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?
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.)
In his 1971 book, Income Distribution, Jan Pen, a Dutch economist, gave a graphic illustration of inequality in the UK. He described a parade of people marching by. They represent the whole population and the parade takes exactly one hour to pass by. The height of each person represents his or her income. People of average height are the people with average incomes – the observer is of average height. The parade starts with the people on the lowest incomes (the dwarfs), and finishes with those on the highest incomes (the giants).
Because income distribution is unequal, there are many tiny people. Indeed, for the first few minutes of the parade, the marchers are so small they can barely be seen. Even after half an hour, when people on median income pass by, they are barely waist high to the observer.
The height is growing with tantalising slowness, and forty-five minutes have gone by before we see people of our own size arriving. To be somewhat more exact: about twelve minutes before the end the average income recipients pass by.
In the final minutes, giants march past and then in the final seconds:
the scene is dominated by colossal figures: people like tower flats. Most of them prove to be businessmen, managers of large firms and holders of many directorships and also film stars and a few members of the Royal Family.
The rear of the parade is brought up by a few participants who are measured in miles. Indeed they are figures whose height we cannot even estimate: their heads disappear into the clouds and probably they themselves do not even know how tall they are.
Pen’s description could be applied to most countries – some with even more dwarfs and even fewer but taller giants. Generally, over the 43 years since the book was published, countries have become less equal: the giants have become taller and the dwarfs have become smaller.
The 2011 Economist article, linked below, uses changes in Gini coefficients to illustrate the rise in income inequality. A Gini coefficient shows the area between the Lorenz curve and the 45° line. The figure will be between 0 and 1 (or 0% and 100%). a figure of 0 shows total equality; a figure of 1 shows a situation of total inequality, where one person earns all the nation’s income. The higher the figure, the greater the inequality.
The chart opposite shows changes in the Gini coefficient in the UK (see Table 27 in the ONS link below for an Excel file of the chart). As this chart and the blog post Rich and poor in the UK show, inequality rose rapidly during the years of the 1979–91 Thatcher government, and especially in the years 1982–90. This was associated with cuts in the top rate of income tax and business deregulation. It fell in the recession of the early 1990s as the rich were affected more than the poor, but rose with the recovery of the mid- to late 1990s. It fell again in the early 2000s as tax credits helped the poor. It fell again following the financial crisis as, once more, the rich were affected proportionately more than the poor.
The most up-to-date international data for OECD countries can be found on the OECD’s StatExtracts site (see chart opposite: click here for a PowerPoint). The most unequal developed county is the USA, with a Gini coefficient of 0.389 in 2012 (see The end of the American dream?), and US inequality is rising. Today, the top 1% of the US population earns some 24% of national income. This compares with just 9% of national income in 1976.
Many developing countries are even less equal. Turkey has a Gini coefficient of 0.412 and Mexico of 0.482. The figure for South Africa is over 0.6.
When it comes to wealth, distribution is even less equal. The infographic, linked below, illustrates the position today in the USA. It divides the country into 100 equal-sized groups and shows that the top 1% of the population has over 40% of the nation’s wealth, whereas the bottom 80% has only 7%.
So is this inequality of income and wealth desirable? Differences in wages and salaries provide an incentive for people to work harder or more effectively and to gain better qualifications. The possibility of increased wealth provides an incentive for people to invest.
But are the extreme differences in wealth and income found in many countries today necessary to incentivise people to work, train and invest? Could sufficient incentives exist in more equal societies? Are inequalities in part, or even largely, the result of market imperfections and especially of economic power, where those with power and influence are able to use it to increase their own incomes and wealth?
Could it even be the case that excessive inequality actually reduces growth? Are the huge giants that exist today accumulating too much financial wealth and creating too little productive potential? Are they spending too little and thus dampening aggregate demand? These arguments are considered in some of the articles below. Perhaps, by paying a living wage to the ‘tiny’ people on low incomes, productivity could be improved and demand could be stimulated.
Wealth Inequality in America YouTube, Politizane (20/11/12)
The rise and rise of the cognitive elite The Economist (20/1/11)
Inequality in America: Gini in the bottle The Economist (26/11/13)
Pen’s Parade: do you realize we’re mostly dwarves? LVTFan’s Blog (21/2/11)
Here Are The Most Unequal Countries In The World Business Insider, Andy Kiersz (8/11/14)
Inequality in the World Dollars & Sense, Arthur MacEwan (Nov/Dec 14)
Britain is scared to face the real issue – it’s all about inequality The Observer, Will Hutton (19/1/14)
The tame inequality debate FundWeb, Daniel Ben-Ami (Nov 14)
Is inequality the enemy of growth? BBC News, Robert Peston (6/10/14)
GINI index World Bank data
List of countries by income equality Wikipedia
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13 ONS (see table 27)
Income Distribution and Poverty: Gini (disposale income) OECD StatExtract
- Distinguish between income and wealth. Is each one a stock or a flow?
- Explain how (a) a Lorenz curve and (b) a Gini coefficient are derived.
- What other means are there of measuring inequality of income and wealth other than using Gini coefficients (and giants and dwarfs!)?
- Why has inequality been rising in many countries over the years?
- How do (a) periods of rapid economic growth and (b) recessions affect income distribution?
- Define ‘efficiency wages’. How might an increase in wages to people on low incomes result in increased productivity?
- What is the relationship between the degree of inequality and household debt? What implications might this have for long-term economic growth and future financial crises? Is inequality the ‘enemy of growth’?
