Mark Steel at the People’s Assembly

There is a new “organisation” called the People’s Assembly which is, essentially, a movement against austerity. I’ve been rather lax in my reading (at least semi-political reading) and blogging recently and so don’t really know much about it. I do, however, think that austerity has been a disaster, both socially and economically, and so – if I understand the motivation behind this movement correctly – I agree with it wholeheartedly.

What I thought I would do is include, below, the speech given by Mark Steel at the People’s Assembly meeting yesterday. It’s both quite amusing and quite fiery. Something that I won’t expand on much here (but is something I may try and write about at a later stage) is why it appears that the most effective rhetoric for those on the left appears to come from comedians, while the most effective rhetoric on the right appears to come from what, I’ll politely call, firebrands. I’m don’t really understand why there is such a difference in style between the right and the left, but it is something I find of great interest. Anyway, enjoy the video.

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Thatcher is dead!

With a blog name like To the left of centre, you might imagine that I would write some gloating post about the death of Margaret Thatcher, but I can’t quite bring myself to do so. I’ve only written about her once before, when I commented on the large increase in income inequality that occurred during her time as prime minister.

Something that has struck me, while listening to the various people commenting on her life, is that very few (if any) seem to say anything really nice about her. Many thought she was “strong”, “decisive”, “inspirational”, “determined”, “a great polician” but noone seems to have said “nice”, “cheerful”, “friendly”, “generous”, “compassionate”. Listening to radio 4 on the way home last night, someone – when asked if she could have done some things differently – suggested she could have bullied her staff and colleagues less. Someone tried to say something positive by commenting on how she would sometimes change her mind. He went on to say that you could arrive one morning to discover that her views had changed and that she now agreed with what you had said the previous day. She wouldn’t acknowledge that it had been your idea; but it still felt good to have contributed! Sounds like a remarkably unpleasant person. It’s possible that this was the only way that a woman could ever have become prime minister at that time, but that doesn’t suddenly excuse her behaviour. It just just doesn’t reflect well on our society, which is probably no better today to be honest.

All I seem to be able to take from the coverage of Thatcher’s death is that she seems to have been quite an unpleasant person who divided a nation. Still, some think she was one of our best prime ministers. If my characterisation has some merit, I find it hard to understand how this can be true.

The Economic Crisis and Inequality

Excellent video of an interview with a Stephanie Sequino, a Professor of Economics at the University of Vermont. What Stephanie Sequino is suggesting is that one of the factors (maybe the primary factor) that contributed to the economic crisis was the rising income inequality. Maybe one reason that I like the video is that it is similar to an argument that I made in a post (We are the 99%) a couple of years ago. I recommend watching the video, but the basic argument is that rising inequality since the 1970s lead to increases in company profits (money that – in an ideal world – should have gone to the employees in the form of higher salaries). Some of this would have been used to pay off debt or invest in the financial sector. The rising inequality, however, impacted on the consumer base for these companies. The excess capital in the financial sector was, however, targeted at people who, in the past, would have been regarded as credit risks and were the very people who’s salaries were stagnating. In a sense, rather than this money going to these people in the form of salary increases, it went to them in the form of loans. They still spent this money, but they had to pay it back with interest. Companies therefore won twice because they sold their products and the money used to buy these products was their capital which they then recovered with interest. They should really have lost this money when the financial crisis hit but, of course, the banks were bailed out and so their investors did not lose as much as they should have had we followed a true free-market policy. I think it is a very sensible argument and applies to the UK as well as the US. The real concern I have is that nothing that is being done today appears to be attempting to address income inequality. If anything it is doing the reverse and I can’t see how our economies can recover until we address this issue.

Wealth inequality

Very interesting video about wealth inequality in the US. It would be interesting to see the same for the UK. Probably wouldn’t be very different. Something that was very interesting was that although people recognised that wealth distribution was quite unequal, they didn’t appreciate quite how unequal it was. The actual distribution was also very far from what most would have regarded as reasonable.

Maybe what the video didn’t do quite as well was discuss the link between income inequality and wealth inequality and also how the wealth distribution has changed over time (especially in the last 30 years). It is discussed, but it would have been nice to see how it has changed. Wealth and income are different and one has to be a little careful when considering wealth distributions since, in a day-to-day sense, the income distribution is what tells us how much money people have to spend. One could imagine a society with a very unequal wealth distribution but with a much more equal income distribution. What seems to have happened in the last 30 years is that the income distribution has become more and more unequal (the top 1% in the US have gone from taking 9% of all the income to taking 24% of all the income – similar changes have taken place in the UK). The change in the income distribution has allowed the top earners to accumulate more and more wealth and is what has driven the change in the wealth distribution. Anyway, have a look at the video yourself and see what you think.

