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Public Lecture and Workshop on “Inequality. What Can Be Done?”, Antwerp, September 2015
10 September 2015
Inequality. What Can Be Done?
Anthony Atkinson was the keynote speaker at the opening lecture of the SCRIBANI workshop on September 10th 2015. He is Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics and Fellow of Nuffield College in Oxford, author of Inequality: What Can Be Done?, world leading economist and researcher in inequality and poverty. His former student, Frank Vandenbroucke, Minister for Social Security, Health Insurance, Pensions and Employment in the Belgian Federal Government (1999-2004) and Minister for Education and Employment in the Flemish Regional Government (2004-2009), currently professor at the universities of Leuven and Antwerp, framed his former professor’s theses within an aggregate European setting. The session was attended by about 150 people.
Anthony Atkinson presented a challenging demand for European nation states; something that the Jesuit institutions and centres also need to take note of, “If we want and are serious about reducing inequality it is going to cost a lot and require radical action. This is not a case of moving from a dystopia to utopia, rather aiming to reduce, not necessarily eliminate.” He outlined both an intrinsic moral argument against inequality as well as instrumentalist reasons; it is bad for business, health and other social indicators, as well as national economic growth.
He takes Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty as the starting point for a set of fifteen policy proposals that could bring about a genuine shift in the distribution of income towards less inequality. In designing the set of proposals, he draws on the experience of reducing inequality in postwar Europe and on an analysis as to how the economic circumstances are now different in the twenty-first century, highlighting the role of technical change and the rise in capital emphasized by Piketty. The proposed measures span many fields of policy and are not confined to fiscal redistribution. They encompass science policy, competition policy, public employment, guaranteed return on small savings, capital endowment, as well as more progressive taxation of income and wealth transfers and a participation income. Inequality is embedded in our social structure, and the search for a significant reduction requires us to examine all aspects of our society.
Discarding ruling political and economic orthodoxies of gloom and doom, Anthony Atkinson firmly believes inequality can be reduced and that citizens, individually and acting collectively, can play a significant role by their own actions in achieving a more just society.
On the basis of available national statistics of EU-member countries on poverty, Frank Vandenbroucke presented a pan-European picture. He started from the founding fathers’ belief that European integration would support the simultaneous pursuit of economic progress and of social cohesion, both within countries (through the gradual development of the welfare states) and between countries (through upward convergence across the Union). This idea of convergence held until the period 2004/2008, when new divergences between countries again became more explicit following the economic crisis. This tends to lead to more defensive national policies in detriment of European solidarity. To arrive at a truly European Social Union he pleads for fair access to the dynamics of upward economic convergence, economic freedoms and social rights for mobile citizens in a pan-European ‘social space’ and solidarity among member states to redistribute the produce of economic growth. An EU framework on minimum wages, minimum standards for industrial action, unemployment insurance, minimum wages and more equitable taxation could contribute to this.