God's Politics

God's Politics


Gareth Higgins: Gordon Brown’s Challenges

posted by God's Politics

Jim Wallis’ words last week about new U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown were an encouragement to see him as a politician with a conscience—a man genuinely committed to addressing questions of injustice. I hope that Brown is able to follow through, but there are a few challenges.
Chief among them is the fact that he supported Tony Blair’s policies, including not only such noble enterprises as the Northern Ireland peace process and the introduction of the minimum wage, but also the huge mistake of the war in Iraq. He did not raise concerns publicly against it, and has even said that he would have done the same thing as Blair had he been in charge in 2003. This is a serious problem for anyone who hopes he represents a decisive break with the foreign policy errors of the previous administration. We may take comfort from the fact that Brown has indicated support for a major investigation into the war, and his private beliefs may well be more suited to the path not yet taken. He has appointed a young Foreign Secretary known to hold progressive beliefs and to have questioned the war, but a thorough questioning of the reasons for the war may only be the beginning of a departure from Blair’s tragically failed policy.
Secondly, in the 10 years that Brown was Chancellor, while the U.K. got a minimum wage for the first time, and many people were helped to return to work through a ‘new deal’ program, the gap between rich and poor widened, the private equity industry mushroomed, and the tax burden for the rich was relatively unaltered. How will he provide the kind of moral leadership that recognizes that the poor cannot be released from poverty without it costing the rich? Will he have the courage to develop truly re-distributive economic policies?
Thirdly, the British public is used to hearing stories of fearsome conflicts with Blair, and a deeply controlling management style. These stories may or may not be true—but Gordon Brown needs to prove that he is not a control freak. He may have already begun this, by announcing this week that he was willing to give more power to Parliament, including surrendering or limiting the power of the executive to declare war. And while he is not the most charismatic public speaker, his response to the failed bomb attacks in London last Friday did sound the right note of reassurance.
I do hope that he proves to be, as he calls himself, a ‘conviction politician.’ He cares about addressing the root causes of injustice, and knows that defeating terror is a struggle of ideas at least as much as it is a matter of practical security. On these two counts alone, he deserves to be given a chance to prove himself.
His cabinet appointments this past week have been progressive; his vision for eco-towns suggests a greater commitment to environmental stewardship than has ever previously been visible in British politics; his understanding of the U.S. suggests that the ‘special relationship’ may be about to become mutually beneficial once again, rather than one in which the U.K. merely serves neo-conservative interests; he may indeed believe in the idea of a foreign policy based on something more than national self-interest; and the very fact that he has said he is willing to ‘learn the lessons’ of the Iraq war mean that there may indeed be room for optimism about a Brown premiership. While we still feel that we don’t know what he is really like, and he has not yet earned our trust, there now exists an opportunity for Gordon Brown to put the principles of mutual respect, equity, and social justice learned in a Scottish manse into practice. I wish him well.
Gareth Higgins is a Christian writer and activist in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For the past decade he was the founder/director of the zero28 project, an initiative addressing questions of peace, justice, and culture. He is the author of How Movies Helped Save My Soul and blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.blogspot.com



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kevin s.

posted July 5, 2007 at 11:30 am


“How will he provide the kind of moral leadership that recognizes that the poor cannot be released from poverty without it costing the rich? Will he have the courage to develop truly re-distributive economic policies?”
The notion that truly re-distributive economic policies constitutes moral leadership is ludicrous. You are welcome to your opinions, but for crying out loud.



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Wolverine

posted July 5, 2007 at 11:46 am


Secondly, in the 10 years that Brown was Chancellor, while the U.K. got a minimum wage for the first time, and many people were helped to return to work through a ‘new deal’ program, the gap between rich and poor widened…
I don’t understand. If the minimum wage is of such great value to the poor, how could the gap between rich and poor increase after a new minimum wage was put in place?
I know that everyone at Sojo thinks minimum wage increases are a great way to alleviate poverty. I think your hearts are in the right place, but I’m not so sure about your heads. You don’t pay enough attention to economics or real world consequences.
And here’s an example: you say Britain enacts a new minimum wage, and at the same time the gap between rich and poor widened.
Will anyone at Sojo take another look at the minimum wage?
Wolverine



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wayne

posted July 5, 2007 at 11:55 am


Kevin
I have only been to England once. I do not know the details of their economy or how much wealth has been pocketed in the hands of the very few. While in Scotland I learned that only a very few people literally own all the land there. Some of these “estates are so large you can walk across the entire island and never step off their acreage. This obviously means that almost the entire part of the nation is made up of renters.
This situation might call for “redistribution” but I am no expert. Even so, the Scots seem to be a uniquely industrious people and kind of break the mold of stereotypical “renters”.
Words like this can have more than one meaning and the ideas they represent are not necessarily wrong. John Perkins uses the term to denote the ability to create wealth i.e. “Jobs”. In his context it is the most Capitalistic of ideas.



