The symbolic centre piece of the UK budget was cutting the top rate of income tax. There has been and will be plenty written on the merits or otherwise of this (see Chris Dillow for example), but I want to raise a broader point about political influence. To do that I will start with the UK and US, but then move to Uzbekistan and Nepal, before returning to the US and finally back to the UK.Let us start with trends in inequality.
The distribution of income in the UK has been getting steadily more unequal over the last two decades. As this chart makes clear, we are following in the footsteps of the US in this respect. There has been a great deal written about this trend. Is there a similar trend in inequality of opportunity, and are they linked? Just how many measures of health and social wellbeing are negatively correlated with inequality? But rather than discussing this, I want to move to Uzbekistan, Sierra Leone and Nepal.
In a fascinating series of blog posts (trailing a book just published called Why Nations Fail), Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson tell stories about why these economies failed to develop over long periods of time. The common theme is that an economic and political elite (a dictator, a tribe) had established a system of extracting the surplus from an economy, and either that system prevented development (children spent a large amount of school time picking cotton in Uzbekistan) or development threatened this extractive system (the caste system in Nepal).
Now move back to the US, and Larry Bartels’ book published a few years ago called ‘Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Guided Age’. Although Bartels notes that technology and globalization have contributed to growing inequality over the past 35 years, he finds that Republican policies on macroeconomics, taxes, and social spending have produced substantial increases in inequality, while Democratic policies have produced relatively equal income growth across the economic spectrum. The real incomes of working poor families have increased six times as fast under Democratic presidents as they have under Republican presidents. The corollary, of course, is that the wealthy have gained under Republican presidents – the Bush tax cuts, for example.
However the causation runs both ways. Money buys votes in the US, which means it also buys politicians. Acemoglu and Robinson, in a recent Huffington Post article, make similar arguments about the US as they do about failing nations. They write: “Money matters much more in politics today than it did in the 1960s, and we are currently witnessing its import rising.” This matters because: “The problem is that economic inequality often comes bundled with inequality of opportunity and political inequality. Prosperity depends on innovation, and we waste our innovative potential if we do not provide a level playing field for all: we don't know where the next Microsoft, Google, or Facebook will come from, and if the person who will make this happen goes to a failing school and cannot get into a good university, the chances that it will become a reality are much diminished.”
So finally back to the UK. The influence of money on politics here is perhaps more discrete. Take the major reform of the National Health Service (NHS) that has just been passed into law. This was not part of the government’s pre-election manifesto: in fact the prime minister appeared to rule out such a reorganisation in the campaign. The reform is opposed by nearly every professional association involved in the NHS. It is supposed to give more power to local doctors, yet the Royal College of GPs suggest it will "cause irreparable damage to patient care and jeopardise the NHS". A former NHS chief executive describes the bill as a mess that will set the NHS back. With the reorganisation happening at the same time as fiscal austerity, the political pay-off for the next general election is almost certainly negative. So why pursue it? Well, one group that will benefit are the private companies that will do a lot of extra business as a result of the reforms. These companies are - how can I put it - well connected in various ways.When business sees more profit in rent seeking and manipulating the state compared to investment and innovation, economic growth suffers. Which brings us finally back to the Budget and the 50p tax rate. The campaign to get rid of the 50p rate has been well organised, and has signed up many business leaders for support. The evidence that it will have a noticeable effect on UK growth in the next few years is non-existent. What UK business should have been lobbying for were changes in monetary and fiscal policies, but this has not happened in the UK or US. That the key 2012 Budget measure is a cut in the top tax rate, at a time when unemployment is rising because of demand deficiency, represents a specific macroeconomic policy failure. That the business community appears to be backing this stance perhaps represents a more general political problem.