Friday, July 25, 2014
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La mauvaise société

LONDRES – Jusqu’à quel point l'inégalité est-elle acceptable? A en juger par les normes d'avant la récession, il s’agit d’un niveau très élevé, en particulier aux États-Unis et en Grande-Bretagne. Peter Mandelson, du New Labour, a largement exprimé l’esprit des 30 dernières années en déclarant qu'il se sentait intensément « détendu » par rapport au fait que des gens deviennent « salement » riches. Devenir riche était effectivement le but de la « nouvelle économie ». Ensuite, ces nouveaux riches gardèrent une part croissante de ce qu'ils gagnaient, lorsque les impôts furent réduits pour les encourager à devenir de plus en plus riches et les efforts pour diviser le gâteau plus équitablement furent abandonnés.

Les résultats étaient prévisibles. En 1970, le salaire avant impôt d'un PDG américain de haut niveau était environ 30 fois supérieur à celui d’un travailleur moyen, il est aujourd'hui 263 fois plus élevé. En Grande-Bretagne, un PDG de haut niveau gagnait 47 fois plus que le travailleur moyen en 1970 (hors bonus); en 2010, il gagnait 81 fois plus. Depuis les années 1970, le revenu après impôt du cinquième le plus riche de la population a augmenté cinq fois plus vite que le cinquième le plus pauvre aux États-Unis, et quatre fois plus vite au Royaume-Uni. Encore plus important a été l'écart croissant entre revenu moyen et revenu médian: en d’autres termes, la proportion de la population vivant avec la moitié ou moins de la moitié du revenu moyen aux Etats-Unis et en Grande-Bretagne s’est élargie de plus en plus.

Bien que certains pays aient résisté à la tendance générale, les inégalités ont augmenté dans le monde entier au cours des 30-40 dernières années. L'inégalité au sein des pays a augmenté ; l’inégalité entre les pays a fortement augmenté après 1980, avant de se stabiliser à la fin des années 1990 et enfin de diminuer après 2000, lorsque la croissance de rattrapage dans les pays en développement s’est accélérée.

La croissance de l'inégalité laisse imperturbables les défenseurs idéologiques du capitalisme. Dans un système de marché concurrentiel, les gens sont sensés être payés ce qu'ils valent : ainsi donc, les grands PDG ajouteraient 263 fois plus de valeur à l'économie américaine que les travailleurs qu'ils emploient. Toutefois, les pauvres, affirme-t-on, sont de toute façon mieux lotis que si les gouvernements ou les syndicats cherchaient à réduire artificiellement l'écart de rémunération. La seule manière sûre de faire profiter les plus démunis plus rapidement de la richesse de « trickle-down » est d’abaisser toujours plus les taux marginaux d'imposition, ou, alternativement, d’améliorer le « capital humain » des pauvres, afin qu'ils acquièrent plus de valeur pour leurs employeurs.

Il s'agit d'une méthode de raisonnement économique qui est calculée pour plaire à ceux qui sont au sommet de la pyramide des revenus. Après tout, il n'y a absolument aucun moyen de calculer les productions marginales de différentes personnes dans des activités productives de coopération. Les taux de rémunération des dirigeants sont simplement fixés en les comparant à d’autres taux de rémunération de dirigeants dans des emplois similaires.

Par le passé, les écarts de rémunération étaient établis en référence à ce qui semblait juste et raisonnable. Plus la connaissance, la compétence et la responsabilité attachées à un emploi étaient importantes, plus la récompense acceptable et acceptée pour occuper celui-ci était élevée.

Mais tout cela se déroulait dans des limites qui maintenaient un lien entre le haut et le bas. Les hommes et femmes d’affaires importants gagnaient rarement plus de 20 ou 30 fois le salaire moyen, et l’écart était beaucoup moindre pour la plupart des gens. Ainsi, le revenu des médecins et des avocats était en général environ cinq fois plus élevé que celui des travailleurs manuels, et non pas dix fois ou plus comme ils le sont aujourd'hui.

C’est en fait lorsqu’on a cessé de valoriser les activités humaines de manière non-économiste, en utilisant le bon sens - c’est à dire en les inscrivant dans des contextes sociaux plus larges - qu’on en est arrivé aux méthodes fallacieuses utilisées aujourd'hui pour calculer les salaires.

