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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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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.