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How Social Mobility Got Stuck
May 28, 2013 1:27 PM   Subscribe

"Britain's poor were absolutely and relatively better off until Thatcher was elected in 1979. Since then, the bottom half of society is worse off than it was in 1983." "In 1945, when Thatcher turned 20, the richest 0.01 per cent people in Britain received 123 times the mean national average income. By the time she turned 40 in 1965 that had halved to 62 times, and the year before she came to power, in 1978, it was at its minimum: just 28 times the average income."
posted by marienbad (107 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have always held that there are only two philosophical justifications for enjoying a greater standard of living than your fellow man. One is that you have worked, and thus produced, a greater amount of goods. The second that you are inherently better.

We have come to a point of crisis in society however. When people in the aggregate are worse off today than yesterday it means those who claim to produce a greater number of goods are lying. In the aggregate they increase their wealth at the expense of society. For every man who earns a dollar by creating two for society there are several men who earn a dollar by robbing us of two. In this case the only justification they can raise is an inherent superiority.

Thus from the enlightenment through the industrial revolution we have replaced the divine right of kings with the divine right of the owners of the means of production.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 1:41 PM on May 28, 2013 [26 favorites]


The main thing to remember with regard to this is that in the UK, the policies that drive this growing inequality have been embraced by all of the main parties, including Labour and that this rise didn't necessarily slow down when Labour was in power.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:46 PM on May 28, 2013


There is literally no way that the poor are worse off in absolute terms than they were in 1979.

I'm highly sympathetic to the relative inequality concern, in the sense of "share of the pie" falling for the poorest and middle class. But the pie is so much bigger today that it's absurd to claim that the smaller share is smaller in absolute terms than the share in 1979. Confusing those two is evidence of ideological bias in either the author or the econometrician who ran the numbers, and it undermines the overall point, which is very important in its own right.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:51 PM on May 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


Yep, he mentions that famous Thatcher quip about New Labour being her greatest creation in the article.
posted by Abiezer at 1:51 PM on May 28, 2013


That's what crushing trade unions does.
posted by jaduncan at 1:52 PM on May 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'm highly sympathetic to the relative inequality concern, in the sense of "share of the pie" falling for the poorest and middle class. But the pie is so much bigger today that it's absurd to claim that the smaller share is smaller in absolute terms than the share in 1979. Confusing those two is evidence of ideological bias in either the author or the econometrician who ran the numbers, and it undermines the overall point, which is very important in its own right.
You seem to have glided right past the measures he uses, such as living in housing not affected by damp, where there is an absolute decline.
posted by Abiezer at 1:52 PM on May 28, 2013 [18 favorites]


The shape of these charts have been becoming increasingly similar across capitalist countries and should serve as a solid reason to back tax reforms from a purely data driven stand point. Just so we get the full picture, why not in the same chart that shows the income multiple of the very rich wrt the national average, also include the unemployment rate and inflation adjusted cost for raising a 3 person family?
posted by savitarka at 1:53 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, we are inundated with new things of little consequence while important things are priced out of our ability to buy them. Raise your hand if you have a cell phone but no health insurance. A big screen TV but no way to retire. Netflix but no way to pay for your childs' education. If in absolute terms the cheapening of the frivolous and unnecessary is greater than the expense of the important and needful are we really better off? GDP is a farce.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 2:02 PM on May 28, 2013 [89 favorites]


I just finished watching A Very British Coup, and have been doing some reading on Harold Wilson. Fascinating stuff! Glad to see Tony Benn is keeping at it.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:06 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, we are inundated with new things of little consequence while important things are priced out of our ability to buy them. Raise your hand if you have a cell phone but no health insurance. A big screen TV but no way to retire. Netflix but no way to pay for your childs' education.

The machine drives itself at this point. Conservative rhetoric often focuses on just those things to prove that the poor aren't "really" poor, while at the same time their manufacture and sale are carried out so as to drive down wages, benefits, and the rest in the name of opening up a global economy in which all will allegedly benefit because "the pie gets bigger."

The profits from such enterprises are quickly transformed in lower-taxed categories of income that flow upwards, while trade laws and tax laws and labor laws alike keep being reformed so as to "encourage business."

And when the bill comes due, call the poor greedy, point at all their stuff, and order up another round of austerity and tax incentives.
posted by kewb at 2:07 PM on May 28, 2013 [17 favorites]


anotherpanacea: “I'm highly sympathetic to the relative inequality concern, in the sense of ‘share of the pie’ falling for the poorest and middle class. But the pie is so much bigger today that it's absurd to claim that the smaller share is smaller in absolute terms than the share in 1979.”

The study cited in the linked article seems to directly contradict what you are saying here. It isn't only talking about "share of the pie" – that's why it mentions relative and absolute terms. Do you have any citation for this claim that it's flatly wrong?
posted by koeselitz at 2:14 PM on May 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


Also, we are inundated with new things of little consequence while important things are priced out of our ability to buy them. Raise your hand if you have a cell phone but no health insurance. A big screen TV but no way to retire. Netflix but no way to pay for your childs' education. If in absolute terms the cheapening of the frivolous and unnecessary is greater than the expense of the important and needful are we really better off? GDP is a farce.

A sort of horrifying thing about your point about cell phones with mobile plans, big screen TVs, Netflix, etc. etc. is that there is a pretty large group of people out there who have these things yet still can't really afford them (ie, accumulating consumer debt). So the tradeoff is even worse in that sense. So even these types of improvements in standard of living (if you want to consider them such) accrue somewhat unevenly to the benefit of the more well off, as acquiring these things drives many people further down.
posted by MoonOrb at 2:15 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Thus from the enlightenment through the industrial revolution we have replaced the divine right of kings with the divine right of the owners of the means of production.

And we have replaced God with the invisible hand of the market. Just look what happens when we see a major event. The analysis almost always goes to the mystical judgement rendered by the market.

The market has become God to the extent that there is a separate section in the newspaper to chart it's every move as if we could discern some inscrutable motive in its machinations against our lives.
posted by salishsea at 2:20 PM on May 28, 2013 [15 favorites]


Raise your hand if you have a cell phone but no health insurance. A big screen TV but no way to retire. Netflix but no way to pay for your childs' education.

A cell phone, a big screen TV and Netflix are all choices you make. No one's holding a gun to your head and telling you that you must have these things, or the very best versions of these things.

Now, cutting the cell phone, a TV and Netflix obviously won't equal the cost of health insurance, retirement or education. But let's not muddy the waters, either.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:23 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Maggie: The moral legacy of Margaret Thatcher
posted by homunculus at 2:23 PM on May 28, 2013


Cell phones have been made something of a necessity. Try getting a job without a phone number and maintaining a land line with bad credit and an unstable rental or home ownership situation. Not all cellphones are Droid or iPhone things.
posted by kewb at 2:26 PM on May 28, 2013 [12 favorites]


You're missing the point. Society has decided that it is more important that cell phones and technological toys are cheaper than necessities. I can buy the toys or not, but I will never have the money to buy the necessities. Where is my choice in that?
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 2:26 PM on May 28, 2013 [24 favorites]


There is literally no way that the poor are worse off in absolute terms than they were in 1979.

I think it's becoming clearer and clearer that relative inequity is in fact real absolute inequity. Which sounds kind of crazy according to the status quo, but is also pretty much exactly how real people work in the real fucking world.

It's not crazy to measure the health and wealth of a people by how happy they are.
posted by tychotesla at 2:27 PM on May 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


No one's holding a gun to your head and telling you that you must have these things, or the very best versions of these things.

No, but the people who own companies producing those things absolutely are strategically employing propaganda to entice people that can't really afford them to think of them as necessities, and to satiate them with cheap consumer goods to defuse unrest.
posted by junco at 2:29 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


The author is Professor Danny Dorling of the University of Sheffield. He works with the Poverty and Social Exclusion in the United Kingdom research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. I suspect he's probably put a bit of thought into the subject.
posted by Abiezer at 2:30 PM on May 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


discern some inscrutable motive in its machinations against our lives.

