Inequality: What Can Be Done?

By Doughty, Howard A. | The Innovation Journal, May 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Inequality: What Can Be Done?


Doughty, Howard A., The Innovation Journal


Anthony H. Atkinson Inequality: What Can Be Done? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Apart, perhaps, from some provocative screeds from unrepentant social Darwinists, a few guileless remarks in the diaries and personal correspondence of plutocrats or the excited campaign utterances of US presidential candidate Donald Trump, few people openly advocate excessive inequality. Especially when speaking of equality under the law, equality of opportunity and equality in the sight of God, it is considered prudent to comment approvingly of the democratic impulse to encourage fairness. In addition, even when addressing the more controversial concept of equality of economic condition and acknowledging the fact of significant and sometimes increasing differences in income and accumulated assets between the rich and the poor, it is required of us that we speak disapprovingly about "inequity" or unjustified inequality and at least to comment vaguely on the importance of reducing or at least ameliorating the effects of abject poverty. So, we are familiar with business, government and opinion leaders in the mass media making pleas for assistance to the destitute, whether the homeless in otherwise prosperous modern metropolises or starving infants in the dreadful conditions of various "failed states." Expressions of compassion are socially de rigueur in polite society.

However self-serving and possibly hypocritical we may be, it must be admitted that some indicators of rising prosperity have been visible in recent history and that some current initiatives to address global penury contain seeds of hope. From experiments in stimulus packages and temporary bail-outs of failed financial and industrial institutions in advanced economies to the positive success stories coming from some formerly "third-world" countries such as Singapore and Taiwan and the immense and potentially dominating positions of countries such as China and India, there are definite signs that a new, if volatile, postcolonial economic order is emerging. Although unalloyed optimism is plainly premature, the dynamics of global economics no longer seem predestined and intractable.

For reasons that are unclear to me, much of the good news (at least in the form of proposals for helpful innovation) has come and is continuing to come from the United Kingdom, the world's last openly and proudly unrepentant imperial power.

The most obvious source of optimism (apart from the musings of Karl Marx as they filtered out of the British Museum in the third quarter of the nineteenth century) is the work of John Maynard Keynes. His ideas for wise economic policy are generally credited with pointing the way out of the Great Depression of the 1930s. He was also the prime theorist behind the basic framework of global monetary and international exchange policies that facilitated political stability and economic growth through the instrumentality of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1947). The GATT, of course, was largely superseded by the World Trade Organization in 1995 and a good deal of its commitment to generosity and common developmental goals appears to have been sapped by an overriding belief in the increasingly discredited strategy of austerity as a cure for problems of international debt and domestic economic stagnation. Still, insofar as tonic tactics for equity and prosperity have worked to promote the material interests of individuals and a selected number of nations, it is reasonable to give the eminent Mr. Keynes a good portion of the credit.

Less well known to the general public, however, is Sir William Beveridge. A "legendarily cautious English scholar," according to Thomas Piketty (2015: 26), Beveridge authored the famous report in 1942 that outlined the steps that he considered necessary to eliminate privation and want from Britain. The reforms he advocated may not have been fully translated into practical policy and therefore may not have achieved his lofty goals, but he did build the theoretical foundation for the British system of social security and universal health care that became an early model for subsequent welfare innovation in many liberal democracies-at least until the post-1980 reversals both in Britain and throughout much of the late capitalist world. …

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