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Leader: The 1 per cent and the masses

The thesis developed by Capital author Thomas Piketty is set to be vindicated, with the most prominent critiques of inequality now economic.

Based on current trends, as research by Oxfam has found, a remarkable new threshold will be passed next year: the richest 1 per cent will own more than 50 per cent of the world’s wealth. The corollary is worth stating: the remaining 99 per cent will own less than half.

Inequality fell immediately after the 2008 financial crisis as incomes at the top and in the middle declined more sharply than those at the bottom (the poor having less to lose and being partly insulated by social security). But it has risen since, as quantitative easing has inflated asset prices, fiscal austerity has eroded welfare benefits and wages have remained depressed. The thesis developed by the French economist Thomas Piketty – that the gap will widen as long as the rate of return on capital exceeds the growth rate of the economy – appears destined for vindication.

The usual objections to inequality are moral. For Karl Marx, it represented the corrosion of our common humanity and the denial to workers of the products of their labour. For John Rawls, a society that did not redound to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged was one that no rational, self-interested individual would accept unless he or she was behind a “veil of ignorance”.

But the most prominent critiques of inequality are now economic. From the IMF, the OECD and the Bank of England, the message has gone out that the wealth gap is bad for growth. The uneven distribution of rewards threatens economic stability (as the poor are forced to borrow to maintain their living standards), reduces productivity and undermines social mobility. A recent study from the OECD estimated that the UK economy would be roughly 20 per cent larger if the gap between the rich and the poor had not become a chasm in the 1980s. It found that “income inequality has a sizeable and statistically negative impact on growth” and that “redistributive policies achieving greater equality in disposable income have no adverse growth consequences”.

It is this that explains why a subject once regarded as a leftist talking point again features on the agenda of the World Economic Forum in Davos, with 14 measures proposed to narrow the gap. Among them are more progressive systems
of taxation, increased trade union membership, higher minimum wages and greater investment in public services. Such remedies would once have appeared banal, but in the post-Thatcherite landscape they can seem daringly radical. The very legitimacy of the state as an economic actor is a belief that has to be fought for.

In the years since the crash, governments have focused on the immediate task of ensuring macroeconomic stability by repairing banking systems and reducing fiscal deficits. But as recovery takes hold, most notably in the US and the UK, it is right to ask more profound questions about the shape of modern capitalism. Rather than the trickle-down economics of recent decades, global leaders need to rediscover the virtues of Keynesian “trickle-up”. By increasing the disposable incomes of the poorest, governments and businesses will help to generate the growth on which capitalism depends. It is time for states not merely to listen but to act.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump