Inequality – the tour so far

Now that the first major leg of the Inequality book tour is done and dusted, I estimate I’ve spoken directly to over 1,000 people, including all the events during the last few months. Much of that has happened outside the main centres, and it’s been good to hear what’s on people’s minds across the country.

What’s striking is the diversity of interest. The questions I’ve fielded have covered deregulation, the need for a body that regulates and examines low pay (to match the Remuneration Authority for high pay), the role of ethnic diversity, tax avoidance, estate duties, the universal basic income and the Living Wage.

Some themes have recurred, however. People are very aware of the role of international finance in increasing inequality: the power of the large financial institutions, the freedom of capital to move around the world, the profits made in lending. People are also very interested in the political consequences of widening income gaps, and whether they will lead to civil unrest.

Audiences have wanted to know whether politicians and the 1 per cent are listening – to which the answer is, yes, there’s been some heartening engagement from both groups, although it’s early days yet in those conversations.

The role of education in inequality has cropped up time and again. It’s a complex issue, but people seem to appreciate the point that while education can be a route out of poverty and thus a powerful anti-inequality force, it can also be – as Linda Smith points out in Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis – an institution that reinforces inequality, if it’s not designed specifically to tackle it. (And the evidence is that our system does not address it as well as it could, as Cathy Wylie sets out in her chapter of the above.)

Finally, people at the talks to date have been very interested in solutions – and in particular, what the more equal countries do to hold income gaps at a lower level. Again, that’s a complex question, involving different values, long-standing agreements around the role of government, business and unions, better investment in skills and training, and more generous support for those at the lower end.

But for the most part, those debates lie in the future. Here in New Zealand, we’re still getting the basic information out there – and the gasps from the audience every time I show our key graph of incomes in the last 30 years, with the top 1 per cent soaring away from the rest, is proof of how shocking those simple figures still are.