After learning that Joseph Stiglitz had been invited to give a lecture on inequality at the University of Oxford, I asked my friend Stephen Whitefield, Professor of Politics, University Lecturer in Politics, and Rhodes Pelczynski Tutorial Fellow in Politics, Pembroke College, to offer his sense of Stiglitz’s lecture. I am pleased to publish his comments here.
It was a huge pleasure for me and my college (Pembroke) and my Department (Politics and International Relations), with the support of the UK Fulbright Commission, to welcome Joseph Stiglitz back to the University of Oxford to deliver the 4th Annual Fulbright Distinguished Lecture. Stiglitz had been Drummond Professor of Political Economy in Oxford in the 1970s. Of course, he won the Nobel Prize for his work that shows, as I understand it, that when markets don’t function with perfect information—that is to say, almost always–then there is also always room for government intervention to improve welfare outcomes. That was a huge turn in the debate, even if many mainstream economists and their political allies/masters have yet to catch up.
Stiglitz was in Oxford to talk about “The Causes and Consequences of Inequality and What Can Be Done About It,” which topic marks another great turn in the debate about what kind of political economy we want, from thinking that inequality is irrelevant, since all boats are rising, to thinking that inequality matters, because it makes just about everything worse, at least when it is at very high levels. Stiglitz was of course also central to shifting the current of academic opinion on this topic. And he demonstrated in a brilliant talk—which everyone can link to here (as a podcast or video)—that he is not averse to turning that scholarship into powerful and persuasive accessible language. I have also to add that Stiglitz is a great person to talk to. As Ngaire Woods, his old friend, said in her introduction to his lecture, Stiglitz listens to people.
So, I know he will not be at all put out if he reads me to say that, while his dissection of the causes and consequences of inequality was outstanding, his discussion of what can be done about them was rather light. I told him that myself at dinner afterwards, as did others. I am sure that a lot of that would have been sorted out if he had had more time to talk. After all, he is not at all short of policy prescriptions, as are others like Thomas Piketty, who advocates a global wealth tax. But the problem is not that there is a lack of policies to put forward. In my view, the main problem is with the lack of a clear vision about how to build the political alliances that are necessary to enact those prescriptions. Maybe Stiglitz is right that things look better in places like Brazil and that we can learn things from its experience. Becoming Swedish, however, even if we thought that an attractive proposition—and I still have Per Wahloo in mind when thinking about Swedish Social-Democracy—is just not an option. So, how do we create a winning coalition against inequality that looks plausible and appropriate to our national conditions?
Well, I don’t know the answer to that right now. But here is a gesture in that direction. First, an irony—that he gave this talk in Oxford where we are of course constantly seeking the support of the 0.01-percenters, including to fund a chair to commemorate Senator Fulbright in my college and department. There were a number of such people in the lecture theatre. But note next something we all know (or strongly believe since Wilkinson and Pickett), that in highly unequal societies even the richest 1 percent appear to have worse health outcomes compared to their counterparts in more equal societies. Stiglitz did not offer a very convincing explanation as to why this is the case. He put it down to stress, which is possible but not very plausible on the face of it. Susan Kelly, who is a medical sociologist at the University of Exeter, puts a more likely hypothesis to my mind: over-treatment. There is apparently a negative correlation at the top end between numbers of physicians and health outcomes. But, who knows? A good question to research. . .
But, to return to my point about the political coalition to implement a reduction in levels of inequality, what we need to know is this: who are the political actors interested in doing this? This was not addressed in any explicit way by Stiglitz, and it seems to me a characteristic of even progressive policies presented by scholars that the questions of who will implement them and in whose political interests they are enacted are seldom on the table. There is talk—just—in analyses of inequality of class but not much about class interests or class actors. Now, there was an implicit answer in Stiglitz’s talk. Perhaps it is the enlightened rich who will use their massive power to reduce inequality, because they will come to see that it is harmful to their interests. Maybe. I have my doubts. Certainly I would not expect inequality to come down to the levels that I would find economically, socially, or politically appropriate if those were the political forces driving it.
But if not the rich, then who? By the admission of all involved in the analysis of inequality, the period from around 1930 to 1980 was one of declining inequality and of course in the post-WWII period of rapid economic growth as well. A time also, not coincidentally, of strong organised trade unions and a mobilised working class. All that is recognised. Less so is the counterpart in international relations, the existence of the Soviet Union and then the Communist bloc and the international communist movement, which presented an alternative to capitalism that many working-class people found attractive and the rich found terrifying enough to make significant concessions. I suspect it takes a stick as well as a carrot to make the rich see their self-interest differently.
Almost all of that historical moment is gone now, and not all for the bad. As a student of the Soviet system, I only lament it when thinking about the appalling kleptocracy that emerged from its womb, to use Marx’s kind of metaphor—a kleptocracy that aspired to be as rich as our own oligarchs. But we should remember that the creation of unions and left movements was the work of generations of intellectuals—I mean that in the broadest Gramscian terms—to create not just policies but first and foremost social and political actors. Perhaps that is what we now need to concentrate on imagining, not to mention doing.