Tagged: justice

Inequality is equality

inequalitygraph4

Well, I didn’t intend two blogs about Bill English in a row, until I saw this press release, where he cynically manipulates statistics to try and show that inequality is equality. English claims the tax system has become “more progressive” since National’s 2010 tax changes, because a higher proportion of income tax revenue is coming from the richest earners.

He’s ignoring one rather important point about income tax: You pay a lot of income tax if you earn a lot of income.

It’s not surprising that the top 12% of households (and 6% of individuals) are paying proportionately more income tax than they were in 2008, because they’re earning proportionally a lot more money. (The above graph shows the top 10%’s incomes rose from about $85,000 to $100,000 from 2008-2011, while the median income stagnated at about $30,000).

Simply put, the rich are contributing a bigger slice of the tax pie because they’re earning a bigger slice of the income cheesecake. This is not something to be happy about, and certainly doesn’t mean taxes are more “progressive.”

Let’s go back to high school for a sec: A progressive tax system partially offsets inequality by taxing higher incomes proportionally more than lower incomes. Income taxes are typically progressive (e.g. Bill English’s $297,400/yr is mostly taxed at 33%, while his toilet cleaner’s $14/hr is mostly taxed at 17.5%). Sales taxes like GST are flat (15% across the board), but in practice regressive, because they take up more of the poor’s incomes than the rich’s.

National’s 2010 tax changes made tax more regressive – the lowest income tax band (under $14,000) dropped 2%, while the top band (over $70,000) dropped 5%. Company and investment tax dropped too, but GST increased. Basically, in a time when tax needs to get more progressive to help combat inequality, National gave tax cuts to the rich instead.

Nothing about NZ’s rapid slide to inequality, this pro-inequality government‘s policies, or the statistics English misuses can possibly be called “progressive.”

If Bob McCoskrie is allowed a blog, what next?

slippery-slope

Three reasons slippery slope arguments are stupid:

1. Slippery slope arguments make you look like you can’t articulate a proper argument against what’s actually being discussed. “Why is this bad? Because it could lead to something bad happening.”

2. You can use them to say pretty much whatever you want:

If we allow straight people to marry, what next? Gay people wanting to marry too?

If we allow blacks and whites to marry, what next? Gay people wanting to marry too?

If we ban gay marriage, what next? Banning straight marriage?

If we let gay people raise kids, what next? Letting single parents raise kids?

If we make alcohol legal, what next? P?

If taxes on cigarettes go up, what next? Taxes on rich people going up? (I wish!)

If we change the time-honoured tradition of modern Western marriage, what next? Changing the time-honoured traditions of drink-driving and domestic violence?

If we eliminate gender restrictions on marriage, what next? Elimination of gender inequality in straight marriages?

If gay people are allowed to marry, what next? Elimination of alienation, victimisation and mental health issues among gay youth?

If gay people are allowed to marry, what next? I might have to buy them a wedding present?

3. Slippery slope arguments understand a change through a constructed narrative, rather than looking at the specific phenomenon and the actual history of change.

Swift recourse to slippery slope arguments implies that the only lens through which you can understand something is in part of a broad category of “changes to ‘traditional’ marriage” or “strange new developments” or “things my pastor told me God doesn’t like.”

This is actually a serious moral deficiency insofar as it displays a lack of ability to analyse the specific significance of something and how it affects people and society. So gay people in loving, mutual relationships are equated with sex addicts, paedophiles and men who have sex with dolphins.

Worse, proponents of slippery slope arguments project their own failures of moral imagination onto their opponents. Instead of listening and responding to the actual arguments of those who are arguing for (e.g.) gay marriage, they caricature their opponents’ moral logic into a simple reverse of their own: I want to preserve ‘traditional’ marriage. Therefore, You want to change ‘traditional’ marriage.

But “changing ‘traditional’ marriage” probably isn’t the best way of explaining the history of gay rights, and there’s certainly no alliance of polygamists and cousin-marriers plotting with gay people on what their next blow against ‘traditional’ marriage will be. If there’s any plotting, it will be about how to further increase the rights and respect of LGBTI people (see second-to-last statement in #2 above).

Of course, the increasing focusing of morality around individual freedoms, developing throughout (post-)modernity, may have something to do with the increasing support for LGBTI rights. (Or with why the marriage rights of individuals is a more important moral issue to most NZers than our ballooning economic inequality.) But individualism/liberalism can’t account for the entirety of the motivations and arguments for gay marriage. Moreover, the recent law change is the removal of a gender restriction, not a liberalisation of relationships.

