Critic tackles election year | Issue 6

Introducing Vote Chat

When it comes to election year, the Otago politics department likes to get involved. We’re only really relevant once every three years, so it’s fairly exciting to get the chance to appeal to more than eager freshers in POLS102. That’s why this week is dedicated to an Otago initiative called Vote Chat. Hosted by lecturer Bryce Edwards, it’s a web show that features a different guest each week and aims to discuss issues that might affect the election. The first event took place on 21 March, and featured Max Rashbrooke.

Meet Max

If you’ve ever wanted to know something about inequality, Max is your guy. He has written two books on the subject, and I’d estimate that the word “inequality” was said approximately three times a minute throughout the interview. He also boasts an impressive CV, having worked as a freelance journalist in the UK for five years and had his name printed alongside articles in the Guardian, NZ Herald, the Listener, and more. As Max disclosed during the interview, he is working contractually for Green Party research (a job that does not mean he is a member of the Greens). He therefore preferred not to expand too explicitly on what he considers the best party policies for targeting inequality and the party he’s most likely to vote for.

A Bit of Analysis

As the interview is available for everyone to view on YouTube, I’ll refrain from a general rehash and instead delve straight into a distinct problem that the discussion ran into – the dangerous conflation of inequality and poverty. A significant part of the interview focused on the links between those concepts and social mobility, as well as possible policies that affect them; often using them almost interchangeably. I haven’t read Max’s books, so it’s entirely possible an explanation features there, but it didn’t come up in the interview.

For those unfamiliar with the wonderful world of political rhetoric, social mobility refers to the ability of someone in the lower income sphere to move to the upper; inequality, in this case, means the disparity of incomes between the rich and the poor; and being in poverty means not having enough money for basic necessities.
In terms of quantifying the problems raised by assuming inequality and poverty are similar – or the same – they can largely be divided into theoretical differences and practical differences. The last thing I want to do is put you all to sleep with some philosophical exploration of societal duty, so I’ll keep the first category short and sweet. Put simply, poverty tends to be seen as objectively bad. No one actually likes seeing children starving to death. Conversely, a person’s position on inequality is often very dependent on their political leanings, and inequality itself is not inherently bad to all positions on the spectrum. Whether it’s painted as an incentive for achievement, an unfortunate outcome from necessary neoliberal reform, or a barrier to fairness, it’s important to understand that inequality is not the same thing as poverty. It’s merely a description of the way wealth is distributed heavily at the top and sparsely at the bottom (which is where the argument that inequality causes poverty emerges). If you assume they’re equivalents, you lose valuable discussion about causation and correlation between the two variables.

The way this false parallel manifests in policy analysis very much stems from the aforementioned idea that poverty is objectively bad and inequality is subjectively bad (although if someone can convince me why poverty might be a subjective standpoint, I’ll give you an in-print round of applause next issue.) When deciding how a social policy might be designed, it’s often implicit that it can either be dedicated to equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. While this is obviously a simplification, and the phrases have been hotly debated, if you treat them more like a scale than mutually exclusive concepts then they do well to describe how policies from various parties might be targeted to address poverty and inequality. Equality of opportunity can be associated with eradicating poverty, giving each person the necessary standing ground to succeed. In New Zealand, this paradigm is inherent. Equality of outcome, however, would refer to also ensuring policies exist to minimise inequality amongst social spheres.

As the latter builds upon the former, it becomes increasingly easy to see how conflating poverty and inequality can mean parties on the right are seen as “not caring about poverty,” whereas parties on the left are critiqued for being “delusional” about how society can work. Teasing them out into separate entities means teasing out the differences between party policy names and what actually might be the aim of particular initiatives. Leading up to the election, it’s important to think about what you really want from the party in power. If you want to rid NZ of its crippling child poverty but actually quite like the cutthroat capitalist status quo, perhaps investigate more carefully into what National says about our nation’s kids; if you despise child poverty, value a society with less inequality, and don’t mind the possibility of higher taxes, head for Labour and the Greens.

While Max’s arguments are interesting and compelling, be careful of taking some of what he says for granted – it could too easily lead to immediate dismissal or immediate acceptance. Child poverty is fast becoming an election buzz phrase, and since poverty is objectively bad, not properly digesting what each party promises on that front could have objectively bad results.

Critic asks some questions

After the interview, I got the chance to approach Max myself and nervously thrust my iPhone under his nose ...

Previously in your writing you’ve questioned the value of tertiary education in terms of upward social mobility (like in your writings about the UK and such); and I was wondering what sort of policies and initiatives you would advocate to help university to be beneficial across the board and not just for those already at the top of the scale?
Well, that’s a really good question. Um, I think one of the problems is that with fees being so high, there’s a very strong disincentive for lower income students to go to university. Particularly, and there’s a lot of evidence about this, there’s a real disincentive for people who come from cultures that have a strong aversion to debt. So I think we need to look at that. We need to look at ways to, you know, encourage more low-income students to get to university. I would also say, I mean, I know you’re a university paper, but actually probably one of the biggest problems is improving outcomes for kids who aren’t going to go to university. Because so much of the schooling system pushes you to do that. But, actually, a lot of people would be better off doing really high quality skills training, trade training, rather than going to university. It’s now what you do; it’s now what everyone thinks you have to do. And, actually, for people who want to do it there should be no barriers, but if it’s not what you need, you shouldn’t be there.

Does any particular party worsen or improve the impact of tertiary education on “job market inequality,” so to speak? When you were talking about opportunities, and opportunities when you’re coming out of university, are there any particular parties who would help students when they’re coming out of university?
That’s an interesting question. My impression is that most people think that once you come out of university, you’re an adult and you’re pretty much on your own, right? So, I mean, probably the real difference would be about how your student loan is treated. And at the moment there’s a consensus on that – that student loans are interest free – so I think the only real impact there would be if any of the major parties decided to break with that consensus. But I don’t see any signs of that happening.

This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2014.
Posted 7:01pm Sunday 30th March 2014 by Carys Goodwin.