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splinterlog

posted July 5, 2007 at 12:14 pm


… the poor cannot be released from poverty without it costing the rich?
Don’t think that the zero-sum view is supported by economic theory, if that is what is being proposed here.
As for the minimum wage, the widening inequality gap does not demonstrate that the minimum wage hinders economic growth (after all the rich got richer). If anything, the provision of the minimum wage would have prevented that gap from being even wider.



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Tom

posted July 5, 2007 at 12:36 pm


“The notion that truly re-distributive economic policies constitutes moral leadership is ludicrous.”
A plethora of peoples your age, Kevin s., in hundreds of entire regions across the globe, currently live in the same squalid slums as their great granddaddy did or are worse off. Your statement should insult the intelligence of every human being.



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kevin s.

posted July 5, 2007 at 12:37 pm


Well, when the government takes over, everyone becomes a renter. That’s not good either. I think he clarifies his position when he says we must tax the rich to save the poor.
There is an argument for taxing the rich, but this is not it.



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kevin s.

posted July 5, 2007 at 12:41 pm


“A plethora of peoples your age, Kevin s., in hundreds of entire regions across the globe, currently live in the same squalid slums as their great granddaddy did or are worse off. Your statement should insult the intelligence of every human being. ”
Your logic is as follows.
1) Many people are poor.
2) Economic redistribution is the answer.
3) If you don’t agree, then you are an idiot.
I am unmoved.



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splinterlog

posted July 5, 2007 at 12:52 pm


To state a much repeated point – even economists are unsure of the consequences of a minimum wage – http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2006/11/consensus-of-economists.html (see the final point in the survey)
Does price (wage) fixing in order to address labour market failure cause more bad than good? Theoretically the question is up in the air; in terms of experience, countries that have instituted a minimum wage have largely not experienced the doomsday predictions of stifled growth and increased unemployment as predicted by the skeptics.



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JimII

posted July 5, 2007 at 1:03 pm


You have to either have a minimum wage or strong unions; otherwise, the worker has zero leverage against the employer. Particularly as we have larger and larger employers.
The gap in the rich and the poor is not caused by the minimum wage. The gap between the rich and the poor is cause by those of us at the top taking as much as we can, and we can take more than our fair share.
The solution is to either limit how little we can pay or give bargaining power to those who are not at the top of the food chain.
Obviously it is easier to pass an easy limitation on the bottom of wages (my wife and I own a school and I can’t imagine paying a human being minimum wage. Would you work for $5 an hour?), than to give up power.



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Tom

posted July 5, 2007 at 1:16 pm


I understand that you clearly see this as something black and white, cut and dry, when you say, “Many people are poor.” However, I do not believe that this multiple generation effect is as simple as that. Sorry, you’re not breaking down my logic. You’re attempting to put a spin on it by creating a generality.



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kevin s.

posted July 5, 2007 at 2:47 pm


“I understand that you clearly see this as something black and white, cut and dry, when you say, “Many people are poor.”
My point was that it isn’t cut and dry. I stand by my statement that many people are poor.
“Sorry, you’re not breaking down my logic. You’re attempting to put a spin on it by creating a generality.”
You had no logic to break down, which was my point.
“You have to either have a minimum wage or strong unions; otherwise, the worker has zero leverage against the employer. ”
Zero leverage? Companies cannot operate without employees. You can argue about how much leverage that gives an employee, but it certainly is more than zero.
“The gap in the rich and the poor is not caused by the minimum wage.”
Nobody said it was.
“The gap between the rich and the poor is cause by those of us at the top taking as much as we can, and we can take more than our fair share.”
What if your fair share is a ton of money? Bill Gates is very rich. That is eminently fair, from an economic standpoint.
“(my wife and I own a school and I can’t imagine paying a human being minimum wage. Would you work for $5 an hour?)”
You accidentally argue against the minimum wage here.
“Theoretically the question is up in the air; in terms of experience, countries that have instituted a minimum wage have largely not experienced the doomsday predictions of stifled growth and increased unemployment as predicted by the skeptics.”
By the same logic that you assume the minimum wage has prevented a large gap between rich and poor, one could easily argue that employment and growth would be even better without a minimum wage.



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splinterlog

posted July 5, 2007 at 3:20 pm


employment and growth would be even better without a minimum wage
Yes but I’m not saying that high employment at $2.50 an hour or growth like the kind India is experiencing right now (9% with inflation touching 7%) are good things. They’re not – these factors put enormous pressures on ordinary people while a few get enormously rich. The growth and employment that you are speaking of is not inclusive and does little in the way of actually helping people get on with their lives.



