The economy was made for people, not people for the economy

Inequality Briefing has a short video about inequality in the UK today. An ICM poll asked British people how wealth ought to be distributed. According to the answers, people think that some should have more than others; the richest fifth of the population should get almost twice as much as the poorest fifth, with the others in between.

It then asked people what they think the actual distribution is. What people believe is that the poorest fifth have 9% of the wealth, while the richest fifth have just over 40%.

Finally we get the actual distribution. It is far more skewed again. The richest fifth have 60% of the wealth, 100 times as much as the poorest fifth. The richest 1% have as much wealth as 60% of the population combined.

Does it matter?

Yes. Wealth brings power, and power is a zero sum game: the more power others have over you, the less you have.

As the rich get richer, more and more people are employed providing luxuries for the rich, and the poor go without necessities.

Most people would like to think the work they do in their paid employment is somehow serving other people by contributing to the common good. This is true of fewer and fewer people as the economy gets skewed to providing luxuries for the rich.

There is plenty of evidence that the quality of life is best in more equal societies, not in the richest societies.

Why have we allowed it to happen?

Many people have been fooled into thinking that what really matters is not fair distribution, but economic growth. Economic growth happens when the total amount of wealth increases, regardless of distribution. Continuing economic growth is a physical impossibility, but the pursuit of it distracts attention away from the question of whether people’s needs are actually being met. In every national election the main political parties join forces with the mass media and business leaders to persuade us that we should vote for whoever will do best at making the economy grow. Gordon Brown’s redistributions to the poor got known as ‘stealth’ redistributions because they were widely perceived as unpopular so, although he believed he was doing the right thing, he thought they would be unpopular.

This country abolished slavery almost 200 years ago. It is now reintroducing it in a new form. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, more and more people have no option but to accept whatever job they can get, however poorly paid and regardless of what it achieves. Instead of being contributors to the common good, increasing numbers are becoming slaves to the economy. The economy has become the nation’s god.

What’s the alternative?

What I’d like to see is a government that recognises that once our basic needs are met, the important thing is not to accumulate more and more physical possessions but to develop the quality of life – which usually does not require spending more money.

I would like to think that public opinion will turn around in time for the 2015 General Election. At present it seems unlikely. Even if it did, most people will be unsure how to vote. But there are signs that a new mood is arising. One day we’ll recognise that the obsession with economic growth has been benefiting the few at the expense of the many.

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