Technology, wealth, inequality and housing

03/27/2014

In San Rafael there are homeless people pushing shopping carts while using headsets and electronic devices, Latino kids texting and watching videos while their fathers wait for work on the corner, themselves distracted by cell phones. In India there are people who have no electricity but communicate by cell phone; in Bolivia and Guatemala, malnourished children who play video games; in Mexico, families without enough food to eat who are entertained by telenovelas. Technological advances alongside increasing economic inequality and poverty have created these contradictions.

As the world’s production of goods and services continues to grow, the inequality between countries and their inhabitants is increasing along with it. Thus the gap between those who have more and more and those who have less and less is growing larger. 

The technological advances of the global economy that supposedly improve everyone’s standard of living keep coming while employment decreases, along with the benefits and services that governments provide for their citizens’ wellbeing and for the alleviation of
poverty.

The United States continues to be the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, but its economic system has generated widespread inequality in recent decades. During the past 25 years, the advances in the digital era parallel the concentration of wealth and power in a few hands and the growth of the stock market. This has undermined global democracy, which has also made real strides forward: today we have fewer dictators and more elected governments, something unthinkable 40 years ago when the world was controlled by the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet today the world is dysfunctional, thanks to that same concentration of wealth and inequality.

There are many opportunities for the planet and its people to live better, but fewer of us are able to take advantage of them. This puzzle doesn’t appear to have an easy solution, since those who could drive such a solution are part of the problem. This includes the United States, with its super-rich 1 percent and 50 million poor. The desire of the 99 percent to join the 1 percent has driven the greed of those who can achieve that goal, including the corporate executives with their multimillion-dollar salaries. They increase production and profits by reducing employment, salaries and benefits for their workers; this, along with their speculative profits, contributed to the mortgage and stock market crisis of 2007. Yet the world emulates the behavior of these executives. The net worth of the 10 wealthiest Mexicans is equivalent to the total of what all Mexican families spend in three months, or the total production of the country in a little over one month, and yet 60 percent of Mexicans remain poor.

Twenty-five years ago, Marin General Hospital was already paying its specialists more than other hospitals did, but those salaries were not high enough to pay for local housing and the specialists chose to live elsewhere where they could perhaps afford to buy a house. 

In West Marin there are virtually no low-to-medium priced houses to buy or rent, and because of that many people are forced to leave. As they do, outsiders are buying the area’s houses for vacation or business. There are a few nonprofits and governmental agencies trying to rectify this situation, but their good intentions run afoul of a greedy market reality in which nobody who has something to sell or rent is willing to miss the opportunity to get the biggest return possible. 

There is a growing complaint throughout Marin County, and especially in West Marin, about the lack of affordable housing and the proliferation of vacant houses that wealthy outsiders who are not part of the community use only occasionally. This situation is creating a growing and involuntary defection of workers to other areas, such as Solano and Sonoma Counties, uprooting people, increasing the cost of commuting in Marin and adding to vehicular traffic. 

Many of those who inherited or were able to buy housing here at a reasonable price prefer to rent out their houses and live elsewhere, or rent a portion of their house to offset costly mortgage payments and the high cost of living. This vicious circle thwarts the best efforts of those who decry this dynamic, because nobody wants to take less than market rates.

America’s electoral system depends more and more on the money that corporations and millionaires give to campaigns. Then there is the cost of higher education, once much lower or even free, but now available only to those who can afford it. The bad example spreads, accumulation grows, equality disappears and the quality of life deteriorates. Can you imagine this changing anytime soon? 

 

Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher, writer and native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-old ties to the Light. The original Spanish version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.