World leaders have been meeting in Rio de Janeiro at a United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The conference, dubbed ‘Rio+20’, refers back to the first UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio 20 years ago in June 1992.
The 1992 conference adopted an Agenda 21. It was “comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment.”
The 2012 conference has looked at progress, or lack of it, on sustainability and what needs to be done. It has focused on two major themes: “how to build a green economy to achieve sustainable development and lift people out of poverty, including support for developing countries that will allow them to find a green path for development; and how to improve international coordination for sustainable development.” Issues examined have included decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.
But just what is meant by sustainable development? The conference defines sustainable development as that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. “Seen as the guiding principle for long-term global development, sustainable development consists of three pillars: economic development, social development and environmental protection.”
The articles below look at prospects for national and global sustainability. They also look at a new measure of national wealth, the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI). This index has been developed under the auspices of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) and published in its Inclusive Wealth Report 2012 (see report links below).
The IWR 2012 was developed on the notion that current economic production indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP) and the Human Development Index (HDI) are insufficient, as they fail to reflect the state of natural resources or ecological conditions, and focus exclusively on the short term, without indicating whether national policies are sustainable.
The IWR 2012 features an index that measures the wealth of nations by looking into a country’s capital assets, including manufactured, human and natural capital, and its corresponding values: the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI). Results show changes in inclusive wealth from 1990 to 2008, and include a long-term comparison to GDP for an initial group of 20 countries worldwide, which represent 72% of the world GDP and 56% of the global population. (Click on chart for a larger version.)
So will growth in IWI per capita be a better measure of sustainable development than growth in GDP per capita? The articles also consider this issue.
Rio+20 deal weakens on energy and water pledges BBC News, Richard Black (17/6/12)
Rio+20: Progress on Earth issues ‘too slow’ – UN chief BBC News, Richard Black (20/6/12)
Rio+20 Earth Summit Q&A The Telegraph, Louise Gray (16/5/12)
Rio+20 Earth Summit: campaigners decry final document Guardian, Jonathan Watts and Liz Ford (23/6/12)
A catastrophe if global warming falls off the international agenda Observer, Will Hutton (24/6/12)
Analysis: Rio +20 – Epic Fail The Bureau of Investigative Journalism Brendan Montague (22/6/12)
Accounting for natural wealth gains world traction Atlanta Business NewsKaty Daigle (17/6/12) (see alternatively)
New index shows lower growth for major economies Reuters, Nina Chestney (17/6/12)
A New Balance Sheet for Nations: UNU-IHDP and UNEP Launch Sustainability Index that Looks Beyond GDP EcoSeed (20/6/12)
World’s leading economies lag behind in natural capital Firstpost (18/6/12)
Beyond GDP: Experts preview ‘Inclusive Wealth’ index at Planet under Pressure conference EurekAlert, Terry Collins (28/3/12)
New sustainability index created that looks at more than gross domestic product bits of science (17/6/12)
For Sustainability, Go Beyond Gross Domestic Product Scientific AmericanDavid Biello (17/6/12)
Inclusive Wealth Report 2012: Overview IHDP
Inclusive Wealth Report 2012: Summary for Decision-makers IHDP
Inclusive Wealth Report 2012: full report IHDP
- What progress has been made towards sustainable development over the past 20 years?
- What are the limitations of conferences such as Rio+20 in trying to achieve global action?
- With the current challenges faced by the eurozone and the global economy more generally, is this a good time to be discussing long-term issues of sustainable development?
- Explain how IWI is derived and measured?
- Looking at the chart above, explain the very different positions of countries in the three columns.
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of using growth in IWI compared with using growth in GDP as measures of (a) economic development; (b) economic wellbeing?
According to the Sunday Times Rich List, the combined wealth of Britain’s 1000 richest people grew by nearly 4.7% last year to £414 billion (after growing by 18% in 2010).
This is in stark contrast to average households, who saw their real incomes decline by 1.9% in 2011. As the Guardian article below says:
The Rich Listers are not merely the 1%, but the 0.01%, and this fanfared celebration of their assets feels like a celebration of things that nobody feels like celebrating: bankers’ bonuses, complex corporate tax-avoidance structures, the stifling grip of aristocratic family wealth.
So why are the rich getting richer and what are the implications for society and the economy? Watch and read the following webcasts and articles and then see if you can answer the questions below.
Rich List shows how super-wealthy have dodged recession (or) Channel 4 News (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List: Wealthy getting richer BBC News, Ben Thompson (29/4/12)
Britain’s richest see fortunes rise to record high Reuters, Tim Castle (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List shows rich recover wealth twice as fast Myfinances.co.uk, Ben Salisbury (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List suggests UK’s wealthiest defy recession BBC News (28/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List 2012: Wealth of richest grows to record levels The Telegraph, Patrick Sawer (28/4/12)
The Not-So-Rich-Any-More List Guardian, Oliver Burkeman and Patrick Kingsley (27/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List ITV News (29/4/12)
Distribution of Personal Wealth HMRC
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS (19/5/11)
Household Quarterly Release 2011 Q4 – Real household actual income and expenditure per head ONS
- Distinguish between stocks and flows. Which of the following are stocks and which are flows: income, wealth, savings, saving, expenditure, possessions?
- If the combined wealth of the 1000 wealthiest people increased in 2011, does this imply that their incomes rose? Explain.
- Why have the super rich got richer, while average incomes in the country have fallen?
- What are the costs and benefits to society (other than the super rich) of the super rich becoming richer?
- Distinguish between the income and substitution effects of an increase in income of the wealthy. Which is likely to be larger and why?