Tag Archives: Inequality

Was the Rise of Neoliberalism the Root Cause of Extreme Inequality?

Financial meltdown, environmental disaster and even the rise of Donald Trump – neoliberalism has played its part in them all.
By George Monbiot – Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism.

The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?

Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalyzed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?

So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognize it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimized, public services should be privatized. The organization of labor and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers.

Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve. more>

Eight Reasons Why Inequality Ruins the Economy

What matters is not so much the level of inequality as the effect it has.
By Chris Dillow – Roland Benabou gave the example (pdf) of how egalitarian South Korea has done much better than the unequal Philippines. And IMF researchers have found (pdf) a “strong negative relation” between inequality and the rate and duration of subsequent growth spells across 153 countries between 1960 and 2010.

Correlations, of course, are only suggestive. They pose the question: what is the mechanism whereby inequality might reduce growth? Here are eight possibilities:

1. Inequality encourages the rich to invest not innovation but in what Sam Bowles calls “guard labor” (pdf) – means of entrenching their privilege and power. This might involve restrictive copyright laws, ways of overseeing and controlling workers, or the corporate rent-seeking and lobbying that has led to what Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles call the “captured economy.

An especially costly form of this rent-seeking was banks’ lobbying for a “too big to fail” subsidy. This encouraged over-expansion of the banking system and the subsequent crisis, which has had a massively adverse effect upon economic growth.

3. “Economic inequality leads to less trust” say (pdf) Eric Uslaner and Mitchell Brown. And we’ve good evidence that less trust means less growth.

One reason for this is simply that if people don’t trust each other they’ll not enter into transactions where there’s a risk of them being ripped off.

5. Inequality can cause the rich to be fearful of future redistribution or nationalization, which will make them loath to invest. National Grid is belly-aching, maybe rightly, that Labour’s plan to nationalize it will delay investment. But it should instead ask: why is Labour proposing such a thing, and why is it popular? more>

Capitalism is failing. People want a job with a decent wage – why is that so hard?

By Richard V. Reeves – Before capitalism, there was work. Before markets, before even money, there was work. Our remotest ancestors, hunting and gathering, almost certainly did not see work as a separate, compartmentalized part of life in the way we do today. But we have always had to work to live. Even in the 21st century, we strive through work for the means to live, hence the campaign for a “living wage.”

As a species, we like to define ourselves through our thoughts and wisdom, as Homo sapiens. But we could as easily do so through the way we consciously apply effort towards certain goals, by our work – as Homo laborans. It nonetheless took two revolutions, one agricultural, one industrial, to turn “work” into its own category.

Industrial capitalism sliced and diced human time into clearly demarcated chunks, of “work” and “leisure”. Work was then bundled and packaged into one of the most important inventions of the modern era: a job. From this point on, the workers’ fight was for a job that delivered maximum benefits, especially in terms of wages, in return for minimum costs imposed on the worker, especially in terms of time.

For Karl Marx, the whole capitalist system was ineluctably rigged against workers. Whatever the short-run victories of the trade unions, the capitalist retained the power; the ultimate control, over workers’ time. And the worker would remain forever alienated from their work. The goal was to assert sovereignty over our own time, free of the temporal control of the capitalist, able “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner.”

The problem of alienation is far from solved. more>

Inequality: from redistribution to predistribution and beyond?

Soaring income inequality inevitably raises discussion of more progressive taxation. But a more fundamental focus on the ownership of capital is needed.
By Liam Kennedy – The now much-traveled line from the historian Rutger Bregman at Davos 2019 is a perfect encapsulation of the Zeitgeist: inequality is out of control, we know more or less how to reduce it but, instead of actually doing anything, here we are pretending to be baffled by the state of the world.

Outside those snow-capped peaks, there is, of course, widespread recognition of the need to tackle spiraling inequality. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has spoken about it, the International Monetary Fund has written about it and reducing inequalities is enshrined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Unfortunately, this evidence does not always translate into coherent political action. In the United Kingdom, for example, top rates of income tax have become less progressive over the decades while corporation tax has been consistently cut since 2010. Acknowledging the inequality problem is a crucial first step—but there is also a strong case for looking beyond ‘taxes, taxes, taxes’ if it is to be truly tackled.

