call their own. For far too many at present (in particular the younger generation) these opportunities do not exist in any real sense.
    We can either endeavour to address these issues as a society or face the societal consequences of the disillusionment and resentment it breeds.

  • Sue Sutherland 7th Mar '20 - 1:38pm

    There obviously has to be an initial set of policies to overcome historic wealth accumulation in order to create a society of roughly equal opportunity. Then we can proceed with policies to maintain that.

  • Sue Sutherland,

    this article makes a similar point arguing the merits of a basic income https://progressiveeconomyforum.com/blog/100-policies-basic-income/

    “Sooner or later it will be seen that the only sensible way of reducing the widespread economic insecurity is by gradually building up a basic income as an anchor of a new distribution system. It is no panacea, and must be built alongside better public services and supplementary benefits for those with special needs. But the left has offered no alternative way of providing everybody with basic economic security. If it does not offer that, it will only win elections by default.”

    “The primary reasons for moving in the direction of a basic income are ethical. If we accept private inherited wealth – ‘something for nothing’ – then we should accept the principle of ‘social dividends’ on inherited public wealth, created by many past generations. It would also compensate those without the lucky talents rewarded in a market economy, and compensate all commoners for the enclosure and privatisation of our commons.”

    “It would also enhance personal freedom – something those on the ‘left’ should want, but which it allowed the ‘right’ to claim in the past century. The emancipatory value of a basic income would exceed its monetary value, unlike any viable alternative. It would also provide everybody with basic security, not only a human right but also a superior public good – you having it would not deprive me of it, and all of us having it would increase its value for all of us.”

    “It is affordable. It should start at a low level, as the funding is built up…the main funding should come from levies on all revenue from use of our commons, which are forms of rent, starting with a Land Value Tax, ecological levies and a wealth-transfer levy, plus rolling back the 1,156 tax reliefs paid out each year. The 209 principal tax reliefs, most of which are very regressive, amount to over £400 billion of tax revenue foregone each year.”

    “In short, I plead with friends on the left to took afresh at what would be an emancipatory policy. It would not be a panacea but should be integral to a progressive strategy to revive the Enlightenment values that are the hallmark of a good society.”

  • Joe Bourke – But then gross inequality of wealth and income equality will definitely hinder equality of opportunity as well. Folks from families possessing great wealth and income already have better head start and thus greater opportunity compared to their poorer counterparts, e.g. better education opportunity, including extra private tuition, or professional/social networks and connections, and many others.

    Or, rich dudes bid up properties and drive up house prices and thus normal people can no longer buy homes.

  • As many of you have pointed out, those with money do have advantages that will be passed on to the next generation. That, understandably, affronts our sense of fair play but the alternative is a set of policies that would be far from liberal. Ban golf lessons, for they give your son/daughter an unfair chance of winning obscene amounts of cash on tour. Ban foreign holidays, or books in the house….how dare some children have these cultural advantages that will lead to educational success.
    By all means support policies that seek equality of outcome, but accept that this is socialism. Liberalism, in my view, seeks opportunity for all but accepts that perfect equality of opportunity will probably remain an aspiration. If we are concerned about the poorest, lets support a Universal Basic Income so that those who are struggling have a decent guaranteed income. If some others become filthy rich, we should be relaxed about that…..as long as they pay their taxes !!

  • I think that’s a little unfair on Bong Joon-ho. It would have had to have been an entirely different movie had he deviated from his stark and raw observations on South Korean society at the time, and if he did include transformative ideas that were a little too good it might not have been great for his career. To some extent he was already pushing the dialogue a bit in depicting the rat race as, ultimately, fruitless for most people: that is not a typical theme for films that become big in the mainstream. The ending sequences weren’t entirely to my taste either, but I don’t think it devalued the many details and themes running through the film.

    It also does remind us that class struggle and harsh inequalities are certainly not just linked with the West. I think it will take a global approach to really, properly develop a new system (that is neither purely capitalism or socialism) to keep the excesses of inequality at manageable levels. Many of the good redistributive ideas in theory would never happen in practice because special interests would quash them or use loopholes to get around them.

    On UBI, it’s a shame that Hull UBI trial didn’t go ahead. UBI is really something that needs to be tested, I think, and I’m pretty sure it’s not enough on its own.

  • It is a South Korean film about class inequality and social mores in South Korea. The critique built into the film is as much about the aspiration to appear Western and seeing life as a movie as a movie, as anything else . The window in the basement mirrors a cinema screen or widescreen TV that the family watches for entertainment. The poor family are actors playing parts by pretending to be things like English teachers educated in America, or nannies and chauffeurs. This flatters the wealthy family by making them feel more American and that they too are living a movie star reality. It erupts into violence in the end because it is also a genre film rooted horror cinema and the sub genre of home invasion movies. The film contains a streak of broad clownish comedy. Bong Joon-Ho has dabbled in Horror movies before with The Host, a monster movie. The surprising thing, to me, is that this South Korean genre film beat the usual worthy Oscar fair to nab best picture. Playful, comedic, horror films about the pitfalls of class don’t usual win awards. There are broader political themes but it is not from the social realist school of film making and owes more to something like Brian Yunza’s Society than, for example, Ken loach films.

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