Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the UK was in recession at the end of 2023. The normal definition of recession is two quarters of falling real GDP. This is what happened to the UK in the last two quarters of 2023, with GDP falling by 0.1% in Q3 and 0.3% in Q4. In Q4, output of the service industries fell by 0.2%, production industries by 1.0% and construction by 1.3%.
But how bad is this? What are the implications for living standards? In some respects, the news is not as bad as the term ‘recession’ might suggest. In other respects, it’s worse than the headline figures might imply.
The good news (or not such bad news)
The first thing to note is that other countries too experienced a recession or slowdown in the second half of 2023. So, relative to these countries, the UK is not performing that badly. Japan, for example, also experienced a mild recession; Germany just missed one. These poor economic growth rates were caused largely by higher global energy and food prices and by higher central bank interest rates in response. The good news is that such cost pressures are already easing.
The second piece of good news is that GDP is expected to start growing again (modestly) in 2024. This will be helped by the Bank of England cutting interest rates. The Monetary Policy Committee is expected to do this at its May, June or August meetings provided that inflation falls. Annual CPI inflation was 4% in January – the same as in December. But it is expected to fall quite rapidly over the coming months provided that there are no serious supply-side shocks (e.g. from world political factors).
The third is that the recession is relatively modest compared with ones in the past. In the recession following the financial crisis, real GDP fell by 5.3% in 2009; during the pandemic, GDP fell by 10.7% in 2020. For this reason, some commentators have said that the last two quarters of 2023 represent a mere ‘technical recession’, with the economy expected to grow again in 2024.
Why things may be worse than the headline figures suggest
Real GDP per head
So far we have considered real GDP (i.e. GDP adjusted for inflation). But if changes in GDP are to reflect changes in living standards, we need to consider real GDP per head. Population is rising. This means that the rate of growth in real GDP per head is lower than the rate of growth in real GDP
For 2023 as a whole, while real GDP rose by 0.20%, real GDP per head fell by 0.67%. In the last two quarters of 2023, while real GDP fell by 0.1% and 0.3% respectively, real GDP per head fell by 0.4% and 0.6%, respectively, having already fallen in each of the previous five quarters. Chart 1 shows real GDP growth and real GDP growth per head from 2007 to 2023 (click here for a PowerPoint). As you can see, given population growth, real GDP per head has consistently grown slower than real GDP.
If we are assessing the UK’s potential for growth in GDP, rather than the immediate past, it is useful to look at GDP growth over a longer period. Looking at past trend growth rates and explaining them can give us an indication of the likely future path of the growth in GDP – at least in the absence of a significant change in underlying economic factors. Since 2007, the average annual rate of growth of real GDP has been only 1.1% and that of real GDP per head a mere 0.4%.
This compares unfavourably with the period from 1994 to 2007, when the average annual rate of growth of real GDP was 3.0% and that of real GDP per head was 2.5%.
This is illustrated in Chart 2 (click here for a PowerPoint). The chart also projects the growth rate in GDP per head of 2.5% forward from 2007 to 2023. Had this growth rate been achieved since 2007, GDP per head in 2023 would have been 41.4% higher than it actually was.
It is not only the UK that has seen low growth over the past 15 years compared to previous years. It has achieved a similar average annual growth rate over the period to Germany (1.1%), lower rates than the USA (1.8%) and Canada (1.6%), but higher than France (0.9%) and Japan (0.4%).
A key determinant of economic growth is investment. Since 2008, the UK has invested an average of 17.3% of GDP. This is the lowest of the G7 countries and compares with 24.9% in Japan, 23.7% in Canada, 23.5% in France, 21.3% in Germany, 20.4% in the USA and 19.1% in Italy. If UK growth is to recover strongly over the longer term, the rate of investment needs to increase, both private and public. Of course, investment has to be productive, as the key underlying determinant of economic growth is the growth in productivity.
Low productivity growth
This is a key issue for the government – how to encourage a growth in productivity. The UK’s record of productivity growth has been poor since 2008. The period from 1996 to 2006 saw an average annual growth in labour productivity of 6.4%. Since then, however, labour productivity has grown by an average annual rate of only 0.3%. This is illustrated in Chart 3 (click here for a PowerPoint). If the pre-2007 rate had continued to the end of 2023, labour productivity would be 189% higher. This would have made GDP per head today substantially higher. If GDP per head is to grow faster, then the underlying issue of a poor growth in labour productivity will need to be addressed.
Inequality and poverty
Then there is the issue of the distribution of national income. The UK has a high level of income inequality. In 2022 (the latest data available), the disposable income of the poorest 20% of households was £13 218; that for the richest 20% was £83 687. The top 1% of income earners’ share of disposable income is just under 9.0%. (Note that disposable income is after income taxes have been deducted and includes cash benefits and is thus more equally distributed than original income.)
The poorest 20% have been hit badly by the cost-of-living crisis, with many having to turn to food banks and not being able to afford to heat their homes adequately. They are also particularly badly affected by the housing crisis, with soaring and increasingly unaffordable rents. Many are facing eviction and others live in poor quality accommodation. Simple growth rates in real GDP do not capture such issues.
Limited scope for growth policies
Fiscal policy has an important role in stimulating growth. Conservatives stress tax cuts as a means of incentivising entrepreneurs and workers. Labour stresses the importance of public investment in infrastructure, health, education and training. Either way, such stimulus policy requires financing.
But, public finances have been under pressure in recent years, especially from COVID support measures. General government gross debt has risen from 27.7% of GDP in 1990/91 to 99.4% in 2022/23. This is illustrated in Chart 4 (click here for a PowerPoint). Although it has fallen from the peak of 107.6% of GDP in 2020/21 (during the COVID pandemic), according to the Office for Budget Responsibility it is set to rise again, peaking at 103.8% in 2026/27. There is thus pressure on the government to reduce public-sector borrowing, not increase it. This makes it difficult to finance public investment or tax cuts.
Measuring living standards
Questions about real GDP have huge political significance. Is the economy in recession? What will happen to growth in GDP over the coming months. Why has growth been sluggish in recent years? The implication is that if GDP rises, living standards will rise; if GDP falls, living standards will fall. But changes in GDP, even if expressed in terms of real GDP and even if the distribution of GDP is taken into account, are only a proxy for living standards. GDP measures the market value of the output of goods and services and, as such, may not necessarily be a good indicator of living standards, let alone well-being.
Produced goods and services that are not part of GDP
The output of some goods and services goes unrecorded. As we note in Economics, 11e (section 15.2), “If you employ a decorator to paint your living room, this will be recorded in the GDP statistics. If, however, you paint the room yourself, it will not. Similarly, if a childminder is employed by parents to look after their children, this childcare will form part of GDP. If, however, a parent stays at home to look after the children, it will not.
The exclusion of these ‘do-it-yourself’ and other home-based activities means that the GDP statistics understate the true level of production in the economy. If over time there is an increase in the amount of do-it-yourself activities that people perform, the figures will also understate the rate of growth of national output.” With many people struggling with the cost of living, such a scenario is quite likely.
There are also activities that go unrecorded in the ‘underground’ or ‘shadow’ economy: unemployed people doing casual jobs for cash in hand that they do not declare to avoid losing benefits; people doing extra work outside their normal job and not declaring the income to evade taxes; builders doing work for cash to save the customer paying VAT.
Large amounts of production and consumption involve external costs to the environment and to other people. These externalities are not included in the calculation of GDP.
If external costs increase faster than GDP, then GDP growth will overstate the rise in living standards. If external costs rise more slowly than GDP (or even fall), then GDP growth will understate the rise in living standards. We assume here that living standards include social and environmental benefits and are reduced by social and environmental costs.
Human costs of production
If production increases as a result of people having to work harder or longer hours, its net benefit will be less. Leisure is a desirable good, and so too are pleasant working conditions, but these items are not included in the GDP figures.
The production of certain ‘bads’ leads to an increase in GDP
Some of the undesirable effects of growth may in fact increase GDP! Take the examples of crime, stress-related illness and environmental damage. Faster growth may lead to more of all three. But increased crime leads to more expenditure on security; increased stress leads to more expenditure on health care; and increased environmental damage leads to more expenditure on environmental clean-up. These expenditures add to GDP. Thus, rather than reducing GDP, crime, stress and environmental damage actually increase it.
Alternative approaches to measuring production and income
There have been various attempts to adjust GDP (actual or potential) to make it a better indicator of total production or income or, more generally, of living standards.
Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW)
As Case Study 9.20 in the Essentials of Economics (9e) website explains, ISEW starts with consumption, as measured in GDP, and then makes various adjustments to account for factors that GDP ignores. These include:
- Inequality: the greater the inequality, the more the figure for consumption is reduced. This is based on the assumption of a diminishing marginal utility of income, such that an additional pound is worth less to a rich person than to a poor person.
- Household production (such as childcare, care for the elderly or infirm, housework and various do-it-yourself activities). These ‘services of household labour’ add to welfare and are thus entered as a positive figure.
- Defensive expenditures. This is spending to offset the adverse environmental effects of economic growth (e.g. asthma treatment for sufferers whose condition arises from air pollution). Such expenditures are taken out of the calculations.
- ‘Bads’ (such as commuting costs). The monetary expense entailed is entered as a negative figure (to cancel out its measurement in GDP as a positive figure) and then an additional negative element is included for the stress incurred.
- Environmental costs. Pollution is entered as a negative figure.
- Resource depletion and damage. This too is given a negative figure, in just the same way that depreciation of capital is given a negative figure when working out net national income.
Productive Capacities Index (PCI)
In 2023, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) launched a new index to provide a better measure of countries’ economic potential. What the index focuses on is not actual GDP but potential output: in other words, ‘countries’ abilities to produce goods and deliver services’.
The PCI comprises 42 indicators under eight headings: human capital, natural capital, information and communication technology (ICT), structural change (the movement of labour and other productive resources from low-productivity to high-productivity economic activities), transport infrastructure, institutions (political, legal and financial) and the private sector (ease of starting businesses, availability of credit, ease of cross-border trade, etc.). It covers 194 economies since 2000 (currently to 2022). As UNCTAD states, ‘The PCI can help diagnose the areas where countries may be leading or falling behind, spotlighting where policies are working and where corrective efforts are needed.’ Chart 5 shows the PCI for various economies from 2000 to 2022 (click here for a PowerPoint).
The UK, with a PCI of 65.8 in 2022, compares relatively favourably with other developed countries. The USA’s PCI is somewhat higher (69.2), as is The Netherlands’ (69.8); Germany’s is the same (65.8); France’s is somewhat lower (62.8). The world average is 46.8. For developing countries, China is relatively high (60.7); India’s (45.3) is close to the developing country average of 43.4.
Looked at over a longer time period, the UK’s performance is relatively weak. The PCI in 2022 (65.8) was below that in 2006 (66.9) and below the peak of 67.6 in 2018.
GDP and well-being
GDP is often used as a proxy for well-being. If real GDP per head increases, then it is assumed that well-being will increase. In practice, people’s well-being depends on many factors, not just their income, although income is one important element.
The UK Measuring National Well-being (MNW) programme
The MNW programme was established in 2010. This has resulted in Office for National Statistics developing new measures of national well-being. The ONS produces statistical bulletins and datasets with its latest results.
The aim of the programme is to provide a ‘fuller picture’ of how society is doing beyond traditional economic indicators. There are currently 44 indicators. These are designed to describe ‘how we are doing as individuals, as communities and as a nation, and how sustainable this is for the future’. The measures fall within a number of categories, including: personal well-being, relationships, health, what we do, where we live, personal finance, the economy, education and skills, governance and the natural environment.
In the light of the limitations of GDP as a measure of living standards, what can we make of the news that the UK entered recession in the last half of 2023? It does show that the economy is sluggish and that the production of goods and services that are included in the GDP measure declined.