Additionally, UK income-inequality statistics are plagued with problems which militate against any consistent understanding of how much income those at the very top of the distribution are actually ‘earning’.  To put it bluntly, the rich are even richer than we realize.

The truth is that the initial fall in income inequality seen after the financial crisis was an aberration which has allowed the government to mask the more systemic and continuing rise in inequality the UK has experienced since the late 1970s. more>

Chief executives’ pay: reversing the race to the top

Eye-watering remuneration for chief executives is economically wasteful as well as socially divisive. Non-profits should pioneer compressed wage hierarchies.
By Alex Bird – As Oxfam reports that the top 1 per cent of the world’s population now own more than the other 99 per cent, it’s time to think about how those at the top of the economic tree can secure such eye-watering salaries, which they parlay into wealth.

Whereas in the past individuals became recognized by their status in the community rather than in cash, and for their philanthropy—such as Carnegie building libraries, or business people supporting the local football team—now driven individuals seek recognition through possessing conspicuous wealth.

This recognition drive is reinforced by remuneration committees, which are the method of setting top salaries recommended in the UK by the Financial Reporting Council. They employ specialist consultants to survey what others are paying, adjust for industry and turnover, and so arrive at a ‘market price’. Any executives earning less than this rate get a rise; anyone earning more is left alone, as their contract locks them in to that salary. Industry rivals see this change, redo their own surveys and the upwards-only merry-go-round progresses.

This, naturally, has led to an increasing disparity between the highest and average earnings. more>

They Don’t Just Hide Their Money. Economist Says Most of Billionaire Wealth is Unearned.

By Didier Jacobs – The 62 richest people in the world own as much wealth as half of humanity. Such extreme wealth conjures images of both fat cats and deserving entrepreneurs. So where did so much money come from?

It turns out, three-fourths of extreme wealth in the US falls on the fat cat side.

A key empirical question in the inequality debate is to what extent rich people derive their wealth from “rents”, which is windfall income they did not produce, as opposed to activities creating true economic benefit.

Economists define “rent” as the difference between what people are paid and what they would have to be paid to do the work anyway. The classical example is the farmer who owns particularly fertile land.

With the same effort, she can produce more than other farmers working on land of average productivity. The extra income she gets is a rent. Monopolists also get rent by overcharging customers as compared to what they could charge in competitive markets.

More generally, economists have identified a series of “market failures”, which are situations where full competition does not prevail and where someone can therefore overcharge – they would be ready to do the work for less, but lack of competition allows them to make a quick extra buck. Government can alleviate market failures through proper economic regulation; or it can make them worse.

Political scientists define “rent-seeking” as influencing government to get special privileges, such as subsidies or exclusive production licenses, to capture income and wealth produced by others.

So how much of extreme wealth derives from rents? more>

How Universal Basic Income Solves Widespread Insecurity and Radical Inequality

By Daniel Nettle – Today should be the best time ever to be alive. Thanks to many decades of increasing productive efficiency, the real resources available to enable us to do the things we value—the avocados, the bicycles, the musical instruments, the bricks and glass—are more abundant and of better quality than ever. Thus, at least in the industrialized world, we should be living in the Age of Aquarius, the age where the most urgent problem is self-actualization, not mere subsistence: not ‘How can we live?’, but ‘How shall we live?’.

Why then, does it not feel like the best time ever?

Contrary to the predictions of mid-twentieth-century economists, the age of universal wellbeing has not really materialized. Working hours are as high as they were for our parents, if not higher, and the quality of work is no better for most people. Many people work several jobs they do not enjoy, just to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and the lights on. In fact, many people are unable to satisfy these basic wants despite being in work.

Big problems require big ideas.

Our current generation of politicians don’t really have ideas big enough to deal with the problems of widespread insecurity and marked inequality. Big ideas come along every few decades. The last one was about forty years ago: neoliberalism, the idea that market competition between private-sector corporations would deliver the social outcomes we all wanted, as long as government got out of the way as far as possible.