The profit motive, for good or ill, is both scrutable and indeed remarkably easy to scrute.
posted by jaduncan at 2:31 PM on May 28, 2013 [13 favorites]


Cell phones have been made something of a necessity

Which is why I said "the very best versions." A basic prepaid cell phone is dirt cheap. A communication device better and cheaper than your parents ever imagined.

Society has decided...

No, you decided. The actions of the market decided. You. You're the market. So am I. We're all the market. There is no entity called "society" that makes decisions counter to what the people within that market want to spend their time and money on.

If you want to choose something else, do so. But don't say someone else told you that you could have a cell phone instead of a savings account.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:31 PM on May 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have always held that there are only two philosophical justifications for enjoying a greater standard of living than your fellow man. One is that you have worked, and thus produced, a greater amount of goods. The second that you are inherently better.

Is there no room for luck in your philosophy?
posted by Aizkolari at 2:33 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


A basic prepaid cell phone is dirt cheap.

How much does a basic prepaid cell phone cost?
posted by drezdn at 2:34 PM on May 28, 2013


The profit motive, for good or ill, is both scrutable and indeed remarkably easy to scrute.
You're not wrong. It's scrute me right up.
posted by Abiezer at 2:35 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


satiate them with cheap consumer goods to defuse unrest.

Fuck, you're onto me. Dammit. OK, yes. It's a giant conspiracy and you're the victim. Now, if you'll just stare into this fancy penlight ...

Jesus Christ. They Live was a movie, dude, not a documentary.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:35 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


You seem to have glided right past the measures he uses, such as living in housing not affected by damp, where there is an absolute decline.

This is a relative measure, not an absolute one. That more people belong to a category does not demonstrate that the people who belong to that category are worse off than they were before.

The author is reporting results in a way that disaggregates gains and losses and points only at the losses. If you look at things like life expectancy, educational attainment, or other QALY stats, the bottom 10% are better off today than they were in 1979.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:37 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


In 1945, when Thatcher turned 20, the richest 0.01 per cent people in Britain received 123 times the mean national average income. [...] By 2007, the incomes of the best-off 0.01 per cent were at 144 times the national mean average. That top share fell slightly in the 2008 crash, but it is thought to have bounced back since.

Just to add that Netflix costs $7.99 a month, and a cellphone can be far cheaper than a landline.
posted by jokeefe at 2:37 PM on May 28, 2013


Fuck, you're onto me. Dammit. OK, yes. It's a giant conspiracy and you're the victim.

Did I say I was a victim? Did I say there was a conspiracy? Did you read my comment?
posted by junco at 2:38 PM on May 28, 2013


In Canada, $49 phone + $25 prepaid time (expires in 365 days) via 7-Eleven. This is what I have.
posted by Kabanos at 2:39 PM on May 28, 2013


"Jesus Christ. They Live was a movie, dude, not a documentary."

I thought it was a documentary, a metaphorical one, about how we the real truths are hidden from us, and that we are propagandised at every turn to OBEY and CONSUME.
posted by marienbad at 2:39 PM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


There is something further I want to point out and then I'll shut up. Relative inequality is in fact absolute inequality. This paradoxical relationship arises because there are goods the supply of which does not increase with technological or capital efficiency.

The three biggest we see are land, education, and healthcare. Our demand for not dying is infinite, so if you are relatively poor you are absolutely poor because healthcare will be bid away from you. So even if you have an ailment that is easy to fix the rich will consume healthcare to fix hard ailments. This means that no matter how technically proficient we become in medicine, in a capitalist system the poor will always have bad teeth and uncorrected vision.

Education is similar because it is how one advances in the social ladder, which we have an infinite demand for. No matter how good education becomes its fruits (in terms of social advancement) will always be bid away from the poor. Every time someone gets a masters degree he degrades the quality of a bachelors. So while the absolute level of education is increasing, it is a consequence of a bidding war for a finite number of jobs, and is only tangentially related to the desire for a more productive labor force.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 2:40 PM on May 28, 2013 [15 favorites]


How much does a basic prepaid cell phone cost?

$20 new, as of the Nokia 105 (€13/£12 in the EU). At this point, rich enough for a mobile/cellphone is just another mindless talking point.

Oh, and I can get incoming calls and texts with 60 mins outbound and infinite texts outbound for £5 a month in the UK.
posted by jaduncan at 2:40 PM on May 28, 2013


This is a relative measure, not an absolute one. That more people belong to a category does not demonstrate that the people who belong to that category are worse off than they were before.
What are you on about? It's a concrete measure, as are others he cites - can you afford to heat your house and so on. He finds that these measures have declined in absolute terms. He's basing it on the study Breadline Britain it seems reading around the poverty.ac.uk site, which was repeated using same question in 1983 and 2013 or whenever. So the decline is indeed real. He's a serious academic studying poverty but you've leaped out the gate to accuse him of bias without reading his article properly.
posted by Abiezer at 2:41 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Aizkolari

Luck is just another word for divine right of fate.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 2:42 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


To address the "you poor people are way better of than in '79 as the pie is bigger:

Food bank usage doubles

The growing demand for food banks in breadline Britain


(both BBC)

The pie may have gotten bigger, but the rich's share has increased and the poor;s share has fell.
posted by marienbad at 2:45 PM on May 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


Raise your hand if you have a cell phone but no health insurance.
I thought health care was free in the UK...?
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:46 PM on May 28, 2013


Just before this goes off on one of those tangents where someone does the "kids these days wasting their $ on _____", here's an itemized list to show you how ignorant those statements are, yet not irrelevant:

Phones:
1979 - average Local Only Phone cost $8/month, long distance calls within your area code were $0.10/minute, out of state or area code calls were $0.15-.20/minute, and the average phone bill was $33. Adjusted for inflation, you're looking at about $68.
2013 - Vonage = $25/yr, VZ Wireless Home Service $25/month unlimited calling domestically, Cell phone with basic data and long distance after 8p or 9p (depending on the carrier) $70-$90.

1980 Movie Rental - $1.99/night, inflation = $4.15
2013 Netflix - $9/month unlimited streaming, rent on AppleTV = $1.99 to $4.99

1980 27" TV = $500 on average, adjusted for inflation = a little over $1100
2013 44" HDTV = $499-$900 depending on quality

1980 average monthly mortgage = $210/month, adjusted for inflation = $449
2013 average monthly mortgage = $481 (after dropping from $610 in 2007)

Now, do these things seem frivolous to you?

I remember my parents, on $38k/yr... Total, were able to afford a house, 2.5 kids (half sister), food, 2 cars, health insurance, mutual funds for each kid's college, basic cable, phone, and a couple trips out of state a year, 10 weeks of vacation, and they still had a good amount in savings.

How did they do it? Well, a guaranteed pension helped. Plus, they had some assistance negotiating their contract, thanks to NYSUT.

Unions aren't perfect, but they're a shit-ton better than what my generation is dealing with. It's amazing how well a government can take care of its citizens when A)People are actually paying their taxes, and enough people are employed to provide consistent revenue, and B)Those in charge have a fear that they'll end up on a stick if they try to screw over enough citizens.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 2:47 PM on May 28, 2013 [18 favorites]


anotherpanacea: “The author is reporting results in a way that disaggregates gains and losses and points only at the losses. If you look at things like life expectancy, educational attainment, or other QALY stats, the bottom 10% are better off today than they were in 1979.”

