30 April 2014

Mr Osborne, K21C and the 40%

Are we heading back to 1890s levels of inequality? According to Professeur Piketty we are but with one interesting difference. The top 10%, by wealth, now command around 60% of all wealth in European countries. So who has the rest? Not the bottom 50% who have at most 5-10%. That leaves the 40% in the middle who Prof. Piketty says have a third to a quarter of the wealth.

Where the 19th century elite had all the wealth and inheritance game to themselves there is now a level of capital ownership beyond the top 10% and into the next 40%.  The remaining 50% have as little as ever. He sees this as  a new "patrimonial middle class" who will leave substantial bequests to their descendants. 

His analysis of the French data  is not easy to summarise, but here goes. He estimates the proportion of people born in each decade who will inherit more than the average lifetime earnings of the bottom 50%. For those born in the 50s some 5% can expect a significant inheritance. This is already higher than the cohort born in the 1920s where barely 2% would inherit above his benchmark. However 12% of the cohort born in the 70s can look forward to inheriting at this level, which is higher than the proportion in the 19th century.

I find this intriguing because of its political significance. I wonder to what extent this shift results from a deliberate political project to create a larger segment of society with an interest in conserving the status quo. I have in mind Mrs Thatcher's drive to extend home ownership in the 1980. The privatisation of state assets was also intended to create a permanent base of broader share ownership. Remember her vision of a property owning democracy with wealth cascading through the generations. 

Was this a deliberate strategy to extend the middle class, creating a large voting bloc whose interests were aligned with the rich? More recently Mr Osborne has added to this dynamic with his changes to the pension rules.

There is a hypothesis in economics which says that people save in order to smooth consumption across their lives. So young people borrow to pay for education and buy a house. In their middle years they pay down their debts and build up savings. In later life their savings fund their retirement. If this view is correct then savings would be used up in retirement with nothing left to pass on. Indeed the mechanism to do this is the purchase of an annuity; savings become an income for life.

I don't imagine that increasing the patrimonial middle class was Mr Osborne's primary motivation for abolishing automatic annuity purchases. On the other hand, I can see how it continues the shaping of a conservative leaning electorate. 

I remember too that in opposition Mr Osborne achieved a major success when he made inheritance tax a political issue. He is credited with scaring the Labour government into abandoning plans for a general election in 2007. He uncovered then the salience of inheritance as a political motivator.

I offer this as somewhat speculative thoughts inspired by reading K21CYou could argue that the same shift is happening in countries that were spared Thatcherism. Nevertheless I think there is something here.

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