Unsuitable for wives and servants?

Only one of us still goin' strong, Bobby Baby

Apart from the OECD and the Bobby Darin Dream Car, this year marks two other major anniversaries, both linked to books: the publication of the King James Bible in 1611 and DH Lawrence’s  Lady Chatterley in 1961.

By the time you get to the end of this article, I hope to have thought of an OECD link for the KJB, but for the torrid tale of her ladyship and the hired help, there are a couple of possibilities, the first and most obvious being the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

In 1930, this raised import duties on thousands of items coming into the US and is now widely condemned as having made the Great Depression worse, since America’s trading partners retaliated. President Hoover said that the Smoot-Hawley Act was “vicious, extortionate, and obnoxious”.  Today of course, what you’d be more likely to get is something like: “While we share the concerns of Senators Smoot and Hawley, we feel more discussion is required on certain aspects of their proposed solution”.

That said, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría was less mealy-mouthed the other day at the OECD Global Forum on Trade  when he talked about the “phantom of protectionism again showing its ugly face”. Smoot himself could actually be quite entertainingly odious. He opposed an amendment to his Act that would have stopped US customs from censoring “obscene” books using Lady Chatterley as an example, explaining that it had been written by a “man with a diseased mind and a soul so black that he would obscure even the darkness of hell”.

Lawrence’s book was published in 1928 in Italy, but the first unexpurgated version was not openly published in the UK until 1960, and in November it was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act (as it would be in similar trials in many other countries). The defence was based on the literary merits of the work, but the turning point for many people was when  chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked the jury if “they would let their wife or servants read” this kind of book. Apparently they would, and the book was published again without a problem early in 1961. 

Griffith-Jones’ question was outrageous even by the standards of 50 years ago, so has much changed since? Attitudes to sex and sexism have certainly evolved, and women have improved their lives in some respects. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2010, the 134 countries covered, representing over 90% of the world’s population, have closed almost 96% of the gap regarding health between women and men and almost 93% of the gap regarding education. However, only 59% of the economic gap has been closed and the figure for political rights and representation is even worse, at only 18%. A report on the OECD Gender Initiative also talks about “persistent inequalities”.

How about your staff? For much of the 19th and part of the 20th century, domestic service was the main job in the urban areas of advanced economies. Manufacturing employment rose and fell, and now services are once again the main sector in OECD countries and elsewhere. The gap between masters and servants (or their modern equivalents) hasn’t closed much though, and in fact it’s been widening.

Movements like Occupy Wall Street in the US or the Indignados in Spain are one manifestation of the sentiment that even when there is progress, the rich get more than their fair share. To return to Gurría’s  speech to the trade conference, he pointed out that thanks to NAFTA, his home country Mexico has annual exports “close to 300 billion dollars a year, becoming one of the top exporters in the world. But the benefits of NAFTA need to be better distributed.” According to this OECD report on the two decades before the crisis, “In a large majority of OECD countries, household incomes of the top 10% grew faster than those of the poorest 10%, leading to widening income inequality.”

So, it’s still dream cars for some and increasingly overcrowded buses for the rest.

How about that link between the King James Bible and the OECD I promised you? Well, the best I can do is that it the King James translation was actually done by a (seriously underfunded) committee and when we were preparing our booklet on the OECD 50th Anniversary, one of the invited contributions started: ”One of the most exciting things about the OECD is the impressive range of its committees”. I think some thrill-averse subeditor deleted that bit though, so if you can think of anything better, let us know.

Useful links

OECD work on trade

OECD work on gender


OECD work on income distribution and poverty

Patrick Love

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