VIEW: Being sensible

We are not much of a reading public. Nor do many of us have a taste for serious analysis, or dry and largely factual subjects such as economics. We prefer to deal mostly in opinions and beliefs, often strongly held. No wonder we love gossip and discussing politics, religion and cricket so much. For, these are all matters on which everyone can easily persuade themselves they are as expert and knowledgeable as the next person.

Additionally, television is overwhelmingly the medium of choice as our window to the world. And, with a surfeit of channels all chasing their share of a limited advertising market, you do not win the ratings game by boring viewers. The obvious strategy deemed to offer maximum advantage in this race is to embrace populism: be the champions of the awam (public) and give them a full dose of what they want to hear, regardless of whether it makes sense or is realistically possible.And what is it that the awam wants to hear more than anything else? Why, nothing else other than the misplaced fact that all their opinions and demands are justified and easy to satisfy and that the sole source of all their political and economic misfortunes is a corrupt, inept, and baighairat (dishonourable) ruling elite that decides everything in its own narrow, selfish interest.

Frustrating as all this may well be for a sane and rational person, let us admit that there are some powerful forces at work here that, in any realistic assessment, we discount at our peril. For example, democracy, the ease of instant mass and universal communication and the tantalising prospect that a better life need not be only a dream (seeing what others have managed), have all given a new meaning and reality to what is called the age of the common man. And then, nature has made each one of us self-centred. That everyone now at least pays lip-service to the idea that every individual counts, that in certain respects (?) we are all equals and that our opinions and needs matter as much as the next person’s, has only reinforced that natural selfish tendency.In the same vein, it is natural too that political opponents and other vested interests will paint the ugliest possible picture to exploit, for their own ends, the fears and emotional susceptibilities of the general public. Finally — and let us accept this too — there is more than a grain of truth in the charge that much of our misery is the result of the shortcomings and misdeeds of our ruling elite. After all, they too carry the genes of selfishness and make their share of mistakes. And we have never had sufficiently strong institutions in place to check such tendencies.

Also, let us not forget that human beings everywhere are intrinsically the same. So, what is happening in Pakistan is little different from what is happening elsewhere in the world (though, because of better levels of education and understanding all round, the game elsewhere is played at a higher level of sophistication). Fox News, a legion of right-wing media personalities and a wide spectrum of the president’s opponents, have found it highly profitable to play on the fears and emotions of the ordinary American. George W Bush and his neo-con coterie did much the same. In France, Marie, the daughter of Mr Le Pen (the founder of the ultra-right Nationalist Party) is more popular today than President Sarkozy. And the phenomenon that goes by that ugly name, ‘Islamophobia’ is a by-product of the same alchemy.But my concern is not so much with the rest of the human race as it is with the Pakistani people. I only used those examples from other parts of the world — the roots of which we are quick to recognise — to stress that we should apply the same thinking to ourselves. And you may be wondering what I may be leading up to with this long preamble that states little more than the obvious. Time therefore to reveal the specific grouch that instigated this column.

And I will put it simply. Criticising the government at every step for not coming up to the expectations of the awam is all very well and often justified. But why is everyone so loath to shy away from mentioning, at the same time, the awful truth that the government is often helpless — and will remain so for decades to come — to meet those expectations; or even worse, that the awam itself is often to blame for its miseries? The public cannot both have its cake and eat it too. If the government has its responsibilities, the same applies to the public. Why talk only of ‘good governance’? Should we not equally be talking loudly of civic sense? Regrettably, I see little evidence of such thinking.“I defy you to make a survival only family budget for a man who earns Rs 10,000 per month”, says the champion of the awam. I agree. It cannot be done. I sympathise. But does anyone ask poor Joe why he had five or more kids in the first place? Or is it the case that political correctness demands we do not ask such awkward questions? Everyone is against corruption and nepotism, except when their own interests are involved. We hate the West, but we want their markets, their aid, and their investment dollars. We do not want terrorism but instead of recognising it for what it is, we prefer to buy into the fantasy that it is not us but the Indians and Americans who are responsible for it.

An exercise with a few simple numbers thrown in may prove instructive. I estimate that we add some five million to our population every year. At 500 children per school, that means we need an additional 10,000 new schools every year, quite apart from the catching up we have to do. Where will these resources come from? I am told that 50 percent or more of our population is under the age of 30. No matter how rapidly we grow the economy, is there any realistic possibility of providing jobs for more than a fraction of this number of discontented youth? How serious is our problem when we insist on adding another five million every year to this heap?Of course, I have talked here only about schools but the same principle applies to providing roads, hospitals, housing, energy, etc. It is an impossible task no matter how you view it. Of course, the government must continue to do the best it can on a broad front. Meanwhile, let us accept that our failure for decades to seriously tackle this population problem has left us in a hole it seems impossible to climb out of.That is, not unless another Keynes appears on the scene to resolve the economic conundrum of how to marry the trillions of dollars of hot money available as capital worldwide with the insatiable and unfulfilled appetite of the poor for goods and services. – Dailytimes – Munir Attaullah