But to get a fuller assessment of the economy, it is important to take a number of other factors into account. If we are to go further and ask what has happened to living standards or to well-being, then we have to look at a range of other factors. If we are to ask what the latest figures tell us about what is likely to happen in the future to production, living standards and well-being, then we will need to look further still.
- Britain falls into recession, with worst GDP performance in 2023 in years
CNN, Hanna Ziady (15/2/24)
- UK economy slipped into recession in 2023
Financial Times, Valentina Romei and George Parker (15/2/24)
- UK economy fell into recession after people cut spending
BBC News, Dearbail Jordan & Faisal Islam (15/2/24)
- Should we care that the UK is in recession?
BBC News, Faisal Islam (15/2/24)
- UK tips into recession in blow to Rishi Sunak
The Guardian, Richard Partington (15/2/24)
- Britain is in recession… and huge immigration has been masking how much poorer we’re getting
MSN, James Tapsfield (15/2/24)
- This isn’t a “mild” recession
The New Statesman, Duncan Weldon (15/2/24)
- UK middle classes ‘struggling despite incomes of up to £60,000 a year’
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (20/2/24)
- What is GDP and how is it measured?
BBC News (15/2/24)
- World at One (from 7’00” to 25’14”)
BBC Sounds, Torsten Bell and Norman Lamont (15/2/24)
- Does High GDP Mean Economic Prosperity?
Investopedia, Lisa Smith (29/9/23)
- A critical assessment of GDP as a measure of economic performance and social progress
Carnegie UK, Cressida Gaukroger (June 2023)
- When it comes to measuring economic welfare, GDP doesn’t cut it
Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst (1/9/23)
- UNCTAD launches new index for countries to better measure economic potential
UNCTAD News (20/6/23)
- Redefining Economic Growth for a Climate-Conscious World
Forbes, Judah Taub (28/9/23)
- Bobby Kennedy on GDP: ‘measures everything except that which is worthwhile’
The Guardian, Simon Rogers (24/5/12)
- A guide to the UK National Accounts: Satellite Accounts
Data and Analysis
- GDP first quarterly estimate, UK: October to December 2023
- GDP (Average) per head, q-on-q4 growth rate CVM SA % (series N3Y8)
- Gross domestic product (Average) per head, CVM market prices: SA (series IHXW)
- GDP per capita, current prices (UK)
- Productive capacities index, annual, 2000-2022
- The Scale of Economic Inequality in the UK
The Equality Trust (2023)
- Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2023
IFS, Sam Ray-Chaudhuri, Tom Waters, Thomas Wernham and Xiaowei Xu (July 2023)
- Quarterly personal well-being estimates – seasonally adjusted
- Using GDP and other data, summarise the outlook for the UK economy.
- Why is GDP so widely used as an indicator of living standards?
- Explain the three methods of measuring GDP?
- What key contributors to living standards are omitted from GDP?
- What are the ONS Satellite Accounts? Are they useful for measuring living standards?
- Assess the UK’s economic potential against each of the eight category indices in the Productive Capacities Index.
- What is the difference between ‘living standards’ and ‘well-being’?
Artificial intelligence is having a profound effect on economies and society. From production, to services, to healthcare, to pharmaceuticals; to education, to research, to data analysis; to software, to search engines; to planning, to communication, to legal services, to social media – to our everyday lives, AI is transforming the way humans interact. And that transformation is likely to accelerate. But what will be the effects on GDP, on consumption, on jobs, on the distribution of income, and human welfare in general? These are profound questions and ones that economists and other social scientists are pondering. Here we look at some of the issues and possible scenarios.
According to the Merrill/Bank of America article linked below, when asked about the potential for AI, ChatGPT replied:
AI holds immense potential to drive innovation, improve decision-making processes and tackle complex problems across various fields, positively impacting society.
