Hard bargains.

AuthorJackson, Ben
PositionInequality: What Can be Done? - Book review

Anthony Atkinson, Inequality: What Can be Done? (Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA, 2015)

Anthony (Tony) Atkinson died in January of this year, leaving behind a rich professional legacy of economic analysis, particularly in the study of inequality and poverty. His final book, Inequality: What Can Be Done?, is a masterful summation of a life's work on distributional issues, setting out a compelling case for reducing economic inequality from its current high levels and an economically credible path towards achieving that objective. At the heart of the book is a detailed set of costed policy proposals which, taken together, would amount to an egalitarian change of direction in almost every advanced industrial democracy, and would certainly constitute a fundamental rupture in the current direction of British public life. Atkinson's proposals include relatively familiar elements such as more progressive income tax rates; the state acting as the employer of last resort; greater taxation of capital, especially inherited wealth and gifts inter vivos; a high universal child benefit; and a renewal of the social insurance components of the welfare state.

Alongside these measures, standardly thought of as an egalitarian strategy that rests on the taxation of market incomes and spending by the state, Atkinson added policies designed to be more 'predistributive', to use the term coined by Jacob Hacker and associated with Ed Miliband. These seek to shape market incomes themselves in a more egalitarian direction--competition policy that attends to distributional issues; increased collective bargaining by trade unions; dialogue between social partners as an integral part of the policy process; a statutory living wage and a broader pay policy targeted at constraining high incomes; and measures to boost interest rates for small savers. Atkinson also endorsed several measures that might be placed in either the redistributive or predistributive categories, depending on precisely how one conceptualises that distinction: he argued for a universal capital endowment for all adults; a basic income scheme conditional on some broadly defined form of social participation; and the creation of a sovereign wealth fund to stabilise the state's finances via the ownership of shares and property.

Atkinson's book has already been extensively reviewed, (1) and much of this attention has focused on his policy proposals--their likely effectiveness, their political and...

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