Is inequality really the problem?

Forget inequality, it’s not the real problem. This is the view of Roger Partridge, chair of the New Zealand Initiative:

Since the publication of The Spirit Level in 2009, and its ‘devastating critique’, The Spirit Level Delusion, in 2010, debates in the media and among politicians have been gripped by wealth inequality fever. The latest instalment is French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century – a book which is at the centre of its own maelstrom over the accuracy of its analysis.

But is inequality a worthy cause célèbre? All other things being equal, few people on either the left or right would disagree that less inequality is better than more. And any parent will know that equality will lead to a more civil, stable, state of affairs within the family – and this is no doubt also true for society as a whole. But the factors that drive inequality in economic outcomes in a free market economy also produce great benefits. China may now have greater extremes of wealth than it did before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, but the Chinese live 25 years longer and are 50 times richer than they were 25 years ago. . .

This reinforces the view that we can be equally poor or unequally rich.

Focussing on inequality – and looking to redistributive policies to solve it – risks throwing the baby out with the bath water. We would not restrain our more talented child just to make her less successful, younger brother feel better, so why should we levy our most talented, productive citizens?

The easiest way to reduce inequality is to bring the top down but that won’t improve matters for anyone.

What is needed is a focus on the real problem: that not everyone in our society has the skills needed to take advantage of the opportunities that should be available to all. Among them are the 20 per cent of New Zealand’s school-leavers who, year after year, do not achieve NCEA level 2. It requires a suspension of belief to conclude they are failing because the rich are getter richer. The problem is more complex, but we will not solve it if we look in the wrong place.

If Piketty’s thesis is correct, and inequality in the West has increased in the last 50 years, then it has coincided with a great social experiment, the welfare state, which has seen an unprecedented rise in just the sort of redistributive policies Picketty believes are needed to solve the inequality problem. But as the Welfare Working Group reported in 2011, the welfare state in New Zealand has led to long-term welfare dependency, deprivation, financial stress, low living standards, and poor health and housing. It just might be that Piketty’s solution is the real problem.

In spite of what the opposition and their supporters think, inequality isn’t getting worse:

. . . Hon BILL ENGLISH (Minister of Finance) : The evidence shows that inequality in New Zealand has been flat or slightly declining since the mid-2000s. We also believe that a number of the measures the Government took through the recession certainly prevented inequality from worsening at a time when the Government was very short of revenue. But I welcome the member’s interest in the IMF’s view, because among its recent comments on New Zealand, the IMF emphasised the importance of ongoing fiscal discipline to a sustainable economic recovery. Nowhere in the statement does the IMF refer to inequality, and that is for a very good reason in respect of New Zealand—that inequality in New Zealand has not increased over the last 10 years. . . .

That inequality isn’t getting worse doesn’t mean it couldn’t – and shouldn’t – improve.

Education is one of the keys to improvement:

The interesting thing about the OECD work is that it shows that economic inequality in New Zealand has among the lowest levels of impact because of our education system. Part of the reason for having public education—in fact, the main reason—is to overcome the inequalities of birth and inequalities of opportunity. That is why this Government is so strongly focused on helping our system be more effective in overcoming economic inequality. Another reason there is high transience in those schools is that the State housing system does not meet the needs of those with serious housing need. That is why the Government is changing that policy next week.

Hon David Parker: Why can the Minister not see that rising inequality under National goes against the egalitarian values that New Zealanders hold dear, is making educational outcomes worse, and is holding back economic growth?

Hon BILL ENGLISH: There is a very simple reason we do not believe those things, despite the fact that the member does, and that is that the measures of inequality in New Zealand and the facts demonstrate that it has not got worse. That is not a political assertion or an ideological conviction; it is the facts as laid out in the annual report from the Ministry of Social Development, which was set in place by the previous Government. On “Planet Labour” I know facts have very little impact, but on Planet Earth and in New Zealand the facts matter. . .

The opposition has leapt on the inequality band wagon but have fought every initiative National has introduced to move people from welfare to work.

Welfare dependency is the cause of a great deal of inequality and helping those who can work to do so is one of the most effective way to improve not only financial outcomes but social ones like health and education too.

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