Mind the gap: godfather of inequality’s message to Irish policy-makers

Sir Anthony Atkinson says what must be done to narrow gap between rich and poor

A homeless man begs on Dublin’s Grafton Street. Sir Anthony Atkinson, author of Inequality: What can be done?, says the gap between rich and poor can be narrowed with policies which aren’t radical or revolutionary. Photograph: Alan Betson / THE IRISH TIMES

A homeless man begs on Dublin’s Grafton Street. Sir Anthony Atkinson, author of Inequality: What can be done?, says the gap between rich and poor can be narrowed with policies which aren’t radical or revolutionary. Photograph: Alan Betson / THE IRISH TIMES


If Sir Anthony Atkinson is in any way bitter over the attention showered on his junior colleague Thomas Piketty, he doesn’t show it.

The French economist’s study of the increasing gap between rich and poor was a publishing sensation. It soared to the top of the bestseller lists and was hailed as the most important economics book in decades.

In the process it sparked an international debate about rising inequality and has dominated election campaigns across the globe.

Piketty leaned heavily on Atkinson’s work over four decades examining inequality and poverty, a fact he acknowledged in a recent interview.

“Tony Atkinson is the godfather of historical studies of income and wealth,” he said in an interview last year.

Atkinson is to many the academic giant on whose shoulders contemporary economists working on inequality and poverty stand.

Whereas Piketty analysed the problems, Atkinson (70), a professor at the London School of Economics, devotes much time to identifying solutions in his new book Inequality: What can be done?.

Later this week, he will explore some of them in an address to policy-makers, politicians and academics at the Tasc Annual Conference in Croke Park.

Not so radical

In an interview with The Irish Times, he says the steps required to narrow the gap aren’t necessarily radical or revolutionary.

That said, some of the 15 or so key recommendations do have the whiff of the 1970s about them and an era when state control of the market was all-encompassing.

State guidance of technological innovation to encourage employability of workers is one idea. A 65 per cent marginal top rate of tax for high earners is another.

Atkinson readily acknowledges some measures wouldn’t be popular – but many, he insists, would be.

“Take the living wage, for example. It’s a popular step. It’s being taken up by the Scottish government. Chelsea Football Club has embraced it,” he says.

“Or a guaranteed inflation-adjusted return on savings, but with maximum holding per person . . . It would help small savers get a positive return and help redistribute wealth.”

The idea of taxing large inheritances to create smaller inheritances for all citizens on reaching adulthood, however, certainly seems radical.

“Well, Thomas Paine made that suggestion in 1797,” he says. “Actually, I think politically it could be quite attractive. There are many of my generation who may feel we had an easier start in life – and that kind of capital could allow people to fund the education or training of a new generation.”

The idea of guaranteed public employment is another which has the appearance of being rooted in another era.

“We’ve had guaranteed employment schemes in the UK,” Atkinson says. “This isn’t really revolutionary stuff . . . Many European countries have had them. The US passed an act in the 1970s to allow the president to create a reservoir of jobs to deal with unemployment.”

He says the fact that once-mainstream ideas seem so marginalised now is a sign of a closing down of the debate on these issues.

Vested interests

“The political classes have chosen that; they’re in their comfort zone. I fear the media, too, has been pretty unwilling to allow people to offer different views, as it’s largely controlled by people with vested interests.”

Inequality matters, he says, because it unfairly punishes those who suffer bad luck. It undermines economic growth and social cohesion. Inequality of resources translates directly into inequality in personal opportunity.

For all the talk on inequality, however, it’s uncertain to what extent it is a vote-winning issue.

It formed an important part of former Labour leader Ed Milliband’s pitch to the British people, which bellyflopped badly in the end.

“In the campaign it didn’t feature. A colleague of mine examined the press coverage of how many times the word appeared. Either he didn’t discuss it much during the campaign, or it wasn’t reported. There was much more focus on the SNP and the economy,” Atkinson says.

“What’s interesting now is that in the US it’s not just Democrats discussing these issues. Republicans too are talking about inequality of opportunity . . . ”

Tánaiste Joan Burton will be one of the politicians listening to Atkinson speaking later this week. Does he think some of his proposals have a chance of ending up an Irish party’s manifesto come election time?

Atkinson’s response is coy. It’s not his role to dictate to anyone. “I’m not telling governments or anyone what to do . . . I’m simply laying out the menu.”

* Prof Anthony Atkinson is keynote speaker at the Tasc Annual Conference on Friday, June 19th, at the Croke Park Conference Centre. For further information, visit tasc.ie