Objects that look like books, Brian Easton

Performance Without Profit: The Voluntary Welfare Sector in New Zealand
Gary Hawke and David Robinson (eds),
Institute of Policy Studies, $25.00

Women and Taxation
Claudia Scott (ed),
Institute of Policy Studies, $25.00

From Birth to Death III
Judith Davey,
Institute of Policy Studies, $30.00

 

To what extent do social scientists publish books? Certainly, sometimes their output appears in a material form similar to a well constructed piece of fiction, but often the contents are much less thoroughly worked through.

Take Performance Without Profit: The Voluntary Sector in New Zealand, the proceedings of a May 1993 symposium by the Institute of Policy Studies of Victoria University and the New Zealand Council for Social Services. Its purpose, we are told on the cover, “was to give participants an opportunity to learn from each other, and to contribute to shaping future analysis”. It is a curious admission of an elite pondering on the voluntary sector, since once one of the features of the sector was its eschewing of hierarchies. Moreover, the published papers seem to be those delivered, with little revision, so whatever the dialogue or conclusions of the selected participants, the masses are not to be privy to them.

The success of this sort of conference proceedings is dependent upon the conceptual planning which precedes the presentations. Typically, as in this case, it is not at all obvious what should be the scope of the topic, as illustrated by the confused messages in the title. Is it all about the nonprofit sector, as the main title suggests, or about the voluntary sector of the subtitle? As it happens there is little serious discussion on the voluntary element, or at the very least the two notions were hopelessly confused, something all the odder for most of the participants at the seminar being salaried activists.

It is not that we are totally ignorant of voluntary activity. The Department of Statistics has data on unpaid community work hardly reviewed here, although an appendix to a statistical paper by (departmental official) Stuart Payne suggests contributions from voluntary labour appear to be about the same size as the paid labour. If so, and observing that a chunk of the non‑profit sector’s revenue comes from Government contracts, its donations must be less than voluntary effort.

The result is that the papers do not offer a comprehensive account of the voluntary sector, and the title exaggerates the work’s scope. The publication is mainly about the supply side of the non‑profit sector, the core papers being on organisational forms, legal structures and taxation issues as well as some data. There is also a paper on “values in the voluntary sector” by David Robinson, one of the editors, which suffers from the confusion between voluntary and non‑profit. The non‑profit sector can be, and in America is often, a highly capitalist activity. For instance their “not-for-profit” hospital are often devices for maximising private doctors’ incomes.

The potentially interesting papers were the opening and dosing papers of ‘The Economic Role of the Voluntary Sector” by Dennis Rose which asks why there is a voluntary sector, and “Emerging Trends for the Voluntary Sector: New Zealand and Beyond” by Margy-Jean Malcolm, Mary-Jane Rivers, and Karen Smyth. But they do not really come together. There seems to be two unresolved problems.

The first is that whatever each’s own ethic, the agencies are evolving in an environment which is profoundly different from that in which they began. To put it bluntly, is there a role for voluntary agencies compatible with Rogermomics? Obviously there may be a role to subvert the thrust of the economic and social policies of the last decade, but this was not a matter the insiders turned their minds to, nor is it an approach with which the Institute for Policy Studies would wish to associate itself.

Instead the representatives seemed to be seeking some collaboration with the new political economy. The perhaps unintended direction of the conference seems to be towards the corporatisation of the non-profit sector and the relegation of the voluntary one. For instance, the introduction by John Cody ends by listing the next themes to be pursued, beginning with ‘identifying appropriate indicators of the efficiency and productivity of non-profit organisations”, as would be proper for any analysis caught in a Rogernomics mould.

This narrowness of vision points to a second issue. In the past conference-sponsoring agencies, such as the Council for Social Services, would go to the university for scholarly inputs as well as for a venue (and tea and biscuits). One of the traditional functions of the academy was to provide a broader intellectual perspective, bringing together sector activists in a structured framework. That did not happen here. The proceedings do not even have a overview from an external observer. The outcome of no academic input is intellectual confusion.

Today the role of the university seems to be to provide a vehicle for publishing, as well as a venue for presentation. In the past the proceedings would have been published as photocopies of the papers stapled together. Technological development means that a superior presentation is possible, but there is no comparable improvement in the quality of the contents. The result is a publication which is pretentious in title and impression, and modest in attainment. There is undoubtedly a need to think about the role of the voluntary and not-for-profit sectors in the new economic environment. But this is a frail place to start.

Another increasingly popular form of vanity publication is the collection of loosely edited essays. Taxation and Women arose out of a grant from the Inland Revenue Department as a contribution to the women’s suffrage centennial celebrations. Again no one seems to have thought carefully about the purpose of the activity, a matter all the more perplexing by the oddest of introductions which begins with a first-year summary of taxation theory with no reference to women at all.

The structure of the book is four parts: women and the tax system; women’s work and the welfare state; a women’s guide to tax issues; and administration and design issues. The last two parts are really women writing about tax-related issues, although some try to incorporate women into the topic. They prove we have a number of young women capable of making a contribution to the study of tax. There is a tendency to see such publications as ghettos, for women (in this case) who are not quite good enough to hack it at the top level. One hopes instead the contributors will see it a first step to full participation. Moreover, a number of the essays appear to be a good introduction to complicated issues and well worthy of reading by the interested laywoman – and layman.

These include Susan St John’s review of the interface between tax and social security benefits, demonstrating that poor women (and men) face very high effective marginal tax rates, and Susan Snively’s review of tax treatment of charities, which should really have been included in the first publication reviewed here.

