Here’s Your Reading List, Tony

by Tom on October 30, 2005

I’ve just picked up Brian Barry’s new book, Why Social Justice Matters, and despite having very high expectations based on the man’s track record, I’m not in the least disappointed so far. Barry’s work always combines extraordinary clarity and patience in argument with enviable command of the relevant chunks of social science. ‘Why Social Justice Matters’ is no exception – the chapters on the effects of growing inequality in the US and the UK on the health and education of the worst-off are fantastically useful distillations of what I presume are massive literatures. I shall hope to blog about some of Barry’s ideas about responsibility when I’ve mulled them over properly.

One of Barry’s minor themes is the shameful abandonment of social democratic ideas by New Labour, and the book drips with contempt for the vacuity and amorality of Mr Blair’s political philosophy, if that’s the word we want.

Well, given the cabinet’s division over Mr Tony’s latest cunning wheezes for our education system, it’s apposite to pick out a quote Barry finds in the late Robin Cook’s memoirs which tells you everything you need to know about the motivations of the man by whom we’re currently led:

For an ambitious middle-class parent, such as Tony Blair, what used to be thought of as good jobs are no longer good enough. Asked by a journalist why he did not send his sons to a state school, he said: ‘Look at Harold Wilson’s children’. ‘The journalist demurred and said that one son had become a headmaster and the other a professor at the Open University. To which Tony responded, startlingly, “Well I certainly hope my children do better than that”.’ To me what is surprising is that Robin Cook (in whose diaries the anecdote occurs) found the remark startling, given that Blair has both expressed and acted on the maxim that no mere ‘ideology’ (equal opportunity, perhaps) should stand in the way of his ‘doing the best’ for his children.

Yep, that Bremner, Bird and Fortune dinner party where the upper-middle class couple bemoan the fact that their children have ended up as nurses and teachers, rather than ‘making a real difference’ as, say, asset strippers, was one that Tone may have been at, in spirit at least.



stormy 10.30.05 at 2:36 pm

Education—that is the panacea for offshoring. Job loss must be combined with education. I would humbly suggest that this is simply not working, nor will it work with vouchers or privatizing education. I would go further: It will not work at all.

We are told that aside from IT, service sector job loss has been and will generally be in sub-median jobs. In short, “lower end jobs will be eliminated in the US either due to outsourcing or due to changes in technologies that makes these jobs redundant.” Presumably, this loss will allow these workers to move to higher paying jobs. (See “Global Services Sourcing Issues of Cost and Quality,” Bajpai, Sachs, Arora, Khurana, p. 61.)

Anyone, anyone who has been in education for any amount of time knows not everyone can be skilled in highly complex or creative jobs, nor is everyone cut out to be a financial wizard or a high level manager. The hard-nosed among us will say, “Well, too bad. They just could not cut the mustard.”

Setting aside the absurdity of people gravitating towards higher paying jobs, which is simply not true, I would suggest that the forces of globalization are creating a two-tiered system of “haves” and “have-nots.” And where are all the jobs the proponents of NAFTA and trade policy said would happen. Silence. Not a word on why jobs have not appeared. Nor will they ever answer why their prediction has failed. Poverty is growing.

More importantly, the ability of those with talent to rise through the system is slowly breaking. The educational system itself is under enormous strain. Rising tuitions are placing state universities and community colleges simply out of reach for the poor and middle class—those median wage earners that we import into our wealthy suburbs to attend to our immediate needs. You who live in lower Westchester ask yourselves where your teachers can afford a home. Peekskill? Nice drive. I noticed a disheveled elderly man standing near an air pump in a rainstorm, hoping that people would pay him to put air in their tires. No incentive? You try standing in the pouring rain all day. Then sneer. And $35 million is average for CEO pay. My gorge rises at it.

Add to all this the absurd costs of health care—unless you happen to be in government or in a cushy corporate job—and you have a serious problem.


harry b 10.30.05 at 2:55 pm

stormy — what is absolutely fantastic abut Barry’s book is that while all the time Barry is engaging with and presenting cautious, careful, detailed arguments (philosophical and empirical) you can feel him seething with exactly the same emotions that your comment seems to express. It is a gift to the left: an argument that tells us how and why we are right, and how and why they are wrong. And even a little bit about what to do about it. Like Tom I was not disappointed, depsite having high expectations. I also think Tom should have said that the book is eminently readable — it is not at all just for the pros (though it is too long!)


abb1 10.30.05 at 3:32 pm

Does it really need cautious, careful and detailed arguments? This thing is so painfully obvious that it seems that looking for nuances can only be counterproductive. Isn’t it a bit like presenting cautious, careful and detailed arguments on importance of not swallowing large amounts of arsenic?

