Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

The authors of this brief overview of the history of adoption in Australia can’t have known how timely its publication would be. After charting the changing balance between the rights and needs of adopting parents on one hand and adoptees and their relinquishing birth mothers on the other, they conclude with a quotation from Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s apology for the forced separation of mothers from their babies, emphasising the wrongs done to the latter (July 2013). It was, she said, ‘a story of suffering and unbearable loss.’ Today (19 December 2013) the new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has announced an investigation that aims to make it ‘much, much easier’ for Australian parents to adopt overseas, saying : ‘There are millions of children in orphanages overseas who would love to have parents. And thousands of those, maybe even tens of thousands of those could come to Australia.’ He clearly wants the balance to swing back in favour of parents who wish to adopt. But if the authors of this book are correct, this market may no longer exist.

The book is divided into two sections, the first about the experience of adoption, the second about the process and how it has evolved. The ‘experience’ section draws on the stories that adoptees, birth mothers and some adopting parents have placed on the Monash History of Adoption website, and in a few cases, recounted to government enquires. The authors are aware that their sample ‘does not represent the full range of opinions about adoption’; those for whom adoption has not been problematic, and those who prefer not to think about it at all, are not represented. Not all of the stories are about traumatic experiences, though some are – particularly those of mothers who wished to keep their babies but were actively denied that choice. The search by children for their birth mothers and mothers for their ‘lost’ children sometimes has a happy ending, but frequently does not. The authors’ point in all this is not to claim that adoption was always either a good or bad choice; it is to show that ways of thinking about what constituted a ‘good’ mother meant that the system was stacked against women who had children out of wedlock.

The book is called The Market in Babies because the authors argue that all of the changes in social attitudes, policy and practice around adoption can be linked to changes in supply of and demand for children for adoption. And this is what is charted in the second section. From the time of white settlement there had been informal adoptions between friends and relatives; from about the 1880s, a market developed where adoptions were arranged among strangers, often through advertisements in the daily press, with money changing hands. By the 1920s, all states passed legislation outlawing this practice, and creating a legal basis for adoption. This legislation gave full possession of the child to the adopting parents, sealing their birth records and preventing contact with the birth family. This situation prevailed until the 1980s, when self-help groups of adoptees and/or birth mothers began to agitate for access to their records. Once this was achieved, there was a further wave of political agitation as birth mothers found out that in many cases they had been deceived by social workers and others about their rights, even under the legislation of the time. It was this agitation that drove the apology for forced adoptions, not only by the commonwealth government, but also by hospitals and charities which had been involved in the practice.

Once the number of children available for adoption in Australia declined, the authors show how parents who wished to adopt looked overseas. They note the frustration of adopting parents with the time it takes to complete this process, but also point out that steps must be taken to ensure the best interests of the child in accordance with international conventions on human rights, the place of such adoptions as part of Australia’s overseas aid and immigration program, and ‘only finally’ the needs of the couple wishing to adopt. They argue, furthermore, that this market too is drying up, as the countries from which adoptees are sourced increasingly limit the number of children available for adoption, and impose more stringent controls to prevent the fraud and exploitation that have been endemic in this area.  Last year, there were fewer than 500 adoptions in Australia, about half of which were from overseas. (This number also includes local adoptions under a new ‘open’ regime, which allows for transition from foster care to adoption.) The authors suggest that the new emerging market is in surrogacy, where women from less developed countries – usually India – carry a child for a childless couple from a developed country. If they are right, then Tony Abbott’s ‘tens of thousands’ of overseas adoptees are unlikely to materialise, whatever changes are made in Australia to speed up the process of overseas adoption.

Throughout this story, the authors highlight the conflicting interests at work: is adoption about the needs of the child, or the needs of the adopting parents? Can we assume that these are completely congruent? Or may some children be better off in their birth families, no matter how hard their circumstances? Could the money spent on overseas adoption be better spent supporting children in need in their own country? It seems to the authors that adoption, whether local or overseas, was firmly established primarily as a service to the child; Tony Abbott’s promise to make it easier for adoptive parents – whether or not he can carry it out – appears to challenge this view. Time will tell.

