Most Britons had “never had it so good” despite the “so-called recession” declared Lord Young of Graffham. His words were immediately disowned by David Cameron, who fired him. But in reality Young was only articulating what he and his circle are experiencing and privately believe. For example, on the BBC’s Sunday morning Broadcasting House on 21 November, Lord Charles Powell who was Margaret Thatcher’s advisor, complained,
“unfortunately he said the wrong thing. In terms of fact what he said was probably right, with interests rates low people are not particularly badly off at the moment. But some people are very badly off and it is insensitive, I suppose, to suggest that everyone is not doing too badly at this time. It does show that you can’t speak the truth in politics anymore you have to defer to what is politically correct”.
Well, there is another truth: that for thousands of pensioners and not just "some" of them, negative real interest rates on their savings are becoming a disaster. Even though for the heavily mortgaged wealthy, low interest rates do indeed make them much better off.
What Young's comments illustrate, therefore, is that when we consider equality and inequality we need to look at expenditure patterns, which can be just as important as differences in income.
Historically debates on social equality focus overwhelmingly and inevitably on inequalities of income. We read, for example, that according to a study by Incomes Data Services chief executives of the UK’s 100 largest companies are now paid on average 88 times the pay of typical full-time workers and that this ratio is getting worse. Last year the multiple was 81 times and ten years ago top bosses took home 47 times the average wage.
But in addition to their income being a lot lower the poor also suffer more because life costs them more. There are two issues, one obvious, one less so.
The primary issue is one of fairness. Three for the price of two supermarket offers are great value only for those who can afford to buy two; those who can only afford one end up paying 50% more per unit. Is that fair?
Another supermarket example which received widespread but soon-forgotten newspaper coverage earlier this year is more subtle. Tesco owns three convenience store brands in this country: Tesco Express, Tesco Metro and One Stop. An enquiry in 2006 found that the corporation was charging more than 20% more for the same products in its One Stop stores than in its Tesco branded stores. Tesco responded that it was bringing prices down in One Stop but in 2010 further research showed that One Stop prices were still 14% higher than prices for the same product in the rest of Tesco. One Stop typically operated in less attractive (that is poorer) areas where there was no competition from other mega-corporations and where therefore significantly higher prices could be charged. Again that raises issues of fairness.
If such unfairness is somehow familiar there is a further layer that goes beyond fairness: we live in a society where in many tiny ways the poor actually subsidise the better off through the way patterns of expenditure are organised by the market place, (i.e., not just by providing cheap labour).
Consider for example the cost of owning a car. Bernard Jullien of the University of Bordeaux analysed published data on household expenditure and trade data from car distributors (See Competition and Change 6, 2002). He showed that richer consumers were being cross-subsidised by poorer consumers. Distributors in France (and almost certainly elsewhere) were following a conscious policy of keeping new car prices lower to increase their market share. Then then marked up the prices of spare parts and maintenance to maintain their overall profit levels. Jullien found that the unintended consequence was that well off customers, who were more likely to buy new cars, ended up being subsidised by less well off customers who typically bought second hand cars that needed more frequent repair.
There are more examples if the term “well off” is extended to include corporations. The cost of producing and distributing the electricity needed to power a light bulb is the same whether the bulb is in a private house or in the office of a mega-corporation – and yet the corporation will undoubtedly pay far less. Quantity discounts typically reflect the purchasing power of the buyer rather than any scale economies for the seller.
What are apparently rational pricing strategies have the unintended consequence of ensuring that poor people pay more than the well off in ensuring the overall profits corporations need.
Then there is time. Time budget surveys have shown, for example, that the poor take much longer per mile to get to work than the rich because the forms of transport they use are typically much slower. Similarly the poor have to devote more time to food shopping and a host of other activities.
There is nothing conspiratorial about the way that the poor fare worse than the rich. Often it is just the accidental by-product of perfectly sensible business decisions. Indeed in some cases there may even be wider social benefits. Improved stock control with Just-In-Time inventory techniques and Call-Off procurement contracts has ensured that waste in many industries has been sharply reduced; it is unfortunate that in food retailing one consequence is that end-of-day price reductions on perishable products are now less common, again hurting the poor more than the rich.
What can be done to mitigate these expenditure inequalities? First, they deserve to be highlighted, if only because, like so much else, they are beyond the experience of the multimillionaires in and around the cabinet. Second, and especially if we are going to talk about Big Society and us being ‘all in it together’, we need to think about economic models that build into their measures of success their consequences for all of us.