#BAD14 #Inequality

Today is Blog Action Day, and in 2014 the theme is Inequality. I’m afraid I’m going to cheat, and post stuff I’ve written earlier. Some is a bit dated (anyone remember Michael Gove?), but I think the core message is still relevant…

It’s the equality, stupid

Published in the Church Times, 27 July 2012

YOU wait ages for a story on welfare statistics, and then, on 14 June, three come along together.

First to arrive was the publication of the latest Happy Planet Index, bringing the good news that people in the UK are better off than others in the European Union or G8 countries, based on the perceived level of happiness, life expectancy, and environmental factors – but worse off than those in many developing countries.

Then came mixed news from the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ annual report Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK, which found a sharp fall in incomes in 2010-11, but also an improvement in equality across all income levels.

And tagging along behind were announcements from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, on child poverty. At present, the Child Poverty Act 2010 defines child poverty as children living in households that earn less than 60 per cent of median income. The UK does not suffer the squalor and starvation of previous centuries; so using a measure of relative poverty reflects levels of social exclusion: whether these children are excluded from the average family’s ordinary living-patterns and activities (Comment, 15 June). But Mr Duncan Smith wants to change the way in which child poverty is measured.

He argued that the problems of worklessness, welfare dependency, addiction, educational failure, debt, and family breakdown are causes of child poverty. On the other hand, the thesis of The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Penguin, 2010), is that these are symptoms of inequality, and therefore it is important to retain a relative measure of child poverty, and to have policies that tackle this.

Professor Wilkinson and Professor Pickett studied rich countries, and the differences in inequality between them. They found that a smaller gap between rich and poor in terms of income equality means a happier, healthier, and more successful population (Comment, 26 March 2009).

There is no relation between income per head and social well-being in rich countries; so more economic growth will not necessarily lead to a happier or healthier population. But, if the UK were more equal, we would be better off as a population. The rich would not lose out in order to benefit the poor. The 99 per cent would benefit – perhaps, even, the 100 per cent – although poorer people would gain the most.

As well as varying from country to country, inequality also varies over time, and it can be influenced by government policy. Britain became more equal during the World Wars, as the Government saw that making people feel they were sharing the burden was a way to gain popular support for the war effort.

During the mid-1980s and early ’90s, inequality grew rapidly, almost certainly reflecting the neo-liberal economic policies of the Thatcher and Major Governments.

Professor Wilkinson and Professor Pickett argue that it would not take a revolution to reduce income inequality. All the data in The Spirit Level come from rich developed market democracies, and the analysis is only of the differences between them.

But a transformation is still required, and the authors outline two direct ways of reducing income inequality: first, reduce differences in pay before tax (as happens in Japan) – for example, by minimum-pay policies, strong trade unions, employee representation on boards, and through a public ethic intolerant of the bonus culture; and, second, redistribution by taxes and benefits (as happens in Sweden), not least through more stringent action to prevent tax-avoidance.

Other policies can have indirect influence, including education policies and the management of the national economy. There is a huge volume of evidence available to policy-makers, which they need to filter. The danger is that some evidence is played down, in order to avoid challenging the status quo.

ON THE day that Professor Bob Holman wrote about how Christians need to lead the battle for equality in Britain (Comment, 21 October 2011), St Paul’s Cathedral closed its doors to the public for the first time since the Second World War, amid fears that the Occupy demonstration posed a risk to health and safety. That, and the subsequent eviction of the camp, reflected negatively on the Church.

But Occupy has also been criticised for a perceived lack of clarity in its demands. Policy is a complex area, and dangerous to simplify. The gift of The Spirit Level is that it enables concentration on one area: reduce inequality, and see substantial improvements in murder rates, mental illness, obesity, imprisonment, teenage births, and levels of trust.

Occupy, the Church, and any organisation or individual could evaluate all government policy in terms of one question: what effect would this policy have on income equality? This question would act as a common cause, and bring clarity to the engagement.

For example, what effect would replacing GCSEs with exams akin to O levels and CSEs have on income equality? I would want to investigate whether lower-income children would be less likely to take O levels, while recruiters would prefer candidates with O levels, and hence inequality would increase indirectly.

As policy is so complex, often the indirect effects on inequality are not obvious. It is important, therefore, to enlist experts in each field and discuss, listen, and learn. Nevertheless, the Child Poverty Act puts the onus on government ministers, such as the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to show how their policies in education, health, and social services are governed by the goal of poverty-reduction.

So, even without all the answers, we can still put the equality question to our representatives and policy-makers, and ask them to ensure that the aim of reducing income inequality underpins all policy discussions.

The website WriteToThem has information about how to contact your MP, MEP, member of devolved administration, or local councillor. You can also follow a link to TheyWorkForYou, to find out more about your MP’s interests. It helps to know whether they have spoken on an issue and how they have voted in the past, in order to target and personalise your communication.

Whichever method we choose, let us work together as the 100 per cent towards the equality and benefit of the 100 per cent.

www.equalitytrust.org.uk; www.writetothem.com; www.theyworkforyou.com; http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk

Peril of eating all the pie

Review of Joseph E. Stiglitz. The Price of Inequality. London: Allen Lane.
Published in the Church Times, 12 October 2012

“IT MAY be true that ‘the poor always ye have with you,’ ” writes the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, “but that doesn’t mean that there have to be so many poor, or that they should suffer so much.”