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Tom (giving it another go)

posted July 5, 2007 at 3:31 pm


Kevin s.,
Forget about 2) and 3) for the time being. What I’m saying, Kevin, is that you immediately painted what I said w/ a broad stripe. Your statement “Many people are poor” says nothing. And to think that statement boils down anything I initially said is perplexing and ponderous. I’ll say it again for you, ready? Many people from the SAME region and/or family are AS poor today, if not poorer, than the several (linked) generations before them. I suppose the same people remain poor from one generation to the next b/c they’re “less educated” or “lazy” or “evil” or just unlucky, right? Or better yet, I’m sure it’s just that they’re unable to advance monetarily out of stubbornness and pride instead of conforming to our civilized and industrious nature.



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kevin s.

posted July 5, 2007 at 5:01 pm


“Many people from the SAME region and/or family are AS poor today, if not poorer, than the several (linked) generations before them.”
No disagreement here.
“I suppose the same people remain poor from one generation to the next b/c they’re “less educated” or “lazy” or “evil” or just unlucky, right?”
Many of them, most in fact, are poor because of oppressive government.
“Or better yet, I’m sure it’s just that they’re unable to advance monetarily out of stubbornness and pride instead of conforming to our civilized and industrious nature. ”
I don’t understand what battle you are trying to fight here. My point is that simply calling for economic redistribution and labelling it morally necessary is ludicrous. It is simply an example of making an assertion and adding scripture on top of it.
Britain cannot solve world poverty, and if it could, economic redistribution would have little to do with the solution.



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mark

posted July 5, 2007 at 5:41 pm


Wolverine:
“I don’t understand. If the minimum wage is of such great value to the poor, how could the gap between rich and poor increase after a new minimum wage was put in place?”
Because the nature of the jobs available changed – this is something which has been going on for a couple of decades as the British economy has changed from an industrial base to a service base. Entry-level jobs now tend to be casual, without a great deal of security. This was not always the case in Britain. The minimum wage was necessary to combat the poverty resulting from this trend, and it did slow down the rate at which the gap was growing, but many of us would say it wasn’t set high enough.



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splinterlog

posted July 5, 2007 at 6:20 pm


Mark – your comments highlight the fact that there are many layers to the dicsussion on employment, growth and the minimum wage. The neoclassical model that links minimum wage to higher unemployment is therefore too simplistic when it comes to the real world experience which is far more complex.



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Wolverine

posted July 5, 2007 at 6:33 pm


splinterlog,
There’s some truth to that, which is why I never asserted that minimum wage increases are automatically linked to increases in unemployment. What is just as likely to happen is new workers are drawn out of the woodwork, and these workers take the jobs away from the poor that the minimum wage was intended to help. The new workers are likely to be middle class teens who use social and family connections to land unskilled jobs that have been made artifically more attractive.
The neoclassical model can be a mite simplistic, but it’s quite sophisticated and nuanced when compared to the liberal presumption that wages can be increased by fiat without any tradeoffs whatsoever.
Wolverine



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mark

posted July 5, 2007 at 6:38 pm


Kevin S:
“The notion that truly re-distributive economic policies constitutes moral leadership is ludicrous.”
No it isn’t, it’s a legitimate position. Whether one agrees with it depends on a number of things, like whether it is appropriate to attempt to overcome injustice, how you see the role of the state, and whether you believe in the comforting (to the rich) doctrine that wealth trickles down.
I’m no economist, but it looks to me like the evidence for the trickle-down theory is pretty poor. You don’t help the poor out of poverty by just letting the rich get richer. Indeed, very often the rich are rich _because_ the poor are poor – there’s plenty of reference to this in the OT prophets, and more recent examples include the transatlantic slave trade and the Irish potato famine. I would include the ability of modern employers to employ (especially non-unionised) labour in casual work on low wages with little security as a less extreme example of the same thing. (Yes, the Waltons are rich because their employees are poor.)
Whether the state has a role in overcoming such injustice is open to debate (which involves a bit more than dismissing it as “ludicrous”, Kevin). The Blair government – and I think Gordon Brown was the key figure in developing this strategy – mostly avoided that debate but pursued a different one, that of social cohesion. The basic argument is that the government’s job is to maintain order, and that this is a lot easier if everybody has a stake in the success of the society as a whole. Therefore it’s in everyone’s interests (not just those of the poor) to provide safety nets for those who would otherwise become disruptive. Even mediaeval rulers recognised this, and provided basic support for the indigent poor. Hence Brown’s strategy of enhancing support for families on low income (though not so much for single people in the same situation) – kids growing up marginalised are more likely to get involved in crime and antisocial activity, and less likely to make a positive contribution.
Brown hasn’t prevented the continued development of an underclass in Britain, but he does seem to have done some things to limit its growth. Prison populations are still growing (mostly because Blair liked the tabloid support he got for being “tough on crime”), but they are nowhere near the proportion of the total population that you have in jail in the supposed “land of the free”. Homelessness is still a problem, but it hasn’t continued to spin out of control the way it did under Margaret “no such thing as society” Thatcher. I’m not convinced that Brown did enough redistribution as chancellor of the exchequer. But things could have got a lot worse if he hadn’t done any.
Btw, Kevin, are the jubilee laws in Leviticus 25 “ludicrous”?
Mark