But the magnitude and distribution of the effects on society and economic activity are hard to predict. Perhaps the easiest is the effect on GDP. AI can analyse and interpret data to meet economic goals. It can do this much more extensively and much quicker than using pre-AI software. This will enable higher productivity across a range of manufacturing and service industries. According to the Merrill/Bank of America article, ‘global revenue associated with AI software, hardware, service and sales will likely grow at 19% per year’. With productivity languishing in many countries as they struggle to recover from the pandemic, high inflation and high debt, this massive boost to productivity will be welcome.
But whilst AI may lead to productivity growth, its magnitude is very hard to predict. Both the ‘low-productivity future’ and the ‘high-productivity future’ described in the IMF article linked below are plausible. Productivity growth from AI may be confined to a few sectors, with many workers displaced into jobs where they are less productive. Or, the growth in productivity may affect many sectors, with ‘AI applied to a substantial share of the tasks done by most workers’.
Even if AI does massively boost the growth in world GDP, the distribution is likely to be highly uneven, both between countries and within countries. This could widen the gap between rich and poor and create a range of social tensions.
In terms of countries, the main beneficiaries will be developed countries in North America, Europe and Asia and rapidly developing countries, largely in Asia, such as China and India. Poorer developing countries’ access to the fruits of AI will be more limited and they could lose competitive advantage in a number of labour-intensive industries.
Then there is growing inequality between the companies controlling AI systems and other economic actors. Just as companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google and Meta grew rich as computing, the Internet and social media grew and developed, so these and other companies at the forefront of AI development and supply will grow rich, along with their senior executives. The question then is how much will other companies and individuals benefit. Partly, it will depend on how much production can be adapted and developed in light of the possibilities that AI presents. Partly, it will depend on competition within the AI software market. There is, and will continue to be, a rush to develop and patent software so as to deliver and maintain monopoly profits. It is likely that only a few companies will emerge dominant – a natural oligopoly.
Then there is the likely growth of inequality between individuals. The reason is that AI will have different effects in different parts of the labour market.
The labour market
In some industries, AI will enhance labour productivity. It will be a tool that will be used by workers to improve the service they offer or the items they produce. In other cases, it will replace labour. It will not simply be a tool used by labour, but will do the job itself. Workers will be displaced and structural unemployment is likely to rise. The quicker the displacement process, the more will such unemployment rise. People may be forced to take more menial jobs in the service sector. This, in turn, will drive down the wages in such jobs and employers may find it more convenient to use gig workers than employ workers on full- or part-time contracts with holidays and other rights and benefits.
But the development of AI may also lead to the creation of other high-productivity jobs. As the Goldman Sachs article linked below states:
Jobs displaced by automation have historically been offset by the creation of new jobs, and the emergence of new occupations following technological innovations accounts for the vast majority of long-run employment growth… For example, information-technology innovations introduced new occupations such as webpage designers, software developers and digital marketing professionals. There were also follow-on effects of that job creation, as the boost to aggregate income indirectly drove demand for service sector workers in industries like healthcare, education and food services.
Nevertheless, people could still lose their jobs before being re-employed elsewhere.
The possible rise in structural unemployment raises the question of retraining provision and its funding and whether workers would be required to undertake such retraining. It also raises the question of whether there should be a universal basic income so that the additional income from AI can be spread more widely. This income would be paid in addition to any wages that people earn. But a universal basic income would require finance. How could AI be taxed? What would be the effects on incentives and investment in the AI industry? The Guardian article, linked below, explores some of these issues.
The increased GDP from AI will lead to higher levels of consumption. The resulting increase in demand for labour will go some way to offsetting the effects of workers being displaced by AI. There may be new employment opportunities in the service sector in areas such as sport and recreation, where there is an emphasis on human interaction and where, therefore, humans have an advantage over AI.
Another issue raised is whether people need to work so many hours. Is there an argument for a four-day or even three-day week? We explored these issues in a recent blog in the context of low productivity growth. The arguments become more compelling when productivity growth is high.
AI users are not all benign. As we are beginning to see, AI opens the possibility for sophisticated crime, including cyberattacks, fraud and extortion as the technology makes the acquisition and misuse of data, and the development of malware and phishing much easier.
