Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Numbers and opportunity

Nineteenth Century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli famously said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I think about that every time I see some new survey or study.

I remember a time when, as a school project, a friend and I conducted a poll of our fellow students on the presidential election of the day (we would have been about 13). When I counted the results, if I had any doubt I’d count it the way I wanted the results to go. For all we know, others have done essentially the same thing in the real world.

So the recent release of some completely separate sets of statistics about
New Zealand makes me treat them with some suspicion. However, taken together, I think they form a picture that’s at least worth thinking about.

The first was research from Statistics New Zealand, and reported today by the New Zealand Herald. The study shows the continuing concentration of wealth in fewer hands. According to the article, 52% of the country’s wealth is owned by the richest 10% of the population. The bottom 50% of the population own 5% of the country’s wealth. At the topmost end of the scale, the top five percent own 38% and the top one percent own 16%.

Calling the figures “typical of developed countries,” Andrea Blackburn, manager of Statistics NZ's standard of living unit, pointed out that the inequality of wealth is similar to
Canada, but still not as unequal as the US.

A nineteenth century liberal or modern neo-conservative would find nothing wrong with this, believing it shows a sort of Calvinist divine reward. But statistics like this don’t—and can’t—show why the inequality exists, nor the structural and social barriers to equality of opportunity that prevent more equalised distribution of wealth.

Which brings up another study. Radio
New Zealand* reported that the Ministry of Justice released a survey of 5500 people’s experience of crime. Conducted in 2005, the study shows that 51% of crime affects just 6% of the population—people in the lower socio-economic groups. So you have people who are already poor being kept there, in part, by crime directed at them.

I’m all over the map on this whole thing. First and foremost, I want the government to make education one if its main priorities so that we have the best in the world. You’d be hard pressed to find many Kiwis (apart from neocons) who’d be against that. But I’d also like to see the government offer tax breaks to encourage parents to save for their children’s further education (university, tech, apprenticeship, whatever) so that students won’t need so many loans. And, I’d also like to see the government encourage business investment and development in
New Zealand by making growing economic opportunities here the priority, not helping foreign owners ship their profits overseas.

The government has a moral duty, in my opinion, not to just stop the lowest classes from drowning, but to work to try and lift them up. I believe that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” but first you need to get everyone into a boat. Otherwise they—and their relative wealth—will continue to sink.

*Radio New Zealand never keeps stories very long, so I don’t link to the specific story. For the latest headlines, go here.

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