Er – the glaring one would seem to be poverty rates. More people are living in poverty. I guess you could claim that people living in poverty are better off now than they were then, but I'm not sure you'd want to, and if you did I'd want to hear reasons. This is a standard right-wing canard – "2013 poverty is better than 1983 poverty" – but I don't think there's any reason to think it's correct.
posted by koeselitz at 2:47 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, we are inundated with new things of little consequence while important things are priced out of our ability to buy them. Raise your hand if you have a cell phone but no health insurance. A big screen TV but no way to retire. Netflix but no way to pay for your childs' education. If in absolute terms the cheapening of the frivolous and unnecessary is greater than the expense of the important and needful are we really better off? GDP is a farce.

It's interesting to note that many of the things poor people have greater access to are substantially made by robots (cell phones, TVs and other appliances, Netflix, cheap food), and many of the things they have trouble accessing aren't (healthcare, education, housing).
A basic prepaid cell phone is dirt cheap.
How much does a basic prepaid cell phone cost?


$15 (in the US). That's cheaper than fancy dirt but more expensive than basic dirt.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 2:48 PM on May 28, 2013 [8 favorites]


To be fair, damp housing in 2013 is a sort of fragrant, water-feature damp, not like that nasty old damp.
posted by Abiezer at 2:48 PM on May 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


Here's the study discussed in the article.
posted by Kabanos at 2:51 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I'd like to add a comment my dad made the other day when we were talking about this sort of thing.

Me: Dad, you've always said that there's sort of a pendulum* throughout history. I feel like in recent years, it hasn't been swinging back, to a more populist, worker's benefit direction. Almost as if someone grabbed the pendulum to keep it in place.

Dad: Well, that has happened in certain points in history.

Me: What gets it swinging again?

Dad: Sadly, the people grabbing the pendulum start getting shot. We can only hope they see that before it happens.

*My dad was a history teacher. He said that, in human history, social changes and perceptions swing back and forth in many areas, simultaneously. Just like a weighted pendulum, it may swing wide or in a somewhat elliptical direction, but it always goes in one direction for a period of time, then in the other. I could write 3000 words on the "social wavelength" metaphor he uses to show how these shifts happen, what events signify a crest, etc. Very smart guy. I wish I had an ounce of his intelligence.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 2:58 PM on May 28, 2013 [27 favorites]


It's a concrete measure, as are others he cites - can you afford to heat your house and so on.

I'm not saying it's not concrete, I'm saying it's not an absolute measure.

Er – the glaring one would seem to be poverty rates. More people are living in poverty. I guess you could claim that people living in poverty are better off now than they were then, but I'm not sure you'd want to, and if you did I'd want to hear reasons.

Look, there's always going to be 10% of the population in the bottom 10%. The question is whether they're worse off in absolute terms, and which terms we should choose. "Social exclusion" is certainly one of the important terms, and that's the product of relative inequality. So then the question is: what's the "floor" and are more or less people above it? In the UK, the floor is being able to eat at least two meals a day, including meat, fish, or vegetables, and having access to frest fruit and vegetables.

AND ACCORDING TO THE STUDY, MORE PEOPLE ARE OVER THE FLOOR TODAY THAN IN 1979.

Food necessities 1983 1990 1999 2012
Fresh fruit and vegetables n/a 6% 5% 7%
Meat, fish or vegetarian equivalent every other day 8% 3% 2% 5%
Two meals a day 4% 1% (1)% 3%

So are the poor better off or worse off? Well, more people are living nearer to the poverty line. But the people who are poor have better access to food than they did in 1979.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't tax the rich and spend the money on the poor; we absolutely should. But we should do it to get that 3% rate even lower (Why not zero?) not because 3% is higher that 4%: or 5% is higher than 8%... that's just spurious math.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:02 PM on May 28, 2013


Hmm... the chart didn't come out the way it looked in preview. It's on page 13 here.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:02 PM on May 28, 2013


Society has decided...
No, you decided. The actions of the market decided. You. You're the market. So am I. We're all the market.


Your mind is a construct erected in response to your surroudings. In a real sense, people have been engineered to be consumers from an endless stream of aspirational programming and commercials. It takes a lot of willpower to avoid buying into that. You can't just say it's their fault, manufactured desire is in the very air we breathe.
posted by JHarris at 3:06 PM on May 28, 2013 [16 favorites]


I'm not saying it's not concrete, I'm saying it's not an absolute measure.
Yep, I get that, but you can see that the number of people affected by these concrete measures of poverty has increased between the two points in time surveyed - heating your house, affording non-damp housing and more nebulous things like access to social activities (but going off the same measure - they discuss their definitions of poverty at the project site and they're not at all controversial). So here's a couple of ways in which more poor people are literally worse off than in 1979, unless as per my crap joke above a cold house is less cold now and so on. He's a grown man and I'm sure he has some politics but he's not presenting us with some cock-eyed bit of axe-grinding as you were a bit too quick to suggest in my view.
posted by Abiezer at 3:09 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is a standard right-wing canard – "2013 poverty is better than 1983 poverty" – but I don't think there's any reason to think it's correct.

I'm pretty sure there were times in our recent history when such a statement might have been correct in some sense.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:14 PM on May 28, 2013


I have always held that there are only two philosophical justifications for enjoying a greater standard of living than your fellow man. One is that you have worked, and thus produced, a greater amount of goods. The second that you are inherently better.

Every Man a King
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:18 PM on May 28, 2013


I once heard Robert Reich (Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton) say that today's rising inequality comes from the shipping container and the Internet. I agree with him.

You used to be able to make a living making mediocre shoes, because you were the only shoemaker in your village and the cost of transport was high. Now, thanks to the shipping container, you can't because you are competing head-to-head with the best shoe manufacturer in the world. Same for any product that can be put into a shipping container or sent over the Internet.

Unfortunately it means that rising inequality is a difficult problem to solve, because we don't want to un-invent the shipping container or the Internet.
posted by Triplanetary at 3:19 PM on May 28, 2013 [12 favorites]


There are way to many simple explanations here and about re: the inequity in the distribution of wealth. It is as simple as greed and sloth or as complicated as coming to grips with the geometric increases in world trade, easy movement of capital and labor, immigration and migration, information, technology--all this plus the decline in collective bargaining, growing role of international corporations, political transformation in China, break up of the USSR, the seductive/lulling power of mass entertainment, the recolonization of Africa and on and on. To hold Margret Thatcher responsible for the decline of living for the poor in the UK hides the real issues--unless you want to use greed and sloth to explain all. And besides--remember, it all depends on when you start the clock on comparing how good/bad the old days were or who is the victim/victimizer. I absolutely support a redistribution of wealth and a reinvestment in a country's human and physical infrastructure--health, public services, parks, education, art etc. But it is a bit more than taking from the very rich ( a necessity ) and giving to the poor--more a matter of taking from the rich and improving the common wealth. BTW, I would not want to be in the poorest of 10% of any country but I would rather be in the poorest 10% of the UK and the US now than between 1930 and 1950.. I might be angrier now, I might feel more hopeless and helpless but at least I know what is possible, have better access to healthcare and education (yes), do not have to use "black only" toilets, birth control, no polio, women's suffrage, more entertainment, etc. I almost remember those "good old days" and I do not remember them being all that good for the poor.
posted by rmhsinc at 3:22 PM on May 28, 2013


Wouldn't some of the income ratios be skewed by how much more wealth is created by the City compared to the 1970's?

Britain's current unemployment rate is actually lower than it was the year Thatcher took office.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:29 PM on May 28, 2013


And we have replaced God with the invisible hand of the market. Just look what happens when we see a major event.

You mean when our major media figures ask people if they thank the Lord for sparing their lives?
posted by aaronetc at 3:31 PM on May 28, 2013


This may or may not be a relevant anecdote but when I visited relatives in Britain in the mid-nineties there were still some sort of subsidies or price controls on bread in place and a baguette that cost ten times as much even in French-Canadian Northern New England, replete with bakeries that specialized in baguettes, was 10p in the British markets.