Anyway, the trend towards individualism/liberalism doesn’t just mean “changes to ‘traditional’ marriage.” It’s just as much ‘to blame’ for the rise of the nuclear family, freedom of religion, and freedom to publish verbal diarrhoea about slippery slopes on the internet. Where were the slippery slope arguments then?

Two occasions where modified versions of slippery slope arguments might be OK:

1. Pointing out the logical implications of people’s assertions. This isn’t really a slippery slope argument so much as an examination of the wider scope of someone’s moral logic.

For example, if someone says “I think everyone should be allowed to marry whoever they want, so long as they consent” you can respond “So a brother and sister should be allowed to marry?” or “So one woman should be allowed to marry three men and a consenting goose?”

In which case the response is either, “Yes, I suppose you’re right, I’m happy to let people do what they want” or (more likely) “Hmmm, no, I’ll rephrase. I mean everyone should be allowed to marry whoever they want, so long as they consent and so long as it doesn’t harm them or others.”

And then – and here’s the important part – you get into a more constructive debate about which relationships we should see as inherently harmful, and why… and each case can be examined separately.

Of course this requires actually listening to what someone is saying and analysing their moral logic. For example, If someone’s moral logic is “I believe most people should be encouraged to enter healthy, lifelong, supportive marriages with people they love, and I don’t believe any particular gender roles are necessary components of a healthy marriage” the implications are going to be quite different to the liberal-permissive logic often assumed by slippery-slope proponents.

2. When there is an actual connection between what’s happening now and what might be the logical next step… and where the current step would actually make it easier for the next step to happen.

This is particularly useful if what is happening now is generally seen as harmless, but what might happen in the future is not. In this case, a slippery slope argument could form part of a range of considerations, showing that the consequences of what is happening now may be wider than people may think.

A good example might be expanding the powers of the GCSB. Even if you support some functions of the GCSB, we all know that all-encompassing Big Brother-esque powers is going too far, and it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. Since we can observe an international process of increasing powers of surveillance agencies and reducing human liberties and privacy, particularly since 9/11, it makes sense to call place the current GCSB bill in this context and let possible future developments enter into our considerations. (In fact, maybe we should have thought more about these ‘slippery slopes’ when the GCSB first opened, or when the Terrorism Suppression Act was passed, etc.)

Obviously, this is very different to gay marriage / polygamy etc. The connections are a lot closer, and the various ‘steps’ are a lot more gradual and difficult to examine/evaluate separately. Moreover, since the laws are complex the process is a lot easier to understand than the individual developments – again unlike gay marriage.

Pathetic justifications for pathetic wages

slavery minimum wageWell, they’ve passed the youth rate bill… Certain workers aged under 20 can now be paid at 80% of the minimum wage; a pathetic $10.80 per hour before tax. This comes a month and a half after a living wage was calculated to be about $18.40 per hour.

One thing I’ve noticed from the Facebook arguments I get myself embroiled in… Every time a debate comes up about the minimum wage, somebody makes the same tired point: if you raise the minimum wage too high, employers won’t be able to afford to provide jobs any more, or people with no skills will be priced out of the market, or workers will be costing employers more than they’re earning them, etc.

That’s of course true, but all it shows is that that the minimum wage CAN be too high, it doesn’t show that (or when) it IS too high.

You can’t just point out that sometimes a minimum wage can be too high and conclude that NZ’s minimum wage in March 2013 is too high (or as high as possible).  That’s not an argument, that’s just pure ideology without anything linking the theory to the present real life situation, therefore it can have no bearing on the present real life situation.  An argument would need to demonstrate that this theoretical danger is likely to happen at current wage levels, here and now… using research and evidence from here and now.

In fact, the evidence shows quite the opposite.  In the terse words of Treasury: the fear about minimum wage increasing unemployment “has not been true in the past. The balance of probabilities is that a higher minimum wage does not cost jobs”.  Increases in the minimum wage have not increased unemployment in recent history (if anything the relationship is the opposite, though it’s not a causal one: minimum wage has been kept low and unemployment pushed up by poor economic conditions and neo-liberal economic policy).

If we accept that it is desirable to have a minimum wage, we accept that it should be high enough to provide a decent living, without being so high that it reduces jobs.  The only matter for debate is where the balance is.  The Living Wage research indicates that our minimum wage is currently failing to achieve that balance, but the problem is not that it’s too high for employers to pay, it’s that it’s too low for workers to live on (and, by the way, John Key agrees).

