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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Cold water from Caldwell - the NEP report

Last week the National Equality Panel published An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK (AEIUK). It received a decent amount of press exposure and most of the straight reporting was fair as were most of the opinion pieces - where one might expect a bit more rough and tumble. The exception, I think, was Christopher Caldwell's piece in the weekend FT.


Anyone who has regularly read Caldwell's column will know that he expresses the sort of robust opinions that in a UK context appeal to the political right. I've actually always rathered enjoyed reading him; perhaps it is a version of the sort of frisson that the old left got from reading Hayek - you know you shouldn't encourage it but it is splendid astringent stuff. On this occasion I thought his piece was just otiose; a stock ideological response revealing a contempt for reason and evidence. At this point I have to reveal an interest: I was a member of the NEP and though my part in the production of the report was minor, when I read Caldwell's piece I did, for a moment, take it rather personally.
"One must read between the lines to discover the source of Ms Harman's alarm...It is oppression that Ms Harman's academics are looking for" opines Caldwell. One would have to look very hard indeed between the lines of the report to find the dreaded O word because it isn't there either literally or metaphorically. Neither is it true, as Caldwell asserts, that the report: "...takes 'inequality' as a synonym for 'prejudice and discrimination'". This is in fact precisely what we took some pains not to do except where there was particularly robust experimental evidence of differential treatment of, for instance, ethnic groups, that could not plausibly be accounted for in any other way (see for example pp 234-5 of AEIUK).
By the middle of the article Caldwell is clearly so splenetic that whatever tenuous grasp he had on reason completely deserts him. He apparently believes that part-time work is in some, unexplained, sense, less productive than full-time work and therefore quite rightly attracts a lower wage-rate. Here is his reasoning:
"If work is part-time, then either the demand for it is less pressing or the supply for it is less reliable. A milkman who delivers milk a few days a week on a flexible schedule is less valuable per delivery than one who delivers it regularly". Er, no Christopher, not unless there are frictional costs associated with flexibility or a payroll tax that is based on a headcount rather than the hours worked. As a consumer it makes no difference to me whether Monday's milk is delivered by John Doe and Tuesday's by Jane Doe and ceteris paribus in the absence of a flexibilty or tax penalty a part-time Jane should be as productive for her employer as a full-time John and therefore get the same pay-rate. It is of course an empirical question as to whether some sorts of work contain indivisible elements that defy flexibility and therefore attract a part-time penalty. However it is difficult to believe that delivering milk would be a good example of this.
Finally when it comes to social class Caldwell loses touch with reality altogether and smites us with what he clearly regards as a killer argument: "But the inequalities that exist are obviously not the programme of a self-conscious class". Indeed not, and nowhere do we say they are. Followed by: "The class problems that progressive governments make it their business to manage have mostly been solved. The problems that remain are problems of meritocracy, of which inequality is a natural result." Clearly Caldwell skipped the various bits of the report that show in detail how on average children from working-class backgrounds have to show more merit (in the IQ+effort) sense to achieve the same economic outcomes as those from more priviliged social origins. Since it is just a fact that this is the case I wonder in what sense Caldwell believes that we are in the fortunate position of having simply to deal with the problems created by meritocracy?

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