It was heaven. And it must have been quite a boon to destitute people or even someone undergoing temporary hardship, to be able to buy an entire loaf of bread with pocket change you might find dropped on the sidewalk. Sadly this had disappeared when I was subsequently able to visit and baguettes and other bakery breads there were approximately the same price as in the U.S.
posted by XMLicious at 3:38 PM on May 28, 2013


Not sure where I read it, but I read somewhere today that the Right refuse to believe that things can get better, and the Left refuse to believe that things have got better.

The UK is *so* much better now than it was in 1979. I knew poor then and I know poor now, and your "facts" be damned. There's no way it was better then than it is now.
posted by zoo at 3:38 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


The UK is *so* much better now than it was in 1979. I knew poor then and I know poor now, and your "facts" be damned. There's no way it was better then than it is now.
Well, same with me as regards knowing poverty in the UK then and now. I agree that in many ways the country has improved, but there are also, as the study notes, ways in which it is worse - access to social housing being a big factor for my family, to give one example.
posted by Abiezer at 3:41 PM on May 28, 2013


This may or may not be a relevant anecdote but when I visited relatives in Britain in the mid-nineties there were still some sort of subsidies or price controls on bread in place

Really? I have no memory or knowledge of this at all. I suppose you could be talking about wheat subsidies, but I'm struggling to think what this could be.
posted by zoo at 3:41 PM on May 28, 2013


Abiezer: I agree here. Social Housing would anecdotally appear to be harder to get. That being said, I don't know anyone that has had trouble getting social housing. I don't live in the South though.
posted by zoo at 3:50 PM on May 28, 2013


Your mind is a construct erected in response to your surroudings. In a real sense, people have been engineered to be consumers from an endless stream of aspirational programming and commercials. It takes a lot of willpower to avoid buying into that. You can't just say it's their fault, manufactured desire is in the very air we breathe.

This is actually true. I can see it every day; I've been teaching my children anti-consumerist practices since they were wee, and they're surprisingly savvy for seven-year-olds, but I still have to reinforce the teachings and help them develop new mechanisms to resist the constant temptations that are placed in their way. You cannot, simply cannot, avoid it entirely, and many of these exposures are tailor-made to provoke the desired response (thank you very much, marketing science.)
posted by davejay at 3:56 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, and the other day my son went with his mother to buy a small birthday gift for a friend, and said to his mother: "can we go to Target instead of Toys R Us? Whenever I go into Toys R Us and see all the toys, I want all the things I can't have, and then I feel sad." He knows he doesn't have the willpower to resist it, and it is clearly having an impact on the quality of his life. And he's seven.
posted by davejay at 3:58 PM on May 28, 2013 [17 favorites]


No, you decided. The actions of the market decided. You. You're the market. So am I. We're all the market. There is no entity called "society" that makes decisions counter to what the people within that market want to spend their time and money on.

Not really seeing the distinction you're making here. The market is us? So's society. And regardless of which term you use, you're still describing an aggregate that isn't affected significantly by the decisions of any individual.

More to the point, the distinction is irrelevant to the post it's made in response to. You can make the change that Cool Papa Bell seems to want:

The market has decided that it is more important that cell phones and technological toys are cheaper than necessities. I can buy the toys or not, but I will never have the money to buy the necessities. Where is my choice in that?

...and the meaning is unaffected. If anything, it's rhetorically stronger.
posted by baf at 4:00 PM on May 28, 2013


I was talking to a colleague of mine at work today. She's a few weeks shy of turning 18, and we were talking about the minimum wage. We work in a call centre; if our employer wanted to, they could get away with pay her £3.68/hr because of her age, instead of the £6.50 they do pay her.

My first job, aged 15 – other than paper rounds etc. – was working in the local supermarket, for which I was paid £3.50/hr. That was back in 1992. So, the minimum wage for under 18s has pretty much caught up with what supermarkets were paying teenagers 21 years ago, four years before she was born. And I'm pretty sure that the buying power of £3.50 back then is a hell of a lot more than the buying power of £3.68 is now.
posted by Len at 4:07 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Britain's current unemployment rate is actually lower than it was the year Thatcher took office.

Its about 8% at the moment, it never got above 6% in 1979. See here or here.
posted by biffa at 4:17 PM on May 28, 2013


Len: In comparison, my first job, aged 15 - that was also working in a shop - in 1985 was for £25.00 a week. With half day opening (remember that), that still works out at less than £1.00 an hour.

Thanks to 7 more years of Conservative leadership Len, you ended up with nearly triple what I was earning. :-)

By 1992, I was earning £2.00 to £3.00 an hour for casual work. £3.00 was a lot. Around that time, I also got paid £5,000 for a years work on my Polytechnic Sandwich course. That was at the low end, but it's about £2.70 an hour.

So - Good on you for being paid £3.50 an hour for casual work in 1992, but I don't think that was normal.
posted by zoo at 4:26 PM on May 28, 2013


can you afford to heat your house

Part of what makes comparisons across large time spans difficult is that expectations and normal practices change so much.

The concept of "heating the house" isn't that old (in Britain at least): a generation or so ago mostly you heated the room you were in. Though I didn't grow up poor, into the mid sixties the flat we lived in just had electric fires in each room (the old coal fireplaces had been blocked up and electric fires had been mounted in their place) and a couple couple of extra Dimplex space heaters. In the late 70's in Liverpool I had a two bedroom flat that had a single gas fire (coin operated meter!) as the only installed heat source. All those night storage radiator ads on the tele in the early 70s were trying to sell people on the idea that you could wake up to a warm house.

Mobile phones are nice, partly because you can just go out and buy one and have it work immediately. In the old pre-BT GPO days it could take months to have a new phone installed; I new someone who was quoted a three year wait for a phone because their newly built house was in a location where there was a shortage of lines. The relative affordability of service doesn't really matter if you can't actually get the service.

I don't mean this in an "uphill both ways through the snow" kind of way, it's just that if you are trying to compare poverty between generations there is no simple fixed standard to measure against.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 4:26 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


More info on that Len: This is the figures from 1999, but you can see how wages have improved in the last 14 years.
posted by zoo at 4:31 PM on May 28, 2013


I don't mean this in an "uphill both ways through the snow" kind of way, it's just that if you are trying to compare poverty between generations there is no simple fixed standard to measure against.
I was reading their poverty standards earlier and it's clearly not a simple measure and acknowledges points like yours - so while there may even be differences in what we mean by heating, the reality of deprivation is there.
Anyway, was actually coming back to brag that I was earning well over a hundred quid a week mid-80s in my first proper job after leaving school as a carpenter's apprentice. He obviously didn't scrute the profit motive too well himself, as he went bust in short order when the mini-crisis of the later 80s did for a lot of our customer base.
posted by Abiezer at 4:33 PM on May 28, 2013


I don't mean this in an "uphill both ways through the snow" kind of way, it's just that if you are trying to compare poverty between generations there is no simple fixed standard to measure against.

Indeed. You have to have a baseline for what a basic good life is. It wasn't that long ago that such a baseline didn't include a car or a bicycle, or air conditioning or heating, or electricity or a phone, or more than a few pairs of clothes, or having hot water (or even running water at all.) At the same time, it wasn't that long ago that such a baseline did include a transportation and/or pack animal, a lot of land for crops/food animals, the ability to legally live in a house you managed to construct for yourself, and so on. The baseline changes, things and opportunities and amenities and possibilities come and go.

I'm actually surprised there isn't a baseline unit of measurement for this, where some agency tracks things that represent a minimum humane standard of living in a given country, and things are added to or removed from the list as needed to keep them current. Anyone know of one?
posted by davejay at 4:34 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm highly sympathetic to the relative inequality concern, in the sense of "share of the pie" falling for the poorest and middle class. But the pie is so much bigger today that it's absurd to claim that the smaller share is smaller in absolute terms than the share in 1979. Confusing those two is evidence of ideological bias in either the author or the econometrician who ran the numbers, and it undermines the overall point, which is very important in its own right.

