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 latest edition of the IMF’s Fiscal Monitor, ‘Tackling Inequality’ challenges conventional wisdom that policies to reduce inequality will also reduce economic growth.
While some inequality is inevitable in a market-based economic system, excessive inequality can erode social cohesion, lead to political polarization, and ultimately lower economic growth.
The IMF looks at three possible policy alternatives to reduce inequality without damaging economic growth
The first is a rise in personal income tax rates for top earners. Since top rates have been cut in most countries, with the OECD average falling from 62% to 35% over the past 30 years, the IMF maintains that there is considerable scope of raising top rates, with the optimum being around 44%. Evidence suggests that income tax elasticity is low at most countries’ current top rates, meaning that a rise in top income tax rates would only have a small disincentive effect on earnings.
An increased progressiveness of income tax should be backed by sufficient taxes on capital to prevent income being reclassified as capital. Different types of wealth tax, such as inheritance tax, could also be considered. Countries should also reduce the opportunities for tax evasion.
The second policy alternative is a universal basic income for all people. This could be achieved by various means, such as tax credits, child benefits and other cash benefits, or minimum wages plus benefits for the unemployed or non-employed.
The third is better access to health and education, both for their direct effect on reducing inequality and for improving productivity and hence people’s earning potential.
In all three cases, fiscal policy can help through a combination of taxes, benefits and public expenditure on social infrastructure and human capital.
But a major problem with using increased tax rates is international competition, especially with corporation tax rates. Countries are keen to attract international investment by having corporation tax rates lower than their rivals. But, of course, countries cannot all have a lower rate than each other. The attempt to do so simply leads to a general lowering of corporation tax rates (see chart in The Economist article) – to a race to the bottom. The Nash equilibrium rate of such a game is zero!
Raising Taxes on the Rich Won’t Necessarily Curb Growth, IMF Says Bloomberg, Ben Holland and Andrew Mayeda (11/10/17)
The Fiscal Monitor, Introduction IMF (October 2017)
Transcript of the Press Conference on the Release of the October 2017 Fiscal Monitor IMF (12/10/17)
Higher taxes can lower inequality without denting economic growth The Economist, Buttonwood (19/10/17)
Trump says the US has the highest corporate tax rate in the world. He’s wrong. Vox, Zeeshan Aleem (31/8/17)
Reducing inequality need not hurt growth Livemint, Ajit Ranade (18/10/17)
IMF: higher taxes for rich will cut inequality without hitting growth The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Heather Stewart (12/10/17)
IMF Fiscal Monitor
IMF Fiscal Monitor: Tackling Inequality – Landing Page IMF (October 2017)
Opening Remarks of Vitor Gaspar, Director of the Fiscal Affairs Department at a Press Conference Presenting the Fall 2017 Fiscal Monitor: Tackling Inequality IMF (11/10/17)
Fiscal Monitor, Tackling Inequality – Full Text IMF (October 2017)
- Referring to the October 2017 Fiscal Monitor, linked above, what arguments does the IMF use for suggesting that the optimal top rate of income tax is considerably higher than the current OECD average?
- What are the arguments for introducing a universal basic income? Should this depend on people’s circumstances, such as the number of their children, assets, such as savings or property, and housing costs?
- Find out the details of the UK government’s Universal Credit. Does this classify as a universal basic income?
- Why may governments reject the IMF’s policy recommendations to tackle inequality?
- In what sense can better access to health and education be seen as a means of reducing inequality? How is inequality being defined in this case?
- Find out what the UK Labour Party’s policy is on rates of income tax for top earners. Is this consistent with the IMF’s policy recommendations?
- What does the IMF report suggest about the shape of the Laffer curve?
- Explain what is meant by tax elasticity and how it relates to the Laffer curve?
In two recent speeches, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, and the Bank’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, have reflected on the growing inequality in the UK and other countries. They have also answered criticisms that monetary policy has exacerbated the problem. As, Andy Haldane puts it:
It is clear monetary policy has played a material role in lifting all boats since the financial crisis broke. …[But] even if monetary policy has lifted all boats, and could plausibly do so again if needed, that does not mean it has done so equally. In particular, concerns have been expressed about the potential distributional effects of monetary policy.
