Red Alert

Mind the gap

Posted by on August 3rd, 2009

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.

60 Responses to “Mind the gap”

  1. Terence Bermingham says:

    You can see more info on this topic of inequality @

  2. David Munro says:

    Eliminating inequality matters hugely, is the proper task of progressive social democrats, and is achievable through carefully considered policy. Climate change is none of those things; we need to get used to it, adapt to it, measure it accurately (as opposed to ‘modeling it’ with incomplete information), and stop fretting about its cause. The climate will always change for a variety of reasons and we should be thankful that we are privileged to live in one of the very rare inter-glacial periods on this planet. Ice is the normal state of affairs on this planet. Let’s sweat the things we can make a difference to. (BTW, average life expectancy in India now stands at 69 – up from 30 at independence – and those Indians drink water for all of those 69 years.)

  3. David Munro says:

    Oh, and btw stabin theback et al, this year’s BBC Reith Lectures by Michael Sandel look well worth a listen too whilst you’re downloading NatRad podcasts. I caught the last of them yesterday evening on the radio and much of it was bang-on the issues that arise if inequality grows and remains unchecked. It was ‘A New Politics of the Common Good’ and was a great listen; the three earlier lectures look equally fascinating too.

  4. Stuart Hawkins says:

    David, I will do no such thing as debating if gaps cause these tings or not (as I have mentioned in every post I have made so far) is irrelevant compared to the fact that attempting to remove or lessen the gap is in violation of human rights.
    I am sorry but if I need to read up and study something that I have SHOWN to be irrelevant then I wont bother.

  5. jarbury says:

    Stuart, you probably think it’s against human rights to help someone who’s starving. So I think we can take your opinion on matters with a rather large grain of salt.

  6. […] my post on Monday about inequality I went and read Bryan Perry’s new report for the Ministry of Social […]

  7. […] inequality and social problems is made clear by this graph from the book The Spirit Level which I posted on last week. The straight diagonal line indicates a direct correlation: the more inequality, the […]

  8. Giles Barker says:

    I have just finished reading The Spirit Level and found it transformational. I think that if everyone who feels that the New Zealand Labour Party still has a reason to exist could read the book it may once again give a worthwhile purpose to their political energy. For a long time Labour has seemed to stand for ‘Not National’. Yet inside The Spirit Level Labour people can find purpose again. Inequality is something that I as a person from a privilaged background in New Zealand did not really understand. The myths about equality in New Zealand have been so strong that the evidence from the book came as a real shock. I challange Labour people to engage with this book. It could transform the political debate in New Zealand for a generation. It is that good.

  9. […] at our party conference weekend before last. He wonders if the book, covered here in earlier posts, might become “a sort of guidebook for the next Labour ministry”. Authors Richard […]

  10. […] an extended promo in Question Time today.