Now the politicians are struggling too?

tremain comic mp pay

“Should the nation’s wealth be redistributed? It has been and continues to be redistributed to a few people in a manner strikingly unhelpful.”
– Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake, 1997.

Just like every summer, the Remuneration Authority has announced a back-dated pay-rise for MPs, and just like last summer, they’re claiming that we should actually be feeling sorry for politicians, because their pay is rising slower than average wages, and certainly slower than inflation.

This spurious justification completely misses the point that in the worst financial times since (arguably) the Great Depression, those who are earning at a luxury level – and can live without some of their excess – should be asked to sacrifice more than those who are struggling to make ends meet.  Still more so when they are so-called public servants whose pay is symbolically significant.

Unfortunately, it seems that the current government’s stance is pretty much the opposite of this principle – they’re willing to protect a tax system that’s “very generous” to the rich and an environmental policy that’s compassionate towards polluters, even if it means they have to claw an extra $2 from poor people’s prescriptions.

All pay should rise by the level of inflation by default, but as long as politicians are earning more than 99% of their people, they should willingly exempt themselves from the right to a pay-rise in these difficult times, as Hone Harawira has done the last two years.

Better yet, surely this economic climate is a pertinent time to rethink the ridiculous salaries and perks politicians, CEOs and other high-status personages receive?  Underlying the Remuneration Authority’s crude proportionalist argument is the assumption that what everyone earns is what they deserve, but the numbers are making that assumption less and less plausible.

Un-elected public service executives’ salaries are even worse than those of elected politicians, and in the private sector, worse still.  Over the past ten years we’ve had very healthy economic times and then we’ve had a recession, but one thing has remained consistent: CEO salaries have continued to grow and grow, and are getting more and more out of proportion to workers’ pay.

We all know this, so why do we tolerate it?

Bosses’ salaries and child poverty are two of the most extreme symptoms of inequality, which is at an all-time national high.  In order to fix either poverty or excessive salaries, we’ll need a massive mindset shift: we’ll need to stop pretending inequality, poverty and excessive wealth aren’t problems, we’ll need to put to death the delusion that people automatically deserve whatever pittance or fortune they receive, and we’ll need to develop an of the causes and effects of inequality.  And we’ll need to gain more control over our workplaces and government, so that we can attempt to halt the banal and relentless redistribution of our wealth into the hands of a few.

emerson comic dpb mp pay

There’s a serious problem with prisons when probable abuse is a factor in sentencing

According to Section 5 of the Corrections Act 2004, the “purpose of the corrections system is to improve public safety and contribute to the maintenance of a just society” through “safe, secure, humane and effective” sentences, assistance with rehabilitation and reintegration, the best decisions by courts and the Parole Board, and corrections facilities that meet the UN Standard Minimum Rules of the Treatment of Prisoners and other sections of the Act.

The implication is that prison punishment consists of a simple lack of liberty; to meet the standards of public safety and justice, we are taking prisoners out of the community and punishing them by depriving them of a certain degree and amount of liberty, deemed proportional to their unlawful actions. We’re not punishing them with physical violence and psychological humiliation. We don’t do it that way anymore … in theory.

So we know that something is seriously wrong with prisons when sentencing judges have to take into account the high likelihood of physical, sexual and emotional abuse when determining jail terms:

Transgender prison decision ‘a breach of rights’“, Radio New Zealand News, 20/12/2012

A judge at Whangarei District Court on Wednesday sentenced Glen Cooper [a transgender criminal] to a reduced prison term, because the likelihood of harassment in a men’s jail.

The court heard Cooper had already been attacked in jail while awaiting sentence.

The Department of Corrections said Cooper has not had sex change surgery so must go to the men’s prison.

On National Radio this morning, Kim Workman from Rethinking Crime and Punishment talked about how our prisons have become very secure, but highly unsafe. This Wikipedia article is a good read, making the same points; we have very few escapes or positive drug tests, but troubling figures for prisoner assaults on staff and other prisoners, and for mental health and suicide.

Let’s not let our base, vindictive, foolishscapegoating punitive instincts get in the way of making prisons safer. When you take away people’s freedom and responsibility to look after themselves, it becomes entirely your responsibility to look after them and keep them safe.  Letting prisoners be exposed to abuse and violence can’t do any good, it goes against the legislated role of prisons, and in no way can it be considered just.