You can find out more about the book and its authors here. A further report on the Prime Minister’s intentions can be found here.

*Disclaimer: Professor Quartly is my sister.

Read Full Post »

The title of this novel makes it sound like a romantic 1920s melodrama. Published in 2012, it is actually an acute social commentary about present day British life. The title is the punch line of a medical joke I don’t quite understand, but the book is brilliant.

The main protagonists are Ritchie Shepherd and his sister Bec. He is a former rock star, now with a wife, two children and large country house. These days he is the producer of a reality TV show, Teen Makeover. In him, Meek has created a character in that epitomises the sort of celebrity A list culture so beloved by the trashy end of the British tabloid press. He’s also having an affair with one of the – underage – teens on his show. Bec is a microbiologist, an expert in parasites; she has injected herself with parasites that may give some immunity to malaria in order to test the procedure’s safety. Others who carry some of the story are Alex, also a microbiologist, who is studying cell therapy and his uncle Harry, yet another research scientist, who is dying of cancer. There’s also a rich cast of other relations and friends – some of whom are aren’t all that friendly. The story has a complex web of relationships – involving love, betrayal, honour and death – as its drivers, with a good dose of science thrown in.

The book is thematically complex too. The epigraph is a quotation from Kafka, about starting and caring for a family; this is ‘the best that a man can do’, and family, heredity and inheritance are central to Meek’s story. The ‘best’ of some of the characters isn’t that good; Meek from the start undercuts this theme by noting that Kafka never got round to ‘family’ himself. The theme that emerges most strongly for me is less that of family, and more the question Meek poses about how to do the right thing. Each of the main characters faces a moral dilemma, and each deals with it differently. Meek uses the device of a website that threatens to reveal scandal about someone unless they dob in someone else to focus on these dilemmas. Is everyone equally self-serving? Can betrayal ever produce a good outcome? Is it true, as Bec concludes, that ‘In twenty-first-century England honour was not in play’? The website offering itself as a ‘God substitute’ seems based on malice rather than genuine concern about wrong-doing. A rigid belief in God doesn’t produce moral outcomes either. Even after saying this much, I am still wildly understating the complexity of the issues Meek is dealing with.

Meek lays out his moral arguments by counterpointing various actions of his characters one against another. An evil act (or one I think of as evil) is balanced against another that echoes the first, but is benign. What appears to be an act of heroism may not have been, and may anyway have produced more harm than good, whereas an act of betrayal may have produced more good than harm. Throughout the story one can see Meek posing his questions about the morality through clever plotting. He has been compared to Ian McEwan, and I can see similarities to the moral dilemmas of McEwan’s Amsterdam – reviewed here. But in Amsterdam, I thought the counterpointing of the plot made it overly determined, whereas Meek allows his characters to act in character, rather than as pawns moved by the author. I know they are constructs of the author – the trick is to make them appear to act as real people, not devices making the author’s point. I think Meek succeeds brilliantly here.

And then there’s the way he writes. There are some authors who I feel I could potentially write as well as, (not that I actually do) and there are some that are far above me. Meek is one of the latter. I guess it is essentially the right word in the right place. He can be very funny, as in the scene where Bec’s mother is defending her ‘humourist’ diet against Bec’s scepticism. ‘I don’t see why I have to die young because there’s only one kind of science allowed,’ she says. ‘Mum,’ says Bec. ‘It’s too late for you to die young.’ Ritchie is showing off his car to Bec, who has been talking to him about her anti malaria parasites. ‘You don’t see parasites driving these babies,’ he says, leaving the reader to wonder if Ritchie himself might not be a parasite. And you remember this phrase when Bec has to kill off her parasites if she is going to have a baby. Meek also writes powerfully about feelings and emotions, and the passage describing Harry’s death is truly moving. There’s some science (another similarity to McEwan) but is isn’t overwhelming, and is indeed an important part of the story.

