Nearest to dream team for the 99%: Miliband, supported by Greens, Plaid, NHAP and SNP, with Brand as scrutineer?
Economic inequality: inimical to civilised life
The FT recently published an essay by Martin Wolf, their associate editor and chief economics commentator. He said that the extraordinary response to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century revealed that the ground for renewed interest in inequality was already fertile, noting that two experts, the British economist Sir Anthony Atkinson and the French economist François Bourguignon [chief economist at the World Bank] have written books which make important new contributions:
“Those who desire a thought-provoking guide to policy options in advanced countries should grapple with Atkinson’s work”.
Atkinson notes that the US and UK have experienced exceptionally large rises in inequality since 1980 whereas levels of inequality are relatively low in the Nordic countries. He points out that ratios of wealth to national income have risen sharply since the mid-1970s and that a significant part of this increase in wealth belongs to the middle and upper-middle classes, because of the rise in the proportion of the population that owns its own homes, many of which have appreciated greatly in value. Underlying these trends, argue the authors, are complex economic forces:
- technological change;
- the rise of winners-take-all markets;
- financial liberalisation
Specifics: a huge increase in rent extraction and a decline in the egalitarian ethos of the ‘50s
There has been a huge rise in the pay of the business executives who control a large part of the economy’s resources, in extraordinary earnings in the financial sector assisted by the pro-free-market turn by politicians across the world since about 1980, and a decline in the egalitarian ethos that held sway in many countries in the mid-20th century.
Atkinson argues that unequal societies do not function well. The need to protect personal security or to incarcerate ever more people is likely to become a drag on economic performance and inimical to civilised life. If inequality becomes extreme, many will be unable to participate fully in their society.
He points out that the economic argument is that putting a pound in the hands of someone living on £10,000 a year must be worth more to them and to the economy than it would be to someone living on £1m.
His programme of radical reform for the UK is precise and costed, according to Wolf. It begins with the argument that rising inequality “is not solely the product of forces outside our control. There are steps that can be taken by governments, acting individually or collectively, by firms, by trade union and consumer organisations, and by us as individuals to reduce the present levels of inequality”. Policy makers should:
- develop a national pay policy, including a statutory minimum wage set at the “living wage”,
- offer guaranteed public employment at that rate,
- introduce a “participation income” at a national or even EU level, or — as an alternative to such a universal income — social insurance should be made more generous.,
- offer national savings bonds that guarantee a positive real return, and should create a capital endowment paid to all on reaching adulthood,
- return to far more progressive personal income taxes, up to a top rate of 65 per cent,
- make the tax on property should be proportional or progressive, not regressive, as it is now, largely because the main tax on property — the council tax — bears proportionately far more heavily on lower-value housing.
Yet, Wolf comments, history is not on Atkinson’s side. The two world wars and the Great Depression not only devastated private wealth, but also created a powerful sense that “we are all in it together”. Moreover, capital flows were controlled and capitalism was predominantly national.
Wolf: “a situation in which the world’s wealthiest are among the least taxed is indefensible”
Martin Wolf describing Atkinson’s thinking as ‘radical’, takes a palliative line advocating concentrating resources on children, and particularly the children of the relatively disadvantaged. This could in many cases break the multi-generational cycle of deprivation for some families.
He thinks that the sensible, though politically difficult course, is to tax ownership of land and other scarce natural resources more heavily. Furthermore, a tax on lifetime receipts of gifts and bequests, plus wider spreading of educational opportunities, seems to him to be the only way to limit the cascade of unearned advantages across generations.
It is also important to reduce rent extraction, including by corporate management, and to improve co-operation over the taxation of income, particularly income from capital.
Wolf believes Atkinson’s ideas will not be adopted, at least in the UK, even though he recognises that unequal societies do not function well, increasing ‘the need to protect personal security or to incarcerate ever more people, is likely to become a drag on economic performance and inimical to civilised life’.
The writer thinks that some South and Central American countries, Iceland, Scotland, Wales, the Nordic countries and, at present, Greece, have more sense and a desire to promote the common good with the potential to recreate a powerful sense that “we are all in it together”, with capital flows controlled – voluntarily or politically – and a co-operative capitalism, focussing primarily on meeting the needs of all rather than foreign trade and speculation.
