Category Archives: Poverty & Inequality

Why we can’t afford the rich – Andrew Sayer.

“The ideology that the rich shower on us is meant to justify their privilege, but it turns the truth completely inside out.
When inequality reaches the insane levels it has done, the rich depend on hoodwinking us all into thinking that they are the source of jobs, prosperity and everything we value.
But once we stop believing this, either governments have to tackle inequality or revolutions arise.
Rich developed societies are very inefficient producers of well-being – particularly those with bigger income differences between rich and poor. Twenty per cent of the populations of the more unequal rich countries are likely to suffer forms of mental illness – such as depression, anxiety disorders, drug or alcohol addiction – each year. Rates may be three times as high as in the most equal countries.
At the same time, measures of the strength of community life and whether people feel they can trust others also show that more equal societies do very much better.
Tackling inequality is an important step towards achieving sustainability and high levels of well-being.
Large material inequalities mean that status becomes more important and social life is increasingly impoverished by status competition and status insecurities.
Social anxieties and our worries about how we are seen and judged are exacerbated. The result is that people start to feel that social life is more of an ordeal than a pleasure and gradually withdraw from social life, as the data show.
By intensifying status insecurities, inequality also drives consumerism, which is the biggest obstacle to sustainability. Any idea that we should consume less will be opposed as if it were an assault on our social standing and quality of life. But by reducing inequality, we not only reduce the importance of social status but, at the same time, we also improve social relations and the real quality of life. Reducing inequality is the first step towards combining sustainability with higher levels of well-being.
The super-rich now see themselves as superior beings who are doing us a kindness by living amongst us.
If we are to reduce inequality and stop the zombie-like extraction of more and more fossil fuel, we have to bring the economic and political dominance of the rich to a close.”


Richard Wilkinson Emeritus Professor of Social Epidemiology, University of Nottingham


There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.
Warren Buffett, estimated ‘worth’ $44 billion, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, New York Times, 26 November 2006


We are seeing an extraordinary phenomenon: for years the rich have been pulling away from the rest, with the top 1% taking an increasing share of national wealth, while those on low to middling incomes have got progressively less. And the rich continue to get richer, even in the worst crisis for 80 years – they can still laugh all the way to their banks and tax havens as the little people bail out banks that have failed.

Meanwhile a new kind of bank is multiplying – providing food for those who can no longer make ends meet. Austerity policies fall most heavily on those at the bottom while the top 10%, and particularly the top 1%, are protected. Generally, the less you had to do with the crisis, the bigger the sacrifices – relative to your income – you have had to make.

Youth unemployment has soared – in Spain and Greece to over 50%; this is an outrageous waste of young lives, and in many countries it’s become clear that young people are unlikely to experience the prosperity their parents enjoyed. How ridiculous that the answer to our economic problems is seen as wasting more of our most important asset – people.

Meanwhile a political class increasingly dominated by the rich continues to support their interests and diverts the public’s attention by stigmatising and punishing those on welfare benefits and low incomes, cheered on by media overwhelmingly controlled by the super-rich.

But, while the divide between the rich and the rest has certainly grown, how can it be claimed that we can’t afford the rich?

Here’s a short answer

Their wealth is mostly dependent ultimately on the production of goods and services by others and siphoned off through dividends, capital gains, interest and rent, and much of it is hidden in tax havens. They are able to control much of economic life and the media and dominate politics, so their special interests and view of the world come to restrict what democracies can do.

Their consumption is excessive and wasteful and diverts resources away from the more needy and deserving. Their carbon footprints are grotesquely inflated and many have an interest in continued fossil fuel production, threatening the planet.

Of course, this brief summary leaves out many qualifications, not to mention the actual argument and evidence. Some readers may agree straightaway, some may have a few objections, but others may respond with incredulity, perhaps outrage, for to claim that we can’t afford the rich is to imply that they are a cost to the rest of us, a burden. Aren’t the rich wealth creators, job creators, entrepreneurs, investors – indeed, just the kind of people we need? Don’t entrepreneurs like Bill Gates deserve their wealth for having introduced products that benefit millions? Aren’t the rich entitled to spend what they have earned how they like? What right has anyone to say their consumption is excessive?

Couldn’t the rich cut their carbon footprints by switching to low-carbon consumption? Wouldn’t the world miss their philanthropy and the ‘trickle-down effects’ of their spending? In fact, isn’t this book just an example of ‘the politics of envy’ – directed at those whom former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair used to call ‘the successful’? Shouldn’t we thank, rather than begrudge, these ‘high net worth individuals’?

It’s the objections regarding the alleged role of the rich in wealth extraction, as opposed to wealth creation, that present the biggest challenge and occupy the bulk of this book, though I’ll attempt to answer other objections too. In the process it will become clear that this is not about the politics of envy – a cheap slur used by those who want to duck the arguments and evidence – but the politics of injustice. I don’t envy the rich, in fact I regard such envy as thoroughly misguided. But I resent the unjust system by which the rich are allowed to extract wealth that others produce and to dominate society for their own interests.

What’s more, this is not only unjust but profoundly dysfunctional and inefficient, and it creates inhumane, rat-race societies. The time is ripe for examining where the wealth of the rich comes from. The Occupy movement has very successfully highlighted the growing split between the top 1% and the 99%, and the dominance of politics by the 1%.

The rich have made a remarkable comeback since the 1970s – the end of the post-war boom – rapidly increasing their share of national income in a large number of countries, Britain included. We are now getting back to early 20th-century levels of inequality between the rich and the rest. Having cornered ‘only’ 5.9–9% of total income before tax in the UK in the early 1950s through to 1978 – ‘The Golden Age of Capitalism’ – the top 1% of ‘earners’ now hoover up 13%.

The early post-war period was a time when the majority of the population shared in the post-war boom, with low-income households doing slightly better than others and the top 5% growing at slower rates, albeit from a higher base. But from 1979 the majority of incomes stagnated or grew only slowly, while the poorest fifth suffered a substantial loss and the rich roared ahead, swallowing up most of the spoils of economic growth, with the top 0.01% enjoying a 685% rise in real income!

This divergence has continued since the crash; indeed the gulf is widening as a result of austerity policies, which disproportionately hit those on low to middle incomes, contrary to the rhetoric of ‘We’re all in it together’.

In fact, the inequalities within the top 1% are much greater than between them and the 99%. Those in the top 1% in the UK have incomes ranging from just under £100,000 to billions. What’s more, the richer they are, the faster their income has grown: the top 0.5% have increased their share faster than the rest of the 1%, but not as fast as the top 0.1%, while the top 0.01% (ten-thousandth) have enriched themselves even faster.

Inequalities in wealth – the monetary value of individuals’ accumulated assets minus their liabilities (debts) – are even wider than income inequalities, and increasing. In the US, the top 1% own 35% of the nation’s wealth and the bottom 40% a mere 0.2%! In the UK in 2008–10, the members of the top 1% each had £2.8 million or more (14% of the nation’s wealth), though, given the opportunities for the rich to hide their wealth, this is almost certainly an underestimate. Twenty-eight per cent of wealth in the UK is inherited, not earned. Half of the population had wealth of less than £232,400, and the poorest 10% had less than £12,600.

In the US, the top 0.01% have gone from having less than 3% of national wealth in the mid-1970s to over 11% in 2013.

The richest one-thousandth – currently those with more than $20 million – own over a fifth of the country’s wealth.

Oxfam 2014 data:

• The richest 85 people in the world own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population, all 3.5 billion of them!

• 46% of the world’s wealth is now owned by just 1% of the population.

• The wealth of the richest 1% in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.

• Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.

Have the rich got richer because those at the top have become more enterprising, dynamic wealth creators? Are today’s capitalists – or entrepreneurs, as they like to call themselves – so much better at leading economic development than their more moderately paid predecessors of the post-war boom?

The economic data suggests the opposite. Growth rates have been slower than in the post-war boom. The rich are clearly not taking the same share of faster growth, but an increasing share of slower growth. So how have they done it?

The rich are not only getting a bigger proportion of nations’ gross incomes, but keeping more of it, thanks to massive drops in top rates of taxation.

From the 1930s onwards, tax rates on the rich soared, topping 90% in the UK, US, France and, briefly, Germany. It’s hard to believe this now when they have fallen to less than 50%, with many governments repeatedly trying to drive them down still lower. The sky did not fall down when top rates of tax were high, indeed the economies of these countries boomed, yet we are now told in severe tones that taxing the rich merely restrains growth.

To show why we can’t afford the rich we need to do more than find out just how rich they are and describe how they got their money and spend it. We need to do something that most books on the rich and the financial crisis fail to do – question the legitimacy of their wealth. But it is important to realise just how rich the rich are. I don’t want to put readers off with an indigestible mass of figures, but some are needed, especially as few people realise how unequal our society is and just how wealthy the rich are.

In the US the boundary isn’t quite so sharp, with the 4% below the top 1% getting a slight increase in share of national income since the post-war boom, though nothing like as big an increase as those above them, but it’s at the top of the 1% where the big gains have been made.

