The over-stuffed bed was fully 350 cm deep, an opulent white damask sandwich of coils, springs, toppers and, in a lingering camera shot, what looked like hand-crafted quilting.
In an unfortunate conjunction, the bed manufacturer’s television advertisement earlier this week appeared right after a tiny folk tale of a heroic wooden peg holding a square of fabric over a broken window while a child, huddled under op shop blankets, froze for yet another night in its winter clothing.
Our “fair go” image of ourselves as an egalitarian society has been outdated since the late 1980s and remained a missing for the next two decades. Working parents in the almost-invisible middle classes, on stagnant wages and desperately time poor, may have been reluctant to address poverty if they perceive they will be burdened more than they will benefit. The spectacular increases in the net worth of a handful of people at the top and an insistence on the merit conferred by wealth did not help in the ugly prejudices and assumptions of our recent past.
Crushingly unjust, the status quo, let’s face it, wasn’t that great and the austerity politics of Thatcher and Reagan – if we are listening to the planet itself – should end with the global pandemic.
Fortunately, the mood is shifting.
The number of New Zealanders who believe that knowing the right people is important to get ahead in life has jumped and public attitudes have swung sharply against New Zealand’s persistently high levels of economic inequality, according to journalist and researcher Max Rashbrooke, author of the best-selling Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis and, more recently, 2018’s Government for the Public Good.
Reviewing data from last year’s International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) shows a marked shift from the increasing indifference to the issue of economic inequality between 1990 and 2009, he says in a Guardian commentary with Peter Skilling, senior lecturer at the Auckland University of Technology.
Political decisions themselves can affect attitudes and the previous National-led government’s anti-egalitarian policies – cutting taxes for the highest earners and reducing union powers, for instance – may have heightened existing concern. In the mid-2010s, pollsters UMR found the vast majority of New Zealanders increasingly anxious about inequality.
More and more, we believe you need money and connections to get ahead in life and the ground of public opinion has been cleared for action against the country’s persistently high levels of economic inequality, they say.
“Inequalities are often sustained by a belief that our different outcomes in life are largely due to our different abilities, effort and contribution. From 1992 to 2009, New Zealanders increasingly believed that getting ahead in life was due to individual effort and hard work, seldom attributing it to the good luck of their upbringing or social connections.
“The 2020 survey reverses those trends: while most people still believe that our outcomes reflect our individual merit, fewer people attribute getting ahead in life to hard work.”
The effects of inequality are cumulative – and often delayed, they say.
“In New Zealand, inequality rose more rapidly between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s than in any other developed country. The richest 10 percent went from earning six times as much as the poorest 10 per cent to earning nine to 10 times as much.
“Such economic inequality can create multiple harms. By denying the poor the income they need to thrive, it can entrench poverty, worsen health and social problems and lead to wasted talent. And by pushing rich and poor further apart, it can diminish trust, empathy and social cohesion. Even if the level of inequality does not increase, it exacerbates these problems every day it is allowed to persist.”
I doubt that massive spending on rebuilding “jobs” on the old model and recreating a desperate economic reliance on a mindless swill of mass international tourism would be the best use of the pandemic’s wake-up call.
On the other hand, reinventing the possibility of a planet that’s fair and thriving for everyone has the power to transform our teetering civilisation.
Whichever way you dice it, an inalienable concept of intrinsic equality among humankind improves countries, social cohesion, economic enterprise and the richness of life.
As Euripides wrote, in the benign and temperate climate of Mediterranean Athens more than 400 years before Christ, “I care for riches, to make gifts to friends, or lead a sick man back to health with ease and plenty. Else small aid is wealth for daily gladness; once a man be done with hunger, rich and poor are all as one.” • Liz Waters