Banish ‘inequality’ from the economist’s lexicon; True equality may not not even be possible in death – Mozart was buried in a paupers’ grave

January 23, 2014 12:58 pm

Banish ‘inequality’ from the economist’s lexicon

By Samuel Brittan

True equality may not not even be possible in death – Mozart was buried in a paupers’ grave

An American philosopher, CL Stevenson, coined the term “persuasive definition” for attempts to smuggle in contentious views in the guise of defining terms. An example would be defining democracy in terms of universal franchise. We now have a danger, not so much of persuasive definitions as of persuasive abstract nouns, the one most in vogue being “inequality”.

This has become a cliché subject in the social sciences. The assumption being smuggled in is that equality is a normal state of affairs, departures from which have to be justified.

In fact this type of discussion actually harms those whom it is intended to benefit. For once it is realised that true equality is possible only in the grave (and maybe not even there – Mozart was buried in a paupers’ cemetery) it is all too easy to divert attention from genuinely disturbing changes in the distribution of income and wealth.

Debating points against egalitarians are not hard to find. Whose income is meant to be equalised, the individual citizen or the family? Are those with limited capacity for satisfaction – whether for physical or psychological reasons – to be given more or less than the average?

Non-egalitarians used to make great play with sums purporting to show how little the average citizen – or even those at the bottom of the income and wealth distribution – would gain if the better-off were deprived of their excess earnings or wealth. This led to the charge that egalitarians were motivated by jealousy and envy. More positively it was said that “a rising tide lifts all boats”. An unemployed labourer in the west has access to all manner of services, from television to modern medical treatments, unavailable to King Edward VII.

This line of defence is no longer available. Some estimates suggest, for instance, that there has been no rise in average US real wages since 1970. In the UK there has been similar stagnation or worse. Even in relatively egalitarian Scandinavian countries there has been a squeeze on real earnings.

One can speculate forever on the forces behind these trends. One of the plausible candidates is the impact of new technology, which has put the squeeze on a mass of workers, white-collar as well as manual. But I doubt if this would have been enough without the impact of globalisation, which has brought billions of poorer workers from Asia into competition with their brethren in Europe and North America. Some academics say that there has been an increase in inequality inside certain countries offset by greater equality between them. But that is only to redescribe the problem.

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Many of the remedies advanced by the left would only make things worse. And the right are inclined to copy them. For instance, in Britain we have had the strange spectacle of a conservative chancellor, who is not on the progressive wing of his party, urging a rise in the minimum wage. A medical acquaintance of mine, with no pretensions to economic expertise, immediately saw through this ploy. If earnings rose, more tax would be gathered. Even if many of those immediately affected were below the tax threshold, an increase at the bottom might raise the whole earning structure in nominal terms and thus benefit the exchequer.

There was a time when rightwing academics were quick to point out that an increase in the cost of labour would put more people out of work. In any case, tackling the problem by pushing up wages would increase costs and make matters worse. This could be offset by devaluations. But what would then become of the inflation targets on which governments have set such store? And would real wages benefit? A devaluation is normally regarded as a way of cutting real wages by the back door.

Many of the other suggestions for easing the pressure on the mass of wage-earners belong to the list of worthy policies that have been espoused by most governments since the end of the second world war, if not even earlier. Some of them echo the less successful aspects of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, an example being the rebuilding of union strength.

I would look at much simpler ideas. Inequality on most conventional measures would be reduced if tax thresholds affecting the poor were raised and selected social security benefits increased. Whether the cash for these changes should come from more taxes on the middle and upper ranges or be paid out of budget deficits ought to depend on the economic conjuncture, a simple piece of economics that George Osborne, UK chancellor, refuses to understand.

How far one can use fiscal measures to distribute income and wealth more evenly depends in part on the geographical scale of the action. A government of a small or medium-sized country acting on its own does risk losing entrepreneurs to foreign lands where taxes are lower; but the more countries act in concert the less likely these bolt-holes are to be used.

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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