Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Unjust Rewards

The latest book by Polly Toynbee and David Walker, "exposing greed and inequality in Britain today".

Denial is a nasty bastard. It's almost caused more trouble and reaped more victims than plagues and famines. Denial is so toxic because it's invariably the easy route. It's the one cop-out that makes you go along with a world sewn up by the rich and the powerful without questioning a single thing. It's that reflex action that makes it possible for millions of heads to be buried under the sand as they get fooled by a swirl of "but at least", "cheers" and "we're all doing great".

And denial is what laid at the root of today's financial crash. For years we chose to turn a blind eye or two towards a culture of exorbitant excesses at the top. We had (and still enjoy) a political class that was at best naive and at worst conniving.

The masses were kept quiet in their delusion by tons of credit handed out like candyfloss at a fair, the cheap availability of bamboozling gadgets, and load of bullshit jobs thinly disguised by the growing culture of aspiration consisting of Big Brother, Pop Idol and Heat magazine. The masses were told that the gargantuan binge taking place at the top would inevitably trickle down to the rest of society. In the end though, what really trickled down were the most toxic bits, like an overflowing cesspit whose lids are no longer able to keep it out of sight. Cue businesses dropping like flies, bankruptcies skyrocketing and the number of those on the dole swelling up.

How many times do we hear "this is too complicated, I haven't got a clue about all that stuff happening at the top"?

Unjust Rewards
is the perfect antidote if you wish to at least find out why all this is happening. The first chapter is exactly about the notion of denial. Toynbee and Walker started with a research into the opinion of some of the wealthiest people in the country. They were asked to express what they know about the nation's average earnings. Their ignorance turned out to be staggering. The overwhelming majority of those 'high flyers' are truly convinced most of Britain are living on income levels very similar to their own. Their grasp of poverty and inequality is as sober as tales of children delivered to families by storks.

Like her or not, Polly Toynbee deserves huge credit for holding on to reality at a time when everybody in Britain was busy flying on the seat of their pants. At the peak of the years of delusion, especially between 2000 and 2007, whoever warned Britain about its staggering excesses and growing inequality was being dubbed a nutjob.

It's a shame, however that, in such an apolitical country, Unjust Rewards is unlikely to preach past the converted. And yet its language is extremely accessible, a rare feat to accomplish for leftist commentators - a category often guilty of indulging in prosaic or overtechnical style that remains confined to an ivory tower. Toynbee remains one of the best antidotes to the Littlejohns and Kavanaghs of today's Britain. She is able to speak the language of ordinary people and relate to their real everyday problems without leaving a single stone unturned.

The authors' argument takes the shape of an exploratory journey through the plight of those straggling behind, looking into the effect of eleven years of New Labour's watered down redistributive policies, digging into issues of aspiration and proving that our attitudes to pay and standards of living have been completely distorted.

Avoiding their fair share, one of the final chapters, is a brilliant polemic against non-doms and tax avoiders. "The wealthy have nothing to complain about in Labour's treatment of their tax affairs", writes Toynbee, adding that "the rest of the EU looks on London's new status as the playground of the rich not with admiration but with a measure of disgust and anger at the opening of a tax haven [...]".

What needs to be done, to round it all off, is a set of suggestions to get Britain out of the current deadlock, including "the creation of an anti-avoidance culture", a radical reform of the Honours system, the closure of tax havens, and a series of measures to reduce inequality. "Policians must learn to say boo to the golden goose", is one of the final statements.

Unjust Rewards
is a must for all those who wish to break the vicious circle of ignorance, denial and unfairness.

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