Vol.4 No.9, 03 September 2004

Culture of Whose Entitlement?

By Margaret Legum

A new phrase entered the vocabulary at our liberation. The 'culture of entitlement', it seemed, was likely to threaten our new democracy - Black people thinking they were entitled to everything without having to work for it. It irritated me somewhat. Coming from people whose sense of entitlement had derived from skin pigment, it seemed pretty rich that we should now criticize those who at least based it on common humanity. Still, it takes one to know one, I reckoned, and maybe indeed we did need to watch out for this culture of entitlement.

We certainly do, but it is not to be found where we sought it among excluded people who have nothing. The culture of entitlement flourishes at the top where people are already extremely rich. And it is global. Everywhere people who run things think they are entitled to the most outrageous quantities of everything.

People who are paid handsomely for doing their jobs think they are entitled also to large bonuses, justified on the grounds that they did indeed do those jobs. Or sometimes despite having not done so. The financial pages are littered with stories of CEOs stuffing their pockets even as they announce poor company results. That anomaly is hardly addressed: when it is, world economic conditions are blamed.

The salaries at the top used to be justified in terms of the value they add. No one can today claim to have added enough millions to be entitled to what they now make off with. Depending what you mean by value. In August, a London broker made 10 million pounds sterling in one hour by speculating on the euro. What value did he add, and to whom? The justification today is by reference to the 'market': top people's salaries must match each other's. So, by agreement at the top, salaries leapfrog each other

In the film Fahrenheit 9.11 President Bush is seen addressing a banquet of his white-tied supporters. With a huge grin, his tiny eyes glinting, he says: 'You are the haves. (Pause) And the have even mores. (Laughter) Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.' I wonder if any one of those men felt the slightest twinge of discomfort.

And I wonder if any of those rich men paid personally for that banquet. Part of their culture of entitlement enables them to shift the cost of most of their eating, drinking, entertainment and even holidays elsewhere. It is called business expenses; and it would certainly include attending a fund-raiser for the President.

You and I, ordinary tax-payers, in fact pay for the very rich to get through obscene amounts of quality food and champagne throughout the year. The ubiquitous 'functions' where top people in business, politics, civil service and the media entertain each other, as well as friends and family, are never paid for by the host him/herself. It is not called bribery and corruption, of course, but it is about buying favours - as the banquet scene in the movie makes clear. And is paid for by SARS and its equivalent everywhere, because it is deducted from taxed profits.

That's another thing the already rich feel entitled to - exemption from taxes. Let others with less ingenious accountants pay for the armies, police, highways and airports that oil the wheels of their businesses. Let alone public education, health and welfare the use of which they regard as scrounging - as, indeed evidence of the culture of entitlement by poor people.

Those subsidies to the rich are enhanced, ironically, by much of what passes for poverty alleviation. Aid budgets are frequently used to support agribusiness. The 'Green Revolution' in India - the application of high technology to raise yields on huge agribusiness farms - did not reduce hunger in India, where it put many small farmers off the land and into destitution. Instead the reduced price of staple products responded to demand - as do all products traded globally - and thus largely found their way to the supermarkets of the rich. It is mostly we, the rich, who benefit from cheap goods, because we have purchasing power. The suction effect of money powerfully reduces consumption at the bottom.

While the parties go on at our expense at the top, people with no source of income are thrown out of their homes, deprived of energy sources and kept out of school because they are too poor to afford these necessities. And then blamed for expecting something for nothing.

And still we talk of the culture of entitlement as applying to those helpless people. And still we regard as greedy trade union demands for wage increases above the inflation rate. And think it perfectly normal for nurses, teachers, child care workers, labourers, prison warders, and others who keep the system going, to be paid less than they need for a decent life. The same principle of the rich justifying themselves and blaming the poor goes on in New York and Caracas and London and Rome - wherever rich people's culture of world-class entitlement prevails.

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