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.

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Jeremy Corbyn will stay on the Labour leadership ballot paper, judge rules

Labour donor Michael Foster had challenged the decision at the High Court.

The High Court has ruled that Jeremy Corbyn should be allowed to automatically run again for Labour leader after the decision of the party's National Executive Committee was challenged. 

Corbyn declared it a "waste of time" and an attempt to overturn the right of Labour members to choose their leader.

The decision ends the hope of some anti-Corbyn Labour members that he could be excluded from the contest altogether.

The legal challenge had been brought by Michael Foster, a Labour donor and former parliamentary candidate, who maintained he was simply seeking the views of experts.

But when the experts spoke, it was in Corbyn's favour. 

The ruling said: "Accordingly, the Judge accepted that the decision of the NEC was correct and that Mr Corbyn was entitled to be a candidate in the forthcoming election without the need for nominations."

This judgement was "wholly unaffected by political considerations", it added. 

Corbyn said: "I welcome the decision by the High Court to respect the democracy of the Labour Party.

"This has been a waste of time and resources when our party should be focused on holding the government to account.

"There should have been no question of the right of half a million Labour party members to choose their own leader being overturned. If anything, the aim should be to expand the number of voters in this election. I hope all candidates and supporters will reject any attempt to prolong this process, and that we can now proceed with the election in a comradely and respectful manner."

Iain McNicol, general secretary of the Labour Party, said: “We are delighted that the Court has upheld the authority and decision of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. 

“We will continue with the leadership election as agreed by the NEC."

If Corbyn had been excluded, he would have had to seek the nomination of 51 MPs, which would have been difficult since just 40 voted against the no confidence motion in him. He would therefore have been effectively excluded from running. 

Owen Smith, the candidate backed by rebel MPs, told the BBC earlier he believed Corbyn should stay on the ballot paper. 

He said after the judgement: “I’m pleased the court has done the right thing and ruled that Jeremy should be on the ballot. This now puts to bed any questions about the process, so we can get on with discussing the issues that really matter."

The news was greeted with celebration by Corbyn supporters.