New book on inequality

28/06/2013 § 6 Comments

I went to the launch last night of a new book on inequality in New Zealand. I bought the book at the launch, so no review of it, yet. Here are a few thoughts coming out of the evening’s talks, however.

The first is that inequality is complex. Jonathan Boston makes the point in a pull quote from the book:

While equality is highly valued, there is huge disagreement about why equality matters and what precisely should be equalised.

You see that in the concerns raised by the contributors. Are we worried about the dire circumstances in which some families live, particularly children? Is it more about the size of the gap between the rich and poor? Is it about the wealth of the very richest?

The reason the complexity matters is my second point: preferences about what is ‘fair’ are subjective, and we might have very different preferences about different kinds of inequality. For example, one speaker brought up the recent coroner’s case in which a baby died in miserable housing conditions. The coroner blamed co-sleeping, but the news report made it pretty clear that the whole situation was awful. I don’t think it would be hard to get most people to agree that babies shouldn’t grow up sleeping

on the floor of a cold room with leaking windows and doors, no running water and, in an adjoining room, a toilet nearly full of human waste.

I bet, though, we get very different responses when talking about gifted kids. I would like to see all kids supported to ‘reach their potential’, an admittedly vague phrase. That includes supporting very bright children to learn as much as they want to soak up. The revealed preference of the public school system is to leave such kids to their own devices, as long as they don’t cause trouble or bring the averages down. That, to my mind, is unfair and unequal.

My third thought for the night was, who’s going to pay? One speaker talked about how New Zealand had changed, how university and healthcare fees had increased since the 1980s and contributed to increased inequality. While this is true, there is nothing stopping that speaker or anyone else from establishing a trust fund to address the issue. When the tax rates were cut in 2010 (pdf), I didn’t see a big campaign of equality supporters contributing the difference to a health-and-education fund.

Brief story: when I worked for Lincoln University, I was part of the academic union. One year, there was a push for a Multi-Employer Collective Agreement. All the academic unions across the sector said yes, yes, we should stand strong together. But the big universities offered agreements to their individual unions, and striking was too hard, and the deals weren’t too bad, and, and…. The Lincoln union, the smallest in the country, was left to fend for itself. When it came to fairness, those intelligent, well-educated, reasonably comfortable people looked out for themselves.

So last night, as I looked around another room full of intelligent, well-educated, reasonably comfortable people, I just had to wonder. Which inequality are we going to fix with whose money?


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§ 6 Responses to New book on inequality

  • JC says:

    If you close one eye and tilt your head just right you can see “equality” in NZ’s past. We were nearly all products of Old England, White, God fearing, had something of a White NZ policy and all living off the sheep’s back. Our equality was a product of rural communities and even cities tied to a particular commodity that did us proud for the best part of 100 years.

    But of course women weren’t really equal but we solved that by giving them the vote.. “First in the world to do it”, and Maori weren’t really equal but we solved that with “best race relations in the world”. In other words we saw ourselves as we wanted to see us and had all the right words to prove it.

    But once you open immigration beyond the UK and Ireland and open your economy the myth of equality is exposed because suddenly you have a whole bunch of entrepreneurs dreaming up new things and both failing and succeeding all over the place. Suddenly a whole bunch of invisible people become visible as the Chinese, Indians etc open successful restaurants and services overtake formerly protected and subsidised manufacturing.

    Maori have made stunning progress in this newly “unequal” society.. they live longer, infant deaths have halved or more, they have their own brilliant success stories and they have redress for past poor treatment. Its just they were once invisible and no one talked about what happened in the houses at the other end of the road.

    In short, in the information age even very small groups of people have become visible to us including their problems and issues, and with every problem there’s now a Govt funded advocacy group…


  • Matt Nolan says:

    I heard about this, and purchased the book myself. Tis a hard policy issue to discuss, given the amount it contains, will be interested in hearing your thoughts once you’ve made your way through the contributions 🙂

  • […] see via Groping to Bethlehem that there is a new book out on inequality in New Zealand.  I have purchased it, I have not read it yet, I will go it a go […]

  • Jason Felix says:

    Hmmn, not having read the book myself I will now be tracking it down.

    However, I’m curious about what part or aspect of inequality are you having problems with? I’ll assume that Gini index gets a lot of play in there. Is this acceptable? Do we agree that NZ have become markedly less equal since the advent of Rogernomics?

    With regard to gifted children, I agree that many schools ignore the special needs of these children over those with learning difficulties, but even a cursory look at who’s providing strong GATE in schools shows they’re predominantly higher decile.

    The site is still down, but as a breakfast experiment (well now lunch I guess) there’s a ridiculously strong correlation between decile and the proportion of schools with “gifted and talented” on their websites according to google:

    Decile “#Schools with web mentions of Gifted and Talented programmes” # Schools ” % with explicit G&T program”
    1 11 271 4%
    2 10 250 4%
    3 20 250 8%
    4 22 245 9%
    5 41 254 16%
    6 44 248 18%
    7 34 233 15%
    8 54 250 22%
    9 64 250 26%
    10 72 265 27%

    Although a proxy, it looks like this National Admin Guideline which although for all schools, is being patchily met, and primarily on socio-economic grounds.

    Isn’t this exactly the sort of inequality of opportunity that we as a society should be railing against?

    And as to whose money to pay to fix it, well how about a massive increase in taxation at higher incomes? It’s not like the evidence suggests that markedly higher top tax rates will suppresses growth, e.g.,, or do we disagree?

  • Jim Rose says:

    some people are still fighting the 1990 election.

    what do they want to bring back? teachers paying a 66% income tax rate. give telecom its monopoly back? ask the reserve bank for an foreign exchange import license so they can use amazon one-click? Or are they just roger douglas lite?

    If only the Alliance had won in 1990 to save the post office from privatisation. we would have to apply for a mobile phone at the post office, open to friday, 9 to 5 and have a tax licence to surf the Internet

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