Il existe une conséquence étrange, bien que peu remarquée, de l'incapacité à distinguer valeur et prix: les revenus de la plupart des gens ne peuvent augmenter que s’il y a croissance économique. Ceci est raisonnable dans les pays pauvres, où il n'y a pas assez de richesse à répartir. Mais, dans les pays développés, se concentrer sur la croissance économique est une façon extraordinairement inefficace d’accroître la prospérité générale, parce qu’elle signifie que l'économie doit croître, disons, de 3% pour accroître le revenu de la majorité, disons, de 1%.

Il n'existe non plus absolument aucune certitude que le capital humain de la majorité peut être augmenté plus rapidement que celui de la minorité, qui capture tous les avantages liés à l’éducation, grâce à leur richesse, conditions familiales, et connexions supérieures. Dans ces circonstances, la redistribution est un moyen plus sûr de parvenir à une large base de consommation, qui est en soi une garantie de stabilité économique.

L'attitude d'indifférence à la répartition du revenu est en fait la recette pour une croissance économique sans fin, avec les riches, très riches, et super-riches s’éloignant toujours plus du reste de la population. Ceci devrait poser problème, aussi bien pour des raisons morales que pratiques. En termes moraux, un tel système met la perspective de la bonne vie perpétuellement hors de portée de la plupart des gens. Et, en termes pratiques, il ne pourra manquer de détruire la cohésion sociale sur lequel la démocratie - ou, en fait, n'importe quel type de société pacifique - repose en définitive.

Traduit de l’anglais par Timothée Demont

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  1. CommentedAditya Unnikrishnan

    "In poor countries, this is reasonable; there is not enough wealth to spread round. But, in developed countries, concentration on economic growth is an extraordinarily inefficient way to increase general prosperity"

    I don't know why an approach that has so obviously been ineffective in increasing prosperity in developed nations is being touted as viable for developing nations.

  2. CommentedCharles St Pierre

    "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few; we cannot have both." Louis Brandeis, 1856-1941 US Supreme Court Justice

  3. CommentedJohn A Werneken

    Balderdash. Until historically very recently there NEVER was a society with as MUCH equality as is found today. And what does relative degrees of wealth, income, and choice have to do with a "good life"? NOTHING.

    Take a look at two parallel trends: for generations from roughly the Glorious Revolution forward, political equality increased but GROWTH brought real prosperity to virtually every citizen of a 'developed' country. THEN political 'progress' became increasing the power of the State, decreasing the ability of doers to "do" without much concern for the effects on others, and above all a worship of security and entitlement and increasing calls for economic "equity" if not economic equality.

    What do we have now? Mental depression, economic recession, and an end to broadly-spread progress as we had known it for three centuries.

      CommentedZlati Petrov

      I think at least some psychologists and economists will disagree with you that relative wealth/income is irrelevant. It seems at least somewhat relevant, actually, though the literature, as always, is inconclusive.

      http://ibe.eller.arizona.edu/docs/2010/Martinsson/happiness_jel_2008.pdf

      http://www.economics.uci.edu/~mcbride/RelativeIncomeEffectsSWB_JEBO_2001.pdf

      Who knows?

  4. CommentedRaj Thamotheram

    What is particularly bizarre about this deeply dysfunctional trend you describe is that it is enabled by pension funds and insurance companies, ie the aggregated saving vehicles of the 99%!

    And add injury to insult many of these funds have strong trade union influence but even those funds continue to act as the enabler of widening wealth gaps.

    http://www.ipe.com/magazine/long-term-matters-executive-pay_43191.php?s=thamotheram

  5. CommentedRaj Thamotheram

    And his old boss, Tony Blair, has taken the advice to heart. Of course, he doesnt consider himself very rich! Nor does he consider it appropriate to disclose his income or even his clients. Yet he and his allies feel he has a right to continue to influence UK politics.

    http://www.newsorganizer.com/article/i-m-not-one-of-the-super-rich--74dc7bda5d52f38c1df541d20a513d48/

  6. CommentedZlati Petrov

    But people don't claim that CEOs who are paid 263 times more than an average worker add 263 times more value to the economy.

    Since Lazaer (1981) and the rank tournament, multiplicative productivity, and imperfect monitoring revolutions in labor economics, economists have known that extremely skewed compensation is a way to encourage productivity among lower-level employees in the presence of information asymmetries and common shocks to output

    To put it in overly simplistic terms- high CEO pay encourages those who might want to be CEO one day to work really hard relative to others vying for that position. So the CEO gets paid that much (1) as something of a reward for his past efforts in getting to that position and (2) in order to encourage others to work hard in the presence of imperfect information about performance.

    Multiplicative productivity also predicts high CEO pay, as organizations become more complex. The rise in executive compensation may be related to the exponential growth in the complexity of the firms they oversee, because more complex organizations "magnify" the decisions of the CEO, making them that much more sensitive to CEO competence.