The richer people are, the higher the proportion of their income is likely to be unearned, through being based on power rather than some kind of contribution.

The UK has 63.9 million people and yet many of their most important needs could be met several times over just by the collective wealth of the richest 1,000. (Could there be a solution here?) When people worry about the effect of an ageing population on the pension bill and the NHS bill, we need to remember that just the annual growth of the wealth of the super-rich could easily pay for it. This is a ridiculous and obscene misallocation of resources. And why should we celebrate the growth of the financial sector, but see the growth of the health sector as a problem? Globally, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires website, the top 100 billionaires controlled $1.9 trillion in 2012, adding $240 billion that year. Oxfam calculates that just over a quarter of this – $66 billion – would have been enough to have raised everyone in the world over the $1.25 per day poverty line.

With a ‘net worth’ of $76 billion, Bill Gates of Microsoft is the richest person in the world, according to the 2013 Forbes list of billionaires. Second, with $72 billion, and for many years the first, is Carlos Slim Helu, a Mexican who took over his country’s telecommunications industry when it was privatised – a nice example of the consequences of privatising state monopolies.

Warren Buffett, whose candid statement about class war heads up this introduction, is fourth.

The richest woman, at ninth, with $52.5 billion, is Christy Walton, who inherited part of the Walmart fortune. Three other members of the Walton family are in the top 20. Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul, with $13.5 billion, comes in at 78th.

Very few of the rich and super-rich are celebrities. The wealthiest, Steven Spielberg, with $3 billion, is 337th on the Forbes list. Next is Oprah Winfrey, at 442nd with $2.7 billion.

In the UK, the Sunday Times often uses a montage of photos of celebrities to publicise its Rich List, but as in the US, few of them reach the upper levels. The highest (2012), Paul McCartney, with £665 million, owes his high position partly to marrying Nancy Shevell, an American heiress. Author J.K. Rowling, came in at 148th, the Beckhams at 395th. Most of the super-rich above them are unknown to the vast majority of British people.

The top six in the UK are all foreign nationals resident in the UK, attracted by special tax deals open to them: Alisher Usmanov (first, with £13.3 billion) owns Russia’s biggest iron ore producer; second is another Russian, Leonard Blavatnik, who’s involved in a range of industries including music, aluminium, oil and chemicals; in third place, the Hinduja brothers inherited their father’s conglomerate, with interests in power, automotive and defence industries in India and overseas; Lakshmi Mittal, in fourth place, is an Indian-born steel magnate who owes much of his wealth to buying up former Soviet state enterprises when they were privatised; Roman Abramovich (fifth), from Russia, best known in the UK for his ownership of Chelsea football club, owns an investment company with interests in a wide range of sectors, particularly oil; Norwegian-born Cypriot citizen John Frederiksen (shipping and oil) is sixth.

‘Non domiciles’, like these individuals, take advantage of a rule unique to the UK and Ireland that allows those who can claim to be linked to some other domicile to escape UK tax on their income and capital gains in all of the rest of the world, providing they do not bring the money into the country.

At eighth, the richest British-born person on the list is the Duke of Westminster, with £7.8 billion, who inherited property in Lancashire, Cheshire, Scotland and Canada and prime sites in London.

Although only a minority of the super-rich around the world list their speciality as finance, most of those in non-finance business are nevertheless also heavily involved in finance, in playing the markets and making deals25 and, of course, steel, power or telecommunications companies and the like are chosen for financial gain.

Why have the rich got a bigger share?

The return of the rich over the last four decades has been closely associated with developments in capitalism. Most important has been the rise of a new political economic orthodoxy, called neoliberalism.

Initiated aggressively by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, it was consolidated with more stealth by their successors, New Labour as well as Conservative, Democrat as well as Republican.

Now, after the crash of 2007–08 and in the ensuing recession – exactly when it has most clearly failed – it is being imposed with renewed vigour. It has three key features.


Markets are assumed to be the optimal or default form of economic organisation, and to work best with the minimum of regulation. Competitive markets supposedly reward efficiency and penalise inefficiency and thereby ‘incentivise’ us to improve. Governments and the public sector, by comparison, are claimed to be inferior at organising things – monopolistic and prone to complacency, inefficiency and cronyism. Governments should therefore privatise as much as possible.

Financial markets should be deregulated and there should be ‘flexible labour markets’ – political code language for jobs in which pay can fall as well as rise and in which there is little security. Where parts of the public sector can’t be privatised, league tables should be established and individuals, schools, universities, hospitals, museums, and so on should be made to compete for funds and be rewarded or penalised according to their placing.

Democracy needs to be reined in because the ballot box can’t match markets in governing complex economies; people can express themselves better through what they buy and sell.

Unsurprisingly, neoliberals keep their anti-democracy agenda under wraps.


The rise of neoliberalism also involves a political and cultural shift compatible with its market fundamentalism. Through a host of small changes in everyday life, we are increasingly nudged towards thinking and acting in ways that fit with a market rationality.

More and more, the media address us as self-seeking consumers, savvy investors, ever pursuing new ways of supplementing our incomes through ‘smart investments’.

Risk and responsibility are transferred to the individual. Job shortages are no longer acknowledged, let alone seen as a responsibility of the state: there are just inadequate individuals unable to find work: ‘skivers’, ‘losers’. No injustice, just bad choices and hapless individuals. The word ‘loser’ now evokes contempt, not compassion.

Those unable to find jobs that pay enough to allow them to cope and who still need the welfare state are marginalised, disciplined and stigmatised as actual or potential cheats. State health services and pensions are run down and replaced by private health insurance and private pensions.

You’re on your own, free to choose, free to lose, depending on how you navigate through the world of opportunities and dangers.

Instead of seeing ourselves as members of a common society, contributing what we can, sharing in its growth, pooling risks and providing mutual support, we are supposed to see ourselves as competing individuals with no responsibility for anyone else.

Want to jump the queue for medical services? Click here. Want to give your child an advantage? Pay for private tuition. We should compete for everything and imagine that what is actually only possible for the better off is possible for everyone; everyone can win simultaneously if they try.

We are expected to see ourselves as commodities for sale on the labour market, but also as ‘entrepreneurs of the self’. Hence the rise of the cult of the curriculum vitae (résumé) and self-promotional culture.

Education is increasingly debased by efforts to turn it into a means for making young people in this mould.

Some people – probably many readers of this book – may want to resist these tendencies, but in a neoliberal society it is impossible to avoid them totally, not least because in so much of life using markets (disguised as ‘choice’) and competing in league tables have become the only choices we can make.


Neoliberalism has ushered in a shift in the economic class structure of the countries it has most affected.

It involves not only a shift of power and wealth towards the rich, marked most clearly by the weakening of organised labour in industrialised economies and the enrichment of the 1%, but a shift of power within the rich: from those whose money comes primarily from control of the production of goods and services, to those who get most of their income from control of existing assets that yield rent, interest or capital gains, including gains from speculation on financial products.

The traditional term for members of this latter group is ‘rentier’. Many of the changes noted in 1 and 2 above benefit them.

Neoliberalism as a political system supports rentier interests, particularly by making the 99% indebted to the 1%.


A different approach: ‘moral economy’

The deregulation and spectacular growth of finance are central to neoliberalism and the rise of the rich – and to the biggest economic crisis since the Great Crash of 1929.

There has been a small avalanche of books on the financial crisis of 2007, some of them illuminating, many merely providing superficial narratives of successive financial disasters and the key players in them, served up with journalistic brio. Some critiques have targeted the hubris of the financial sector, identifying mismanagement, poor judgement and questionable legality.

But some have seen the credit crunch and recession as evidence of something more basic – capitalism’s crisis-prone nature.

Why We Can’t Afford the Rich isn’t just about the financial crisis, dire though it is. It’s about what underpins and generates such crises – the very architecture of our economy. It treats the economy not merely as a machine that sometimes breaks down, but as a complex set of relationships between people, increasingly stretched around the world, in which they act as producers of goods and services, investors, recipients of various kinds of income and as taxpayers and consumers.

The problems it identifies are as old as capitalism, though they have become much more serious with the rise of finance over the last 40 years. It goes beyond a focus on irrationality and systemic breakdown, to injustice and the moral justifications of taken-for-granted rights and practices. It’s not only about how much people in different positions in the economy should get paid for what they do, but about whether those positions are legitimate in the first place.

Is it right that they’re allowed to do what they’re doing?

There is of course a long history of critiques of capitalism aimed at different targets: alienation, insecurity and poverty; the treadmill of working and consuming; economic contradictions and irrationalities; and environmental destruction. There are useful things to learn from all of these critiques, but at the current time, when the rich have increased their power so much, and inequalities have widened, I believe we need a new line of attack, one that focuses on the institutions and practices that allow this to happen.

Too many books on economic justice, and especially on the economic crisis, take as given the very institutions and practices that need questioning. This book is about the injustices of some long-standing economic relations that have come to a head in the crisis. It could be described as an example of ‘moral economy’. By this I mean not moralising about greed but assessing the moral justifications of basic features of economic organisation. It’s about the huge differences between what some are able to get and what they do, need and deserve.

