#BAD14 #Inequality

Today is Blog Action Day, and in 2014 the theme is Inequality. I’m afraid I’m going to cheat, and post stuff I’ve written earlier. Some is a bit dated (anyone remember Michael Gove?), but I think the core message is still relevant…

It’s the equality, stupid

Published in the Church Times, 27 July 2012

YOU wait ages for a story on welfare statistics, and then, on 14 June, three come along together.

First to arrive was the publication of the latest Happy Planet Index, bringing the good news that people in the UK are better off than others in the European Union or G8 countries, based on the perceived level of happiness, life expectancy, and environmental factors – but worse off than those in many developing countries.

Then came mixed news from the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ annual report Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK, which found a sharp fall in incomes in 2010-11, but also an improvement in equality across all income levels.

And tagging along behind were announcements from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, on child poverty. At present, the Child Poverty Act 2010 defines child poverty as children living in households that earn less than 60 per cent of median income. The UK does not suffer the squalor and starvation of previous centuries; so using a measure of relative poverty reflects levels of social exclusion: whether these children are excluded from the average family’s ordinary living-patterns and activities (Comment, 15 June). But Mr Duncan Smith wants to change the way in which child poverty is measured.

He argued that the problems of worklessness, welfare dependency, addiction, educational failure, debt, and family breakdown are causes of child poverty. On the other hand, the thesis of The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Penguin, 2010), is that these are symptoms of inequality, and therefore it is important to retain a relative measure of child poverty, and to have policies that tackle this.

Professor Wilkinson and Professor Pickett studied rich countries, and the differences in inequality between them. They found that a smaller gap between rich and poor in terms of income equality means a happier, healthier, and more successful population (Comment, 26 March 2009).

There is no relation between income per head and social well-being in rich countries; so more economic growth will not necessarily lead to a happier or healthier population. But, if the UK were more equal, we would be better off as a population. The rich would not lose out in order to benefit the poor. The 99 per cent would benefit – perhaps, even, the 100 per cent – although poorer people would gain the most.

As well as varying from country to country, inequality also varies over time, and it can be influenced by government policy. Britain became more equal during the World Wars, as the Government saw that making people feel they were sharing the burden was a way to gain popular support for the war effort.

During the mid-1980s and early ’90s, inequality grew rapidly, almost certainly reflecting the neo-liberal economic policies of the Thatcher and Major Governments.

Professor Wilkinson and Professor Pickett argue that it would not take a revolution to reduce income inequality. All the data in The Spirit Level come from rich developed market democracies, and the analysis is only of the differences between them.

But a transformation is still required, and the authors outline two direct ways of reducing income inequality: first, reduce differences in pay before tax (as happens in Japan) – for example, by minimum-pay policies, strong trade unions, employee representation on boards, and through a public ethic intolerant of the bonus culture; and, second, redistribution by taxes and benefits (as happens in Sweden), not least through more stringent action to prevent tax-avoidance.

Other policies can have indirect influence, including education policies and the management of the national economy. There is a huge volume of evidence available to policy-makers, which they need to filter. The danger is that some evidence is played down, in order to avoid challenging the status quo.

ON THE day that Professor Bob Holman wrote about how Christians need to lead the battle for equality in Britain (Comment, 21 October 2011), St Paul’s Cathedral closed its doors to the public for the first time since the Second World War, amid fears that the Occupy demonstration posed a risk to health and safety. That, and the subsequent eviction of the camp, reflected negatively on the Church.

But Occupy has also been criticised for a perceived lack of clarity in its demands. Policy is a complex area, and dangerous to simplify. The gift of The Spirit Level is that it enables concentration on one area: reduce inequality, and see substantial improvements in murder rates, mental illness, obesity, imprisonment, teenage births, and levels of trust.

Occupy, the Church, and any organisation or individual could evaluate all government policy in terms of one question: what effect would this policy have on income equality? This question would act as a common cause, and bring clarity to the engagement.

For example, what effect would replacing GCSEs with exams akin to O levels and CSEs have on income equality? I would want to investigate whether lower-income children would be less likely to take O levels, while recruiters would prefer candidates with O levels, and hence inequality would increase indirectly.

As policy is so complex, often the indirect effects on inequality are not obvious. It is important, therefore, to enlist experts in each field and discuss, listen, and learn. Nevertheless, the Child Poverty Act puts the onus on government ministers, such as the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to show how their policies in education, health, and social services are governed by the goal of poverty-reduction.

