In response to my July 10th testimony to the Senate Committee on Finance hearing on “Helping Young People Achieve the American Dream” I received some homework, a series of questions asking me for a good deal more detail.
Senator Hatch, who is a US Senator for Utah, asks a thoughtful question about measurement issues. I will offer my answers to all the questions in a series of blog posts over the coming days. You can review the questions at my November 11th post. But I would like to begin with the first question Senator Hatch asks because it gives us the opportunity to clarify what the statistics mean. This is a good place to start.
Inequality has increased in the majority of rich countries, but the share of income and earnings going to the top has increased most in the anglophone countries. McMaster University economist Mike Veall says Canada has not escaped this trend, and argues that a public policy response is needed.
The underlying causes of, in his words, “the surge” in the shares of the top 1%, one-tenth of 1% and even the top one-hundredth of 1% in Canada remain elusive. Even so these changes should motivate at least three policy responses that could be supported across the political spectrum.
Professor Veall was the 2012 president of the Canadian Economics Association, the professional association of economists based in Canada, and presented his presidential address at the annual meetings of the Association held last June at the University of Calgary.
If there is a thread running through the books I read this summer I suppose it is inequality: its causes and consequences; the real life and not so real life—but no less true—experiences of living these causes and experiencing the consequences; and what can—or for that matter can’t—be done about it.
Inequality in earnings and incomes has been a very hot topic in labour economics for the last two decades, but the relevance of this research and its use in public policy discussion has now become strikingly clear.
My last academic year was dominated by the rise of inequality on the public and public policy radar screen, and I have been so tied up in these discussions that I was carried, as if on a train leaving the station, right along throughout the entire summer.
I re-read a speech President Obama made on the topic. Last December he spoke about a type of inequality that “hurts us all”, and made a link between equality of outcomes and equality of opportunities.
In a speech given this morning to announce an update on the government’s Strategy for Social Mobility, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minster of the United Kingdom, said that “We need an open society where people choose their place”; he said that “The effect of social class and class attitudes on Social Mobility are the ghost in the machine.”; and, in summary, he said that “We are a long distance from being a classless society”.
Yet in the same breath, he also said that it is a myth to suggest that reducing inequality will promote social mobility.
This is surely an inappropriate representation of the role of inequality in determining opportunity.
Social mobility is about twice as great in Australia and Canada than in the United Kingdom and the United States.
This is the first of three facts upon which my presentation to The Sutton Trust and The Carnegie Corporation workshop on social mobility called: “Social Mobility and Education in the Four Major Anglophone Countries” on May 21st. This summit of academics, politicians, and public policy advocates coincided with the one year anniversary since the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Nick Clegg, released the government’s social mobility strategy.
In an article that appeared earlier this year, The New York Times described the extent to which rich parents can expect to see their children grow up to be rich adults, as well as the likelihood that the poor raise children destined for poverty.
Surprisingly enough, the article came close to concluding that if Americans are interested in living the American Dream—where family background has little influence on adult outcomes—they should move to, of all places, Denmark, or if crossing the Atlantic seems daunting, then, as a second best, to Canada.
Indeed, Denmark has been a darling of sorts ever since Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett highlighted in their book, The Spirit Level, that Danish life is so much better along a whole host of dimensions because income inequality is so much lower.
But Denmark has a little secret, one it shares with Canada, about how kids get jobs, and about how this determines life chances even in places with low inequality.