Our current politicians propose to deal with symptoms piecemeal—a minimum-wage increase here, a price cap there, rent-control in the other place; tax credits for those people; financial aid to buy a house for those others. At best we are dealing with one symptom at a time. Each piecemeal intervention increases the complexity of the state; divides citizens down into finer and finer ad hoc groups each eligible for different transactions; requires more bureaucratic monitoring; and often has unintended and perverse knock-on effects.

A Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a regular financial payment made to all eligible adults, whether they work or not, regardless of their other means, and without any conditionality whatever. Receiving it is a fundamental entitlement that comes with being a member of society: people can know that it will always be there, now and in the future. more>

Why Inequality Matters

By Thorvaldur Gylfason – Since the early 1970s, the share of national income paid to workers in advanced economies has fallen from 55 to 40 percent. A declining labor share goes along with increased inequality in the distribution of income and wealth as well as health. Medical researchers report that the wealthiest one percent of American men live 15 years longer than the poorest one percent and that the wealthiest one percent of American women can expect to live ten years longer than their poorer counterparts. The gap is widening.

Concerns about inequality have recently been thrust to the forefront of political discourse around the world. An important part of the explanation for the surprise victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election is that he did well among those voters who felt they had been left behind with stagnant real wages for decades while CEO compensation rose from 20 times the typical worker’s compensation in 1965 to 270 in 2008.

What could workers do?

As film maker Michael Moore puts it, they could throw Molotov cocktails at the powers that be. Trump was their Molotov. Similarly, in the 2016 referendum in the UK, those who felt left behind tended to vote for Brexit. more>

How Capitalism Actually Generates More Inequality

By Geoffrey M. Hodgson – At least nominally, capitalism embodies and sustains an Enlightenment agenda of freedom and equality.

Typically there is freedom to trade and equality under the law, meaning that most adults – rich or poor – are formally subject to the same legal rules. But with its inequalities of power and wealth, capitalism nurtures economic inequality alongside equality under the law.

Today, in the USA, the richest 1 per cent own 34 per cent of the wealth and the richest 10 per cent own 74 per cent of the wealth. In the UK, the richest 1 per cent own 12 per cent of the wealth and the richest 10 per cent own 44 per cent of the wealth. In France the figures are 24 cent and 62 per cent respectively. The richest 1 percent own 35 percent of the wealth in Switzerland, 24 per cent in Sweden and 15 percent in Canada.

To what extent can inequalities of income or wealth be attributed to the fundamental institutions of capitalism, rather than a residual landed aristocracy, or other surviving elites from the pre-capitalist past? A familiar mantra is that markets are the source of inequality under capitalism. Can markets be blamed for inequality?

In real-world markets different sellers or buyers vary hugely in their capacities to influence prices and other outcomes. When a seller has sufficient salable assets to affect market prices, then strategic market behavior is possible to drive out competitors.

Would more competition, with greater numbers of market participants, fix this problem? If markets per se are to be blamed for inequality, then it has to be shown that competitive markets also have this outcome. more>

America’s Worsening Geographic Inequality

By Richard Florida – It’s not just economic inequality—the gap between the rich and the poor—that is growing ever wider. Geographic inequality, the divide between rich and poor places, is too.

America’s growing geographic or spatial inequality is documented in great detail in recent studies from the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) and The Hamilton Project of Brookings Institution.

Their analysis confirms the decline of America’s once-sturdy middle-class neighborhoods, and the splitting of the nation into areas of concentrated advantage, juxtaposed with areas of concentrated disadvantage.

Fewer than 40 percent of Americans, 120 million or so, live in middle-class neighborhoods which the study’s authors classify as “comfortable” and “mid-tier.” Another third, 106 million people, live in “at-risk” or “distressed” communities. An advantaged quarter or so of Americans, 86 million, live in affluent, “prosperous” neighborhoods. Furthermore, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged neighborhoods has increased in the past decade or so. more>