Lessons for an unequal America – from Singapore

Inequality has been rising in most countries around the world, but it has played out in different ways across countries and regions. The United States, it is increasingly recognized, has the sad distinction of being the most unequal advanced country, though the income gap has also widened to a lesser extent, in Britain, Japan, Canada and Germany. Of course, the situation is even worse in Russia, and some developing countries in Latin America and Africa. But this is a club of which we should not be proud to be a member…

Singapore has had the distinction of having prioritized social and economic equity while achieving very high rates of growth over the past 30 years — an example par excellence that inequality is not just a matter of social justice but of economic performance. Societies with fewer economic disparities perform better — not just for those at the bottom or the middle, but over all.

It’s hard to believe how far this city-state has come in the half-century since it attained independence from Britain, in 1963…Around the time of independence, a quarter of Singapore’s work force was unemployed or underemployed. Its per-capita income (adjusted for inflation) was less than a tenth of what it is today…

There are at least four distinctive aspects of the Singaporean model, and they are more applicable to the United States than a skeptical American observer might imagine.

First, individuals were compelled to take responsibility for their own needs. For example, through the required savings in their provident fund, around 90 percent of Singaporeans became homeowners, compared to about 65 percent in the United States since the housing bubble burst in 2007.

Second, Singaporean leaders realized they had to break the pernicious, self-sustaining cycle of inequality that has characterized so much of the West. Government programs were universal but progressive: while everyone contributed, those who were well off contributed more to help those at the bottom, to make sure that everyone could live a decent life, as defined by what Singaporean society, at each stage of its development, could afford. Not only did those at the top pay their share of the public investments, they were asked to contribute even more to helping the neediest.

Third, the government intervened in the distribution of pretax income — to help those at the bottom, rather than, as in the United States, those at the top. It weighed in, gently, on the bargaining between workers and firms, tilting the balance toward the group with less economic power — in sharp contrast to the United States, where the rules of the game have shifted power away from labor and toward capital, especially during the past three decades.

Fourth, Singapore realized that the key to future success was heavy investment in education — and more recently, scientific research — and that national advancement would mean that all citizens — not just the children of the rich — would need access to the best education for which they were qualified…

Singapore’s success is reflected in other indicators, as well. Life expectancy is 82 years, compared with 78 in the United States. Student scores on math, science and reading tests are among the highest in the world — well above the average for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the world’s club of rich nations, and well ahead of the United States…

Joe Stiglitz comes to conclusions I would expect from someone well versed in the history of political economy. Democracy is more than periodic votes for a limited number of candidates. Democracy must include an economic component, a righting of past wrongs.

That last sentence includes two qualities our nation still denies. The racism central to our Civil War is still denied by most of the population. Economic democracy hasn’t been a programmatic part of the two parties we’re allowed since before World War 2.

One thought on “Lessons for an unequal America – from Singapore

  1. angrymanspeaks says:

    Greetings Eideard,
    I picked up your profile on “The Jumbled Mind” but I have seen your picture before and thought we might see some thing alike.
    Anyway; I decided to stop in and so far I like it. I think I’ll follow and see what else you have to say as we go along.
    Stop by my site if you get a chance.
    “The Campbell” eh?
    As the oldest living son of my father who was the oldest son of his father; I would be “The Jenkins” but God only knows what past deeds of inappropriate behavior and criminal responsibility that might tie me to.
    I have enough of my own to suit thanks. I kind of like the sound of that though. “The Jenkins”. Perhaps I could convince everyone in my household to just refer to me as “Himself” Yeh! Yeh!
    This just keeps getting better. They could all tug their forelock when they encounter me. LOL. No shit.
    Man; I hope we talk more. Just fuckin’ with you about the “Heraldry thing”.
    I have encountered many groups of Campbells and their supposed relatives. I suspect some are not actually related closely enough to be considered clan members but are there to fill out the Band. No harm; no foul as far as I can see. I guess my fathers family came from Wales at some point but they have been in Virginia for some generations I am sure. I personally don’t know any of them. My father recommended staying away from his people and he did as much as possible. Only after his death did I find out what he meant.
    Anyway; “I writes’ a bit but not enough to hurt me none”
    I hope the same can’t be said of those who are the targets of my “anger”

    I’m Outta’ he-ah’.

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