Jan Vlieghe [member of the Monetary Policy Committee] has recently looked at how monetary policy may have affected the fortunes of, among others, savers, pension funds and pensioners. The empirical evidence does not suggest these cohorts have been disadvantaged to any significant degree by the monetary policy stance. For most members in each cohort, the boost to their asset portfolios and the improved wages and profits due to a stronger economy more than offset the direct loss of income from lower rates [of interest on savings accounts].
Andy Haldane’s speech focused largely on regional inequality. He argued that productivity has grown much more rapidly in the more prosperous regions, such as London and the South East. This has resulted in rising inequality in wages between different parts of the UK. Policies that focus on raising productivity in the less prosperous regions could play a major role in reducing income inequality.
Mark Carney’s speech echoed a lot of what Andy Haldane was saying. He argued that expansionary monetary policy has, according to Bank of England modelling, “raised the level of GDP by around 8% relative to trend and lowered unemployment by 4 percentage points at their peak”. And the benefits have been felt by virtually everyone. Even savers have generally gained:
That’s in part because, to a large extent, the thrifty saver and the rich asset holder are often one and the same. Just 2% of households have deposit holdings in excess of £5000, few other financial assets and don’t own a home.
But some people still gained more from monetary policy than others – enough to contribute to widening inequality.
Losers from the lost decade
Mark Carney looked beyond monetary policy and argued that the UK has experienced a ‘lost decade’, where real incomes today are little higher than 10 years ago – the first time this has happened for 150 years. This stalling of average real incomes has been accompanied by widening inequality between various groups, where a few have got a lot richer, especially the top 1%, and many have got poorer. Although the Gini coefficient has remained relatively constant in recent years, there has been a widening gap between the generations.
For both income and wealth, some of the most significant shifts have happened across generations. A typical millennial earned £8000 less during their twenties than their predecessors. Since 2007, those over 60 have seen their incomes rise at five times the rate of the population as a whole. Moreover, rising real house prices between the mid-1990s and the late 2000s have created a growing disparity between older home owners and younger renters.
This pattern has been repeated around the developed world and has led to disillusionment with globalisation and a rise in populism. Globalisation has been “associated with low wages, insecure employment, stateless corporations and striking inequalities”. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
And populism has been reflected in the crisis in Greece, the Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s election, the rise of the National Front in France, the No vote in the Italian referendum on reforming the constitution and the rise in anti-establishment parties and sentiment generally. Mainstream parties are beginning to realise that concerns over globalisation, inequality and a sense of disempowerment must be addressed.
Solutions to inequality
As far as solutions are concerned, central must be a rise in general productivity that increases potential real income.
Boosting the determinants of long-run prosperity is the job of government’s structural, or supply-side policies. These government policies influence the economy’s investment in education and skills; its capacity for research and development; the quality of its core institutions, such as the rule of law; the effectiveness of its regulatory environment; the flexibility of its labour market; the intensity of competition; and its openness to trade and investment.
But will this supply-side approach be enough to bring both greater prosperity and greater equality? Will an openness to trade be accepted by populist politicians who blame globalisation and the unequal gains from international trade for the plight of the poor? Carney recognises the problem and argues that:
For the societies of free-trading, networked countries to prosper, they must first re-distribute some of the gains from trade and technology, and then re-skill and reconnect all of their citizens. By doing so, they can put individuals back in control.
For free trade to benefit all requires some redistribution. There are limits, of course, because of fiscal constraints at the macro level and the need to maintain incentives at the micro level. Fostering dependency on the state is no way to increase human agency, even though a safety net is needed to cushion shocks and smooth adjustment.
Redistribution and fairness also means turning back the tide of stateless corporations.
… Because technology and trade are constantly evolving and can lead to rapid shifts in production, the commitment to reskilling all workers must be continual.
In a job market subject to frequent, radical changes, people’s prospects depend on direct and creative engagement with global markets. Lifelong learning, ever-greening skills and cooperative training will become more important than ever.
But whether these prescriptions will be accepted by people across the developed world who feel that the capitalist system has failed them and who look to more radical solutions, whether from the left or the right, remains to be seen. And whether they will be adopted by governments is another question!
