• The Meaning of Inequality

    When I stepped down as Vice-Chancellor of Waikato University in 2004, I was fortunate enough to spend a few months in Oxford as a Visiting Fellow of Nuffield College. The Warden of the College at that time was Professor A.B. (later Sir Tony) Atkinson, who was a renowned economist and the world’s leading authority on inequality, its causes and consequences.

    The Nuffield College magazine has, in its latest issue, carried a range of articles in his memory and as a tribute to the work he did. The issue is entitled “Inequality Is A Choice”, reflecting one of his principal conclusions – that inequality doesn’t just happen but is the consequence of deliberate choices made by policy-makers, choices either to act or not to act.

    Sir Tony was able to show that levels of inequality vary from country to country and from time to time. Those countries with governments that put in place measures to counteract inequality exhibit, not surprisingly, a smaller degree of inequality than those where the interests of the wealthy and privileged prevail without restriction.

    He demonstrated that (as the French economist, Thomas Piketty, also pointed out) a market economy will show a natural tendency for the rich to get richer and for the poor to get (comparatively) poorer. This because the return on capital is almost always faster than the growth of the economy as a whole, so that an increasing proportion of any new wealth created goes to those who already have money. We can see this exemplified in the increasing share taken by profits and the decreasing share of wages in our economy.

    It is only when a government (as in the case of the post-war Labour government in Britain) sets out to change this trend that inequality ceases to increase. If governments are relaxed about, or perhaps even welcome, this trend, (as they have recently in New Zealand) then inequality grows.

    Sir Tony was of course talking about economic inequality and accordingly focused on matters of comparative wealth and income and the shares of both going to different parts of society. But there has been a growing recognition over recent times that inequality is not to be defined only in economic terms, but is equally important in other senses as well. Someone who is homeless or who has limited educational opportunities or access to health care or whose working day is organised to suit his employer without regard for his own interests can also be regarded as less than equal with his more fortunate fellow-citizens.

    And there is increasing interest in topics that are seen to be related to inequality – topics such as the value (other than the monetary value) we give to certain kinds of contributions to society as opposed to others. How, for example, do we rate the contributions of successful business leaders against those of top sportspeople, or brilliant musicians or painters, or of caring parents or solid citizens and volunteers? And that leads us to recognise that there is a range of policies, not just economic policies, policies such as the rights of workers in the workplace, that will directly influence the level of inequality.

    Equality (and inequality) have often been seen as inevitably linked to issues of individual freedom in the sense that greater equality, it is argued, can be achieved only by limiting the freedom of those who are doing better than others – it is a topic on which I have myself written. Current approaches to this issue show a greater recognition of the truth that someone whose value to society is not properly understood or rewarded is not only less equal but also less free than he would otherwise be. Freedom, in other words, is not just an abstract concept but has a real practical meaning; it means the power and ability to do things, to realise potential and to make choices.

    A society in which only a privileged few have choices while everyone else has to “like it or lump it” is not only unequal but also less free. The best way to test the level of freedom in a society is to assess the degree of freedom available to those who might be regarded as the least free. We have a long way to go – and may even be heading in the wrong direction – if we are to claim on that basis that we are free and equal.

    Bryan Gould

    15 January 2019

     

  • Lachie

    The turn of the year is usually a joyous time for my wife and me. We celebrate our wedding anniversary at that time – this year was our 51st – and there is the New Year and its promise to look forward to. This year, however, has been a little different. We have just learned that our ten year-old West Highland White terrier, Lachie, has an incurable cancer and has only a few weeks to live.

    Having pets always, of course, brings its sadness. Lachie is our sixth Westie – they have been with us for almost all of our married life. His five predecessors – Dougal, Angus, Fergus, Bridie and Jock – are all buried on the hillside behind our house – and the passing of each of them has brought its particular heartache.

    In their cases, however, their deaths occurred suddenly and unexpectedly – causing grief and shock – but Lachie’s case is different. We are steeling ourselves to watching our little friend decline over the next weeks; I am not looking forward to seeing his bright eyes dim.

    We will of course provide him with all the love and comfort we can muster. He is for the time being in good spirits. He continues to monitor and conform to the daily routine that is so important to dogs. He knows to the minute when his meal-times are, and when it is time for his regular walks on the beach. He gets excited, for reasons known only to him, when I dive into our swimming pool and he watches me carefully until I re-surface.

    And he continues to discharge his self-appointed task of patrolling the boundaries of our property, repelling all invaders by land and air. Small birds are tolerated but anything larger, and especially hang gliders and planes, must be chased away, with much barking and springing into the air.

    He is constantly teased by the wekas that peck their way across our front lawn. The wekas are very relaxed about being chased by Lachie; they know precisely where their escape routes are and they are confident that they can out-run him. Lachie knows this as well; it is the fun of the chase that he enjoys. He has no intention or realistic prospect of catching them and wouldn’t know what to do with them if he did.

    His most important role, though, is as our constant companion. He is never more than a step or two away. He always joins us for morning coffee or afternoon tea or a pre-dinner aperitif and is always ready to accept a titbit – a fragment of a home-cooked cheese biscuit is his favourite . We enjoy spoiling him, now more than ever.

