It’s not economic “growth” that matters, says Colin Tudge. It’s equality
Lest we thought the madness of Trussonomics had disappeared with her own assisted abdication a senior Tory MP popped up on Channel 4 News to tell us once more (a) that the only way to solve Britain’s mounting problems is by economic growth, apparently forever and ever; (b), that the way to achieve this is by tax breaks for the rich, so that they would invest more, and their wealth would “trickle down” to the rest of us; and (c) that all regulations on commerce should be removed forthwith including the target of “zero carbon”. What David Cameron called “that green crap”.
All this assumes (1) that the rich would in fact invest more if they were even richer; (2) that they would invest in things that are of benefit to humanity and the natural world, and not just shape the world to suit themselves, with gated executive estates in nice places; and (3), that global warming can and should be ignored – that political dogma and wishful thinking can and will override the laws of physics. In any case (so Jacob Rees-Mogg has assured us), if things do go pear-shaped we can always devise some new technology to get us out of trouble, provided we are rich enough to afford whatever it is we need, which of course requires more growth.
Yet as ecologists have been telling us for decades, and indeed is plain to see, indefinite economic growth is impossible on a planet that is all too obviously finite. Of course we can “grow” the economy by printing more money and by circulating it more quickly, and we can acquire more actual stuff by harnessing renewable energy, making things out of what grows naturally, and re-cycling. But nothing is for nothing and re-cycling can never be 100 per cent efficient and in end, the more stuff we provide for ourselves the more we will encroach on the natural world. Of course, too, “growth” doesn’t just mean maintaining the material status quo. It means more and more and more, apparently forever and ever. I’ve never heard a pro-growth advocate acknowledge that, sooner or later, we will have to call a halt, or else collapse into oblivion, although that seems obvious and the collapse is already happening.
Again, though, as always, we need to be radical: to get down to the roots; to question all our premises and presuppositions. And in this context, we need as a matter of supreme urgency to ask whether our mounting ills, Britain’s in particular and the world’s in general, really do spring from lack of wealth, as them-in-charge seem to assume. In truth, this doesn’t seem to be the case. There is already enough for everyone to live securely and in reasonable comfort if only what we do have was more equitably shared. An enormous and mounting body of evidence is showing that it’s not an absolute lack of wealth that’s killing us. It’s the huge and horrible inequality.
The scale of inequality
Inequality is measured by the Gini coefficient: a coefficient of 0 indicates total equality, while a coefficient of 1 means that just one individual in a society has all the wealth and the rest have none at all. South Africa is the least equitable country in the world with a Gini coefficient of 63. Slovakia is the most equitable with 23. The Netherlands is on 29, Ireland on 30.6, Germany on 31.7, France on 32.4, and the UK is on 35.1. So we are the least equitable of our nearest neighbours but are better than Russia on 36, China on 38.2, or the US on 41.5.
Specifically, in 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the richest 10 per cent of households in the UK hold 43 per cent of all the country’s wealth, while the poorest 50 per cent own just 9 per cent. And in 2022, households in the bottom 20 per cent of the population had on average a disposable income of £13,218, whilst the top 20 per cent had £83,687 – more than six times as much. Before tax, the richest 20 per cent were 12 times as rich per head as the bottom 20 per cent.
But it’s worse than that – for a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth is concentrated not simply in the top 10 per cent but in the top one per cent. The top one per cent have been steadily outstripping all the rest since Margaret Thatcher got into her stride in 1980, and introduced the world to the joys of neoliberalism (of which more later). By 2007, before the great crash of 2008, the UK’s richest one per cent owned 14.7 per cent of the nation’s whole wealth. In Belgium the top one per cent own 7 per cent of the whole, in Norway and Sweden it’s 8 per cent, and in Australia it’s 9 per cent. None is exactly egalitarian but Britain is almost twice as unequal as anyone else among comparable nations.
So whereas Britain has more billionaires than ever – we’ve now got 177 according to the Equality Trust, up from 147 in 2020 – the Resolution Foundation now reports that almost one in 10 people in the UK (6.5 billion people) now live in houses that are damp, draughty, and cramped. Among 18-34 year-olds, one in six must endure bad and damaging housing – 2.6 million in all. Housing of course is of absolute importance. The United Nations sees it as a basic human right. Right now, though, in Britain, nobody starting out from scratch can possibly hope to own a house of the kind that “ordinary hard-working people” (as Theresa May used to say) once took more or less for granted. As George Orwell commented in “England your England” in 1941,
“Few people in modern England own anything at all, except clothes, furniture and possibly a house.”
