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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Palliative care, 2 Jan 2011
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This review is from: Them and Us: Changing Britain - Why We Need a Fair Society (Hardcover)
Will Hutton's book attempts a comprehensive analysis not just of the financial crisis but of British society as a whole. Along with the analysis, he puts forward a detailed list of possible remedies. He aims to be as non-partisan as possible. As he says:

"...the proposition in this book is that neither the force of the market nor the capitalists and entrepreneurs who powered it would have been possible without the new Enlightenment openness and a range of emergent Enlightenment public democratic institutions." (P 122)

He thus bases his arguments in theories of social justice and, above all, the idea of 'just deserts' - that people have an innate sense of justice and fairness that has been warped by the politics of the last thirty years or more.

In the first part of the book, he attempts to reach an 'Understanding [of] Fairness'. He considers the ideas of John Rawls which he believes typifies the thinking of those on the left of the political spectrum and the ideas of Robert Nozick for those on the right. Applying these, along with modern, more psychological theories of 'just deserts', he analyses what he considers to be the unbalanced economy of the UK with its dependence on financial services and abandonment of manufacturing and technological innovation and entrepreneurship.

In the second section, 'Fairness Under Siege', he provides a short introduction to the development of Western capitalism roughly from the Enlightenment up to the present crisis, whereupon his analysis becomes almost too comprehensive, becoming breathless in its speed and detail, but his frustration at what he considers to be the idiocy of the pursuit of short-term profit by bankers and politicians at the expense of the wider economy and society certainly shines through.

In the third and final section, he becomes more prescriptive. He pours out a huge number of suggestions for the 'Relaunch of Fairness', every page scattered with 'shoulds' and 'musts' to an almost dizzying extent. He not only puts forward ideas for financial and banking reform but political, media and social reform also. Many of his comments on the media echo the criticisms raised by writers such as Nick Davies in his excellent 'Flat Earth News', to which Hutton refers approvingly.

Again, Hutton tries to be as non-partisan as possible, both criticising and praising New Labour and the current coalition government, but some of his ideas strike me as, at best, ill thought-out. For example, on page 371, he suggests that 'charging could be introduced into the NHS for delivery of all but the most urgent of treatments - but for which poorer patients could be excused.' This implies introducing means testing for the NHS, plus the possibility that people suffering from relatively minor complaints may not present for treatment until their complaints are sufficiently serious to warrant 'free' care. It also ignores the growing popularity of medical insurance as an employment benefit in many companies, helping to create a 'two tier' health care system.

In all, then, although Hutton bravely attempts a comprehensive analysis of the current economic, social and political crises, his ideas do not, to my mind, have any consistent theoretical underpinning, except a rather nebulous belief in Enlightenment values. In economics, he draws on Keynes and Schumpeter; in politics he has high hopes for some form of PR; in the media, he wants to beef up the Press Complaints Commission, change the libel laws to prevent 'libel tourism', ensure the future of the BBC and promote alternative sources of news. All of this is certainly worthy, but none of it really addresses the fundamental flaws in the capitalist system - in the end, all he offers are palliatives.
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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 12 Jan 2011 12:11:41 GMT
Excellent review (as is the other 3-star one by Maurice Hill) and just the sort of intelligent, thoughtful writing one hopes for (but rarely gets ...) from Amazon reviews.

I shall certainly read Will Hutton's book - I think his heart is in the right place! - but I would be interested to know if you can recommend any others that maybe propose more radical solutions for our present state?

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Jan 2011 12:27:29 GMT
Diziet says:
Thank-you GH - much appreciated.

I think you are right - Mr Hutton's heart is in the right place, but he is just too accommodating. As regards theories of justice, I'd definitely recommend Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel; with regards to banking, Freefall: Free Markets and the Sinking of the Global Economy by Joseph Stiglitz; but as for a thorough-going root-and-branch reform, I'm afraid I have little to recommend.

If anyone else has recommendations, I would also be interested.

Posted on 14 Jan 2011 15:01:44 GMT
I share many of your views on Mr Hutton's book. As to your final point about palliatives, he makes it clear at the start of the book that he supports a form of capitalism that is "fair" and he seeks to establish what he means by that term. So he is not going to be recommending its overthrow. Perhaps he is settling for what he considers to be achievable, rather than what more committed opponents of capitalism would present as more radical alternatives. What I liked about the book was his passionate distaste for the socially useless people who continue to get rich on other people's money and his sincere attempts to offer practical ways of inserting the wedge of fairness into the grossly unfair way in which Britain operates now.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Jan 2011 16:58:25 GMT
Diziet says:
Thank-you for your comment. :-)

That is a very reasonable point. Within the terms he has set himself, the book might be considered a success. But I can't help feeling that we have been here before. In the 1930s, it is often claimed that FDR's adoption of a form of Keynesian economics helped alleviate the misery of the Depression and the previous excesses (although, in my opinion, stronger arguments suggest that it was actually the advent of WW2 and the 'creative destruction' that ensued).

But it appears that no-one has learnt from the lessons of the 30s. In the US, the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, removing the barrier between commercial and investment banking in 1980, among other things, helped set the scene for the current crisis. That, and the sheer hubris of a New Labour government claiming to have transcended the boom/slump cycle that is a fundamental feature of capitalism just proves, to me at least, that even were all Mr Hutton's reforms put in place, they would be gradually eroded until the crisis occurred again. In that sense, Mr Hutton's proposals are simply palliatives.