The first half of The Price of Inequality is utterly compelling. Focusing on the United States, Professor Stiglitz stacks up the evidence for growing inequality of wages, total income, and wealth, and the sharp acceleration during the Great Recession, since 2008. The bottom and middle are now worse off than in 2000, while income growth has been primarily at the top one per cent. He also, importantly, busts the great American myth of equality of opportunity (related to both income mobility and lifetime earnings), often used somehow to justify inequality.

Market forces have shaped inequality; government policies have shaped those market forces (much of the inequality that exists is the result of government policy); and the one per cent have used their power to shape policy to their own ends. The wealthy often do not so much create wealth as take wealth away from others through rent-seeking – not just in the US. Recall, for example, HMRC’s waiver of Vodafone’s potential £7-billion tax bill.

The US and other widely un-equal countries are paying a high price for this inequality. Their economies are inefficient in their use of resources, and are neither stable nor sustainable in the long term. Further, the US is staring into the abyss of a breakdown in social cohesion and trust. Democracy it-self is in peril, warped, as it has been, from one person, one vote, into one dollar, one vote. Yet, despite everything, through its ownership of the media, the one per cent has succeeded in shaping public perception, and convinced the 99 per cent that they are all in it together.

At this point, and in his description of the battle fought over the laws and regulations that govern the economy, Professor Stiglitz starts to flag. But he picks up again when he returns to economics, and the battles over fiscal policy (tax and expenditure) and monetary policy (interest rates and inflation).

In his discussion of the policies that may or may not pull the US and European economies out of the Great Recession, I find three key messages: austerity doesn’t work (George Osborne, take note); progressive taxation – that is, shifting the burden from the poor to the rich – will stimulate demand and growth, as well as reduce inequality; and addressing unemployment should be prioritised over fighting inflation.

In the final chapter, Professor Stiglitz summarises his multiple solutions to inequality and its causes, but, given the power of one per cent, he has to ask: “Is there hope?” Only, it seems, if the one per cent learn before it is too late that their welfare is bound up with the way the 99 per cent live.


Tewlwolow Kernow

It was a hot bright day during the 2013 summer heatwave. I approached from below through the gardens recently planted with exotics from even hotter climes. The land was once owned by the monks of St Michael’s Mount, and the Mount shimmered on the horizon behind, at once below me and above keeping watch.

I passed through a circular seating space, an antechamber, through a narrow door into a low and dark space stoppered by light in front and behind, and opened out suddenly into bright height.

The space is an oval chamber, open to the sky. There is a bench running around the edge. I sat down. It forced me to lean back and look upwards.

I’m told there is background illumination, presumably nestling in the ledge above the seating, but the power of sun overwhelmed all human mediated light. It was at first unbearable, a space seering on the eyeballs. Eventually, I put my sunglasses back on.

SkyspaceSt Michael's Mount

Initially I had seen a flattened image of blue and white. The sunglasses brought the image into three dimensions… not the 3D of a white frame superposed on blue, but the 3D of a blue lozenge mounted on the white ceiling, now decreasing to grey as the blue increased. The edge belonged to the sky instead of the opening in the ceiling. The only tell-tale of reality was a thin bright line reflecting the sun; the edge of the opening cannot be infinitely thin.

Here are the truths mediated by dark protective lenses…

The lozenge was coloured light-blue nearer the invisible sun, shading to dark-blue on the opposite side, and becoming darker as my gaze lengthened. It was a jewel, a cameo brooch, a gift.

It was a film projection, across which clouds and birds were flying.

It was a dish of liquid, through which clouds and birds were swimming.

I could stretch out my hand to touch the face of God.

The ellipse was the entire cosmos. I was being shown the universe as Julian was shown “all that is made” lying as a hazelnut in the palm of her hand.

Anti-shadowThe anti-shadow – made by the sun shining through the oval opening – was an alternative universe brighter than our own. But it was misshapen, swollen above the fault line that ran across it. It was the brightness of a Lucifer, or an Icarus that had approached too near the sun and fallen. Its lines were blurred.

One could not come close to the other.


Tewlwolow Kernow is “An underground elliptical domed chamber which James Turrell has designed as a space from which to view the sky, especially at twilight.” It is found in the Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, whch opened in mid-September 2012, located in the golden mile above Penzance. Tewlwolow means half-light, i.e. twilight.


Blue, the colour of home

Solnit, Rebecca (2006) A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

I was lying on my back in the garden. It was thirty years ago, so my memory is hazy. But I remember it being 10pm and still light, so it must have been close to midsummer. The sky was a deep blue, cloudless; no distance to focus on, to measure. I lay on my back and stared up towards the sky, and lost myself. My eyeballs were engulfed, squeezed in their sockets. My brain reeled with vertigo as my body floated bluewards.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes of the blue of distance: “For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.”

She writes powerfully of desire, as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance, of cherishing the desire and loving the distance. She quotes Simone Weil: “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.”

