Robbing collective Pauls to pay selective Peters
Ask any Uber driver the fairness of payment or any small businessman who sells to an aggregator like Amazon, and you will hear a litany of complaints about exploitation.
Published: 01st February 2021 07:30 AM | Last Updated: 01st February 2021 09:26 AM | A+A A-
This inversion of Rudyard Kipling’s statement will appear strange in 21st century capitalism. Kipling had adapted the original idiom to criticise the concept of income redistribution and collectivism. The title here will give a hint of Marx’s theory of surplus labour, which would have surely attracted the derisive appellation of ‘commie’ 30 years ago. But now not many will be surprised by how this trickle-up is functioning when the system pays lip service to trickle down and most are inured to the deep-rooted gaming that goes on to impoverish the average citizen i.e, the poor and the middle class.
Ask any Uber driver the fairness of payment or any small businessman who sells to an aggregator like Amazon, and you will hear a litany of complaints about exploitation. Eternal optimists will say this is better than the option available to them in the normal course and hence welcome. How is it different from the karmic theory, which explains suffering as something reasonably deserved as per one’s karma, or an oppressive employer with the questionable pride over doing a better job than others in giving a lifeline to many?
The wise may discard it as the inevitable consequence of ‘network economy’ where monopolies are inevitable. A good part of the 20th century passed by with a repulsion towards monopolies, cartelisation and consolidation of economic power. But the last 50 years gave rise to a different thinking, a new level of tolerance of economic power and emasculation of the state. The public choice theorist found out very correctly that there can be regulatory capture and politicians cannot be expected to always act in public interest. Instead politicians advance their agenda and interest. The world of knowledge always puts out some truth, though not the whole truth.
Following neo-classical thoughts, the vacation of the state from many fields took place. But the evacuation of the state from many activities did not mean it just withdrew. The state could still lay down the rules, change laws, support cronies and make winners out of the most unlikely personages. The borderline between politicians and entrepreneurs got blurred. It is a lot more complicated in a country that had an entrenched business class. Once they became powerful economically, a symbiotic relationship with politics had to emerge. Today, the vaccine approved for inoculation is suspected in terms of safety and efficacy. People are afraid that they are being short-changed in a venal set-up. One can get a similar thread in the farmers’ agitation.
They feel that their money in paise and small rupees will go away to big business houses and they are being robbed in the Byzantine process of law-making. Everyone knows that better than changing the rules of a game is changing the game itself. The more powerful one is, the better placed he/she is to change the rule. The change of the rule to support the better-off happens away from spotlight. When people are losing jobs, new ones are not being created and the economy is contracting, the stock market is going up like there is nothing called gravity.
The stock market does not care for the real economy. How does one explain the profitability going up when production and sales have declined, retrenchment of labour has taken place and no new hiring is in view? The companies have saved on labour costs by reducing salaries, reducing workforce or by pure mechanisation. The profit has come not because of innovation or cost saving but by purely bringing down the labour cost. The cognoscenti say not wages but profit is showing up in the stock market climb.
Automation and mechanisation with the easy bank loans, continuing with contingent labour with a much lower salary and lobbying for watering down the labour laws are going on for some time now. Some states have already suspended labour laws.
They will be surprised as to why there is no investment, no new employment and no new factories in their states. But the leitmotif is clear: the rise of pro-business policies with different shades of cronyism, not pro-market ones. It was spotted some time ago by Dani Rodrick and Arvind Subramanian that the Indian government is more pro-business than pro-market. It has only become more unabashed. In a recent article, the economist Angus Deaton said, “Milton Friedman insisted that inequality is not a problem and argued against efficient taxation.
The jurist Richard Posner, meanwhile, brought the ideas to the judiciary arguing that justice requires society to maximise wealth.” He added that this resulted in producers being favoured over consumers and the wealthy over the needy, and thus inequality came to be perceived not as a problem but a natural state. Consequently one can conclude that politicians the world over got inured to it. But politicians never forget their interests. Meanwhile, the court system became a system for the rich and the politicians. The latter had taken control over them to facilitate the selective Peters to have their way. Of course, there are several benefits in this approach including election funding.
The pandemic has given a wake-up call on many fronts. One of them is the arguable case of the state coming back like the Keynesians believed. But now what is clear is the collective Pauls are being robbed, even when stimulus is given. It is also difficult to distinguish between the politicians and businessmen. It is already impossible to say which is which as George Orwell said in his book ‘Animal Farm’.
If the state comes back, will the politicians pursue the interests of the plutocrats or the public interest of a kinder and more equal society? It is difficult to tell how the advantages are stacked up, but that is to the benefit of the selective Peters. Finally, everything is being transformed, whether creation or destruction are taking place or not.
Satya Mohanty (email@example.com)
Former Secretary, Government of India. Views are personal