The eminent philosopher Harry Frankfurt has issued a small book comprising parts of two essays written some decades ago (On Equality, 2015, Princeton University Press). The stimulus to this publication is the recent work of Thomas Piketty on economic inequality in the developed countries, and Frankfurt’s view that
It is, I believe, of some considerable importance to get clear about these matters. Appreciating the inherent moral innocence of economic inequality leads to an understanding that it is misguided to endorse economic egalitarianism as an authentic moral ideal. Further, it facilitates recognition of why it may actually be harmful to regard economic equality as being, in itself, a morally important goal.
We will see however, that Frankfurt strips the concept of ‘economic inequality’ so bare as to render it meaningless more or less by definition, and that what he does regard as important inevitably brings us back to economic inequality as a highly significant issue as it manifests in the real world. Continue reading Harry Frankfurt Gets It Wrong On Inequality→
Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari (Luath Press, 2017) is a very honest and powerfully written account of growing up and surviving amid poverty, addiction and violence in Glasgow. Darren draws from these experiences to make insightful observations about poverty, social deprivation, their causes and potential solutions. Of particular impact on his life was the addiction and violence of his mother, who died of alcoholism at the age of 36. He has escaped economically, if not emotionally, from these circumstances by turning a talent with words into a career as a writer and rap artist.
Violence both inside and outside the home affected the way he thought and behaved, and Darren outlines the role chronic stress, particularly emotional stress, leads to poor lifestyle choices and behaviours in the seeking of brief emotional reprieve. As he says:
A vulnerable family living in constant economic uncertainty, job insecurity or subject to an inhuman sanctions regime often lacks the capacity to absorb, process and practically address life’s unpredictable adversities.
Everyone in British politics, right and left, is now talking about inequality and social justice. But there is much confusion and obfuscation. Specificity is required. Social justice has rather different implications depending on whether it comes from the right or the left of the political spectrum. Leaving aside issues of capital ownership, right social justice essentially relies of the economic concept of the ‘marginal productivity of labour’ (MPL). An individual’s share of society’s material rewards should exactly represent his or her individual contribution to the output of society (usually in effect the output of their employer). Continue reading Equality of Voice – An Introduction→
Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”, published in 2014, played an important role in directing attention to the issue of inequality in the developed economies of the 21st century. The book was both praised and criticised from many parts of the political and economic spectrum. Least controversial was his laying out of the evidence that inequality of both income and wealth has increased markedly since the 1970s, particularly in the US and the UK. A little more controversial is the suggestion that this increasing inequality is harmful to the societies of those countries. Most controversial, and more technical, was Piketty’s espousal of a ‘fundamental law of capitalism’ that when the return on capital (r) exceeds the rate of economic growth (g) inequality will increase.
The chart below shows the change in the fraction of total income going to the top 10% of the distribution for 1900 – 2010.
What is it about ideological free marketeers and their shaky relationship with the facts? Everyone likes markets and free exchange is one of the best manifestations of human co-operation there is – so why tell lies about their limitations and the infrastructure required to make them work for our benefit?
Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute is keen to adapt the often pejorative label of ‘neoliberalism’ to his cheery brand of paid-for market propaganda, and promotes it under this banner in an article in the online i newspaper. He defines a neoliberal as
I attended a fascinating meeting last weekend arranged by the East Midlands ‘Blue Labour’* group on the theme of ‘How Do We Champion the Cause of the Working Class?’ There was a panel of academics, journalists and local Labour politicians. I am interested in Blue Labour’s approach because they are the only group within Labour that seems to have a coherent view of how to remodel the economy away from the dominance of financialised capitalism without returning to widespread nationalisation. The essence of this view is that goods and service provision should be based less on anonymous (usually monetary) transactions and more on the basis of relationships. This implies an expansion of co-operative, mutual and stakeholder businesses, and more regional and community input into local, social and health services. I have myself written about why this is important.Continue reading Blue Labour, Relationships and Free Movement→
‘Modern Thinking: Atomism and Communication’ – Although written four years ago for an essay competition, I still think this piece encapsulates as well as anything my approach to economics, politics and social institutions.