Roscoe Lecture Bank of England on YouTube, Mark Carney (5/12/16)
One Car, Two Car, Red Car, Blue Car Bank of England, Andrew Haldane (2/12/16)
The Spectre of Monetarism: Roscoe Lecture, Liverpool John Moores University Bank of England, Mark Carney (5/12/16)
Articles: Andrew Haldane speech
Bank of England chief economist says monetary stimulus stopped ‘left behind’ from drowning Independent, Ben Chu (2/12/16)
BoE’s Andrew Haldane warns of regional growth inequality BBC News (2/12/16)
‘Regions would have faced contraction’ without rate cuts and money printing Belfast Telegraph (2/12/16)
Bank of England chief: UK can be transformed if it copies progress on Teesside Gazette Live, Mike Hughes (2/12/16)
Articles: Mark Carney speech
Governor’s ‘dynamite’ warning on wages and globalisation Sky News, Ed Conway (6/12/16)
Mark Carney warns Britain is suffering first lost decade since 1860 as people across Europe lose trust in globalisation The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan and Peter Foster (5/12/16)
Mark Carney: we must tackle isolation and detachment caused by globalisation The Guardian, Katie Allen (6/12/16)
Bank of England’s Carney warns of strains from globalization Reuters, William Schomberg and David Milliken (6/12/16)
CARNEY: Britain is in ‘the first lost decade since the 1860s’ Business Insider UK, Oscar Williams-Grut (7/12/16)
Carney warns about popular disillusion with capitalism BBC News (5/12/16)
Some fresh ideas to tackle social insecurity Guardian letters (7/12/16)
Monitoring poverty and social exclusion 2016 (MPSE) Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Adam Tinson, Carla Ayrton, Karen Barker, Theo Barry Born, Hannah Aldridge and Peter Kenway (7/12/16)
OECD Income Distribution Database (IDD): Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income Statistical bulletins ONS
- Has monetary policy aggravated the problem of inequality? Explain.
- Comment on Charts 11a and 11b on page 19 of the Haldane speech.
- Does the process of globalisation help to reduce inequality or does it make it worse?
- If countries specialise in the production of goods in which they have a comparative advantage, does this encourage them to use more or less of relatively cheap factors of production? How does this impact on factor prices? How does this affect income distribution?
- How might smaller-scale firms “by-pass big corporates and engage in a form of artisanal globalisation; a revolution that could bring cottage industry full circle”?
- Why has regional inequality increased in the UK?
- What types of supply-side policy would help to reduce inequality?
- Explain the following statement from Mark Carney’s speech: “For free trade to benefit all requires some redistribution. There are limits, of course, because of fiscal constraints at the macro level and the need to maintain incentives at the micro level”.
- Mark Carney stated that “redistribution and fairness also means turning back the tide of stateless corporations”. How might this be done?
In this post we focus on three aspects of poverty around the world. The first is the definition of poverty. Is it an absolute or a relative concept? Does its definition change as the world develops. The second is the extent of poverty. Is the problem getting worse as inequality deepens, or are the numbers (absolutely or proportionately) getting smaller despite increased inequality? The third is policy to tackle the problem. What can be done and is being done? What answers are being given by policymakers in different parts of the world?
As far as the measurement of poverty is concerned, the simplest distinction is between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty could be measured as income below a certain real level deemed necessary to achieve a particular standard of living. This could be specified in terms of sufficient income to have adequate food, shelter, clothing and leisure time, and adequate access to healthcare, clean water, sanitation, education, etc. An obvious problem here is what is considered ‘adequate’, as this is partly culturally determined and will also depend on physical and geographical features, such as climate.
The World Bank defines extreme absolute poverty as living on under $1.90 per day in purchasing-power parity terms. However, even after adjusting for purchasing power, what is considered the poverty threshold differs enormously from country to country. As the Wikipedia entry states:
Each nation has its own threshold for absolute poverty line; in the United States, for example, the absolute poverty line was US$15.15 per day in 2010 (US$22,000 per year for a family of four), while in India it was US$1.0 per day and in China the absolute poverty line was US$0.55 per day, each on PPP basis in 2010.
Relative poverty is normally taken to mean when a person’s income falls below a certain percentage of the mean or median. Thus in richer countries, for a given percentage, the poverty threshold would be at a higher absolute income. In the EU, people in relative poverty are defined as those with disposable income (after monetary benefits) less than 60% of the median.
Both approaches focus on consumption. Other approaches include social and cultural exclusion as dimensions of poverty.
What is clear is that poverty has a number of definitions. One problem with this is that politicians can focus on whatever definition suits them. Thus in the UK, with relatively high levels of employment, but often at low wages and only part-time employment, the Conservative government has redefined poverty as where no-one in a family is in work. Yet many working families have very low levels of income, considerably below 60% of the median.