This is Meek’s sixth book. He was on the staff of The Guardian until 2005 and has reported on subjects including the war in Iraq, the Chechen conflict, the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and tax avoidance by the rich in the UK. He now writes regularly for the London Review of Books. You can find more about him here. I’m surprised I’ve never seen his work in contention for the Man Booker Prize, though this one was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award, formerly the Whitbread Prize; he was beaten by Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, so not a bad effort. Definitely worth reading.

Read Full Post »

Drowning Rose (2011) is the seventh of Marika Cobbold’s novels, though I confess I had never heard of her until I picked this one up. Apparently her first novel, Guppies for Tea (1993), attracted a lot of favourable attention, and she’s been quietly writing away ever since. At first I thought this was chick-lit that had got a bit older, but on reflection, I don’t think that’s really fair.

The main narrator of the story is Eliza, now in her early forties. She works as a ceramics restorer for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and though she loves her job, repairing ceramics doesn’t help her repair her life. She has never recovered from the guilt she feels for not saving her friend Rose, who drowned in an accident in their final year at school. This has blighted her emotional life; witness her failed marriage. Then out of the blue, she is contacted by Rose’s father, who is also her godfather. He has not spoken to her since Rose’s death, as he too blames her for it. Now he wants her to come and visit him in Sweden where he lives. What does he want with her? There is also a secondary narrator, Sandra, who likes to be called Cassandra; her story is about the time when she was at school with Eliza and Rose.

This is not a story where very much happens; small domestic and workplace incidents, and Eliza’s visits to her aging godfather, make up most of the content. This is not in itself a problem; the emphasis is on emotions and feelings, particularly the grief and guilt Eliza still feels about Rose’s death. Is this taking proper responsibility for something she has done, or is it deliberately – if unconsciously – self-limiting what she might achieve in her life? (This makes an interesting contrast to the non-fiction book The Consolation of Joe Cinque, by Helen Garner, which I reviewed recently, in which in real life, Anu Singh killed her boyfriend, but didn’t accept responsibility for her actions.) The contrast between the disintegration of Eliza’s life and the work she does repairing ceramics is rather obvious, but the ceramics themselves are interesting (though not as interesting as those in A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book), and the Scandinavian fairy stories resonate with events in the story. Why involve Sweden? It is where Cobbold was born.

But I’m less happy with the second narrative. Cassandra’s story shows her as a selfish outsider, desperate to join Eliza and Rose’s group of friends – the princesses, as she calls them. Though this isn’t a structural problem, I was sorry that Cobbold made Cassandra a scholarship girl ashamed of her lower-class roots. There are other forms of envy than class envy. And I don’t think the two stories really fit together as a whole. There is some suspense involved in their coming together in the present, though it’s not that hard to guess the outcome. Cassandra’s story deliberately contrasts Eliza and Rose as young women when life is ‘all just out there, just sitting there, waiting for you to go and get it’– ‘a wide golden road to a glittering future’ – with Rose dead and Eliza as she is now: ‘a life of ‘if onlys’ and ‘what ifs’. But I find the two versions of her hard to reconcile.

For me, this book is rescued by the black humour that characterises Eliza’s voice. Cobbold says that ‘My way of dealing with most things, although obviously there are exceptions, is to make a joke’, and this is what she does with Eliza. ‘I can do perverse thinking,’ she says. And she also does flippant: ‘The call [from her godfather] shouldn’t have upset you like this.’ ‘I know. But try telling that to the call.’ Her step sister, Ruth, ‘was watching me the way a laid-back bird might watch a worm making its painstaking way to the surface of the soil. Now she said, ‘I haven’t upset you have I?’ I gave her a newscaster’s smile. ‘Of course you haven’t.’ Next thing I knew she was crying. I stared at her. ‘All right, you have. I am upset. There, you can stop crying now.’ Ruth looked up at me with tear-blurred eyes. ‘What are you talking about?’ There’s a lot of this sort of stuff – cross purpose jokes, non-sequiturs and slightly off key observations. It’s probably what I miss in Cassandra’s version of Eliza.

