Sunday, 31 January 2010

Inequality in a meritocracy


 
By Christopher Caldwell
Published: January 29 2010 20:35 | Last updated: January 29 2010 20:35
 
This week, Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour party and the minister for women and equality, released a report called "An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK". The product of more than a year's work by 10 university social scientists, it is a strange document. In an effort to combat what the authors call "widespread public ignorance of the scale of inequality", the government has sponsored a study whose main result is likely to be to turn voters against the government. The report compares those at the top of the economic ladder with those at the bottom. To cite one alarming finding, the richest tenth have accumulated more than 100 times as much wealth as the poorest.
 
What is unclear is why the government should be alarmed about this now. It is a tautology to say that the very rich are richer than the very poor. Britain is relatively unequal for an advanced country, but it is by no means the most unequal. Italy, Poland, Portugal and the US all have larger gaps between rich and poor, and New Zealand and Ireland have comparable ones. The report asserts (and several graphs make plain) that British society grew rapidly and significantly less equal in the 1980s, and that little has changed since then. The social ground rules have been stable for at least a quarter-century.
 
One must read between the lines to discover the source of Ms Harman's alarm. The six "strands" of inequality that the National Equality Panel studied – gender, age, ethnicity, religion, disability and sexuality – have all been covered by civil rights legislation since Tony Blair and Labour came to power in 1997. Equality is important, Ms Harman writes in her foreword, because "the economy that will succeed in the future is one that draws on the talents of all, not one which is blinkered by prejudice and marred by discrimination". It is oppression that Ms Harman's academics are looking for.
 
The problem is that the report's conclusions are implicit in its definitions, which are false ones. It takes "inequality" as a synonym for "prejudice and discrimination", which it very often is not. If there is one theme that the study's authors stress with consistency, it is that inequality within groups in the UK is just as severe, or nearly as severe, as inequality between groups. The case that rising inequality is driven by sexism or racism (or some other prejudice) is weak, although the authors are indefatigable in trying to insinuate it. "Compared to a White British Christian man with the same qualifications, age and occupation," they write, "Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim men and Black African Christian men have pay 13-21 per cent lower." (The idiom of the report frequently resembles the dockside pidgin spoken in the novels of Joseph Conrad.) But not all of their evidence goes in this direction: on average, Hindu and Sikh (but not Muslim) Indians, Caribbean blacks and Chinese men have higher hourly wages than the ethnic-religious majority, and the earnings of Jewish men are about 25 per cent higher. The British-descended majority, if they really meant to exploit or exclude, would probably not relegate themselves to such a low position on the economic ladder.
 
Nor is the gap between men's earnings and women's an open-and-shut case of prejudice. The authors note that, while women aged under 44 have, on average, more education than their male contemporaries, they earn 21 per cent less. The problem, they opine, is the treatment of part-time work, which many women resort to when they start families. "Low pay for part-time work is a key factor in gender inequality," they write. "It reflects the low value accorded to it and failure to create opportunities for training and promotion." But the low value attached to part-time work is a function of economic common sense, not contempt. If work is part-time, then either the demand for it is less pressing or the supply of it is less reliable. A milkman who delivers milk a few days a week on a flexible schedule is less valuable per delivery than one who delivers it regularly.
 
Unable to show racism or sexism, the study retreats to the concept of class, noting that "economic advantage and disadvantage reinforce themselves across the life cycle, and often on to the next generation", and calling for government intervention to counteract it. But the inequalities that exist are obviously not the programme of a self-conscious class. Consider the openness of Britain's educational system. According to the report, at practically every level of scoring on the General Certificate of Secondary Education, all ethnic minority groups attend university at higher rates than white Britons. Now, ethnic prejudice is not the only form of disadvantage, but its absence – and even a powerful impulse to affirmative action – is a sign that there is no systematic attempt to seize institutions for the benefit of an in-group, as in a real class system. It is not advantage but prosperity that is self-reinforcing. The class problems that progressive governments make it their business to manage have mostly been solved.
 
The problems that remain are problems of meritocracy, of which inequality is a natural result. As long as economies are growing, people are content to see others get a bit more relative income. When economies stagnate, there is more political agitation for redistributing the goods that remain, and society grows less meritocratic. Ms Harman makes an unconvincing argument for more equal distribution of income and wealth among citizens. In the present climate, however, the public is unlikely to require any convincing at all.
 
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard



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