Tuesday, September 22, 2009

We can't address inequality when it remains hidden

Over on Red Alert, Phil Twyford highlights Colin James' comments on The Spirit Level. James highlights Wilkinson and Pickett's conclusion that inequality is bad for everyone, not just the poor - and that reducing it benefits us all. And he sees this as a solid building block for a new left-wing programme.

This is good news, but there's a problem: in order to address inequality, we have to know about it. And New Zealanders don't seem to know very much about it at all. Facts on income distribution are few and far between - the annual table in the Budget is about as good as it gets - and facts on wealth distribution are even rarer. As for facts on how those numbers change with policy, they seem to be practically non-existent. Making those facts public needs to be the first step in that left-wing programme.

Facts on the consequences of inequality are more available - the Ministries of Education, Health, and Social Development, and the Department of Statistics produce vast screeds of information. In recent years, leading indicators have been summarised in an annual Social Report [2008 version here]. Normally, this has been published in early August. Oddly, there's no sign of it this year. Is National trying to mask the social effects of its policies by burying the most accessible data? I would love to be proved wrong on this.

Meanwhile, if Labour wants to seriously push inequality as a theme, it could do a lot worse than putting up a member's Bill to legislate for proper annual reporting. In addition, it could push for an Inequality Commission to research the effects of inequality in New Zealand society and act as an advocate for its reduction, in a similar fashion to the existing Children's and Families Commissions. These are small steps, but they can be made from opposition, and have significant benefits in the long run.