Friday, 11 January 2008


After being deprived of internet access for a couple of days, I feel like there is so much to write about - but I will pick just one topic.

I would like to make an observation about a TV programme that I caught the end of the other night on BBC2 (presented by the Snow father and son combo). The programme was looking at the incomes of people across the UK and the jobs that they do. Two quite shocking statistics used in the programme really stood out for me. The first related to pay in the armed forces. A young soldier was featured, who had worked out that while he is on active service, the hours are so long and the pay is so low that he paid far less than the minimum wage. I think that is disgusting.

The second statistic was that the top 4,500 earners in the UK collectively earn the same as the lowest 2.5 MILLION earners (in the £0-10,000 bracket). That is shocking evidence of the huge gap between rich and poor. There were people in the programme trying to justify the multi-million salaries some are paid - by saying that they deserve that money for their exceptional talent and hard work. To a point, I agree. If people work hard and are good at what they do, then there should be some reward for this. But what about the talented and hard-working nurses? Do they get whopping bonuses? What about the young soldier risking his life in combat? Why should he be on less than the minimum wage, while somebody who can kick a ball about a field with style can command millions?

Well, it's because what we all earn is not based on what is fair, or on what people deserve - but on what the 'market' decides we are all worth. We now live in an era of increasingly mobile capital and labour. So we are all at the mercy of the market to a varying extent.

If we are to tackle inequality, then the world will have to change - not just Scotland. However, there are things that we can do within our nations to address inequalities and begin to seriously tackle poverty.

I am a firm believer that a Citizen's Income would be a strong foundation for tackling poverty, making work pay, breaking people out of poverty and unemployment traps, ridding us of dependency culture, instilling confidence in people and redefining the relationship between citizens and the state.

If we are to tackle poverty and inequality in Scotland, then there must first be a consensus that we should tackle inequality. While most people agree that we should try to eradicate poverty, there is not the same agreement about inequality. Some people think it is acceptable to have such huge gaps in income, so long as people at the lowest end of the income scale are not living in poverty. I am not one of them. I believe in society, and also I think that huge inequalities have an incredibly corrosive effect on our society. What does it do to a person, struggling to get by financially to have the wealth of others paraded in front of them daily? Just turn on your TV, open your newspapers and magazines, walk along the high street, pass the adverts on the bus shelters. We are relentlessly bombarded with images of rich people, and all their belongings - and celebrity culture compounds this. This is all fuel for our consumer society, where people aspire to acquire more and 'better' possessions - and an increasing number (as evidenced by the rising number of bankruptcies) are getting themselves into debt to pay for it all.

This posting offers no conclusions on these matters at present. I started to write and if I don't stop soon I may run out of space! I will most likely return to this issue, and would welcome comments.


agentmancuso said...

"Some people think it is acceptable to have such huge gaps in income, so long as people at the lowest end of the income scale are not living in poverty."

Indeed. It is right and proper that the state protect the weakest in society. On the other hand, the state has no business interfering with the natural order by attempting to artificially engineer some ludicrous notion of financial equality.

Julie Hepburn said...

I am not arguing that we should all be paid exactly the same (whether that be for paid labour or state redistribution), which is what you seem to infer with your 'ludicrous notion' comment. As I tried to make clear, I do believe that people should be rewarded for hard work. However, I am arguing that huge gaps in income are harmful to society as a whole.

You also refer to the 'natural order' of the market. At least I assume that's what you are referring to? There is nothing 'natural' about the market system, nor is it a default state of affairs - this is a conscious ordering of our economies and society. The market rules the world because we human beings allow it to.

agentmancuso said...

"huge gaps in income are harmful to society as a whole."

No. Poverty is harmful to society. Envy is harmful to society. Income gaps are entirely neutral.

The natural order is what we have before (arguably) well-intentioned but misguided governments attempt to 'fix' things to suit some passing notion of what's best for everyone.

Julie Hepburn said...

I disagree. I think both poverty and inequality are harmful to society (and part of the same problem), and I don't think that income gaps are 'neutral' for the reasons outlined in my original posting.

Envy is part of human nature, and doesn't apply just to income. But I don't think the problems caused by huge inequalities can be explained away by citing envy.

I do find your view about governments trying to 'fix' things to make things better for everyone pretty bleak. Surely it's a good thing to try and improve the lives of every single person? I believe every human being has worth.

agentmancuso said...

Aside from envy, what other problem does financial inequality cause?

Refusing to be taken in by utopian scheming doesn not imply a bleak view of humanity, but a bleak view of those who judge themselves capable of designing and implementing utopian schemes.

For many human beings, the best way government can improve their lives is by its sticking to those tasks which are within its range of capabilities, and within its authorised range of activities.

Of course every human being has worth: it bears no relation to their financial value. Financial inequality has always existed. It always will exist. It is not the government's business to interfere.