The US and UK share an ideology of ‘free-market’ fundamentalism and competitive individualism. More widely called ‘neoliberalism’ these ideas were introduced, respectively, on both sides of the Atlantic by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
Earlier this year, Angus Deaton, professor of economics at Princeton University and a Nobel laureate, launched a five-year review on the subject of inequality. Sir Angus, who is teaming up with the Institute for Fiscal Studies, with funding from the Nuffield Foundation, a charity, intends the review to be the “most comprehensive scientific analysis of inequalities yet attempted”, examining not just the gaps between the rich and poor, but also differences in health outcomes, political power and economic opportunities in British society and across the world.
It will attempt to answer which inequalities are beneficial, providing “incentives” for people to strive harder, and which should be stamped out because they are derived from luck or cronyism and, according to Sir Angus, “make a mockery of democracy”.
Personally, I have some major issues with the neoliberal language of “incentives.” In its crudest formulation this entails providing the conditions for the market sector to produce growth, and accepting that this will somehow result in inequality, and then relying on some vague mechanism of redistribution of some portion of this growth to help repair the inequality that has resulted from its production. Over the last decade, we have witnessed those ‘safety net’ mechanisms being dismantled, leaving a large proportion of society with dwindling resources, while a few people have become obscenely wealthy. The language of “incentives” implies that it is human behaviour and not market fundamentalism, that creates growing inequality.
But that isn’t true. Neoliberalism has failed the majority of citizens horribly, the evidence of which is stifling both the UK economy and our potential as a society. There are a few beneficiaries, who, curiously enough, are working flat out to promote the failing system of economic and social organisation that was ushered in by the Thatcher administration, while viciously attacking any ideas that oppose their dogma and challenge their stack of vested interests.
The Deaton review starts from the premise that not all inequalities are bad. Deaton and the IFS also believe that inequalities based on luck or rigging the system are far worse than those based on the skills of individuals: “If working people are losing out because corporate governance is set up to favour shareholders over workers, or because the decline in unions has favoured capital over labour and is undermining the wages of workers at the expense of shareholders and corporate executives, then we need to change the rules,” Deaton said.
This assumption that cronyism and damaging activities of the rich have left others in poverty has raised hackles in some free-market circles. Ryan Bourne, economist at the Cato Institute, for example. He says the IFS should be careful not to assume wrongdoing just from data showing rising inequalities, and: “Income inequality, for example, can be increased through entrepreneurs making fortunes off hugely welfare-enhancing new products,” he said. Whether or not this is correct, many UK officials are concerned that the market economy is in danger of becoming rigged against ordinary people.”
Andrew Tyrie, chair of the Competition and Markets Authority, the competition watchdog, admitted earlier this year that the authorities had been “slow” to address shortcomings in competition and rip-offs and would in future “be doing and saying a lot more”.
I have a lot more to say on this topic, too.
I’m planning to produce a series of in depth articles on inequality and growing poverty in the UK. To introduce this series of works, I’ve invited a guest writer, Kenura Medagedara.
Here is Kenura’s article:
Despite having the fifth-largest economy in the world, the United Kingdom is a surprisingly unequal society. It has the fifth-highest income inequality in Europe. The top 20% highest earners earn six times more than the poorest 20%. The top 10% of wealthiest households own five times more wealth than the bottom 50%.
These statistics may not come as such a surprise to some of us. Unfortunately, Britain’s historic class divisions are showing signs of increasing. But why is Britain so unequal, especially compared to other wealthy nations? And what can we do about it? These are the questions I’ll be trying to answer in this article.
The problem of inequality
Before I discuss any of this, I should first explain why inequality is so dangerous. We all know that absolute poverty is bad, as it means that people can’t afford to survive. We also understand that undeserved wealth is problematic, as it gives some people an unfair advantage over others. Did you know, for instance, that the third-wealthiest landowner in Britain, Hugh Grosvenor, amassed his £9 billion fortune entirely through inheritance?
Like I said, most people can see the problems with these two issues. However, (as many of those on the right point out), these issues aren’t intrinsic to inequality. It is possible to conceive of an economy where inequality exists, but the poorest household still has its basic needs met, and measures like inheritance tax can somewhat prevent situations like the one described above. So what’s wrong with inequality?
