Inequality: I’m not yet convinced

29/07/2013 § 4 Comments

I have started the book Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis. It’s slow going but want to start teasing out my reactions, so I’ll review it piecemeal. Today, we’ll look at Part One, the introduction. My apologies at the start — this is long and somewhat rambling.

The reason it is slow going is that I’m having to weigh up each sentence. I think there are logical flaws, so the book doesn’t carry me along. I’m sure some readers will enjoy the outrage and devour the book — I’m not one of them.

A major premise of the introduction is that we are all worse off when inequality increases. They rely on Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level for this argument, even reproducing a figure from the book (see here for my take on that book).  But they know themselves that this isn’t true. On page 17, we are told

We are all worse off for having wide income gaps in New Zealand.

On page 16, by contrast, the argument is

in countries with large concentrations of income, the wealthy can use their power to argue for policies that further their interests rather than those of the economy as a whole.

When you put these two statements together, the argument is that the wealthy are working against their own interests by arguing for policies that favour their interests. Obviously, this is illogical.

I also think it’s a tactical mistake. People working to lessen inequality are trying to get other people on board, to make equality politically popular. They are doing this by saying that equality is in everyone’s benefit. But this is simply not true, and obscures the fight they have on their hands.

(There is a similar retrospective argument going on over slavery in the United States during this sesquicentennial of the Civil War. One side says that slaveowners could have been bought out and everyone would have been better off. The other side argues that this wouldn’t have been possible.)

A second issue is that equality/inequality is a muddled concept throughout the Introduction. It seems to stand in for ‘things we don’t like’ rather than having an independent definition. This was quite striking with the second personal profile in the book. It’s a profile of a family with mum, dad and four children. They moved from Auckland to Whanganui, then mum lost her job and things got tight. But ‘tight’ is a relative term. For example, the family can afford some after-school activities but not all of them. Is that deprivation or not? Most important, though, is the notion of choice:

But even though she’d almost certainly get work in Auckland, Kristine doesn’t regret the move to Whanganui. ‘Being down here enables us to do so many more things for the children. We get a far better lifestyle here, with far more time together as a family.’

So how is this inequality? This family is choosing non-monetary rewards over monetary rewards and dealing with the consequences of that choice. They know they have other options and choose not to exercise them.

Another issue is that the statistical basis for the arguments is not consistent. Sometimes, the talk is of personal income, which includes all the superannuitants. We are told, for example, that 30% of individuals have incomes less than $15,000. In the very next paragraph, we move to a discussion of household incomes, which look much less dire (decile 1, single person, no children: $16,600 or less). Further on, the discussion moves to disposable incomes (after tax) for single households, but figures for the top 1% of those earners are given as pre-tax amounts because of data constraints. In essence, the number of people at the low end is inflated, and the incomes at the high end are inflated. It would have been better to work harder at a consistent measure of income to present a fair picture of the situation.

This kind of ‘worst case’ picture doesn’t stop with the incomes figures. For example, we are told that

this country has a relatively small earnings advantage to those with degrees.

As it happens, I know a little about this topic. The footnote (ftnt 66!) to the statement correct notes that the OECD has measured returns to tertiary education. However, that includes not only degrees but also sub-degree qualifications. The composition of New Zealand tertiary education (comparatively more sub-degree qualifications than other OECD countries) drags down our average return.

This statement about a small earnings advantage also shows the incoherence of the whole introduction. In a relatively equal society, we should have low returns to increased education. The premium should cover the time spent out of the workforce but not much else. Just because someone didn’t get an education is no reason for them to be disadvantaged in the workplace.

If this strikes you as a silly argument, that’s because you are thinking about productivity and economic efficiency. Clearly, the book recognises that some inequality is okay (degree holders should make more money), but too much is not. What I want is a clear statement about where they think that line is, and how they propose to measure it.


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