Even after Thatcher, the Conservatives never learned the benefits of redistribution

Sometimes you want to make everyone better off, not just the rich.

One of the clips of Thatcher which has been passed around in the days since her death is this one, of two exchanges from her last speech in the House of Commons on 22 November 1990. In it, she attacks the left-wing focus on equality by arguing that that focus ends up resulting in making the poor poorer – just by less than it makes the rich poorer:

I've never understood why it's an exchange held in quite such high regard – the bit at the end, where she starts making graphs with her hands, is a particularly excruciating bit of political communication – but the point does stick home. It's not that common to hear arguments for the poor to be made poorer, but it remains the case that policies which help both rich and poor are argued against on the grounds that they help the rich more.

There's good reasons for this, of course. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's book The Spirit Level documents exhaustively, in developed nations like our own, a huge number of social, political and health outcomes are dictated by equality, not absolute wealth. So even given the fact that Thatcher's legacy was of the poor getting richer, the fact that that it included a massive increase in inequality may have meant that poor people were worse off at the end of her premiership than the beginning.

But if hurting the poor to hurt the rich more is a trap for socialists, there's a sort of parallel problem that Conservatives fall prey to: an opposition to redistribution which prevents them enacting policy combinations that help everyone.

A new paper by economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson, titled "Untangling Trade and Technology: Evidence from Local Labor Markets", compares and contrasts the effects of trade and technology on employment. On the face of it, it doesn't matter to you whether you lose your job because a robot can do it cheaper, or because a Chinese labourer can do it cheaper: you still don't have your job, and your employer has more money. But in actual fact, the two have markedly different macroeconomic effects:

Trade exposure reduces overall employment and shifts the distribution of employment between sectors, [but] exposure to technological change has substantially different impacts, characterized by neutral effects on overall employment and substantial shifts in occupational composition within sectors.

Trade in particular is found to impose "particularly large" employment losses on workers without college education; but even technological change, which is neutral on "overall employment", has the effect of destroying middle income jobs while bolstering high- and low-paid labour.

Of course, all of that is background to the strong evidence that technological change and free trade make society as a whole richer. The problem isn't with the lack of gains – it's with the distribution of those gains.

How do you deal with good gains and a bad distribution? You bank the gains, and fiddle with the distribution. Cut taxes – or boost tax credits – at the bottom end of the income distribution, and pay for it with higher taxes at the top end. Or even just leave taxes at the top the same, and use the fact that the rich are getting richer – and thus paying more tax – to (more than) compensate the poor for the losses.

This is the lesson that Thatcher, and the Conservatives who have followed her, never learned. It's more than just economic good sense: it's politically useful, too, to be able to tell everyone that they will be made better off. Think how much easier the debate over immigration would be if the Tories could point to a tax cut – for the poor – which was funded through the increased gains migration brings.

In the language of economics, there are very few pareto-optimal policies left; the number of changes you can do which help everyone, as opposed to helping some and harming others, has dropped close to zero. But a good bundle of policies can still make everyone better off – and that bundle will nearly always include redistribution of wealth.

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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage