Review: ‘Inequality and the 1%’ by Danny Dorling
Danny Dorling’s books are a lot like that. Like the makers of Saw, Dorling has long run out of things to say, but insists on muddling on anyway.
His latest, Inequality and the 1%, is a typical Dorling book: The leitmotiv is inequality, but the book is really an unstructured all-round rant against the market economy and its supporters, and against ‘the rich’ (in Dorling’s world, ‘the rich’ and ‘the neoliberals’ are largely the same people). Sure, some of the data Dorling gathers is quite useful. But then, you could also get it directly from the ONS or the IFS. What the book does, though, is offer an insight into the warped thinking of a certain section of the left. For example, you often hear commentators claim that nobody, even on the left, wants to go back to the hyper-statism of the 1970s. That is complete nonsense. Dorling wants precisely that. For him, the 1970s were the golden age of British history (e.g. p. 119).
The book also has unintended entertainment value. Ironically, while Dorling appears to spend most of his waking hours railing against free-market economics, he clearly knows absolutely nothing about it. What he really rails against is a bizarre caricature he has created in his mind, in which economic liberalism is simply an especially malevolent form of Social Darwinism, peppered with snobbery and hatred of the poor. It is the belief ‘that inequality is good, that the poor deserve nothing more than to be poor […] and that the rich are worth their riches’ (p. 25). Or: ‘Between 1 and 2 per cent of people are not naturally empathic. This small group find it enormously difficult to understand how other people feel or to appreciate a different point of view. […] Those who amass fortunes manage to do so partly because they don’t like sharing and see themselves as special, […] as being worth more than others. They tend to see others, and sharing, as “just weak”’ (p. 89). Since Dorling cannot be bothered to learn a little bit about his nemesis, he does not even realise that on occasion, he makes a point which most pro-market economists would actually agree with (e.g. pp. 55-57, p. 126, pp. 127-128). There are some drivers of inequality which have more to do with state interventionism than with market exchange, but such distinctions escape Dorling.
Dorling’s major problem is that while the be-all and end-all of his books is inequality, he cannot really get around the fact that nothing much has happened on the inequality front for the past quarter century. It is true that Britain is a more unequal place today than it was in the 1970s. But that is not exactly news. Almost all of the increase in inequality took place during Margaret Thatcher’s second and third term in office, with no major further changes since then.
Two measures of inequality in Britain, 1979-2012
– based on data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (2014)
This is where the (now almost proverbial) 1% come in. While not much has happened to the income distribution over most of the range, the very top percentile has continued to pull away from the rest. So if you define ‘inequality’ as the share of national income that goes to the top percentile, then you can indeed present rising inequality as a development that is still ongoing.
To be sure, there is an interesting book to be written about ‘the 1%’. The evolution of incomes at the very top puzzles a lot of economists, because nobody really knows what explains the extraordinary fortunes of this group. Who are these people? What sectors do they work in, what positions do they hold, what are their backgrounds, and what are their income sources? Which theories have been presented to date to explain the growth of top incomes, what are the strengths of those theories, and what do they fail to explain? Why is it that when it comes to attitudes towards the super-rich, dividing lines seem to run within, not just between, political camps? A book that sought to answer such questions would almost certainly make a compelling read, quite regardless of whether one agrees with the author’s worldview or not.
But Danny Dorling has not written that book. Inequality and the 1% is about inequality alright, but it is not really about the 1%, about whom we learn next to nothing. They are merely a conduit for Dorling to continue his inequality saga. Since Dorling is not interested in economic arguments, he cannot examine whether the 1% have gained their riches at the expense of the rest of society (some of them may very well have), so he simply treats it as self-evident that they have. Nor can he explain why, even from an egalitarian perspective, so much emphasis should be placed on the small group of the distant super-rich. So far, egalitarians – especially the authors of The Spirit Level – have claimed that inequality causes a raft of social problems by fuelling status anxiety and accentuating status competition. In this is their main worry, one would expect egalitarians to be concerned about inequality between peers. What Dorling describes, however, is the gap between the very rich and the very, very, very rich. A widening of that gap may well intensify competition for school places at Eton and properties in Mayfair, but I doubt that many people, left, right, centre or elsewhere, would lose sleep over it.