The second aspect of poverty is its extent and whether it is growing. According to the United Nations, globally ‘extreme poverty rates have been cut by more than half since 1990. While this is a remarkable achievement, one in five people in developing regions still live on less than $1.25 a day, and there are millions more who make little more than this daily amount, plus many people risk slipping back into poverty.’
Despite this progress, in many countries extreme poverty is increasing. And in others, although the number in extreme poverty may be declining, it is still high and inequality is increasing so that more people are living only just above the extreme poverty line. The articles look at dimensions of poverty in different countries.
For example, the first The Conversation article argues that the financial crisis of 2008–09 led to a substantial increase in poverty across the European continent.
The impoverishment of Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal has been so severe that these southern European countries, taken together, had higher levels of poverty and deprivation than many of the former Communist nations that joined the European Union in 2004.
The third aspect is how to tackle the problem of poverty. There are three broad policy approaches.
The first is the use of cash transfers, such as unemployment benefits. The second is providing free or subsidised goods and services, such as healthcare or education. The ability of a country to support the poor in either of these ways depends on its tax base. Also, clearly, it depends on its priorities. There is also the issue of incentives. Do benefits encourage or discourage the recipients from seeking work? This depends on the design of the system. For example, if childcare is subsidised, this may both aid poor parents and also encourage parents responsible for looking after young children to seek work.
The third is to attempt to improve the earning power of the poor. This may in part be by the second approach of improving education, training and health. But it may also involve removing restrictions to employment, say by making various forms of discrimination illegal. It may also involve increasing land rights. In many developing countries land is very unequally distributed; redistribution to the poor can make a substantial contribution to relieving poverty. Another approach is to encourage agencies which supply microfinance for poor people wishing to set up their own small business.
The articles below look at a number of dimensions of poverty: its measurement, its extent and its alleviation. They look at the problem from the perspective of different countries. It is interesting to see to what extent the problems and solutions they identify are country-specific or general.
Extreme poverty affects 1 in 8 globally Buenos Aires Herald (20/7/16)
How poverty has radically shifted across Europe in the last decade The Conversation, Rod Hick (20/7/16)
The economics of poverty The Tribune of India, S Subramanian (22/7/16)
Poverty Chains and Global Capitalism. Towards a Global Process of Impoverishment Global Research (Canada), Benjamin Selwyn (20/7/16)
Asia’s cost of prosperity The Nation, Karl Wilson (24/7/16)
Private rental sector is the ‘new home of poverty’ in the UK The Guardian, Brian Robson (20/7/16)
Challenges in maintaining progress against global poverty Vox, Martin Ravallion (23/12/15)
California, sixth largest economy in the world, has highest poverty rate in US wsws.org, Marc Wells (22/7/16)
How gross inequality and crushed hopes have fed the rise of Donald Trump The Conversation, Nick Fischer (21/7/16)
Sustainable Development Goals – Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere United Nations
Children of the Recession: Innocenti Report Card 12 UNICEF, Gonzalo Fanjul (September 2014)
Listings on Poverty Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Poverty The World Bank
Hunger and World Poverty Poverty.com
- Distinguish between absolute and relative poverty. Give examples of specific measures of each and the extent to which they capture the complex nature of the problem.
- Discuss the appropriateness of the seven measures of poverty used in the first The Conversation article.
- How did the financial crisis affect the proportion of people living in poverty? Explain.
- What is the relationship between poverty and inequality? Does a more unequal society imply that there will be a greater proportion of people living in poverty?
- How has international poverty changed in recent years? What explanations can you give?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of using income per head as a measure of poverty, whether absolute or relative?
- Why is poverty so high in (a) the USA as a whole; (b) California specifically?
- How does globalisation affect poverty?
- Are adverse environmental consequences an inevitable result of reducing poverty in developing countries?
- Is freer trade likely to increase or decrease poverty? Explain
As most developed countries continue to experience relatively low rates of economic growth by historical standards, governments and central banks struggle to find means of stimulating aggregate demand.
One explanation of sluggish growth in demand is that people on higher incomes have enough of most things. They have reached ‘peak stuff’. As the Will Hutton article linked below states:
Around the developed world consumers seem to be losing their appetite for more. Even goods for which there once seemed insatiable demand seem to be losing their lustre. Last week, mighty Apple reported that in the last three months of 2015 global sales of the iPhone stagnated, while sales of iPads tumbled from 21m units in 2014 to 16m in the same three months of 2015. In the more prosaic parts of the economy – from cars to home furnishings – there are other warnings that demand is saturated.
