16 Dec 2013

Inequality and the Left- From Social Europe Journal. A view that resonates in New Zealand.

Inequality And The Left

Simon Wren-Lewis, inequality
Simon Wren-Lewis
In the debate over inequality and priorities set off by Ezra Klein’s article, Kathleen Geier writes (HT MT) “the policy fixes for economic inequality are fairly clear: in no particular order, they include a higher minimum wage, stronger labor unions, a more progressive tax system, a more generous social welfare state, macroeconomic policies that promote a full employment economy, and much more powerful government regulations, particularly in the banking and finance sector.” And part of me thought, do we really want to go back to the 1970s?
Maybe this is being unfair for two reasons. First, in terms of the strength of unions, or the progressivity of taxes, the 1970s in the UK was rather different from the 1970s in the US. Second, perhaps all we are talking about here is swinging the pendulum back a little way, and not all the way to where it was before Reagan and Thatcher. Yet perhaps my reaction explains why inequality is hardly discussed in public by the mainstream political parties – at least in the UK.
The 1997-2010 Labour government was very active in attempting to reduce poverty (with some success), but was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes.” This was not a whim but a strategy. It wanted to distance itself from what it called ‘Old Labour’, which was associated in particular with the trade unions.  Policies that were explicitly aimed at greater equality were too close to Old Labour [1], but policies that tackled poverty commanded more widespread support. Another way of saying the same thing was that Thatcherism was defined by its hostility to the unions, and its reduction of the top rates of income tax, rather than its hostility to the welfare state.
I think these points are important if we want to address an apparent paradox.

As this video illustrates (here is the equivalent for the US), growing inequality is not popular. Fairness is up there with liberty as a universally agreed goal, and most people do not regard the current distribution of income as fair. In addition, evidence that inequality is associated with many other ills is becoming stronger by the day. Yet the UK opposition today retains the previous government’s reluctance to campaign on the subject.
This paradox appears all the more perplexing after the financial crisis, for two reasons. First the financial crisis exploded the idea that high pay was always justified in terms of the contribution those being paid were making to society. High paid bankers are one of the most unpopular groups in society right now, and it would be quite easy to argue that these bankers have encouraged other business leaders to pay themselves more than they deserve. Second, while Thatcherism did not attempt to roll back the welfare state, austerity has meant that the political right has chosen to paint poverty as laziness. As a result, reducing poverty is no longer an uncontroversial goal.[2]
What is the answer to this paradox? Why is tackling inequality not seen as a vote winner on the mainstream left? I can think of two possible answers, but I’m not confident about either. One, picking up from the historical experience I discussed above, is that reducing inequality is still connected in many minds with increasing the power of trade unions, and this is a turn-off for voters. A second is that it is not popular opinion that matters directly, but instead the opinion of sections of the media and business community that are not forever bound to the political right. Politicians on the left may believe that they need some support from both sectors if they are to win elections. Policies that reduce poverty, or reduce unemployment, do not directly threaten these groups, while policies that might reduce the incomes of the top 10% do.
This leads me to one last argument, which extends a point made by Paul Krugman. I agree with him that “we know how to fight unemployment — not perfectly, but good old basic macroeconomics has worked very well since 2008…. The causes of soaring inequality, on the other hand, are more mysterious; so are the channels through which we might reverse this trend. We know some things, but there is much more room for new knowledge here than in business cycle macro.” My extension would be as follows. The main reason why governments have failed to deal with unemployment are accidental rather than intrinsic: the best instrument available in a liquidity trap (additional government spending) conflicts with the desire of those on the right to see a smaller state. (Those who oppose all forms of stimulus are still a minority.) In contrast, reversing inequality directly threatens the interests of most of those who wield political influence, so it is much less clear how you overcome this political hurdle to reverse the growth in inequality.
[1] This association is of course encouraged by the political right, which is quick to brand any attempt at redistribution as ‘class war’.
[2] The financial crisis did allow the Labour government to create a new top rate of income tax equal to 50%, but this was justified on the basis that the rich were more able to shoulder the burden of reducing the budget deficit, rather than that they were earning too much in the first place.
This post was first published on Mainly Macro

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