Political Promise

Don’t Expect the Public to Make the Case for Economic Redistribution and Equality

In Aaron Frazer on January 18, 2010 at 9:35 am

Unsurprisingly, the events of 2009 have not furthered the cause of reasoned debate. An unholy combination (the paranoid may say alliance) of egotistical financiers and venal politicians has made parts of the electorate, who were blissfully silent in their disinterest and political apathy, seemingly incandescent with rage and bulging with righteous anger.          

Once this anger has subsided (any day now) the real question for me, at least within the economic “realm”, is how we should react to the financial crisis. I don’t mean a tedious debate on the merits of quantitative easing or deficit cutting but whether the developments over the past two years demand a decision of greater magnitude. In other words do we aim to simply refine our regulatory system? Should our aim be to free up domestic capital, titillate and cajole foreign direct investment so we can facilitate business as usual economic  growth?

Or do we, acknowledging the profoundly detrimental effect our ill advised and noxious embrace of free market economics (not to mention our over reliance on our financial and banking sectors) reconstitute our deeply iniquitous economic system?  

This may be harder than it seems. The Conservative Party accuse Labour of trying to galvanise its base through rabble-rousing identity politics and the contemptuously termed “politics of envy”.  Well despite that being a bit of election porkies, and me hating that phrase, it probably wouldn’t work anyway.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, arguably the pre-eminent research institute on deprivation, concluded in its last report (Public Attitudes to Economic Inequality, available online) that “public attitudes to policy responses, specifically redistribution, are complex, ambiguous and contradictory”.

And believe me that’s one damn understated conclusion. In 2004 a whopping 73% of the British public believed the income gap is too large despite the fact that only 53% agreed that “ordinary working people” do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth. Therefore, despite indicating an overwhelming objection to the rate of inequality, few seem to support a proactive, systematic government response. Only 32% agree that the government should redistribute income from the better off to the poor whilst just 43% of the British public thought that it was the government’s responsibility in the first place to reduce differences between high and low incomes.

Hmmm rational eh? The general consensus is that such a discrepancy is not rooted in any anachronistic, lefty assumption of “false consciousness”, but a very entrenched and pervasive ignorance of social inequality. Far from being saturated by Dickensian horror stories of woe and misfortune, the UK public doesn’t seem to know a thing when it comes to the social impact of our economic policies.

Particularly comical (and disturbing) is the public’s gross overestimation of the percentage of people on high incomes, with Taylor Gooby in his book “Querulous citizens: welfare knowledge and the limits to welfare reform”, finding that  his respondents perceived  28% of Britain to be  earning over 40k, whereas only 8% actually did. When asked how much certain high professions earn on average, e.g. chairman of a large corporation, respondents thought it was on average £125,000…underestimating by £430,000 a year.

The Fabain society has shown that in cross national comparisons of children’s life chances and levels of poverty, Britain is appallingly situated. Critically the report also highlights the depth of public ignorance on the issue, with such information being neither widely known nor expected.

 Many are probably also unaware of World Health Organisation studies indicating a strong correlation between the extent of economic inequality (in developed countries) and the proliferation of emotional distress:

What is the Association between wealth and mental health? – The British Medical Journal

Selfish Capitalism and Mental Illness – Oliver James, for The Pyschologist

 So in simpler terms, what is to be done considering the substandard knowledge of the intricacies and consequences of substantial inequality? Personally I think someone has to simply brave the wrath of the predatory right wing press and its hollow and predictable outcries of class war.  

Virtually everyone accepts that  a defining feature of most societies is that there exists an unequal distribution of skills, abilities and motivation. Subsequently, in order to incentivise and reward  productive endeavour most reasoned people accept the basic premise of economic inequality. However there reaches a point where it becomes  undeniably corrosive in its effects on society.

I have stated to wonder whether  a shamelessly emotive and evocative approach, which nevertheless stuck rigidly to accurate information, could enable people to appreciate the aspects of our economic system which are deeply iniquitous, unsustainable and oppressive.

For instance would people’s  perceptions alter if they were aware that there is a  28 year life expectancy gap between Calton Glasgow and the  leafy suburban commune of Lezie which borders it?

 Or maybe an appreciation of the life chances of the 14.3% of UK children on Free School, Meals, only 27% of whom  get five A-C GCSE’s against a national average of 54%. (BBC Figures)

This Christmas past, when most of us were enjoying  our extensive  festive indulgences, a chronic shortage of affordable housing left  83,000  homeless British children  in temporary accommodation. A recent article in The Guardian stated that over 33% of these children cannot go to school due to appalling disruption in their lives and are twice as likely to suffer poor health. In describing the appalling disruption and emotional distress that children suffered, Adam Simpson, the director of the charity Shelter, described the euphemistic term “temporary accommodation” as a “terrible parody”.

 The problem is not capitalism, but the parameters in which it operates and develops. To a greater or lesser extent it is the public that have to either stay content with the framework of its existence or instead ,tirelessly agitate for its adaption.

Aaron Frazer

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