What people should get is a difficult issue, particularly where it’s a matter of what we think people deserve or merit, but in the case of the rich, it can be shown that what they actually get has more to do with power. I shall argue that basically, the rich get most of their income by using control of assets like land and money to siphon off wealth that others produce. Much of their income is unearned. What’s more, over the last 35 years, particularly with the increasing dominance of the economy by finance – ‘financialisation’, as it’s sometimes called – the rich have become far richer than before by expanding these sources of unearned income.

This book is not only about money and goods, but about the very language of economic life, for the history of our modern economy is partly one of struggles over how to describe or categorise economic practices, as this affects what we see as acceptable or unacceptable: words like ‘investment’, ‘speculation’ or ‘gambling’ invite different evaluations. Who wouldn’t prefer to be called an ‘investor’ rather than a speculator or gambler? But what do such terms mean and what practices fit them? When a top banker is described as having ‘earned’ £x million, we might question what ‘earned’ means in such a context: is it just what they’ve managed to extract from the economy?

This struggle over words has been largely won by the rich and powerful, so how we speak about economic life systematically conceals their activities. Mainstream economics has proved to be a helpful if largely unwitting accomplice to this process, fearful of anything that might be construed as critical of capitalism.

To show why we can’t afford the rich we need to go into some basic economic matters, but in a different and yet simpler way than usual. Most basically, we need to remember something that has been forgotten in modern mainstream economics: economics is about provisioning. As anthropologists and feminist economists have reminded us, it’s about how societies provide themselves with the wherewithal to live. Provisioning requires work – producing goods, from food and shelter through to clothes and newspapers, and services, such as teaching, providing advice and information, and care work. Almost all provisioning involves social relations between people, as producers, consumers, owners, lenders, borrowers and so on. It’s through these relations that provisioning is organised.

Some kinds of provisioning take place through markets; some do not. The market/non-market boundary does not define the edge of the economy: unpaid work in preparing a meal for someone is as much an economic act as preparing pizzas for sale – or selling computers or insurance. Most economists and political theorists think of economic actors only as independent, able-bodied adults, forgetting that they all started off as helpless babies, unable to provide for themselves and dependent on others, and who sooner or later reach a stage where, whether for reasons of illness, disability or age, they become unable to contribute to provisioning themselves and others.

There is nothing exceptional about these conditions. We all go through them: they are universals. We can never pay back our parents for all the work they did for us, just as future generations will never be able to pay their parents back. Dependence on others, particularly across generations, is part of being human; it derives from the fact that we are social animals, ‘dependent rational animals’, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it; we cannot survive on our own.

Robinson Crusoe depended on having been brought up in society; the newborn Crusoe wouldn’t have lasted more than a few hours on his own. And like Crusoe we depend on the resources of the earth to survive; we cannot flourish if we damage the planet.

No one would deny the right of children to be fed (‘subsidised’) by their parents when they are too young to contribute anything in return. But would it be OK for me to buy up the company that currently provides your water and slap an extra 10% on your bills so that in effect you subsidise me, enriching me greatly? Would that be a defensible form of dependence?

Or if I seized a park or beach that you had visited regularly all your life and charged you for access, would that be all right? Dependence can be defensible or indefensible; it depends.

Because we are so dependent on each other, there are always likely to be questions of fairness and justice where economic activities are concerned. Are you being paid fairly? Is it right that some get so much/little, and pay so much/little tax? Should students pay for their university courses? Should you get interest on your savings? Should there be more/less/no child benefit? More money for carers, or none? Who should pick up the bill when a company goes bankrupt, and who should pay for clearing up a derelict site left by deindustrialisation? Who should pay for pollution?

These and other such questions are about moral economy. I believe we need to think much more about them – about whether our familiar economic arrangements are fair and justifiable, instead of taking them simply as immutable facts of life – or equally bad, as matters of mere subjective ‘preferences’, or ‘values’, beyond the scope of reason.

Individuals may sometimes give more than they get, or get more than they give, for justifiable reasons, as in the case of parent–child relations, but sometimes they do so for no good reason other than power. Sexist men free-ride on the domestic labour of women for no good reason. This free-riding is particularly likely where people or organisations are very unequal in power. Minority control of key assets that others need is a crucial source of power and inequalities.

Because they can.

Important though it is to think about moral economy, it’s different from explaining economic arrangements. Few of our ways of doing things in economic matters are arrived at through democratic decision or careful deliberation on what is good and fair. Most are products of power. Usually, the best explanation of what people do and what they get in economic matters is because they can.

Why do chief executive officers (CEOs) of big companies pay themselves such vast amounts? Because they can. They may offer justifications, but these are not only invariably feeble but redundant. They can get their pay rises even if the majority of people think they’re unjustifiable. And usually the fuss over their pay hikes dies down in a week or two anyway.

Equally, when we ask why care workers get so little for doing work that clearly benefits people, the answer is because that’s all they can get, given their limited power. What we think people should justifiably get or contribute is one thing, and what they can actually get is another. Justifications and explanations are usually different.

Many of the defences of existing economic institutions are surprisingly weak, but particularly if people start treating those arrangements as natural – as ‘just how things are’ – they can persist on the basis of power.

The landowner and the stranger

Here’s an example of a taken-for-granted economic institution – private ownership of land by a minority.

You may know the story of the stranger who trespassed on a landowner’s land and was told to ‘get off my land’, whereupon the stranger asked the owner how he got this land. ‘From my father’, was the answer. ‘And where did he get it from then?’ ‘From his father’ . . . , who got it from his father, and so on. ‘So how did one of your ancestors get this land in the first place?’ asked the stranger. ‘By fighting someone for it’, said the landlord. ‘Right’, said the stranger, ‘I’ll fight you for it. If it was all right for your ancestor to seize the land in the first place, it must be all right to seize it back now. And if it wasn’t all right for them to seize it, it should be seized back now!’

The story is striking but it’s not clear what a better alternative might be. Would private ownership of land be OK if it was divided up equally so everyone had some? Or should land be publicly owned with individuals renting plots from the state, with the use of the rent revenue to be decided democratically? What the story does, at least, is jolt us out of our uncritical acceptance of the institution of minority land ownership. At this time of crisis we need much more jolting.

Mainstream economics takes the particular features of capitalism – a very recent form of economic organisation in human history – as if they were universal, timeless and rational. It treats market exchange as if it’s the essential feature of economic behaviour and relegates production or work – a necessity of all provisioning – to an afterthought.

It also focuses primarily on the relationship between people and goods (what determines how many oranges we buy?) and pays little attention to the relationships between people that this presupposes. It values mathematical models based on if-pigs-could-fly assumptions more than it values empirical research; so it pays little attention to real economies, having little to say about money and debt, for example!

Predictably, the dismal science failed to predict the crisis. When the UK’s Queen Elizabeth asked why no one saw the crisis coming, the economists’ embarrassment was palpable.

I’ll be drawing on the work of thinkers who had a more critical view, including, in chronological order, Aristotle, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, the Christian socialist R.H. Tawney and many recent so-called ‘heterodox economists’ and political commentators. Significantly, many of the latter did predict the current crisis.

Capitalism: a mixed bag

While this is as much a critique of capitalism as a critique of the rich, capitalism is both good and bad in a host of ways. There is no doubt, in particular, that it has produced unprecedented growth in technology and science and led to the integration of formerly largely separate parts of the world, as eulogised by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto.

Marx and Engels were less prescient as regards the improvement in living standards for many workers, who turned out to be better off being exploited than not being exploited, though that does not mean there were no losers or that there cannot be better alternatives to capitalism.

The media have a depressing tendency to favour simple stories of good versus bad over ones that portray the world as a complex mix of good and bad. This book should not be seen as ignoring the benefits capitalism has brought; nor, in criticising it, to be legitimising the state socialism of the former Soviet Bloc.

‘Neither Washington nor Moscow (former or contemporary!)’ would be my slogan. A recent Russian saying goes: ‘Marx was completely wrong about communism, but damn, it turns out he was right about capitalism!’

I don’t think he was entirely right about capitalism by any means, though his thinking on its dynamics and on its generation of inequalities was more illuminating than most. But I’ll draw on plenty of other thinkers too, many of them in varying degrees critical of Marx. If you’re wondering whether I’m a Smithian, Marxist or Keynesian or whatever, my answer in each case is yes and no: yes where I think they’re right, no where I think they’re wrong.

The belief in a just world

For New Labour and Conservatives it’s become an article of faith to deny that the rich are rich because others are poor. To get ahead, any career politician has to parrot this claim; it helps to keep corporate funders of their political parties happy, as well as media owned by the super-rich. No evidence or argument is needed, apparently; they just have to profess the belief, as if swearing on the Bible.

This book shows that whatever they might want to believe, the rich are indeed rich largely at the expense of the rest. How tempting it is for not only the rich but also the merely comfortably-off to imagine that, through their own efforts and special qualities, they deserve what they have, disregarding the fact that by the accident of birth they were born into an already rich country and in many cases an already well-off family within it that gives them significant advantages. How easy to overlook that they rely on getting cheap products made and grown by people from poor countries, who are no less hard-working or deserving but can be paid much less because they have little alternative.

