How do we tackle inequalities in society?

A couple of articles in the Independent touch on inequality and social mobility.

Hamish McRae is sceptical of the commission headed by Alan Milburn to look into working class access to the professions as a top down down solution.

    The problem with this political approach is that it is likely to fail. You can prise open a bit more access to say, the law, but you won’t have a material impact on society. If you start from the other end and look at inequality from an economic perspective rather than a political one, you are much more likely to open up real opportunities for people who have had a difficult start in life.

He focuses up the need to upskill the workforce to compete in a global market place.

    If people fail to get over the various qualification hurdles the first time, they need other opportunities to do so. I also suspect we could do with less of a credential culture – not to use qualifications as a barrier to entry to the extent we do now. We should not kid ourselves that up-skilling will solve income inequalities but it should stop them growing.

There seems to be a implicit conclusions underlying his argument; if we are competing in a global marketplace against people with much lower wages, and we need to upskill the workforce here to compete for more of those jobs, we will lower the wage rate for high skilled jobs. This will decrease inequality and raise lower incomes, but I suspect not in a way that would be appeal to many in the middle classes. Regardless, looking at some of the underlying causes of inequality rather simply demanding the government redistribute wealth or enforce top down solutions as a universal panacea. The downturn perhaps offers better scope for new ideas to “materially change society” than in more comfortable times.
Johann Hari rails against one of those underlying inequalities in the form of unpaid internships. He does this not on the grounds that working for no payment is inherently unfair but that it excludes those who cannot support themselves during the period, and in any case will favour those with the best connections — likely already well off.

    This is happening all over Britain’s professions. The wealthy writer (and self-confessed “pushy mum”) Rachel Johnson is admirably honest about it. She says: “The truth is getting a job depends almost entirely on getting work experience, which depends almost entirely on whom you or your family knows … This back-scratching cycle of privilege is the middle-class Circle of Life. So it’s all jolly unfair, frankly.” Who does this cheat? Johnson says: “All those students who support themselves through university, only to find out when they leave that the glittering prizes have already been handed out, at a ceremony they never knew was taking place, to the undergraduate with the best connections.”

As he points out, this is not simply unfair, but a waste of talent and productivity to the economy of as a whole. This seems to me, however, as a place where government policy could actually make a difference; Johann is supportive of Brown’s apprenticeship scheme but this could perhaps be tackled by either forcing degree courses to include substantial experience, or by extending student loans for an internship year. As a matte rof opportunity rather than outcome, there should be approaches available to both left and right.

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