Ed Miliband gives a speech in the final days of his election campaign. Photo: Getty Images
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How do you solve a problem like inequality?

A new book suggests how the struggle against inequality might survive the defeat of Ed Miliband. 

Anthony Atkinson’s new book, Inequality: What Can Be Done?, is an effort to keep the issue of inequality on the agenda of politicians, economists, and citizens alike.  This is an important academic contribution to the debate, especially timely in light of Ed Miliband’s statement in his resignation speech on 9 May that “the issue of our unequal country will not go away” following the Conservative Party’s victory in the 2015 UK election. 

Atkinson has been described in recent reviews of his new book as Thomas Piketty’s role model, but he deserves to be discussed in his own terms.  He has an inequality index named after him, and has pioneered the study of issues of inequality and poverty within economics.  He has been mentioned on multiple occasions as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Inequality: What Can Be Done? is explicitly solutions-oriented, as the title suggests.  It begins with a diagnosis in Part I of the current economic context and an overview of the approach to inequality in economics.  In Part II attention turns to specific policy proposals, relating to competition law, the changing nature of work, taxation, and other areas.  Part III addresses common objections to such policy proposals – the argument that the proposals might be inefficient, the view that globalization prevents proactive government measures, and the notion that the proposals are unaffordable. 

In style, the book seems to be written for an informed general audience.  At times, it is a little technical: it dives early on into an explanation of household equivalised disposable income, and in chapter 2 talks about ways inequality can be measured – including through household surveys, income tax data, and data on earnings.  But generally, the language is lucid and the chapters are put together well, with summings-up and italicized policy prescriptions allowing readers to be clear about the points to take away from the book.

Substantively, the book offers a number of original policy suggestions.  Atkinson argues, for example, that the rise of technology is not inevitable, and is a product of policy choices; in this context, he says that the State should carefully consider the benefits of technological innovation against the costs of reduced “human contact” and unemployment.  In another unorthodox proposal in the same chapter, he calls for competition policy to be understood as being concerned less with efficiency and more with inequality – since profits from market power affect overall distribution.  He also recommends, amongst other things, the creation of a Social and Economic Council (which might represent trade unions, employers and others); guaranteed public employment; a top tax rate of 65% (a rate that Atkinson says may well be the optimal rate); a substantial child benefit for all children; and a participation income (a form of basic income). 

Atkinson admits to the solutions being UK-focused, but hopes that they might spur debate in other countries, too.  Some commentators might argue that Atkinson is old-fashioned in approach, in calling for high taxes and a return to union power.  But these proposals emerge after nuanced discussion by Atkinson of the present-day context, and the changing nature of work, business, and government.  Atkinson is plainly not out of touch with contemporary societal developments.

Atkinson’s reasoning throughout the book, in support of these proposals and arguments, is for the most part compelling.  At times he is a little shorthand in the reasons he gives, perhaps because the book is a summary of much of his life’s work.  (He also uses sources that some scholars might frown upon, quoting Wikipedia and working papers that have not been peer reviewed.) But he raises relatively fresh lines of argument: for example, he argues that globalization is not new, and that therefore the limited policy space for governments is not a novel challenge.  And his mastery of detail and comfort with costings mean that his proposals seem not only imaginative but also practically feasible. 

A further merit of the book’s reasoning is that it responds to criticisms of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, such as the claim that Piketty ignores consumption or the view that Piketty gives insufficient weight to declines in global inequality.  Atkinson’s book therefore develops and deepens the debate about Piketty’s findings, inviting the critics of Piketty to respond.

Atkinson ends the book with a plea for “political leadership”, a call for action to be taken across government to address inequality, and a note that the book has been written “in a positive spirit” – with the belief that there are “grounds for optimism”. 

Does the resounding defeat of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party in the election, despite considerable focus in the election on inequality, undermine Atkinson’s optimism?

The election results certainly make it less likely that some of Atkinson’s bolder proposals will be adopted in the short-term.  However, inequality is now an issue that political parties, on all parts of the ideological spectrum, cannot dismiss.  And that is partly because of the work of academics such as Thomas Piketty and Anthony Atkinson. 

The books by Piketty and Atkinson have prompted renewed attention to matters of economic distribution, and have strengthened a public movement that has put pressure on governments to tackle inequality.  That public movement needs to keep growing, as the election results in the UK demonstrate.  But Atkinson’s Inequality: What Can Be Done? deserves credit for contributing considerable intellectual resources to that important struggle.

Max Harris is a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He tweets as@mdnharris.

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage