How do you know it’s inequality when you see it?
This is a good question, and now there’s a much bigger conversation happening about the way inequality has been politicised in the Global North and South, and the difference between the two. We’ve got the data, but I think it’s still misleading because it only deals with on dimension: the money metric. It’s about Gini coefficients, and ignores a whole set of social inequalities. It also presumes that equality is about who has more than someone else. I’m not convinced by that.
I think the most damaging forms of inequality can’t be seen like that, for example, how much we consume, our education opportunities, or health outcomes. I actually agree with Charles Tilly, and a range of feminist scholars, who say that inequality is a relational phenomenon: relations between people and their wider institutional, or structural context. You might be really annoyed that I have an iPad, when you don’t, but you’d be really annoyed if I had got it through means where I abused my status. Or imagine that my children get jobs because I work in a particular organisation that gives them internships, when your children can’t. So it’s misuse of power and status that generate unequal relations, an uneven playing field.
So we know inequality when we see it, but the data only shows part of it. We need better theoretical methods of understanding how those inequalities relate to power and status.
Have levels of inequality gone too far?
Without a doubt. It’s reached political attention. When you’ve got The Economist writing about inequality, when you’ve got the IMF worrying about it, you know it’s a serious problem. For them it’s always been about freedom of the individual to attain whatever they can on the basis of what they’re born with. Conservatives have never been bothered about equality, but now they are. So yes, it’s gone too far, otherwise we wouldn’t have people that far along the spectrum bothered about this.
We’re seeing it in not just outcomes about who gets what, in terms of education and income, but in the systematic capture of public institutions for certain groups who wield far too much power. Whether it’s global capital, and the control of international institutions, and flows of finance, or national level politics, we’re seeing the backlash now. People are seeing that the small group who have captured these institutions are not doing a great job in regulating them in the public interest. So yeah, we’re seeing this inequality manifest itself in different ways now.
And what types of policy should be directed at tackling inequality?
We’ve got to think of it at different levels, and there might be some trade-offs here. So, what’s your biggest problem? Is it inequality between countries, or at the national level, or between groups? You need to know, because you can’t tackle them all at once through a coherent approach. Dani Rodrik wrote about this recently, where he talks about the types of things you would do to reduce global inequalities, for example, enabling migration to richer countries for a period before returning home, with a more regulated form of immigration. This would be great for reducing global inequalities, because we know that money flows from remittances, North to South, are much bigger than aid flows as we know. But that in itself would probably increase national inequalities, by bringing low paid workers in.
I think that the fact that the majority of poor people are in middle income countries now suggests that it’s more a problem that needs to be resolved at the national level, within countries. That being said, there are a number of measures that reduce both global and national inequalities. Obvious ones are taxing financial transactions, the token tax that has been talked about and that can be earmarked towards some form of universal basic income. Closing down tax loopholes is another one, where the Global North and South link up a lot, with corrupt elites from developing countries rip off their countries and take their taxpayers money, hiding them in European tax havens, and elsewhere. And not just taxpayers money, but also rents generated through natural resources, aid, and so on.