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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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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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