Monday, September 17, 2012

The power of poverty thinking.

Entrenched poverty is as much a state of mind as it is of wallet.

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times...”

That has always been my most favoured line in the English language.

It came to mind again in the stark contrast between the return of the inspirational South African para-olympic team and talk about a poverty driven revolution on our doorstep. At what point, one must ask, does deprivation become a self-imposed helpless state? Even some economists familiar with empirical and scientific definitions concede that poverty is relative. This means it is largely self-defined – as much a state of mind as of circumstance.

Revolutions are mostly caused by social ferment based on a gap between individual expectations and real experiences. When the gap between expectations and reality grows too wide you have the perfect setting for violent discord and revolution.

Most analysts tend to focus on reality because it seems to be more tangible and subject to the rigours of empirical and scientific research. Expectations on the other hand are self-defined, intangible, soft, incalculable, hypothetical and arguable. Yet they have to be managed and treated with great caution, not only in the extent to which we encourage them in others, but more importantly the extent to which we harbour them ourselves at a risk to our own serenity and contentment.

Poverty as World Bank Definitions show, defies a one-size-fits all metric. Many of the other measurements that are used to define aspects of poverty, a state of deprivation or income disparities range from being non-definitive to ludicrous. The Lonmin rock-drillers have demanded a “living wage” of R12 500 basic per month. Economist Mike Schussler statistically places their current basic pay of R4 500 in the top 25% of formal wage earners. The Gini co-efficient is suspect as a reliable indicator of income disparities. The C.P.I inflation measurement is equal nonsense at an individual household level. And so there are many others that may look fine as an overall tapestry but completely lose meaning as an individual thread.

The only definition, albeit not a formula, of poverty that makes sense is that it is a state where there is an absence of adequate food, water and shelter. Even this definition can be very subjective and circumstantial. Squatter does not need to equal squalor.

Expectations are the more important and real force. And here one cannot ignore the toxic additives of promises, entitlement, comparisons, resentment, jealousy and envy.

So it was not without some frustration and pique that I listened to the dire warnings of a pending revolution by amongst many others, the very people who have helped create the expectations in the first place, and mixing in the toxic additives through their own ostentatious lifestyles. And then, to boot, by the very people who have been responsible for the biggest let down in expectations – that of central and local government service delivery.

We simply don’t appreciate enough, the nuances that make up expectations and the frustrations and self-destructive behaviour they can cause. The real problem is that they are not always rational and defendable, but are real for the person harbouring them. As Bertrand Russell would have it: There is no reality but our perception of it. Or Hamlet’s assessment that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

With age comes a long list of broken promises and unfulfilled expectations that tempers a belief that life owes you; that you come into this world with a list of debtors. The reality is that life owes you nothing but life itself. And even this is a lease of unspecified duration rather than permanent freehold title. It is up to you and you alone to make a living in whatever circumstance.

Of course sound social values require healthy parenting and for all of us to look out for each other. Indeed many countries have a high level of social justice without detracting from individual and national aspirations and effort. But able adult self-accountability is blunted when this becomes entrenched as an inalienable right and valid expectation.

In response to the Woolworths bit of social theatre, the esteemed newspaper editor, Ferial Haffajee again draws attention to a seemingly infinite debt – that of affirmative action, B.E.E., and B.B.B.E.E. While we have to achieve racial equity and eliminate racial bias in the workplace, her concept of “trans-generational privilege” applicable to a whole group is a new concept to me in my understanding of how life works. But more precarious is the implied existence of “trans-generational unprivileged, underprivileged, disadvantaged or victims”, who now have special rights because of race and can legitimately have expectations for special treatment above others. By default, the solution to workplace inequity will be swapping incumbents rather than creating new jobs.

Reading her litany of personal deprivation it struck me that post war teens and young adults, including most of all colours in South Africa, experienced much worse. Yet that generation of “baby boomers” was able to convert an age of extreme deprivation into an age of innovation, abundance and unprecedented prosperity. Within less than one generation the vanquished of the 2nd World War, Germany and Japan, surpassed the victors in economic health and strength. In less than 20 years, Korea and many other Asian countries changed from largely pastoral societies to highly industrialised. Something similar is happening in China today.

What distinguished them was putting education on steroids and having a very low level of expectations. They expected little but aspired to much. Juxtapose that against the decline of some European countries today and you will find the opposite – a decline in aspirations and a rise in expectations that have lost touch with reality

Reflecting on those times the thing that strikes me most is that we never considered ourselves “poor”. Perhaps that was because there were many that were poorer than we were. It could also be that we had rather limited exposure to real wealth because at the time it was seldom flaunted, seldom ostentatious, and seldom elitist. It simply was not all that important to us. Our earlier role models of teachers, doctors, police, priests, company managers, sports-heroes, government officials and even politicians all appeared to be of modest means. That, at least, was my experience of it.

Like my children, grandchildren and I suspect some readers, Ms Haffajee will no doubt roll her eyes to the ceiling at my “when-I-was-young” nostalgic dip into a prudent and modest past. This is not a competition for most deprived and it certainly is not to deny my liability, culpability and status as a “social debtor”. It is an expression of concern about cementing for generations to come indebtedness on the one hand and an expectation on the other – one group that is always made to feel that it owes, and another that believes that it is owed in perpetuity.

It is one symptom, and a very important one, of the tragic swing of the debate in South Africa away from responsibilities to rights, and to a near exclusive focus on distribution and re-distribution away from wealth creation itself: sharing the pie differently before it is baked. It is the same self-destructive affliction in many companies where there is a near exclusive focus on profit or pay: the curse of morphed capitalism. In turn this behaviour has exacerbated the entitlement mood.

Clearly a country will struggle to grow and create prosperity if one group sees its main opportunity as simply being able to redeem a debt from another. A lingering sense of indebtedness is divisive and will extend on-going resentment on both sides while adding to racial tension.

South Africa has an explosive gap between expectations and reality. It is a national psyche or state of mind that locks many into dependence, poverty thinking and helpless inertia. It is a climate where regular empty promises and revolutionary rhetoric could become a suicidal self-fulfilling prophecy.

We certainly need inspirational leadership. But perhaps we need a Cesar Millan type “country-whisperer” or national psychotherapist more.

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