Bertrand Russell, the great British mathematician and philosopher, believed that to be ‘modern-minded’ was to make the error of thinking with the fashion rather than ahead of it. When he wrote about this in 1937 he believed that with God’s role as arbiter of truth and beauty having been usurped, ‘detachment and objectivity, both in thought and feeling’ had also been thrown overboard. Russell, as a rationalist and a non-believer, believed it was ‘possible and important’ to preserve them without recourse to a Creator. To do so, he believed, required ‘solitude’ and ‘a certain degree of isolation both in space and time’. While he may have been right when it comes to studying the physical world and creating great art, his advice is less helpful when it comes to human nature and society. Even if we wanted to, as human beings ourselves, we cannot stand apart from other humans and society as a whole. Unfortunately when this recognition came it was in part responsible for a critical wrong turning in our approach to social phenomena. This wrong turning came about because modern thinking, having dispensed with God guiding from above, had already turned to look for causes and drivers of events at the level below that at which they are observed. The properties of substances had to be derived from the properties of their molecules; the properties of the forces that change the world about us from day to day are derived from the waves and particles into which they can be decomposed. Continue reading Modern Thinking: Atomism and Communication→
The causes of unemployment make it a moral issue. Radical solutions are required.
In an earlier post I noted some features of unemployment from a UK perspective. The main thrust was that a fairly constant proportion of the population in employment (around 72% of those of working-age) hides a serious decline in the availability of adequate work, due mainly to the increase in women in the workforce and the fall in the ratio of full-time to part-time work. In a paper I wrote and referenced here on welfare I hinted at a moral dimension to the issue of unemployment in a capitalist economy (by which I simply mean an economy where physical means of production tend to belong in more or less concentrated hands).
I have now written a rather more formal paper (pdf 198kb) which I presented to the Post-Keynesian Study Group annual workshop in May this year in which I expanded on why we have a persistent problem with unemployment, and why this has a significant moral implications in our attitude to the unemployed. In this light of this I review the inadequacy of current policy and look at some of the more radical solutions proffered. The following is a non-technical summary of the paper. Continue reading Unemployment – Morality, Money and Increasing Returns→
Charles Moore is the official biographer of Margaret Thatcher, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and an Old Etonian. He has nicely epitomised the indifference, evident intentional ignorance and convenient innumeracy of a particular type of Conservative. Writing in his column in ‘The Spectator’ magazine (May 4th) he devotes a mere 262 words to writing-off the problems of those on low incomes in Britain.
[T]he people who best understand how welfare works are either its recipients or those who work on low wages and are scarcely better off for doing so
he writes. So far so reasonable. He goes on:
These people recognise that being on welfare is — in effect, though not morally — like having a job. There is a wage for it, plus various equivalents of overtime and fringe benefits, and the task is to get as much of these as you can.
There’s a half-truth in there. If work seems like an impossibility, or hardly worth the candle given its poor rewards and insecurity, self-interest would suggest that you look for all the benefits you might be entitled to – although many don’t. But he continues:
One effect of this has been to destroy the working class. Its more enterprising members have become middle class and the rest have discovered that they can live by not working.
At a stroke of his expensively-educated pen, Moore dismisses the existence of all those struggling to make ends meet in low-paid jobs. Four million Britons over 18 are in jobs that pay £7 per hour or less; seven million in ones paying no more than £8 per hour. (The minimum wage is set at just over £6.) They cannot reasonably be said to have joined the middle class, and if they could ‘live by not working’ they certainly choose not to. Continue reading The Callousness of a Conservative→
The belief, held by nearly one third of the population according to polling figures, that at least half of welfare claimants are either fraudulent or are refusing suitable work when offered, is demonstrably wrong. It is clearly fuelled by misleading and misrepresentative information fed to us not only by most media outlets but by our own leaders, probably as a ‘divide and rule’ strategy.
The total cost of out-of-work benefits is much smaller than is frequently claimed, including by those who are in a position to know better. A significant proportion of out-of-work benefits are ultimately paid for by their recipients through their lifetime NI and tax contributions. The large majority of those actually receiving JSA are intent on finding work and actively seeking it, but a proportion of them are currently doomed to failure – some probably permanently – through no conscious decision of their own.
As a result, the lowering of benefits and the threat of benefit withdrawal is increasing hardship for many, while probably doing little more than increasing ‘churn’ in a sluggish labour market. Given the current low level of benefits in relation to a generally acceptable minimum income and the dubious fairness of an absolute obligation to work for others for a breadline wage, further downward pressure on benefits seems to have little justification morally, socially or even economically.
The only real way to see more of the long-term unemployed improve their own lives and their contribution to society is the provision of more and better-paid employment opportunities. Along with this will have to go resource-intensive engagement with those who are poorly equipped to support themselves, never mind to play a productive role in society.