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Yesterday’s lesson focused on inequality: the various forms it can take; how economic inequality is measured (via the Lorenz curve and Gini coefficient), and how some countries compare based on this; why we might consider inequality unfair (note that this is argumentatively important as concepts or judgements like this are too often simply assumed or claimed without evidence or justification, and equality in particular is not a universally accepted as positive); and some general ways in which societies might attempt to resolve or at least reduce this problem.

This was followed by a choice between 3 videos on inequality and poverty, each dealing with one country: Singapore, China, or the USA.

The (main) video for Singapore is the shortest, at 25 minutes long. The world’s richest city, a 2013 broadcast under Al-Jazeera’s regular 101 East programme focusing on Asia, looks at Singapore’s attractiveness to the very rich, the contrast of this with those at the bottom of the economic ladder struggling to keep up with rising costs, and how such inequality has led to increasing discontent — and how attempts to resolve this problem could risk driving away the rich through higher taxes. This conundrum of having to balance economic growth with social pressures is something that has become increasingly significant in the context of Singapore; indeed, going further, it is not hard to point to worse inequities regarding foreign workers which the Singaporean economic model apparently relies on — or exploits.

The videos for both China and the USA are from BBC’s Why Poverty?, a series of 8 hour-long documentaries and over 30 short films commissioned from film-makers around the world (as well as an accompanying debate) examining the various causes, effects and solutions surrounding poverty around the world.

For China, the documentary by Chen Weijun (also the director of Please Vote For Me) looks at the phenomenon of China’s ‘ant tribe’ or yi zu (蚁族), where large numbers of young people — many of whom are graduates — find themselves living in cramped, overcrowded residences akin to worker dormitories, and stuck in low-pay jobs. This reflects the failure of the traditional East Asian model of education as a path out of poverty (especially with the privatisation and poor regulation of educational institutions), and highlights the growing discontent of many young Chinese who, discouraged by the seeming futility of their efforts in chasing their dreams, increasingly see China’s economic growth as only benefiting a privileged minority.

In the USA, the richest country in the world, the financial centre of New York has been, for a long time, the locus of economic privilege, most obviously symbolised by Wall Street. Based on the book 740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building, the film starts by pointing out that there is a Park Avenue in both Manhattan, the financial heart of New York, and the neighbouring Bronx, home to many of New York’s poorest, and uses this a launching pad to provide a sense of the scale of the inequality present in American society — and, more importantly, how current levels of inequality are extreme when compared to those of the 20th century. In particular, by looking at the address given in the book title, where a disproportionate number of the ultra-rich live, the film paints the picture of a group of ‘masters of the universe’ that control the USA. Using the case study of a psychological research study based on the board game Monopoly, the director attempts to show how those who become rich can often believe themselves deserving of that wealth — even in cases where the rules are obviously rigged in their favour. (More broadly, the idea that the wealthy class believe themselves to be deserving of their wealth is arguably even more applicable today, notwithstanding attempts to point out their dependence on other factors.)

By examining the lobbying and fund-raising activities of the ultra-rich and pointing out the various tax and regulatory advantages that they enjoy, the film goes on to argue that there has developed a self-perpetuating inequality at the top of the system, where the elite ultra-rich use their wealth to influence political decisions in their favour. This last issue of political influence has been one of the main issues, especially in response to the financial crises in recent years: many have argued that the crises were largely due to overly-lax regulation, pointing in particular to the repeal in 1999 of the Glass-Steagall Act, enacted in 1933 after the Great Depression to separate commercial banking from investment and securities activities, and one which the Volcker Rule (proposed in response to the 2007 crisis) was meant to emulate. Meanwhile, in a similar vein, many have argued that the treatment of the banks and especially the bankers involved in the financial crisis has been far too lenient, given the scale of the damage — a view further reinforced by the decision of many such financial institutions to issue large bonuses in the midst of the financial crisis.