Another set of issues arises in education. What knowledge should students be expected to acquire? Should the focus of education continue to shift towards analytical skills and understanding away from the simple acquisition of knowledge and techniques. This has been a development in recent years and could accelerate. Then there is the question of assessment. Generative AI creates a range of possibilities for plagiarism and other forms of cheating. How should modes of assessment change to reflect this problem? Should there be a greater shift towards exams or towards project work that encourages the use of AI?
Finally, there is the issue of the sort of society we want to achieve. Work is not just about producing goods and services for us as consumers – work is an important part of life. To the extent that AI can enhance working life and take away a lot of routine and boring tasks, then society gains. To the extent, however, that it replaces work that involved judgement and human interaction, then society might lose. More might be produced, but we might be less fulfilled.
- The Macroeconomics of Artificial Intelligence
IMF publications, Erik Brynjolfsson and Gabriel Unger (December 2023)
- Economic impacts of artificial intelligence (AI)
European Parliamentary Research Service, Marcin Szczepański (July 2019)
- Artificial intelligence: A real game changer
Chief Investment Office, Merrill/Bank of America (July 2023)
- Generative AI could raise global GDP by 7%
Goldman Sachs, Joseph Briggs (5/4/23)
- The macroeconomic impact of artificial intelligence
PwC, Jonathan Gillham, Lucy Rimmington, Hugh Dance, Gerard Verweij, Anand Rao, Kate Barnard Roberts and Mark Paich (February 2018)
- How genAI is revolutionizing the field of economics
CNN, Bryan Mena and Samantha Delouya (12/10/23)
- AI-powered digital colleagues are here. Some ‘safe’ jobs could be vulnerable.
BBC Worklife, Sam Becker (30/11/23)
- Generative AI and Its Economic Impact: What You Need to Know
Investopedia, Jim Probasco (1/12/23)
- AI is coming for our jobs! Could universal basic income be the solution?
The Guardian Philippa Kelly (16/11/23)
- CFPB chief’s warning: AI is a ‘natural oligopoly’ in the making
Politico, Sam Sutton (21/11/23)
- Which industries are most likely to benefit from the development of AI?
- Distinguish between labour-replacing and labour-augmenting technological progress in the context of AI.
- How could AI reduce the amount of labour per unit of output and yet result in an increase in employment?
- What people are most likely to (a) gain, (b) lose from the increasing use of AI?
- Is the distribution of income likely to become more equal or less equal with the development and adoption of AI? Explain.
- What policies could governments adopt to spread the gains from AI more equally?
An article in the February 2015 issue of the Economic Journal, ‘Intergenerational Wealth Mobility in England, 1858–2012: Surnames and Social Mobility’ by Gregory Clark and Neil Cummins, looks at the persistence of wealth within British families across the generations. The article shows, ‘using rare surnames to track families, that wealth is much more persistent than standard one-generation estimates would suggest. There is still a significant correlation between the wealth of families five generations apart’.
It concludes that down the generations the main determinant of wealth is inheritance, despite all efforts to improve social mobility. The intergenerational elasticity of wealth inheritance is found to be 0.70–0.75 throughout the years 1858–2012. In other words, people’s wealth on average will be between 70% and 75% of that of their parents. Thus a large proportion of each person’s wealth depends on the wealth of their parents and a relatively small amount depends on other factors. As Clark and Cummins conclude:
The implications of this model are that wealth will be surprisingly persistent in families across multiple generations. This is what allows rich rare surnames to still remain rich on average even four generations later. It also implies that wealth differences between racial, religious and ethnic groups will also be highly persistent across generations.
So it is just inherited wealth in terms of money or property that gets passed from generation to generation? Or are their other factors, such as education, social class and social contacts, that cause people’s wealth to depend heavily on that of their parents? Clark and Cummins consider this question.
What is the latent variable that underlies the inheritance of wealth? Evidence in other work we have done on the inheritance of education status in England suggests that families can be conceived of as having an underlying social competence, which is highly persistent across generations. This social competence generates their outcomes on all dimensions of social status but with random components on each one. In this case, social mobility between generations measured on any single aspect of status will be much greater than mobility on a more general ranking of families’ overall social status, that averages earnings, wealth, occupation, education, health and longevity.