I think this book belongs in the category of ‘pleasant’ rather than ‘challenging’. This is perhaps why I initially thought of it as chick-lit – which addresses issues of modern womanhood humorously and light-heartedly – though in this case for forty-somethings, not twenty-somethings. But Eliza’s grief and guilt, some of her thoughts about old age, and her acerbic voice perhaps lift it beyond the merely light-hearted.

You can read more about Marika Cobbold here.

Read Full Post »

I recently reviewed the latest Charles Cumming spy story: A Foreign Country (2012). Cumming has been highly praised for his work, but while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t think the writer warranted the comparisons he was getting with legends of the genre like John le Carré. But I thought I’d give him another try; this one was published in 2011. The result? My opinion remains the same. He’s good, but not that good.

If I was being very picky – which of course I never am – I’d say this was not really a spy story at all. Rather, it is a mystery story, where an innocent individual finds himself (in this case) inadvertently involved in some sort of conspiracy. It just so happens that the events that make up this conspiracy take place in the secret world of espionage, with the familiar themes of double dealing and betrayal.

Dr Sam Gaddis is a lecturer in Russian History at University College London. At the launch of his book, The Tsars, comparing Peter the Great with ‘the current Russian president Sergei Platov’ (clearly Vladimir Putin) he meets a young woman, Holly Levette, who claims that her recently dead mother has left an archive of material about the KGB. She has been referred to him by a journalist friend of Sam’s, Charlotte Berg, who is also working on a story involving spying. She has been contacted by someone who claims to have explosive revelations about a sixth British spy associated with those recruited by the pre-world war II Soviet espionage agency, the NKVD, during the young men’s years at Cambridge – the Trinity Five (Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross). Charlotte asks Sam to collaborate on a book about it. Her sudden death from a heart attack and his urgent need for money – a tax bill and school fees for his daughter who lives in Spain with Sam’s ex-wife – convince him to go it alone. But what on earth had she discovered? And is there anything new in Holly’s archive?

As you might expect, Sam’s path is not smooth, and he soon has various enemies – though as in most ‘quest’ stories, he finds help as well as hindrance along the way. The story is told largely through his eyes, but other characters also carry the plot at various times, so the reader sometimes knows more than he does, for example when he discards hypotheses the reader knows to be true. This helps with the pace and tension, though it is a slow- building plot, rather than the ‘bang bang kiss kiss’ sort. I am always interested in how a plot about a civilian with lots of powerful enemies can be resolved; it’s not like he can arrest someone. This one finds a quite satisfying mechanism, though I am left with the feeling that the plot, though complex, isn’t really subtle. It comes together, but you can see the magician behind the screen pulling the strings. This may be unfair; I know I’m comparing the way the crucial elements of the plot resolve with ‘the last clever knot’ that Smiley has to unpick in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – and I had to read that twice before I understood it. And of course it all looks simple once you know. The twists and turns are enjoyable, and that’s probably all that matters.

Cumming writes well about people. He is good at quick character sketches, and makes the cast of minor characters come alive. He presents Sam Gaddis as an essentially a good man who believes in ‘human decency’, caught up in events well outside his control – though he manages to deal with it all reasonably well. He has some of the talents needed for his quest; he protests that he is ‘an archives man’, not an investigative journalist, but he is good at following a trail from one piece of evidence to the next. (In a nice touch, his enemies manage to use his ‘archive’ work to trick him temporarily.) He also falls to bits quite convincingly at times, making him more human than some other fictional academic sleuths – Robert Langdon comes to mind. I am less convinced, however, by Holly Levette, and the other woman in the book, Tanya Acocella. At one point Gaddis compiles a list of reasons why Holly, now his girlfriend, might be a ‘plant’, and it’s all too believable. Her reasons for being with him aren’t ever explored. Nor, in my opinion, is Tanya’s motivation adequately explained. This is a pity, because it’s her role that makes the plot a bit mechanistic; she does what is needed by the story, not what comes from being a character that Cumming has fully developed. But hey, it’s a well written thriller with a clever plot. Be grateful for having found a good one. And I do like the end.

