Prof Ben Ansell
Wealth inequality in political perspective
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I am a political economist, which is whatever you want it to be; which is a wonderful discipline. My interests, like many of the talks in this series, is on contemporary changes to the structure of the global economy, whether that is in terms of industrial structure, education, or - and this is what my current interest is - in the message surging collapse in wealth, in particular in residential wealth (i.e housing) over the last 20 years. Whereas many of the other speakers will be focusing on how those trends are playing out and what their future trajectories might be, my interest is on what this means for politics.
My initial interest was on what this meant for redistributive politics - that is, the politics of taxes and spending - and that's an area of great interest in political science. But of course, we've had a number of recent elections, and those elections seem to be playing out on a slightly different dimension, what political scientists often called the ‘second dimension’; a dimension of politics that is less about redistribution between rich and poor and more about group-based identity, about attitudes towards cosmopolitanism, authority and so on. The question I have - and the answers I'm going to try and give you today - relate to how the housing market in particular, but wealth more generally, might affect both forms of politics. How useful is the housing market? If we want to think about how politics has been playing out in terms of how people think about the world, and in terms of the geographical divides and what people vote for.
Now, all of this is being supported at the moment by a grant from the European Union, from the European research community - so I guess when we get to the Brexit part, you can just shut off your ears if you think that biases it - but it's a project called The Politics Of Wealth. So lot of the work I'm going to be talking about today relies very heavily on work done by the postdocs and graduate students who are part of that team, so I wanted to thank for their efforts on this before I begin and take credit for it here.
So why wealth inequality for a political scientist? Well, political scientists know a lot about how income differences matter. We know a lot about how class matters; every time you look at a public opinion survey by YouGov, you'll see the old ABC, 1C / 2D forms of occupational coding for class and their relationship to voting for parties that promise to transfer resources from richer to poorer citizens. We know a lot about that, we have very clear expectations about that; we know a lot about how changes in the real economy - of production and the labor market - affect your likelihood of being re-elected as an incumbent, what we call ‘retrospective voting’. but we don't know very much about how any of this plays out when we turn to wealth; when we turn to what people own, as opposed to what job they do. That should matter. It should matter, not least because the housing market is increasingly salient in most people's lives, and oftentimes politically - look at the way Margaret Thatcher and George W. Bush both talked about ‘ownership societies’ - but we don't have a lot of theoretical traction on that as political scientists, and we don't have a lot of empirical evidence. Part of the reason for that is, it's really hard to measure this stuff in surveys; so what we're gonna talk about mostly today is a residential wealth, and the reason for that - by that I mean housing - the reason for that is, that's the kind of information that we do have a lot of. We know whether people own houses, that's commonly asked; we know about what local house prices look like; as we'll see in some surveys, we even ask people how much we think their house is worth; but many of the things I talk about today should spread over to other forms of wealth. Financial wealth, in terms of the kinds of assets you have in capital markets; stocks and bonds and so on, savings accounts or your pension.
But here I'm gonna punt a little and say that's what my ERC project is supposed to develop data on, because it's much harder to get their data and it's rarely asked in surveys. But one thing I want to highlight here is that residential wealth in particular is locally specific; it's locally situated; the value of your house depends on its Location, Location, Location, as you all know from watching 28 seasons of Kirstie and Phil.
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