But it’s not only the rich who believe that they deserve their wealth. Many in the rest of the population think so too: ‘they’ve earned it so they’re entitled to it’ is a common sentiment, even among those on low incomes. This is an example of what US psychologist Melvin Lerner called ‘the belief in a just world’. In economic matters, it’s the idea that, roughly speaking, we get paid what we deserve and deserve what we get paid.

Believing the rich deserve their wealth may seem a pleasingly generous sentiment, though assuming the poor also deserve their lot does not. It produces an unwarranted deference to the rich. As Lerner noted, the belief in a just world is a delusion, a kind of wishful thinking. Who wouldn’t want to live in a just world, where need was recognised and effort and merit rewarded, while their opposites were not? But it doesn’t follow that we do.

Understandably, since the 2007 crash, people have become more critical of the rich, especially those identified as bankers. Yet, according to recent surveys of public attitudes, they are even more critical of those at the bottom, scorned as ‘welfare mothers’, ‘chavs’, ‘trailer trash’, ‘scroungers’ and so on. What’s more, it seems that as societies become more unequal, their members become less critical of inequality!

The rule of the rich Economic power is also political power. The very control of assets like land and money is a political issue. Those who control what used to be called ‘the commanding heights of the economy’ – and increasingly that means the financial sector – can pressure governments, including democratically elected ones, to do their bidding. They can threaten to take their money elsewhere, refuse to lend to governments except at crippling rates of interest, demand minimalist financial regulation, hide their money in tax havens and demand tax breaks in return for political funding.

Investigative journalists have revealed the circulation of individuals between political posts and positions in key financial institutions, and the role of powerful lobby groups in maintaining the dominance of unregulated finance, even after the crash. Prominent financial institutions have been involved in illegal money laundering, insider dealing and manipulation of interest rates, yet in the UK no one has been prosecuted and, where banks have been fined, the fines have not been imposed but arrived at by negotiation, as ‘settlements’! They have infamously pocketed gains while the losses they have incurred have been dumped on the public, who have suffered substantial drops in income and services as a result.

Of course, many politicians are already from an upper-class background in which supporting the rich is as natural as breathing, but even if they are not, ‘our representatives’ have become increasingly unrepresentative of the majority of the population at large.

Even if they want to resist, they face an environment dominated by financial interests.

Spending it

The problem of the rich goes beyond issues of how they get their money, to how they spend it. Their massive spending on luxuries distorts economies, diverting producers from providing goods and services for the more needy. It’s a waste of labour and scarce resources.

In some cases, it makes things worse for those on low incomes, for example, by driving up house prices beyond their reach. The super-rich have so much that there is no way they can spend all of it on things they can use, so they recycle the rest into further rounds of speculation, buying up property, companies and financial assets that generate little or no productive investment, and merely siphon off more wealth that others have produced.

No one treads more heavily on the earth than the rich. Private jets and multiple mansions mean massive carbon footprints. Yet the inconvenient fact is of course that even though most of us have smaller footprints, in the rich countries they are still seriously in excess of what the planet can absorb. Even if we could afford them in money terms, we cannot afford high-carbon, high-consumption life-styles if we are to stop runaway global warming.

We are in deep trouble, not just because of the economic crisis, but because it’s overshadowed by a bigger and more threatening crisis – climate change. The solution to the economic crisis is widely thought to be growth. But that will only accelerate global warming.

The rich countries need to switch to steady-state or ‘degrowth’ economies to save the planet, but capitalism needs growth to survive; it’s in its DNA.

Soviet state socialism proved no better environmentally. We need a different model. If that seems a gloomy conclusion, there is a very important and positive counter message: that beyond a certain level, attained already by most people in rich countries, well-being is not improved much by further increases in wealth, and well-being tends to be higher in more equal countries.

Above this threshold, well-being is improved by greater equality, reductions in stress, exercise, being with others, both caring for and being cared for, developing interests and skills and projects and experiencing the world at large beyond the confines of narrowly defined jobs.

Ending the rat race will do us, and the planet, a lot of good.


Why we can’t afford the rich.

by Andrew Sayer

get it at


Don’t let the rich get even richer on the assets we all share – George Monbiot.

Are you a statist or a free marketeer? Do you believe that intervention should be minimised or that state ownership and regulation should be expanded? This is our central political debate. But it is based on a mistaken premise.


Both sides seem to agree that state and market are the only sectors worth discussing: politics should move one way or the other along this linear scale. In fact, there are four major economic sectors: the market, the state, the household and the commons. The neglect of the last two by both neoliberals and social democrats has created many of the monstrosities of our times.


Both market and state receive a massive subsidy from the household: the unpaid labour of parents and other carers, still provided mostly by women. If children were not looked after – fed, taught basic skills at home and taken to school – there would be no economy. And if people who are ill, elderly or have disabilities were not helped and supported by others, the public care bill would break the state.


There’s another great subsidy, which all of us have granted. I’m talking about the vast wealth the economic elite has accumulated at our expense, through its seizure of the fourth sector of the economy: the commons.


That it is necessary to explain the commons testifies to their neglect (despite the best efforts of political scientists such as the late Elinor Ostrom). A commons is neither state nor market. It has three main elements. First a resource, such as land, water, minerals, scientific research, hardware or software. Second a community of people who have shared and equal rights to this resource, and organise themselves to manage it. Third the rules, systems and negotiations they develop to sustain it and allocate the benefits.


A true commons is managed not for the accumulation of capital or profit, but for the steady production of prosperity or wellbeing. It belongs to a particular group, who might live in or beside it, or who created and sustain it. It is inalienable, which means that it should not be sold or given away. Where it is based on a living resource, such as a forest or a coral reef, the commoners have an interest in its long-term protection, rather than the short-term gain that could be made from its destruction.


The commons have been attacked by both state power and capitalism for centuries. Resources that no one invented or created, or that a large number of people created together, are stolen by those who sniff an opportunity for profit. The saying, attributed to Balzac, that “behind every great fortune lies a great crime” is generally true. “Business acumen” often amounts to discovering novel ways of grabbing other people’s work and assets.


The theft of value by people or companies who did not create it is called enclosure. Originally, it meant the seizure – supported by violence – of common land. The current model was pioneered in England, spread to Scotland, then to Ireland and the other colonies, and from there to the rest of the world. It is still happening, through the great global land grab.


Enclosure creates inequality. It produces a rentier economy: those who capture essential resources force everyone else to pay for access. It shatters communities and alienates people from their labour and their surroundings. The ecosystems commoners sustained are liquidated for cash. Inequality, rent, atomisation, alienation, environmental destruction: the loss of the commons has caused or exacerbated many of the afflictions of our age.


You can see enclosure at work in the Trump administration’s attempt to destroy net neutrality. Internet service providers want to turn salience on the internet – now provided freely by a system created through the work of millions – into something you have to pay for. To ensure there is no choice, they have also sought to shut down a genuine internet commons, by lobbying states to prohibit community broadband. In the crazy plutocracy the US has become, four states have made this form of self-reliance a criminal offence, while others have introduced partial bans.


Communities should be allowed to take back control of resources on which their prosperity depends
Another example is the extension of intellectual property through trade agreements, allowing biotech companies to grab exclusive rights to genetic material, plant varieties and natural compounds. Another is the way in which academic publishers capture the research freely provided by communities of scientists, then charge vast fees for access to it.


I’m not proposing we abandon either market or state, but that we balance them by defending and expanding the two neglected sectors. I believe there should be wages for carers, through which the state and private enterprise repay part of the subsidy they receive. And communities should be allowed to take back control of resources on which their prosperity depends. For example, anyone who owns valuable land should pay a local community land contribution (a form of land value tax): compensation for the wealth created by others. Part of this can be harvested by local and national government, to pay for services and to distribute money from richer communities to poorer ones. But the residue should belong to a commons trust formed by the local community. One use to which this money might be put it is to buy back land, creating a genuine commons and regaining and sharing the revenue. I expand on this idea and others in my recently published book Out of the Wreckage.


A commons, unlike state spending, obliges people to work together, to sustain their resources and decide how the income should be used. It gives community life a clear focus. It depends on democracy in its truest form. It destroys inequality. It provides an incentive to protect the living world. It creates, in sum, a politics of belonging.


To judge by the speeches at this week’s Labour conference, the party could be receptive to this vision. The emphasis on community and cooperatives (which in some cases qualify as commons), the interest in broadening ownership and fighting oppressive trade agreements, point towards this destination.


I hope such parties can take the obvious step, and recognise that the economy has four sectors, not two. That’s the point at which it can begin: the social and environmental transformation for which so many of us have been waiting.


The Guardian


Forget the future of workers. What about the future of consumers? – Scott Santens. 

Universal basic income as a response to both falling demand and the rising sharing economy.

