The similar lives of the rich and the not so rich

More on inequality. In my last blog post, I mentioned a talk by John Lanchester at the Edinburgh book festival in which he discussed the subject. During the Q&A, there was a conversation about rage – how it would soon grip the UK and force change. I doubt it.

That’s first because income inequality isn’t rising, its falling. But it is also because the lives of the not so rich are no longer that different to those of the rich.

Irwin Stelzer picked up this theme in The Sunday Times a few weeks ago. The gap he says between the “living standards of a Harrods shopper and a Harrods shop girl” is a million times narrower than it was in, say, the Victorian times the inequality fanatics like to harp back to.

This is, as Stelzer says, partly a result of “the expanded availability of health care, education and an expanded range of public goods”, and partly down to “rapid innovation”.

Consider clothes. They are so cheap and of such good quality these days that they homogenise the appearance of all save the very, very poor. Note Rachel Johnson posing in a Lidl jacket on her doorstep in Notting Hill for a newspaper article yesterday. If you don’t look too closely, she says, it passes for Prada. Add cheap flights and technology into that.

Almost everyone has access to televisions, smart phones, music and video on demand and also has access to the odd flight to Ibiza.

Some people will be listening to Spotify-streamed music on their yachts in Ibiza and some will be listening to it on the terrace of a cheap hotel. But everyone has the ability to wear similar clothes, travel to similar places, talk for hours to family across continents using similar technology and use similar forms of entertainment.

You can argue about whether the financial gap between the rich and poor is widening or not (we would say the wealth gap is and the income gap is not), but on one thing we can agree with Irwin Stelzer: measure it in terms of the quality and quantity of services to all and “the gap in living standards is certainly narrowing.” That doesn’t leave as much to rage about as Lanchester might think.

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