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Steve

posted July 5, 2007 at 7:07 pm


What the minimum wage has done here in the UK is tolift the wages of many, many folk who were previously earning a ridiculous amount of money. Whilst the wider consequences are debatable, employment has gone up, the british economy has continued to boom (many suggested both of the above would fall), it is undeniabl ethat many people have had a substantial increase in salary, often those who needed it most, and many families have been lifted from below the poverty line as a result.
It’s true that the gap had widened between the richest and the poorest, but their has nevertheless been a substantial distribution – if nowhere near enough in my opinion.
Cheers
Steve



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kevin s.

posted July 5, 2007 at 7:55 pm


“I’m no economist, but it looks to me like the evidence for the trickle-down theory is pretty poor. You don’t help the poor out of poverty by just letting the rich get richer. ”
Actually, though you framed this in a manner favorable to your viewpoint, I disagree. I think the solution to poverty is a healthy economy. When we have a healthy economy, the rich do, in fact get richer. They then invest those riches, which creates jobs. There are very few economists who disagree with this basic principle.
The question is how to balance to need for governmental services and safety nets with the needs of the economy at large. To short circuit that debate by simply saying that morality = economic redistribution is, if not ludicrous, certainly facile.
If I came out and simply asserted that the only moral thing to do is eliminate the minimum wage, I would get a similar response, and rightly so.
“(Yes, the Waltons are rich because their employees are poor.)”
They are rich because people shop at their stores. And they are providing jobs, which is more than can be said for auto manufacturers.
“but they are nowhere near the proportion of the total population that you have in jail in the supposed “land of the free”. ”
We have criminals in our country. No doubt about it. I think being tough on crime is a good thing. The mayor of Minneapolis does not, and people are dying as a result. Hard to be free when you are dead.
“Btw, Kevin, are the jubilee laws in Leviticus 25 “ludicrous”?”
As public policy in America? Yes.



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splinterlog

posted July 6, 2007 at 8:11 am


Hmmm, I wonder what other Levitical laws are ludicrous for our time – but that’s a discussion for another day



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Jill McL

posted July 6, 2007 at 10:24 am


One thing that recent research shows to have increased since the introduction of a minimum wage here in UK, is the number of companies working in the black economy, who dont declare their existence to any governmental institution,pay no taxes, pay around one pound (50 cents) an hour and employ mostly foreign, possible illegal immigrants.
In order to dodge red tape ‘white van man’ is going underground in rapidly increasing numbers.
Other research has shown that it is impossible to live on the minimum wage in most cities in the UK, if you are not sharing your costs with at least two other working adults.



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Tom

posted July 6, 2007 at 10:50 am


Because to be conservative literally means “unimaginatively conventional” there are certain ideas within this system of thinking that people cannot accept. Just as the staunch religionist must identify himself with traditional church doctrine, the mainline conservative must ridicule certain “red flag” concepts associated with socialism (the ideas that really stand out like economic redistribution) as “ludicrous.” They must make these clear disassociations in order to preserve and protect what is an overall narrow system of thinking. And just as the religionist acts as if God is always on his side, the conservative must readily defile and dismiss certain long withstanding and profound social reforms.



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Wolverine

posted July 6, 2007 at 11:46 am


Tom,
Silly me. Here I am all this time reading books on history and law and economics and social science, in order to get an understanding of public policy. And the answer was right there in the dictionary all along.
Conservative = unimaginative = bad. Webster says it, I believe it, that settles it.
Wolverine



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kevin s.

posted July 6, 2007 at 11:48 am


“Because to be conservative literally means “unimaginatively conventional” there are certain ideas within this system of thinking that people cannot accept”
We’ve addressed this before. That is one meaning of the word itself, but is not the meaning in the political context. For example, if the government decides to (for example) legalize slavery, and takes other steps to oppress the people. Those who stand athwart this movement will be conservative.
” the mainline conservative must ridicule certain “red flag” concepts associated with socialism (the ideas that really stand out like economic redistribution) as “ludicrous.”
I ridiculed the equivalency between economic redistribution and morality. Is Hugo Chavez extra moral because of his redistribution plans? No, he is simply buying allegiance (which, I would argue, is a necessary consequence of charging the government with the task of distributing wealth).
“And just as the religionist acts as if God is always on his side, the conservative must readily defile and dismiss certain long withstanding and profound social reforms. ”
How is this different from a liberal who must embrace economic redistribution? What do you mean by religionist? Are you an atheist?



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