So, even without all the answers, we can still put the equality question to our representatives and policy-makers, and ask them to ensure that the aim of reducing income inequality underpins all policy discussions.

The website WriteToThem has information about how to contact your MP, MEP, member of devolved administration, or local councillor. You can also follow a link to TheyWorkForYou, to find out more about your MP’s interests. It helps to know whether they have spoken on an issue and how they have voted in the past, in order to target and personalise your communication.

Whichever method we choose, let us work together as the 100 per cent towards the equality and benefit of the 100 per cent.

www.equalitytrust.org.uk; www.writetothem.com; www.theyworkforyou.com; http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk

Peril of eating all the pie

Review of Joseph E. Stiglitz. The Price of Inequality. London: Allen Lane.
Published in the Church Times, 12 October 2012

“IT MAY be true that ‘the poor always ye have with you,’ ” writes the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, “but that doesn’t mean that there have to be so many poor, or that they should suffer so much.”

The first half of The Price of Inequality is utterly compelling. Focusing on the United States, Professor Stiglitz stacks up the evidence for growing inequality of wages, total income, and wealth, and the sharp acceleration during the Great Recession, since 2008. The bottom and middle are now worse off than in 2000, while income growth has been primarily at the top one per cent. He also, importantly, busts the great American myth of equality of opportunity (related to both income mobility and lifetime earnings), often used somehow to justify inequality.

Market forces have shaped inequality; government policies have shaped those market forces (much of the inequality that exists is the result of government policy); and the one per cent have used their power to shape policy to their own ends. The wealthy often do not so much create wealth as take wealth away from others through rent-seeking – not just in the US. Recall, for example, HMRC’s waiver of Vodafone’s potential £7-billion tax bill.

The US and other widely un-equal countries are paying a high price for this inequality. Their economies are inefficient in their use of resources, and are neither stable nor sustainable in the long term. Further, the US is staring into the abyss of a breakdown in social cohesion and trust. Democracy it-self is in peril, warped, as it has been, from one person, one vote, into one dollar, one vote. Yet, despite everything, through its ownership of the media, the one per cent has succeeded in shaping public perception, and convinced the 99 per cent that they are all in it together.

At this point, and in his description of the battle fought over the laws and regulations that govern the economy, Professor Stiglitz starts to flag. But he picks up again when he returns to economics, and the battles over fiscal policy (tax and expenditure) and monetary policy (interest rates and inflation).

In his discussion of the policies that may or may not pull the US and European economies out of the Great Recession, I find three key messages: austerity doesn’t work (George Osborne, take note); progressive taxation – that is, shifting the burden from the poor to the rich – will stimulate demand and growth, as well as reduce inequality; and addressing unemployment should be prioritised over fighting inflation.

In the final chapter, Professor Stiglitz summarises his multiple solutions to inequality and its causes, but, given the power of one per cent, he has to ask: “Is there hope?” Only, it seems, if the one per cent learn before it is too late that their welfare is bound up with the way the 99 per cent live.


Response from Hugo Swire MP

[Further update on 24 February 2014]

I received a further letter dated 8 January 2014. I am at a loss what this was in response to… maybe this post, and my link to it on Twitter on 4 September.

I’m still with the bishops.

[Substantially rejigged on 5 September 2013]

Finally, on 3 September I received a letter dated 21 August (pdf) in response to mine of 2 August. Some comments:

He, or one of his staff, writes “I am mindful that food banks should not become a political football.” I agree. Care for the weakest and poorest among us should be a base line characteristic of a civilised society. The problem is, for the rest of the letter he attempts to do a few keepie-uppies and pass his way out of defence, but plays the man and not the ball. I am not necessarily a Labour supporter; I suspect my sympathies lie with the Green Party if any. But the Coalition has been the Government for more than three years now, and I am fed up with the use of pathetic attacks on the previous Labour government as a smoke-screen for the paucity of and lack of coherence in its policy.

One of my friends, on reading the letter, commented: “That reply show complete lack of understanding, knowledge or empathy – whoever wrote it should look at data published today showing that over 4 million people in work receive less than the living wage.”

The Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam report “Walking the Breadline: The scandal of food poverty in 21st-century Britain”, among many good arguments, makes this point in the Executive Summary: “Some of the increase in the number of people using food banks is caused by unemployment, increasing levels of underemployment, low and falling income, and rising food and fuel prices. The National Minimum Wage and benefits levels need to rise in line with inflation, in order to ensure that families retain the ability to live with dignity and can afford to feed and clothe themselves and stay warm.”

