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Chris Bertram

Inequality, migration and economists

by Chris Bertram on November 8, 2014

Tim Harford has a column in the Financial Times claiming that citizenship matters more than class for inequality. In many ways it isn’t a bad piece. I give him points for criticizing Piketty’s default assumption that the nation-state is the right unit for analysis. The trouble with the piece though is the immediate inference from two sets of inequality stats to a narrative about what matters most, as if the two things Harford is talking about are wholly independent variables. This is a vice to which economists are rather prone.

Following Branko Milanovic, Harford writes:

Imagine lining up everyone in the world from the poorest to the richest, each standing beside a pile of money that represents his or her annual income. The world is a very unequal place: those in the top 1 per cent have vastly more than those in the bottom 1 per cent – you need about $35,000 after taxes to make that cut-off and be one of the 70 million richest people in the world. If that seems low, it’s $140,000 after taxes for a family of four – and it is also about 100 times more than the world’s poorest people have. What determines who is at the richer end of that curve is, mostly, living in a rich country.

Well indeed, impressive stuff. And as Joseph Carens noticed long ago, and Harford would presumably endorse, nationality can function rather like feudal privilege of history. People are indeed sorted into categories, as they were in a feudal or class society, that confine them to particular life paths, limit their access to resources and so forth. But there’s a rather obvious point to make which rather cuts across the “X matters more than Y” narrative, which is that citizenship isn’t a barrier for the rich, or for those with valuable skills. It is the poor who are excluded, who are denied the right to better themselves in the wealthy economies, who drown in the Mediterranean, or who can’t live in the same country as the love of their life. Citizenship, nationality, borders are ways of controlling the mobility of the poor whilst the rich pass effortlessly through. It isn’t simply an alternative or competitor to class, it is also a way in which states enforce class-based inequality.

Sunday photoblogging: Under the L

by Chris Bertram on November 2, 2014

Grossman’s Life and Fate

by Chris Bertram on October 26, 2014

The past year has been one of reading long books. Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, War and Peace, and, on the back of the latter Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. I’m still digesting. Is Life and Fate the greatest Russian novel of the past century? I don’t know, and it seems like an invidious question. But great it certainly is. Not so much for the writing — at least in translation Grossman’s prose is, well, prosaic — but for it breadth of vision, its humanism, its psychological insight and for Grossman’s courage in facing up to inconvenient facts about human beings and his own society. Grossman, Soviet war correspondent alongside his rival Ilya Ehrenberg, one-time favoured Soviet writer, seems to have imagined the book might have managed to get published under Khruschev, as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was. What an absurd hope to have had. Life and Fate, was “arrested”, the typescript seized by the KGB. But Grossman had made copies which were smuggled to the West, and the book was finally published in 1980.

At the heart of the novel is Stalingrad, briefly, as he puts it, capital of the world, the focus of a great struggle between two totalitarian powers. Alongside this, and interwoven with it, are the travails of nuclear physicist Victor Shtrum and his extended family, their dealings with a capricious state, their moral dilemmas and psychological adaptations in the face of its cruelties. In the background lurks the memory of the year 1937, knocks on the door in the night and sentences of ten years “without right of correspondence”, meaning, in actuality, a bullet in the head. Right in front is the destruction of European Jews, massacres and deportations by the invading Germans and the imminence of death. And all the time the question occurs, made vivid by Grossman cutting between Soviet POWs in Germany and zeks in Siberia of whether there is any moral difference between these two regimes. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Saguaro cactus

by Chris Bertram on October 26, 2014

Sunday photoblogging: houses

by Chris Bertram on October 19, 2014

Sunday photoblogging: reflection

by Chris Bertram on October 12, 2014

Sunday photoblogging: the Old Blind School, Liverpool

by Chris Bertram on October 5, 2014

Sunday photoblogging: Boat, Bristol floating harbour

by Chris Bertram on September 28, 2014

Sunday photoblogging: garlic

by Chris Bertram on September 21, 2014

Eine Bundesrepublik Britannien?

by Chris Bertram on September 17, 2014

There’s a day to go before the Scottish independence vote. The opinion polls are fairly even; the bookies are backing “no”. But it could go either way. I’ve swung both ways on the issue, but I’m now firmly hoping that “no” will win, though I think that the campaign has demonstrated that the United Kingdom is broken, and needs a comprehensive constitutional fix, which may be hard to achieve.

My reasons for favouring “yes”, initially, were sort-of quasi-Rousseauvian. Democracy thrives better in small states where government is closer to the people; large anonymous states, whatever their political form, have distant governments often captured by special interests. That’s a general inclination, to which I would add a sympathy for Scots who are sick of being ruled by Tories they didn’t vote for and who hope for a more inclusive and socially just society. I doubt their hopes will be realized in an independent Scotland though.

For me, though, the balance of reasons decisively favours “no”, for three reasons: abhorrence of nationalism, a dislike of the idea that smaller entities claiming full state sovereignty should proliferate, and disbelief at the economics of separation, which will not turn Glasgow into Stockholm.
[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Pembrokeshire bull

by Chris Bertram on September 14, 2014

Most of the photos I’ve posted have been selected from a rather large back catalogue, but here’s one from less than 48 hours ago. A field in Pembrokeshire, a part of the world I’ve visited every year but one since 1994 and has something of the role for me that Wordsworth evokes in “Tintern Abbey”,

…oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration…

Sunday photoblogging: Uppsala – window, shadow

by Chris Bertram on September 7, 2014

Sunday photoblogging: Liverpool, St Luke’s Church steps

by Chris Bertram on August 31, 2014

Sunday photoblogging: Bristol, the centre

by Chris Bertram on August 24, 2014

Ferguson, disorder, and change

by Chris Bertram on August 20, 2014

Watching the nightly demonstrations and confrontations from Ferguson, I was reminded of James C. Scott’s discussion in chapter 1 of his Two Cheers for Anarchism of the role of riots, confrontations, violence and disorder in effecting social change. They don’t always, or even usually, make things better. They sometimes makes things worse. But police violence, racism and radical social inequality are not going to be ended just by voting for the US Democratic Party, or even by a black President.

Scott:

It is a cruel irony that this great promise of democracy is rarely realized in practice. Most of the great political reforms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been accompa­nied by massive episodes of civil disobedience, riot, lawbreak­ing, the disruption of public order, and, at the limit, civil war. Such tumult not only accompanied dramatic political changes but was often absolutely instrumental in bringing them about. Representative institutions and elections by themselves, sadly, seem rarely to bring about major changes in the absence of the force majeure afforded by, say, an economic depression or international war. Owing to the concentration of prop­erty and wealth in liberal democracies and the privileged ac­cess to media, culture, and political influence these positional advantages afford the richest stratum, it is little wonder that, as Gramsci noted, giving the working class the vote did not translate into radical political change. Ordinary parliamen­tary politics is noted more for its immobility than for facilitat­ing major reforms. (pp. 16–17)