Posts Tagged ‘United Kingdom’


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Economic inequality is arguably the crucial issue facing contemporary capitalism—especially in the United States but also across the entire world economy.

Over the course of the last four decades, income inequality has soared in the United States, as the share of pre-tax national income captured by the top 1 percent (the red line in the chart above) has risen from 10.4 percent in 1976 to 20.2 percent in 2014. For the world economy as a whole, the top 1-percent share (the green line), which was already 15.6 percent in 1982, has continued to rise, reaching 20.4 percent in 2016. Even in countries with less inequality—such as France, Germany, China, and the United Kingdom—the top 1-percent share has been rising in recent decades.

Clearly, many people are worried about the obscene levels of inequality in the world today.

In a famous study, which I wrote about back in 2010, Dan Ariely and Michael I. Norton showed that Americans both underestimate the current level of inequality in the United States and prefer a much more equal distribution than currently exists.*

In other words, the amount of inequality favored by Americans—their ideal or utopian horizon—hovers somewhere between the level of inequality that obtains in modern-day Sweden and perfect equality.

What about contemporary economists? What is their utopian horizon when it comes to the distribution of income?

Not surprisingly, economists are fundamentally divided. They hold radically different views about the distribution of income, which both inform and informed by their different utopian visions.

For example, neoclassical economists, the predominant group in U.S. colleges and universities, analyze the distribution of income in terms of marginal productivity theory. Within their framework of analysis, each factor of production (labor, capital, and land) receives a portion of total output in the form of income (wages, profits, or rent) within perfectly competitive markets according to its marginal contributions to production. In this sense, neoclassical economics represents a confirmation and celebration of capitalism’s “just deserts,” that is, everyone gets what they deserve.

From the perspective of neoclassical economics, inequality is simply not a problem, as long as each factor is rewarded according to its productivity. Since in the real world they see few if any exceptions to perfectly competitive markets, their view is that the distribution of income within contemporary capitalism corresponds to—or at least comes close to matching—their utopian horizon.

Other mainstream economists, especially those on the more liberal wing (such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Thomas Piketty), hold the exact same utopian horizon—of just deserts based on marginal productivity theory. However, in their view, the real world falls short, generating a distribution of income in recent years that is more unequal, and therefore less fair, than is predicted within neoclassical theory. So, bothered by the obscene levels of contemporary inequality, they look for exceptions to perfectly competitive markets.

Thus, for example, Stiglitz has focused on what he calls rent-seeking behavior—and therefore on the ways economic agents (such as those in the financial sector or CEOs) often rely on forms of power (political and/or economic) to secure more than their “just deserts.” Thus, for Stiglitz and others, the distribution of income is more unequal than it would be under perfect markets because some agents are able to capture rents that exceed their marginal contributions to production.** If such rents were eliminated—for example, by regulating markets—the distribution of income would match the utopian horizon of neoclassical economics.***

What about Marxian theory? It’s quite a bit different, in the sense that it relies on the assumptions similar to those of neoclassical theory while arriving at conclusions that are diametrically opposed. The implication is that, even if and when markets are perfect (in the way neoclassical economists assume and work to achieve), the capitalist distribution of income violates the idea of “just deserts.” That’s because Marxian economics is informed by a radically different utopian horizon.

Let me explain. Marx started with the presumption that all markets operate much in the way the classical political economists then (and neoclassical economists today) presume. He then showed that even when all commodities exchange at their values and workers receive the value of their labor power (that is, no cheating), capitalists are able to appropriate a surplus-value (that is, there is exploitation). No special modifications of the presumption of perfect markets need to be made. As long as capitalists are able, after the exchange of money for the commodity labor power has taken place, to extract labor from labor power during the course of commodity production, there will be an extra value, a surplus-value, that capitalists are able to appropriate for doing nothing.