One of the main problems is inequality of opportunity. In any society, there are a limited number of opportunities available. Big companies only have so many vacancies, top universities only have so many places. Even in a society where absolute poverty doesn’t exist, opportunities for social mobility will still be limited. And these opportunities tend to stay in the hands of the rich. There are a wide range of reasons for this, from subtle ones like poorer students facing more mental stress when applying to university than richer ones as the cost of them failing is significantly higher, to more obvious ones like wealthy people being able to afford additional courses and qualifications to make them more qualified for higher-paying jobs. Either way, economic inequality brings about very unfair circumstances.
Money in politics
Another problem is that of political power. In a democracy, everyone’s voice should be heard equally, through universal suffrage. However, money can significantly increase someone’s political power. For example, they can afford a party membership, giving their party more money to spend on advertising campaigns to win elections. They can also make donations to influence policy decisions. In these ways, the wealthy have an unfair say in politics over the economically disadvantaged. Technically, this could be remedied by certain policies, such as all political parties receiving the same amount of funding from the government, but this seems very implausible, so I’d argue that inequality remains the real issue here.
From a more pragmatic perspective, economic inequality actually hinders economic growth. A 2014 study by the OECD found that the UK’s failure to address inequality meant that its economic growth was six to nine percentage points lower than it could otherwise haven been. This is because, as previously mentioned, people from poorer backgrounds find it harder to get good education opportunities as the rich can use their wealth to give them an unfair advantage. As a result, the poor get low-skilled jobs contributing little to the economy, whilst the rich get high-skilled jobs with relatively little competition, and so are generally not as efficient as they should be. It turns out that reducing inequality actually benefits everyone.
Why is the UK so unequal?
Before we can combat inequality, we first need to understand what causes it. In the UK, one of the main causes is the housing market. Currently, only 64% of all households are owned, compared to 71% in 2003. And this is expected to get worse; the average wage in London is 16 times less than what would be needed for a deposit. A house is normally the most expensive asset someone will own. Britain’s situation has meant that the children of homeowners inherited vast sums of money, giving them a huge advantage over people who weren’t as lucky.
This has allowed them to afford their own property, and buy more assets to generate even more wealth. This makes the rich get exponentially richer, whilst the poor are forced to cope with higher rents due to increased housing demand, reducing their disposable income and effectively making them poorer. As a result, 10% of households own 44% of all wealth, while the poorest 50% of households own just 9%.
But this isn’t the whole story; after all, the UK has a fairly average wealth distribution compared to other OECD nations. Another major source of inequality is the education system. Despite the fact that this is often touted as the ‘great equaliser’, only 21% of children eligible for free school meals go to university, compared to 85% of children from private schools. As a result, those from poorer backgrounds tend to get low-paying jobs, whilst the opposite is true for the wealthy. This ensures that the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.
One major reason for this contrast is the price of nursery. The average price of full-time nursery in the UK is £242 per week, which is roughly 50% of the average household disposable income. Those on lower incomes will struggle to afford this compared to richer parents. This may explain why economically disadvantaged children even do much worse than their wealthier counterparts in primary school.
To solve wealth inequality, the government must reform council tax. This is one of the main reasons why the housing market is in such bad shape. Firstly, this policy is regressive. According to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a household in band A property in London pays almost five times what a band H household would pay as a proportion of property value. Additionally, in 2013 the government simultaneously devolved council tax benefits and cut funding for it, forcing councils to start taxing those on the very lowest incomes. As a result, council tax has greatly contributed to economic inequality.
One possible solution is to exempt those on the lowest incomes from paying council tax. This will somewhat stop the tax from being regressive if poor households simply don’t have to pay it. Another, more long term, solution could be to scrap council tax entirely, and replace it with an annual flat rate tax. This would guarantee that the policy is progressive. According to City Metric, a 0.25% tax would raise the same revenue for London as the current system, but 80% of households will pay less.
To solve the gap in education, one possibility is to make nursery free. In a 2016 report on child well-being in rich countries, UNICEF called for high quality early education and care for children to reduce inequality in education. Making it free would certainly achieve this. In addition to this, British charity Teach First, who work to reduce educational inequality, claim that the government needs to increase the amount of teachers in schools in deprived areas. This will reduce class sizes, which plays a big role in the success of the pupils.
To conclude, economic equality is vital to achieve political equality and equality of opportunity, and also creates more economic growth. Two of the main causes of inequality in the UK are the housing market and the education system, both of which require serious reform if we’re to solve this issue.
Inequality is a very complex problem, and I’m not suggesting that this article has magically solved all of the issues that cause it. However, hopefully more discussion on this topic will eventually give us the answers.
If you enjoyed this article, you may want to check out Kenura’s blog for more analysis of British politics.