    He is not a great conversationalist but he has an uncanny ability to interpret what we say to him and to respond appropriately. We greatly enjoy our “conversations” with him.

    My wife and I are both cancer survivors. We have some idea of the trials and tribulations he now faces. The one great comfort to us is that he has no idea that he is ill and that his days are numbered. For him, life is still good; when that is no longer the case, we will not let him suffer and we will know what to do.

    When that time comes, we will reflect that the years of pleasure, of loyalty, affection and companionship he gave us far outweigh the grief we will then feel. Until then, we will show him the love that he so richly deserves. Only when he goes, no doubt, will we fully understand the gap in our lives that he has left behind.

    Bryan Gould
    5January 2019

     

  • Making Charitable Gifts and Paying Taxes

    The Christmas festive session is traditionally the time for charitable giving, when many of us recognise the need to ensure that the hungry can enjoy a Christmas dinner and that Father Christmas can bring presents on Christmas morning for kiddies who would otherwise go without.

    We should all give thanks for the efforts of those – like the Salvation Army and the City Missions – who think of others in this season of goodwill and who depend on donations from the public for the excellent work they do. The charitable impulse should never be under-valued; we are all better off as a society for the generosity of caring people.

    But we should also recognise the limitations of private charity. Giving and receiving is of value to both donors and recipients and has its own special and irreplaceable part to play; and there are of course those major benefactions from very wealthy people which fund valuable undertakings that would not otherwise get off the ground.

    Charitable giving, though, is not – as is sometimes suggested – an alternative to funding from the public purse; it cannot possibly meet the funding needs of major services like health care, education, income support and public housing. The sums raised are just too small and are too uncertain and unfocused to enable the planning and organisation that are required to guarantee basic standards in essential services – not just for the needy but for all of us – across such a wide front and over such a long period.

    If the public services on which so many in a civilised society now depend are to be properly funded, that funding has to be raised by a means that is much more systematic than that offered by sausage sizzles or rattling a collection box or random cold calling. The voluntary sector does much valuable work and needs constant support but cannot be expected to bear the whole burden.

    If we are truly concerned for the welfare of our fellow-citizens, and not just at Christmas time, we need to be sure that the funds are there to provide for the necessities of life; and we need to recognise that there is only one completely reliable source of those essential funds, and that is us – each one of us – and there is only way for us to be sure that those funds are systematically made available, and that is through paying our taxes.

    It simply does not make sense on the one hand to object to or resent paying taxes, and to seek to avoid doing so, and on the other, to try to salve our consciences by making occasional charitable donations. We may succeed in fooling ourselves that we are doing our bit through such attitudes, but those responsible for delivering public services and investing in our economic infrastructure know better.

    The good and kind heart that is evidenced as we donate to good causes should also manifest itself as we pay our taxes. A charitable impulse is of course highly commendable, but even more commendable is that sense of social responsibility and solidarity that leads us to pay our taxes willingly and supportively.

    This simple message is of course not directed just to individuals. It is even more pointed and pertinent when addressed to major (and often international) corporations, many of whom seem to spend a great deal of time and energy in avoiding their obligations to pay taxes on the huge profits they make. We should never forget that, behind the facade, the veil of incorporation, of each of these corporations, stand individuals, often very wealthy individual shareholders, who become even wealthier by avoiding the tax that they and their companies should be paying.

    The Christmas message should be clear. Many of us will make generous gifts to help those less well-off than ourselves and to allow small children to enjoy to the full a valuable part of their childhood. But if we are serious and genuine about wishing to help those in need to enjoy Christmas, we should recognise our responsibility tp ensure that our society as a whole makes proper provision to meet the needs of all of our fellow citizens – not just at Christmas but throughout the year.

    Bryan Gould
    4 December 2018

     

  • What is the Point of Education?

    I have been involved with education, in one way or another, for most of my life. First as a schoolboy, then as a university student (in both New Zealand and England), a brief spell as a secondary school teacher, then as an Oxford law don and finally as a university Vice-Chancellor, I have seen education from a variety of different angles.

    Not surprisingly, perhaps, I have from time to time asked myself the question – what is the point of education? Looked at from the viewpoint of the individual, the answer may seem straightforward enough; a good education may seem to be the key to a good job and a life of fulfilment. But what about the wider question – why should society invest in education and what do we expect to get out of it?

    Again, the answer may seem comparatively simple. An educated population will, it is assumed, be more productive and will allow us all to enjoy a higher standard of living. But even this fails to capture, I believe, the real point.

    Education is about more than equipping the individual to operate effectively as a unit of production. Yes, the economy is important, but we should hope and expect that an educated population will produce a greater range of benefits than just a statistical boost to the GDP figures.

    An educated society will be one that is fully aware of who we are, where we have come from and what truly matters to us. We will understand our own history and the great riches and subtleties of our language and will take pleasure in using it properly. We will recognise the things we have in common and that bind us together. We will observe the rules that allow our society to function well, and we will reject those who invite us to ignore the principles that make for a good and well functioning society.

