Everyone should have read the book by now. No, not Dirty Politics (although you should have read that too). The other one that came out quietly at the end of last year and has become the silent witness to this entire election campaign: Max Rashbrooke’s Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis. The one you probably feel, at this point, like you have read.
Last July, I went to the Auckland launch. It began with a lecture by Professor Robert Wade that was so popular, the lecture theatre overflowed. Inequality was evidently an idea people were itching to talk about, to see treated with seriousness and care.
At the party after the lecture, I waited some time for a word with the book’s editor, Max Rashbrooke. He confessed he was new to this book-signing business and sometimes accidentally scribbled “Love, Max”. I suggested he practice a few feistier salutations so they came naturally when he reached for the pen – like, I dunno, “Smash the state,” that sort of thing.
He didn’t miss a beat, and signed my copy: “For Jolisa, with best wishes! Smashing the state… with love... Max Rashbrooke.”
I’d been commissioned to review the book, which was a bit of a challenge as I’m neither an economist nor a sociologist. But I read it carefully, took notes, did my best. It was a pretty dense review, so I was asked to make it a bit, well, sexier. Something for the general reader.
So I wrapped my take on Inequality in a mention of another book that came out at the same time: Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart’s gorgeous collection of advertising imagery, Promoting Prosperity: The Art of Early New Zealand Advertising.
For various reasons my review never saw the light of day, so here it is now, a year later (but better than never).
Inequality and Prosperity: A Delayed Review
Turns out, there was a golden age. You can see it all over the pages of Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart’s Promoting Prosperity: The Art of Early New Zealand Advertising (Craig Potton Publishing, 2013). The artistry in the commercial art is spectacular, but what’s even more striking is the quotidian nature of the things being marketed so lovingly.
A solid house, a good night’s rest, a strong pair of shoes. Hats, tobacco, apples, bacon (“sit down to the nicest breakfast possible”), all surrounded by a halo of health and happiness. A pound of Anchor’s finest sits on the good china in the middle of the table, glowing like a gold brick. This is our shared patrimony: democracy on toast. Because after all, who doesn’t like a little bit of butter on their bread?
Which is not to say that in the good old days, everyone had everything they wanted, or even needed. But I’d wager that a huge part of the nostalgic pull of this book is that subliminal egalitarianism: New Zealand’s idea of itself as a basically fair and decent sort of place. These ads capture a time when prosperity, once the province of the very few, was being promoted to the many.
And was being enjoyed by the many, too, according to a collection of essays edited by journalist Max Rashbrooke, Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis (Bridget Williams Books, 2013). Across the developed world, during this mid-century “long boom”, the gap between wealth and poverty shrank considerably – until the 1980s, when aggressive deregulation sent money flying back from the poor to the rich. In the same period, New Zealand went from punching above its weight, equality-wise, to punching the poor in the face, policy-wise.
In a sense, Inequality, from its title onwards, is the photographic negative of Promoting Prosperity. No alluring full-colour pictures, just serious black and white words and sobering graphs confirming what anyone with eyes and ears suspects – that the rich are getting way richer; the poor are getting screwed; and this is bad for all of us. It’s a timely and useful read, a book with heart designed to engage the mind.
For the lay reader – and perhaps inevitably, given the academic and policy leanings of both content and contributors – it might feel a little Weetbix-without-milk. Thankfully, Rashbrooke has interleaved shorter personal “viewpoints” between the crunchier chapters, stories and interviews.
These accounts of ground-level encounters with inequality are instantly readable, and enraging and encouraging by turns. If you just read those fourteen pieces, you’ll have gotten value for money. But they also provide useful ways back into the denser discussions, inspiring the reader to join the dots.
As a whole, the collection argues that while a certain amount of imbalance is unavoidable, inequality on the current scale is dehumanizing all of us. It’s bad for those who are struggling, of course. But it’s also terrible for those who can no longer imagine what that struggle might be like – creating an “empathy deficit” that’s as dangerous as any fiscal one.
And it’s becoming geographically entrenched: with rising socioeconomic segregation in our biggest cities, and extremes of poverty and wealth hiding out in the provinces, we literally no longer see each other.
Putting the filter of education over the book pulls together a compelling picture. School zones function more than ever like the Hogwarts “sorting hat”: fast-tracking alpha kids to greater heights, while concentrating poorer students together, which amplifies the impact of patchy attendance and health and behavioural issues. Lower decile schools have higher student turnover, as poorer families are much more likely to rent than own, and renters (whose housing is more often of poor quality) move more often than home-owners do. Children who move more often do less well at school, and so on. Do the maths: what’s the radius of a vicious circle?
