Meet Mr Predistribution: Jacob Hacker

An interview with the Yale political scientist behind Ed Miliband's big idea.

For this week's New Statesman, I interviewed Jacob Hacker, the Yale political scientist who coined the term "predistribution". The concept, referring to how governments should seek to create more equal outcomes even before collecting taxes and paying out benefits (before redistribution, in other words), attracted the attention of Westminster last year after Ed Miliband used it in an interview with the NS and a speech to Policy Network. 

The derision followed swiftly. His use of the term, described by the then director of Policy Exchange, Neil O’Brien, as "the sort of stupid made-up word that only a policy wonk could love", was presented as proof that the man who won the Labour leadership contest on a promise to "speak human" had given up on doing so. During a memorable session of Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron sarcastically declared: "I say that the Labour Party has no plans, but on this occasion I can reassure the House that it has, and the new plan is called predistribution. What I think that means is that we spend the money before we actually get it, which I think the Right Honourable Gentleman will find is why we are in the mess we are in right now." Alluding to Yes Minister’s hapless Jim Hacker, he added: "His new guru, the man who invented predistribution, is called – and I am not making this up –he is called Mr J Hacker."

Such was the mockery that when Miliband met Hacker in Portcullis House last month he began by apologising. 

"Ed was very funny," Hacker told me, "He said: 'I'm sorry if I screwed up the term for you.' I said: 'Are you kidding?' I’m an academic; I’ve had one idea that’s broken into public consciousness in American political debate and that’s the public option [the proposal to set up a state run health insurance agency] . . . I’m not used to having my ideas discussed by politicians. So I said, 'You can talk about it as much as you want. I’m sorry if it made people think that you’re a policy wonk.'"

It was when a friend sent him a YouTube clip of Cameron’s PMQs riff that he realised the influence the term was having. "My first reaction was: 'This is so cool!' I am personally being attacked by the Prime Minister of Britain – what more could I ask for? My second reaction was: 'Who is J Hacker?' I had to go and look up the reference and now, knowing the reference, it was actually a very good joke and I can see why George Osborne was laughing so hard in the background. It made me think that British parliamentary discussions are a lot more interesting than American ones."

He reflects, however, that it represented a missed business opportunity. "The punchline of [Cameron’s] joke was, 'I have seen the latest book by Jacob Hacker. It’s entitled The Road to Nowhere and that’s where this idea will take us.' And I was deeply offended by that. While I loved being attacked in the House of Commons, the fact that he said the book that I’d written as my undergraduate thesis at Harvard and was published in 1997, that that was my latest book, deeply offended me, because I could have used the free publicity for Winner-Take-All Politics [published in 2010] at the time."

The political and economic case for predistribution is a persuasive one. The financial crisis and the resultant surge in the deficit, which the OBR forecasts will stand at £108bn (5.9 per cent of GDP) in 2014-2015, Labour can no longer hope to spend its way to social democracy. At the same time, the increasing public hostility to conventional welfare policies limits the scope for a strategy centred on redistribution. "In a society that grows ever more unequal, you cannot sustain the social contract simply by taking from some of the fortunate, the affluent, and redistributing to the rest of the society. It just doesn’t work politically," Hacker told me. "It doesn’t work because it creates an environment in which the middle is more likely to be resentful towards those at the bottom, who are the largest beneficiaries of public transfers, than they are towards those at the top, despite the fact that the rich are really the ones who have rigged the game."

He was sharply critical of New Labour and the Third Way approach of “letting the market be the market and mopping up afterwards”. By tolerating the excesses of the City in the belief that its lucre could be redistributed through the tax credit system, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown created the conditions for the crash and ultimately failed to stem the rise in inequality. As Stewart Wood, who served as an adviser to Brown between 2001 and 2010, reflected when we spoke separately: "We were doing remedial work, rather than getting to the root of the things that drive unequal outcomes. Predistribution allows you to address the forces that create less efficiency and greater inequality, which often go together."

But would a predistributive policy agenda look like? That's the question I'll answer in my next post on Hacker. 

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Yale professor Jacob Hacker first used the term "predistribution" at a Policy Network conference in Oslo in 2011. Image: Dan Murrell.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Apprenticeships remain a university alternative in name only for too many young people

New research shows that those who do the best apprenticeships will earn higher salaries than graduates, but government targets undermine the quality of such schemes.

Rare is the week that passes by without George Osborne donning a hi-vis jacket and lauding the worth of apprenticeships. The Conservatives have made creating 3m apprenticeships a governing mission. Labour, both under Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, are scarcely less enthusiastic about their value.

The best apprenticeships live up to the hype. Those with a level five apprenticeship (there are eight levels) will earn £50,000 more in their lifetime than someone with a degree from a non-Russell Group university, as new research by the Sutton Trust reveals.

But too many apprenticeships are lousy. In 2014/15, just 3 per cent of apprenticeships were level four or above. Over the last two years, there have only been an estimated 30,000 apprenticeships of at least level four standard. So while David Cameron comes up with ever grander targets for the amount of apprenticeships he wants to create, he neglects what really matters: the quality of the apprenticeships. And that's why most people who can are still better off going to university: over a lifetime the average graduate premium is £200,000.

Proudly flaunting lofty targets for apprenticeships might be good politics, but it isn’t good policy. “The growth in apprenticeships has been a numbers game with successive governments, with an emphasis on increasing quantity, not quality,” says Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust.

60 per cent of apprenticeships today are at level two – considered to be no better than GCSE standard. These might help people get a job in the short-term, but it will do nothing to help them progress in the long-term. Too often an apprenticeship is seen as an end in itself, when it should be made easier to progress from lower to higher apprenticeships. The Sutton Trust is right to advocate that every apprentice can progress to an A-Level standard apprenticeship without having to start a new course.

Apprenticeships are trumpeted as an alternative to going to university. Yet the rush to expand apprenticeships has come to resemble the push to send half the population to university, focused more on giving ever-greater numbers a qualification then in ensuring its worth. For too many young people, apprenticeships remain an alternative to university in name only.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.