Discussing the future of work is all the rage these days. Some say we’re on the verge of the robot apocalypse of jobs. Others say jobs will always be created in sufficient numbers (and at sufficient rates) and that everything will be fine. Regular readers know where I fall on this particular question, that either way, our goal should be eliminating as many of the jobs as possible that we as humans don’t enjoy doing.

However, what doesn’t tend to get discussed is the flip side of all of this, which is the fruits of the all the work by humans and machines, the limited amounts any of us as humans can consume them simply because of limited time, and how our consumer preferences are being permanently and irrevocably altered by short-sighted greed.

… continued at Steemit

How to Use Fiscal and Monetary Policy to Make Us Rich Again – Tom Streithorst. 

The easiest way to return to Golden Age tranquility and equality is to empower fiscal policy.

During the post war Golden Age, from 1950 to 1973, US median real wages more than doubled. Today, they are lower than they were when Jimmy Carter was president. If you want an explanation why Americans are pessimistic about their future, that is as good a reason as any. In a recent article, Noah Smith examines the various causes of the slide in labor’s share of national income and finds most explanations wanting. With a blind spot common amongst economists he doesn’t even investigate the most obvious: politics.

Take a look at this chart. From the end of World War II, productivity rose steadily. Until the 1972 recession wages went up alongside it. Both dipped, both recovered and then, right around the time Ronald Reagan became President, productivity continued its upward trajectory but wages stopped following. If wages had continued to track productivity increases, the average American would earn twice as much as he does today and America would undoubtedly be a calmer and happier nation.

Collectively we are richer than we were 40 years ago, as we should be, considering the incredible advances in technology since them, but today the benefits of productivity increases no longer go to workers but rather to owners of stocks, bonds, and real estate. Wages don’t go up, but asset prices do. Rising productivity, that is to say the ability to make more goods and services with fewer inputs of labor and capital should make us all more prosperous. That it hasn’t can only be a distributional issue.

The timing suggests Ronald Reagan had something to do stagnating wages. That makes sense. Reagan cut taxes on the rich, deregulated the economy, eviscerated the labor unions and created the neoliberal order that still rules today. But perhaps an even more significant change is the tiny, technical and tedious shift from fiscal to monetary policy.

Government has two ways of affecting the economy: monetary and fiscal policy. The first involves the setting of interest rates, the other government tax and spending policy. Both fiscal and monetary policy work by putting money in people’s pockets so they will spend and thereby stimulate the economy but fiscal focuses on workers while monetary mostly benefits the already rich. Since Ronald Reagan, even under Democratic presidents, monetary has been the policy of choice. No wonder wages stopped going up but real estate, stock and bond prices have gone through the roof. During the Golden Age we shared the benefits of technological progress through wages gains. Since Reagan, we have allocated them through asset price inflation.

Fiscal policy, by increasing government spending, creates jobs and so raises wages even in the private sector. Monetary policy works mostly through the wealth effect. Lower interest rates almost automatically raise the value of stocks, bonds, and other real assets. Fiscal policy makes workers richer, monetary policy makes rich people richer. This, I suspect, explains better than anything else why monetary policy, even extreme monetary policy remains more respectable than even conventional monetary policy.

During the Golden Age, fiscal was king. Wages rose steadily and everybody was richer than their parents. Recessions were short and shallow. Economic policy makers’ primary task was insuring full unemployment. Anytime unemployment rose over a certain level, a government spending boost or tax cut would get the economy going again. And since firms were confident the government would never allow a steep downturn, they were ready and willing to invest in new technology and increased productive capacity. The economy grew faster (and more equitably) than it ever has before or since.

During the 1960s, Keynesian economists thought they could “fine tune” the economy, using Philips curve trade offs between inflation and unemployment. Stagflation in the 1970s shattered that optimism. Inflation went up but so did unemployment. New Classical economists decided in the long run, Keynesian stimulus couldn’t increase GDP, it could only accelerate inflation. Keynesianism stopped being cool. According to Robert Lucas, graduate students, would “snicker” whenever Keynesian concepts were mentioned.

In policy circles, Keynesians were replaced by monetarists, acolytes of Milton “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” Friedman. Volcker in America and Thatcher in Britain decided the only way to stomp out inflationary expectations was to cut the money supply. This, despite their best efforts, they were unable to do. Controlling the money supply proved almost impossible but monetarism gave Volcker and Thatcher the cover to manufacture the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

By raising interest rates until the economy screamed Volcker and Thatcher crushed investment and allowed unemployment to rise to levels unthinkable just a few years before. Businessmen, union leaders, and politicians pleaded for a rate cut but the central bankers were implacable. Ending inflationary expectations was worth the cost, they insisted. Volcker and Thatcher succeed in crushing inflation, not by cutting the money supply, but rather with an old fashioned Phillips curve trade off. Workers who fear for their jobs don’t ask for cost of living increases. Inflation was history.

The Federal Funds Rate hit 20% in 1980. Now even after a few hikes, it is barely over 1%. The story of the past 30 years is of the most stimulative monetary policy in history. Anytime the economy stumbled, interest rate cuts were the automatic response. Other than military Keynesianism and tax cuts, fiscal policy was relegated to the ash heap of history. Reagan of course combined tax cuts with increased military spending but traditional peacetime infrastructure stimulus was tainted by the 1970s stagflation and for policymakers remained beyond the pale.

Fiscal stimulus came back, momentarily, at the peak of the financial crisis. China’s investment binge combined with Obama’s stimulus package probably stopped the Great Recession from being as catastrophic as the Great Depression but by 2010, fiscal stimulus was replaced by its opposite, austerity. According to elementary macroeconomics, when the private sector is cutting back its spending, as it was still doing in the wake of the financial crisis, government should increase its spending to take up the slack. But Obama in America, Cameron in Britain and Merkel in the EU insisted that government cut spending, even as the private sector continued to retrench.

It is rather shocking, for anyone who has taken Econ 101 that in 2010, when the global economy had barely recovered from the worst recession since the Great Depression, politicians and pundits were calling for lower deficits, higher taxes and less government spending even as monetary policy was maxed out. Rates were already close to zero so central banks had no more room to cut.

So, instead of going to the tool box and taking out their tried and tested fiscal kit, which would have created jobs and had the added benefit of improving infrastructure, policymakers instead invented Quantitative Easing, which in essence is monetary policy on steroids. Central Banks promised to buy bonds from the private sector, increasing their price, thereby shoveling money towards bond owners. The idea was that by buying safe assets they would push the private sector to buy riskier assets and by increasing bank reserves they would stimulate lending but the consequence of all the Quantitative Easings is that all of the benefits of growth since the financial crisis have gone to the top 5% and most of that to the top 0.1%.

A feature or a bug? The men who rule the planet are happy that most of us think economics is boring, that we would much rather read about R Kelly’s sexual predilections than about the difference between fiscal and monetary policy but were we to remember that spending money on infrastructure or health care or education would create jobs, raise wages, and create demand which the economy craves, we would have a much more equitable world.

One cogent objection to stimulative fiscal policy is that it has the potential to be inflationary. Indeed the fundamental goal of macroeconomic policy is to match the economy’s demand to its ability to supply. If fiscal policy gets out of hand (as arguably it did in the 1960s when Lyndon Johnson tried to fund both his Great Society and the Vietnam war without raising taxes), demand could outstrip supply, creating inflation. But should that happen, we have the monetary tools to cure any inflationary pressure. Rates today are still barely above zero. Should inflation threaten, central banks can raise interest rates and nip it in the bud.

Fiscal and monetary policy both have a place in policymakers’ toolkits. Perhaps the ideal combination would be to use fiscal to stimulate the economy and monetary to cool it down. Both Brexit and Trump should have told elites that unless they share the benefits of growth, a populist onslaught could threaten all our prosperity. The easiest way to return to Golden Age tranquility and equality is to empower fiscal policy to invest in our future and create jobs today.

2017 August 6

Poverty-traps and pay-gaps: Why single mothers need basic income – Dr Petra Bueskens. 

Harper discovered she wasn’t alone when she packed up her house, stopped paying rent and took her four-year-old son, Finn, on a six month “holiday” up north to warmer climes.

“I found in every camp site, especially the show grounds as they’re the cheapest ones that still have facilities, there were a couple of other single mums and their kids. I was also travelling with a friend and her son, so there were often five or six of us and a bunch of kids at each campsite. Up north there’s even more. Over time we became familiar with each other.”

Harper gave up her home because she couldn’t afford the rent and have any quality of life. Paid work put her in a double bind: if she worked, she lost most of her Centrelink payments; if she didn’t work there wasn’t quite enough to make ends meet. So, she worked and stayed poor. These are the poverty-traps that keep many single mothers working-poor and unable to dig out.

In Australia now, there is a clandestine group of mobile single parents, mostly mothers, who have found they cannot, on Centrelink benefits and low-paid casual work, meet the cost of living. They have chosen instead to travel and live with their children in camping grounds and caravan parks around Australia, particularly in Northern NSW and Queensland, where living outdoors is relatively easy. For as little as $10 a night at national parks and showgrounds and up to $25 at caravan parks that have showers, washing machines and other facilities, they live on the move. 

continued … Basic


Dr Petra Bueskens is an Honorary Fellow in Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, a psychotherapist in private practice at PPMD Therapy and a columnist at news media site New Matilda. She is the author of Mothering and Psychoanalysis: Clinical, Sociological and Feminist Perspectives. 

