In a series of five podcasts, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the first week of January 2021, Amol Rajan and guests examine different aspects of inequality and consider the concept of fairness.
As the notes to the programme state:
The pandemic brought renewed focus on how we value those who have kept shelves stacked, transport running and the old and sick cared for. So is now the time to bring about a fundamental shift in how our society and economy work?
The first podcast, linked below, examines the distribution of wealth in the UK and how it has changed over time. It looks at how rising property and share prices and a lightly taxed inheritance system have widened inequality of wealth.
It also examines rising inequality of incomes, a problem made worse by rising wealth inequality, the move to zero-hour contracts, gig working and short-term contracts, the lack of social mobility, austerity following the financial crisis of 2007–9 and the lockdowns and restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with layoffs, people put on furlough and more and more having to turn to food banks.
Is this rising inequality fair? Should fairness be considered entirely in monetary terms, or should it be considered more broadly in social terms? These are issues discussed by the guests. They also look at what policies can be pursued. If the pay of health and care workers, for example, don’t reflect their value to our society, what can be done to increase their pay? If wealth is very unequally distributed, should it be redistributed and how?
The questions below are based directly on the issues covered in the podcast in the order they are discussed.
- In what ways has Covid-19 been the great ‘unequaliser’?
- What scarring/hysteresis effects are there likely to be from the pandemic?
- To what extent is it true that ‘the more your job benefits other people, the less you get paid’?
- How has the pandemic affected inter-generational inequality?
- How have changes in house prices skewed wealth in the UK over the past decade?
- How have changes in the pension system contributed to inter-generational inequality?
- How has quantitative easing affected the distribution of wealth?
- Why is care work so poorly paid and how can the problem be addressed?
- How desirable is the pursuit of wealth?
- How would you set about defining ‘fairness’?
- Is a mix of taxation and benefits the best means of tackling economic unfairness?
- How would you set about deciding an optimum rate of inheritance tax?
- How do you account for the growth of in-work poverty?
- In what ways could wealth be taxed? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such taxes?
The IFS has launched a major five-year review into all aspects of inequality. The review is led by Sir Angus Deaton, the Scottish-born Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University. In 2015, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare. The review will cover all aspects of inequality, including inequality of income, wealth, health, life-span, education, social mobility, housing, opportunity and political access, and by gender, age, ethnicity, family and geography. It will look at trends in and causes of inequality, the impacts of globalisation and political change, barriers to tackling inequality and poverty, and at various policy measures.
Although the published Gini coefficient in England and Wales has not changed much over the past 15 years, largely because of support given to the poor by tax credits, it did rise from 31.7 to 33.2 from 2015/16 to 2017/18 (the latest year for which figures are available). Other measures of inequality, however, have changed more dramatically. There is huge geographical inequality in income in the UK, reflected in inequality in health. Average weekly earnings in London are 66% higher than in the north east of England. And, according to the IFS, ‘Men in the most affluent areas can expect to live nearly 10 years longer than those in the most deprived areas, and this gap is widening’.
The UK has the greatest inequality of income of developed countries, with the exception of the USA. The IFS warns that the UK could follow the USA:
…where wages for non-college-educated men have not risen for five decades, and where rising mortality for less-educated white men and women in middle age has caused average life expectancy in America to fall for the last three years – something that has not happened for a century. We have not experienced anything similar in the UK but we have now had a decade of stagnant wages and there is recent evidence that ‘deaths of despair’ – deaths from suicide and drug and alcohol abuse – are now rising among middle-aged Britons. Sir Angus will go on to say:
‘I think that people getting rich is a good thing, especially when it brings prosperity to others. But the other kind of getting rich, “taking” rather than “making”, rent-seeking rather than creating, enriching the few at the expense of the many, taking the free out of free markets, is making a mockery of democracy. In that world, inequality and misery are intimate companions.’
The initial report, which introduces the IFS Deaton Review, points to some possible causes of growing inequality, including the dramatic decline in union membership, which now stands at just 13% of private-sector employees, with more flexible labour markets with growing numbers of workers on temporary or zero-hour contracts. Other causes include growing globalisation, rapid technological change making some skills redundant, the power of large companies and their shareholders, large pay rises given to senior executives, growing inequality of access to education and changing family environments with more single parents.
About one in six children in the UK are born to single parents – a phenomenon that is heavily concentrated in low-income and low-educated families, and is significantly less prevalent in continental Europe.
Then there is the huge growth in housing inequality as house prices and rents have risen faster than incomes. Home ownership has increasingly become beyond the reach of many young people, while many older people live in relative housing wealth. Generational inequality is another major factor that the Deaton Review will consider.
Inequalities in different dimensions – income, work, mental and physical health, families and relationships – are likely to reinforce one another. They may result in, and stem from, other inequalities in wealth, cultural capital, social networks and political voice. Inequality cannot be reduced to any one dimension: it is the culmination of myriad forms of privilege and disadvantage.
The review will consider policy alternatives to tackle the various aspects of inequality, from changes to the tax and benefit system, to legislation on corporate behaviour, to investment in various structural resources, such as health and education. As the summary to the initial report states:
The Deaton Review will identify policy responses to the inequalities we face today. It will assess the relative merits of available policy options – taxes and benefits, labour market policies, education, competition policy, ownership structures and regulations – and consider how policies in different spheres can be designed to complement each other and minimise adverse effects. We aim not just to further our understanding of inequalities in the twenty-first century, but to equip policymakers with the knowledge and tools to tackle those inequalities.
IFS Deaton Review
- Identify different aspects of inequality. Choose two or three aspects and examine how they are related.
- Why has inequality widened in most developed countries over the past 20 years?
- What is meant by ‘rent seeking’? Why may it be seen as undesirable? Can it be justified and, if so, on what grounds?
- What policies could be adopted to tackle poverty?
- What trade-offs might there be between greater equality and faster economic growth?
- What policies could be adopted that would both reduce inequality and boost long-term economic growth?
The housing market and what to do about bubbles, second homes and first time buyers is likely to be one of many battle grounds at the next election. For many years, the idea of a mansion tax has been debated and the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has outlined plans for a mansion tax under a Labour government.
The policy would see houses valued at between £2 and £3 million pay £250 a month as a mansion tax. Those owning a home worth tens of millions and those with second homes would pay more under the mansion tax, which would be based on a progressive system. Concerns have been raised about the impact of this tax on home-owners in areas like London, where average house prices are considerably higher than the UK average. Ed Balls has sought to reassure homeowners that payment of the mansion tax could be deferred if earnings do not reach the £42,000 threshold. However, critics have suggested that this policy will only make things worse for middle income households who will not be able to defer such a payment if their income is £43,000. Labour’s MP for Greenwich, Nick Raynsford said, ‘What it does is create a cliff edge. It will still hit people who are asset rich but cash poor.” Writing in the Evening Standard, Ed Balls said:
“Long-standing residents who now find themselves living in high-value homes but do not have an income high enough to pay the higher or top rate of income tax — in other words earn less than £42,000 a year — will be guaranteed the right to defer the charge until the property changes hands.
So a tax on the highest value properties will be done fairly and carefully to help fund our NHS for the future.
Ordinary Londoners should be protected and wealthy foreign investors must finally make a proper tax contribution in this country.”
Although similar in its objective to the Liberal Democrat’s mansion tax, the amount of the tax as a percentage of the value of the home under Labour is significantly lower. It is likely to be between 0.1% and 0.15% of the home’s valued, compared to the 1% levy proposed by the Liberal Democrats.
One debate now surrounds the amount that this tax is expected to raise, especially given the revenue has been ear-marked to finance the NHS. The number of homes whose value is estimated to fall between £2m and £3m varies considerably and hence so would the revenues raised from such a tax. However, the income generated by even the most generous estimates will not come close to raising the ear-marked figure of £1.2bn. As such, there are suggestions that the tax levied on houses worth more than £3m; on foreign owners of residences in the UK and second homes will need to be significant to make up the short fall. A spokesperson for the Conservatives said:
“Serious questions have now been raised about how much revenue Labour would be able to raise from the tax …This is a further unravelling of the policy, which faced fierce criticism after it was revealed that no money would be raised until halfway through the next parliament, and the proposals for mass valuations of family homes was widely slammed as unworkable.”
The UK residential research director of Savills estate agency, Lucian Cook, added:
“Given Labour’s stated ambition to raise £1.2bn, that would leave at least £1.08bn to be raised from the remaining 57,000 properties, possibly more to account for tax leakage elsewhere in the system.”
The impact of the mansion tax will depend on exactly how it is imposed and the thresholds, together with how the threshold changes with the housing market. In the UK, we have seen some houses increase in value by huge amounts in just a few months and with a mansion tax, any such increase in price could move more home-owners into the new progressive tax system. Some argue that it is a tax on Londoners. The following articles consider the proposed policy by Labour.
Ed Balls seeks to reassure London home owners over mansion tax plans The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (20/10/14)
Ed Balls: Mansion tax would start at £250 a month BBC News (20/10/14)
‘Mansion tax’ will mean bill of £250 a month, says Ed Balls Financial Times, Emily Cadman, Kate Allen, Vanessa Houlder and George Parker (20/10/14)
Mansion tax can be deferred in you earn less than £42,000, Ed Balls insists as he reveals details of levy on £2million homes Mail Online, Matt Chorley (20/10/14)
Ed Balls: Mansion tax will cost homeowners £250 a month London Evening Standard (20/10/14)
Middle-class families hit by Labour’s mansion tax The Telegraph, Steven Swinford (20/10/14)
Balls says mansion-tax threshold to rise with home values Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (20/10/14)
- How does a progressive tax system work?/li>
- Why are some critics arguing that this mansion tax would just be a tax on Londoners?
