Plugging children into lessening inequality

Two big earthquakes close to the same magnitude. One, in Haiti, killed around a quarter of a million people. The other, close to Christchurch, killed no one. That’s a price of inequality.

Humans can’t stop earthquakes. But humans can mitigate them with building regulations and other measures. Since the 1931 Napier earthquake governments here have progressively tightened building regulations so people are much less likely to be killed — though some buildings apparently don’t yet conform, judging by Christchurch’s wall collapses.

Humans can’t stop rain. Rain has visited a disaster of near-unimaginable horror on undeserving Pakistanis. Humans could have mitigated that with floodworks but Pakistan’s governing class is corrupt and inefficient.

Democrat John Key hopped down to Christchurch smartly. Aloof Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari continued his visit to Britain and France.

In Haiti and Pakistan poverty of income and wealth and poverty of human organisational capacity combined to make the natural disasters worse than they needed to be. Rich Christchurch showed the difference.

The message: if poor countries were richer, they could and would take steps to reduce the impact of natural disasters. Some economists also argue that reducing between-country disparities would make the world economy go better. East Asia’s climb out of poverty has done that.

Conversely, rich countries clinging to their privileged wealth and power will invite attacks on that privilege.

Rich countries learnt that lesson internally in the twentieth century. They diminished privilege, making their societies less unequal. But in the past 30 years they reversed that by privileging the educational meritocracy that got its start from those privilege-diminishing government programmes.

Thus privilege was redistributed, not ended. Joel Kotkin of the Legatum Institute, in an article for the rightwing American Enterprise Institute, scanned data showing large cities in rich countries, once ladders of upward mobility, have recently become much more unequal.

The risk for the privileged who run established political parties is an attack by the non-privileged. New Zealand had a dry run in the 1990s with New Zealand First. In the United States Sarah Palin represents an inchoate fear and anger at the smart people who run politics and governments.

Labour is feeling its way towards recognising there is an issue. A focus on inequality is part of its reformulation of economic policy. It is coming to a belief that lowering inequality is likely to boost economic activity.

Just talking “fairness” is not enough, Labour MPs now say. “Opportunity” — to get on in life — is the yardstick. After all, it reflects their own, or their parents’, experience as educational meritocrats who benefited from opportunity-based policies.

Labour has also changed tack on how to address the fundamentals of opportunity. Deputy leader and social policy spokesperson Annette King consulted a “commission” of outsiders, some not people normally in the Labour, or any, party camp.

The result, to be presented to Labour’s conference next month, is a focus on children. The aim is to move from developing policy by way of separate adjustments to the various branches of social policy to devising policies to ensure a good start to life and a real prospect of getting well educated and thus a full place in the workforce.

The idea is that from that children-centred base policies will be reshaped for the education, health, housing, justice and welfare portfolios.

This has obvious implications for Working for Families, which leaves out children of non-earning parents — that is, probably a large proportion of those who get substandard starts in life and then are more likely to end up in delinquency, addiction, mental illness and crime.

No amount of locking up criminals is likely to sort that out. And in an unequal society where there is much less scope for upward mobility than when baby-boomer King was getting her opportunity there is a real likelihood that dysfunction will be passed from generation to generation.

King will not just speechify at the conference plenary. There will be a workshop — open to the media, unlike workshops at National’s fear-driven secretive conference — on the commission’s recommendations and the children-centred approach.

It contrasts with the government’s approach so far, which is to look for ways to trim welfare spending. While being able to support oneself through working is character-building, it doesn’t of itself re-establish opportunity.

These are early days for Labour. A genuine children-focused policy approach would be expensive and difficult. There is no payback for 15 years or more. Meantime, the budget has to be balanced.

And the economy has to be wrenched around from borrowing and consumerism to saving and exporting, a $5 billion shift of resources. That amounts to a human-made economic earthquake — shaking up a riskily unequal society.