It may seem strange to draw on the work of a fantasy writer when discussing the Cost of Living Crisis. I was as surprised as anyone to read that the Discworld novels of Sir Terry Pratchett were being used to describe the flaws in the current Retail Price Index. This first came up in a twitter thread by Equality and Anti-Poverty campaigner Jack Monroe.

In his book ‘Men at Arms’ Pratchett describes what he calls The Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socio-economic unfairness.

In short, the theory goes as follows:

Sam VImes, Captain of the Ankh Morpork City Watch, earns $38AM per month. A really good pair of boots which could last as much as 10 years cost $50 which is out of his reach financially. The best he can afford is a pair costing $10 which at best last a year.

Therefore, over a ten year period, Vimes will have spent $100 dollars on boots, twice as much as the person who can afford the $50 boots, and he will still have wet feet.

What this points to is the flawed way that the Retail Price Index is calculated. The Office of National Statistics calculates the rate of inflation using the average prices on 700 different items, including bedroom furniture, a television and champagne – not what most of us would call day-to-day expenses.

Monroe points out that price rises over recent months have disproportionately affected everyday essential  items more than things such as ready meals and other high value items.

Of course, this is not a new idea. In fact it can be traced back to Robert Tressell’s seminal 1914 novel  The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists:

Everybody knows that good clothes, boots or furniture are really the cheapest in the end, although they cost more money at first; but the working classes can seldom or never afford to buy good things; they have to buy cheap rubbish which is dear at any price.

So where do we go from here? According to reports the ONS is working to develop a more realistic collection of items to create a more accurate picture of price inflation but that is only half the story.

It is over a century since Robert Tressell wrote this, yet poverty is still a fact and is getting worse as fuel and food prices rise. In 2019/20 12% of children in East Worthing and Shoreham were living in absolute poverty. Covid, rocketing fuel prices and the rising inflation rate along with the £20 reduction in Universal Credit has only exacerbated this.

This is why we need to declare a Poverty Emergency and take active steps including secure, well paid  jobs and fair socially rented housing.

If we do this we can start to make poverty something that we only read  about in books, whether they are set in a fantastical world carried across the universe on the back of a giant turtle or in an English seaside town in the years before the First World War.

 Jon Roser




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