Danny Dorling, The Equality Effect

Danny Dorling, The Equality Effect: Improving life for everyone, New Internationalist, 2017, 280 pp, 1 78026 390 8, pbk, £9.99

Danny Dorling’s new book is in many ways similar to his No-Nonsense Guide to Equality, published by the same publisher in 2012: but one difference is this volume’s higher production values. Another is the evidence of a significant shift in the global equality debate: governments are increasingly recognising that inequality is a problem; and yet another is an even more determined emphasis on the positive value of equality – although there is still plenty of description of the extent and effects of inequality. For instance, in the first chapter we discover that inequality corals both the rich and the poor in their own social silos, thus reducing choice for everyone, whereas greater equality offers increasing choice to everyone in relation to occupation and much else; that more equal countries, including poor ones, provide better healthcare and other services for everyone than less equal countries do; and that more equal countries experience greater economic prosperity and more environmentally friendly economies. The good news is that the world as a whole has become more equal. The bad news is that in some countries, including the UK, the richest one per cent have experienced significant gains in income and wealth.

Chapter 2 recounts the history of equality. Hunter-gatherers experienced significant levels of equality and sustainability; unequal societies enslave the poor; cultural advances have often followed revolutions against inequality; and countries are very different: both the UK and France experienced significantly less inequality after the Second World War, but now the UK is exhibiting far more inequality than France. A similar relationship holds between the USA and Canada.

Chapter 3 shows why this issue is so important for children. Greater equality correlates with lower child mortality rates, better educational attainment, and better teenage happiness levels. In chapter 4, Dorling shows that equality correlates with a healthy environment, and that in more equal countries people consume less, produce less waste, use more water, and emit less carbon. They are also better at mathematics. Chapter 5 is a somewhat complex chapter that relates fertility rates, migration and housing to each other; and, in chapter 6, Dorling suggests that it is the greater equality that we tend to experience at the weekend that means that we enjoy weekends more than the rest of the week, and he goes on to discuss some of the more equal places in the world: Cuba, Costa Rica, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Japan, Germany, and Kerala in India.

Dorling’s final chapter suggests routes towards greater equality, including Citizen’s Basic Income, which would enable us to choose not to do jobs that don’t need doing, and to spend our time more usefully. Dorling interestingly argues that Citizen’s Basic Income would be easier to implement in more unequal countries; and he suggests that the higher the Citizen’s Basic Income could be set, the more successful the country would be thought to be. The chapter ends with a discussion of ‘harmony’, which is perhaps a more evocative term than ‘social cohesion’, and the way in which greater equality would promote it.

The book is full of informative statistics and graphs, and some nice cartoons: but there might be questions to be asked about some of the graphs, such as those on pp. 154 and 155, where if the relevant axis had started at 0 (as it does, for instance, on page 157), then it would have been difficult to recognise a correlation, suggesting that the inequality effect is small. And Dorling makes a common mistake on p. 247: Child Benefit is still an unconditional income for every child. What has changed is that someone paying higher rate Income Tax pays additional tax if they live in a household that receives Child Benefit. The UK is now in the bizarre position of having an unconditional income for children alongside a tax on children.

Occasionally Dorling offers discussions of causality, suggesting the mechanisms that might connect inequality and the social factor in question (for instance, mathematical ability might be lower in more unequal countries because exam results become more important, so teachers might teach to the exam rather than for understanding). A more general discussion on causality would have been useful. Either income inequality is the cause in the various correlations that Dorling discovers, or some other factor is causing both income inequality and the other social ills. On page 262 social class is recognised as a possible cause of educational inequalities, and it is possible, and perhaps even likely, that the class structure underlies both income inequality and a variety of other inequalities.

This book is classic Dorling: well-researched and passionate. Whatever the causal connections, inequality matters, and greater equality would be good for us.