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IMPORTANT BUT SHALLOW
on 12 May 2012
Ferdinand Mount's "The New Few" is destined to be an important book, contributing to the national debate despite its superficial analyses and anemic prescriptions.
"Few" is an important book because its headline topics of income inequality and the alienation of the masses have visceral appeal in today's disgruntled society and because its author is not a bleeding heart liberal but a well credentialed Tory whose book will receive prominent reviews in the national press. Mount's fluent and confident prose doesn't hurt either.
In terms of diagnosis, Mount's almost impassioned analysis is thin soup compared to the FT `s Washington correspondent, Ed Luce's, recent "Time to Start Thinking" which addresses more of the same issues in US society and is all the more alarming for its comprehensiveness.
Mount's book provides food for thought and almost a call to action but its diagnosis focuses on two only loosely (one might say, sloppily) related themes: growing income inequality in Britain and the relentless centralization of power and disengagement of constituents in our political society.Mount mentions global competition but fails to reflect on its consequences for the prosperity of skilled blue collar and many white collar workers. He spends little time examining other root causes such as how decades of misguided social, educational and industrial policy have hollowed out society and left the country almost devoid of both skills and values.
Given the incompleteness of "The New Few's" diagnosis, it is not surprising that its prescriptions for a cure are unconvincing. Shareholder restraint on compensation (Mount cites JP Morgan -the man not the bank's - rule of thumb that a CEO should earn no more than 20 times the average worker. I doubt if the robber baron came any closer to living by this rule than Mao did to his own benchmark of 4:1), stricter regulation of banks, and devolution of political power are all on the Coalition's agenda; no one expects them to make any difference. Mount diagnoses brain cancer and prescribes vinegar and brown paper.
Mount may add fuel to the call for a mansion tax (even though shareholder activism rather than taxation is his preferred solution), but all of his `oligarchs,' many of them foreigners who contribute enormously to tax revenue and consumer spending but do not place any demands on the National Health, state education or social services, could be rounded up and expelled (or worse) and Britain's reality TV generation would still not be able to compete in the world market against the education-hungry, hard working, savings junkies of Asia and their mercantile , long-game playing governments. The book may become important but it is also dangerous in that it feeds populist angst without addressing real solutions.
The book is almost worth reading alone for the term "Croupier's take" (which Mount quotes from Warren Buffet) referring to the £7.3 billion raked off the economy each year by financial middlemen who provide dubious or negative real value.