So Swire is mistaken when he writes, “As work is the surest route out of poverty…”. Work should be a route, yes, but many of the people who have to go to food banks already have work. It’s just not adequately paid. Addressing inequality (preferably via pay, but taxation is an alternative) is the surest route out of poverty.

He continues “…I have high hopes that these measures [Universal Credit] will improve the standard of living across the country and reduce the number of people who feel the need to go to food banks.” Now is it just me, or shouldn’t important policy such as the benefits system be based on firm evidence and analysis rather than “high hopes”? And “feel the need” is just insulting. As though parents who have no money to feed their children, because their pay is not enough to meet their necessary outgoings or the benefits system has cocked up their payments again, have any other option. Oh, those feckless ne’er-do-wells!

Rt Hon Hugo Swire MP, I challenge you to visit a food bank and talk to – no, don’t talk, practise empthy and listen to – the people who have to use it as a lifeline. 


No response from Hugo Swire MP

As I tweeted, I’ve received no direct response from Hugo Swire MP to my letter about the family from Clyst St George needing to walk 11 miles to Exeter Foodbank and back. Instead, I found a post toeing the party line. Plus, it’s undated, so it could have been written before I even put fingers to keyboard.

I expect he will also ignore my tweets and the RTs and replies I have received, as his Twitter profile says it’s for FCO puffs only. Well, it doesn’t say ‘puffs’ – you know what I mean. But that’s not really how Twitter works. It’s really tempting to ask #devonhour to bombard him with encouragement to use Twitter for engagement with constituents, or even set up a pastiche @HugoSwireMP account – although it’s probably illegal to impersonate an MP (I can’t be bothered to Google that). Mind you, if I get sent to gaol, I might be in the cell next to Caroline Lucas MP. Ah, the workings of a modern techno-democracy!

I just want to live in a country that cares about poverty, inequality and injustice.


Exeter Library Square

At the end of July, the Express & Echo ran an online poll asking readers what new Exeter Library Square should be called. Here’s my version of the story reporting the results.

Less than one-quarter of respondents to the poll voted for “Prince George Square”, even though the royal birth has been almost constantly in the media for the past two weeks.

“Bideford Witches Square”, which would recognise the last three people to be executed for witchcraft in England, was at almost level pegging. Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles and Susannah Edwards are commemorated on a plaque nearby at Rougemont Castle.

Although in only third and fourth place, “JK Rowling Square” and “Bodleian Square” have perhaps the best cases. Rowling studied at Exeter University, and the author of Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy, and The Cuckoo’s Calling has an obvious link to the library. Thomas Bodley was born in Heavitree and gave his name to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Most of the other candidates were a mix of famous Exeter names and organisations. As an indication of the weight that Exeter City Council should place on the poll, “The square that’s compromised by the ugly and unfriendly BT building” took fifth place ahead of them all.

How we name our streets and public buildings is a reflection of the values of history and our values today. It subconsciously and subtly affects our self-worth. City landscapes are often dominated by men, royalty and war, which gives men an inflated sense of their own importance, and undermines the self-esteem of women and girls. We need to see our public spaces named after women for the same reason we need to see women on our banknotes.

Residential roads in the new Newcourt development are all named after men or war. In my fairly recent suburb, the roads are all named after men. The link between the royal family and the military is strong; Prince George is likely one day to join the British forces and one day become their supreme commander.

It is time to redress the balance. The pen is mightier than the sword. We need to recognise arts, education and social justice, and we need to recognise women, not least those who have encouraged children to read, campaigned for public libraries, and paid their taxes to support them.

So Exeter City Council, please name the new space either after Rowling, or give it a neutral name. “Library Square” would do the trick.

Gene Kemp would fit the bill nicely too. Thank you to @organicARTS for prompting me to look her up.

Another update:
Yes, on second thoughts agree with @goal_media that “Library Square” isn’t inspiring enough.

Yet another update:
So magslhalliday suggests her top three of Rowling Square, Coade Square, Carpenter Square (all good stuff), and then maybe Babbage Square and Bodley Square.
My father, who gives tours of the Bodleian Library, suggested to me yesterday (tongue in cheek) that Thomas Bodley gave nothing to Devon but exploited it for the benefit of Oxford. His wealth came from marrying the widow of a Totnes merchant who had made his money from pilchards. Do we want to commemorate such a man?!


