Wanted: a new purpose for British capitalism

How can Britain avoid going down the US path where for the last generation the majority of the gains

If this year's question is "When will growth resume?", next year's will surely be "How do we make sure that growth benefits the great majority of working people?".

For much of the 20th century, that second question would not have been necessary. The link between growth and living standards held strong -- it was the golden thread of the social contract, binding together the shared efforts of labour, capital and government in a win-win deal for all sides.

But today, across many advanced economies, that thread is badly frayed, while in others it has already severed. The US has seen a generation of flat or falling real incomes among the bottom half of earners. From 1970 to 2010 the link between economic growth and typical wages ruptured -- the "great decoupling", as Lane Kenworthy has called it. GDP continued to grow but it didn't trickle down.

In the 37 years from 1973 to 2010, the annual incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of US families rose by only 10 per cent in real terms. Median US household income was $64,000 in 2007. Had it kept pace with growth in GDP, it would have grown to $90,000. As the table below shows, the richest 1 per cent of the population has captured a truly staggering proportion of the gains from all income growth – two-thirds of the total gain during the Bush years.

 

The result of these extraordinary growth rates is that the richest 1 per cent of American society now receives over 20 per cent of total income, with the richest 10 per cent getting roughly 50 per cent of all income (see below).

Perhaps we can comfort ourselves with the notion that the US is unique? No. In Canada, median earnings have also flatlined for 30 years. In Germany real monthly incomes fell between 2000 and 2009. And in the five years that preceded the 2008-2009 recession, while UK GDP growth averaged above 2 per cent, median wages were near flat at the same time as they carried on steadily rising at the top (see below; sources: ONS, ASHE, Resolution Foundation).

 

So this can't just be put down to a momentary living standards squeeze arising from the fallout from the recession or the deficit - though that is certainly also taking place. The problem started earlier, will last longer, and runs deeper. It is a mega-trend in some, not all, advanced capitalist economies that towers over other questions of social and economic policy that dominate the daily news.

Marginal interests

In the US, unlike the UK, this issue at least shapes mainstream political debate. It is a theme that Barack Obama took up when confronting the captains of industry last week: "We can't go back to the kind of economy where gains in productivity just didn't translate into rising incomes and opportunity for the middle class." Behind the scenes, Gene Sperling, President Obama's newly appointed director of the US National Economic Council, has invoked the spirit of JFK, calling for a new "rising-tide economics" to underpin a return to an era of shared prosperity.

Fine sentiment. But there are few signs from the US, and even less in the UK of fresh thinking on how to shift the distribution of the gains from growth. The truth is that no one really knows the answer, few politicians are focused on it, and the economics profession has until recently largely ignored it.

Which brings us to the much-talked-of "growth plan" that the coalition is working on for the Budget. What are the prospects of it really tackling the problem of living standards? Bleak – at least if the past is anything to go by. When the call goes out in Whitehall for ideas on growth, the response is typically a half-hearted effort to pull together a package of incremental measures – a tweak in the tax treatment of investment, another review of red tape, a new public investment bank or fund (with few resources), a call for stronger links between universities and regional economies.

All of these are wearily familiar. Some of them may help growth at the margins. None begins to match up to the problem – nor do they directly address the issue of who gains from growth. No one in Whitehall even thinks it's their job to worry about this.

So, in addition to the usual business support measures, what would a "rising tide" economics need to consider if it is to try and ensure that growth feeds through into rising incomes and a more stable recovery?

First, there would need to be a much more ambitious drive on jobs and skills. That means employment creation, including the use of government job guarantees. There is no prospect of steadily rising real wages emerging out of a slack and detoriating jobs market; so, steady progress on the long road back to full employment – which as of today feels like a pipe dream – is a vital precondition.

But, as the pre-recession years vividly demonstrated, high employment on its own won't suffice. We also need a deliberate effort to tilt the balance to help labour secure sustainable wage growth. Once steady employment growth is re-established, this will demand a more aggressive approach to raising the minimum wage more steeply year on year; as well as government action rather than words on expanding the reach of the "living wage". And there has to be a new model of skills policy, jettisoning the old approach of pumping out an ever greater supply of paper qualifications in favour of using sticks and carrots to encourage employers to increase their demand for skilled labour.

How to restart growth

Second, there is a need to be unfashionable. That means focusing on the performance of some of the less eye-catching sectors of the economy – where so many low-to-middle-income earners actually work – rather than just showering attention on fashionable "industries of the future" as politicians of all parties like to term them.

Of course, low-carbon energy, digital and the creative sectors are absolutely vital, and the government should intervene more aggressively to secure their success in the UK. But more important to the immediate lives of much of working Britain are the high-employment, low-productivity, "pedestrian" sectors of our economy which account for roughly 25 per cent of GDP – such as retail, hospitality and personal care – where poverty wages are widespread, opportunities for progression within jobs are limited, and management is often poor.

Third, a "rising-tide" economics would involve stretching the growth agenda beyond the confines of traditional "industrial policy" into future choices on public services. Why so? Because tightly constrained public spending should be prioritised for services such childcare and elderly care that, with proper reform, could play a far greater role supporting more people, especially woman, to enter into and stay in work.

As millions of households have long figured out for themselves, when individual earnings are stagnant then the only way of lifting household living standards (without relying on increasing debt) is through more dual-earner couples, as well as helping people to stay in work for longer as they get older. Indeed, it is an irony that the single most potent pro-growth, pro-living-standards measure that the coalition has introduced to date – the abolition of the default retirement rule, which will enable far more people to continue working as they grow older if they choose to – hasn't been presented in this light.

Finally, there is a pressing need to capitalise on the new, if belated, zeitgeist among the high priests of the global economics profession concerning the toxic consequences of rising inequality. This does not stem from the usual left-leaning economists, but from leading financial gurus – including Raghuram Rajan and Ken Rogoff, both former chief economists of the IMF – who are motivated by the need to secure viable conditions for steady economic growth in a post-crisis world.

Translated into the UK context, this interest in greater economic equality very quickly runs up against the reality of our income-tax system, where the 40p rate already kicks in at a relatively low (and falling) income level and there is no appetite from any quarter for raising the 50p rate on the highest incomes. As a result, all roads point to the need for fresh and fearless thinking on taxing wealth and top-end housing – not least as wealth inequalities far exceed those in income.

As things stand, over the short term, the government will remain on the defensive about the lack of a plausible plan for restarting growth. Eventually – however slowly – growth will bounce back and that hurdle will be cleared. Yet the real economic test – indeed, the wider test for the very legitimacy of the British model of capitalism – is the far higher hurdle that follows. Will the proceeds of growth once again be widely shared, or will we go down the American path to an increasingly divisive future in which the majority of workers receive little or no gain from rising national prosperity?

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.