The upcoming 2016 presidential election has brought renewed attention to the issue of inequality. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said during the debates that the U.S. has more income and wealth inequality than any major country on earth.
Sir Anthony Atkinson, a British economist and professor at the London School of Economics, attempts to tackle the issue of inequality in developed countries ̶ specifically the United Kingdom ̶ in his book, “Inequality: What Can Be Done?” The book offers 15 policy recommendations for reducing inequality, including explicit targets for preventing and reducing unemployment, a national pay policy with a statutory minimum wage, and a more progressive rate structure for personal income tax.
“It’s an incisive catalog of ways you might imagine intervening in the world of inequality that we now inhabit and shift it back toward a more equal distribution of economic resources,” said Edward Balleisen, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies and associate professor of history and public policy.
Balleisen was one of four Duke faculty who came together on Wednesday, Nov. 18, to discuss the book and whether its proposals are applicable to the U.S.
The book, he said, blames the laissez-faire economics of the 1970s and 1980s for the decline of the middle class and a widening gap between the rich and the poor.
“If this is a murder mystery, neoliberalism did it,” Balleisen said.
He criticized the book, however, for the lack of attention paid to intellectual property and access to credit.
“We’ve created a larger and larger share of the population that is essentially unbanked and forced to rely on payday lenders and other financial services that are unbelievably expensive,” he said.
Deondra Rose, assistant professor of public policy, applauded Atkinson for his “can-do attitude” on tackling the issue of inequality.
“He frames it as a matter of responsibility and claims we have a choice to deal with it effectively,” she said.
She asked whether the issue was one of social mobility rather than inequality, and praised Atkinson’s proposal to provide grants to citizens upon reaching adulthood.
“I like the fact that he acknowledges that equal outcomes today shape equal opportunities in the future,” she said.
Christina Gibson-Davis, associate professor of public policy, questioned the book’s assumption that inequality is always bad. “I don’t think we want perfect equality,” she said. “There are things to be said for having a system that is unequal – that creates incentives and motivations.”
She added that the issue is not so much income inequality in the U.S. as wealth inequality. The disparity is widest, she said, for families with children.
“It’s not the wage structure that has issues; it’s our social welfare policies,” she said. These policies tend to favor the elderly over families with children, likely because the elderly are more likely to vote and because society believes that they have “earned” these benefits.
Another significant issue is that policymakers are uninformed about the scale of and reasons for inequality, said Robert Korstad, associate director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and professor of public policy and history.
“The way in which politicians don’t use statistics or a real understanding of the circumstances is a problem,” he said.
The panel was co-sponsored by the Cook Center on Social Equity and the Duke Human Rights Center.