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Leader: Inherited inequality in the age of meritocracy

Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century has had a rapturous reception. 

Not since John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971 has a work of political theory been as rapturously received on the left as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. The book having reached the summit of the Amazon sales chart in the United States, its 43-year-old French author, who visited London last week and whom the New Statesman was the first British publication to profile, has become that rarest of things: a celebrity economist.

In this supposedly superficial and anti-intellectual age, his 690-page treatise on inequality, rich in empirical research, has resonated because it speaks to one of the central anxieties of our time: that society is becoming ever more fragmented as the very rich pull away from the rest. As Mr Piketty elegantly demonstrates, as long as the rate of return on what he calls capital continues to exceed the growth rate of the economy (as it has done since the 1970s), inequality will widen to levels unknown since the Victorian era.

It is the United Kingdom that best embodies the troubled future he sketches out: “a society even more inegalitarian than that of the 19th century, because it will combine the arbitrariness of inherited inequalities with a meritocratic discourse that makes the ‘losers’ responsible for their situation”. Britain is the land of the baronet and the banker, the landed aristocrat and the asset-stripper. It combines the worst of capitalism with the worst of feudalism. The result is a society in which both income and wealth are grossly mal­distributed, innovation is stifled and equality of opportunity remains a myth.

To date, Mr Piketty’s critics on the British right have chided him for his focus on inequality, contending that an alternative metric, such as GDP, is a better measure of a country’s long-term success. Yet, as meticulously charted in 2009 by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level, after a certain point of development, how well a society performs is dependent not on how wealthy it is but on how equal it is. More egalitarian countries, such as the Nordic states and Japan, enjoy higher levels of social mobility, trust and educational performance and lower levels of crime, obesity and mental illness than their divided counterparts, notably the US and the UK. Mr Piketty, who, despite his book’s allusion to Marx, is a mainstream social democrat, not a revolutionary socialist, concedes that some degree of inequality is necessary to stimulate enterprise. But the US and the UK long ago exceeded this point.

If we accept the premise that inequality is a social ill, the question becomes how to reduce it to the benefit of all. After the Scandinavian countries, Britain has one of the most redistributive tax and benefit systems in the world. National Insurance, VAT, income tax – the government already takes a lot of our money. Yet so great is the initial gap between rich and poor that the divide persists.

The solution is twofold. First, policymakers should look to embrace what the Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker calls “predistribution”: seeking to stop inequality before it starts. By pledging to spread the use of the living wage, raise educational standards, build more affordable homes, improve lending to small and medium-sized businesses and expand free childcare, Ed Miliband is trying to develop a programme to do so.

Second, the next government should be bold and secure a more resilient tax base. It should seek to bring the super-rich into taxation. One way to do this is to tax so-called unearned income and inherited wealth, most obviously land and property (and other static assets), which in Britain is even more unequally distributed than income. Wealth taxes are progressive and hard to avoid in an age when capital is so mobile; they benefit the economy by shifting investment away from housing and into more productive industries.

Rather than a society in which birth determines destiny – or “parentage dictates progress”, as the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, puts it – our politicians should seek to build one in which reward is once again linked to contribution.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle