I read Branko Milanovic’s new book over the Bank Holiday weekend. I think that it is very good and appears to have been written to be read. It has data that surprises and challenges, but is devoid of any traces of data geekery that might put off the casual reader. And it doesn’t shy from challenging the reader to think for themselves about some quite fundamental issues with which I at least have struggled without resolution for some time.
There is a lot in the book about endowment. That is to say, stuff you are born with. Endowments are massively important in determining people’s ultimate income. And while income doesn’t buy happiness, it does make unhappiness less uncomfortable.At a domestic level, we think of endowment as a form of inheritance. For the purposes of public policy discussions, this is often narrowed down to discussions of inherited wealth and maybe the way institutions selling education services are taxed. And wealth tends to cascade down through generations – think interesting work by Piketty, Saez & Zucman, Corak etc. As an individual you can take a personal view on whether it is right that the economic life chances of unborn children should be determined not by their own aptitudes and application but by their parents’ wealth. Your views on inheritance tax, the way in which welfare states are organised etc may be informed by your view on this question.
But the really interesting thing about Milanovic’s work is that it looks at data from an global perspective. Milanovic estimates the degree to which income is a function of the country in which someone is born, and in so doing asks us a second question about endowment. Is it right that the economic life chances of unborn children should be determined not by their own aptitudes and application but by the state in which they are born? And the answer you give to this question has somewhat more profound policy implications. Actually, it’s the combination of your two answers can point to quite radical policy preferences or maybe highlight to you your own cognitive dissonance.
As I was reading I tweeted this matrix I drew using iAnnotate:
And then – and this is why Twitter is actually awesome – Milanovic responded, suggesting that the matrix worked and would be populated by political affiliations as follows:
Paul Mason suggested that there should be additional boxes to reflect some of his thoughts that he outlines in his book Postcapitalism, but having not yet read it I didn’t follow sufficiently well to make another diagram.
Anyway, I ran a Twitter poll with the genuine interest in where folks saw themselves in the matrix.
I was really surprised that the Liberal Cosmopolitan category won out. Policy associated with that category could include (variously) free movement of people, global rather than national government redistributing wealth from the global rich (pretty much everyone in developed markets) to global poor in an effort to offset national and familial endowments. And I would expect it would be pretty hard to rationalise welfare states enjoyed by the likes of the UK – given as they might be understood as offering social protection only to those who were lucky enough to be born in the right country. I have met someone who lives there life true to these beliefs, but, to my knowledge, only one person.
I kind of thought that Natalie Holman sought to explain this is a masterful and funny subtweet:
But actually, I think that the truth is that few self-professed liberals (I am very much including myself here) are properly clean of cognitive dissonance. I see top right as the ‘correct’ box, but find in myself an attachment to nation as an exceptional community. I’d like to think that this is a transient thing while the rest of the world gets up to speed (with our support). But that just sounds like a way of rationalising cognitive dissonance.