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?
According to a an article in The Guardian, The best news in the world, by the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, there has been a dramatic fall in global poverty over the past two decades. The number of people in extreme poverty is projected to fall this year to below 10% of global population for the first time. This has been made possible, he claims, by unprecedented economic growth, especially in China.
But this raises three questions.
The first is whether, in the face of falling growth rates, progress in poverty reduction can be maintained.
The second is whether the World Bank is measuring extreme poverty in the right way. It is now defined as living on less than US$1.90 a day in 2011 prices – until a few weeks ago is was $1.25 in 2005 prices. As a result of this rebasing, global poverty falls from 14.5% of the world’s population (or 1011 million people) under the old method to 14.2% (or 987 million) under the new.
The third question is whether countries can improve their data collection so that a truer estimate of poverty can be made.
As far as the first question is concerned, Kim states that to stimulate growth, ‘every dollar of public spending should be scrutinised for impact. Every effort must be made to improve productivity.’ What is more, three things must happen:
||Economic growth must lift all people. It must be inclusive.
||Investment in human beings is crucial – especially investing in their health and education. Malnourished and poorly educated children will never reach their full potential and countries, in turn, will fall short of their economic and social aspirations.
||We must ensure that we can provide safety nets that prevent people from falling back into poverty because of poor health, economic shocks, or natural disasters.
As far as the second question is concerned, there are many who argue that $1.90 per day is far too low a measure of the extreme poverty threshold. It is a purchasing-power parity measure and is equivalent to what $1.90 would buy in the USA in 2011. But, according to the Jason Hickel article linked below, ‘the US Department of Agriculture calculates that in 2011 the very minimum necessary to buy sufficient food was $5.04 per day. And that’s not taking account of other requirements for survival, such as shelter and clothing.’ Peter Edward of Newcastle University, claims Hickell, ‘calculates that in order to achieve normal human life expectancy of just over 70 years, people need roughly 2.7 to 3.9 times the existing poverty line.’
But even if living on below $1.90 a day is defined as extreme poverty, it is important not to see the problem of poverty as having been solved for people who manage to achieve an income slightly above that level.
The third question is how to improve data. There is a paucity and unreliability of data in many developing countries. According to Kim:
Our report adds that data is sparse and inconsistent across the region and globally. Some 29 countries around the world had no poverty data from 2002 to 2011, so they could not track their progress. Another 28 had just one survey that collected poverty data during that time.
This is a situation that must change to improve the world’s ability to tackle poverty. In fact, we can’t accomplish our goal if we do not have enough information to know whether people are actually lifting themselves out of poverty. For that we need to address huge data gaps. We need robust data.
The best news in the world: we have made real progress towards ending extreme poverty The Guardian, Jim Yong Kim (3/11/15)
Could you live on $1.90 a day? That’s the international poverty line The Guardian, Jason Hickel (1/11/15)
Making international trade work for the world’s poorest The Guardian, Jim Yong Kim and Roberto Azevêdo (30/6/15)
Global Poverty Will Hit New Low This Year, World Bank Says Huffington Post, Lydia O’Connor (23/10/15)
The international poverty line has just been raised to $1.90 a day, but global poverty is basically unchanged. How is that even possible? World Bank blogs, Francisco Ferreira, Dean Mitchell Jolliffe and Espen Beer Prydz (4/10/2015)
Why Didn’t the World Bank Make Reducing Inequality One of Its Goals? World Bank blogs, Jaime Saavedra-Chanduvi (23/9/13)
$1.90 Per Day: What Does it Say? Institute for New Economic Thinking, Rahul Lahoti and Sanjay Reddy (6/10/15)
Reports and papers
The Role of Trade in Ending Poverty WTO and World Bank (2015)
Poverty in a Rising Africa World Bank (1/10/15)
Ending extreme poverty and sharing prosperity: progress and policies World Bank, Marcio Cruz, James Foster, Bryce Quillin and Philip Schellekens (October 2015)
- Explain how the World Bank calculates the extreme poverty line.
- Why, if the line has risen from $1.25 per day to $1.90 per day, has the number of people recorded as being in extreme poverty fallen as a result?
- Why has the number of people in extreme poverty been rising over the years and yet the percentage of people in extreme poverty been falling?
- What policies can be adopted to tackle poverty? Discuss their practicality?
- Are reduced poverty and increased economic growth consistent policy goals? (See the blog post Inequality and economic growth.)
- What are the inadequacies of using income per day (albeit in ppp terms) as a measure of the degree of poverty? What other indicators of poverty could be used and how suitable would they be?
- How could international trade be made to work for the world’s poorest?
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’s been much talk about the UK’s economic recovery and whether or not it has begun and whether consumer spending is actually the cause. The latest sector to post positive figures is the car industry, which has seen 2013 bring in the highest level of car sales since the onset of the credit crunch.