And yet, as Cathy Wylie reminds us in her chapter, children do better at school when they know what the goal is and can see their place in the data. A little transparency goes a long way, a lesson that can usefully be applied outside the classroom: if we can lay bare the scope and the mechanisms of inequality, perhaps we can act before it reaches a tipping point. But how best to do this?
Contributor Mike O’Brien points out that the rich are incentivized by giving them more money to play with – tax cuts, family trusts, etc – so why do we assume that a punitive, money-snatching approach will have the same effect on the poor? (Also useful to know: the poor are proportionately more charitable with what little they do have; the little widow’s mite goes a long way).
This distancing and othering of the poor is a big part of the problem, argues Linda Tuhiwai Smith. She suggests that instead, we take a close look at the workings of privilege: turning the lens on the luckier lot, to reveal how they get that way and, crucially, how they make sure they stay that way. These are the people who “get to speak to power as an equal rather than as a supplicant. They know that public servants are actually their servants.” (This approach chimes with the almost too-true-to-be-good research from Berkeley, which reported that people primed to think of themselves as rich are more likely to help themselves to free candy – even after they’ve been told it’s being collected for children).
Giving the poorest kids a leg-up – even if it’s just “the nicest breakfast possible” – is a great start, and a relatively easy sell – but the book offers many other practical suggestions, from micro to macro. A universal, unconditional basic income. Free childcare for people earning under $25,000 p.a. Capital gains tax; inheritance tax. A work-placement system that works “with (not against) the realities of life on a benefit [and] today’s workplace.” Plus, y’know, all that other stuff Scandinavian countries do.
The book also suggests a shift in the national mood, back to a culture of restraint. How much is enough, at the personal and structural level? How much more should the boss earn than the person who cleans their office? What if businesses refused to race to the bottom, when it comes to minimum wage? “Excessive inequality is a product of market failure,” writes Paul Barber, in a call for greater regulatory oversight to ensure that the wealth we all help generate doesn’t concentrate at the very top.
In the final chapter, Tuhiwai Smith issues a “call for concepts”, because “compelling stories need new language that moves people to act collectively and with will.” I am neither an economist nor a sociologist, so I may have missed some of the nuances of this collection. But it certainly feels like a helpful invitation to a conversation we should be having across all media, in many voices and registers.
At the sitting-in-the-aisles-room-only Auckland launch of the book in July, Professor Robert Wade mentioned the surprise bestseller The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better. It was an encouraging sign that it was so popular, he said – and then lamented that sales were still wildly outstripped by a certain shady-grey trilogy. Well, there’s a fun challenge. How to sex up the no-nonsense yearning for a more equal and just society?
Maybe that’s where the visual, witty, dart-to-the-heart language of advertising – as captured by Alsop and Stewart – might step back in. Promoting asperity, but integrity as well. If we want real traction in promulgating a more democratic definition of prosperity, then for every academic book and heartfelt editorial and pithy tweetfest, let’s have some posters, slogans, lesson plans, songs, kick-arse graffiti. And some tasty shining symbols to remind us what it’s all about. Share the love. Pass the butter. Spread the word.
And in fact, it’s as if someone read my unpublished drafts folder. Because that’s exactly what’s happened over the course of the last year: an explosion of witty, arresting visual and creative work, much of it done for free. Amidst the TL:DR morass of daily discourse, these gems cut through the discussion and show us in a flash what we’re talking about.
Just off the very top of my head:
- Ad-man Doug Gaylard’s astonishing flurry of reimagined film posters (alas the archive at Neetflux appears to be down, for now)
- Darren Watson’s ‘Planet Key’ song, with video by Jeremy Jones from Propeller Motion, which was banned by the Electoral Commission (although it keeps popping back up)
- The indefatigably creative anonymous billboard tweakers of New Zealand, as immortalized on this tumblr page.
- Mash-ups of the notoriously Eminem-esque National Party television ad, of which I think this was first past the post.
- Jack Buchanan’s web series that reimagines the election via flat politics.
- ‘The Prime Minister freestyle rapped that the mofo was whack and it ain't no thang’: Toby Manhire’s weekly turn of phrase.
- ‘You cannot trick me with your fancy words and hope I will flick over to a cooking show’. Michele A’Court’s weekly turn of phrase.
- Cartoons by Rod Emmerson, like this one.
- Cartoons by Sharon Murdoch, like this one.
- Cartoons by Chris Slane, including this instant classic that brings us back around to the review that sparked this election-eve piece.
And so much more.
After the votes are counted, there’ll be time to sit and read the books, to sift through the commentary, to figure out what’s next. But for now – for today - what’s been your singular, shining image of what’s at stake right now? Which picture or metaphor – satirical or serious – has been worth a thousand words, or a thousand retweets? Post or link to it below (including source and author if possible).
It may rain on Election Day, but it’s up to us to keep things golden beyond that.