Letter to Hugo Swire MP

Dear Mr Swire

Ben Bradshaw has recently visited to the Exeter Foodbank, and describes his visit at http://www.benbradshaw.co.uk/my-visit-to-exeter-foodbank/.

He writes: “One couple had walked with their small children all the way from Clyst St George to collect their food parcel.”

It is a 5.5 mile walk each way from Clyst St George via Topsham to the Mint Methodist church in Exeter. Clyst St George is in your constituency. This family is  represented by you in Parliament, as am I.

Mr Bradshaw reports that “Since April’s changes to the Social Security system there has been a further trebling of the number of people using the service.”

A trebling! And these people are no scroungers; the Foodbank is the lifeline for many. This is a shocking indictment of your Government’s social security policies, which demonstrate a complete lack of empathy and compassion, and have hit the poorest hard. Oh, and poverty is not a crime either, however much the Government and the right-wing press demonise poor people.

How is it that in a country as wealthy as the UK, more than 500,000 people are reliant on food parcels? The report by Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam is available at http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/walking-the-breadline-the-scandal-of-food-poverty-in-21st-century-britain-292978

Please represent your constituents, and do something to address food poverty, injustice and inequality.

Yours sincerely
Clare Bryden


Synod and the unengaged majority

So the measure got 94% approval in the House of Bishops, 77% in the House of Clergy, and 64% in the House of Laity, but it was still lost, by six votes. It might not be a rejection of women bishops, just the enabling legislation, but it sure feels like a rejection to me.

A lovely priest in Exeter has written: “I for one am a total mess today and don’t mind admitting it. It has nothing to do with aspiring to a ‘pointy hat’ (what woman wants to be 6ft8 anyway?) but everything to do with feeling that you are second class in every way, an issue for the church and problem to have around…”. She put the words into my mouth.

I feel angry, disheartened, frustrated that the vote means women will remain second-class adherents for at least three more years. I don’t want to be Bishop, and I don’t feel called to be a priest. I actually think in some way I’m called to be a lay person.

When various commentators express their sadness for women priests, and not for women laity too, they are making the issue more about advancement than equality and justice. So alongside the anger, a feeling of almost fierce gladness has surfaced – that of all the houses it was the House of Laity that brought it down, because now the laity are in the spotlight. If women are second-class citizens, the laity are third-class citizens, well behind the bishops and priests (so I guess that makes the women laity sixth-class citizens).

Christina Rees, a lay member of Synod has said: “It feels as if the House of Laity betrayed the entire Church of England last night.” To me, it feels as if the Church of England has betrayed the laity over many years.

Many have said that the House of Laity result is not representative of the views of the laity: 42 of 44 dioceses supported the proposed unamended legislation, and 80% of active church members are in favour of women bishops. But the House of Laity is where decisions are made, and decisions made by those who show up. The House of Laity not representative of the laity because it has become dominated by special interests, by those of extreme views who tend to be more energised and self-selecting.

Why do the rest of us not stand for Deanery, Diocesan and General Synods? Many reasons. Because many talented people have not been encouraged to stand – it has not occurred to them, or they consider themselves not worthy. Or because they have work and families, and General Synod requires taking three weeks out of a busy schedule. Or because they have tried church meetings in the past and found them rife with conservatism, boring and irrelevant – in my case, two PCCs, one Cathedral Community Committee, and occasional guest attendance at Deanery and Diocesan Synod meetings. Exeter Diocese is more clericalised than most, and maybe I should have tried harder. Maybe I would have tried harder if I hadn’t had to address the chair (as “Madame Chairman”) before I could speak, or submit items for AOB in advance – the Spirit blows where she wills, anyone?

So why did WATCH not manage to pack the House of Laity with supporters? Did they try? And why does the Church of England not quote the views of the laity in its press responses to the vote? The secular media at least managed that. Could it be that the laity are not valued in the church? What in fact we heard yesterday was the still small voice of the unengaged and unloved majority.

Some links and sources:


Changed “days out of a busy schedule” to “three weeks out of a busy schedule”.

More links and sources:


The Big Society meets the Great Vowel Shift

The Tories dropped the Big Society into their 2010 Manifesto, but have never explained satisfactorily what they meant. Here are some possible interpretations:

Bag Society?
Encouraging unfettered consumerism, such as taking away 6 billion single-use plastic bags from supermarkets every year, and worshipping at the altar of Gucci and Hermes.

Bug Society?
Installing CCTV cameras on every street corner and at a every water cooler, to detect when ministers’ unethical activity might become embarrassing, and keep track of anyone who considers the possibility of non-violent action.