The point is, the Marxian theory of the distribution of income identifies an unequal distribution of income that is endemic to capitalism—and thus a fundamental violation of the idea of “just deserts”—even if all markets operate according to the unrealistic assumptions of mainstream economists. And that intrinsically unequal distribution of income within capitalism becomes even more unequal once we consider all the ways the mainstream assumptions about markets are violated on a daily basis within the kinds of capitalism we witness today.

That’s because the Marxian critique of political economy is informed by a radically different utopian horizon: the elimination of exploitation. Marxian economists don’t presume that, under capitalism, the distribution of income will be equal. Nor do they promise that the kinds of noncapitalist economic and social institutions they seek to create will deliver a perfectly equal distribution of income. However, in focusing on class exploitation, they both show how the unequal distribution of income in the world today is affected by and in turn affects the appropriation and distribution of surplus-value and argue that the distribution of income would likely change—in the direction of greater equality—if the conditions of existence of exploitation were dismantled.

In my view, lurking behind the scenes of the contemporary debate over economic inequality is a raging battle between radically different utopian visions of the distribution of income.


*The Ariely and Norton research focused on wealth, not income, inequality. I suspect much the same would hold true if Americans were asked about their views concerning the actual and desired degree of inequality in the distribution of income.

**It is important to note that, according to mainstream economics, any economic agent can engage in rent-seeking behavior. In come cases it may be labor, in other cases capital or even land.

***More recently, some mainstream economists (such as Piketty) have started to look outside the economy, at the political sphere. They’ve long held the view that, within a democracy, if voters are dissatisfied with the distribution of income, they will support political candidates and parties that enact a redistribution of income. But that hasn’t been the case in recent decades—not in the United States, the United Kingdom, or France—and the question is why. Here, the utopian horizon concerning the economy is the neoclassical one, or marginal productivity theory, but they imagine a separate democratic politics is able to correct any imbalances generated by the economy. As I see it, this is consistent with the neoclassical tradition, in that neoclassical economists have long taken the distribution of factor endowments as a given, exogenous to the economy and therefore subject to political decisions.


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Mark Tansey, “Discarding the Frame” (1993″

Obviously, recent events—such as Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn—have surprised many experts and shaken up the existing common sense. Some have therefore begun to make the case that an era has come to an end.

The problem, of course, is while the old may be dying, it’s not all clear the new can be born. And, as Antonio Gramsci warned during the previous world-shaking crisis, “in this interregnum morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass.”

For Pankaj Mishra, it is the era of neoliberalism that has come to an end.

In this new reality, the rhetoric of the conservative right echoes that of the socialistic left as it tries to acknowledge the politically explosive problem of inequality. The leaders of Britain and the United States, two countries that practically invented global capitalism, flirt with rejecting the free-trade zones (the European Union, Nafta) they helped build.

Mishra is correct in tracing British neoliberalism—at least, I hasten to add, its most recent phase—through both the Conservative and Labour Parties, from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair and David Cameron.* All of them, albeit in different ways, celebrated and defended individual initiative, self-regulating markets, cheap credit, privatized social services, and greater international trade—bolstered by military adventurism abroad. Similarly, in the United States, Reaganism extended through both Bush administrations as well as the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barak Obama—and would have been continued by Hillary Clinton—with analogous promises of prosperity based on unleashing competitive market forces, together with military interventions in other countries.

Without a doubt, the combination of capitalist instability—the worst crisis of capitalism since the first Great Depression—and obscene levels of inequality—parallel to the years leading up to the crash of 1929—not to mention the interminable military conflicts that have deflected funding at home and created waves of refugees from war-torn zones, has called into question the legacy and presumptions of Thatcherism and Reaganism.

Where I think Mishra goes wrong is in arguing that “A new economic consensus is quickly replacing the neoliberal one to which Blair and Clinton, as well as Thatcher and Reagan, subscribed.” Yes, in both the United Kingdom and the United States—in the campaign rhetoric of Theresa May and Trump, and in the actual policy proposals of Corbyn and Sanders—neoliberalism has been challenged. But precisely because the existing framing of the questions has not changed, a new economic consensus—an alternative common sense—cannot be born.