There are two points in the article - that both relative and absolute poverty have risen. While I entirely agree that they should not be confused, they are related.

Let's say we increase productivity by £10,000 in a company (ignoring inflation). How do we split that up amongst say, 10 people working for that company? We could give £1000 to each, that's the simplest, but that rarely happens outside co-ops.

More likely, we give say £8,000 to the richest (the owner), the next richest, the manager gets £1,200, and the other 8 get £100 each. We've increased relative inequality quite substantially, but the poorest are still better off than they were. Is it fair? Not really. But we've reduced absolute poverty even though relative inequality has increased. Everyone is better off, but some are better off than others.

There is a 3rd possibility though. We'll increase productivity by £5000 instead. The owner gets £8,000 still, the manager £1,200 still. But where does that money come from? In pay cuts for the rest and somebody gets fired and their work distributed to the remainder. One person is now on the dole, the rest are working harder for less money, while those at the top are better off than ever. They'd quit, but everywhere else is doing the same, and that's even assuming they could find an equivalent position with millions looking for work.

So in addition to relative inequality, we've increased absolute poverty in this example. How do you tell them apart?

You look at the absolute and percentage of people who have markers of poverty (You have to be careful with absolute numbers, as population also increases, so percentages of the population is more useful). Such measures include children not getting 3 proper meals a day. People not being able to heat their homes sufficiently in winter. Not being able to afford to put a small amount of money aside for emergencies, or afford a trip to the hospital (the NHS itself is still largely free, thank god). Not consumer goods, but simply being able to feed your children, afford a trip to the dentist, or heat your home when it's below zero outside.

By these measures and others, absolute poverty has drastically increased for the bottom percentages of the population.

So while the wealthiest get wealthier in absolute and relative terms, the amount of people we would classify at the bottom who are literally struggling with the bare means of survival have grown. The amount they're struggling has grown. And their opportunities to escape are fewer.

It is possible to cause situation 3 through government action too. Increases in regressive taxation, reduction in taxation for the wealthiest, pay freezes below the rate of inflation, hiring freezes for government bodies, cuts to social welfare benefits for the poorest are all examples.

Now, the counter argument for that is that we're all in in together. That it's a price worth paying so that we don't see mass runs on the banks, a run on sterling (such as that that caused Britain's disastrous crash out of the ERM) due to loss of confidence that the government can pay back on it's bonds, etc etc. I honestly don't know if that's true. It is true that government debt is approaching post-WW2 levels, and continuing to grow.

What is also very true though is that the wealthiest are getting much more wealthier in both relative and absolute terms, and the poorest are getting poorer in both relative and absolute terms. The majority are scraping by at best. If this was supposedly austerity for all, then it is manifestly not. It's austerity for the middle on down, and business as usual for the wealthiest. And THAT is not fair, or just, or right.
posted by ArkhanJG at 4:41 PM on May 28, 2013 [12 favorites]


zoo: So - Good on you for being paid £3.50 an hour for casual work in 1992, but I don't think that was normal.

Well, it was normal for the roughly 8900 employees of the chain that I worked for that the time, which was subsequently taken over by Tesco (in the last month or so that I worked there). I also had a job, the summer I left school (1994) painting fence railings at a local factory for about four quid an hour. My point being that it's scandalous that the minimum wage now, for anyone under 18, is equivalent to – or even less than – what I was getting 19 or 20 years ago as a 17-year-old.
posted by Len at 4:46 PM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


it's clearly not a simple measure and acknowledges points like yours

From your link: "deprivation is seen in terms of an enforced lack of ‘necessities’ as determined by public opinion." This is not really measuring poverty then is it? It's measuring perceptions of poverty which is not the same thing.

a minimum humane standard of living in a given country, and things are added to or removed from the list as needed to keep them current.

I think that's what the "as determined by public opinion" is supposed to do for you, I'm just not sure how well it works for a baseline humane standard.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 4:49 PM on May 28, 2013


Now, thanks to the shipping container, you can't because you are competing head-to-head with the best cheapest shoe manufacturers in the world because they operate in a near slave labour market in an impoverished country, while tariffs are removed because heaven forbid we restrict the flow of capitol like we do labour, thus the profits still flow back to the wealthiest people who used to buy your shoes but happily put you out of business.

*not* FTFY, because I agree with your main point that we can't un-invent the internet or the shipping container. But I don't think the way we currently use them to funnel all the money to a very small number of people* is axiomatically the only, or best way.

*e.g. the Walmart family, to pick one random example.
posted by ArkhanJG at 4:50 PM on May 28, 2013


This is not really measuring poverty then is it? It's measuring perceptions of poverty which is not the same thing.
It is measuring poverty, by the same indicators that they compare over time. You may not share their definition of poverty, but that doesn't make yours right and theirs wrong. It's really a pretty widely accepted way of doing it and certainly resembles the measures we used when I was working in rural development.
Edited in: I think a social definition of a baseline humane standard is clearly superior, myself. Otherwise what? Some hard science set of minimum calorie intake and tog factor for your clothes?
posted by Abiezer at 4:51 PM on May 28, 2013


Bit of a derail here, but that uphill both ways phrase... Maybe not Monty Python who coined it.
posted by zoo at 4:53 PM on May 28, 2013


It is measuring poverty, by the same indicators that they compare over time.

Well, if you define poverty as relative social deprivation as measured by current perceptions, at that point though it's all a little handwavey and no longer measuring material deprivation. Measuring poverty as some percentage of median income is also fraught and arbitrary, so I'm not suggesting that's a better way to do it.

Maybe poverty should just be measured by how people feel about things; in which case I know several affluent (by any other definition) people who are near the poverty line.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 5:09 PM on May 28, 2013


But they're not doing that, are they? They use those perceptions to set the indicators but whether or not someone's house is damp, or whether they can afford the (defined by perceptions) minimum level of social participation is a solid measure.
posted by Abiezer at 5:12 PM on May 28, 2013


No they're not letting individuals define their own poverty, but aggregate perceptions are not really less arbitrary. The method will work well over short time spans and less well over very long ones, even assuming you have reliable data about relative perceptions. Also even seemingly objective measures like what constitutes "damp" are not fixed across time and old standards don't map perfectly to new ones. When selling my Mother's house in Yorkshire I had to fill in a form asking about damp, but it just didn't make any sense because the form did not contemplate 1815 masonry construction (a two foot thick wall with no damp course), and I suspect that by some definitions parts of the house were probably "damp" though entirely normal for that type of construction. Similar moisture levels in modern construction would be a sign of trouble.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 5:36 PM on May 28, 2013


Raise your hand if you have a cell phone but no health insurance. A big screen TV but no way to retire. Netflix but no way to pay for your childs' education.

That is the quote of the week, right there.
posted by newdaddy at 5:49 PM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


No they're not letting individuals define their own poverty, but aggregate perceptions are not really less arbitrary. The method will work well over short time spans and less well over very long ones, even assuming you have reliable data about relative perceptions.
This seems to be the nub of our disagreement, then. Seems clear to me that the indicators derived from those aggregate perceptions are not at all arbitrary; and that while there are indeed factors such as those you mention to take into account when comparing over time, the sort of careful repeated social surveys that Breadline Britain constitute are providing very solid and worthwhile data on changes in real levels of poverty. I can see various objections to this method of measuring poverty but it's by no means some hand-wavey get-up by a bunch of do-gooders. From my own experience in rural development and watching China move from a bare income measure of poverty to something more sophisticated, it's abundantly clear that absent a social definition you will never capture the reality of poverty in a society.
posted by Abiezer at 5:52 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Raise your hand if you have a cell phone but no health insurance. A big screen TV but no way to retire. Netflix but no way to pay for your childs' education.