You can read more about Charles Cumming here. His next book, A Colder War, is as promised a sequel to A Foreign Country, and will be published in 2014.

Read Full Post »

Readers of this blog will know that I’ve recently reviewed two books that dealt in very different ways with civil rights and racism in the southern states of America – Home by Marilynne Robinson, and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. So I was fascinated to find that this film is also about these issues.

The film is loosely based on the true story of a man who worked as a butler at the White House for around thirty years, serving Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan. (Ford and Carter don’t really get a look in.) In the film he is called Cecil Gaines and given an even more traumatic childhood than the real butler. His parents are black share croppers on a cotton plantation, the owner of which rapes his mother and kills his father. Cecil is taken into service – he becomes a ‘house nigger’ – and ends up serving in a hotel in Washington, from where he is recruited to the White House. From reading books about English country houses I always thought the butler was the head of the servant establishment, but apparently in America butler is another word for footman. And for almost all Gaines’s time at the White House, no black footman got equal pay with white domestics, let alone promotion to running the place. However though at first he is invisible, over time he becomes valued as a person as well as a butler. He also gets to hear lots of political discussion.

The counterpoint to this is the story of Gaines’s son, who becomes involved in the Civil Rights movement. Through Cecil’s eyes we see Eisenhower dithering about whether to send federal troops to support the desegregation of the Little Rock High School, Kennedy’s indecision about supporting the Freedom Riders who were taking on the Jim Crow laws of the Southern states, Johnson’s support for the Civil Rights Act, Reagan’s  continuing attack on the Black Panthers and his refusal to condemn apartheid in South Africa. Through his son’s eyes we see black people beaten up for trying to integrate a luncheon bar, a Freedom Ride bus destroyed by the Klu Klux Klan and protesters jailed for asserting their civil rights. Father and son see these issues very differently; the national drama is played out in the conflict between them.

I’ve often found that the film or TV mini-series of a book is disappointing because it imposes a common denominator vision that stifles the picture of people and events you build up as a reader. Though The Butler was never a book, I found that the images added tremendously to my understanding of the civil rights issues raised in the two books mentioned above. Cutting from black servants setting up for a State dinner in the White House to a diner where young black people are being beaten up for being there, and back again, is something you can only do on film. The visual jolt of seeing a burning cross wielded by the Klu Klux Klan was something I don’t think I could have got from reading about it a book.  Some critics of the film thought this counterpointing was a bit overdone, but I didn’t find it so. Perhaps such images are commonplace in America, but for me they still carry great weight. And it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that such events are relatively recent – it all happened in my lifetime.

The film takes a little while to get into its stride, and I sometimes found it difficult to catch what was being said because of the strong southern accents – though I’m told that Forest Whitaker, who plays Gaines, always has a tendency to mumble. But once the conflict over civil rights is set up, the film gains in pace and power. The presentation of the various presidents is on the whole well done, though I could be picky and say that Nixon isn’t coarse enough, or that Regan is too bland – notwithstanding how bland he really was. While there are only minor attempts to make them look like the real person, there are enough similarities of appearance and manner to make their presentation credible. There is a strong cast; Oprah Winfrey in particular surprises as Raines’s wife Gloria, who has her own battles with loneliness and alcohol – she is a much better actress than I expected. I noticed that in 2011, she invited all remaining freedom riders to appear on her program as a tribute to their courage. The film is dedicated to all those who worked to secure civil rights for African Americans.

The film is certainly worth seeing, especially if like me, you don’t have a strong background in American history. You can find more about it here – including details of the well-known cast. Too much information and too many stars?  You can read reviews both sympathetic and critical here.

