by Richard King
When economist Branko Milanović first published his now-famous chart showing changes in global income distribution between 1988 and 2008 he furnished the world with a neat explanation for the various anti-establishment types now rocking the boat of Western politics: sandwiched between the Asian middle class and an increasingly bloated 1%—the winners from twenty years of “high” globalisation—the middle class of the rich world had been left behind and was voting in the rabblerousers. He also furnished it with a serviceable metaphor. From memory, it was Toby Nangle who first noticed that the chart resembled an elephant, and his inspired little graffito (below) twittered across the world in a flash. Journalists needed no further prompting. The chart was the elephant in the room … No: It was a sleeping elephant that threatened to wake up and destroy the joint … No: It was the eponymous pachyderm in the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant—a beast the nature and significance of which depended on which bit of it you happened to be feeling … And so on and so on.
Now the metaphor-making has entered a new phase. Responding to a report by the Resolution Foundation that seems to cast doubt on Milanović's data, or some of the interpretations of it, some commentators have declared the “elephant chart” irrelevant. Once called “the most important chart for understanding politics today”—the one gif you need in order to make sense of the current intersection of domestic politics and macroeconomic trends—it is now a liability, a statistical howler. Scribblers in the conservative sheets were especially keen to ventilate the report's findings and the presses ran hot with their picturesque efforts. The elephant had been shot, no, tamed …No: It had wandered off from the herd and gone in search of the elephant graveyard … It had packed its trunk and said goodbye to the circus. (Okay I made that last one up; but surely it's only a matter of time …)