Appealing on the surface, but 40 years of Netflix at the current rate is $3,835.20, which isn't half of one year of elementary private school education where I live. A big screen television can be had for $400 or less, and last ten years, so that's $1,600 over 40 years.

On the other hand, a cell phone conservatively priced at $50 a month (prepaid Verizon) gets you $24,000 over 40 years, which could conceivably pay for college at a local commuter school. However, the utility that comes from it is significantly higher than Netflix or a big screen television, from the perspective of safety (911 from wherever, being able to contact someone when stranded or injured somewhere.) It is a frivolous thing to own, until you actually need it (which will never happen with a big screen television or Netflix, which are pure entertainment through and through.)

If I were looking to be motivated, then, I'd want to be thinking things like "raise your hand if you have an extra bedroom and a huge yard you never use, but no health insurance" or "raise your hand if you're making payments on a car you purchased new on credit, but aren't contributing anything into your retirement fund."
posted by davejay at 6:20 PM on May 28, 2013


On the other hand, a cell phone conservatively priced at $50 a month (prepaid Verizon) gets you $24,000 over 40 years, which could conceivably pay for college at a local commuter school.

Wait, what?

Who wants to wait 40 years to send a kid to college?

(Putting aside questions of whether the costs of education rise faster than costs of owning a cell phone).

Also, I sort of feel like this misses the point of what ishrinkmajeans was trying to get across. We shouldn't be measuring our standard of living by whether even people with limited means can have a cell phone or a big screen TV, we should be measuring it by whether that same person has the tools of social mobility--education, health care, financial security in retirement. I took his comment to be a counter to those who would argue something like "But look--our GDP has been growing over the last x decades--surely a rising tide must lift all boats!" If we're floating on a tide of cell phones and big screen TVs but unable to reach health care and education, how much should we care if the GDP has grown?
posted by MoonOrb at 6:52 PM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


On the other hand, a cell phone conservatively priced at $50 a month (prepaid Verizon) gets you $24,000 over 40 years, which could conceivably pay for college at a local commuter school.

This is really a reach. Its pretty hard to thrive in modern society without a phone. Try telling your potential employer or college admissions counsellor you don't have a way for them to conveniently get hold of you because you're saving for community college for a kid you haven't had yet. Also, I heard some people have more than one kid.

Lots of people cancel their landline phone now-a-days because it costs just as much and is less convenient. Since my parents definitely did have a home phone throughout their lives, this kind of gets us back to where we started.

The crux of the argument stays the same - our parents mostly had health care, retirement setups like a pension, a reasonable shot at child care and college for their kids. And we don't, mostly.

Also, the reason you have big screen TVs and cellphones is not the product of some magnanimous social policy handed out by the ruling class. It's because of Moore's Law, and comes on the backs of the engineers and physicists that sweat to make Moore's Law continue to hold up.
posted by newdaddy at 7:49 PM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Sometimes I wonder if Moore's Law, and the march of technology in general, are the only things that have sustained any middle class at all. We've come to think of increasing social mobility as normal, because that was the experience of our parents and grandparents. But what if that was a fluke of history? A little golden age created by the invention of the automobile and the flush American economy ignited by WWII? Maybe the increasing disparity we see now is just a return to equilibrium, where most of us will live in shanty towns (with 85" flat screen TVs, naturally) and a lucky few get to be god-kings?
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:12 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


your "facts" be damned.

There's a phrase that just screams good faith.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:36 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


He's a grown man and I'm sure he has some politics but he's not presenting us with some cock-eyed bit of axe-grinding as you were a bit too quick to suggest in my view.

OF COURSE he's axe-grinding. Let me demonstrate: the key to this particular piece is that Thatcher is to blame for the current position of the poor. That's the pull quote, that's the article's framing. So you would expect that the study he is citing would demonstrate that, yes?

No. Thatcher left in 1990, and...

In 1983, 5% couldn't heat their homes. In 1990, only 3% couldn't heat their homes.
In 1983, 6% had damp homes. In 1990, only 2% had damp homes.
In 1983, 8% went without meat & fish every two days. In 1990, only 3% went without.
In 1983, 4% couldn't afford two meals a day. In 1990, only 1% couldn't afford two meals a day.

By the very measures Dorling cites, Thatcher made the poor better off. But his article claims the opposite. The losses are all since 1999, so... blame Labour? Or, more seriously, blame the financial crisis and *contemporary* Tory austerity.

I'm no Thatcher fan, but on this point, Dorling is not using evidence and data in an honest way. You don't need to obfuscate poverty numbers to make Thatcher look bad, she was terrible! And she was particularly terrible on relative poverty, i.e. inequality. But give the lady her due: on absolute poverty, she did okay.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:09 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wait, what?

Who wants to wait 40 years to send a kid to college?


My point was that even if you stretched expenses like Netflix and big screen televisions unreasonably far into the future, you'd still not spend enough to make rational comparisons to those other things. Having done that, I had to capitulate that you could go that far into the future with cell phone charges and come up with an amount close to an inexpensive local commuter college education. If you want to split hairs, just pretend I calculated a common smartphone $89.99 rate over nineteen years (ie starting to save as soon as you knew you were going to have a child) and gotten $20,517.72.
posted by davejay at 10:47 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is really a reach. Its pretty hard to thrive in modern society without a phone. Try telling your potential employer or college admissions counsellor you don't have a way for them to conveniently get hold of you because you're saving for community college for a kid you haven't had yet. Also, I heard some people have more than one kid.

Landlines are extremely inexpensive compared to cell phones, and I referred specifically to cell phones. Also, see my time frame comment above.

Also, I heard some people have no kids and don't incur college costs at all for their children, so I'm sure we can go into that as well. And some people don't even want to go to college, so why don't I want them to have phones? I'm downright unamerican, I am!
posted by davejay at 10:53 PM on May 28, 2013


OF COURSE he's axe-grinding. Let me demonstrate: the key to this particular piece is that Thatcher is to blame for the current position of the poor. That's the pull quote, that's the article's framing.
It's not though. It's the turn she represented, away from the post-War consensus, and he does indeed "blame Labour". If you think bringing that up is a refutation, you're only demonstrating you've rather missed the point. As noted up-thread, he quotes Thatcher on her claim to have created New Labour - to have shaped the political consensus in such a way that her former ideological opponents now subscribed to the agenda her administration ushered in. That's clear over the whole piece - you get the economic indicators he shows in the earlier graphs, on shifts in income, then the social consequences of that, which unsurprisingly took some years to filter through. Making a case and backing it up isn't axe-grinding.
posted by Abiezer at 11:18 PM on May 28, 2013


Also, I heard some people have no kids and don't incur college costs at all for their children, so I'm sure we can go into that as well. And some people don't even want to go to college, so why don't I want them to have phones? I'm downright unamerican, I am!

I don't know you, but I'll let you know upfront that any argument that sounds like 'Only the rich deserve to have kids, or to expect their kids to be able to go to college' really pushes my buttons, and I think is pretty plainly awful just on the face of it. I surely wouldn't want to be part of any society were only the affluent were reproducing. The phrase "Eat the rich" is ringing pretty loudly in the back of my mind just now.
posted by newdaddy at 12:07 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's a lot of bandying about what poverty means here. Everyone agrees that it's bad, but some people think that poverty is less bad now than it used to be, because the poor have more access to food and shelter.

Isn't it great that we can be satisfied with the lot of those for whom life is about grinding by with the minimum they need to survive? Who cares if they might want something less minimum-quality in their lives? Let them eat McDonalds, while the super rich comport themselves with an ever increasing array of delights and consume ever larger portions of the planet's resources relative to other people, but they're rich, surely they deserve it. Although, as time passes, I find myself less convinced that they do -- even if they didn't obtain it through inheritance, often when a rich person claims "I work hard," it means something very different from what a poor person means when they say it, and I am not convinced the rich man's version is better, or that he has access to it through anything other than extraordinary luck.

