Inequality reaches a record high in the US, but which countries are worst off?

Five years after Lehman Brother's collapse, one group has fared spectacularly well: the richest 1 per cent. The world's superpower is now worryingly dependent on the financial fortunes of just 1.35m taxpayers. But where in the world is inequality the grea

It’s now almost five years since Lehman Brothers collapsed, precipitating a global financial crisis. In the US, one group has fared significantly better than the rest as the country struggles out of recession – the richest 1 per cent.

Recent data from the Internal Revenue Service shows that the incomes of the richest 1 per cent of Americans increased by 31 per cent between 2009 and 2012, while the incomes of the bottom 99 per cent grew less than 1 per cent. There’s a good Economist chart to illustrate this here. The share of national income flowing to the richest 1 per cent has now reached a record high of 19.3 per cent.

So how does this compare internationally? The UK has little reason to feel smug. According to a report this February by the Resolution Foundation, the richest 1 per cent of Britons own 10 per cent of national income.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned earlier this year that inequality was increasing across its 34 member countries. It has rated its members according to levels of inequality using the Gini coefficient (which measures the extent to which the distribution of income varies from perfect equality.) The UK ranks 28th out of 34 countries, and the US fares even worse at 31. Only Turkey, Mexico and Chile are more unequal than the US. Meanwhile Slovenia, Denmark and Norway are three OECD nations with the most equal income distribution. You can find the full list here.

The Gini coefficient can’t distinguish between different distributions of inequality, in that it doesn’t tell you if inequality is high because the top 1 per cent hold a huge proportion of national wealth, or if the majority of the country’s wealth is held by the top 25 per cent. The Gini coefficient also depends on up-to-date GDP data, which is especially hard to extract from developing countries. This can sometimes make comparison hard.

The CIA world fact book, for instance, compares 136 countries in terms of inequality, but some of the data it uses is over 15 years old. Here the US ranked 95th out of 136 in terms of inequality, with the UK in 76th place, and Sweden, Slovenia and Montenegro topping the list. The most unequal countries were Lesotho, South Africa and Botswana.

One conclusion that can be drawn is that both the UK and the US may be wealthy nations, but compared to their wealthy peers they stand out because of the wide gap between rich and poor. This has all kinds of implications. Rising inequality raises moral questions about fairness and social justice, and some researchers believe that inequality holds back economic growth. There’s also a worry that as the economic power of the richest 1 per cent increases, their political power increases with it.

In the US, for instance, the richest 1 per cent pay 37.4 per cent of income taxes – leaving the world’s superpower worryingly dependent on the financial fortune of just 1.35 million tax payers. Similarly in the UK, 30 per cent of government tax revenue comes from just 308,000 earners in 2012.
 

A homeless man rests along Wall Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Photo: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.