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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Daily Diary: The Language of Aspiration, and National Insurance

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Language of Aspiration
Stefan Collini lays into the Blairite (or, as he puts it, "blahite") language of "aspiration," which seems to be the coin of the realm across the political spectrum. Alan Milburn, one of Blair's most loyal talking dogs, recently wrote a report on Unleashing Aspiration. This report neatly encapsulate the faux Orwellianism that has regulated New Labour thinking and rhetoric since the mid-'90s: all are equal (but just don't mention that some are more equal than others). As Collini puts it in relation to the example of parental "rights":
In one of those phrases we have heard so frequently that we no longer register their absurdity, the Milburn report says we need to see how parents 'could be empowered with a new right to choose a better school for their children'. What does this actually mean? A 'right' is something universal, something everyone in the relevant category – in this case, parents – has. But if all parents have a right to choose a 'better' school for their children, won’t we have to maintain in each locality a number of ghostly 'worse' schools to which no children are actually sent, whose function is to show that some schools are ‘better’ than others? This rhetorical pattern has become depressingly familiar: each individual has a 'right' to something 'better', where 'better' tends, in practice, to mean 'better than someone else's'.
It is quite depressing. Nobody would want to deny that aspiration or social mobility are positive things. The question is the extent to which we acknowledge that you don't get something for nothing, and that for another class, race or other social group to move up, the existing wealth has to budge somewhere else. Recently, David Willetts' attention has turned to the entrenched wealth of the baby boomer generation that is leaving a social support, jobs and housing burden on the younger generations; Baroness Neuberger, meanwhile, has argued persuasively for allowing older people to work for much longer. In both cases, enabling social mobility for the young or old, or for the lower classes, is a good thing; but since one cannot conjure jobs or housing stock out of thin air, some groups are going to have to give these up. Hence the use of the term aspiration, which sounds good, egalitarian, democratic, but which does not actually require the party to tackle the root problems. Let's focus on encouraging people to aspire to social mobility, education, professional jobs, or housing; but let's try to avoid the awkward difficulty of them actually attaining these things.

As Collini sharply analyses, the solution is not to promote aspiration, which is rhetorically vacuous, but to redistribute wealth from those who can genuinely afford it: not the baby boomers or the old, not the middle classes either, but from the staggeringly small percentage of people who own a staggeringly large percentage of the national's wealth. For example, within the top ten percent of earners, the 91st percentile :
have approximately four times the median total net wealth of the population, but the top 1 per cent have almost 13 times that median figure.
Not only are some people rich (the average ratio of CEO to employee pay has gone up from 47 times in 1999, to 128 times in 2009), but a few people are so super-rich they don't even fit on the charts of the Report of the National Equality Panel:
It is repeatedly (and laconically) recorded that the income or wealth or other advantages of the top 1 per cent cannot be properly represented visually in this report because they would be 'off the scale of the figure'. All the distribution charts and bar graphs have this absurd appearance, with a huge chimney at the right-hand side disappearing off the page.
When not even bald statistics can incorporate the wealth disparity that is the greatest barrier to social mobility - and, if you like, aspiration too - you start ironically to understand why the mainstream political parties have desperately resorted to the rhetoric of aspiration in a kind of wishful thinking. How does one possibly distribute the wealth from this elite micro-percentage of the population, when they are precisely the ones most able to avoid any tax measures through offshore bank accounts?

National Insurance
OK, so the super-rich are pretty hard to touch, whether for Labour or the Tories. But I am glad to see that the real Tory party has at last stood up with a clear policy divide from the former. The Conservative's plan not to raise National Insurance for those earning above £20 000 is utterly, utterly absurd. Having spent the last month condemning Gordon Brown for failing to tackle the deficit, they now decide that they are not going to raise this tax, and will instead make efficiency savings.

What is an efficiency saving? It sound suspiciously like job cuts to me which leads, oh, that's right, to greater pressure on the benefits system that National Insurance pays for. Raising taxes produces a guaranteed additional income, that can be used to pay off the deficit. One might also note that with the country's median income at £21, 000, and the income scales so skewed at the top end such that this median is equally stilted above what many will actually earn, raising taxes above £20 000 will be a less painless measure for the many than cutting services.

In contrast to guaranteed tax income, efficiency savings are unpredictable in scale, and are ultimately disguised rhetoric for cuts in the public sector. At last, in an otherwise touchy-feely nascent election campaign with very little to choose between the two parties, here is a clear dividing line. And though big business may have come out behind the Conservatives - quel surprise, those same CEOs who earn hundreds of times more than their employees - I know my allegiances lie in any shade but blue.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:12 pm

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