Inequality: What can be done?

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There is growing concern about the widening gap between rich and poor. The 99% and the 1% are much written and talked about, not just by campaigners, but even by the Managing Director of the IMF. However, people rarely talk about solutions – it is as if there are at work natural forces that are beyond human control.

Not so, says Sir Tony Atkinson Fellow of Nuffield College and Centenial Prof at LSE, and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School,

‘The world faces great problems but collectively we are not at the mercy of forces outside our control, the future is very much in our hands’.

The economy is about political and economic choices and the means to reduce inequality are within our grasp.. In this interview with Fran Bennett, Senior Research and Teaching Fellow in the Dept of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford, he challenges academics and politicians to rethink the economy

9780674504769Tony Atkinson, who has been dubbed the ‘Godfather of inequality economics’ by Brian Nolan and Fran Bennett met up at the Oxford Martin School to talk about his recently published book, Inequality: What Can Be Done? .

Inequality matters, he says because it spills over into all parts of our lives – huge wealth can control politics and the media, inequality can affect the stability of the world economy, and at home even equality of opportunity cannot be guaranteed when you have such large disparities of income and wealth.

Fran Bennett and Tony Atkinson explore his radical solutions including higher taxation (in the UK we have been under-taxing ourselves for 20-30 years, he says, and unless we cut back on public services very radically indeed we will need to raise taxes to ensure fiscal sustainability), higher child benefit, to be seen as the right of the child, and a citizen’s participation income. He revives the discussion around contributory benefits, suggesting insurance based benefits could be a way to square the circle of public concern about social security benefits.

Importantly he also raises the spector of the way technology is in danger of increasing disparities of wealth, by reducing the number of jobs and concentrating power and wealth in the hands of those with the capital to introduce the technology – his example of meals on wheels delivered by drones is only partly humorous- illustrating as it does the implications of technological choices for jobs and human contact. As he says,

‘The way technology evolves reflects decisions, and economic forces and these forces are not derived from outer space but by companies and governments.”

Prof Atkinson goes on to note, with some concern, the fact that there was very little discussion about inequality in the recent UK general election (he monitored media reports), and points out that equality appears to be a greater issue for the European Union than the UK government.

With special thanks to the team at Oxford Martin School for this recording.

Pic by Mseattle

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