To put it differently, the neoliberal frame has been discarded but the ongoing debate remains framed by the terms that gave rise to neoliberalism in the first place. What I mean by that is, while recent criticisms of neoliberalism have emphasized the myriad problems created by individualism and free markets, the current discussion forgets about or overlooks the even-deeper problems based on and associated with capitalism itself. So, once again, we’re caught in the pendulum swing between a more private, market-oriented form of capitalism and a more public, government-regulated form of capitalism. The former has failed—that era does seem to be crumbling—and so now we begin to turn (as we did during the last system-wide economic crisis) to the latter.**

However, the issue that keeps getting swept under the political rug is, how do we deal with the surplus? If the surplus is left largely in private hands, and the vast majority who produce it have no say in how it’s appropriated and distributed, it should come as no surprise that we continue to see a whole host of “morbid phenomena”—from toxic urban water and a burning tower block to a new wave of corporate concentration  and still-escalating inequality.

Questioning some dimensions of neoliberalism does not, in and of itself, constitute a new economic consensus. I’m willing to admit it is a start. But, as long as remain within the present framing of the issues, as long as we cannot show how unreasonable the existing reason is, we cannot say the existing era has actually come to an end and a new era is upon us.

For that we need a new common sense, one that identifies capitalism itself as the problem and imagines and enacts a different relationship to the surplus.


*I add that caveat because, as I argued a year ago,

Neoliberal ideas about self-governing individuals and a self-organizing economic system have been articulated since the beginning of capitalism. . .capitalism has been governed by many different (incomplete and contested) projects over the past three centuries or so. Sometimes, it has been more private and oriented around free markets (as it has been with neoliberalism); at other times, more public or state oriented and focused on regulated markets (as it was under the Depression-era New Deals and during the immediate postwar period).

**And even then it’s only a beginning—since, we need to remember, both Sanders and Corbyn did lose in their respective electoral contests. And, at least in the United States, the terms of neoliberalism are still being invoked—for example, by Ron Johnson, Republican senator from Wisconsin—in the current healthcare debate


Special mention

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Chris Dillow writes that an under-appreciated feature of last week’s election in the United Kingdom is that “social class has become less important as an influence upon voting behaviour.” His argument is that, based on Lord Ashcroft’s polls, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour got a higher share of the well-off’s vote than Tony Blair’s Labour got in 1997, and Blair did far better than Corbyn among the working-class.

But there’s another way of looking at the class dimensions of the most recent election—not in terms of who voted but how they voted.

One of the interesting questions in Ashcroft’s exit polls concerns capitalism:

Q.12 Do you think of each of the following as being a force for good, a force for ill, or a mixed-blessing? Please give each one a score between 0 and 10, where 0 means they a very much a force for ill, 10 means it is very much a force for good and 5 means it is a mixed blessing. Capitalism

As it turns out, 61 percent of those who voted Labour consider capitalism at best a mixed-blessing, in contrast to 36 percent of Tory voters. (Green and Scottish National Party voters are even more opposed to capitalism—with 68 and 67 percent, respectively.)

A similar but somewhat less dramatic difference exists between socioeconomic groups (the closest the UK Office for National Statistics gets to classes). Only 44 percent of AB voters (in higher and intermediate managerial, administrative, professional occupations) consider capitalism a mixed-blessing or worse, as against the 58 of DE voters (in semi-skilled and unskilled manual occupations, unemployed and lowest grade occupations) who hold a negative view of capitalism.*

One possible interpretation of the snap election called by the Theresa May and the governing Conservative Party, then, is it was less a referendum on Brexit and more on capitalism. And on that score, with rising inequality and the threatened cutback in social services for those at the bottom, class still does matter for voters in the United Kingdom.


*The one surprising result in Ashcroft’s poll is how little difference there is in terms of age: while 53 percent of voters age 18 to 24 hold a negative view of capitalism, that falls to only 45 percent among voters 65 and over.