States of inequality – Double Review

By Rob Foster @futuresinfinite

Inequality: What can be done? by Anthony Atkinson, published by Harvard University Press

Civic Capitalism by Colin Hay & Anthony Payne, published by Polity Press

Issues of economic inequality continue to be at the forefront of much of the political discourse in the UK and beyond. There may be broad consensus that income inequality is a problem (although how large or important an issue is a matter of conjecture), but the causes & possible cures for inequality remain a contested sphere. Adding to this tumult of ideas are two recent books, both with a specific focus on the British political economy, that in different ways add much to the debate.

“Inequality: What can be done?” is the magnum opus of the political economist Anthony Atkinson, whose concern with the title subject dates back to his graduation in 1966. Revered as a long standing analyst of the history, trends & causes of income inequality, Atkinson is also known as the mentor of Thomas Piketty, whose 2014 book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” reignited & broadened interest in these issues beyond their recent confines of academia.

With this book, however, rather than focussing on an analysis of how & where inequality occurs, Atkinson moves beyond the diagnosis to provide an ambitious menu of measures for change and premeditated responses to expected critiques of his proposals. There is an avowed and definite political dimension to this analysis: the author declares that “today’s high level of inequality can be effectively reduced only by tackling inequality in the marketplace”. Concentrating primarily on the UK, but with reference to the wider global economic conditions, the author sets out fifteen proposals, & a further five ideas to pursue, to “bring about a genuine shift in the distribution of income towards less inequality”.  These proposals range from seemingly strident calls for greater state involvement in areas such as competition, employment, & pay policy (it should be noted the book was written when the living wage was still an uncorrupted concept) to perhaps less contentious suggestions as reforms of property tax & child benefit.

Amongst this collection of recommendations it is Atkinson’s proposal for a Participation Income, a variation on the concept of a basic income based not on citizenship but rather on a broad definition of social contribution, that stands out as a genuinely radical concept encompassing the challenges of the future of work & society. In contrast, propositions such as guaranteed public employment, higher rates of income tax, greater trade union representation and so on seem to hark back to the golden age of social democracy that Atkinson locates in the decades following the Second World War.

The author’s commitment & expertise cannot be faulted, but the (admittedly difficult) challenge to address current inequalities & the economics of the future may require less retrospection. More positively, Atkinson’s point that “individuals can influence the extent of inequality in our society directly by their own actions as consumers, as savers, as investors, as workers, or as employers” makes a more egalitarian case for the power of social movements than state intervention.

In contrast to the 300 plus pages comprising Atkinson’s work, “Civic Capitalism” by Colin Hay & Anthony Payne is initially an essay of a mere 50 pages. Despite its brevity, however, the authors cover considerable ground &, like Atkinson, take the opportunity to move beyond critique of the current system to propose an alternative, describing their approach as “more like designing a new car than offering advice to the driver from the passenger seat”. In so doing, they coin the phrase Civic Capitalism to emphasise the centrality to their world view of an alternative capitalism that is predicated on public interest and a “set of societal or civic values”.

Civic Capitalism, they argue, is an attempt to move past the limitations of the technical, elitist of mainstream economics of recent decades to a position where the state “deliver(s) collective public goods, equity and social justice”. The latter, comprising of four aspects of societal wellbeing – socio-economic security, social cohesion, social inclusion, & social empowerment – form the basis of Hay & Payne’s proposal for a broader definition of economic success beyond the “convention of growth” as defined by GDP. The authors’ proposed index of measures, tentatively entitled the Sustainable Economic Development (SED) index, including per capita energy usage, carbon emissions, literacy rates, & changes in the Gini coefficient measure for inequality, is intended to illustrate & exemplify the range of critical factors central to economic success currently overshadowed by the narrow focus on growth that currently prevails.

This is an essay intended to provoke engagement and debate, & fittingly the book thus includes nine short responses & critiques from academics & commentators. Each of these texts offer further evidence for the clamour for a reframing of capitalism, although as the book was published on the cusp of the 2015 General Election the reality of subsequent political reality overshadows many of the arguments and proposals within. As concise as the main essay is, there are clearly going to be areas left unmentioned, proposals not fully formed, & questions raised over the practicalities of the approaches set out by Hay & Payne. The responses published within “Civic Capitalism” highlight this, & yet the strength of the title essay is precisely in its non-technical, non-academic brevity & style. Rather than a paper for an academic journal, the authors have issued a call-to-arms for a much wider audience. The ongoing dialogue should continue to be as inclusive.

For the inclusivity of their arguments & their recommendations for challenging the discourse of economic success, “Inequality: What is to be done” &“Civic Capitalism” deserve recognition as important texts regarding the futures of capitalism. What unites both books is their diagnosis that change is required, and perhaps inevitable. How the change comes about is still open for debate.

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