And she writes of the history of blue in art, which prompted me to catch up with the recent BBC programme A History of Art in Three Colours, Blue.

The programme takes a tour of the arrival of lapis lazuli rocks in Venice, fragments of sky used to produce the pigment ultramarine, literally ‘over the sea’; of Giotto, the first to use blue to portray heaven in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua in c.1305; of the masters that followed Giotto and applied blue only to heaven or the Virgin Mary; of Titian, who liberated blue from the “shackles of religion”; of Picasso’s blue period.

The key theme is that of Solnit’s: blue is all around us in the sea, sky and horizon, and we are beguiled, because the “great blue beyond” is unattainable. In Novalis’ novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which had a strong influence on German Romanticism, the blue flower symbolises inspiration, love, desire, and the striving for the infinite and unattainable. Yves Klein wanted his patented colour International Klein Blue IKB79 to be a means of escape from materialism, to be deep, rich, open and liberating. Engaging with his paintings is less a search for meaning, more a way of experiencing and enjoying freedom.

But the programme ends with Earthrise, the photograph taken by Bill Anders as Apollo 8 orbited the moon for the fourth time. Blue is now no longer the colour of other worlds. It is the colour of our own planet. Here is the irony: that blue is used to portray the divine, the infinite, and the unattainable wide blue beyond, while it is in fact the colour of home.

Solnit is saying that even when we reach that point which had been the horizon, or those remote mountain ranges, they are blue no longer. As I write, I look out of my window, and see blue only in the sky. There is little natural blue as I walk around my suburbs or in Ludwell Valley Park. So my questions are whether the blue of distance can, like a Klein bottle, curve round on itself and lead me home; whether my intellectual blue skies pondering can lead me to a deeper present; and whether I can learn to love the distance, because it reveals my desires.

Some 15 years after I lay in that garden, I pointed my camera at the cloudless blue dome above the island of Iona and took a photo. The print shop didn’t print it, and I didn’t notice until it was too late to ask why. Perhaps the staff took it upon themselves to quality control it, or perhaps the print machine couldn’t focus to resolve the colour, or perhaps it couldn’t compute blue skies in Scotland in April. But in that ‘thin place’, the sky was present to me and I to the sky. And so I want my home to become a thin place, and I want always to see with the blue-tinted contact lenses that I put in my eyes each morning.


Mythogeography – a response

Smith, Phil (2010) Mythogeography: a Guide to Walking Sideways. Axminster: Triarchy Press.

“Those familiar with the exhausted history of the arcane will pretty quickly identify the structure of the book” (Preface, p.9). Those unfamiliar may like me think WTF! as they flick through it to try and get an idea of the contents.

There are introductory notes, footnotes, endnotes, appendices, a panography (bibliography extended beyond books to, well, anything of significance), a legend and even a contents page.

And yet… it is Heath Robinson, Stockhausen, late Kandinsky in book form.

Purporting to be by “The Central Committee”, questioned as a jest by the first of many publishers’ and editors’ notes scattered throughout, it is nevertheless dominated by the two narratives of AJ Salmon and the Crab Man.

The former, entitled “The E – – – – – Walking Cult” (yes, Mythogeography contains many such coy dashes; this one is easily identifiable as Exeter, others are given away elsewhere in the text), is not only split in two, beginning the main section of the book and forming Appendix 1, but immediately directs the reader to an endnote in the middle, which serves only to undermine the text.

The latter is the Crab Man’s description of his walk in the footsteps of C – – – – – – H – – – – (Charles Hurst) as he crossed England from M – – – – – – – – – (Manchester) to M – – – – – – (Morcott) planting acorns; his digressions and meanderings of thought and step; and his creative encounters along the way.

The Preface advises “those less than thrilled by literary intrigues … to avoid [these] narratives”.

The rest of the book comprises: “What is Mythogeography?” – presented as more of a toolkit, given that mythogeography “must always be a mixture of thoughts and actions, and not so much a theory, but a series of approaches, a set of modest survival strategies, a bran tub of prefigurative behaviours…” (p.110), and drawing on the Situationists’ practice of the dérive or drift; extracts from the handbooks of various walking cults; an impassioned insert by a Nomad about women walking and pirates; an Orrery – the ur document of these handbooks (think Q, the reconstructed source of the bits of Luke and Matthew which were not lifted from Mark); and another impassioned insert by the publisher who hates the Orrery.

One particular tool of note, Khlestakovian Inscrutability: “when you next want to get in somewhere, say as little as possible … staying physically very present but not overbearing. Given the general human discomfort with gaps and pauses, otherwise obstructive guards, porters, janitors and concierges may fill the void with an invitation.” (p.154).

If not for the occasional flash of recognition (Richard Long, John Cheever, Gaston Bachelard), I would think this was a huge, marvellous, nose-thumbing prank. As it is, I am left feeling straight-laced, like a tag-along to a well-marked route, and verging on overwhelmed by the already vast corpus… but conscious that there is always going to be room for more.

Some people think I’m bonkers
But I just think I’m free…
(Dizzy Rascal)