PS The proper title of the film is Lee Daniel’s The Butler (2013), this mouthful being necessitated by the fact that there is already a much earlier – now lost – film called The Butler. Only in America. 

PPS There was also a freedom ride in Australia in 1964-5 to highlight the poor living conditions of Indigenous Australians and the racial discrimination they suffered. I don’t think they’ve made a film about it though.

Read Full Post »

You might think true crime is an unusual genre for book club reading, but I’m glad my book club chose Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004). Not only does it recount a shocking story that should be better known, it is also a great vehicle for Helen Garner’s individual, almost confessional approach to writing. Perhaps creative non-fiction is a better description of the work than ‘true crime’.

In 1999, personally and professionally at a loose end, Garner takes up a suggestion that she write about the trial, then in progress, of Anu Singh, a law student at the Australian National University, who is accused of the murder of her boyfriend, Joe Cinque. What is beyond doubt is that Singh drugged Cinque with Rohypnol, and then injected him with a fatal dose of heroin. What is much less clear was whether she was mentally ill at the time, and could claim diminished responsibility. Also unclear is the role her friend Madhavi Rao, also accused of murder, played in Joe’s death. After initial hesitation, Garner finds she becomes almost obsessive about trying to understand the behaviour of all of those involved. Her deepest sympathy is for Joe’s parents, and she writes the book in order to make sure he is not forgotten; that can be his only consolation.

This case raises many issues – legal, medical, social and moral.  What constitutes mental illness? Does all mental illness diminish responsibility for action, or only sometimes, and under some circumstances? What are people’s responsibilities for preventing a crime? Lots of people knew about Anu’s intention to kill Joe and her alleged intention of killing herself. Why did no one warn Joe? Why did no one call an ambulance earlier when he might have been saved? How was heroin so easy to obtain in Canberra, and why did bright, educated young people think it was a good idea to take it? What recompense can there be for parents who have lost their child, since there can be no recompense for the victim himself? Does the legal system really deliver justice? Is there a gap between legal responsibility and moral responsibility, and if so, does this matter? And what is the purpose of jailing people?

Amidst this welter of concerns, Garner does not even try to pick an impartial path. How could she? She does not respond objectively to the players in the drama; it’s not possible, for both practical and emotional reasons to do so. She seeks knowledge of Joe from family and friends; there is no other way of knowing him. Anu Singh does not agree to speak to Garner, so her portrait is drawn largely from what Garner learns from her family, from seeing her in court, and from reading the court documents. These include the one that opens the book, in which an Anu – evasive or hysterical? – gives a false name and address to the ambulance service while Joe lies dying. Garner makes an immediate emotional judgement about her: ‘She was the figure of what a woman most fears in herself – the damaged infant, vain, frantic, destructive, out of control.’ This possibly says as much about Garner as it does about Singh, but it sets the tone for her response to Singh for the rest of the book. Garner doesn’t try to hide the fact that she isn’t a blank slate. She comes to the story in rage and frustration with her own circumstances. She questions her own right to tell the story – and not to go on once she has begun. She gives her own perspective on everything.

I was both horrified by the events Garner describes, and completely caught up in her musings about right and wrong and meaning in them. This suggests the power of her writing. She has a tendency to generalise what may be something only she feels – as in the above quote. But mostly her reflections ask the questions anyone might draw from these events. Of Anu’s actions: ‘What is ‘simple wickedness’? Does such a thing exist? Was there ever such a thing, or did it die with the arrival of psychiatry?’ ‘Did words like remorse, repentance, redemption have any value for her?’ Of Rao’s relationship with Singh: ‘Where does one person’s influence end, and another’s responsibility begin?’ And if duty of care and duty to act are not the same thing, what of ‘the ugly divide between morals and the law’? Questions like these are for the most part unanswerable, but all the more valuable for being asked. Expect to feel outraged – but also baffled.

You can read more about Helen Garner and her work here, and an interview with her about the book here. If you are interested in what happened next, you can read an interview with Singh after her release from jail here, a hostile article about her here, and an interview with Joe’s parents here. There are plans for a film, which you can read about here. Hopefully Joe Cinque will not be forgotten.