Could Miliband, supported by Greens, Plaid, NHAP and SNP, with Brand as scrutineer move firmly in this direction?
Inequality: What Can be Done?, by Anthony Atkinson, Harvard University Press, RRP£19.95/$29.95, 304 pages
The Globalization of Inequality, by François Bourguignon, translated by Thomas Scott-Railton, Princeton University Press, RRP£19.95/$27.95, 200 pages
Deny them the mainstream ‘oxygen of publicity’ ?
Was a lesson learnt from the extensive media coverage of the 2013 50,000 strong, peaceful protest in Manchester last year?
Has Cameron followed Margaret Thatcher’s strategy: “to ask the media to agree among themselves a voluntary code of conduct, a code under which they would not say or show anything which could assist the (demonstrators’) morale or their cause”
Anya wrote to the BBC but asked to be spared one of their standard replies: “I am starting to turn BBC off altogether as I find you continually cherry pick the news to suit the status quo nowadays often filling our screens with trivia, rather than addressing the main questions that face our country today from both sides of the argument”.
An estimated 50,000 people marched from the BBC’s New Broadcasting House in central London to Westminster. Following concern expressed by many, six pages of Google search results failed to discover reports of this march in any mainstream media outlet apart from the Guardian.
The crowds heard speeches at Parliament Square from People’s Assembly supporters, including Caroline Lucas MP and journalist Owen Jones. Addressing the marchers, Jones said: “Who is really responsible for the mess this country is in? Is it the Polish fruit pickers or the Nigerian nurses? Or is it the bankers who plunged it into economic disaster – or the tax avoiders? It is selective anger.”
The People’s Assembly was set up with an open letter to the Guardian in February 2013. Signatories to letter included Tony Benn, journalist John Pilger and filmmaker Ken Loach. Its spokesman Clare Solomon said: “It is essential for the welfare of millions of people that we stop austerity and halt this coalition government dead in its tracks before it does lasting damage to people’s lives and our public services.”
“The people of this building [the House of Commons] generally speaking do not represent us, they represent their friends in big business. It’s time for us to take back our power,” said Russell Brand.
The Metropolitan police refused to provide an estimate of numbers attending – but a police spokesman confirmed that the force had received no reports of arrests.
A chance meeting showed Ben the way to make a real political difference
He had offered to help a Green Party friend to deliver leaflets and, arriving at a block of flats, listened to her speaking into the intercoms to gain entrance to these buildings, secured against unauthorised entrants. Many were not at home, but the elderly readily – and rather unwisely – pressed the button to give her access.
The Green Party canvasser explained to him that many people living there and on the council estate were not registered to vote, some through apathy, some though incorrectly filling in their form and some because of the fear of being tracked down by creditors, social services or the police. Later his websearch found in an Electoral Commission report: that the April 2011 parliamentary registers revealed 6 million – 17.7% of the eligible electorate – were not registered at this time.
Ben realised that the very people who were most in need had no voice
As Russell Brand said: “Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people. A system that is apathetic, in fact, to the needs of the people it was designed to serve”.
Attracting attention by judicious use of megaphones, those less articulate than Ben borrowed or adapted Brand’s words with a significant difference – they URGED the unregistered to act and vote to change their lives.
They heartily agreed with a passage he wrote as editor of a recent issue of the New Statesman:
“I have never voted. Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites. As Billy Connolly said: “Don’t vote, it only encourages them”. . .
They also agreed with him that the three mainstream parties were viewed with indifference and weariness because of the deceit that has been going on for generations as an exploited, underserved underclass being continually ignored and, as Brand said, “where welfare is slashed while Cameron and Osborne go to court to continue the right of bankers receiving bonuses”.
But only after Ben met young Alex McKay, a few years after the 2015 election swept away the three main parties, did he and the new electors add to their social and economic goals – and agree with Brand that “The only systems we can afford to employ are those that rationally serve the planet and all humanity . . . a movement for the people, by the people, in the service of the land”.