New book on inequality

By Bill Kaye-Blake 02/07/2013

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?

* SciBlogs Ed note: Originally published at Groping to Bethlehem 28 June, 2013.