    The first purpose of education is not, in other words, just the accumulation of knowledge – of facts and figures; it is to teach children that there is a world beyond the family. The school, as an institution, is as important as the teaching that happens there; it is a social environment where children learn that they are not the centre of the universe and that things go better for them if they learn to take account of the interests of others.

    An educated person is more than someone who has passed exams and gained formal qualifications; and education is best delivered by teaching rather than constant testing. The pressure to obtain top grades – so often seen as the essence of education at school level – serves the interests of schools, not pupils.

    There is a good deal of anxiety at present, right across the globe, at what is described as the rise of “illiberal” or “populist” democracy. Commentators lament the tendency of the democratic process to reflect the views of those who are assumed to know little and to vote in line with prejudices based on ignorance.

    The classic instance of this phenomenon was, it is suggested, Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. Trump gained his support, so the argument runs, by persuading his “base” that they should not hold against him – on the ground that they did not really matter – his tendencies to lie, to defy normal moral standards, to disrespect women and racial and sexual minorities, to attack a free press and to pay little regard to the rule of law.

    It is certainly true that an educated electorate would have paid more attention to these failings and would have recognised the threat they pose to a good and decent society. The price being paid by the US (and the world) for an electorate that has trouble in understanding the significance of, for example, the rule of law – the principle that even presidents are subject to the law – is hard to overstate.

    The case for education is, it turns out, an easy one to make. Education equips our citizens to play a full part in developing a good society. If we want a properly functioning democracy, we need an electorate that has the understanding and abIlity to make good and informed judgments about important issues and to hold their elected representatives to account. A democracy works well, in other words, only with an educated electorate.

    Bryan Gould
    20 November 2018

     

     

  • What Makes the All Blacks So Good?

    Both in the run-up to and during the aftermath of the All Blacks’ narrow victory over England at Twickenham, the world’s rugby media posed a frequently asked question – how can a small country with a population of only 4 million produce not only the All Blacks (who have dominated world rugby for most of the last century) but also women’s teams and age-grade teams who have been similarly successful in all forms of rugby.

    The question is not lightly asked – it reflects a genuine puzzlement.  It is assumed that the answer lies in some secret ingredient, an insight or a technique, that could readily be copied by other teams if only they knew what it was.

    The bad news for the inquirers is that there is nothing mysterious about New Zealand’s rugby pre-eminence.  The simple truth is that Kiwis are just better attuned to the game, understand it better and accordingly are usually able to play it better than others.

    For those who know New Zealand’s history and culture, there is nothing surprising about this.  Rugby was the game that could have been invented specifically for New Zealand – and they have returned the compliment by influencing its development so that it now reflects the way they play it.

    Rugby was first introduced at a time when modern New Zealand was in the early stages of development in the mid-nineteenth century.  The remote islands in the south Pacific were settled by “get-up-and-goers” from Britain and Ireland – those who got up and went, because they saw the opportunities offered by a new life in a new country.

    Developing that new country demanded two main characteristics – on the one hand, a huge degree of self-reliance and hard work, supplemented by the determination never to be defeated by by an apparently insoluble problem, and on the other, an understanding of the great value of teamwork and a willingness to trust and rely on one’s neighbours and comrades.

    Miraculously, these new settlers (the pakeha) discovered in the indigenous population – the Maori – similar attitudes and values.  These shared attitudes – a healthy individualism combined with an instinctive readiness to work as a team – helped greatly in the creation of a bicultural society; and they found their most immediate expression on the rugby field.  Maori and pakeha found that rugby offered them the chance to play and learn together and to appreciate the qualities that each brought to the game.

    Rugby became not only the most obvious expression of what were seen as the essential New Zealand virtues but also provided a kind of lens through which Maori and pakeha could see each other.  The game became one of the most important formative influences in the evolution of the new nation.

    When New Zealand teams take the field, their Polynesian players (both Maori and Pasifika) with all their great talents are not expensively imported from far-away countries but have grown up with rugby in their own country.  The game is woven into the fabric of their lives – one that both Maori and pakeha instinctively understand and relate to, and that in part defines them.

    Yes, of course New Zealand rugby teams enjoy an advantage over their rivals.  They grow up in a society that lives and breathes rugby; many of the country’s best athletes opt to play rugby because that is where they can best shine, and where the best sporting brains focus on the game and how to play it better.

    It was somehow appropriate that the Twickenham test was played on the eve of the centenary of Armistice Day – an opportunity to acknowledge the sacrifice made by – amongst others – young New Zealand soldiers who volunteered to travel half way round the world to fight at Gallipoli and on the western front.  A huge percentage of the small New Zealand population went to that war and there was scarcely a family that was not affected by the bereavement and injury of loved ones.

    Those soldiers showed on the battle field many of the qualities that the All Blacks bring to the rugby field.  War, like rugby, was the other great formative influence in the development of the New Zealand identity.

    Our feel for and appreciation of rugby should help us not only to celebrate an All Blacks victory but also to understand the disappointment felt by England supporters who saw victory snatched from them by a contentious (but probably correct) refereeing decision.

    But we should also recognise that, if the try had been allowed, the All Blacks would then have had a few minutes to score the converted try that would have won the game for them – and who would have bet against them doing just that?