Where do we go from this timely documentary on inequality?


9074491Bryan Bruce’s documentary continues the much needed conversation about the creeping and destructive inequality that has accelerated under the market-driven reforms New Zealand embraced so comprehensively.

It is pointless to dispute the fine details of the measurements of inequality he uses. We can see, if we open our eyes, the overwhelming evidence that is all around us. This is a documentary that must not be hijacked by the academics who might nitpick about technical issues. It is actually about a moral philosophy.

Bruce is deliberately provocative, so, for example, he uses the ‘God is dead’ explanation for rampant greed. If God is not watching and judging you then anything goes. While this has a shred of truth perhaps, it leaves us nowhere to go. The genie is out of the bottle. More significantly, the documentary moves us on from the mere correlation of social ills and inequality (The Spirit Level) to a more sophisticated story of the causation of inequality itself. When the more enlightened right profess to be concerned about poverty but not inequality, the left need to be able to tell the story of the suffocating interconnections of the fortunes of the top and the bottom.

Bruce starts to flesh out the narrative of how we got to where we are and hints at why the inequality has within it, the seeds of its own destruction. In a perverse trickle up process, deregulation of the labour market, ostensibly to give workers a chance to get a job, produces the low wages that allow higher profits to flow to the shareholders. The poorly paid need cash support such as Working for Families to sustain demand and so to sustain profits while allowing wages to be low, again, trickle up. Likewise, the tax-funded accommodation supplement is appropriated in higher rents by landlords. GST on everything is part of the flat tax mantra and allows flatter lower tax rates for top incomes. Meantime as the poor need to borrow to survive, the wealthy are enticed to avoid and evade tax. They see it as sport at which they can be winners, reaping where they have not sown.

The challenge now is to continue this narrative until middle and upper New Zealanders actually understand the linkages. A mind shift is needed from the traditional view that inequality is necessary to provide savings to spur growth and is needed to provide aspiration for the poor. Margaret Attwood in her book on debt called ‘Payback’ explains how the debtor and the creditor are joined at the hip, you cannot have one without the other.

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Thus, part of the neoliberal model is to extol the virtue of saving. In this morality story, reinforced by elements of a self-interested avaricious financial sector, savers are ‘good ‘people and the debtors are the ‘bad’ people. The problem is that the one does not see the other. The savers are told it is silly to have cash at the bank earning no interest and are applauded when they take ‘proper financial advice’ and earn a higher return on their ‘hard earned savings’. The ‘good’ savers are shielded from the sight of the destination of their saving, which might be to a sole parent purchasing a dodgy second hand car deal at high cost via a finance company, or an over-mortgaged family via a profit hungry bank. No matter, the saver gets paid and is praised for self-responsibility, while on another part of the planet the sole parent is demonised as the foolish debtor, and the family as feckless over-committed borrowers. Inequality inexorably widens as the debtors borrow to service their debts to feed the high returns claimed as the reward for the ‘noble’ sacrifice of the high income and wealth savers.

There are many other examples of the insidious intertwining of the accelerating poverty of the poor and the compounding gains of the wealthy. In a vicious cycle, pokie machines feed the profits of the multinationals and while charities rely on a share of these profits to provide services for those in need. One is co-dependent on the other. In the aged care sector, the ‘for profit’ retirement villages residents need the dividends from the likes of MetLife care to pay for their fees, so fees have to be high so companies can pay high dividends. Same for early private childhood education. The poorest are then denied access to these services or may need expensive tax- funded subsidies paid for by a heavily regressive tax system.

The unpleasant arithmetic of inequality sees wealth compound while debt and poverty also compounds. The challenge is for each of us to tell the story in our own worlds, of the connections in the widening of the gap. My world of work is the university, now that is a story for another day!

Bryan Bruce’s documentary provides welcome insights into how the acceleration of excesses of the rich are in fact the problem. Not the laziness of the poor, or the number of children they foolishly had. Now let the debate begin of how we actually reform policy to produce a fairer New Zealand, hopefully without a revolution.


  1. This guy deserves the nobel peace prize, why, because he’s putting his time effort and energy into trying to help those at the bottom of the heap.

  2. i agree with you – however the recent comments by dame Anne Salmond summed up for me how people insulated by their wealth and their privilege have ignored all the warning signs from those who – like the canaries in the mines – were the first to feel the impact of neo liberal reforms – she and her elk refused to or didn’t understand that these policies were designed – yes designed – to create a gap between rich and poor – they didn’t want to see it – they didn’t want to believe and they didn’t listen to those drowning souls calling out for help -and there were many

    now that gap has become the giant chasm it was always designed to be with all its consequences – now it has become the ELEPHANT in the room that can’t be denied – and that every one was warned about decades ago

    and yet still people have little clues to the beliefs that drive and support it so busy are they at pointing finger

    the bit about how the IRD is cheated or defrauded out of billions of dollars but welfare beneficiaries are ruthlessly targeted as if they alone are responsible is a key an fundamental belief in the class system of NZ which has kept people like Dame Anne – ignorant and now shocked as the relentless policies have been continued by successive governments to the detriment of millions of people – blamed for their own poverty by those insulated by their wealth and privilege

  3. Without a revolution? Bryan Bruce’s excellent documentary was clear I felt that these changes within economic policy were the results of elected representatives pandering to the interests of the tiny capitalist majority. How else have they achieved this but by a thousand threads of connection? Substantial parliamentary salaries, jobs as CEOs, lobbyists etc. there is no law which states that parliament must serve the interests of capital, it is implicit, it is the ideology which frames every interpretation into a capitalist one, a hegemony.

    Voltaire already answered Bryan’s question “if god did not exist it would be necessary to invent him”. Invented this god was, in the image of capitalist profit and exploitation. We are guided by morality, that of capital accumulation, accumulation for its own sake. If we are for a society based around human necessity we must end the subjugation of man to accumulation. But this leaves no room for a class which bases itself on accumulation, nor their god. Then our struggle is the most blasphemous one, to do no less than slay their god, profane their temples.

    What is to attack this hold that capital has but another idea, one even more powerful, but opposed to the rule of capital. Then why would these capitalists accept this idea which opposes their rule? Would they not fight it, attack it? If it is in their intrest to fight for ideas which empower them would they not fight against those which empower others. How can this idea a revolutionary idea be realised without a revolution, to spread it, defend it and implement it! When they pull upon their thousand threads to make parliament dance, with what can they be cut but a sword. A sword which does away with all the old gods, the old traditions, reaction. But embraces the revolutionary transformation of society by the masses.

  4. I was quite surprised that there could be such a good documentary on TV, given the terrible quality of television. I’ve read ha joon changs book bad samaritans and it’s excellent. Noam chomsky says its one of the best books he’s read, and he’s read many thousands of books to gain an understanding on political problems.

    Although, i havn’t watched the 6 o clock news in a year or so, so im not really in touch with whats on tv.

  5. WHERE???
    Straight to parliament!
    If an “economic/financial” system has been proven/demonstrated to be detrimental to the overall wellbeing of the people ..

    (Govt /PM duty = serve the PEOPLE of NZ)
    What the hell is the point of having a govt otherwise??
    So, the answer is , they have to IMMEDIATELY act upon it. Means implement changes .
    If they fail to act upon it, /recognise it,(for whatever reasons, eg too “caught up in their position’ = Ego reasons), then, (groan) an application has to be made to A. G. to have Parliament dissolved.
    =Simple, but tedious. Shouldn’t really need to go that far.
    (whatever else is their function? Supposed to make things work for the general public! Why else are they there?( On their big salaries+perks for life!!!!) For f.s !!! WAKE UP!

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