2012年1月5日 星期四

America’s inequality need not determine the future of Britain


America’s inequality need not determine the future of Britain

英國《金融時報》首席經濟評論員 馬丁·沃爾夫

The poor you will always have with you,” said Jesus. Despite vast rises in wealth, mainly over the last century, this remains true today because we define poverty relatively. Some object to this judgment: has destitution not disappeared from high-income countries and is it not diminishing in the developing world? The answer is: yes, although much poverty remains. But we are social animals. As stomachs fill, we wish to participate fully in our societies. But rising inequality is in the way.


As the US Congressional Budget Office noted in a fascinating recent study, for the 1 per cent of the population with the highest income, average real after-tax household income grew by 275 per cent between 1979 and 2007, reaching 17 per cent of the total. For the others in the top quintile of the distribution, average real after-tax household income grew by 65 per cent. For the 60 per cent in the middle (the 21st to 80th percentiles), the growth in average real after-tax household income was a little less than 40 per cent. For the bottom quintile, average real after-tax household income rose about 18 per cent. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development states that “the wealthiest Americans have collected the bulk of the past three decades’ income gains”. Moreover, it notes, most of these gains accrued to executives and finance professionals.


An important question is whether similar shifts are happening – or are likely to happen – in the UK and other high-income countries. This was the theme of a discussion sponsored by the UK’s Resolution Foundation in November.* The conclusion I drew was that, although the forces for greater inequality seen in the US were at work across the high-income countries – a point confirmed by the OECD’s recent analysis – outcomes differed in terms of levels and trends.**

一個重要的問題是,在英國和其他高收入國家,是否正出現(或有可能將出現)類似的變化?這正是英國決議基金會(Resolution Foundation)11月份發起的一次研討會的主題。*我得出的結論是:儘管在所有高收入國家,導致類似美國那種不平等加劇的力量也在發揮作用——經合組織近來的分析證實了這一觀點——但在結果上體現出了程度和趨勢的不同。**

The UK has been similar to the US, in both respects, over the past two decades. Inequality is far lower in, say, the Netherlands and Germany has hardly grown over the past two decades in, say, France. In 2005 the share of the top 1 per cent in pre-tax incomes varied from 5.6 per cent in the Netherlands and 6.3 per cent in Denmark and Sweden to 12.7 per cent in Canada, 14.3 per cent in the UK and 17.4 per cent in the US. Policies and social preferences – particularly the role of stock-driven rewards and of financial services, at the top – make a very big difference.


It is also important to distinguish what is happening among the bulk of the population from trends at the top. It is as important to distinguish levels from changes: the US has always been relatively unequal. But much of the rise in inequality dates to the last century. Stephen Machin of the London School of Economics noted at Resolution’s seminar that the ratio of earnings at the middle of the distribution to that at the bottom has stabilised over the past decade. Again, the share of the top 1 per cent in the US was already 16.5 per cent in 2000, close to the 17.7 per cent reached in 2008. In the UK it was already 12.7 per cent in 2000.

另外,區分一下大多數人和頂端人群在趨勢上的不同也十分重要。而區分變化的幅度也是同樣重要:美國相對而言一直不太平等。但不平等加劇在很大程度上可以追溯到上個世紀。倫敦經濟學院(LSE)的史蒂芬•梅欽(Stephen Machin)在參加決議基金會主辦的研討會時指出,過去10年間,中等收入階層與底層的收入比例保持穩定。再看一下美國,其最富有的1%人群的收入占比到2000年已達16.5%,到2008年則接近17.7%2000年時,英國的這一比例已達到12.7%

What is driving developments? The OECD concludes, surprisingly perhaps, that “neither rising trade integration nor financial openness had a significant impact on either wage inequality or employment trends”. Technological changes are almost certainly more important, though the two forces are hard to distinguish. There are also more single-headed households and a greater tendency for high-earning men and women to form couples. But the higher dispersion of male earnings is even more important.


People will disagree over why rising inequality matters and what should be done about it. I suggest it matters most, at least in the high-income countries because it both undermines hopes for any reasonable degree of equality of opportunity and cements the inequalities in power that have, in turn, allowed the preservation of a wide range of privileges, particularly in taxation.


These outcomes should matter even to those who have no concern for equality of outcome. I would add that some – perhaps a great deal – of the ultra-high incomes at the top are almost certainly the fruit of rent extraction facilitated by a breakdown in the control exercised by principals – outside investors – over their agents – corporate executives and financiers. Huge rewards then are both unjust and inefficient.


What is to be done? That demands a huge agenda. It must cover employment, education, corporate governance and financial reform and, however difficult, also elements of redistribution. It will be unavoidably divisive. So be it. This debate cannot be avoided if western democracies are to stay legitimate in the eyes of their peoples. That may not be true in the US. It is surely true in the UK. Warren Buffett has argued that “there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years and my class has won.” The remark has not made him popular with his peers. But he was surely right.

我們應當怎麼辦?我們需要一個宏大的議程。它必須涵蓋就業、教育、公司治理和金融改革,而且無論有多大困難,還應包括再分配的內容。這個議程將不可避免地導致分裂。那就由它去吧。如果西方民主國家想在本國民眾的眼中保持合法性,這場論爭不可避免。美國的情況或許並非如此。但在英國,情況就是這樣。沃倫•巴菲特(Warren Buffett)曾辯稱,“過去20年發生了一場階級鬥爭,我所屬的階級已在鬥爭中勝出。”此番言論沒有讓他受到同一階層的人的追捧。但巴菲特說得肯定沒錯。