A house! Dream on. In parts of Britain the cost of houses has increased 100 times or more over the past 50 or so years. The house in South London I bought with my then wife in 1967 cost £6250 – and identical houses in the same street now change hands for about £700,000. The 100-fold mark-up can partly be explained by the increase in the price of bricks. But it’s mainly due to the machinations of bankers, who now are in the top one per cent. It’s nonsense. Or indeed wicked. In truth, “bonus” is Establishment-speak for “embezzlement”. But that discussion is for another day.
In The Guardian (April 15 2023 p 43), Resolution Foundation economist Lalitha Try described the state of Britain’s housing as “critical”. But then, everything in Britain that really matters is in crisis. In all cases the absolute amount of money that’s available matters, of course. But in all cases too, equality, or the lack of it, matters more.
The importance of inequality
As Robert Sapolsky notes in Behave (Vintage, Penguin, 2019), some societies are “stratified” – more or less clearly divided into socio-economic classes — and some are more “egalitarian”. Clearly, in the modern world, the stratified societies dominate. No-one could seriously argue that Britain or the US, and certainly not Russia or China, are in any worthwhile sense egalitarian. According to the Oxford scientist and author Peter Turchin, stratified societies dominate not because they are nice but because they encourage and depend upon chains of command of the kind that are needed for the purposes of conquest. Efficient armies cannot be egalitarian. In general, the political Right prefers societies to be stratified with everyone knowing their place, while the traditional Left, provided it remains true to its ideals, aspires to be more equal.
Stratified societies can be very stable because in times of hardship the poor take the brunt, leaving the high-ups to carry on as normal. But egalitarian societies are much nicer. The people depend on each other more and so develop far more “social capital” – which Sapolsky describes as “the collective quantity of resources such as trust, reciprocity, and cooperation”. To some extent sociology is a bona fide science – data can be collected and experiments can be carried out to test specific hypotheses; and a variety of robust evidence as opposed to subjective impression confirms that in more egalitarian societies, or in laboratory settings designed to test attitudes, people are more trusting, more generous, and “look out for each other more”. The evidence shows indeed that “high levels of inequality and/or low levels of social capital in a country predict high rates of bullying and of antisocial punishment”.
Indeed, overall, there’s a clear and obvious inverse relationship between inequality and social capital. As Sapolsky says, “Almost by definition, you can’t have a society with both dramatic income inequality and plentiful social capital”. In a nutshell, “… marked inequality makes people crummier to one another”. An obvious reason for this is plain to see all around us. Poor people feel they need the support of others more than rich people do and so are more inclined to cooperate. The rich, by contrast, feel they can always buy their way out of trouble so they don’t need to rely on others to help them out. That’s an illusion of course but in an established stratified society the illusion can be sustained indefinitely. And so it is for example that the poor are more in favour of the NHS and free education.
It doesn’t stop there. For sociological studies of human societies and studies of people in controlled laboratory set-ups, and comparable studies of social animals like rats and primates show beyond all reasonable doubt that inequality also makes people less healthy. Thus, says Sapolsky, “… in culture after culture, the poorer you are, the worse your health, the higher the incidence and impact of numerous diseases, and the shorter your life expectancy”
But is it inequality per se that makes the less well-off less healthy, and shortens lives? Or is it just that the relative have-nots finish up with a low socio-economic status (SES) because they were unhealthy to start with? Perhaps you just need to be comfortably above the threshold to live a long and healthy life? Or can it be simply that the less well-off suffer more ill-health because they have less access to health care? Or perhaps poorer people just tend to smoke or drink more, or are more exposed to toxic wastes and polluted air and water, or can’t afford to join a health club?
But, says Sapolsky, all these possibilities have been critically explored and none satisfactorily explains why socio-economic status (SES), or the lack of it, is so damaging. Low SES in childhood predicts ill-health in adulthood. Neither is it just a matter of threshold: people who are near the top of the SES scale are less healthy than the people who are right at the top – and so on all the way down. (Is this why so many Hollywood stars live to be 100 — like George Burns, Kirk Douglas, Bob Hope, and Olivia de Havilland? They don’t live particularly healthy lives (do they?) but they sure are high on the SES scale!). Neither can we blame the discrepancy on lack of health care – it’s clear to see even in countries with universal health care. Exposure to life’s hazards is indeed a factor – but explains only about a third of the difference in health between the richer and the poorer.