- What objective is the £42,000 income threshold trying to achieve? Do you think that critics are correct in their assertion that it penalises middle income households?
- Fiscal drag is mentioned in the BBC News article as a potential problem with the mansion tax proposed by Labour and that houses may move into the taxable threshold. What is fiscal drag and why is it a potential concern?
- How might such a policy affect the incentives of foreigners to invest in the UK housing market? Would this be a good or a bad thing and for who?
- The revenues generated from houses between £2 and £3m will not be sufficient to generate £1.2bn. What are the implications for how progressive the mansion tax would need to be and how this might affect homeowners?
Is this a problem you find when you go shopping? Maybe that’s because the shop that sells it has closed. A report by the Local Data Company has revealed that one in eight shops stand empty on Britain’s high streets, after the recession saw vacancies shoot up by 24% in the second half of 2009. The number of empty town-centre shops climbed to 17,880 in the second half of 2009, equivalent to 12% of the 149,000 shops covered by the research.
Margate in Kent and Wolverhampton in the Midlands were two of the worst-hit areas, where vacant shops stood at 27% and 24% respectively. Take a stroll down a high street in almost any city or town in the UK and you are bound to see ‘Shop for let’. We’ve seen Woolworths and Borders close down and Threshers’ parent company collapse. But these stores have largely remained empty.
Empty houses have also been a problem as the number of repossessions increases. Statistics show an average of 126 people a day were thrown out of their homes in 2009. What is the explanation behind this?
An obvious answer is the recession. As shops felt the strain of low demand, some were simply unable to cope and they shut down as a result. At the same time, new firms were reluctant to take the risk and enter the market during an economic downturn – and who can blame them?
However, are there other reasons why Britain’s high streets are seeing more and more empty shops? The following articles look at the reshaping of our high streets and some of the explanations behind it.
Shops ‘empty due to recession’ The Press Association (11/2/10)
UK recession has left one in eight shops empty Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (11/2/10)
Bradford second worse for empty shop premises Telegraph and Argus, Will Kilner (11/2/10)
25% of town shops now empty Express and Star (11/2/10)
British town centres in crisis, conference told Reuters, Sinead Cruise (10/2/10)
Empty shop numbers continue to rise in UK Property Week, Laura Chesters (10/2/10)
Empty shops caused by more than recession Startups (12/2/10)
Buy-to-let: Landlords blow as tenants struggle to pay Telegraph (11/2/10)
Housing Minister says repossession is the ‘best thing’ for homeowners Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (11/2/10)
Home repossessions at highest since 1995 This is Money (11/2/10)
- What are the main factors behind the high number of empty shops? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate these factors.
- In the Startups Article, the BRC Director says: “High street shops are often battling big bills for business rates and rents, parking and access difficulties, as well as failure to manage and invest in the area.” Illustrate this on a diagram and explain how this effect has contributed to empty shops.
- To what extent is more internet shopping the main cause of the problem? Why is it cheaper to run a business via the internet than on a high street?
- Why have some cities and towns been more affected than others?
- Is there a link between empty shops and repossessions?
- What more could the government and local councils do to try to encourage businesses to set up on the high street?
All nations are interdependent and few have escaped the recent economic turmoil that began with the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market in America. Businesses have gone under; interest rates have been cut and then cut again; profits have fallen; unemployment has risen and expectations have remained gloomy.
But, what’s the latest? How is the British economy faring and what about the rest of the world? Some sources suggest that we are already in a recovery, whereas others suggest that the current downturn is not yet over. House prices recovered somewhat in July, but various sources suggest that they experienced their biggest fall in August. The following articles look at recent economic developments.
Job cuts at Vauxhall likely as GM agrees sale to Magna Telegraph (10/9/09)
A look at Economic developments around the globe The Associated Press (10/9/09)
BoE holds QE at 175 bln stg, rates at 0.5 pct Reuters (10/9/09)
Kesa’s UK recovery hit by European slowdown Times Online (10/9/09)
Top US banker criticises bonuses BBC News (9/9/09)
Austrian GDP contraction slowed in Q2 Reuters (10/9/09)
Europe and America’s economies to beat UK, OECD says Telegraph (4/9/09)
Britain will be behind rest of world in emerging from recession Times Online (3/9/09)
Bank of England holds rates at 0.5pc and QE at £175 bn The Telegraph (10/9/09)
- Do you think the evidence suggests that the outlook for the global economy is improving?
- Why will Britain probably take longer to recover from the recession than other major economies?
- What is the theory behind low interest rates helping the economic recovery?
- Which policies have the UK and other governments used to tackle this economic downturn? Would any others have been more successful?
- In what ways and for what reasons are countries economically interdependent?