A Better Remedy?
By Mark Evans at May 20, 2011
Those of us who are aware of Wilkinson and Pickett’s book - The Spirit Level - and the work of The Equality Trust will be familiar with the claim “that greater equality improves health and life expectancy and dramatically reduces the frequency of a wide range of social problems including violence, mental illness, drug addiction and obesity” and the evidence that supports this claim. Clearly the evidence presented is of the highest importance and as the Equality Trust states “Our primary task is therefore to gain a widespread understanding of the way inequality makes societies socially dysfunctional - right across the board”. The popularisation of the arguments presented in the Spirit Level makes sense and should be one of the central aims of any campaign work undertaken in the name of the trust. Nevertheless the question of how best to actually address the problem of inequality remains and answering this question should also be of central importance to that of popularising the evidence.
According to the Equality Trust website the remedies for inequality come in two forms -
> smaller differences in pay before tax (like in Japan)
> redistribution through taxes and benefits (like in Sweden)
Clearly if we had either one, or a combination of both, of these implemented here in the UK then Britain would be a more equal society. So it seems that these remedies make sense. That said however I have to say that despite how sensible these proposed remedies are I do also find them rather limited and in the end both unconvincing and uninspiring.
To be fair to the Equality Trust they do state that “we do not suggest that there is a ‘one policy fits all' solution” and that “We hope that political parties, trade unions, policy institutes and other groups will develop their own proposals for increasing equality”. So in-keeping with this hope I would like to suggest a different remedy as a contribution to the debate on how best to address the problem of inequality here in the UK.
My proposals are -
> Full employment
> Redesign jobs for equality of empowerment
> Prioritise socially valuable work
> Shorter working week
Let’s take a look at each one of these proposal to see how they interrelate with each other to form a campaign package for greater economic equality with popular appeal.
To meet peoples daily wants and needs the economy must continuously produce a certain amount of goods and services. This amount will vary over time meaning that there will be more or less work that needs to be done. One of the ways in which we maintain economic inequality / injustice is by allowing only a percentage of the potential workforce to engage in production. Clearly if we have a section of the workforce employed and another unemployed then we generate and maintain economic inequality. The obvious solution is that whatever work needs to be undertaken is divided out equally between all workers. So, from this simple insight, it seems that to achieve economic equality we must have full employment.
Redesign Jobs for Equality of Empowerment:
Whilst full employment would be an important step in the right direction it would not, in itself, bring about economic equality. This is not difficult to demonstrate. Imagine an economic system where all work is shared out amongst all workers - thereby creating full employment. If we take a closer look what we find are some workers with more empowering jobs than others. This inequality of empowerment within the design of jobs creates a kind of hierarchical division of labour whereby some have more bargaining power than others. Not surprisingly those with more bargaining power tend to use it to gain better pay and work conditions. From this it should be clear that an unequal distribution of empowering tasks within the economy institutionalises economic inequality. The obvious solution seems to be to equally distribute empowering tasks throughout all jobs. This would mean that all jobs are made-up of a mix of empowering and not so empowering tasks.
What we have so far is a vision of an alternative economic system that 1) generates full employment and 2) distributes empowering tasks equally throughout the workforce. My claim is that these two features are necessary for economic equality. If we are not moving towards both of these features then we are not moving towards economic equality - and I think this is true even if we see smaller differences in pay before tax (like in Japan) and / or a redistribution through taxes and benefits (like in Sweden). But this is not the end of my proposal. As already suggested economic equality is closely connected to economic justice. Also as campaigners for economic equality we need to make our proposal attractive to the majority. The following two additional proposals are presented to address these issues.
Prioritise Socially Valuable Work:
One of the enduring myths about capitalist economics is that it is efficient. In reality top-down authoritarian management and competitive markets are incredibly wasteful of both human and natural resources. An economic system driven by profit maximisation tends to generate whole areas of economic activity that have little, if any, social value - think advertising, public relations, military industrial complex, to name a few obvious example.
So in addition to proposing full employment and redesigning jobs for equal empowerment I think it makes sense to also highlight a desired shift away from wasteful economic activity that serves the interests of a minority elite and towards the prioritisation of socially valuable work that serves the common good.
What might this mean? I suspect that most people would prioritise things like health care and education. Most people also understand the need for quality media and general communications systems as well as reliable transportation systems. All of this is underpinned by the arts and sciences which brings us back to the need for a good education system - a point that is appreciated by most people. What we would be looking at is essentially a revamp of the public services.
Shorter Working Week:
One of the great benefits of full employment combined with the elimination of economic time wasting is the potential for us all to work less. This surely has mass appeal! Imagine progressively reducing the working week by a third whilst at the same time maintaining or even improving the standard of living. With full employment plus the redesign of jobs along with the change in economic priorities that I suggest this win-win scenario seems a possibility.
The proposal presented here raises an number of addition question. For example the Equality Trust also supports economic democracy and I have said nothing about this. If we were to attempt to revamp the public services we would want them to be run for the people by the people. This would mean not only rejecting competitive markets but also avoiding the stifling effects of central planners and authoritarian managerial practice. Whatever solution we come up with to these problem they will need to help facilitates and maintains economic equality.