One can probably find a reasonably sounding counterargument for most detailed arguments; it’s agitprop-style arguments that are not refutable in this particular case.


harry b 10.30.05 at 3:41 pm

abb1 — what he does is takes one after another interpretation of the defence of existing and putative inequalities and shows that they simply don’t stand up any which way. My guess is that most of us on the left have friends, neighbours, relatives, etc, who are taken in by the prevailing ideology. Barry’s book arms you to converse with them in a way that shows how wrong they are even if you take some of their most fundamental committments seriously. This seems valuable to me. Of course, he’s not produced something that alone could be the basis of or bible for a movement; just something which is both a contribution to serious scholarly debate and also an accessible rational demolition of some of the ruling ideas. I think we need that, as well as agitprop.

I think you would really like the book, honest.


Tom 10.30.05 at 4:03 pm

Harry’s absolutely right about the quality of Barry’s writing – he’s marvellously clear, but there’s a real passion about the book, too. It’s a very rare trick to manage both.


Tracy W 10.30.05 at 6:06 pm

Stormy – unemployment in NZ is 3.7% (
Unemployment in UK is 4.7% (
Unemployment in the US is 5.1%. (
What do you mean where are all the jobs? 5% is a very respectable unemployment rate – the French and German governments would kill for such a rate. I don’t know what the frictional rate of unemployment is but in NZ we’re pretty close to it.

Jobs in NZ that are
a) very unlikely to be outsourced
b) do not require super-whiz high level training
c) have trouble filling positions
– nurses
– other medical technicians
– other care workers, e.g. care for the disabled
– builders
– mechanics
– linesmen, for both electricity companies and telecoms companies
– retail staff (every shop in Lambton Quay seems to have a sign out saying “Help Wanted” at the moment)
– plumbers
– technical drafters
– teachers
– chefs
– waiters
– social workers
– armed forces (who will train you to do one of the above trades jobs)
– non-drug-taking fishermen and forestry workers
– farm hands/managers
– florists (really)
– hairdressers
– childcare workers
And this is only a partial list.


Matt McIrvin 10.30.05 at 6:24 pm

Isn’t the unemployment rate in the US a tremendously cooked number? There’s a discussion over on Brad DeLong’s blog in which some of the participants claim that the French and US rates are actually about the same if you measure them comparably.


Matt McIrvin 10.30.05 at 6:27 pm

…Link here. I don’t know who’s right, not knowing jack about economic indicators…


stormy 10.30.05 at 8:50 pm

harry b,

Thanks for the heads up regarding the book. Tom’s post did hit a nerve in me. Remember Clinton’s effort to have health reform? And all the ads about “socialized” medicine…we have the greatest system going. Yeah yeah. One of my brother is an endocrinologist–our arguments were fierce. Now even he admits the whole thing is broken. So much for market forces.

Wonder how many economists sided with the “market forces” then? Economist often present little graphs concerning the trade-offs between equity (social justice) and efficiency (market forces). I frankly find these graphs amusing. But they learned them in school and never thought much further.

Now I watch as the educational system just implodes. My sons, quite well-off in Westchester, NY try to calculate the cost…insane.

I finally up and left the country for Canada. Here health care is sane…everyone pays into it. Everyone gets it. Maybe I cannot have absolutely the best…so what? Could not afford the very best the states. The deductible was becoming absurd.

But I tell you, even while I waited to be a landed immigrant, I paid a fraction of the insurance costs here than I did in the states. And when I did have to shell out money, actual costs for things like x-rays, tests, etc. were far, far cheaper. And frankly, I have found the care absolutely superb…and I live in a tiny village.

Compared to the states, higher education in Canada is available to all at reasonable prices.

From my point of view, I am watching the U.S. devour itself. It will take time…wealth is still pouring into the very upper class–that is where the economic boom is. But the wage differentials are growing, growing faster than most would like to admit.

It is all so stupid. America has such great promise–but ideology has always been its blind spot. It simply refuses to learn from others.