Gay marriage bill

Just a short post to say that today feels quite good.  I hadn’t really been following the gay marriage debate in much detail.  It just seemed obvious to me that gay marriage should be allowed. I really couldn’t see why people should have an issue with it and whenever I did encounter discussions about it, all the arguments against seemed poorly thought out and rather selfish.  

I am quite impressed that the gay marriage bill passed through parliament quite easily yesterday.  I thought it might pass, but didn’t expect it to be quite so overwhelming (400 voted in favour, 175 against).  I was somewhat disappointed in Sarah Teather voting against.  I had thought better of her.  She has written an explanation that I should probably read.  Maybe the most significant thing was that more than half of the Tory MPs voted against.  Not necessarily that surprising but it does suggest that David Cameron is somewhat losing support in his own party.  It might also suggest that there might be quite a lot of action to modify the final legislation.

Anyway, yesterday was a good day for equality and I hope it a sign of more good things to come. 

Obama on climate change

In his inauguration speech Barack Obama has unequivocally stated that the US should act to combat climate change; that failing to do so would be a betrayal of future generations. It’s a great speech and what he says (in my view at least) makes perfect sense. Acting to reduce man’s influence on the climate is both necessary, if we want to avoid catastrophe, and also makes economic sense. I just hope he sticks to this pledge. It will be difficult given the political climate in the US, but it could leave an amazing legacy if he is succeeds.

Global inequality

I’ve written a number of times about income inequality in the UK. As I’ve mentioned before, since 1980 the top 1% have increased their share of the income from 8% to 15%, while the top 10% have increased their share from 25% to 31%. There has clearly been a significant increase in income inequality in the last 30 years or so and I find it amazing that, given the current financial crisis, noone seriously suggests that we should be trying to drive income levels back to what they were in the 1980s. I appreciate that this is not easy, but it would allow most to earn a living wage, probably increase employment, and reduce the benefits bill (since fewer would require benefits). Instead, we’re trying to solve the UK’s current financial problems by cutting benefits for those on low incomes.

Anyway, the reason I decided to write about this was that I noticed today an interesting report by Oxfam claiming that the Annual income of richest 100 people enough to end global poverty four times over. The report claims that in the last 20 years, globally, the top 1% have increased their income by 60%. The top 0.01% by an ever larger amount. In 2012, alone, the richest 100 people in the world increased their wealth by £240 billion. This increase is, according to the CIA world factbook, about the same as the GDP of Portugal. I find this staggering. At a time of financial crisis, the wealthiest 100 people can increase their wealth – in a single year – by the GDP of a Western European country with a population of 11 million.

One problem, I find, with this type of issue is that it is often perceived as some kind of debate about capitalism versus socialism. It is not. It is really a debate about how best to distribute income in a modern society. I have no issue with those who are creative, hard-working, and who contribute most to economic growth being rewarded more than others. I do think, however, that there needs to be some balance. I understand that global wealth can increase, but it doesn’t appear to be doing so fast enough to accommodate the rise in income of the top 1% – at least not without a corresponding loss of income for those on the bottom. Is it morally defensible for the top few percent to take an ever increasing faction of the global income while millions are living in poverty. Noone’s asking the top few percent to become poor. All that is needed is a recognition that increasing their wealth by an amount comparable to the GDP of a major nation might be questionable during these difficult financial times.

I don’t know how to do anything about this. I think the problem is our governments. The wealthy clearly have an influence on government policy. In some sense this is natural. As their wealth increases, it seem clear that this influence will increase and they will do their utmost to dissuade governments from doing anything that might inhibit their ability to further increase their wealth. This seems like a horrible feedback loop that could be extremely dangerous and damaging to world stability (as suggested by Oxfam). To me, governments should be aiming to have a damping influence on this feedback loop, and they seem very reluctant to do this. It seems amazing to me that, in what are regarded as democracies, we have governments that seem to be following a path that will increase the wealth of a tiny fraction of the world’s population at the expense of the wealth of the majority that they are meant to be representing. I don’t really know what else to say, but I do think that this could become a very big issue in the not too distant future if we don’t start acting to redistribute wealth in a more equitable way.