The World Economic Forum has been holding its annual meeting in the up-market Swiss ski resort of Davos. Many of the world’s richest and most powerful people attend these meetings, including political leaders, business leaders and representatives of various interest groups.
This year, one of the major topics has been the growth in inequality across the globe and how to reverse it. According to a report by Oxfam, Wealth: Having it all and wanting more:
The richest 1 per cent have seen their share of global wealth increase from 44 per cent in 2009 to 48 per cent in 2014 and at this rate will be more than 50 per cent in 2016. Members of this global elite had an average wealth of $2.7m per adult in 2014.
Of the remaining 52 per cent of global wealth, almost all (46 per cent) is owned by the rest of the richest fifth of the world’s population. The other 80 per cent share just 5.5 per cent and had an average wealth of $3851 per adult – that’s 1/700th of the average wealth of the 1 per cent.
Currently, the richest 85 people in the world have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50% of the world’s population. It might seem odd that those with the wealth are talking about the problem of inequality. Indeed, some of those 85 richest people were at the conference: a conference that boasts extremely luxurious conditions. What is more, many delegates flew into the conference in private jets (at least 850 jets) to discuss not just poverty but also climate change!
Yet if the problem of global inequality is to be tackled, much of the power to do so lies in the hands of these rich and powerful people. They are largely the ones who will have to implement policies that will help to raise living standards of the poor.
But why should they want to? Part of the reason is a genuine concern to address the issues of increasingly divided societies. But part is the growing evidence that greater inequality reduces economic growth by reducing the development of skills of the lower income groups and reducing social mobility. We discussed this topic in the blog, Inequality and economic growth.
So what policies could be adopted to tackle the problem. Oxfam identifies a seven-point plan:
||Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals;
||Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education;
||Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards capital and wealth;
||Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers;
||Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum income guarantee;
||Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal;
||Agree a global goal to tackle inequality.
But how realistic are these policies? Is it really in the interests of governments to reduce inequality? Indeed, some of the policies that have been adopted since 2008, such as bailing out the banks and quantitative easing, have had the effect of worsening inequality. QE drives up asset prices, particularly bond, share and property prices. This has provided a windfall to the rich: the more of such assets you own, the greater the absolute gain.
The following videos and articles look at the problem of growing inequality and how realistic it is to expect leaders to do anything significant about it.
Videos and podcasts
Income inequality is ‘brake on growth’, Oxfam chief warns Davos France 24, Winnie Byanyima (22/1/15)
Davos dilemma: Can the 1% cure income inequality? Yahoo Finance, Lizzie O’Leary and Shawna Ohm (21/1/15)
Richest 1% ‘Will Own Half The World’s Wealth By 2016’ ITN on YouTube, Sarah Kerr (19/1/15)
The Price of Inequality BBC Radio 4, Robert Peston (3/2/15 and 10/2/15)
Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016 Oxfam blogs, Jon Slater (19/1/15)
Global tax system can cut inequality The Scotsman, Jamie Livingstone (23/1/15)
A new framework for a new age Financial Times, Tony Elumelu (23/1/15)
The global elite in Davos must give the world a pay rise New Statesman, Frances O’Grady (22/1/15)
New Oxfam report says half of global wealth held by the 1% The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Ed Pilkington (19/1/15)
Davos is starting to get it – inequality is the root cause of stagnation The Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/1/15)
Inequality isn’t inevitable, it’s engineered. That’s how the 1% have taken over The Guardian, Suzanne Moore (19/1/15)
Why extreme inequality hurts the rich BBC News, Robert Peston (19/1/15)
Eurozone stimulus ‘reinforces inequality’, warns Soros BBC News, Joe Miller (22/1/15)
Hot topic for the 1 percent at Davos: Inequality CNBC, Lawrence Delevingne (21/1/15)
Global inequality: The wrong yardstick The Economist (24/1/15)
A Richer World (a compendium of articles) BBC News (27/1/15)
OECD Income Distribution Database: Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS
- Why has inequality increased in most countries in recent years?
- For what reasons might it be difficult to measure the distribution of wealth?
- Which gives a better indication of differences in living standards: the distribution of wealth or the distribution of income?
- Discuss the benefits and costs of using the tax system to redistribute (a) income and (b) wealth from rich to poor
- Go through each of the seven policies advocated by Oxfam and consider how practical they are and what possible objections to them might be raised by political leaders.
- Why is tax avoidance/tax evasion by multinational companies difficult to tackle?
- Does universal access to education provide the key to reducing income inequality within and between countries?
One of the key battle grounds at the next General Election is undoubtedly going to be immigration. A topic that is very closely related to EU membership and what can be done to limit the number of people coming to the UK. One side of the argument is that immigrants coming into the UK boost growth and add to the strength of the economy. The other side is that once in the UK, immigrants don’t move into work and end up taking more from the welfare state than they give to it through taxation.