Beg Society?
Cut-cut-cutting the safety net, so the 1% have the 99% where they want them.

Bog Society?
We’re all going down the pan.


Values going viral

A recent meme going round Facebook was: “Ten years ago, we had Steve Jobs, Johnny Cash and Bob Hope. Now we have No Jobs, No Cash and No Hope.”

But we do still have values.

At the Sustainability in Crisis conference, which I attended at the end of September, Tom Crompton spoke about his work on Common Cause. People don’t make decisions based on rational assessment of facts; they make decisions according to how they fit with their values and identity. Psychologists classify values as either extrinsic, which concern status and success, or intrinsic, which concern relationships and benevolence.

People don’t tend to have exclusively extrinsic or intrinsic values, but to be on a scale. Engaging one type of value tends to mean that other similar values are engaged. So, to quote from the Common Cause Handbook:

People reminded of generosity, self-direction and family, for example, have been found to be more likely to support pro-environmental policies than those reminded of financial success and status – without any mention of the environment being made.

Similarly, engaging one type of value tends to mean that opposing values are suppressed. So:

people asked to sort words related to achievement values (such as ‘ambition’ and ‘success’) from other words were less likely to volunteer their time to help a researcher (a behaviour associated with benevolence values).

This also means that we can move up and down the extrinsic-intrinsic scale. Over to George Monbiot:

The sharp rightward shift which began with Margaret Thatcher and persisted under Blair and Brown, all of whose governments emphasised the virtues of competition, the market and financial success, has changed our values… This shift [to extrinsic values] has been reinforced by advertising and the media… By generating feelings of insecurity and inadequacy – which means reducing self-acceptance – they also suppress intrinsic goals.

Therefore, if, in seeking to promote our environmental and social justice goals, we also appeal to extrinsic values, we will also reinforce those extrinsic values, further undermine intrinsic values, and make our work increasingly difficult. So we must avoid, for example, selling environmental behaviour change via ‘eco-chic’ for status-conscious people, or opportunities to make money for the bottom-line-oriented. And instead, we must align our work with the values that are likely to spur lasting change. This is much less likely to be a quick or easy process. Unfortunately, we have little time.

Another theme at the conference, picked up in the talks and discussions, was the need to accelerate – vastly accelerate – the move to a more sustainable economy, lifestyle, you name it, for the sake of the human race and the rest of the biosphere.

And I found myself contrasting the very slow diffusion of green electricity, ethical banking, sustainable anything with the almost instantaneous market saturation of the iPhone and iPad.Apple under Steve Jobs was phenomenally successful at marketing, appealing to extrinsic values of being seen to have the latest gadget and to appreciate good design.Wouldn’t it be great if green products and campaigns had the same uptake as the iPhone? But is it possible? Can a marketing campaign appeal to intrinsic values and be so phenomenally successful?

And then I remembered this TEDx video of Simon Sinek talking about “How great leaders inspire action”, and about the Why-How-What of inspiration. He uses Apple as one of his positive case studies, but he also uses Martin Luther King. Here’s what he has to say about Apple, from the video transcript (my italics):

If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this. “[Points to What] We make great computers. [How] They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?” Neh. And that’s how most of us communicate. That’s how most marketing is done… But it’s uninspiring.

Here’s how Apple actually communicates. “[Points to Why] Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. [How] The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. [What] We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?” Totally different right? You’re ready to buy a computer from me. All I did was reverse the order of information. What it proves to us is that people don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.

And what about Martin Luther King?

In the summer of 1963, 250,000 people showed up on the mall in Washington to hear [him] speak. They sent out no invitations, and there was no website to check the date. How do you do that? Well… He didn’t go around telling people what needed to change in America. He went around and told people what he believed. “I believe. I believe. I believe,” he told people. And people who believed what he believed took his cause, and they made it their own, and they told people. And some of those people created structures to get the word out to even more people. And low and behold, 250,000 people showed up on the right day, at the right time, to hear him speak.

How many of them showed up for him? Zero. They showed up for themselves… And, by the way, he gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.

Dr. King was appealing to intrinsic values. He was appealing for self-transcendence and justice under a higher authority. What are our intrinsic values today? What do we believe? How can we mobilise people like Martin Luther King still mobilises people? What did 10:10 do right in 2010, and why did it stall in 2011? What is the Occupy Together movement doing right? I would be happy to visit the camp outside St Paul’s, but what would make me want to stay there overnight or longer?

How can we make intrinsic values go viral?