The news today is that we do not need to worry about the inequality in our society. A combination of poor people working more and stealthy redistribution of wealth has solved this problem, a new report from the OECD informs us. New Labour has been true to its roots and dealt with the problem of unequal distribution of wealth.
This seems a rather strange story to emerge from the OECD data when what it actually shows (see the figure) is that the UK is the seventh most unequal of the 31 countries that are members of the OECD and that, leaving aside the US, which is a self-referential scandal in equality terms, only Italy, Poland, Turkey, Portugal and Mexico are more unequal societies.
The data for trends in real household income by quintiles, i.e. dividing the population up into 5 strips according to how rich they are, is also interesting. It shows that for the UK, from the 1980s to the 1990s, those in the middle of the income distribution saw an increase of 2% in their incomes while the richest 20% saw their incomes rise by 4.3% and the lowest 20% saw their incomes rise by only 0.7% This was the time when Thatcherite inequality really bit into our social fabric. The fact that things have been reversed very slowly since then seems little comfort. The inequality that developed in our society then has not been reversed.
Leaving aside arguments over measurement and spin - we all know how assumptions and definitions can distort data findings - is it healthy for society and for the planet that the response to the inequality generated by capitalism is always and only through more work? The quality of this work is never questioned, nor its consequences for children being brought up without parents. And for a gaian economist, the question of the increased pressure on the planet that the extra work creates is the most important of all.