PREDISTRIBUTION: A BIG NEW IDEA On September 6, in a speech at his country’s stock exchange, British Labour leader Ed Miliband called for a new agenda: “predistribution.” The term was coined by US political scientist Jacob Hacker, who in 2011 noted that discussions of government responses to inequality often begin and end with redistribution—taxing the rich to provide benefits for the rest. But that’s only half the equation, Hacker said, urging progressives to pay more attention to “the way in which the market distributes its rewards in the first place.” That includes regulations that protect consumers and empower workers: “The regulation of markets to limit extremes and give the middle class more voice is hardly easy…. But it is both more popular and more effective than after-the-fact mopping up.”
Miliband agrees. Noting the high human cost of austerity, he said, “We need to care about predistribution as well as redistribution.” After trying “to make work pay better by spending more on transfer payments,” he argued, government must “also make work pay better by making work itself pay.”
Miliband (a former Nation intern) expanded on this in an interview with The Telegraph, citing a post–Thatcher era “consensus around regulation” that “turned out to be really problematic.” On globalization, New Labour became “too easy and accepting,” he said, adding: “It’s just not true that all the top CEOs will leave the country unless we pay them whatever they demand.” Miliband also traced his embrace of predistribution to the political and economic consensus limiting how high taxes can go. (He argues for 50 percent.)
As Sam Pizzigati has reported in The Nation, the turn toward predistribution in the United Kingdom has been fueled by activists and includes pushing local employers to narrow the pay ratio between the top and the bottom ranks of their workforce.
The British story is all too familiar: failed austerity, political resistance to taxes, a left-of-center party that spent much of the 1990s getting out of the market’s way—and an awful human toll sparking the activism against inequality.
“We want a market economy, not a market society,” says Miliband. That’s true on both sides of the pond. KATRINA vanden HEUVEL
A WIN FOR WORKERS: When a Wisconsin judge tossed out the key components of Governor Scott Walker’s anti-labor law on September 15, on the grounds that they failed to provide equal protection for the rights of schoolteachers and municipal employees, the best the governor could do was attack him as “a liberal activist judge.” It’s doubtful that Walker read the twenty-seven-page ruling, but those who do will find nothing adventurous about Dane County Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas’s decision to strike down substantial portions of a law explicitly written to undermine trade unions and collective bargaining. Colas grounded his decision in a recognition that trade unionists have basic rights and are not second-class citizens.
That’s not a radical idea. When the United States pressured other nations to write pluralistic constitutions after World War II, it was recognized that the right to organize a union and engage in collective bargaining was essential to forming a civil and democratic society. Eleanor Roosevelt and the other Americans who helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights operated from the same point of reference.