Consumption inequality is rising

In the last thirty years, consumption inequality has risen as fast as income inequality.

It has been a common belief that, while income inequality has risen rapidly in the west generally, and the United States specifically, inequality of consumption has travelled a much milder trajectory. Many reasons have been given for this effect, which was seen in a number of studies and generally assumed to be true.

Some argued that the divergence between the two was due to the unsustainable bubble of consumer credit; while the rich were getting richer faster than the poor were getting less poor, both ended up with mobile phones and flatscreen TVs, but the latter bought them with borrowed money. This, of course, leads those like Edwina Currie to argue that poor people aren't really poor because they have nice things.

Another interesting point raised off the back of the figures was the claim that it was entirely understandable, since the marginal utility of money declines pretty quickly. Thus, the explanation goes, income growth at the top end doesn't increase consumption all that much, since there isn't much to spend that money on. If this is true, then consumption inequality would indeed rise slower than income inequality in countries where absolute poverty is rare.

Now, though, it seems that both these arguments may come from faulty premises. A new paper from the American National Bureau of Economic Research argues that actually, consumption inequality has been rising at much the same rate as income inequality.

The authors write (£):

There is now mounting evidence that the [consumer expenditure survey, the source of many of the claims of divergence] is plagued by serious non-classical measurement error, which hinders the extent to which definitive conclusions can be made about the extent to which consumption inequality has evolved over the last three decades. . . 

Consumption inequality within the U.S. between 1980 and 2010 has increased by nearly the same amount as income inequality

And conclude:

Across every other measure of consumption we analyzed, consumption inequality increased substantially.

Of course, the same questions apply to consumption inequality as do to income inequality: why does it actually matter? So long as everyone can consume the essentials, does the difference between them and the rich have any effect?

The answer is one that Adam Smith hit upon over two centuries ago (although you are unlikely to find the libertarian Adam Smith Institute quoting it): what the rich can afford has a material effect on what is essential.

In The Wealth of Nations, published 1776, Smith wrote:

A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct.

Custom, in the same manner, has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person, of either sex, would be ashamed to appear in public without them. In Scotland, custom has rendered them a necessary of life to the lowest order of men; but not to the same order of women, who may, without any discredit, walk about barefooted.

In France, they are necessaries neither to men nor to women; the lowest rank of both sexes appearing there publicly, without any discredit, sometimes in wooden shoes, and sometimes barefooted. Under necessaries, therefore, I comprehend, not only those things which nature, but those things which the established rules of decency have rendered necessary to the lowest rank of people.

Cartoonist Ruben Bolling sums the argument up in eight panels.

To Smith's list we can reasonably add mobile phones (required for much shift work), computers (essential for jobseeking) and, in much of the country, cars. Consumption inequality adds to this list from the top end even as the bottom end remains unable to afford it.

Hat tip to Matt Yglesias for the paper.

A Tajik migrant texts in Moscow. Mobiles are an essential tool worldwide (Getty)

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.