There are greater problems with the first two parts of the publication. One might ask what is special about taxation on women, since the tax system does not discriminate between men and women. The editor does not address this, adding to the bewilderment of the purpose of the exercise. Fortunately Pru Hyman does, concluding that “the main argument of this paper is that economic analysis, assumptions, and policies, including those embodied in tax and income maintenance systems, are frequently gender‑blind rather than gender‑neutral”.

That is a good beginning, even if it appears as the eleventh essay. With this frame of reference I realised that a number of the studies were addressing Hyman’s challenge, although not always consciously as perhaps a more firmly edited work would have required, the order obscuring the pattern. Among the topics which are discussed is the marital tax unit (essay 4), childcare (essay 8) and female longevity as it affects estate planning (essay 14). Surprisingly there is no detailed discussion on the taxing of part-time work in which women predominate. And there is only the flimsiest of discussions on how the switching of the burden of taxation from the rich to the poor has penalised women.

Regrettably there is at least one outrageous claim among the contributions. Lawyer Marie Pallot in an otherwise useful essay on the law on tax on relief for childcare expenses says: “There is not widespread support for the provision of tax relief for childcare expenses among economists.” One passes by whether there is much support for relief for childcare expenses among non-economists, and assumes the intention of the sentence is to argue that economists do not support the tax relief. This may or may not be true, for there is no survey on the question, although it seems likely that the vast majority of women economists would support some “relief” for good economic reasons. The writer then goes with an unsatisfactory account of the economic debate, and concludes: “It is doubtful therefore whether those of us advocating tax relief for childcare expenses would obtain much support from economic theory. However, policy-makers need not be solely influenced by economic theory.”

To the contrary, there is a very strong economic argument for treating expenses incurred in the course of generating income as being deducted from revenue when calculating income for assessing tax. This applies as much to a woman needing childcare services while working as it does to a farmer hiring a shepherd. The statement not only misrepresents economic theory, but adds to the prejudice against it. One only hopes that the intelligent and sensitive treatment of women’s income issues by the women economists in the volume will offset the fierce reaction which the mis-statement will generate. All the more surprising is that the book is edited by a woman economist. I have no idea how she overlooked such a mischievous error, but it contributes to the impression that this is a loosely edited work.

The third book under review, From Birth to Death III, has a sole author, but is based on two earlier works of the same name written by committees of the defunct Planning Council. It may have seemed a good idea in 1985 to characterise individuals in a series of life stages, describing what is known about their living circumstances, housing, income, family life, other activities and health and wellbeing. However by the third time the approach is becoming jaded. (As someone commented, “it seems like the one hundred and eleventh edition”.)

Any characterisation of the complexity of the human condition is bound to be problematic. Consider the life stages of “birth and early years” and “childhood, 5-14 and dependent teenagers”. A very important element of those years is parents and so, inevitably, each stage discusses the characteristics of parenthood and the simplicity of sequence is lost.

An even odder consequence of the approach is treating death as something which occurs after the last life stage of “the older elderly: 75 years and more”. (The chapter on “Death”, like the others, starts off with a brief summary entitled “highlights”.) Discussion on mortality during earlier life stages is thus relegated to an end chapter which leaves each section’s discussion on health lopsided.

There are a number of other worries about the technical side of the report and various glitches. But the average reader’s main concern will be to what extent the material is accessible and authoritative. In those areas with which I have some expertise the answer is that it is not. The material on incomes is pathetic, useless to specialists and incomprehensible to the general reader. The material on employment and unemployment is only a little better. The discussion on inheritance depends on a paper whose author rightly acknowledges as using a seriously flawed method. The material on health and. wellbeing is disorganised: there is no systematic pattern of presentation, and the selection can be eccentric, as when the only section on cannabis use is for 5-to-14-year-olds.

That perhaps captures the spirit of the approach. It is essentially a magpie collection of material loosely grouped together by life stage, but often without any intelligent interpretation. Specialists will go back to the original research. Generalists and lay readers would be wise to beware.

The chapter on policy implications (immediately after death, which somehow seems appropriate), well illustrates the weakness of the approach. The author starts off trying to discuss the reshaping of the welfare state, but the material is just not strong enough for other than a few platitudes and so the chapter haphazardly drifts, shallowly touching various topics. It chooses not to discuss David Thomson’s recently published Selfish Generations, a thesis with which I deeply disagree but which is surely important enough to warrant some consideration. That the work is not even mentioned is perhaps as good an illustration as any of the narrow limitations of the life-stage approach.

This study seems to have been precipitated by the publication of the 1991 Population Census, so the question arises whether it should be repeated in another five years. That is for the authors and funders, but any future publication needs to be supervised by a panel of experts to ensure that the material is presented well and authoritatively.

That is the point which binds the three books here. While each is a university publication – although not from a university press – one gets no impression of that quality intellectual input to which once our universities aspired. The university in question cannot be so bereft of competent social scientists that this is the best it can offer.

What seems to be happening is that the drive to produce objects which look like books means that normal quality standards are being adulterated. Most of the material here would be rightly described as working papers. However the Institute of Policy Studies seems so keen to publish that it does not discriminate between work-in-progress and completed work. In the short run this may present an image of an active university, involved with public concerns. In the long run the lower standards undermine the university system for they allow competitive entry from alternatives. Today the commercially driven, Euromoney-owned Institute for International Research dominates the once university preserve of high-quality business and policy seminars.

University presses still fulfil a valuable intellectual niche, but mainly because they maintain high standards. These are not books they would consider publishing. Admittedly social scientists publish different sorts of books from those usually reviewed in these pages. But different does not have to mean lower. As repositories of intellectual excellence universities should be anxious to ensure that is so.

 

Brian Easton is a research economist and social statistician.

 

 

 

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