A new report produced by University College London’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration has found that the effect on the UK economy of immigrants from the 10 countries that joined the EU from 2004 has been positive. In the years until 2011, it has been found that these immigrants contributed £4.96 billion more in taxes than they took out in benefits and use of public services. Christian Dustmann, one of the authors of this report said:
“Our new analysis draws a positive picture of the overall fiscal contribution made by recent immigrant cohorts, particularly of immigrants arriving from the EU … European immigrants, particularly, both from the new accession countries and the rest of the European Union, make the most substantial contributions … This is mainly down to their higher average labour market participation compared with natives and their lower receipt of welfare benefits.”
The report also found that in the 11 years to 2011, migrants from these 10 EU countries were 43 per cent less likely than native Britons to receive benefits or tax credits, and 7 per cent less likely to live in social housing. This type of data suggests a positive overall contribution from EU immigration. However, critics have said that it doesn’t paint an accurate picture. Sir Andrew Green, Chairman of Migration Watch commented on the choice of dates, saying:
“If you take all EU migration including those who arrived before 2001 what you find is this: you find by the end of the period they are making a negative contribution and increasingly so … And the reason is that if you take a group of people while they’re young fit and healthy they’re not going to be very expensive but if you take them over a longer period they will be.”
However, the report is not all positive about the effects of immigration. When considering the impact on the economy of migrants from outside of the EEA, the picture is quite different. Over the past 17 years, immigration has cost the UK economy approximately £120bn, through migrant’s greater consumption of public benefits, such as the NHS, compared to their contributions through taxation. The debate is likely to continue and this report will certainly be used by both sides of the argument as evidence that (a) no change in immigration policy is needed and (b) a major change is needed to immigration policy. The following articles consider this report.
The Fiscal effects of immigration to the UK The Economic Journal, University College London’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, Christian Dustmann and Tommaso Frattini (November 2014)
Immigration from outside Europe ‘cost £120 billion’ The Telegraph, David Barrett (5/11/14)
New EU members add £5bn to UK says Research BBC News (5/11/14)
UK gains £20bn from European migrants, UCL economists reveal The Guardian, Alan Travis (5/11/14)
EU immigrant tax gain revealed Mail Online (5/11/14)
Immigration question still open BBC News, Robert Peston (5/11/14)
EU migrants pay £20bn more in taxes than they receive Financial Times, Helen Warrell (5/11/14)
- Why is immigration such a political topic?
- How are UK labour markets be affected by immigration? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate the effect.
- Based on your answer to question 2, explain why some people are concerned about the impact of immigration on UK jobs.
- What is the economic argument in favour of allowing immigration to continue?
- What policy changes could be recommended to restrict the levels of immigration from outside the EEA, but to continue to allow immigration from EU countries?
- If EU migrants are well educated, does that have a positive or negative impact on UK workers, finances and the economy?
Lloyds Banking Group has announced that it plans to reduce its labour force by 9000. Some of this reduction may be achieved by not replacing staff that leave, but some may have to be achieved through redundancies.
The reasons given for the reduction in jobs are technological change and changes in customer practice. More banking services are available online and customers are making more use of these services and less use of branch banking. Also, the increasingly widespread availability of cash machines (ATMs) means that fewer people withdraw cash from branches.
And it’s not just outside branches that technological change is impacting on bank jobs. Much of the work previously done by humans is now done by software programs.
One result is that many bank branches have closed. Lloyds says that the latest planned changes will see 150 fewer branches – 6.7% of its network of 2250.
What’s happening in banking is happening much more widely across modern economies. Online shopping is reducing the need for physical shops. Computers in offices are reducing the need, in many cases, for office staff. More sophisticated machines, often controlled by increasingly sophisticated computers, are replacing jobs in manufacturing.
So is this bad news for employees? It is if you are in one of those industries cutting employment. But new jobs are being created as the economy expands. So if you have a good set of skills and are willing to retrain and possibly move home, it might be relatively easy to find a new, albeit different, job.
As far as total unemployment is concerned, more rapid changes in technology create a rise in frictional and structural unemployment. This can be minimised, however, or even reduced, if there is greater labour mobility. This can be achieved by better training, education and the development of transferable skills in a more adaptive labour force, where people see changing jobs as a ‘normal’ part of a career.
Lloyds Bank cuts 9,000 jobs – but what of the tech future? Channel 4 News, Symeon Brown (28/10/14)
Lloyds Bank confirms 9,000 job losses and branch closures BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (28/10/14)
Lloyds job cuts show the technology axe still swings for white collar workers The Guardian, Phillip Inman (28/10/14)
Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions Cabinet Office (July 2009)
Fair access to professional careers: a progress report Cabinet Office (30/5/12)
- Is a reduction in banking jobs inevitable? Explain.
- What could banks do to reduce the hardship to employees from a reduction in employment?
- What other industries are likely to see significant job losses resulting from technological progress?
- Distinguish between demand-deficient, real-wage, structural and frictional unemployment. Which of these are an example, or examples, of equilibrium unemployment?
- What policies could the government pursue to reduce (a) frictional unemployment; (b) structural unemployment?
- What types of industry are likely to see an increase in employment and in what areas of these industries?
On my commute to work on the 6th May, I happened to listen to a programme on BBC radio 4, which provided some fascinating discussion on a variety of economic issues. Technological change is constant and unstoppable and the consequences of it are likely to be both good and bad.
