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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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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