LogicGuru 10.30.05 at 8:59 pm

He wants his kids to do better than that–than being a professor? Honest to God, what can be better? I teach 9 hours a week–ugh–and then I can do research. What can be better than that? Seriously.

I just want my kids to have safety-nets–very hard to come by in the US–and options. I have a suspicion that the whole desperate push by American parents to get their kids in the best pre-schools, etc. isn’t geared so much to get them at the top of the pyramid as to provide cushions and safety nets so that they don’t end up drudging at Walmart. It’s like proving a theorem by proving something stronger.

All I want for my kids is that they get BAs in scientific or technical areas so that they’re readily employable, can get jobs that have some intellectual interest, and have some choice about where they live. Anything beyond that is gravy–and I can’t fathom why anyone would want anything “beyond” that for their kids–or themselves. Do people really want more or are they just afraid that if they don’t work like the devil, push as hard as they can, they’ll end up in service sector drudge jobs which the US is cranking out in the greatest abundance.


Tracy W 10.30.05 at 10:15 pm

On whether unemployment rates are cooked or not – according to the BLS, in 2003 labour force participation was 66.2% in the US, 63% in the UK 57.4% in France, and 65.9% in NZ (June 2003).

This provides some sort of check -if unemployment is being hidden by one country more than another I would expect it to show up in the labour force participation rate. This does show higher labour force participation in the US than in France, which is not what I’d expect if the US and France had the same “real” unemployment rates.

There is a puzzle here in the UK having low unemployment while also a lower participation rate than the US or NZ.

Sorry, can’t find the international data for later than 2003, probably because I don’t read french that well.

(see for everyone but NZ, otherwise see,%20Age%20and%20Sex)


stormy 10.30.05 at 10:33 pm


Participation is a tricky variable. Depends on when they actually retire from the labor force. Some simply cannot retire.

Mandatory retirement for most professions in Ontario is 65…same in England, I think…and in a lot of Europe. Not so in the states. Work until you drop. It would be interesting to have the state stats on those over 65 who simply have to work. My step-father had to work until he was in his 80’s.


Tracy W 10.31.05 at 12:33 am

Stormy – The Bureau of Labor Statistics where I got the references from for the other figures apparently seeks to get statistics that can be compared between countries. Please see

Incidentally, in NZ, labour force participation is defined as everyone over 15, if you define it as 15-64 it goes up to 77.9% (March 2005 figure).

Furtheremore, given that US has a broadly similar labour participation rate to NZ, and all NZers are paid a non-means-tested benefit at age 65, I don’t think there’s some extraordinary number of Americans over 65 having to work who drive the figures up. A number of old Kiwis do work, but not in the sense of “have to work or eat”. Mandatory retirements are banned as illegal age discrimination.

And, if a large number of Americans are having to work, then it’s proof that there are lots of jobs around. Maybe you think they shouldn’t have to be taking them, but that’s different from your original argument that there was a shortage of jobs.


e-tat 10.31.05 at 7:39 am

Meanwhile, what have Tony and Cherie’s kids made of themselves? Does the Cook snippet reveal a parent whose ambitions for his kids are wildly out-of-sync with the aspirations of the kids themselves? What would Blair have said if he were faced with certain knowledge that his eldest would become a minor celebrity known for partying and bad judgement in fancy dress, while simultaneously failing to achieve even his own basic ambitions for entry into the cultural elites? Does he then dismiss his own snobbery as of no significance?


stormy 10.31.05 at 10:36 am


I purposively and carefully avoided the “job number” issue. What I am claiming is that jobs lost are not being replaced with higher paying jobs or even jobs of equivalent monetary value. Furthermore, the educational system, once the way to higher paying jobs, is breaking.

In short, real wage growth has fallen for most people; risen for the very wealthy–a two-tiered system. If increasing numbers of people have to work beyond their retirement years, or take two jobs to survive, something is amiss. That more and more people are moving below the poverty line is factually not debatable.


Jussi 11.01.05 at 11:22 am

“There is a puzzle here in the UK having low unemployment while also a lower participation rate than the US or NZ”

No puzzle, Tracy. There are big variations in the ‘economic inactivity rates’ of countries. The main reasons for economic inactivity (at least in developed countries) are education and training, and family responsibilities; but other situations, such as early retirement, long-term illness or disability etc, also play a part.

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