New Zealand’s political leadership has failed for decades on housing policy – Shamubeel Eaqub. 

New Zealand’s political leadership has failed for decades on housing policy, leading to the rise of a Victorian-style landed gentry, social cohesion coming under immense pressure and a cumulative undersupply of half a million houses over the last 30 years.

House prices are at the highest level they have ever been. And they have risen really, really fast since the 90s, but more so since the early 2000s and have far outstripped every fundamental that we can think of.

After nearly a century of rising home ownership in New Zealand, since 1991 home ownership has been falling. In the last census, the home ownership rate was the lowest level since 1956. And for my estimate for the end of 2016, it’s the lowest level since 1946.

We’ve gone back a long way in terms of the promise and the social pact in New Zealand that home ownership is good, and if you work hard you’re going to be able to afford a house.

The reality is that that social pact, that right of passage has not been true for many, many decades. The solutions are going to be difficult and they are going to take time.

Before you come and tell me that you paid 20% interest rates, the reality is that, yes interest rates are much lower. But the really big problem is, house prices have risen so much that it’s almost impossible in fact to save for the deposit. People could have saved a deposit and paid it off in about 20-30 years in the early 1990s. Fast forward to today, and that’s more like 50 years. How long do you want to work to pay off your mortgage?

What we’re talking about is the rise of Generation Rent. Those who manage to buy houses are in mortgage slavery for a long period of time.

There is a widening societal gap. If younger generations want to access housing, it’s not enough to have a job, nor enough to have a good job. You must now have parents that are wealthy, and home-owners too. The idea of New Zealand being an egalitarian country is no longer true. The kind of societal divide we’re talking about is very Victorian. We’re in fact talking about the rise of a landed gentry.

For those who are born after the 1980s, the chance of you doing better than your parents are less than 50%.

What we’re creating is a country where opportunities are going to be more limited for our children and when it comes to things like housing, than ourselves. I worry that what we’re creating in New Zealand is a social divide that is only going to keep growing. This is only one manifestation of this divide.

There has been a change in philosophy in what underpins the housing market. One very good example is what we have done with our social housing sector.

Housing NZ started building social housing in the late 1930s and stock accumulated over the next 50-60 years to a peak in 1991.

Since then we have not added more social housing. On a per capita basis we have the lowest number of social housing in New Zealand since the 1940s.

This is an ideological position where we do not want to create housing supply for the poor. We don’t want to. This is not about politicians. This is a reflection on us. It is our ideology, it is our politics. Our politicians are doing our bidding. The society that we’re living in today does not want to invest in the bottom half of our society.

The really big kicker has been credit. Significant reductions in mortgage rates over time have driven demand for housing. But we have misallocated our credit. We’re creating more and more debt, but most of that debt is chasing the existing houses. We’re buying and selling from each other rather than creating something new. The housing boom could not have happened on its own. The banking sector facilitated it. We have seen more and more credit being created and more of that credit is now more likely to go towards buying and selling houses from each other rather than funding businesses or building houses.

One of the saddest stories at the moment is, even though we have an acute housing shortage in Auckland, the most difficult to find funding for now is new developments. When the banks pull away credit, the first thing that goes is the riskiest elements of the market.

Seasonally adjusted house sales in Auckland are at the lowest level since 2011. This is worrying because what happens in the property market expands to the economy, consents and the construction sector.

I fully expect a construction bust next year. We are going to have a construction bust before we have a housing bust. We haven’t built enough houses for a very long period of time. And if we’re going to keep not building enough houses, I’m not confident that whatever correction we have in the housing market is going to last.

New money created in the economy is largely chasing the property market. Household debt to GDP has been rising steadily since the 1990s. People were now taking on more debt, but banks have started to cut back on the amount of credit available overall.

For every unit of economic growth over the course of the last 10, 20 years, we needed more and more debt to create that growth. We are more and more addicted to debt to create our economic growth.

Credit is now going backwards. If credit is not going to be available in aggregate, we know the biggest loses are in fact going to be businesses and property development.

It means we are not going to be building a lot of the projects that have been consented, and we know the construction cycle is going to come down. I despair.

I despair that we still talk so much more about buying and selling houses than actually starting businesses. The cultural sclerosis that we see in New Zealand has as much to do with the problem of the housing market as to do with our rules around the Resource Management Act, our banking sector.

On demand, we know there’s been significant growth in New Zealand’s population. Even though it feels like all of that population growth has come from net migration, the reality is that it’s actually natural population growth that’s created the bulk of the demand.

But net migration has created a volatility that we can’t deal with. A lot of the cyclicality in New Zealand’s housing market and demand, comes from net migration and we simply cannot respond.

We do know that there is money that’s global that is looking for a safe haven, and New Zealand is part of that story. We don’t have very good data in New Zealand because we refuse to collect it. There is a lack of leadership regarding our approach to foreign investment in our housing market.

Looking at what’s happening in Canada and Australia would indicate roughly 10% of house sales in Auckland are to foreign buyers. Yes it matters, but when 90% of your sales are going to locals, I think it’s a bit of a red herring.

Historical context of where demand for housing comes from shows the biggest chunk is from natural population growth. The second biggest was from changes in household size as families got smaller – more recently that has stopped, ie kids refusing to leave home.

There has been a massive variation in what happens with net migration.

New Zealand needs about 21,000 houses a year to keep up with population growth and changes that are taking place. But over the course of the last four years, we’ve needed more like 26,000. We’re nowhere near building those kinds of houses.

This means we need to think about demand management from a policy perspective. It’s more about cyclical management rather than structural management.

Population growth has always been there. Whether it’s from migration or not doesn’t matter. The problem is our housing market, our land supply, our infrastructure supply, can’t keep up with any of it.

While immigration was a side problem it nevertheless was an important conversation to have due to the volatility that can be created. I struggle with the fact that we have no articulated population strategy in New Zealand. We have immigration because we have immigration. That’s not a very good reason.

Why do we want immigration, how big do we want to be, do you want 15 million people or do you want five?

What sort of people do we want? Are we just using immigration as shorthand for not educating our kids because we can’t fill the skills shortages that we have in our industries?

Let’s not pretend that it’s all about people wanting to live in houses.

You’d be very hard pressed to argue that people want to buy houses in Epsom at a 3% rental yield for investment purposes. They want to buy houses in Epsom at 3% rental yield because they want to speculate on the capital gains. Let’s be honest with ourselves.

If your floating mortgage rate is 5.5% and you’re getting 3% from your rent, what does that tell you about your investment? It tells you that you’re not really doing it for cash-flow purposes. You’re doing because you expect capital gains, and you expect those capital gains to compensate you.

The real story in Auckland is that a lot of additional demand is coming from investment.

Land supply in New Zealand is slow, particularly in places like Auckland. But it’s not just in terms of sections, it’s also about density. The Unitary Plan was a win for Auckland. The reality is that if we only do greenfields, we will just see more people sitting out in traffic at the end of Drury.

The majority of New housing supply are large houses, when the majority of new households being formed are 1-2 person households.

Between the last two censuses, most of the housing stock built in New Zealand were four bedrooms or more. In contrast, the majority of households that were created were people that were single or couples. We have ageing populations, we have the empty nesters, we have young people who are having kids later…and we’re building stand-alone houses, with four bedrooms.

We have to think very hard about how to create supply not just for the top end, even though we know in theory building just enough houses is good for everybody, when you’re starting from a point of not enough houses, it means the bottom end gets screwed for longer. We have to think very hard about whether we want to use things like inclusionary zoning; we have to think very hard about what we want to do with social housing.

Right now we’re not building houses for everybody in our community. We are failing by building the wrong sorts of houses in our communities.

Right at the top is land costs. If we think about what has been driving up the cost of housing, the biggest one is the value of land. It’s true that we should also look at what’s happening in the rental market and what was happening with the costs of construction. But those are not the things that have been the majority driver of the very unaffordable house prices that we see in New Zealand today.

The biggest constraint is in land, and that is where the speculation is taking place.

We know we’re not building enough. In the 1930s to 1940s we had very different types of governments and ideology. We actually built more houses per capita back then than we have in the last 30 years.

In the late 40s-early 70s, with the rise of the welfare state and build-up of infrastructure. On a per capita basis, we built massive amounts of houses.

But since the oil shock and the 1980s reforms, we have never structurally managed to build as many houses as we did pre-1980. That cumulative gap between the trend that we have seen in the last 30 years, versus what we had seen in the 40s, 50s and 60s, is around half a million houses.

So there is something that is fundamentally and structurally different in what we have done in terms of housing supply in New Zealand over a very long period of time.

