Your house is the rotten heart of the inequality engine

Charity begins at home…

The bloated value of your house(s) is an unearned windfall and a expropriation from others. Think depriving the NHS or poor kids. Yeah, that bad!

I know you didn’t plan on being evil, but evil is as evil does.

What’s driving the inequality furore in public debate? It’s the 50–95% complaining that the 5% have too much and it should be shared with them. Obviously, once that’s done the munificent 50–95%ers would then lift the bottom quartile out of relative poverty by spreading their greater wealth…

Ha! Ha! That’ll be right. Financial redistribution as part of an anti-inequality agenda will never get to the bottom quartile without being mostly siphoned off by the middle classes first. Just admit it and we can keep it real and move on.

If history is our guide then periods of success, stability and peace have always led to increasing relative poverty and inequality. It’s a repeat pattern since humans first acquired inheritable wealth through the innovations that flowed from permanent settlement. The reversal of the inequality trend has always come from exogenous shock; typically conflict, pandemics or local climate or ecosystem stress. The post WW2 flattening of inequality looks like one of those moments in history and not a permanent realignment.

There can be no absolute solution to inequality and relative poverty other than a utopian state that enforces its interpretation of fairness. As selfishness is a universal human quality and competitiveness and envy very common, utopia will not be delivered through some form of collective higher awakening. By necessity a utopia can only come through a form of totalitarian coercion.

Inequality grows exponentially — it’s not just a line in the sand of the wealthy 1% against the rest. Those at the bottom of society’s wealth ladder look up at the middle cohort and see posh, aloof, lucky bastards. That means you in your too “small” four-bedroom, ridiculously overpriced semi in a nice part of town that you want to trade-up for a detached six bedrooms and a bigger garden in an even better neighbourhood. Estate kids can only dream of your asset wealth.

Relative poverty isn’t going away so enough of the intellectually and emotionally retarding grandstanding that inhibits the search for solutions. Aiding the less fortunate is a matter of prioritisation. Equality of outcomes is a hopelessly false panacea.The focus must be on equalising opportunity.

The poor can be easily ghettoised by uncertainty that they cannot manage no matter how diligent they are. The affluent classes don’t understand the devastating psychology of sustained scarcity. Scarcity actually makes IQs drop, which reverses when scarcity is lifted.

Unfortunately, those near the bottom of society are always more vulnerable. It’s not simply about money. Vulnerability is magnified by the surrounding environment and social topography — housing, familial support, luck with neighbours, employment opportunities, health services, local schools, local activities and facilities, good and fair policing, transport, etc. More money to the individual to reduce measured poverty is just too much money for it to be possible (either arithmetically or without catastrophically upending the economic equilibrium). Everyone can’t be relatively affluent!

Its screamingly obvious that our first step to create more equality of opportunity is secure tenure of housing as a right, not a crapshoot, irrespective of wealth and in decent surrounds. It doesn’t magically fix things but a secure housing situation allows self help to build and community to take roots. Once that base is in then look to see what else can be done to prioritise helping the less affluent help themselves so opening up the social mobility ladder.

It’s pretty obvious, right? However, you’ve got to be willing to back a good house in decent surrounds as a right not a privilege. Yes, you! Don’t look over your shoulder.

You’re probably feeling uneasy as the above will negatively impact the value of your house. There just won’t be as many people willing to leverage to the max to pay for your ridiculously overpriced nest egg if a decent house and local environment is a right not a privilege for those that can’t afford your postcode currently.

Investment costs will be substantial which means prioritising how we use our collective resources. Personally, I’d choose to freeze spending on things like education and health if necessary to focus on a grand infrastructural housing project. It’s about priorities and without clear priorities the cost of fighting the various scourges of growing ghettoisation and disaffection will keep on mushrooming. We’ll never get ahead of the curve on social and welfare costs just by spending more whether done through higher tax or creating money — a money shuffling vortex to nowhere pretending to be a plan.

There’s zero chance that the middle classes on up will support large sustained generalised hikes in tax rates. General redistribution seems to have no end and will only be acceded to grudgingly and minimally.

Singularly prioritising housing is more practical for tackling inequality and fairness than more general redistributive utopian visions (who decides what’s fair?!). For that reason it’s got more chance of persuading the affluent to back it. We all know that tackling inequality has a cost. Make the plan focused and tangible and we can maybe see the trade offs, stay focused on the objective and accept the extra personal costs for the greater good. Without prioritisation, pragmatism and class coalition in dealing with inequality we are heading for societal conflict as the resolution mechanism.

If you need some motivation keep in mind that the economic ghetto could expand to snare your kids or grandchildren. Prior to the industrial revolution downward mobility was the norm. Wealth was land back then. The wealthy had the biggest families (as their offspring survived childhood). Only one of the kids inherited. The other siblings headed rapidly down the socioeconomic ladder. History hasn’t been exactly repeated but I can hear a distinct echo.

My question to you Mr and Ms Middle Class Progressive-Radical is: are you serious about dealing with inequality and disadvantage? Will you make the necessary personal sacrifice? Let’s be clear, that means sacrificing a decent proportion of your assets, because it is they that perpetuate and widen inequality. Plus sharing your neighbourhood more with the riff-raff.

“But I will happily pay large death taxes on my assets,” you whine. You probably like death taxes because you get to pretend you are paying your distributional way while leaving your plans to spend your unearned asset wealth before you die unruffled. To suggest this as the solution is a beautiful study in denial, avoidance and passing the cost of your progressivism onto others. Otherwise known as progressivism-lite.

Sadly, so far, we are still at the virtue signalling stage.

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Original published in ‘The Outsider’ column of The Mint Magazine, issue 5. The Mint is a quarterly new economics magazine.