Predistribution is no silver bullet for wage stagnation

The pressures militating against wage growth are strong and will grow even stronger in the future. But public insurance offers a way forward.

'Predistribution' may be a smart approach for the centre-left, but it's likely to prove an inadequate remedy for the problem of wage stagnation facing the UK’s lower-half households. A predistributive approach would aim to address the problem without increasing government transfers. It could embrace a range of strategies. One is more and better education for children who grow up in less-advantaged circumstances. This would increase the likelihood of them finding employment in analytical fields that pay relatively well. But even if successful, it will leave a non-trivial number of people in low-end jobs.

Increasing manufacturing jobs would help, but manufacturing's share of employment has been shrinking for decades in all rich nations, and that's certain to continue. Boosting trade union membership could counteract the downward pressure on wages, but unionisation rates, too, have been falling in almost all affluent countries, and nobody has worked out how to reverse this.

A tight labour market ('full employment') puts upward pressure on wages; achieving that on a regular basis, though, would require greater tolerance of inflation by the Bank of England. The minimum wage can be raised, but it tends to have limited impact above the very bottom of the wage distribution.

Allowing employees to elect a percentage of their company's board of directors ('codetermination') could help to prevent long-term wage stagnation, yetfirms won't opt for this unless it is required by law. Profit-sharing would ensure that pay increases when company profits rise, but here too the uptake is likely to be small.

Rising employment is a way to boost household incomes even if wages are stagnant. However, it's by no means a given that we can continue to generate employment growth. Also, not all low-end households will benefit from a rising employment rate. And even if this strategy works well, it will eventually hit a ceiling; once we reach maximum employment – perhaps 85 per cent of working-age men and 80 per cent of working-age women – there will be no more possibility of relying on rising employment to secure rising incomes.

Finally, a means of improving material wellbeing even if wages and employment are stagnant is to increase provision of public goods and services. From paid parental leave and childcare to spending on roads and parks, these increase the sphere of consumption for which the cost to households is minimal or zero.

Pursuit of the more promising elements of a predistributive approach would undoubtedly do some good. But I'm sceptical that such an approach will be up to the task. The pressures militating against wage growth in lower-half jobs– competition, globalization, technology, nearsighted shareholders ­– are strong, and in all likelihood they will grow even stronger going forward. We may need to do more. Fortunately, we have another option.

Public insurance is a widely used tool for mitigating economic and social risks. Schools, government-financed health insurance, public pensions, unemployment compensation and most government transfers are versions of public insurance. We contribute collectively via taxes, and those who experience the risk event or condition receive transfers or services.

Through this lens, wage stagnation is a new social risk. There is a simple insurance mechanism for alleviating it: an employment-conditional earnings subsidy, along the lines of the UK's working tax credit (gradually being replaced by universal credit) and the US earned income tax credit. These programmes provide a subsidy, in the form of a refundable tax credit, to households with low earnings. The amount of the subsidy increases with earnings up to a point, then flattens out, and then decreases as earnings reach into the middle class.

These employment-conditional earnings subsidies help to compensate for low wage levels, but in their current form they don't address the problem of wage stagnation. To do the latter, the amount of the subsidy needs to rise over time in sync with economic growth. One way to achieve this would be to index it to GDP per capita. Or, decisions about yearly changes could be entrusted to an independent commission.

This won't compensate fully for wage stagnation. If the subsidy amounts to a quarter or even half of a household's earnings and the subsidy rises in line with the economy but earnings don't, then the household's income (earnings plus subsidy) growth will lag behind growth of the economy. It's a partial remedy, not a full solution. But it will help.

What, then, should we do – predistribution or public insurance? If forced to choose between the two, I would opt for defending and expanding employment-conditional earnings subsidies. But over the long run, we ought not think in terms of one or the other. We'll very likely need both.

Lane Kenworthy is professor of sociology and political science at the University of Arizona. A full version of this article is published by IPPR in Juncture.

Ed Miliband at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lane Kenworthy is professor of sociology and political science at the University of Arizona

Getty
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496