People on lower incomes may still want more, but with income inequality growing in most countries, they don’t have the means of buying more. Indeed, a redistribution from rich to poor may be an effective means of increasing aggregate demand and stimulating economic growth.
It’s important to clarify what is meant by peak demand for such products. It is not being said that people will stop buying them – that future demand will be zero. People will continue to buy such products. In the case of durables, people will buy replacements when products such as furniture, fridges and cars wear out; or upgraded versions as new models of televisions, smartphones or, again, cars come out; or new music tracks or films as they become available for download, or clothing as new fashions appear in shops. In the case of foodstuffs, concerts, football matches and other consumables, they too will continue to be purchased. The point is, in the case of peak demand, the demand per period of time is not going to grow. And the more products there are that reach peak demand, the harder it will be for companies and economies to grow.
If peak demand has generally been reached, it is likely that the demand for material resources will also have peaked. Indeed, we could expect the demand for material resources to be declining as (a) there has also been an increase in the efficiency of production, so that a lower volume of material inputs is required to produce any given level of output and (b) there has been a general switch towards services and away from physical goods. The graph shows domestic material consumption in the UK in millions of metric tonnes. Domestic material consumption is defined as domestic extraction of resources minus exports of resources plus imports of resources. As you can see, domestic material consumption peaked in 2004.
But, although peak demand may have been reached in some markets, there are others where there is still the potential for growth. To understand this and identify where such markets may be, it is important to step back from simple notions of consumption to satisfy materialistic demand and focus on the choices people might make to increase their happiness or wellbeing or sense of self worth in society. Thus while we might have reached peak red meat, peak sugar, peak cars, peak furniture and even peak electronic gadgets, we have not reached peak demand for more satisfying experiences. The demand for education, health, social activities, environmental conservation and a range of fulfilling experiences may have considerable potential for growth.
There are business opportunities here, whether in the leisure industry, in building networks of like-minded people or in producing niche goods that satisfy the demands of people with specific interests. But without greater equality there may be many fewer business opportunities in the mass production industries producing standardised goods.
This is not a world in which goods and services are produced at scale as conventionally measured, but a honeycomb economy of niches and information networks whose new dynamics we barely understand, even if we have a better grasp of its values.
- If having more no longer satisfies us, perhaps we’ve reached ‘peak stuff’
The Guardian, Will Hutton (31/1/16)
- Steve Howard, Ikea Exec, Says The World Has Hit ‘Peak Stuff’
Huffington Post, Zi-Ann Lum (20/1/16)
- We’ve hit peak home furnishings, says Ikea boss
The Guardian, Sean Farrell (18/1/16)
- Peak stuff: the ‘growth’ party is over. So what next?
The Ecologist, Bennet Francis and Rupert Read (22/1/16)
- Have we reached peak ‘stuff’?
The Mancunion, Tristan Parsons (22/2/16)
- Ikea senses room to grow amid ‘peak stuff’
Financial Times, Aliya Ram and Richard Milne (18/1/16)
- Peak Stuff
ifs insights, Janet Hontoir (21/2/16)
- UK retail sales soar as Brits splash their cash on ‘fun stuff’
The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (19/2/16)
- How less stuff could make us happier – and fix stagnation
The Guardian, Katie Allen (26/4/16)
- What are the implications of countries reaching ‘peak stuff’ for (a) the marginal utility of mass produced goods; (b) the marginal propensity to consume and the multiplier?
- Give some examples of goods or services where peak stuff has not been reached.
- If peak stuff has only been reached for certain products, does this mean that there may still be considerable potential for stimulating aggregate demand without a redistribution of income?
- Would it be in the interests of companies such as Asda to make a unilateral decision to pay their workers more? Explain why or why not.
- Why may we be a long way from reaching peak demand for housing, even without a redistribution of income?
- Make out a case for and against tax cuts as a way of stimulating (a) economic growth and (b) a growth in wellbeing? Do your arguments depend on which taxes are cut? Explain.
- The Ecologist article states that “Attaining one-planet living will probably involve in due course achieving degrowth in countries such as ours: building down our economy to a safe level.” Could such an objective be achieved through a mixed market economy? If so, how? If not, why not?
- Does the Telegraph article suggest that peak stuff has not yet been reached as far as most UK consumers are concerned?