Give working people more money because they will spend it

It's not about fairness, it's about the economy, stupid.

To date, the history of our current financial crisis has concentrated minds on the distribution of wealth in a way that we haven’t really seen for a generation. Filled with materialistic expectations, the withdrawal of credit and government subsidies from society has brought home some harsh realities. We can’t afford the lifestyle we have come to think we are entitled to. Wealthy people, once seen as social leaders, are increasingly treated as though they somehow stole what they earned.

Most of the time the redistribution of wealth is put in political terms – it ignores who had the original idea for a company or product or who put the money up in the first place to fund it. Instead, agitators argue that workers, because it is their toil that creates the goods and services, should get an equal participation in profits. Ironically, this is probably the right answer but the wrong reason – people should be given more money so that they can spend it.

The World Bank recently released numbers on the distribution of Corrado Gini’s index of income and wealth distribution. The Gini Index ranges from 1 to 100 and seeks to measure financial inequality in a society; a value of 100 means that a single person has all the money whilst as it declines money is more and more equally distributed.

Some interesting trends are showing up. For instance, in Latin America wealth inequality, although at a high level, is declining as a phenomenon. Crises like that seen in Argentina are working to redistribute wealth whilst in Brazil the new-found economic prosperity is becoming shared by a greater and greater proportion of society.  Africa, notably South Africa, displays disturbingly high levels of wealth concentration in the hands of a few.

Although we have a tendency to pillory ourselves here the UK, we actually come out quite well with a score of just under 26 – you would have to go to parts of Eastern Europe to find other countries with the kinds of equality that we possess. In fact, equality of wealth distribution has improved markedly between 1995 and 2010 when the latest data is available and embraces the financial crisis.

What is most disturbing though is the United States. The Gini index for the US has shown a marked and continuous increase of inequality, an effect that has been occurring since the 1970’s, and a phenomenon that has accelerated as the recovery from the financial crisis has gathered pace.

Economic commentators often talk about "the wealth effect", the confidence-boosting mental state that allows ordinary people to look at their total assets and give themselves the psychological comfort to stop hoarding money and start spending it. To this end the Federal Reserve in the US and western central banks have been complicit in propping up the stock and housing markets through ultra-accommodative monetary policies that placate the electorate through the illusion of financial affluence.  They will go about their day without necessarily calling for higher levels of taxation or the forced redistribution of wealth in the face of obvious inequalities. This has by and large worked to date but we are now entering a phase of prolonged sub-potential growth combined with rising wealth inequality in the US that will have long-range effects economically, socially and politically.

The problem arises from the fact that if you give wealthy people more money they don’t necessarily spend it – it becomes dormant and redundant. Give a poor person an extra £10 and they will spend it on food or new clothes, propelling consumption, but give an ultra-high net worth person another million pounds and more than likely it will lie in the bank largely unnoticed and more importantly unused. So in many respects the inequality of the distribution of wealth is not so much about "fairness" or venality, but more that the concentration of too much money into too few hands leads to economic stagnation adding to an already sub-par economic atmosphere.

Photograph: Getty Images

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.