Is Ed Miliband stuck in a 1990s timewarp? I ask because his idea that predistribution entails "a much higher skill, higher wage economy" seems too wedded to New Labour's excessive emphasis upon human capital as a force for inequality.
I mean this in separate ways.
First, take inequality at the top of the income distribution.90/10 inequality - the gap between the poorest 10% and the richest 10% - might be amenable to upskilling, in the sense that increasing the supply of skilled workers should reduce the price of them.This was New Labour's thinking in the 90s.
But today, I suspect that most people are worried not so much by the income of the 90th percentile - someone on just over £50,000pa - but those of the top 1%. And this inequality is unlikely to be reduced by human capital policies. At best, the hyper-rich owe their high incomes to winner-take-all effects (pdf) and marginal differences in skill - of the sort that can't be imparted by education. At worst, they are due to the use of power to extract rents from workers, shareholders or the state.
The answer to such inequality is not to increase skills.It's to empower shareholders or, better still workers, to restrain CEO pay, and to reform banking seriously. Aside from talk of "responsible capitalism" and "banks that serve the country", Miliband offered little hint of this.
Secondly, I'm not convinced by Miliband's thinking about the lower paid. He says:
Think about somebody working in a call centre, a supermarket, or in an old peoples’ home.
Redistribution offers a top-up to their wages.
Predistribution seeks to offer them more:
With higher wages.
Isn't this the fallacy of composition? Sure, if a single supermarket worker has high skills, she might well be able to move up a career ladder and get out of poverty. But if everyone has high skills, there'll just be more people stuck in jobs for which they are overqualified. If wages and productivity are attached to jobs rather than people, mass upskilling isn't the route out of poverty.
Of course, one might argue that employers would respond to the higher supply of skills by creating jobs with higher skill requirements and wages. But there's little evidence that this anti-Bravermanian process is happening, and there are good reasons to think it won't.
I don't say all this to deny that a more skilled workforce might be good for growth - that's a different story (pdf). It's just that, as a force for reducing inequality it is, surely, limited. Shouldn't we have learned this since the 1990s?