So does this mean that attempts to create greater social mobility and greater equality are futile? The authors maintain that although it is difficult to achieve greater social mobility, income and wealth can nevertheless be redistributed through the tax and benefits system.
Inheritance: how Britain’s wealthy still keep it in the family The Observer, Jamie Doward (1/2/15)
How the rich stay rich: social status is more inheritable than height ZME Science (25/11/14)
This is the proof that the 1% have been running the show for 800 years Quartz (23/11/14)
Intergenerational Wealth Mobility in England, 1858–2012: Surnames and Social Mobility The Economic Journal, Gregory Clark and Neil Cummins (February 2015) (To read this article you will need to log in via Shibboleth using your university username and password.)
- What would be the implication of an intergenerational wealth elasticity (a) of 1; (b) of 0; (c) >1; (d) <0?
- For what reasons might there be a high intergenerational wealth elasticity?
- What is the likely relationship between the intergenerational distribution of wealth and the intergenerational distribution of income?
- What difficulties are there is using rare surnames as a means of establishing the intergenerational distribution of wealth?
- Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of (a) a much higher rate of inheritance tax (in the UK it’s currently 40% on the value of a person’s estate above £325,000 when they die); (b) capping the amount that can be left to any individual from an estate, with anything above this taxed at 100%; (c) capping the total amount that can be left (other than to charity), with the rest taxed at 100%.
- What measures could be adopted to increase social mobility?
- What problems would arise from using the tax and benefit system to reduce inequality? (In 2012/13 the gini coefficient of original income was 0.52 and that of both gross income (i.e. income after benefits but before tax) and post-tax-and-benefit income in the UK was 0.37: see Table 27 of The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13.)
Growing inequality of income and wealth is a common pattern throughout the world. In the boom years up to 2008, the rich got a lot richer, but at least those on low incomes generally saw modest rises in their incomes. Since 2008, however, the continually widening gap between rich and poor has seen the poor and many on middle incomes getting absolutely poorer.
The problem is particularly acute in the USA. Indeed, in his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said that it was the ‘defining issue of our time.’
No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.
The good news for the poor in the USA is that at last their incomes have stopped falling, thanks to stronger economic growth. But their share of the growth in GDP is tiny. As The Economist article states:
The main message is a grim one. Most of the growth is going to an extraordinarily small share of the population: 95% of the gains from the recovery have gone to the richest 1% of people, whose share of overall income is once again close to its highest level in a century. The most unequal country in the rich world is thus becoming even more so.
Apart from the ethical question of whether it is desirable for a society, already highly unequal, to become even more so, there is the question of whether this growth in inequality threatens economic recovery. Joseph Stiglitz argues that the rich have a low marginal propensity to consume and that this is threatening recovery.
Then there is the question of investment. Because most Americans have not seen any significant rise in incomes, it is easy for them to believe that the country cannot afford to invest more. And certainly it is difficult to persuade people that higher taxes are warranted to fund education, infrastructure or research.
The following articles consider the problem and its implications and look at various policy alternatives.
Articles and videos
Inequality: Growing apart The Economist (21/9/13)
What is income inequality, anyway? CNN, John D. Sutter (29/10/13)
Inequality is literally killing America Press TV (22/11/13)
It’s Economic Inequality Stupid – What to Do About the Biggest Crisis Facing America Huffington Post, Robert Creamer (14/11/13)
US Inequality Now Literally Off the Chart Truthout, Salvatore Babones (8/6/13)
Inequality moves to the front line of US politics Financial Times, Richard McGregor (20/11/13)
Is wealth inequality slowing growth? BBC News, Linda Yueh (21/11/13)
American Inequality in Six Charts The New Yorker, John Cassidy (18/11/13)
Income Inequality ‘Profoundly Corrosive’ Wall Street Journal, Larry Summers (19/11/13)
21 Charts On US Inequality That Everyone Should See Business Insider, Gus Lubin (12/11/13)
Data, information and reports
Income inequality in the United States Wikipedia
Inequality Data & Statistics Inequality.org
Income Main United States Census Bureau
World of Work Report 2013: Snapshot of the United States ILO
World of Work Report 2013 ILO
StatExtracts OECD (Search for Gini)
- How may income inequality be measured?
