Crisis? The need for an inter-temporal and international perspective

by Sam Bright

There is no doubt that we are in a time of crisis. We are told this every day, by politicians and newspapers, people talk about it in the pub and around the dinner table. The fact of crisis forms the backdrop for all political and economic debate. It is altering the structure of our education system, through funding cuts to arts programs and parents keen that their children obtain more ‘vocational’ qualifications to help them find jobs in the bleak future we all face. Belts are tightened, pennies saved, and a siege mentality adopted.

The UK’s economy appears to be stagnating, with growth weak or perhaps even approaching recession. Unemployment has reached a 17 year high, with 2.68m people out of work, a rate of 8.4%. Protesters are occupying some of London’s most visible locations, and are fighting decisions by the courts to evict them. The consequence of our current economic weakness: unemployment through jobs lost in both public and private sectors, cuts to welfare payments, and a depressed national sentiment.

I would not deny for a second the harrowing effect of these factors on individuals in the UK: one cannot but be moved by the Guardian’s story of families struggling to cope with reduced benefits for their disabled children, and this is but one of a litany of cases across the nation where people are suffering terribly in our current plight. Change for the better is certainly required, starting with ensuring a policy focus on the poorest and least advantaged.

However, I would suggest that in our near-panic, we should be sure to see where we stand in international and inter-temporal perspective.

Inter-temporally, there is little doubt that we in the West now enjoy higher standards of living than at any time in our history. OK, so there is some debate as to whether living standards were higher in 2007 than 2012, and of course it is of concern if standards stagnate or even go into a temporary (if slight) decline. But in the greater scheme of things, and at the risk of incurring the wrath of anyone who does not receive a large bonus at the end of each year (to clarify, I do not), in terms of material standards of living we really have never had it quite so good. As Hopi Sen stated at last weekend’s Fabian conference, ‘We must not underestimate how great social democratic capitalism is’. There is much to be improved: but looking at the material progress of our society over an extended period of time, it is hard to conclude that we now live in an era of relative crisis.

Internationally, the contrast is yet more stark. In India, for example, a middle income, democratic state, the World Bank estimates that 27.5% of the population live below the national poverty line. 62.5 out of every 1000 children born in India will never reach their 5th birthday, compared to 5.4 out of 1000 in the UK. And India is a (lower) middle income country. In low income countries, the situation is far worse. For example, in Niger, 59.5% of the population live below the national poverty line, and 43.1% of the population live on less than $1.25/day. The situation degenerates further in states such as Somalia, a state with no real government and overrun by terrorists, pirates, and gangsters, where almost 1 million refugees live over the border in neighboring states, and a further 1.3 million are internally displaced.

My aim is not to belittle the disturbing situations of many of those most affected by unemployment, cuts, and economic uncertainty in the UK. Rather, my goals are twofold.

Firstly, we should recognize that however bad we may feel that we have it, others live or have lived in far worse situations. I would venture to say that the large majority of people who have ever lived have done so in far more difficult circumstances than the present UK population. Obviously, the nature of the difficulties and challenges that we face alter over time: whereas once there may have been little prospect of facing a life of dismal unemployment, now there is a far reduced prospect of a life of absolute poverty in the UK (whilst recognizing the significant ongoing problem of relative poverty). We have not fought a major war since the 1940s, an almost unprecedented period of relative peace. We live longer than ever, consume more resources per person, and enjoy a wider range of food and other comforts such as TV, the internet, and other electrical luxuries.

Secondly, we should make sure that we do not revert to navel gazing, protectionism, or neo-colonialist capitalist policies in order to escape our present predicament. European imperialism caused much harm to Africa, Asia, and Latin America (amongst others) and the legacies that we have left are mixed at best, and generally far closer to awful. From both our historic misbehavior and present position of relative luxury, we owe a moral obligation to our friends living outside the developed world to ensure continued and much increased solidarity with them as they struggle to raise their own standards of living, achieve democratic freedoms, and see an end to the war and terror that rules the lives of so many.

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