Thursday, May 25, 2006

Better or Worse? p.78

In a quiet fifteen minutes, I have discovered a new game -- opening my copy of Better or Worse?, the 2005 book written by Polly Toynbee and David Walker, to a random page and seeing how many dubious facts I could find.  This morning, it was page 78 (my copy is a Bloomsbury paperback).

I found this quote:

In the media they [apparently newspaper editors and BBC directors] controlled, they reflected a world of privilege -- so a threat to private school education or private health was wrongly described as an attack on 'middle England'.

When I Google "attack on middle England", I get seven results - maybe the problem is not as severe as Polly thinks?  Of the seven, four are from the media (two are from Hansard, and one from Amazon).  Of the four media citations:

  • One was from the BBC in 2002, talking about the tax increases in the 2002 budget.  Note that the 2002 increases were in National Insurance contributions, and were not threats to private education or private health per se
  • One was from the, er, Guardian, and quoted Gordon Brown denying that the national insurance increases in the 2002 budget were an attack on middle England.  No reference to private health or education
  • One was from the Mirror, and which contained this curiously ungrammatical sentence: "Who view every tax and welfare payment as a financial attack on Middle England." [emphasis added]  If you go and read the piece in the Mirror (it's OK, you don't have to) it seems to be referring to John Redwood.  Note, again, no reference to private education or health
  • The final quote I can find from the UK media is this, from Money Marketing Live: 'One of the big Budget surprises was Gordon Brown's attack on Middle England with his proposed inheritance tax changes on trusts. These are considered by many to be ill-thought-out and totally unjustified. They are retroactive, to use Government terminology, and can apply to existing trusts in certain circumstances.' John Wolley, MM, 20 April 2006."  Given the quote is dated after Polly's book was published, she can't really be referring to this.  And it doesn't refer to private health or education

So, four quotes from the media, none of which refers to private education or private health.

Incidentally, for those interested in Polly Toynbee's salary, consider the sentence which comes immediately before the one I quoted above, which I reproduce in its entirety here:

Newspaper editors and BBC directors and everyone they knew in their hermetic worlds all earned many multiples of £100,000.

I take this to mean that Polly must be earning many multiples of £100,000.

My other big problem with page 78 comes with these two sentences:

Professor Richard Layard showed how people draw a sense of their esteem and worth from their relative place in a nation's pecking order. Asked a hypothetical question, most say they would choose to have less money in a society where everyone had a fairer share, than more absolute wealth in a society where everyone else was far richer.

As well as getting her facts wrong, another Polly Toynbee trait is to quote apparent facts without a source, making it difficult to judge whether the fact is accurate or not -- as happens with the "hypothetical question" she refers to above.  So, with no real guidance as to where it came from, I am assuming it comes from Layard's work, a lot of which is posted here(*).  The closest thing in Layard's work which I can find to Polly's hypothetical question is this little experiment:

A sample of Harvard graduate students were asked:
1. Which of these two worlds would you prefer? (Prices are the same in each)
    A. You get $50k and others get half that.
    B. You get $100k but others get more than double that.
2. Which of these two worlds would you prefer?
    C. You get 2 weeks holiday and others get half that.
    D. You get 4 weeks holiday but others get twice that.
The majority answered A to question 1, and D to question 2

This is taken from "Towards a happier society" (pdf link here).  I may be wrong, and this is not what Polly is referring to -- and I will withdraw this critique if this turns out to be the case (though not my criticism about inadequate sourcing).

My first problem is that Harvard graduate students, lovely though they may be, are hardly a representative sample of the UK population.  Secondly, the two scenarios described in A and B are hardly different in their levels of inequality -- in both cases they seem pretty equal societies with one outlier, the respondent.  This is not a test of whether we want everyone to have "a fairer share" or not.

* At the time of writing, the links on this page to Layard's work are broken, as they have a spurious "www" in the link.  You'll have to click on the link, and then delete the "www." from the address in the address bar of your browser.


Neil Harding said...

Doing a google is hardly scientific.

Anonymous said...

It's also absurd - it is completely impossible for (in the first question) the incomes of everyone but the questionee to increase by a factor of 4, but the prices of everything remain constant.

Ask a question that actually makes sense, and they might get a sensible answer.

FactcheckingPollyanna said...

Neil --

No, I agree. But it should throw up any trend to describe things as an attack on middle England.

FactcheckingPollyanna said...

Anonymous --

I agree; I do not like the survey question very much, and would be reluctant to draw any meaningful conclusions from it.