Defend Truth


The Unbearable Brightness of being a Columnist


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

It is important to go beyond surface forms of equality, and ensure that a justice element is inserted in one’s analysis; unless, of course, you think that “the market” should be the final arbiter of all human endeavour.

There are times when it seems like the press, or individual journalists, rather, do more to censor the news than the government. (I should hasten to add that this is no licence for the state to intervene in the freedom of expression and of the press.)

Journalists can censor the news by outright omission, intellectual occlusion, and by selecting or emphasising issues in particular ways. This framing is often done in ways that suit editors, publishers and the owners of newspapers. Columnists, as pundits all of us who have the privilege of having a space to voice our opinions, are a breed apart, though. We tend to get away with much more than the poor grunts who pound the streets straining under a carrying pole trying, with much difficulty, to balance professionalism and ethics – and pay children’s school fees and a mortgage.

Nonetheless, when I read the published work of other columnists, I am usually mightily impressed. I often wish I had their skills, their insights and their confidence. Of course, I also wish I was paid for what I write. Sometimes, just sometimes, I see holes or contradictions in what the most respected journalists write. Most of the time I acknowledge the unspoken code that exists among journalists; that we don’t criticise each other directly and publicly. Very rarely do I find a columnist sufficiently dom astrant (brazenly stupid), to respond. Sometimes, however, I feel the need to respond to a columnist, or the emboldened stupidity of a daft punk Cabinet Minister, especially if it is one of those CEO-whisperers in the business press.

A recent column, the one that positions itself in opposition to any minor change that may lead to large social change and transformation, was so packed with prejudices and contradictory statements, it reduced highly complex and controversial matters to the simplest of bumper-sticker philosophies and catchy stock phrases. In some ways the column was not new. It was precisely the same arguments, claims, statements, assertions that the columnist has madE for several years, with only the slightest changes to make it easier for sub-editors to write a new headline. This is probably the cynosure of the availability cascade; say something often enough and everyone in your group believes it to be true. It also encapsulates how vertically integrated privilege can harnesses the might of the media to project individual opinions, and place them beyond criticism.

There are so many things wrong with the column – its certainties emboldened after a walk through Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of Harvard University – that space will not allow me to critically engage it in its entirety. You can probably pick any paragraph and unearth rather pedestrian analyses. Two things stood out, though. The one is a rather dismissive attitude to inequality, and the other is the suggestion that inequality was not an issue in the environs of Harvard University.

Now, if Harvard and its environs were on another planet, other than our own, that is, and if you have no problem working with incomplete information, or you build your career on mono-causal explanations and selection biases, you may think that everyone in Cambridge Massachusetts is equal. You might also believe that concerns over inequality is like the duck-lips trend, and everyone just wishes it would stop.

What does the evidence tell us? Well, almost 15 years ago, when I first started studying global inequality, evidence showed that the average of Boston’s top 5 percent of households earned almost 44 times more than the average of the bottom 20 percent. By 2013, Boston was the third most unequal big city in the USA – behind Atlanta and San Francisco. The current global crisis has widened the gap between rich and poor.

Earlier this year, Michael Greenstone, an economist at MIT, tabled research findings in a report, the Hamilton Project, which confirmed that disproportionate spending on education has widened the gap between rich and poor.

“The most concerning thing is that there are initial signs that inequality is starting to bleed into social mobility,” which is “at the heart of the American experience,” Greenstone said.

In truth, Harvard University is among the educational institutions that reflect the growing inequality gap in the education system of the United States. Explaining his findings, Greenstone said: “Students from high-income families are pulling away from their low-income peers…. College graduation rates have increased dramatically over the past few decades, but most of these increases have been achieved by high-income Americans.”

Early last year, Cambridge itself confirmed that individual and family incomes had risen dramatically over the preceding 30 years, and that inequality has risen pari passu with increases in poverty. One of the ironies is that Harvard University owns property that houses some of the poorer people of Cambridge. So much for equality in Cambridge.

The columnist’s suggestion that everyone is suddenly concerned about inequality, as if we’re all prepubescents intrigued by tiny new hairs in strange places, ignores a body of scholarship, evidence-based scholarship, produced by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, and by Branko Milanovic, at least a decade before the Frenchman published Capital. Their work shows that the United States has become the most unequal country in the European world. Many economists will point to the start of the 1980s as an important marker in the growth of inequality. This coincides with the Reagan presidency in the United States. Inequality is not certainly not ‘new,’ but evidence shows that it has increased dramatically around the world over the past 30-35 years.

If, however, you emerged from an ideological dreamscape in, say, 2014, you might think that Piketty’s work on inequality was ‘new’ and a passing fad. If you’re obeisant to the liberal orthodoxy that colours the sky of your ideological dreamscape, you might cast aspersions on discussions about inequality, and through masterful lexical legerdemain, you might avoid the shadows and darkness of inequality and poverty to conceal, more than reveal problems in society, in order to confirm your own views. The difficulty that liberals have is accepting that free market economies generate substantial inequality. There is a vast and growing body of work produced by some of the world’s best economists to substantiate this claim. There is no getting around that. Liberalism encourages competition; there are winners and losers in competitive environments. The problem, with respect to inequality, is that liberals are not generally not concerned with equality. They are, generally, also not terribly concerned with distribution. They have an unflinching belief in the generation of wealth and on growth, as an end itself, that verges on pornographic.

Wealth or growth is not where the problem lies. The problem is with distribution. What my own research over a decade has shown is that if society is unable to share the wealth and prosperity generated by its labours, inequality increases and, whether you like it or not, it generates iniquitous conditions across society. Evidence shows that unequal access to opportunities, outcomes, and benefits – as well as race or gender-based inequality – can have dire social, political and legal consequences.

It is important, therefore, to go beyond surface forms of equality, and ensure that a justice element is inserted in one’s analysis; unless, of course, you think that “the market” should be the final arbiter of all human endeavour.

As it goes, one of the rather silly lines that pops up in so many discussions on growth refers to “a rising tide” lifting all boats. The people who repeat it most often lay it down as “commonsensical”, along with other bumper-sticker philosophies, and are quite astonished when they are questioned. Of course, they avoid questions like: Big boats or small boats? Boats with navigation systems, or without navigation systems? Rusty and rickety old boats that will sink as soon as the tide rises? How much water? This is the problem with crude empirical statements; they do not stand the test of scrutiny. South Africa enjoyed a period of growth during the Mbeki era; it certainly did not raise all boats. In fact, inequality continued to rise.

The judgments and assertions made by editors, and columnists, for that matter, like most people in positions of power, are invariably directly related to and constitutive of their social position. You become an editor of a business newspaper because you position yourself to get the job, and when you get the job all you have to do is reproduce whatever it is that placed you there in the first place. It helps, of course, if you’re the potestatem post thronum. Then you can say what you want to, because the vertically segmented privilege you have gathered over 50 years or so, means never being wrong. All you have to do from time to time is throw in pathetic reference to a childhood in the Eastern Cape and stir….

I should be careful, especially if I want to work again in this town. Politicians are not the only public figures that bear grudges or that are vengeful. What I will say is this: All of us, columnists, who have the power to influence public opinion should stop considering ourselves as innocent bystanders in a society at war with itself. DM


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