The changes in the way that we do our planning rules, the advent of the RMA, the way that we fund and govern our local government. All these things have changed. So the nature of the provision of infrastructure, the provision of land, then provision of consents, all of these things have changed massively. But the net result is we’re not building as many houses, and that is a fundamental problem.

In Auckland there is a massive gap between targets set by government for house building over the past three years and the amount of consents issued. On top of this, the targets themselves were still not high enough.

Somehow we’re still not able to respond to the growth that Auckland is facing. Consistently we have underestimated how many people want to live in a place like Auckland.

But it’s not just Auckland. Carterton surprises every year, it’s because they’ve got a fantastic train line and people live there, it’s not surprising.

But we are failing. We have been failing and we continue to fail. We have to be far more responsive and we have to have a much longer time horizon to have the provision for housing that’s needed.

There is in fact no real plan. The Unitary Plan is fantastic in that it actually plans for just enough houses for the projections for population. We can confidently say that projection is going to be pessimistic, we’re going to have way more people in Auckland.

Trump and Brexit have marked a shift in politics and a polarisation in the public’s view of politics. In New Zealand I think one of the catalysts could be Generation Rent. In the last census, 51% of adults, over 15 year olds, rented. It is no longer the minority that rent, but the majority of individuals that rent.

I’m not saying we’ll see the same kind of uprising in New Zealand, but what we saw in Brexit was that discontent was the majority of voters. If young people had actually turned up to vote, Brexit wouldn’t have happened. The same is true for New Zealand.

It is strange that there was no sense of crisis or urgency. For a lot of the voters, things are just fine. For the people for whom it’s not fine, they’re not voting and they feel disengaged.

The kind of politics that we will start to see in the next 10 years is something much more activist, the ‘urgency of now’.

The promise of democracy is to create an economy that is fit for everyone. It is about creating opportunities for everyone. Right now, particularly when it comes to housing, we are failing. We are not creating a democratic community when it comes to our housing supply because young people are locked out, because young people are going to suffer, and we know there are some big differences across the different parts of New Zealand.

It’s not going to be enough, when we’re starting from a position of crisis, to simply create more housing that will appease the public. We have to make sure that we’re far more activist in making sure that we’re creating housing that is fit for purpose, not just for the general populous, but for the bottom half who are clearly losing out from what is going on.

We know what the causes are. I’m sick of arguing why we’re here. We know why we’re here, because we haven’t ensured enough political leadership to deal with the problems that are there.

We can’t implement the solutions unless we have political leadership, political cohesion, and endurance over the political cycle. This is a big challenge, but a big opportunity.

Shamubeel Eaqub


  • There has been a cumulative 500,000 gap in housing supply over the last 30 years.
  • Eaqub predicted a construction bust next year, led by banks tightening lending.
  • It’s remarkable NZ authorities do not have proper data on foreign buyers. While he estimates 10% of purchases in Auckland are made by foreign investors, he said the main focus should be on the other 90% by local.
  • However, migration creates cyclical volatility that we can’t deal with; it is unbelievable that New Zealand doesn’t have a stated population policy.
  • New Zealand is still not building the right sized houses – the majority of properties being built in recent years have had four-plus bedrooms, while household sizes have grown smaller
  • The majority of New Zealand’s adult population is now renting. This could be the catalyst for a Brexit/Trump-style rising up of formerly disengaged voters – young people in our case – to engage at this year’s election.
  • New Zealand’s home ownership level is now at its lowest point since 1946.
  • We have a cultural sclerosis of buying and selling existing houses to one another.

Undoing poverty’s negative effect on brain development with cash transfers – Cameron McLeod. 

An upcoming experiment into brain development and poverty by Kimberly G Noble, associate professor of neuroscience and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, asks whether poverty may affect the development, “the size, shape, and functioning,” of a child’s brain, and whether “a cash stipend to parents” would prevent this kind of damage.

Noble writes that “poverty places the young child’s brain at much greater risk of not going through the paces of normal development.” Children raised in poverty perform less well in school, are less likely to graduate from high school, and are less likely to continue on to college. Children raised in poverty are also more likely to be underemployed when adults. Sociological research and research done in the area of neuroscience has shown that a childhood spent in poverty can result in “significant differences in the size, shape and functioning” of the  brain. Can the damage done to children’s brains  be negated  by the intervention of a subsidy for brain health?

This most recent study’s fundamental difference from past efforts is that it explores what kind of effect “directly supplementing” the incomes of families will have on brain development. “Cash transfers, as opposed to counseling, child care and other services, have the potential to empower families to make the financial decisions they deem best for themselves and their children.” Noble’s hypothesis is that a “cascade of positive effects” will follow from the cash transfers, and that if proved correct, this has implications for public policy and “the potential to…affect the lives of millions of disadvantaged families with young children.”

Brain Trust, Kimberly G. Noble

  • Children who live in poverty tend to perform worse than peers in school on a bevy of different tests. They are less likely to graduate from high school and then continue on to college and are more apt to be underemployed once they enter the workforce.
  • Research that crosses neuroscience with sociology has begun to show that educational and occupational disadvantages that result from growing up poor can lead to significant differences in the size, shape and functioning of children’s brains.
  • Poverty’s potential to hijack normal brain development has led to plans for studying whether a simple intervention might reverse these injurious effects. A study now in the planning stages will explore if a modest subsidy can enhance brain health.


The goal of Dr. Noble’s research is to better characterize socioeconomic disparities in children’s cognitive and brain development. Ongoing studies in her lab address the timing of neurocognitive disparities in infancy and early childhood, as well as the particular exposures and experiences that account for these disparities, including access to material resources, richness of language exposure, parenting style and exposure to stress. Finally, she is interested in applying this work to the design of interventions that aim to target gaps in school readiness, including early literacy, math, and self-regulation skills. She is honored to be part of a national team of social scientists and neuroscientists planning the first clinical trial of poverty reduction, which aims to estimate the causal impact of income supplementation on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development in the first three years of life.

Columbia University


A short review on the link between poverty, children’s cognition and brain development, 13th March 2017

In the latest issue of the Scientific American, Kimberly Noble, associate professor in neuroscience and education, reviews her work and introduces an ambitious research project that may help understand the cause-and-effect connection between poverty and children’s brain development.

For the past 15 years, Noble and her colleagues have gathered evidence to explain how socioeconomic disparities may underlie differences in children’s cognition and brain development. In the course of their research they have found for example that children living in poverty tend to have reduced cognitive skills – including language, memory skills and cognitive control (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Wealth effect

More recently, they published evidence showing that the socio-economic status of parents (as assessed using parental education, income and occupation) can also predict children’s brain structure.

By measuring the cortical surface area of children’s brains (ie the area of the surface of the cortex, the outer layer of the brain which contains all the neurons), they found that lower family income was linked to smaller cortical surface area, especially in brain regions involved in language and cognitive control abilities (Figure 2 – in magenta).

Figure 2. A Brain on Poverty

In the same research, they also found that longer parental education was linked to increased hippocampus volume in children, a brain structure essential for memory processes.

Overall, Noble’s work adds to a growing body of research showing the negative relation between poverty and brain development and these findings may explain (at least in part) why children from poor families are less likely to obtain good grades at school, graduate from high-school or attend college.

What is less known however, is the causal mechanism underlying this relationship. As Noble describes, differences in school and neighbourhood quality, chronic stress in the family home, less nurturing parenting styles or a combination of all these factors might explain the impact of poverty on brain development and cognition.

To better understand the causal effect of poverty, Noble has teamed up with economists and developmental psychologists and together, they will soon launch a large-scale experiment or “randomised control trial”. As part of this experiment, 1000 US women from low-income backgrounds will be recruited soon after giving birth and will be followed over a three-year period. Half of the women will receive $333 per month (if they are part of the “experimental” group) and the other half will receive $20 per month (if they are part of the “control” group). Mothers and children will be monitored throughout the study, and mothers will be able to spend the money as they wish, without any constrains.

By comparing children belonging to the experimental group to those in the control group, researchers will be able to observe how increases in family income may directly benefit cognition and brain development. They will also be able to test whether the way mothers use the extra income is a relevant factor to explain these benefits.

Noble concludes that “although income may not be the only factor that determines a child’s developmental trajectory, it may be the easiest one to alter” through social policy. And given that 25% of American children and 12% of British children are affected by poverty (as reported by UNICEF in 2012), policies designed to alleviate poverty may have the capacity to reach and improve the life chances of millions of children.

NGN is looking forward to see the results of this large-scale experiment. We expect that this project, in association with other research studies, will improve our understanding of the link between poverty and child development, and will help design better interventions to support disadvantaged children.

Nature Groups


Socioeconomic inequality and children’s brain development. 

Research addresses issues at the intersection of psychology, neuroscience and public policy.

By Kimberly G. Noble, MD, PhD

Kimberly Noble, MD, PhD, is an associate professor of neuroscience and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She received her undergraduate, graduate and medical degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. As a neuroscientist and board-certified pediatrician, she studies how inequality relates to children’s cognitive and brain development. Noble’s work has been supported by several federal and foundation grants, and she was named a “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science. Together with a team of social scientists and neuroscientists from around the United States, she is planning the first clinical trial of poverty reduction to assess the causal impact of income on cognitive and brain development in early childhood.

