The blight of our societies
By Jonathan Couturier
Inequality blights our societies – the panel that gathered for the Inequality Debate at the Frontline Club on 30 January had no doubts about that. Charles Sennot, of GlobalPost, put the problem into perspective: the gap between rich and poor in developed economies is growing so fast that inequality is reaching developing country levels.
You can watch the debate here:
For Chris Johnes of Oxfam, this is because trickle down hasn’t happened, and that “work is no longer a guarantee of moving out of poverty”. He further argued that inequality damages our economies:
“A lot of businesses would have survived [the recession] if people in the lower parts of the economy actually had more purchasing power.”
Alex Cobham, from Save the Children, chimed in, arguing that inequality also causes social as well as economic harm, as it undermines self-confidence – making it even harder for those at the bottom to move up the social ladder.
Author and journalist Michael Moran, put the problem into a global perspective. He argued that opening up global markets meant that “3.5 billion who were formally in state controlled economies, now compete with you and me”. Faced with global competition from low-waged workforces, raising salaries in developed economies to tackle inequality is impossible.
How could we have let our societies reach this stage? A member of the audience suggested that “mainstream economics . . . is providing a cover for the idea that resources are actually concentrated in the hands of the few”. For the chair, Paddy Coulter, this begged the question “have we got the right kind of economics”?
Probably not, suggested Faiza Shaheen, of the New Economics Foundation. For her, before any progress is made, economists and politicians must acknowledge that inequality is a problem in the first place – it can no longer be ignored.
However, some in the audience thought that a change in political outlook was unlikely:
“[In a society] which is obsessed with the short-term . . . how can you convince people that [tackling inequality] will pay off in the long run? If you don’t get results immediately, people will abandon the policy”.
Others were more optimistic, asking ‘How do we move to solutions? How do we implement policies that serve the collective interest?’
For Sennot, it has to start with awareness – more stories from the ground need to be told. Johnes cautioned the audience, however, that there could be no turning back to the golden age of capitalism:
“We can’t engineer it back again.”
In the end, Moran perhaps caught the essence of the issue, arguing that:
“For the United States in the 21st century, or Britain, to be experiencing inequality levels that are essentially the same as they were at the turn of the 20th century . . . is a disgrace.”