According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), vehicle registrations in 2013 were 2.26 million, which represented a 10.8% increase from 2012. That’s not to say that we have returned to the heights seen pre-crisis levels, as sales still remain some way below their 2007 figure, but the data is certainly moving in the right direction. The key questions are: What’s the cause of this growth and what does it mean for the UK economy?
The economy has certainly turned a corner and perhaps consumer confidence is improving to reflect this. With consumes more optimistic about future economic prospects, more luxury items may well be purchased. During the height of the recession, many families may well have said ‘it will last’ or ‘we’ll make do’, referring to their old cars. However, this improved confidence, together with attractive finance deals may have been instrumental in convincing consumers to splash out. This is reflected in the data, which indicates that some 75% of car sales involve a finance package. One further explanation that has been offered by industry analysts is that the refunds individuals are receiving through mis-sold payment protection insurance are providing a nice contribution towards the deposit.
PPI payments will certainly dry up, but as long as attractive finance packages remain, car sales should continue. A key factor affecting affordability may be interest rates. When they increase, any variable rate loans will become more expensive to service and this may act to deter consumers. However, if the car industry helps to stimulate other sectors and wages begin to increase, the overall effect may be to sustain and even further the growth of this key economic sector. The following articles consider the car industry.
UK car sales hit five-year high The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (7/1/14)
UK new car sales highest since 2007, SMTT says BBC News (7/1/14)
Car sales increased by almost 11% in 2013 Sky News (7/1/14)
UK new car sales rise to highest level since 2007 Reuters, David Milliken (7/1/14)
UK car sales up 11% in 2013, topping pre-crisis levels Wall Street Journal, Matthew Curtin and Ian Walker (7/1/14)
New car sales in UK at highest since before recession Independent, Sean O’Grady (7/1/14)
UK car sales top pre-recession levels Financial Times, Henry Foy (6/1/14)
- How important is the car industry in the context of the UK economy?
- How is the UK car industry performing relative to its Western rivals?
- Would a 30% single rate of income tax be equitable?
- Explain the way in which car sales have been affected by consumer confidence.
- How have finance packages helped to stimulate car sales?
- What are the key macroeconomic variables that are likely to affect the future performance of this key sector?
Although every recession is different (for example in terms of length and magnitude), they do tend to have a few things in common. The focus of this blog is on consumer income and how it is affected in the aftermath of (or even during) a recession. According to data from the ONS, real national income per head has fallen by more than 13% since the start of 2008.
This latest data from the Office of National Statistics shows that in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, UK incomes have fallen by much more than they did in the 2 previous recessions experienced in the UK (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). We would normally expect consumer incomes to fall during and possibly directly after a recession, as national output falls and confidence tends to be and remain low. However, the crucial thing to consider with falling consumer incomes is how it affects purchasing power. If my income is cut by 50%, but prices fall by 80%, then I’m actually better off in terms of my purchasing power.
The data from the ONS is all about purchasing power and shows how UK consumer incomes have fallen at the same time as inflation having been relatively high. It is the combination of these two variables that has been ‘eating into the value of the cash that people were earning’. Comparing the incomes in the four years after the 2008 recession with similar periods following the early 1980s and 1990s recession, the ONS has shown that this most recent recession had a much larger effect on consumer well-being. Part of this may be due to the rapid growth in incomes prior to the start of the credit crunch.
It’s not just the working population that has seen their incomes fall since 2008 – the retired population has also seen a decline in income and according to a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is the wealthiest portion of older households that have taken the largest hit since 2007. According to the IFS, the average person over 50 has experienced a fall in their gross wealth of about 10%, or close to £60,000. Of course for these older households, the concern is whether they will be able to make up this lost wealth before they retire. The concern for everyone is how long until incomes and purchasing power increase back to pre-crisis levels. The following articles consider this latest data on economic well-being and the impact the recession has had.
UK wellbeing still below financial crisis levels Guardian, Larry Elliott and Randeep Ramesh (23/10/12)
National income per head ‘down 13% in four years’ BBC Newsd (23/10/12)
Financial crisis hits UK retirement income Financial Times, Norma Cohen (23/10/12)
Over 50s ‘left £160,000 out of pocket by the financial crisis’ The Telegraph, James Kirkup (23/10/12)
Those near retirement in UK hit hard by crisis Wall Street Journal, Paul Hannon (23/10/12)
Living standards down 13pc since start of recession The Telegraph (23/10/12)
- Why is net national income per head said to be the best measure of economic well-being?
- Why is it so important to take into account inflation when measuring wellbeing?
- What explanation can be given for the larger fall in consumer incomes following the 2008 recession relative to the previous 2 recessions?
- According to data from the IFS, the richest portion of older households have suffered the most in terms of lost wealth. Why is this the case?
- What is meant by purchasing power?
- GDP has fallen by about 7%, whereas national income per head, taking inflation into account is down by over 13%. What is the explanation for these 2 different figures?
- How can recessions differ from each other? Think about the length, the magnitude of each.
- Is GDP a good measure of economic well-being? Are there any other ways we can measure it?