- Comment on the Gini coefficients in the above link to the StatExtracts site.
- Why has inequality grown in the USA?
- The Swiss have just voted in a referendum to reject a proposal to limit executive pay to 12 times that of the lowest paid worker in the same company. What are the arguments for and against the proposal?
- What features of an unequal society tend to perpetuate or even deepen that inequality over time?
- What features of a well functioning market economy would help to reduce income inequality?
- Are higher marginal tax rates and higher welfare payments the best way of reducing inequality? What other policy options are there?
- Compare the views of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz on the effects of growing inequality on economic growth. How significant is the difference in the marginal propensity to consume of the rich and the poor in explaining the relatively low rate of US economic growth?
What lies ahead for economic growth in 2013 and beyond? And what policies should governments adopt to aid recovery? These are questions examined in four very different articles from The Guardian.
The first is by Nouriel Roubini, Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He was one of the few economists to predict the collapse of the housing market in the USA in 2007 and the credit crunch and global recession that followed. He argues that continuing attempts by banks, governments and individuals to reduce debt and leverage will mean that the advanced economies will struggle to achieve an average rate of economic growth of 1%. He also identifies a number of other risks to the global economy.
In contrast to Roubini, who predicts that ‘stagnation and outright recession – exacerbated by front-loaded fiscal austerity, a strong euro and an ongoing credit crunch – remain Europe’s norm’, Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF and former French Finance Minister, predicts that the eurozone will return to growth. ‘It’s clearly the case’, she says, ‘that investors are returning to the eurozone, and resuming confidence in that market.’ Her views are echoed by world leaders meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, who are generally optimistic about prospects for economic recovery in the eurozone.
The third article, by Aditya Chakrabortty, economics leader writer for The Guardian, looks at the policies advocated at the end of World War II by the Polish economist, Michael Kalecki and argues that such policies are relevant today. Rather than responding to high deficits and debt by adopting tough fiscal austerity measures, governments should adopt expansionary fiscal policy, targeted at expanding infrastructure and increasing capacity in the economy. That would have an expansionary effect on both aggregate demand and aggregate supply. Sticking with austerity will result in continuing recession and the ‘the transfer of wealth and power into ever fewer hands.’
But while in the UK and the eurozone austerity policies are taking hold, the new government in Japan is adopting a sharply expansionary mix of fiscal and monetary policies – much as Kalecki would have advocated. The Bank of Japan will engage in large-scale quantitative easing, which will become an open-ended commitment in 2014, and is raising its inflation target from 1% to 2%. Meanwhile the Japanese government has decided to raise government spending on infrastructure and other government projects.
So – a range of analyses and policies for you to think about!
Risks lie ahead for the global economy The Guardian, Nouriel Roubini (21/1/13)
Eurozone showing signs of recovery, says IMF chief The Guardian, Graeme Wearden (14/1/13)
Austerity? Call it class war – and heed this 1944 warning from a Polish economist The Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty (14/1/13)
Bank of Japan bows to pressure with ‘epoch-making’ financial stimulus The Guardian, Phillip Inman (22/1/13)
- What are the dangers facing the global economy in 2013?
- Make out a case for sticking with fiscal austerity measures.
- Make out a case for adopting expansionary fiscal policies alongside even more expansionary monetary policies.
- Is is possible for banks to increase their capital-asset and liquidity ratios, while at the same time increasing lending to business and individuals? Explain.
- What are the implications of attempts to reduce public-sector deficits and debt on the distribution of income? Would it be possible to devise austerity policies that did not have the effect you have identified?
- What will be the effect of the Japanese policies on the exchange rate of the yen with other currencies? Will this be beneficial for the Japanese economy?