Red Alert

Posts Tagged ‘The Spirit Level’

The Left and Economics

Posted by on June 20th, 2010

My good friend Rob Salmond has written an excellent post over at Policy Progress about the importance of the political left talking about economics.

If folk on the left are to challenge the caricature that they are economic illiterates swimming against the tide, we need – all of us – to confront economic issues much more directly.

Rob is of course right.  But how has economics somehow become a dirty word to many on the left? It seems to me that the motivating drivers for the involvement of most on the left of politics are equality, fairness and social justice. In turn this seems to have meant for many that discussion focused on the direct mechanisms for achieving this through social policy. The point  of course is that economics matters for those values as much as those social policy factors.

As someone who did not study economics to any great degree I have in the past found myself put off from studying economics, partly on the basis of buying into some of the stereotypes about where many economists are coming from. But as Rob (and others in the comments on the post) points out there is some great work underway, some of which has been discussed here, such as the work of Stiglitz and Sen on genuine progress indicators or Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level. These people’s work can not be dismissed by the right, and it must be understood by the left.

I was also interested in Jordan’s comment on Rob’s post when he asked

how can we who do have an understanding of economic policy debates and principles and the implications for our politics and our societies, make that more exciting – to the extent it’s the main focus of debate and campaigning energy inside our political movements?

I don’t know the full answer to that question, but I am sure that a part of it is talking about economics as part of the package of progressive politics, rather than in isolation.   The direct links need to be drawn between social progress, environmentally sound development and the economic ideas that underpin them.  Its no different than anything else in politics- there needs to be a vision and a believable and relevant narrative to go with it.

In any case, for those who are interested there are a number of links in Rob’s post and the comments that go with it that provide loads of references to some exciting progressive economic ideas.

English: Budget won’t alter inequality gap

Posted by on May 23rd, 2010

The title of the post is the headline from the TVNZ story from tonight’s news.

Questioned by ONE News political editor Guyon Espiner, the Finance Minister said the government is concerned about the gap between rich and poor but admitted the Budget will not alter the current divide.

Such a missed opportunity to go beyond “having concerns” to actually doing something. It has been talked about on this site and elsewhere that The Spirit Level and other research shows that more equal societies are in fact more prosperous societies. It feels like common sense to me that if we harness everyone’s potential that our collective well-being will increase.

Sadly this Budget relies on some pretty out-dated views about tax cuts leading to growth. There is no certainty around that, and more than a little evidence that quite the opposite will occur. There is almost no likelihood of sustainable growth with this government’s approach, but given that the environment basically did not rate a mention in the Budget speech, perhaps that is no surprise.

This was not a Budget done in the shadow of the recession as last year. There was a chance to address inequality and map out a path to sustainable growth. Sadly, neither chance was taken.

Colin James on The Spirit Level

Posted by on September 22nd, 2009

Colin James devoted a recent column to The Spirit Level and how inequality was one of the core concerns 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 Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have…mined a vast amount of data, much of it relatively recently available, to show that in rich countries health and social problems are greater in more unequal than in less unequal societies.

This is not just among the poor. “The vast majority of the population is harmed by greater inequality,” Wilkinson and Pickett say.

“Across whole populations rates of mental illness are five times higher in the most unequal compared with the least unequal societies, people are five times as likely to be imprisoned, six times as likely to be clinically obese and murder rates may be many times higher.” More equal societies have more trust and higher self-esteem and less anxiety and social insecurity.

Recognise the picture?

Bill English could, for example, spend less precious taxpayers’ money building and running prisons — not to mention less money trying, mostly futilely, to fix up prisoners’ mental, addiction and other crime-inducing disabilities — if he reduced inequality.

James writes the challenge for those of us who want to put inequality back on the agenda is to ” convince voters reducing inequality is good for them — and to do that they will need to go where Wilkinson and Pickett go only very lightly and argue that it will also be good for the economy, that is, voters’ material welfare.”

I agree with him. It has to be pitched as an idea that is good for all of society, not just those at the bottom of the economic heap. It is about investing in the untapped and neglected talents of our under-educated young. Unleashing the human and economic potential of the bottom 40%.  Because that will make New Zealand as a whole move ahead. We will all benefit. And given the depressing array of social ills linked with income inequality (as set out convincingly in The Spirit Level) reducing that inequality will make this country a much better place to live.

What do you think?

The spirit level

Posted by on August 12th, 2009

The link between 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 worse your social problems.

The vertical axis shows how well countries do against an index of social indicators that include life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity, imprisonment, teenage births, trust (or lack of it), social mobility, mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction), homicides, maths and literacy.

Any thoughts?


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.