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Review

A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia.

By Andrew MacLeod

August 5, 2015

Review By Warren Magnusson

This is a journalist’s book about one of the crucial issues of our time: growing inequality. As Thomas Piketty has shown in his careful study of Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) the tendency for inequality to increase over time in market societies is not just a possibility: it is a demonstrable fact. Andrew MacLeod explores the trend in British Columbia, focusing on the years since the Liberals came to power in 1991. If one of the aims of a good government is to reduce poverty, our current government has been a failure. Its policies have increased inequality, and that has exacerbated many ills that MacLeod explores, not just poverty. Of course, the BC government has had a lot of help in this regard: from a federal government with a similar ideology, international organizations and foreign governments that push in the same direction, think tanks and commentators who keep telling us that less is more in terms of regulation and taxation, and an economics profession entranced by market models and isolated from the other social and historical sciences. As Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin explain in The Making of Global Capitalism (2012), the current order of things was established politically, and will not be undone easily. MacLeod does not do as much as Piketty to prick the bubble of neo-liberal pretensions, but he particularizes things to British Columbia in a way that will be genuinely useful. He writes well, illustrates his account with the sort of human-interest stories that journalists do so well, canvasses a wide range of opinion, marshals a mass of statistical evidence in easily digestible form, and draws attention to a wide range of problems. He well knows that British Columbia is not unique, and that it would be wrong to lay every problem at the feet of the provincial government. Nevertheless, he shows quite convincingly that British Columbia is often at the bottom of the league tables in inter-provincial comparisons, for reasons connected to provincial policy.

All that said, the book is a bit frustrating for an academic reader — or indeed for anyone who is looking for a tight analysis of the problem of inequality in British Columbia. MacLeod suggests thirty-six different ways of reducing inequality, some of which are relatively easily achievable (like raising the minimum wage or enhancing pensions), others of which are doable but would produce stiff opposition (like taxing capital gains the same as other income or imposing inheritance or wealth taxes), and still others — like creating more “well-paying jobs,” his No. 1 recommendation — that are more like dreams than programs of action. It is hard to develop a plan of action without a more careful analysis of the sources of the problem or the obstacles to solving it. MacLeod canvasses various views, but he lacks the means to do the analysis himself, so the reader is left wondering how to think about the many facts he presents, and is liable to choose whatever solutions seem easiest, which are not likely to be the ones that actually work. As many commentators besides Piketty have made clear, the technical difficulties involved in reducing inequality are by no means as great as the political ones. No doubt, inequality is bad for all of us, as Richard Wilson and Kate Pickett showed in their brilliant book, The Spirit Level (2009). Wealthy people are not much convinced of that, however. Unless the disfavoured are mobilized, there is not likely to be much change, and the change is unlikely to be in the right direction if there is no coherent and easily understandable analysis of what the problems are and how they might be addressed. Scholars have to do the analysis. MacLeod has reminded of the many tasks before us in that respect.

A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia.
Andrew MacLeod
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2015. 246 pp. paper