  7. CommentedJohnny (MoneyWonk)

    I totally agree. We should invest more in human capital, and society as a whole would benefit from a more educated and productive system. Just two problems: nobody wants to pay for it, and most are too lazy to learn anything productive.

    Case in point: my mom always told me I could be an engineer. I chose private equity instead.

  8. CommentedBen Leet

    The total wage income of 75% of U.S. workers (112 million workers) was $1.702 trillion in 2011 -- the total personal income of less than 1% of U.S. households was $1.734 trillion. And the wage income of half of U.S. workers (75 million workers) is only 7% of all personal income for 2011 --- 7% of $11.468 trillion. I compare the Joint Committee on Taxation total personal income figures with Social Security Administration wage and salary incomes for 2010. There is a limit to inequality after which it becomes injurious or toxic to society -- not only is it unjust but it decreases employment since workers cannot buy products which then kicks of a negative spiral of employment cuts. Wage income, as reported by Floyd Norris at the NYTimes, is below 44% of GDP, when in 1970 it was above 53%. Theoretically the income/wealth imbalance has not created a danger point signal. Intuitively we see that we are regressing to feudalism where only a few hold money. Recently Lawrence Mishel of the EPI wrote from the FRB recent document on wealth distribution, the new SCF, showing that 50% of the US population owned 1.1% of all wealth, down from 3.6% in 1995. Now the average wealth/savings for the lower 50% is below $11,000 per family, while the top 1% has on average more than $17 million per family. At some point it becomes clear that this is unhealthy, but like M.F. 2 days ago, "we" are not at that point yet. It doesn't engage his moral priorities yet. http://benL8.blogspot.com, my blog.

      CommentedZlati Petrov

      Remarkable numbers, but what should those numbers be?

      In other words: if they are a deviation from some normal level, what is that normal level?

      Perhaps Amartya Sen can answer that question by saying that it's no use trying to find an optimal distribution of income, but that we can say that the current distribution is unfair and that we can level it out a bit without having any exact number to aim at. Put succinctly: even if we don't know the optimal distribution of income and wealth, we can still confidently alter the current and know we are improving welfare.

      Maybe.

      But that seems risky somehow. How can we know that our aversion to the current income distribution isn't merely due to some kind of anchoring bias: we are used to a more equal distribution so we fixate on the way things were in the 60s even if the world has changed a lot since then and the income distribution changed as a legitimate response to new technologies, globalization, etc.?

      How can we tell that we are not suffering from some sort of Golden Age syndrome, wherein we think the way things were in the past was right only because the past has some kind of mythical pull on our imagination and psychology?

      These things bias our intuition. We need to filter them before we make normative statements about the income/wealth distributions.

  9. CommentedTed Peters

    The growth of inequality leaves ideological defenders of communism unfazed as well. Hmm, perhaps it's just a fact of life... like say realtive sizes, weight, intelligence, athleticism, looks..... etc etc. So maybe we should conmcentrate more on simply growing the economy, so that there are more opportunities for everyone, rather than pandering to the human tendency for envy.

  10. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    This is a common sense view. What is remarkable is how rarely it is heard. Most rational honest people have expressed it though not in such a clear manner. It is excluded from mass media. The anger expressed in opposition to it is disturbing.

  11. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    Much is said in favor of the 'Bad Society' than against it, so I guess the social acceptance for such a denouement is growing at a time when fair pricing of opportunities has much to be desired as allocation of resources that are scarce and limited is done in a manner that leaves lot less for those who need them the most. The question has shifted to moral arena as well where we take refuge in an imagery that self-righteousness gets the better of. What does it leave us at the end, an unfair exchange where self-fulfilling prophesies drain us from the moral positions with enormous allowances for individual aggrandizement while leaving scarce little for a shared sacrifice.

    I do not know whether there is any single example of any successful society (from the Romans to the current) who survived this dilemma without taking a road that leads to the greater common good.

    Procyon Mukherjee

  12. CommentedSabko Sabkov

    Very interesting article, Mr. Skidelsky. I, however, have a few notes that might serve to counterbalance your position:
    1. If rich people help poor people live a better life, are the poor people better or worse off? (i.e. referring to the rich people, who gave the world something even poor people can take advantage of - most relevant - technology)
    2. The wealth of the rich works in poor people's favour as well. Think about it - what happens with the rich people's money? It goes for the usage of other people, in the end - either by being lended over by banks, or by paying the salaries of the producers of the goods rich purchase - etc etc.
    3. Finally, it is people who make other people rich. Bill Gates became rich, because people recognised the value of his creations, not because the social system is dysfunctional.

