Yesterday’s blog post and comments on the House of Lords were fun.
But here’s why I find the John Key agenda on knights and dames and QCs offensive. Not because it is taking us back to the frippery of the British class system (that’s not offensive, just embarrassing). It is because while Key cloaks these policies in the language of meritocracy, and doubtless many of those honoured are fully deserving, the titles themselves are powerful symbols of inequality.
And now more than ever we need to be finding ways to make New Zealand a more equal society. I’m not talking about making everyone the same, just reducing the gap that has grown in our country between rich and poor over the last 30 years and the social damage it causes.
Here and throughout much of the western world governments have pursued policies that have created huge social and economic inequalities. To the credit of the 5th Labour Government, the gap here began to close for the first time in a generation, due mainly to low unemployment and Working for Families. But we have a long way to go.
In The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett make a convincing case that inequality is the driving force behind so many of the ills that plague modern societies. They draw on an array of data comparing economically developed countries. They show how the most unequal societies (NZ included) compared to the least unequal societies (namely Japan and the Scandinavians) have rates of mental illness five times higher, five times the rate of imprisonment, six times the rate of obesity, and murder rates many times higher.
There isn’t room to go into detail here but Wilkinson and Pickett use epidemiology to trace the social determinants of ill health, and psychology to explain how inequality and status anxiety make us behave in ways that are damaging to ourselves and others. The chapter on obesity is fascinating with an account of how in the old days the rich were fat and the poor were thin, the inverse of today’s reality. Like George Lakey who appeared on Kim Hill‘s show recently talking about Norway, they also argue that more equal societies are more successful overall, not just for those at the bottom of the ladder.
They argue that politics was once seen as a way of improving people’s well being by improving their economic circumstances. These days governments launch programmes to combat every social ill from suicide to obesity to violence to educational failure and many more. If you accept the argument behind The Spirit Level then simply reducing inequality would be a more effective approach.
For my money the challenge for Labour is to get inequality back on the political agenda. Perhaps only climate change is a more urgent challenge. And by the way there is an excellent chapter in The Spirit Level on how reducing inequality will help us reduce carbon emissions and vice versa.
The authors have set up a trust to promote these ideas that has lots of good info. Thanks to Patricia for recommending the book in comments on an earlier post.