David Harvey quoted Andrew Mellon, the US Treasury Secretary during the Great Crash of 1929 and one of America's richest men, as saying that 'in a crisis assets return to their rightful owners.' i.e. him. There's an interesting review of David Harvey's book here:
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/the-enigma-of-capital-and-the-crises-of-capitalism-by-david-harvey-1958010.html
I do generally agree with the reviewer's conclusions.

Posted on 7 Jun 2012 16:39:33 BDT
No system can rid society of the greatest evil and source of most of our problems - human greed. This is what many capitalists like to remind you of, lest you try and tinker with the system that allows them to get unfairly rich. The decline in religious belief in the west has allowed a moral vacuum to open up. We need a secular morality to replace it IMO. Btw I am an atheist.

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Jun 2012 18:44:53 BDT
Diziet says:
Many would disagree with you that human greed is 'the greatest evil'. Neolibs seem to think that greed is a good thing as it supposedly motivates people to start businesses etc. I don't agree, of course, but neither do I believe that 'no system can rid society of the greatest evil.' Perhaps not in its entirety but the emphasis on rampant and selfish individualism ('there is no such thing as society') has certainly strengthened tendencies towards greed - and just as they can be strengthened, they can be weakened too. And maybe the way to do this would be with a 'secular morality' but, at the very least, a sense of social cohesion, of solidarity. Kurt Vonnegut's son once said (according to Kurt Vonnegut) 'We're all here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is.'

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Sep 2012 07:14:16 BDT
Last edited by the author on 19 Sep 2012 07:20:21 BDT
R. E. White says:
Diziet
"but as for a thorough-going root-and-branch reform, I'm afraid I have little to recommend."
Surely this is the key issue of our time. The only basis for a radical reformation of commerce that I've come across is an analysis of capitalism in which it is argued that 'fiat' money [money created by banks] leads to an uncontrolled expansion of the money supply with all its attendant problems - as we are now experiencing. See www.positivemoney.org.uk

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Sep 2012 07:43:11 BDT
Last edited by the author on 19 Sep 2012 07:45:20 BDT
Diziet says:
Well, 'fiat' money is what we've had effectively since Nixon took the US off the gold standard (see The End of Finance, amongst many others). There is, in my opinion, a strong argument for simply printing more money in times of recession (QE or whatever else you want to call it. See Paul Krugman for example). So are you advocating a return to the gold standard?

It seems to me to boil down to whether you prefer 'supply side' economics or a more Keynesian approach. If no-one's got any money, 'supply side' arguments seem a bit pointless.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Sep 2012 12:15:13 BDT
Last edited by the author on 19 Sep 2012 12:18:07 BDT
R. E. White says:
Go back to the Gold Standard? Never!

But I think we do need to put an end to the continual expansion of the money supply. At the moment every time you borrow money the bank just 'creates' it with a key stroke. But as we have to repay that capital loan with interest so the amount of money in circulation has to continually increase. Which not only causes inflation but requires a continual expansion of the economy - difficult in a finite world and impossible now Peak Oil has hit.

I believe we need to end fiat money and replace it with a new form of capital that only increases the money supply when we have extra goods to the same value. But no one has any idea how this can be done.

re dealing with the Great Recession: I agree we need to use a Keynesian approach but I don't think it will work unless and until all the debt has been purged from the sytem. In my view TARP was a terrible mistake. As well as being theft from the poor. Such theft plus the debt overhang will continue to depress the animal spirits (confidence) and will stop recovery from happening for the foreseeable future.

I suspect our betters will end up going to war as its the easiest way to instantiate the huge amount of 'creative destruction' necessary to eliminate the misallocated capital.

I'd say the elite have seriously messed up. Their short term greed has ruined the economy. While reaching the limits of being able to expand the production of some commodities - such as oil and water - means we can no longer expand the economy. Also the West now
has to share its wealth with the East - so it will become poorer. Not only relatively but in terms of hard cash.

I expect a minimum of 10 years of poverty - probably followed by war. And even then the West will not return to its 2005 standard of living.

A bleak future.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Sep 2012 12:30:57 BDT
Diziet says:
"every time you borrow money the bank just 'creates' it with a key stroke." Yes, it's call Fractional Reserve Banking (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fractional_reserve_banking) and is the basis of all current banking practices. There's been a lot of talk about increasing the 'fraction' at the various Basel banking meetings, but it's still pretty low.

I don't see how you can 'end' fiat money without fixing the value against something external - such as gold. The basis of capitalism is that you invest money and expect a return on it - typically 3% (see David Harvey). Capitalism is thus based on perpetual growth.

As regards inflation, Krugman points out that, in a recession, inflation can actually be beneficial - in pricing workers back into jobs, and making a currency more competitive against its rivals. Inflation in a booming economy is bad news, but right now it might be a very good thing.

I agree that purging debt from the system would be a very good thing too - but not at the expense of the poor. A better bet would be, indeed, to write off the debt - something that is proposed by Costas Lapavitsas in relation to Greece and Ireland.

With regards war - yes, that is ultimately how the world got out of the Great Depression - World War 2.

Listening to Mitt Romney referring to the 47% of Americans as 'moochers' shows that Ayn Rand is alive and well and still having a huge impact on all those Tea Partiers and republican oligarchs. And Europe is increasingly being run by a bunch of unelected technocrats. By the way, did you know that Alan Greenspan was an Ayn Rand 'disciple'?

We are, as you suggest, thoroughly doomed.
:-)
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