Talking Points

Dollars and sense

As a work of explanatory prose, The Professor and the Plumber is intelligent and accessible, providing a light-on-jargon, leftward-tilted introduction to the causes and consequences of the rise of extreme economic inequality in Canada and around the world since 1980. However smart, though, it’s a pamphlet trying to squirm free from the ­confines of undramatic dialogue.

The author, Eric W. Sager, is a historian and professor emeritus at the University of Victoria. He has also recently published a related but much longer, denser, and more academic look at the subject, Inequality in Canada: The History and Politics of an Idea (which I reviewed in these pages in the October 2021 issue). The new book takes the form of a fictitious dialogue, between a female “smartass university professor” and her cousin, a male plumber, who has always been “good at fixing things.” The two regularly meet to eat, drink, and talk about topics that each gets to choose in turn. It is now the professor’s opportunity to name a theme, and she opts for inequality — so that she can try out some ideas that she will later put before her students. The twenty-one short chapters of the book represent stages in that imagined discussion.

The work is unsatisfying as a dialogue not just because the theatrics are clunky; it also lacks internal tension. While the professor and the plumber are nominally distinct characters, they inhabit the same sensibility. Their conversation proceeds through a series of assertions and assents, interrupted only temporarily by trivial disagreements that are resolved by each chapter’s end. Despite the highly contentious nature of many of the propositions put forward, little is revealed through dispute or extended deliberation. This means the book is all lecture and no prize fight — which is not surprising as the author is a professor, not a pugilist.

Sager further undermines his dialogue format by interspersing graphics into the fictional discourse — including more than a dozen colour illustrations — as well as some bullet-point lists that look as if they might have had an earlier life on an overhead projector. Such additions would have been fine in a more traditional pamphlet or a newspaper piece, but here they only accentuate the fact that this exchange is a contrivance to present settled views.

The Professor and the Plumber makes a very strong argument for the importance of the examination of inequality today, but it is hard to imagine it could be particularly convincing for those who are not already aware of the problem and open to learning more. This slim book will not bring your child the hedge fund manager to economic enlightenment. It is much more suitable for that very considerable group of readers who really want to tackle the French economist Thomas Piketty but who discover, after they’ve lugged Capital in the Twenty-First Century home, that they haven’t got the background or the time for his weighty challenges.

While Sager acknowledges that his subject is a global phenomenon driven by neo-liberal economic policies, he effectively weaves in Canadian voices. These include the nineteenth-century philosopher John Clark Murray, who plays a larger role in Sager’s other book and is well worth getting to know; the contemporary economist Lars Osberg, who published The Age of Increasing Inequality: The Astonishing Rise of Canada’s 1% in 2018; John Marlyn, the author of the great 1957 immigrant novel Under the Ribs of Death; and the political philosopher G. A. Cohen, whose Why Not Socialism?, from 2009, is cited.

The key theme of this dialogue is that extreme inequality is not an economic glitch but a societal choice. It concludes that permitting extremes of wealth and poverty is morally wrong, socially damaging, and, potentially, ­politically corrupting. The argument about inequality, the professor tells her cousin, is “about the kind of world we want to live in.”

In the final chapter, “An Equality Manifesto,” the cousins agree that Canada needs far higher income taxes and much stronger policing of tax evasion. “The state has the power and the duty to extinguish the distances that inequality imposes,” the plumber declares. But there is no reflection on just how menacing that thought might seem to some Canadians.

Sager’s larger Inequality in Canada was brought out by McGill-Queen’s University Press in early 2021, and when his dialogue did not find a home, he decided to publish it himself. As he drolly notes in an afterword, “I conclude my career by writing one book that is publishable but unreadable, and another book that is readable but unpublishable.”

He is unfair to both books. Sager’s history of the idea of inequality, from colonial days until the 1980s, is a valuable addition to our knowledge of ourselves. And despite its problems of format, The Professor and the Plumber can nonetheless help us deliberate about the kind of country we want and the steps we might take to achieve it.