Read Full Post »

Readers of this blog might remember that not long ago I wrote a review of The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz, which investigates the increasing economic inequality of American society. Battlers and Billionaires (2013) covers some of the same ground for Australia. Leigh argues that while things are not as bad here as in America, the level of inequality is nevertheless of major concern.

After an introduction which summarises his argument, Leigh gives a brief historical survey of inequality. He argues that despite a belief in Australia that Jack was as good as his master, high levels of inequality prevailed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was followed by what he calls ‘the great compression’, whereby equality increased significantly until the 1970s. Thereafter, inequality rose again in what he calls ‘the great divergence’, so that wealth is rising more quickly among the already rich than the rest of the population, while the wealth of the very richest is growing even faster. This divergence has been accompanied by a decrease in social mobility. Leigh identifies changes in technology and globalisation, de-unionisation and tax cuts which benefit the rich more than the rest as the factors contributing to growing inequality. He suggests that a strong economy with high productivity, an improved education system, a strong union movement, carefully targeted social welfare and progressive taxation are all needed to reverse the current trend. Rather more controversially, he argues that we need to do something about ‘the role that family structure plays in perpetuating advantage and disadvantage across generations’. And he wants to keep egalitarianism ‘at the heart of our national story’.

Leigh differs somewhat from Stiglitz in his assessment of the importance of inequality. For Stiglitz, it is unquestionably a bad thing. Leigh agrees that inequality has adverse effects on social mobility, and may skew political outcomes in favour of the most affluent. He also agrees with Stiglitz that much of the new wealth comes from rent seeking – such as cashing in on high overseas mineral prices – rather than hard work and innovation.  But he argues that inequality is not always a bad thing; unequal countries grow more quickly than equal ones, even though the trickle down effect is very slow. He sees growth as necessary to lessen inequality; you need a bigger pie if people are going to get a bigger slice. So much for the limits to growth.

These arguments are underpinned by a range of statistical and other evidence. Leigh deals with this with a light touch; there is a lot more information and explanation, and details of sources, in the extensive end notes. Leigh is a former Professor of Economics at the Australian National University, and I get the impression that he would have been a very good teacher. He keeps things clear and simple, illustrating his case with interesting anecdotes and analogies – for example, using war time examples and comparing different football codes. This is a much easier book to read than Stiglitz’s.

What I prefer about Stiglitz’s argument, however, is the way his analysis links inequality to the free market economy, which he presents as a construct whose nature has been profoundly affected by political action, or inaction – usually in the interests of the rich. Leigh’s book is not really about politics at all. This is in some ways surprising, since he is now a Labor member of the Australian Parliament, and shadow deputy Treasurer. What he doesn’t say is that ‘the great divergence’ began just about the time that a Labor Government took steps to open the Australian economy to the forces of globalisation, reducing tariffs, floating the dollar and privatising some government assets. This in turn decimated manufacturing industry, consequently weakening the union movement. Leigh might well argue – though he doesn’t here – that the Labor government introduced a superannuation system, and provided a better safety net for those who lost out in the process of globalisation than did conservative governments of Regan in the US and Thatcher in the UK. As a result, the level of inequality in Australia is less than in those countries. He merely notes that the welfare system has a much greater equalising force than the tax system. All the same, it seems at least in retrospect that more could have been done to limit the burgeoning wealth of the very rich, for example by more fairly sharing the profits of the minerals boom. Labor recognised the need to intervene at the bottom end of the market economy in the 1990s, but not at the top end, which was left unconstrained. By 2010, the share of top 1% had grown to 11% of the wealth in Australia, and the share of the rest of the country had shrunk. I’m not an economist, so how would I know, but this looks more like wealth being sucked up than trickling down.

All the same, this is an important book, and worth reading if you value egalitarianism.

You can read more about the politician Andrew Leigh here. If you are interested in his academic work, try here.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 73 other followers