In this programme some top economists, including Joseph Stiglitz offer their analysis of the impact of technology and how the future might look, by considering a range of factors, such as youth unemployment, the productivity of labour, education, pensions and inequality. The benefits of new technology can be seen as endless, but the impact on inequality and how the benefits of technology are being distributed is a concern for many people. The best introduction to the programme and its content is simply to reproduce the description provided by BBC radio 4.
The baby boom generation came of age when it was accepted knowledge that innovation and productivity would always lead to higher standards of living. The generations which followed assumed this truth would continue into the future indefinitely. With the crash of 2008 the upward mobility the middle classes assumed was their right evaporated, and it is unlikely to return.
Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, asks how the work force of the future will be changed by the advancements of technologies. How should governments respond to a jobs market which is hollowing out opportunities for traditional educated professions and how will rewards for innovation and income for labour be distributed without creating a society plagued by endemic inequality?
We will speak with optimists and pessimists on both sides of the argument to find out how the repercussions of these changes will affect the way we all live now and well into the future.
It is well worth listening to and provides some interesting insights as to what the future might look like, as the inevitable technological change continues. The link for the programme is below.
The future is not what it used to be BBC Radio 4 (6/5/14)
- What are the expected costs and benefits of technological change?
- Which factors are discussed as being the main obstacles to upwards mobility? Why have these become more prevalent in recent decades?
- Using a diagram, explain how technology can improve economic growth. To what extent is the multiplier effect important here?
- How is technology expected to affect the labour market? Use a diagram to help your explanation and make sure you consider both sides of the argument.
- What is meant by the idea that the benefits of new technology are likely to be felt in the long run?
- How important is education in creating equal opportunities?
- What is meant by secular stagnation? Is it seen as being a problem?
There has always been relatively widespread agreement that the best method to produce and finance education is via the government. Education is such a key service, with huge positive externalities, but information is far from perfect. If left to the individual, many would perhaps choose not to send their children to school. Whether it be because they lack the necessary information, they don’t value education or they need the money their child could earn by going out to work – perhaps they put the welfare of the whole family unit above the welfare of one child. However, with such large external benefits, the government intervenes by making education compulsory and goes a step further in many countries and provides and finances it too.
However, is this the right way to provide education? People like choice and the ability to exercise their consumer sovereignty. The more competition there is, the more of an incentive firms have to provide consumers with the best deal, in terms of quality, efficiency and hence price. We see this every day when we buy most goods. Many car salesrooms to visit – all the dealerships trying to offer us a better deal. Innovation in all industries – one phone is developed, only to be trumped by a slightly better one. This is only one of the many benefits of competition. Yet, education sectors are largely monopolies, run by the government. Many countries have a small private sector and there is substantial evidence to suggest that education standards in it are significantly higher. Research from Harvard University academics, covering 220,000 teenagers, suggests that competition from private schools improves achievement for all students. Martin West said:
“The more competition the state schools face for students, the stronger their incentive to perform at high levels…Our results suggest that students in state-run schools profit nearly as much from increased private school competition as do a nation’s students as a whole.”
The study concluded that an increase in the percentage of private school pupils made the education system more competitive and therefore more efficient, with an overall improvement in education standards. With so much evidence in favour of competition in other markets in addition to the above study, what makes education so different?
Or is it different? Should there be more competition in this sector – many economists, including Milton Friedman, say yes. He proposed a voucher scheme, whereby parents were given a voucher to cover the cost of sending their child to school. However, the parents could decide which school they sent their child to – a private one or a state run school. This meant that schools were in direct competition with each other to attract parents, their children and hence their money. Voucher schemes have been trialed in several places, most prominently in Sweden, where the independent sector has significantly expanded and results have improved. Is this a good policy? Should it be expanded and implemented in countries such as the UK and US? The following articles consider this.
School Competition rescues kids: the government’s virtual monopoly over K-12 education has failed Hawaii Reporter, John Stossel (30/10/11)
Private schools boosts national exam results Guardian, Jessica Shepherd (15/9/10)
Can the private sector play a helpful role in education? Osiris (10/8/11)
Voucher critics are misleading the public Tribune Review, TribLive, Joy Pullmann (30/10/11)
Vouchers beat status quo The Times Tribune (29/10/11)
Why are we allowing kids to be held hostage by a government monopoly? Fox News, John Stossel (26/10/11)
Free Schools – freedom to privatise education The Socialist (26/10/11)
Anyone noticed the Tories are ‘nationalising’ schools? Guardian, Mike Baker (17/10/11)
School Choice works: The case of Sweden Milton & Rose D Friedman Foundation, Frederick Bergstrom and Mikael Sandstrom (December 2002)
- What are the general benefits of competition?
- How does competition in the education market improve efficiency and hence exam results? Think about results in the private sector.
- What is the idea of a voucher scheme? How do you think it will affect the efficiency of the sector?
- What do you think would happen to equity in if a scheme such as the voucher programme was implemented in the UK?
- How do you think UK families would react to the introduction of a voucher scheme?
- What other policies have been implemented in the UK to create more competition in the education sector? To what extent have they been effective?