‘Business as usual’ — or end of the neoliberal era?

One thing’s for sure – at least in the shortrun. The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a great deal of upheaval. Tragically, many have lost their jobs, and new jobs will be scarce.

May 24, 2020

By Anil Netto
One thing’s for sure – at least in the shortrun. The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a great deal of upheaval. Tragically, many have lost their jobs, and new jobs will be scarce.

But it has also forced many of us change our lifestyles – some tries for the better.

Many of us may have realised we don’t have to drive cars everyday. Some of us may be fortunate enough to work from home. For others though, being at home in cramped conditions maybe intolerable, especially if there is an abusive family member or limited space for children to run around.

Many businesses and other organisations may have come to realise they can function almost as well – or even just as well – with staff working from home. Other companies may have had to fold, especially those dealing with walk-in customers.

Many have turned to online shopping, but this brings its own set of problems – packaging and transport costs.

All this could translate to less demand for commercial space in the medium term. Perhaps less demand for residential space in urban areas as the jobless return to their home towns.

That would mean less demand for the new homes and offices built by developers. Even before the pandemic, developers were staring at a huge glut of unsold high-end property, and some observers had warned that there were just too many malls around.

With more people staying at home, will we continue to see fewer cars on the road? If that happens, there would be less need to build more highways and fewer new cars sold.

The same goes for air travel. Fewer passengers would mean less frequent flights. This in turn would mean less need for new airports and airport expansion.

Now, all this – though bad for the economy, or rather the old model of economic development – could well save the world from the  devastating impact of climate change. Before the pandemic, with carbon emissions rising, the planet was hurtling towards the point of no return.

Have we been given a reprieve – albeit at a huge cost to the economy and people’s livelihoods?

The pandemic has also taught us how we must boost our public healthcare system and how we have to protect it from the onslaught of privatisation and the misplaced priorities of medical tourism. (We also need to boost our own immune systems in every natural way we can.)

In all this, we found out who the truly “essential workers” in our lives were. Not the CEOs, high-flying exec and consultants, but the healthcare personnel in general hospitals, the delivery riders, the rubbish collectors and cleaners, the lorry drivers transporting food, the farmers, the fisherfolk, the supermarket and other retail staff, the cooks and restaurant staff.

We couldn’t have made it through without them. We saw the finest in social solidarity (though we also saw some ugly bits).

But beyond the platitudes and tributes, here’s the question – do the wages of these “essential workers” reflect the importance of the work they do? Are they able to earn a decent income, enough to raise a family with dignity?

What about those laid off from their jobs? How will they survive? Some have suggested a universal basic income and even some form of retrenchment benefits based on certain eligibility criteria.

Where will the money to finance all this come from? Already we hear calls for the reintroduction of a consumption tax - to be borne by the ordinary people, many of whom are suffering?

Some opportunistic political leaders around the world might take advantage of the public uncertainty and apprehension about the future to impose authoritarian rule, even suspending long-held democratic traditions.

But this is not the way to go. We need more accountability and transparency, greater checks and balances through institutions like parliament.

Isn’t it about time we put people first and move towards more sustainable sectors of the economy? Are those reaping billions of ringgit in profits from almost monopolistic sectors being taxed enough?

French economist Gabriel Zucman, in a book he co-authored with another French economist, found that the 400 wealthiest Americans pay a lower effective tax rate than any other income group – lower than nurses and cleaners!

Other billionaires and wealthy individuals stash their riches in tax havens abroad, or they may buy choice properties in exclusive areas in the West.

Some argue against higher taxes for the wealthy as they feel it would discourage the wealthy from investing or doing business in the country. But the US economy grew fast in the early 1950s, when its top tax rate was over 90 per cent.

And among the happiest countries in the world are those Nordic countries where  people enjoy strong social security support financed by higher taxes. It is time we stop this fixation with “economic growth”.

Much of the economic growth has come at a huge cost to society – pollution, loss of forests and parks, greenhouse gas emissions, toxic waste, loss of biodiversity. And much of the wealth generated has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Neoliberal economic policies have led to the deregulation of the financial sector, which in turn has led to the financialisation of the economy. Huge amounts of excess wealth are then invested in unproductive, even unsustainable sectors eg high-end property development and land reclamation to create playgrounds for the wealthy.

Neoliberalism has had a free run since the Margaret Thatcher-Ronald Reagan years of the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Around the world, we have witnessed the privatisation of essential services, budget cuts for public hospitals and universities along with tax cuts for the wealthy. Survival of the fittest was the name of the game, and people grew more self-centred and selfish in a cut-throat world. Isn’t it time for a transformed world that will reverse this trend and create a more humane and sustainable world, as part of the Great Awakening?

Instead of competition, it is time to promote cooperation.

Instead of me-first – community solidarity. Instead of waste and pollution – regeneration and new life.

This coming Pentecost, let us give real meaning to Romans 8:

22 We are well aware that the whole creation, until this time, has been groaning in labour pains.
23 And not only that: we too, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we are groaning inside ourselves, waiting with eagerness for our bodies to be set free.

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