The previous blog posts in this series on inequality in New Zealand have sought to show and explain why economic inequality unfortunately does not matter in New Zealand politics and society – drawing attention to the decline of the political forces that would normally foster the idea that it matters. Yet although this trend has been strong for a decade or two, there are very real signs that it is being reversed in some significant but uneven ways. Throughout the western world there appears to be a resurgence of interest in, and concern about, economic inequality. This is examined in this fourth blog post (and final one derived from the draft paper (Download Why inequality doesn't matter) that I delivered to a interdisciplinary Workshop on Inequality at the University of Otago in June entitled ‘Why Economic Inequality Matters’. Future blog posts in this series will expand on some of the issues raised. [Read more below].
Students also seem much more interested in issues of economic inequality. Personally, I am supervising two students that are currently engaged in study around issues of economic inequality (a masters and an honours student). I also note that here at Otago the following Sociology paper has just been established – ‘SOCI 204: Special Topic: Social Inequality’.
In civil society, too, interest groups and NGOs are increasingly vocal about economic inequality. Christian groups in particular have raised economic inequality. The New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services are a leading advocate on issues of poverty. The Child Poverty Action Group, involving most notably, Susan St John of Auckland University, has kept some key issues of economic inequality on the public agenda. In particular they have highlighted the failure of the last Labour Government to extend the Working for Families scheme to those families in most need – those on benefits.
In the union movement there appears to be a revival of class struggle. Most significantly, the Unite union led by Matt McCarten has been particularly impressive at pushing political issues relating to inequality. The union first pushed for youth rates to be abolished, and after this was (mostly) achieved, the union has led a highly visible – yet initially unsuccessful – campaign to get the minimum wage lifted to $15/hour.
Public sector policy analysts are now taking economic inequality more seriously. The Ministry of Social Development, in particular, with its annual social report is talking more about inequality. Simon Chapple (previously of MSD, now with the OECD), for instance, wrote an important paper on the economic basis of ethnic inequality in New Zealand. Similarly, David Bromell, a principal advisor at MSD and a senior associate of the Institute of Policy Studies, is now undertaking very interesting research on economic inequality.
The mainstream media’s greater interest in issues of economic inequality is epitomized by the Listener’s 1 May 2010 cover story based on a discussion of the Spirit Level and the recent ISSP data on public opinion on inequality. This story was highly unusual for the Listener, which has in recent years been much more likely to run stories about the housing market, financial investments, and other inspirational obsessions of middle-income readers.
Elsewhere in the media, there has been a revival of interest in the writings of people like Chris Trotter, Matt McCarten, John Minto, and Simon Collins – all of which are voices that have consistently highlighted issues of economic inequality. More than this, there has been an increased number of stories published covering inequality. The charts below show the increased number of stories published using the word ‘inequality’.
Chart 1 shows the increase in the number of stories published in the New Zealand Herald that use the word ‘inequality’ in them (the figure for 2010 has been extrapolated from the first six months of the year). Charts 2 and 3 are based on the ‘Knowledge Basket’ website database of New Zealand newspapers, magazines, journal articles and press releases. Chart 2 shows the increasing proportion of such articles that mention the word ‘inequality’. Chart 3 shows the increasing proportion of such articles that mention the word ‘inequality’ in only the title. While this measure has some problematic aspects it does nonetheless show the dramatic increase in the salience of the term ‘inequality’ in the New Zealand media, which perhaps reflects (or has initiated) increasing public concern about inequality.
There are some signs in public opinion surveys of increased concern about inequality. For example, although the 2010 ISSP found decreasing concern about economic inequality, there were some other areas in the survey results which might be deemed proxies for the increased saliency of class and inequality. For example, Voters apparently think that Cabinet ministers should be paid about $135,000 a year instead of receiving the $245,000+ salary they currently get. What’s more, there was a socio-economic element to the survey responses to how much ministers should get paid: ‘Professor Phil Gendall, head of the research team, said respondents in households earning less than $40,000 thought a cabinet minister… deserved $100,000, while those in households earning $100,000 or more thought ministers… deserved $150,000’. (See: Top politicians should take a pay cut – survey)
Although the parliamentary parties have avoided campaigning on issues of economic inequality or class issues, there are some significant signs that this has recently been changing. The Labour Party leader, Phil Goff has recently asserted a more class-oriented and leftwing version of politics, effectively seeking to shift Labour away from a core part of its project of the last three decade: liberal identity politics. The meaningfulness and authenticity of this shift can be questioned, but the intrinsic tilt to the left cannot. For example, Goff’s late-2009 controversial ‘nationhood’ speech about the National and Maori parties was a strongly worded attack on privilege. This came about in the context of a more general shift towards the left (including a challenge to the monetary policy consensus, opposition to sending the SAS to Afghanistan, and support for union struggles). Such contextualization is crucial – it shows that Goff’s speech was part of a wider ‘left-turn’ that seeks to reconnect the Labour Party to working class voters – a substantial proportion of which no longer vote Labour. More recently the party has been campaigning strongly – if somewhat disingenuously – against the upcoming rise in gst together with many other economic issues that are said to worsening inequality. Likewise, in numerous media releases, speeches, blog posts, and so on, Labour MPs are strongly pushing an anti-inequality line, along with numerous references to the Spirit Level and other international egalitarian debates. It seems that, now in Opposition the Labour Party is showing more concern about inequality than it has for about three decades.
The Green Party is a party that is primarily concerned with the environment, but it has always had a strong emphasis on ‘social issues’. Although this has not normally meant a strong focus on issues of economic equality, more recently the party has launched its ‘Mind the Gap’ package of initiatives that it claims would reduce the gap between rich and poor. Co-leader Metiria Turie, in particular, has been concentrating on issues of economic inequality, writing intelligent blog posts on some of the issues, and travelling around the country to promote the ‘Mind the Gap’ campaign. This focus on inequality is more than just a shift in emphasis and suggests something important going on in parliamentary politics.
The symposium for which these blog posts were originally written sought to show that ‘economic inequality matters’, and that is a worthy and very important task. This paper has suggested that a first step in making that argument is to recognize and deal with the problem that in terms of the public and the political system we have a problem in the sense that ‘economic inequality clearly does not matter’. We need to work out why most people and political actors do not take the problem of economic inequality seriously. And this paper has put forward some arguments as to why economic inequality is not taken seriously in New Zealand – issues that mainly revolve around ideological problems on the political left. This partly serves to reiterate that issues of economic inequality are not just ‘social science’ or technical problems, but are at their heart actually ‘political problems’ and which will ultimately be solved by politics. What we need is a political programme, debate, organization and movement to take this huge task. This might be a daunting and impossible-sounding task, but the last section of this paper has attempted to show that the tide finally appears to be turning in favour of such a project.