A statement of the obvious
One of the many good things about the vampire mockumentary series What We Do in the Shadows (also on the BBC) is that one of the lead characters, Laszlo, is able to transform himself into a bat instantaneously just by shouting “bat!”. Shape-shifting is a trick that recent Conservative governments have learned and are now flaunting at every opportunity, most recently for last week’s autumn statement. Growth at all costs - bull! Fiscal restraint - hawk! But is Jeremy Hunt a dove in hawk’s clothing or a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Or will he choose to shape-shift on command like his vampiric counterpart? Paul Johnson at the IFS pointed out that, “while he [Jeremy Hunt] may be more fiscally conservative than Mr Kwarteng, his promises were less fiscally conservative than those of any of his other predecessors since 2010”, while Sam Freedman described the statement as “the budgetary equivalent of a promise to quit smoking in a few years’ time”.
Lara Spirit wrote in the Times Red Box (paywall) on Friday about “Hunt’s Rawlsian ethos of protecting the most vulnerable”. The American philosopher John Rawls has had a huge influence on political theory over the last half-decade or more, with his ‘difference principle’ attracting both praise for its focus on the most disadvantaged and criticism for its implicit justification of ‘trickle-down economics’ and the huge inequality that results from it. For Hunt to be a ‘Rawlsian’ in this sense implies that he believes that growth resulting in increasing inequality is good, as long as the poorest in society are not directly harmed by it.
A growing number of voices in today’s Britain are making the opposite case, and arguing that inequality per se is bad - not just for the most disadvantaged, but for everyone - because it makes a dizzying range of social and economic problems worse. Wilkinson and Pickett set the ball rolling with The Spirit Level, and the evidence base has built up from there. Seen from this perspective, when inequality (economic but also social, racial, gendered, regional, and so on) is so high, you can’t achieve fairness without reducing it.
In last week’s autumn statement, Jeremy Hunt missed some popular, evidence-based opportunities to do just that. For example, he could have taken a more robust approach to taxing wealth, raising tens of billions more, rather than opting for stealthy freezes on income tax thresholds that will hit middle earners twice as hard as high earners in terms of share of income. He could have invested more money in HMRC, whose compliance work yields up to £18 of extra tax revenue for every additional £1 invested. He could have replaced council tax with a proportional property tax, rather than simply increasing it in a way that the Resolution Foundation described as “very poorly targeted at those with higher incomes” and that prior polling found to be extremely unpopular.
All of this matters even more, of course, because life is getting even worse for those at the sharp end of inequality and of the cost of living crisis. Andrew Dilnot warned that raising council tax to fund social care will deepen inequality, arguing that “the amounts that could be raised would be higher in more prosperous areas where demand for means-tested care would often be lowest”. This is a good example of how unfairness is the default setting in an unequal society, and can only be addressed through active measures to either compensate for or remove the underlying inequalities. Meanwhile, the New Economics Foundation revealed last week that one million more households will be unable to afford the cost of essentials by April 2024.
Bono B. Goode
In How To Be Good: Three models for social impact, Ian Leslie makes the case for the ‘unfashionable’ type of insider activism exemplified in previous decades by Bono, which many of today’s activists scorn for being too beholden to existing power structures. The question he asks is whether one is more likely to achieve change by working within the system to make it better, by working towards a new system from the outside, or by ignoring the system completely. His defence of the first of these approaches has merit, but his criticism of those in the second group - that none of them have any concrete policy ideas - seems unfair. And his critiques of the effective altruism movement (the third group) are not unfounded, although it’s worth pointing to their recent efforts to look more at policy and advocacy as part of their focus on the long term.
For a wide-ranging set of ideas about how build a new system, a good starting point is James Plunkett’s book End State. As Plunkett argues in the conclusion, “when you look at the scale of social challenges we face today, and the depth of the technological transformation that is under way, it would be bizarre if we didn’t need to make some unsettlingly bold changes to the way we organise and run our society and economy”.
And bold changes are what we’re thinking about for the next phase of our work. We’re interested in understanding more about how people’s values, beliefs and perceptions might shape their support for bold new solutions (taxing robots or wealth, revolutionising food or transport, introducing universal childcare or citizens’ inheritances, etc) to the biggest problems that we face over the coming decades (the climate crisis, growing inequality, democratic decline, etc).
This builds on our previous rounds of attitudinal research on our definition of fairness and on inequalities featured in the Fairness Index, as well as the huge existing evidence base on public attitudes to fairness and inequality and the wealth of guidance on messaging and framing. But we know that there are still gaps in the evidence base. Our hunch is that many of those gaps relate to underlying values and beliefs, but we want to make sure that our assessment of the gaps - and therefore of the opportunities for us to add value - is as accurate as possible.
We’d like your help, and would be really grateful if you could let us know where you think the most interesting attitudinal research opportunities are. If you have views on this, please fill in our survey or share it with colleagues. It includes some examples of potential research questions for inspiration, and more information about our scoping objectives and options. Thanks very much!
An unequal race
Last week the Institute for Fiscal Studies published some groundbreaking analysis of racial inequality in the UK. It paints a mixed picture of a complex issue, given the intersectional and nuanced treatment that it deserves, pointing out that on some measures, many communities are doing well. There is more variation between minority groups than between the white and non-white populations. Educational improvements in many groups (except among Black Caribbean students) have been pronounced, despite socio-economic disadvantage. Even among disadvantaged students, minority ethnic students are doing better than white students in terms of GCSE results and university admissions, and this leads to higher rates of social mobility.
But people from many minority ethnic groups then go on to earn less than their white peers, stymied in part by labour market discrimination, as well as being held back by persistent and deep wealth inequalities (black households have zero net housing wealth). Because of the increasing importance of inheritance for determining life chances, these differences in wealth are ‘sticky’, and households without wealth have no protection against shocks and disadvantage. There are shockingly high poverty rates for some groups (in particular the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities), especially among children. The combination of child poverty and the lack of wealth accumulation have huge implications for the future, and will get worse over time in absence of targeted policies to address these issues.
In other news
Tortoise published their Responsibility100 index last week. It finds, among other things, that FTSE 100 chief executives’ pay rose by an average of 31 per cent last year, while 16 companies, including major employers like Tesco and Sainsbury’s, have a majority of employees who earn less than the real living wage. Meanwhile, 47 FTSE 100 companies have no female senior executives, and almost 80% of companies don’t provide a figure for their ethnicity-based pay gap.
The People’s Powerhouse are hosting their This is the North convention in Manchester on 30 November. All Fair Comment readers are eligible for free tickets (just select the first option, even if you’re not normally eligible for a concessionary ticket).
If you haven’t yet done so, please sign up to be emailed Fair Comment every Monday.
Please suggest anything we should include in (or change about) Fair Comment.