'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Monday, 6 February 2012

Normative bias against ostentation: it's just not cool

It used to be cool to demonstrate wealth: The broadsheets are still alive with articles on superyachts which have attached mini-subs; £100 million London houses; and there is no apparent irony in someone buying an £80 million house being labelled a philanthropist. Bankers who racked up bar-tabs incomprehensible to the average wage earner would make the low-numbered pages of the broadsheets.

Is it cool anymore? Inequality has become very not cool. In the Middle East and North Africa, people are dying to protest against it, and images of them and this continuing protest, regional in scope, national in character, are uploaded to sites such as YouTube and Bambuser. The Western nations are unequal in and of themselves, before we examine how unequal is the distribution of wealth between the North and Global South.

It's not cool to be the one percent of the one percent. Mitt Romney was forced to publish his tax returns. It wasn't cool that he earned so much money yet paid so little tax. The Western politicians are only just catching up. Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have both played the austerity card to attract followers and played it well. President G. W. Bush financed a war by tax cuts for the super-rich; history will judge it as not cool.

But of itself a normative bias, which as we speak is only in its infancy, fragile and susceptible to the whim of larger forces, will not reduce the inequality. Inequality, and ostentation will be hidden, it will be only displayed amongst like-minded individuals, behind gated communities and in playgrounds of the super-rich.

The resistance is mounting. The minimum wage is declining in real terms against rapid rises in food and energy costs. The debt mountain is increasing. Occupy is really only the beginning of some much larger global resistance force seen in the Arab spring, a protest essentially against social inequality under corrupt, self-aggrandizing leaders. As the wealth gap increases and basic services become too expensive, the propensity to violent revolt increases by orders of magnitide. In the UK these squeezed middles had to bail out the financial district. This is the great irony but it points to something very troubling, that the masses, the squeezed middle and below, can create shockwaves of positive or negative impact through their mass action. The internet can coordinate this mass action.

Currently, the affluent pursuit of happiness is not so greatly under threat by the economic climate but we must do everything we can to prevent the situation worsening - austerity, debt reduction, and vastly increased tax rates for the one percent. The bottom percentage who are harsly penalised through taxes then find themselves unable to contribute to the consumer economy. This will never happen to the one percent. A normative perception against ostentatious wealth is important. So be cool.

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