When I hear people here defend Thatcher's legacy, as well as austerity, trickle-down economics, or whatever hateful and anti-human policy the Right is pushing through this week, a flame I keep burning deep within me grows brighter; the flame of callous misanthropy. Certainly better men than I (especially better writers) have succumbed, entranced by its flickering glow. But no, I do think people, on the average, want good things for other people in addition for themselves.

For this is one of the few things humanity can point to that puts them legitimately above the beasts. If the universe were to knock on the door and ask me "This creature man, why should he be?", that's what I'd answer, or what I'd like to. Threads like this don't make it easy though.
posted by JHarris at 3:12 AM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also, the reason you have big screen TVs and cellphones is not the product of some magnanimous social policy handed out by the ruling class. It's because of Moore's Law, and comes on the backs of the engineers and physicists that sweat to make Moore's Law continue to hold up.

Also oil: the UK uses 1608 thousand barrels of crude per day, each of which contains the approximate energy equivalent of the daily work performance of 1714 average adults. Meaning, in a way (if distributed evenly), every man, woman, child, and lizard person tory in the UK (pop. ~63 million) has the the equivalent of 43.75 full time slaves working for them.

Not that that's necessarily a particularly realistic figure in terms of the efficiency of conversion (etc.). But a lot of our standard of living can be explained by the fact we are the recipients of one of the biggest free lunches in the history of history. It also raises the question of where the fuck our flying cars are, and why we don't have holidays on the moon.
posted by titus-g at 6:11 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Something else occurred to me thinking about this back and forth over terminology, methodology and so forth.
We have here, amongst other things, someone looking at the findings of a recently repeated survey of poverty first conducted in 1983 and carried out at intervals in the intervening years. Thirty years on from the first survey, there are actually some measures where people are poorer in absolute terms, contrary to all expectation and despite growth in GDP etc. That is nothing short of scandalous and Prof Dorling would have been remiss to present it as anything else. Even a lacklustre improvement would have been damning enough, but actually worse in absolute terms?
Now imagine if a survey using this methodology had been carried out in 1953 and you were to compare those results with 1983. Would there be even any ambiguity over massive overall improvements in the lot of the poorest?
No surprise that the rate of improvement would slow down as overall material standards rise to make improvements more incremental, but stagnation and even reverse for some - the poorest - is clearly the big news.
posted by Abiezer at 6:18 AM on May 29, 2013


Why the headline "How social mobility got stuck"? The article isn't really about social mobility, is it?

I mean, it's at least possible to imagine a society with very high social mobility where those blessed with rare abilities from any background rise to a great height but the bottom 50% at any time have it really bad. Or, conversely, one where everyone lives and dies at the fixed level they were born into but the relative differences are small.

Obviously poverty and social mobility are not unrelated but this article doesn't connect those dots. And it shouldn't have to do so to be worthy of attention. You'd think poverty would be cause for concern enough.
posted by PJMcPrettypants at 6:40 AM on May 29, 2013


you get the economic indicators he shows in the earlier graphs, on shifts in income, then the social consequences of that, which unsurprisingly took some years to filter through.

So the consequences of social policies take 22 to 34 years to evaluate, and will throw up false and even inverse signals until that time? That's a hell of a lag time. That means James Monroe was responsible for the US Civil War, William McKinley caused the Great Depression, and Richard Nixon's policies caused the internet and technology boom in the mid-1990s. Plus, it means that Jimmy Carter caused 9/11.

That is nothing short of scandalous and Prof Dorling would have been remiss to present it as anything else. Even a lacklustre improvement would have been damning enough, but actually worse in absolute terms? [...] stagnation and even reverse for some - the poorest - is clearly the big news.

I agree with this. Clearly British austerity is not working, and needs to be undone, though we might argue whether Britain needs stimulus or simply redistribution. But that's precisely why I find the article's framing so troublesome: there's a clear prescription from the study, but the etiology and framing of the article passes over the study's description of the current situation to score points.

Why blame Thatcher rather than Cameron? Well, apparently because it's more important to win thirty-year old ideological battles rather than replace contemporary detrimental policies. (And it lets him lump Tories and Labour together.) Why abuse and twist the absolute numbers when the relative numbers are so strongly in favor of your policy preferences already? It weakens the overall case, and the case should clearly be: things are worse because of austerity, not because of policies thirty years old, so end austerity.

Or at least, that's how it seems to many other serious scholars, though apparently not to Dorling who doesn't even mention austerity here.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:58 AM on May 29, 2013


So the consequences of social policies take 22 to 34 years to evaluate, and will throw up false and even inverse signals until that time? That's a hell of a lag time.
I think they do, when you look at how those policies were implemented. You highlighted aspects of the housing indicators that don't show a smooth mathematical decline when sampled at intervals over the thirty years. Well, the Thatcher regime didn't bring every policy on day one. The council houses sell-offs and restriction on social house building came earlier - Housing Act 1980, but that was tinkeredwith and sell-offs done in tranches - but the deregulation of the private rental sector very late in her term of office - '88 or '89 as I recall. You can well imagine that policies like those will take a bit of time to impact the figures - next generation growing up lacking such easy access to housing and so on. So those inverse signals can well be from the interplay of various policies not all impacting at the same time; one generation doesn't strike me as at all a lengthy lag when it's this sort of social impact you're assessing. If anything we want a Zhou Enlai on the French Revolution "too early to tell" approach.
I can accept reasonable people might disagree, but when you tie that to the clear turning point in incomes etc his earlier graphs show, it's certainly not unreasonable to suspect that wholesale shift in policy and ideology her government ushered in is to blame - she herself and her supporters were very clear that they were breaking the old post-War consensus. Austerity today traces its roots and legitimacy back to that turn taken under her regime - why pretend it's some particular failing of the Cameron administration when in fact the culprit is precisely this bankrupt ideology; an ideology thanks to her now subscribed to by all likely parties of government.
posted by Abiezer at 10:49 AM on May 29, 2013


Here's the problem: if that's true, we'll never get political economy right. I can tell a credible story about Carter and 9/11, by the way, but I can also tell what I take to be a more credible story about Reagan and 9/11 and Bush I and 9/11. So there's a lot of credible stories out there. If we never get beyond telling credible stories, if we never resolve which of the competing credible stories in true, we'll never know which policies to change to improve things.

So yeah: Dorling might be right. Maybe Thatcher is to blame, and I'm just wrong to blame Cameron. But a world where Dorling is right is a world where both democracy and socialism are impossible, because we'll never know whether we're screwing the world up or making it better. It's a blooming bluster of chaos and confusion, where neither technocrats nor cooks can govern, and good policies are no more than luck.

If anything we want a Zhou Enlai on the French Revolution "too early to tell" approach.

You probably already know this, but I found out a few years ago that he was talking about May '68, which kind of takes the fun out of it..... :-)
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:01 AM on May 29, 2013


Well, again, really it's not Thatcher per se, it's the neoliberal turn. Apparently she wasn't originally going to be the front for that within the Tory Party, they (the group pushing for this against the old One Nation wing) wanted Keith Joseph but he was such a frothing right-winger he made some speech about the need for eugenics to improve the quality of the poor which somewhat spiked his guns even in the UK of his day! And these later policies under successive administrations do all flow from the poisoned spring - the attack on the unions so no push-back, the chop-chop sell off of public services and the introduction of private actors into the NHS/PFI deals and so on and so forth. I don't think it follows at all that this means that Dorling's findings can only imply a hopeless inability to affect affairs of state - obvious conclusions would be to rebuild mass democratic participation bodies like the unions, a reconsideration of the appropriate role of markets in public service provision, a return to rent controls and public housing or any number of things.
posted by Abiezer at 11:09 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sure, those are obvious conclusions of Dorling's explanation. They are not the obvious conclusion of other explanations. I favor a basic income guarantee, for instance, on the basis of a very different sense of the story and the belief that large-scale public service provision ends up creating poverty traps through middle-class buy-in and thus needs to be reformed.