    Of course, people might say that there are numerous unfairly rich people among us. But who made these people rich? Ultimately, it is always us.

  13. CommentedCharles Travis

    What is this the product of and what has it produced? These are the relevant questions. I've seen discussions about boards rife with mutual back scratching and unnecessary coziness with management as one likely culprit, among others most likely. We do see record corporate profits, at least on this side of the Atlantic so it may be difficult to argue it hasn't produced results, unless one can isolate other factors as an explanation.

  14. CommentedAndrew N Mason

    Ultimately, each country will set its "acceptable differential". Inequality just cant keep growing indefinitely, so at some point society itself will dictate the proper range

  15. CommentedGary Marshall

    Hello Mr. Skidelsky,

    So if most people within a nation were poor, starving, and living in conditions that would make the Neanderthals flinch, how much better off we would all be? Too bad we couldn't all be like North Korea where income equality abounds!

    GM

      CommentedZlati Petrov

      Hmmm, I suspect actually that income inequality in North Korea is absolutely monstrous. Based purely on intuition, I'd imagine that almost all the wealth in that country belongs to maybe 10 or 20 people.

      If anything, then, North Korea is a terrifying example of how unfair rent extraction and wealth redistribution by the few can decimate a society.

  16. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I think when we look at such important questions as social inequality we should try to remain factual and scientific as much as possible, thus morals, personal emotional impressions will offer very minimal help as they are completely subjective.
    The next question is if we view the global human society as a loose collection of unique individuals with total freedom to do whatever they want, or we view global human society as an interconnected, integral network, functioning as a single living system. Through recent research and especially the practical living events of the global crisis we can all see and agree that global human society is indeed a single, interdependent network, where we cannot isolate individuals, or even nations from each other, but we have to consider the whole when examining any activity or specific phenomenon.
    Thus regarding social inequality too we need to see if it is positive or negative in terms of the function of the whole system.
    What we see is that regardless of what we think about the 1% or the 99%, the growing inequality is destroying the very layers of society, especially the middle class that is supposed to drive the whole system through production and consumption. Thus in view of the long term prosperity of the system, including the long term benefits of the top layer, growing social inequality is harmful, bringing the development of the whole system to halt. And this is what we observe through the global crisis.
    And we also observe that even the initially democratic institutions, structures are gradually distorted and twisted in favor of the top layer removing even the remaining chances for the lower social layers to catch up or succeed.
    This is nobody's fault, this comes from the nature of our desire for pleasure, pleasure is never enough if we receive something today, we need double the amount tomorrow to maintain the same satisfaction, thus those on top drive faster, and further away from the rest of the society using any means they have. It is the classical case of an alcoholic who simply cannot stop, even if he knows he kills himself, or the case of a cancer cell that has to consume everything even it leads to the death of the whole system including the cancer itself.
    What is the solution?
    Very difficult since the solution also has to come with the right motivation, since if we try to solve the problem with force, coercion, or trickery as we have always done though our history, we will keep repeating our mistakes, and sink deeper and deeper into crisis.
    The solution is twofold. On one hand we need to experience a blow, a failure to see that what we do right know leads to disaster. People simply do not listen until they are hurting, if they feel good they want to remain where they are. The global crisis and the potential disasters embedded in it can provide this awakening. On the other hand there has to be information, a global, integral education program explaining to everyone, from the top layer down to the last human being what happened, why we ended up in crisis, what the nature of our interconnected and interdependent human system is, and in what way we could build a different system that could offer prosperity to everyone without exploding into the same unequal system.
    The first part, the crisis and the potential blows are ahead of us. What we need to do is to organize and set up the education system for all of us ASAP.

  17. CommentedJ. C.

    In any case, what is "bad", are people´s preferences and how much they are willing to pay for them (I probably agree on that)... As long as people want´s Ipods and Footlball there will be Steve Jobs and Messi...

    The article is too soft (as most of Skidelsky's are) and based in "known facts and impressions" and not fundamented with proper research.

  18. CommentedJ. C.

    so who should set the "acceptable" differentials?? who are the "iluminados" that know how much you should worth in the market??

  19. CommentedJ. C.

    Comparing 70´s to 10´s is wrong since basically demand for talents became global in that period, so probably an american CEO has much more alternatives than he had years ago...

  20. CommentedJ. C.

    " This must be wrong for moral and even practical reasons..." it depends on which your moral and practical priorities are doesn`t it...???

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