This wasn’t supposed to be a trilogy, but hey, as Al Pacino said (GFII)

jus wen ya tink ur out, dey just keep dun drawing yo back in

(notwithstanding there might be an epilogue).
In my first article I outlined some benchmarks for good writing.
In the second I applied them to Neuro Scientist Daniel Levitin’s tome
Lies & Statistics.

In this final article I reapply my benchmark to Angus Deaton’s “The great Escape” as it attempts to deal with those hardy perennials Poverty/Inequality & elucidate the hows and whys of such a consistent affliction of so many societies.


All along da watchtower

The relevance of his work, is thrown into pertinent relief as the UK reverberates to the recent tragedies of the Grenfell Tower disaster, Venezuela tips into the abyss of social degeneration, and the current political/financial crisis in Brazil spirals into a vortex of street criminality.

Deaton’s (a Princeton professor in Economics) work tries to shed light on modern day  inequality and ostensibly should illuminate a very dark aspect of the human experience.

However I will try to subjectively apply my template rather than get too emotionally entrapped by an area, that I perhaps have an irrational passion for.

I actually picked up Deaton’s book when a Jamaican friend asked me why his country was such a financial basket case, when it had so many natural resources; wa gwan?

Deaton’s premise is that like the film, certain sections of societies, always seem to do better socio-economically and escape  the lot of the majority. He also adds that quite often instead of helping others to escape, the escapees frequently fill in the tunnels, preventing emulation by the masses.

  1. Research: A Nobel Prize economics winning Professor Deaton’s research is daunting. There is a ton of data, often  illuminated by a slew of well meaning  graphs. Sadly I don’t recall any of it, as being particularly memorable and (ala Levitin) it’s almost that there is too much information (tmi). One of the principles of teaching is the breakdown; you break a complex area into digestible sequential segments. Although Deaton does segment the book, it still remains very dense and all encompassing, ranging from such unrelated subjects such as early hunter gathering to the Chinese famine. It’s almost as if Deaton is in a job interview, where he can’t miss out one scintilla of information, lest it be interpreted as of a frailty in academic rigour or muscularity .
  2. Voice Deaton is of Yorkshire/Scots ancestry so you would expect a certain Caledonian directness in his prose, and you are not disappointed. Indeed he has a strong opening narrative about his Scots background, but all this gives way to a more instructional tone of the ubiquitous  “What This Book Is About”  introduction.   A well seasoned and decorated academic Deaton resorts to more than a little academic jargonisation, including an unapologetic deluge of acronyms (TLAs). Again Deaton eschews another tenet of teaching, refusing to dumb down his language; he’s an academic choosing the vernacular of the academic research paper, in which to communicate. For example I lapped up the concept of a global happiness map (pg.53) but was totally bemused by Deaton’s exposition which seems circuitous at best, verging on lawyerese ; an unholy orgy of backward cross-referencing.
    On the positive side the book is data rich, but unfortumately his writing style is so flat they rarely register for long in the memory. Deaton stretches his Great Escape paradigm to breaking point, throughout the book, (presumably in a effort to dumb down). Notwithstanding that the film remains a staple of the Xmas TV schedule, the reference’s  resonance must  have faded (over the years), to the size of the spot on the screen (excuse the infant cathode ray reference). As I commented above (see how I did that) too often you feel you are trying to decipher an academic paper rather than read a simple prosaic exposition; not a page turner or more bluntly (in common with the majority of established academics) Deaton is not the most natural or charismatic communicator on the planet. I had missed out in my previous excursions what I term “the breakback mountain ” moment when a piece of writing starts to  roll of the bone,  becoming part of your everyday existence. The earlier this occurs the better as we often jettison the tome into the nearest recycling bin (shelf). Alas as with Levitin this never happens in the Great Escape.
  3. Structure : This is not a page turner with  beginning,  middle , end , but a data laden reference that can be freely accessed, due to its modular layout. The fact is you need a degree of facility with the subject matter to utilise it as a reference. Again I feel Deaton paints himself into a corner wrt to his audience. I had to reread chapter 4. Health in the modern world which was supposed to be an exposé of why poorer countries have failed to catch up with richer countries wrt health. In his meandering prose Deaton’s circumnavigates the emergence of heart disease, stroke & cancer as the significant chronic diseases de jour , since child mortality and infectious diseases have faded under improved medical provision. He devotes a fair amount of text to Smoking, or more accurately lung cancer being a prime killer. He then adds that actually it’s Smoking related CHD that is the prime killer not lung cancer, despite including a confusing graph of CHD rates in the west since 1950. Deaton seems to want to pathologically balance any conclusion with a mitigating interpretation, like an on message junior BBC interviewer; really confusing. In the appendix you find the usual tsunami of academic references … doh!
  4. Clarity and Conciseness: Deaton’s prose (TLA’s notwithstanding) doesn’t require a strategially positioned dictionary, but is as number laden as any academic treatise, and liberally spattered with graphs, which unfortunately belies the picture is worth a thousand words cliché. He tries to break up the text with many rhetoricals (What about women ?), however he confounds this stylistic mechanism with a long riffing responses, making the reader regret him posing the question in the first place.  Accordingly, the reader , having crawled their way through many paragraphs of packed cotton wool, is rarely rewarded with an overarching conclusion or denouement. Many extracts in insolation make sense, but in the context of Deaton’s overall story, the reader is often left with a fair amount of head scratching, if not eye wringing as they try to join the dots up. Rather solipstically, I thought I had GDP nailed down, but Deaton’s conflation of whether you should add in foreign (multi)nationals who repatriate many of their earnings, left me overwhelmed by childhood feelings of arithmetic economic emasculation. An example of a typical Deaton non-sequitur is:

    Even today, and in spite of India being one of the fastest-growing countries in the world, why is it that so many Indians are trapped in the destitution that was the outcome of the Neolithic revolution?

    Yet Deaton never really nails this anomaly , but alludes several chapters later that the poverty data may be unreliable, which imho beggars belief.

  5. Mechanicals: As expected with any university (Princeton) publishing project, the book is well edited (Anne Case) with almost nil typos or sentence construction glitches. However it would appear that the editorial team seem to have had little effect on the lack of resolution, that is omnipresent. Many unresolved chords are used. Deaton is a hard read despite the subject matter, and the quality of his mechanicals (Punctuation, Grammar, Syntax, Vocab etc). On the other hand, conforming to the academic stereotype the graphics are fairly mediocre if not downright shabby; colour would have lifted a lot of the graphs to another dimension.  The book has the look & feel of a railway/airport store product; certainly not a coffee table item.

Ooman awn a train! (Hackney om�)nibus from tvc15 on Vimeo.

Conclusion: One is slightly wary of crticizing a Nobel Professor of Economics and indeed the Great Escape may have been written for an academic audience (Bill Gates), but given the universality of the subject matter I felt this was a critical strategic error.

Somewhat naively I had hoped to glean an insight why tragedies like Grenfell Tower still persist, in the fourth largest economy. However Deaton only discusses immigration in the context of repatriation of money exceeding formal levels of Overseas Aid? An interesting fact that unfortunately he only spends a paragraph on!

The book is a good reference; if you want to know how poverty is measured, how disease has been a such a determinant of economic progress, why height is an unreliable measure of well-being, or the implication of colonisation in the lack of nation development; you’ll find it (somewhere) in Great Escape.

The book is loaded with gems; small women can’t have big babies and despite America outspending the whole planet wrt health, they have a lower life expectancy than most of Europe (i.e. the economics of the NHS outperforms the US despite the US offering a bottomless pit of possible treatments). They still have the most Medicine men.

Smoking notwithstanding Deaton is largely silent on how diet affects health or the behaviour of the corporations sacrificing  healthy food on the high altar of cost. Also Deaton skips around the issue of industrialisation, markets and marketing, plumping for the historical socio-economic factors instead. I’m unable to argue about the veracity of this approach, and indeed it’s probably Deaton’s view that the subject matter defies a reductive analysis that the layman yearns for, and indeed, who is to say that problem solving is not the only goal of academic research.
He intimates a deep knowledge of India but despite his exposition in  the poverty calculation section, I’m really unsure where anniversarial India is headed, despite the marginal progress ($1.25) of its millions. Is it, to the top economic table (G20) at the cost to the majority of its citizens i.e. will India’s relative economic improvement only benefit the brahimites of its cast-ridden society?

In fact Deaton is very quiet about Race in general, apart from some height comparisons between Africa and India,  given the pervasiveness of Racial inequality. Additionally he completely skips over the other minefield , Gender. Deaton is far from being myopic so you can only conclude that he has no convincing arguments for these omissions.

Living in an area with many  Tamils I believe there are more optimistic models available.
Clearly Deaton’s Bete Noire is overseas aid and there is a long soliloquy of its perceived shortcomings. On the whole the evidence stacks in favour of his proposition, but in typical fashion he has no better widget,  with which to replace this naïve, palsied attempt to do good.

Academics are renown for their ability to process unwieldy amounts of data, and come up with predictions & affirmations based on their analysis. However it is truly rare to find an academic who can break a theory down into chunks that a mere mortal can undertstand & hence use i.e. they usually are poor communicators, who paradoxically become revered, in spite of this major flaw. Adopting Deaton’s metaphor, it’s like the academics make the Great Escape, filling in the tunnels & leaving the rest of us floundering in their wake.
I think I’m not being harsh when consigning Deaton to this category.
To my Jamaican friend on the perennial economic problems of Jamaica; dey dun be teefing yo ;

You will always get criminal behaviour at every level including government ; if you don’t have  a coherent independent judiciary and law enforcement, the criminal inequality will flourish … aka a few good men and women.

Bill Gates Review (Seems to only work in Chrome? doh!)
2030 Projections
Indian black mohney.
Hard Times
Dealing with an epidemic of disempowerment Sir Michael Marmot

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