Indeed, says Sapolsky, Nancy Adler at the University of California (San Francisco) has shown that “it’s not so much being poor that predicts poor health. It’s feeling poor”. Or as Richard Wilkinson’s research at the University of Nottingham revealed (in Sapolsky’s words), “it’s not so much that poverty predicts poor health. It’s poverty amid plenty – income inequality. The surest way to make someone feel poor is to rub their nose in what they don’t have”.
Note too that all of the above – the studies that show that it’s inequality itself that really matters, the feeling of being down the scale – is based on truly scientific evidence, the kind that governments like ours claim to favour. In reality, though, for all their claims, politicians and other people in power prefer to believe whatever is most convenient to believe – and it’s convenient to believe that poorer people do less well in life because of their own shortcomings: feckless, lazy, dim-witted, or whatever. As Liz Truss, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng and others infamously put the matter in Britannia Unchained in 2012, British workers are “among the worst idlers in the world”.
Despite the evidence, all the major political parties in Britain agree that Britain above all needs more growth – or “Growth, growth, growth” as Liz Truss put it. For economic growth, in the words of J F Kennedy no less, is “the rising tide that lifts all boats”. In reality, though, the rising tide does not lift all boats equally. For according to the neoliberal theory that now dominates the world, the way to maximize growth is by competition: everyone competing with everyone else to maximise their own wealth within an all-embracing global market. To be maximally effective, too, the competition should be as vigorous as possible. The global market should be “free” – “de-regulated”; truly a more-or-less no-hold-bars free-for-all. It’s “nature red in tooth and claw”; “survival of the fittest” writ large. The basic virtues of life go to the wall. Compassion is for wimps. It’s capitalism on speed.
In such a competitive milieu all but the very strongest are bound to be pushed out. Global commerce moves more and more towards monopoly – even though governments that claim to be democratic claim to abhor monopoly, and those of neoliberal persuasion claim to favour competition above all else. Right now, monopolization is well in train. Soon, so some predict, the only competition of any kind in all fields will be between Amazon and Google.
Thus we find ourselves in the most vicious of vicious circles: a positive feedback loop of the most damaging kind. For the economic growth that governments like ours now advocate so strongly is not only breaking the bounds of the global ecosystem. It also exacerbates inequality – and it’s inequality, so the evidencereveals, not lack of wealth, that is the main cause of all the world’s troubles. In short, as so often seems to be the case, governments like ours are doing the act opposite of what is really needed to put the world on an even keel and to keep the human race in good heart. So —
What’s to be done?
I come back always to the point of this whole website – that we need to re-think everything from first principles, and re-think everything in the light of everything else, and re-structure where necessary; not just reform, nor a headlong plunge into revolution, but a people-led and properly structured Renaissance. The whole endeavour must be rooted in “the bedrock principles” of morality (what is it right to do?) and of ecology (what is it necessary to do, and what is possible?). In practice for all kinds of reasons all endeavour should be centred on agriculture, the meeting place of all big ideas and all of life’s practical realities, and underpinned by metaphysics, which underlies all big ideas.
In all this the economy is pivotal. The job of the economy is “to translate our aspirations into useful action”. If we get it right we can do good things – we could still rescue the world, indeed – and if we get it wrong we are sunk. And right now we could hardly be more wrong. I suggest in my book The Great Re-Think that we need to develop some variation of “Green Economic Democracy”: a pragmatic economy of the kind that J M Keynes recommended, designed specifically to address life’s real problems, and enable us all to live agreeably. No existing off-the-shelf economic theory or system, doctrine or dogma, will do this – neither neoliberalism nor Marxism or any other specific ism.
And yet, some may ask, who am I to pontificate thus? – for I have no formal education in economics. But then as Kate Raworth commented in Doughnut Economics (2012), “Every now and again, being untutored can be an intellectual asset” – and now beyond doubt is one of those times. After all, Truss read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford, and Kwasi has a PhD from Cambridge on Economic History. I rest my case.
Sources of inspiration
Peter Kropotin. Mutual Aid. 1902
Keir Hardie. From Serfdom to Socialism. 1907
E F Schumacher. Small is Beautiful. 1972.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The Spirit Level. 2009
Kate Raworth. Doughnut Economics. 2017.
Robert Sapolsky. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. 2018.
Colin Tudge. The Great Re-Think. 2021.
Ann Pettifor on www.annpettifor.com