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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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