But again, I just don't think we have a case for Dorling's explanation that trumps other explanations: we have his explanation, and other explanations, and one thing that stands in favor of other explanations is that they don't require a 32 year lag to explain the currently observed phenomenon, and thus they won't require 32 years to see if our efforts yield real improvements or just false and inverted signals.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:17 AM on May 29, 2013


It helps that we can see direct evidence that cash transfers trump in-kind transfers, i.e. in the work of Blattman, Fiala, and Martinez, summarized here: "Dear governments: Want to help the poor and transform your economy? Give people cash."

I take that to be good evidence in favor of my preferred policies, but if Dorling is right, it may be that Uganda will be significantly destabilized by these policies sometime between 2044 and 2056. That's pretty paralyzing, if you think about it the way you are articulating.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:26 AM on May 29, 2013


But again, I just don't think we have a case for Dorling's explanation that trumps other explanations: we have his explanation, and other explanations, and one thing that stands in favor of other explanations is that they don't require a 32 year lag to explain the currently observed phenomenon, and thus they won't require 32 years to see if our efforts yield real improvements or just false and inverted signals.
See that's where I think his case becomes compelling. What is the significant change in UK politics at that point in the 20th century - this deliberate shift to a whole new paradigm. What are the consequences of that paradigm a generation later? This is in political terms as well as in policy in a more "wonkery" sense - you can see trade union membership actually rise during the militant years of the 70s to peak on or around the '79 election then decline sharply thereafter as wave after wave of policy and strategy set about dismantling the status the unions had. This coincides with a steadily falling rate of overall political participation, including at the ballot box, and so on.
Individual policies often did show their impact in the short-term too of course, and there's aspects of the way subsequent administrations of either major party have applied neoliberal policies that have yielded different results - Blair both continuing the privatisation by stealth of the NHS but inputting greater funding for example. So it's not that you require this lag for the explanation, it's that if you only look at the shorter term, you'll miss this fundamental sea change in UK politics that truly represents a turning point (which we then went on to do our best to export to mainland Europe etc.).
posted by Abiezer at 12:03 PM on May 29, 2013


"they don't require a 32 year lag"

This is not South America, you can't bring about rapid change, it has to be done gradually, so people don't really notice too much. The rich and powerful can afford to play the long-game. The poor cannot.
posted by marienbad at 2:51 PM on May 29, 2013


"This is the figures from 1999, but you can see how wages have improved in the last 14 years.
posted by zoo at 12:31 AM

So the bottom one percent's share of total income rose from 0.2 to 0.3 in 14 years? And how much as inflation and house prices and gas and electric and fuel prices gone up in the same period? Much much more.
posted by marienbad at 3:04 PM on May 29, 2013


you can see trade union membership actually rise during the militant years of the 70s to peak on or around the '79 election then decline sharply thereafter as wave after wave of policy and strategy set about dismantling the status the unions had.

The bottom 10%, the socially excluded folks, didn't belong to trade unions, though. In fact, the trade unionist's status was in part upheld through the exclusion of the lumpenproletariat, keeping wages and prices high while excluding the least advantaged from accessing those higher wages through unionized work.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:05 PM on May 29, 2013


The bottom 10%, the socially excluded folks, didn't belong to trade unions, though.
That's simply not the case in the UK. What are you basing this claim on? First time I've heard anything of the sort. And the notion that it's the defence of wages and standards that excludes the least advantaged is some Kool-Aid right-wing bullshit.
posted by Abiezer at 8:09 PM on May 29, 2013


That's simply not the case in the UK. First time I've heard anything of the sort.

Union members were not among the poorest 10% of Britons in 1979. For one thing, they were workers, rather than unemployed, and even in unskilled manual labor, they were making an average of 100 pounds a week in 1979. (About £350/week today.) The very poorest are usually among the long-term unemployed.

For another, there were never more than 12 million unionized workers out of a population of 55 million in the UK. That's a lot of people excluded, including the vast majority of women who faced a pretty serious wage gap (@ 55%) even in unionized industries in the UK back then (and of course most women's industries weren't unionized.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:10 AM on May 30, 2013


Union density hit just over 50% around 1979. The nature of unions in the UK then did mean that unemployed people weren't in them. But that's not the unions excluding them (though conscious of that failure they're moving to community unions now as well). There were far fewer long-term unemployed in those days as there were far fewer unemployed all over- you might drop out of your union during a period on the dole then join again when you found work. Unions were big movers behind the Equal Pay Act (Ford machinists' strike - led by women, subject of recent film). Industrial disputes like Grunwick saw unions rally behind low-paid immigrant Asian women workers. There were all sorts of problems with the model, sexist and racist dinosaurs not least, but it wasn't setting out to exclude anyone and often in the shared democratic struggle played a big part in changing those attitudes. What excluded a lot of casual, part-time and women workers from unions was the refusal of their employers to allow union membership.
I can't see what you even think you're saying here? You appear to be arguing the bosses' logic that defending decent pay and conditions prices the poor out of those lovely sweatshop opportunities they would have had otherwise. And here we're discussing an article that shows that the amount of wages going to the poorer section of society, as well as relative inequality, were both better in the heyday of the union movement and have worsened precipitously since its breaking. You can find other figures on the amount of wages out of GDP going to the poorest quintile, also higher then (he has a bit on that here) - that was the rising tide that floated others' boats, mass participation in demanding better.
posted by Abiezer at 4:32 AM on May 30, 2013


"Union density" is different from the proportion of the population that was a member of a union: it was never higher than 24% in Britain. "Community unions" sounds interesting, though I wonder how it would work.

You appear to be arguing the bosses' logic that defending decent pay and conditions prices the poor out of those lovely sweatshop opportunities they would have had otherwise.

Eh? No. My grandfather, my father, and my uncles were repeatedly beaten in the sixties and seventies for doing roof work without a union card, even though the union wasn't taking new members, so I think I can say that unions were sometimes socially exclusive, yes. I can understand why the unions did that, but there wasn't any work for my family and for a long time they didn't have the right connections to get into a union. (My grandfather eventually managed to get into a union factory just before it shut down on strike and the company went out of business.)

As to the aggregate effects, it's a complicated question. The union wage differential was highest in industries that were only partly unionized, since low union membership rates tended to signal a weak bargaining position, and high union membership rates tend to bring up the wages even for non-union members. Trade unions did appear to hold skilled and non-skilled labor basically equal in unionized work, which staved off the skill-driven inequality that plagues us today.

Unions are great for a lot of things, including workplace democracy, improving working conditions, and (in my view) helping to raise the standard of living of a country overall when it is at a relatively low level. But when I think about professional cartels, for instance unions of prison guards or medical doctors, it's hard to ignore that they raises wages and prices, prevent oversight, and lobby against being held responsible for their errors, sometimes with great success. When I worked investigating police misconduct in NYC, the patrolmen's union absolutely worked in a way that made the poorest worse off.

And here we're discussing an article that shows that the amount of wages going to the poorer section of society, as well as relative inequality, were both better in the heyday of the union movement and have worsened precipitously since its breaking.

Remember, our argument was originally about the absolute poverty of the least-advantaged, not relative inequality numbers like income share. I agree that union membership helps the income share (primarily of the midddle-class, though) but this is where it's important not to confuse relative and absolute levels, and it takes us back to the improvements for the least advantaged under Thatcher.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:02 AM on May 30, 2013


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