Saturday, 13 August 2011

Review: Danny Dorling, So You Think You Know About Britain?

Danny Dorling is a Professor of Human Geography and a whizz with statistics. He has all sorts of Gold Medals to his credit. In spirit, his book could be twinned with Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2009).

But the letter of that latter book comprises tightly-focussed use of statistics, remorsely marshalled in support of the single conclusion they draw.In contrast, Dorling's book is an unfocussed scatter of statistics (some interesting), unintegrated mildly left-wing recipes for a better future, occasional hobby horses, and bits of chumminess. You can imagine it having been stitched together from academic articles, seminar papers, newspaper comment, invited talks,and so on. I ended up feeling disappointed and frustrated.

His copy editors weren't up to much either: who would have thought a publishing house would miss the confusion of Principals and Principles? (page 136, twice)

It remains true that the UK is one of the world's most unequal (advanced) societies which in recent years (and like its big brother, the USA) has become more unequal. Every measure of equality and inequality tells the same story: social mobility, educational experience and outcomes, health and health care, housing, income and wealth, North and South, town and country, mortality.

One of the things that I liked about The Spirit Level was the attention it paid to Japan as both a more equal society and a low tax one. I find that appealing, simply because there is just so much evidence (and not just from the Taxpayers' Alliance) that UK governments are unable to use tax revenues effectively to achieve their goals, whatever those goals are. So I am interested in alternatives.

For example, if you twinned minimum wage legislation with maximum wage legislation you could cut out some of the disastrous middle-man activity of redistributive taxation. And the more you lift tax thresholds at the bottom, the less you have to supplement people's incomes with hand-outs.

But one of my fears is that there is no one who will see Equality and Low Taxes as a policy agenda worth developing, just because those who develop agendas are almost entirely those (like the UK Professoriate) who are sustained by state funding and who automatically see More State as preferable to Less State.

Whether UK political parties could even begin to grasp the magnitude of the task they would face if they sought to reverse the relentless growth of inequality is another question. Over the past decade, they have found it more convenient to throw the people the circuses of War and Royal Weddings in the belief that these are bigger vote winners than justice or fairness. And they may well be right.

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