The Uncounted by Alex Cobham

The Blurb On The Back:

What we count matters – and, in a world where policies and decisions are underpinned by numbers, statistics, and data, if you’re not counted, you don’t count.

Alex Cobham argues that systematic gaps in economic and demographic data lead us not only to understate a wide range of damaging inequalities, but also to actively exacerbate them.  He shows how, in statistics ranging from electoral registers to household surveys and census data, people from disadvantaged groups, such as indigenous populations, women and people living with disabilities, are consistently underrepresented.  This further marginalises them, reducing everything from their political power to their weight in public spending decisions.  Meanwhile, corporations and the ultra rich seek ever greater complexity and opacity in their financial affairs – and when their wealth goes unallied, it means they can avoid regulation and taxation.

This brilliantly researched book shows how what we do and don’t count is not a neutral or ‘technical’ question: the numbers that rule our world are skewed by raw politics.  Cobham forensically lays bare how these issues strike at the heart of our democracy, entrenching inequality and injustice – and outlines what we can do about it.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order THE UNCOUNTED by Alex Cobham from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Alex Cobham is an economist and chief executive of the Tax Justice Network.  This deep dive into failures in collating economic and demographic data argues that official figures are skewered against society’s most disadvantaged and increase inequality, which is further exacerbated by multinational tax avoidance.  However, the tone here assumes familiarity with the underlying subject matter and is quite academic, making it difficult to get into.

I picked this up because over the past few years I’ve become increasingly interested in the subjects of economic inequality and tax avoidance and have picked up some basic knowledge but had not read anything about the underlying data and how it’s constructed before.  Cobham (as you would expect) clearly knows this topic inside out but this is a book that I think is very much written for economists or those familiar with statistics and demographics rather than casual readers such as myself.  At times the writing is quite technical, assuming familiarity with writers such as Foucault, and it also pretty academic, which meant that there were times when I wasn’t sure I understood the points being made (although I could follow the general arguments).  There are also a lot of acronyms used in the text and while there is a glossary at the front, I found myself having to constantly flick back to it in order to understand what Cobham was talking about.

The book is divided into 3 parts.  

Part 1 focuses on how development data can fail to include all of the people within a society, especially women, indigenous groups and those with disabilities.  There is a lot of technical information in this Part with the first chapter focusing on how development data is collected and measured.  Having previously read about issues with using gross domestic product (GDP) as an indicator of development, I was able to follow Cobham’s points about the issues with this, e.g. how it undervalues women’s work and his points about how GDP is open to manipulation were new to me and very interesting, given that they tie in with his later chapters on multinationals and the damage caused by their tax structuring activities.  I also enjoyed his arguments about how bad data leads to bad decision making – sometimes because lobby groups have a vested interest in skewering data to support decisions in their favour and sometimes just because of statistical mismanagement.  Here he uses the term “uncounted” to describe a politically motivated failure to count groups.  Although he discusses the impact here on developing economies, he also takes the time to highlight the damage this does to so-called first world economies as well, e.g. the attempts of the Trump administration to manipulate census questions.

Part 2 moves onto explaining how financial secrecy allows rich and powerful individuals and multinationals to go uncounted in terms of social and legal compliance and how this furthers economic inequality.  The arguments here were very familiar to me and so too was a lot of the evidence cited as I’ve read a number of books delving into this exact topic.  However Cobham does use his own research on this to devastating effect in reinforcing the message of how multinational global profits are misaligned with their areas of activity and how manipulation of profits and losses can distort nation states’ GDP figures.  The section on illicit tax flows did leave me floundering a bit as Cobham goes into what these are (and the difficulties in defining the same) and then into international policy through the formation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the impact of lobbying on the same.  Specifically there’s quite a lot of discussion about lobbying groups and the SDG process which seems to presume that the reader has a level of familiarity with the subject matter that I simply don’t have.  Equally confusing to me was the chapter on Gini and Palma methods of calculating inequality as I really didn’t have the technical expertise to closely understand the distinctions that Cobham seeks to draw.  

Part 3 concludes by proposing a set of measures to tackle inequality in data collection, including: 

– establish a global asset registry to reveal real world wealth distribution; 

– establish a world wide commission to establish global population data (including identifying gaps) and develop a costed plan to rectify those gaps;

– establish a UN Centre for Monitoring Taxing Rights to show the divergence between multinationals’ declared corporate profit from the location of real economic activity;

– deliver a convention on international tax transparency to ensure cooperation between nations and end profit shifting.

Ultimately I think this is an interesting book that argues its case for how inequalities in data and tax come about and why they need to be tackled.  However, I think it’s a book you get a lot more out of if you have that economic or statistical grounding to follow all of the points that Cobham is making and understand the underlying research and I simply didn’t have that, which means I didn’t get as much from it as I hoped to.  

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