The Spirit Level has some exciting implications for the Gisborne District. No surprises that in our community wealth and health inequalities are more pronounced than most other places around New Zealand. Also not surprisingly, inequalities here are largely, though not exclusively, aligned with ethnicity (Europeans/Pākeha control nearly 93% of the national net worth but only comprise 83% of the population, while Māori make up over 10% but only own 4% of the wealth) and age (young people have much higher ratio of debt to assets than older people), and to a lesser extent gender.
While the factors contributing to this situation are largely historical and circumstantial, there are things that can be done today to create a more equal community if that was something we aspired to. The Spirit Level certainly provides strong evidence as to why reducing inequalities is an important goal but there is a fundamental change in values that needs to take place if equality is something we make a community goal for Gisborne.
Massey University published research last year that showed over the past 30 years New Zealanders have drifted away from our egalitarian roots and now more people than ever do not believe equality should be a goal for our society. Commentators have linked this shift with the rise of radical political ideology of free market economics that has dominated New Zealand government policy since the mid-1980s. So now we have a more unequal society where 10% of the population own more than half of the wealth, more half the population own less than 7% of wealth and a steady trend is that a decreasing proportion of people own their home. But more importantly, less people than ever think we should be aiming for a reduction in the disparities between the haves and the have nots. As Midnight Oil sang ‘the rich are getting richer, the poor get the picture’. Another trend down is that less and less of the value produced by the country is held by New Zealanders, and a increasing proportion of the population have a decreasing net value. The Treasury technocrats who have pushed what Professor Jane Kelsey dubbed ‘The New Zealand Experiment’ have been very successful in terms of shifting our thinking as a country.
While this ideology has been espoused by some outspoken local civic and business leaders for a generation, it is pleasing to see some of have moved on and a new, hopefully more enlightened set of leaders is emerging.
Tim Jackson’s book “Prosperity Without Growth” and Michael Shuman’s “Going Local” have been influencing my thinking on economic policy and his recommendations for local and national economies are closely aligned with the thesis of The Spirit Level authors.
I am very interested in looking at how Council policies on rating for example has been used over the past ten years in a way that may have the effect of shifting more of the rates burden onto those who can least afford it. I think we should also be looking carefully at how public policies can make it easier or harder for big box retailers owned by foreigners to setup here and effectively shut down our mainstreet’s family-owned businesses.
I think a fair and active democracy requires that we try to give everyone an opportunity to make positive contributions to the community, fairness doesn’t mean we have to treat everyone the same. If people live in different circumstances then treating them differently is justified. The level of opposition to the Voter Participation Project focused on neighbourhoods that have poor election turnout was a great case in point. Either opposers have a very base understanding of what it means to be fair or they were motivated by some irrational fear or bias against trying to encourage poor people to vote in an informed manner.
While The Spirit Level has had it’s detractors and critics (largely politically motivated some claim), the authors have responded resoundingly to questions raised and a global movement is developing aimed at raising public and political awareness about the benefits of reducing the gap between the wealthy and poorest citizens within a country and community. The Equality Trust established by the authors of The Spirit Level has a guide for local groups and I would be keen to hear from anyone interested in forming a Gisborne group to look more closely at the current situation on things like wage ratios in local businesses and implications for Council policy positions that do or not include increasing equality as a goal.
Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level authors, have clearly demonstrated through peer-reviewed empirical evidence that the more equal a society is, the happier, healthier and less stressed, better educated and less likely to be a victim of crime everyone is. I’m as keen as anyone else to get beyond the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality that has grown with the increasing gap between rich and poor, can we find others who want to explore these opportunities?