Kimberley Noble website.

What can neuroscience tell us about why disadvantaged children are at risk for low achievement and poor mental health? How early in infancy does socioeconomic disadvantage leave an imprint on the developing brain, and what factors explain these links? How can we best apply this work to inform interventions? These and other questions are the focus of the research my colleagues and I have been addressing for the last several years.

What is socioeconomic status and why is it of interest to neuroscientists?

The developing human brain is remarkably malleable to experience. Of course, a child’s experience varies tremendously based on his or her family’s circumstances (McLoyd, 1998). And so, as neuroscientists, we can use family circumstance as a lens through which to better understand how experience relates to brain development.

Family socioeconomic status, or SES, is typically considered to include parental educational attainment, occupational prestige and income (McLoyd, 1998); subjective social status, or where one sees oneself on the social hierarchy, may also be taken into account (Adler, Epel, Castellazzo & Ickovics, 2000). A large literature has established that disparities in income and human capital are associated with substantial differences in children’s learning and school performance. For example, socioeconomic differences are observed across a range of important cognitive and achievement measures for children and adolescents, including IQ, literacy, achievement test scores and high school graduation rates (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). These differences in achievement in turn result in dramatic differences in adult economic well-being and labor market success.

However, although outcomes such as school success are clearly critical for understanding disparities in development and cognition, they tell us little about the underlying neural mechanisms that lead to these differences. Distinct brain circuits support discrete cognitive skills, and differentiating between underlying neural substrates may point to different causal pathways and approaches for intervention (Farah et al., 2006; Hackman & Farah, 2009; Noble, McCandliss, & Farah, 2007; Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010). Studies that have used a neurocognitive framework to investigate disparities have documented that children and adolescents from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds tend to perform worse than their more advantaged peers on several domains, most notably in language, memory, self-regulation and socio-emotional processing (Hackman & Farah, 2009; Hackman, Farah, & Meaney, 2010; Noble et al., 2007; Noble, Norman, & Farah, 2005; Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010).

Family socioeconomic circumstance and children’s brain structure

More recently, we and other neuroscientists have extended this line of research to examine how family socioeconomic circumstances relate to differences in the structure of the brain itself. For example, in the largest study of its kind to date, we analyzed the brain structure of 1099 children and adolescents recruited from socioeconomically diverse homes from ten sites across the United States (Noble, Houston et al., 2015). We were specifically interested in the structure of the cerebral cortex, or the outer layer of brain cells that does most of the cognitive “heavy lifting.” We found that both parental educational attainment and family income accounted for differences in the surface area, or size of the “nooks and crannies” of the cerebral cortex. These associations were found across much of the brain, but were particularly pronounced in areas that support language and self-regulation — two of the very skills that have been repeatedly documented to show large differences along socioeconomic lines.

Several points about these findings are worth noting. First, genetic ancestry, or the proportion of ancestral descent for each of six major continental populations, was held constant in the analyses. Thus, although race and SES tend to be confounded in the U.S., we can say that the socioeconomic disparities in brain structure that we observed were independent of genetically-defined race. Second, we observed dramatic individual differences, or variation from person to person. That is, there were many children and adolescents from disadvantaged homes who had larger cortical surface areas, and many children from more advantaged homes who had smaller surface areas. This means that our research team could in no way accurately predict a child’s brain size simply by knowing his or her family income alone. Finally, the relationship between family income and surface area was nonlinear, such that the steepest gradient was seen at the lowest end of the income spectrum. That is, dollar for dollar, differences in family income were associated with proportionately greater differences in brain structure among the most disadvantaged families.

More recently, we also examined the thickness of the cerebral cortex in the same sample (Piccolo, et al., 2016). In general, as we get older, our cortices tend to get thinner. Specifically, cortical thickness decreases rapidly in childhood and early adolescence, followed by a more gradual thinning, and ultimately plateauing in early- to mid-adulthood (Raznahan et al., 2011; Schnack et al., 2014; Sowell et al., 2003). Our work suggests that family socioeconomic circumstance may moderate this trajectory. 

Specifically, at lower levels of family SES, we observed relatively steep age-related decreases in cortical thickness earlier in childhood, and subsequent leveling off during adolescence. In contrast, at higher levels of family SES, we observed more gradual age-related reductions in cortical thickness through at least late adolescence. We speculated that these findings may reflect an abbreviated period of cortical thinning in lower SES environments, relative to a more prolonged period of cortical thinning in higher SES environments. It is possible that socioeconomic disadvantage is a proxy for experiences that narrow the sensitive period, or time window for certain aspects of brain development that are malleable to environmental influences, thereby accelerating maturation (Tottenham, 2015).

Are these socioeconomic differences in brain structure clinically meaningful? Early work would suggest so. In our work, we have found that differences in cortical surface area partially accounted for links between family income and children’s executive function skills (Noble, Houston et al., 2015). Independent work in other labs has suggested that differences in brain structure may account for between 15 and 44 percent of the family income-related achievement gap in adolescence (Hair, Hanson, Wolfe & Pollak, 2015; Mackey et al., 2015). This line of research is still in its infancy, however, and several outstanding questions remain to be addressed.

How early are socioeconomic disparities in brain development detectable?

By the start of school, it is apparent that dramatic socioeconomic disparities in children’s cognitive functioning are already evident, and indeed, several studies have found that socioeconomic disparities in language (Fernald, Marchman & Weisleder, 2013; Noble, Engelhardt et al., 2015; Rowe & Goldin-Meadow, 2009) and memory (Noble, Engelhardt et al., 2015) are already present by the second year of life. But methodologies that assess brain function or structure may be more sensitive to differences than are tests of behavior. This raises the question of just how early we can detect socioeconomic disparities in the structure or function of children’s brains.

 One group reported socioeconomic differences in resting electroencephalogram (EEG) activity — which indexes electrical activity of the brain as measured at the scalp — as early as 6–9 months of age (Tomalski et al., 2013). Recent work by our group, however, found no correlation between SES and the same EEG measures within the first four days following birth (Brito, Fifer, Myers, Elliott & Noble, 2016), raising the possibility that some of these differences in brain function may emerge in part as a result of early differences in postnatal experience. Of course, a longitudinal study assessing both the prenatal and postnatal environments would be necessary to formally test this hypothesis. Furthermore, another group recently reported that, among a group of African-American, female infants imaged at 5 weeks of age, socioeconomic disadvantage was associated with smaller cortical and deep gray matter volumes (Betancourt et al., 2015). It is thus also likely that at least some socioeconomic differences in brain development are the result of socioeconomic differences in the prenatal environment (e.g., maternal diet, stress) and/or genetic differences.

Disentangling links among socioeconomic disparities, modifiable experiences and brain development represents a clear priority for future research. Are the associations between SES and brain development the result of differences in experiences that can serve as the targets of intervention, such as differences in nutrition, housing and neighborhood quality, parenting style, family stress and/or education? Certainly, the preponderance of social science evidence would suggest that such differences in experience are likely to account at least in part for differences in child and adolescent development (Duncan & Magnuson, 2012). However, few studies have directly examined links among SES, experience and the brain (Luby et al., 2013). In my lab, we are actively focusing on these issues, with specific interest in how chronic stress and the home language environment may, in part, explain our findings.

How can this work inform interventions?

Quite a few interventions aim to reduce socioeconomic disparities in children’s achievement. Whether school-based or home-based, many are quite effective, though frequently face challenges: High-quality interventions are expensive, difficult to scale up and often suffer from “fadeout,” or the phenomenon whereby the positive effects of the intervention dwindle with time once children are no longer receiving services.

What about the effects of directly supplementing family income? Rather than providing services, such “cash transfer“ interventions have the potential to empower families to make the financial decisions they deem best for themselves and their children. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies in the social sciences, both domestically and in the developing world, have suggested the promise of direct income supplementation (Duncan & Magnuson, 2012).

To date, linkages between poverty and brain development have been entirely correlational in nature; the field of neuroscience is silent on the causal connections between poverty and brain development. As such, I am pleased to be part of a team of social scientists and neuroscientists who are currently planning and raising funds to launch the first-ever randomized experiment testing the causal connections between poverty reduction and brain development.

The ambition of this study is large, though the premise is simple. We plan to recruit 1,000 low-income U.S. mothers at the time of their child’s birth. Mothers will be randomized to receive a large monthly income supplement or a nominal monthly income supplement. Families will be tracked longitudinally to definitively assess the causal impact of this unconditional cash transfer on cognitive and brain development in the first three years following birth, when we believe the developing brain is most malleable to experience.

We hypothesize that increased family income will trigger a cascade of positive effects throughout the family system. As a result, across development, children will be better positioned to learn foundational skills. If our hypotheses are borne out, this proposed randomized trial has the potential to inform social policies that affect the lives of millions of disadvantaged families with young children. While income may not be the only or even the most important factor in determining children’s developmental trajectories, it may be the most manipulable from a policy perspective.

American Psychological Association