Are @JeremyCorbyn Deirdre McCloskey and even John Rawls on the same page on The Great Enrichment?


John Rawls & The Principles of Justice

Fact checking @StaceyKirkNZ & @armchair_critic @Income_Equality: How NZ is one of the worst in the world – updated

Last May, the Dominion Post had a feature on how New Zealand inequality was amongst the worst in the world:

Rising inequality has been the norm in most developed countries, but few have seen it increase by as much as New Zealand.

Since the 1980s, New Zealand’s inequality – which had been low by OECD standards – drew closer to levels seen in more unequal countries like the United States.

They support this claim with a Gini Coefficient chart that I’ve been unable to source at the OECD. I therefore use another that is freely available in New Zealand and which I have used in the past. My data source on the Gini coefficient has the advantage of been a complete series back to the early 1980s rather than five yearly observations in the OECD data sourced by the Dominion Post.

Figure 1: Inequality in New Zealand and the OECD trend: the Gini coefficient


Source: Bryan Perry, Household incomes in New Zealand: Trends in indicators of inequality and hardship 1982 to 2013. Ministry of Social Development (July 2014), Figure J5.

Figure 1 shows there is no evidence of a substantive rise or fall in inequality in New Zealand since the mid 1990s. Nearly all of the increase in inequality was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Not mentioning that nearly all of the increase was in a short period leads to a poor understanding of the data before their readers. Rising inequality is not an on-going problem in New Zealand. There was a large rise in inequality in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The next figure that I’ve been able to reproduce is the income shares of the top 10%, top 5%, top 1% on top 0.5% income earners in New Zealand  – see figure 2.

Figure 2: Top Income Shares, New Zealand


Source: top incomes-parisschoolofeconomics.

Our intrepid reporters in the Dominion Post claim that figure 2 shows that:

In 1986, the top 10 per cent took home 26.5 per cent of New Zealand’s income. In 1999, it was 37.8 per cent and in 2004, it was 33.2 per cent.

Oddly enough, our intrepid reporters decided to stop at 2004 for no particular reason. They also chose to truncate their chart at 1986 for no particular reason other than to lead the coincidence that the top 10% income shares were higher in the 1960s and 1970s that now– see figure 2 . That is, the top 10% in New Zealand earned more in the days before the scourge of neoliberalism came upon the New Zealand then after it – see figure 2. This detail was worth disclosing. Did neoliberalism reduce the income divide in New Zealand between the top 10% and the rest? Figure 2 suggests that it did.

The best that veteran grumbler Max Rashbrooke could spin to make these good old days of higher inequality than now to look like good old days before the scourge of neoliberalism beset New Zealand was to ignore the fortunes of the majority of the population in his dewy eyed view  of his childhood:

New Zealand up until the 1980s was fairly egalitarian, apart from Māori and women, our increasing income gap started in the late 1980s and early 1990s

A more worthy analysis of figure 2 is to note that top income shares in New Zealand haven’t changed that much except for a bit of a spike in the late 1980s. This increase in inequality in New Zealand in the late 1980s and early 1990s  – see figures 1 and 2  – was quickly followed by a long economic boom  – see figure 3.

Figure 3: Real GDP per New Zealander and Australian aged 15-64,  2014 US$ (converted to 2014 price level with updated 2011 PPPs), 1.9 per cent detrended, 1956-2013


Source: Computed from OECD Stat Extract and The Conference Board. 2015. The Conference Board Total Economy Database™, May 2015,

This boom after next to two decades of minimal real economic growth per working age New Zealander benefited everyone and, for example, the unemployment rate fell to a record low of 3.5% about 2005. The supposedly more egalitarian 1970s and 1980s were lost decades of growth – see figure 3.

Figure 4: Real equivalised median household income (before housing costs) by ethnicity, 1988 to 2013 ($2013)


Source: Bryan Perry, Household incomes in New Zealand: Trends in indicators of inequality and hardship 1982 to 2013. Ministry of Social Development (July 2014).

As shown in figure 4, between 1994 and 2010, real equivalised median New Zealand Pakeha household income rose by 47%; for Māori, this rise was 68%; for Pasifika, the rise in real equivalised median household income was 77%. These trends pass the difference principle developed by John Rawls.

The large improvements in Māori incomes since 1992 were based on rising Māori employment rates, fewer Māori on benefits or zero incomes, more Māori moving into higher paying jobs, and greater Māori educational attainment (Dixon and Maré 2007). Labour force participation rates of Māori increased from 45% in the late 1980s to about 62% in the last few years. Māori unemployment reached a 20-year low of 8 per cent from 2005 to 2008. That and the return of wages growth after years of stagnation as shown in figure 5 is something to celebrate.

Figure 5:  real GDP per capita an average real wage, 1965 – 2014, New Zealand


Source: Council of Trade Unions.

The reporters in the Dominion Post also fell for the recent  OECD analysis suggesting a connection between economic growth and inequality:

One study by the OECD suggests rising inequality was responsible for wiping a third off New Zealand’s economic growth in the past 30 years

It estimated the rate of New Zealand’s GDP growth was stunted by as much as 15.5 percentage points between 1990 and 2010 – more than any other OECD economy.

The analysis of the OECD depended crucially upon how greater inequality reduces the ability of the lower income families to invest in human capital:

The evidence strongly suggests that high inequality hinders the ability of individuals from low economic background to invest in their human capital, both in terms of the level of education but even more importantly in terms of the quality of education.

The OECD theory of inequality and lower growth is there is a financing constraint because of inequality that reduces economic growth because of less human capital accumulation by lower income families.

The OECD put a lot of their growth inequality nexus eggs in one basket. The OECD was implying that student loans and other government interventions are not closing credit constraints on financing higher education despite decades of rapidly rising tertiary education attainment, which is partially illustrated in figure 6.

Figure 6: tertiary educational degree attainment (%), New Zealanders aged 25–34, 2000-2013


Source: OECD StatExtract.

This is interesting because in 2002, with Pedro Carneiro, James Heckman showed that lack of credit is not a major constraint on the ability of young Americans to attend college. They found that credit constraints prevent, at most, 4% of the U.S. population from attending. Credit constraints is weakening as a rationale for a lack of an accumulation of human capital, and can be easily solved.

Another difficulty for the OECD is the increase in inequality in New Zealand was, as noted before in figures 1 and 2, in the late 1980s and 1990s. To blame low economic growth to the tune of 15 percentage points on events of some 25 or 30 years ago is a long bow.

Higher education has been free for the low income families for several generations. Student loans are readily available. It is hard to believe that such a readily solvable problem is a major source of inequality and lower growth. Moreover, as Aghion said:

Economists and others have proposed many channels through which education may affect growth–not merely the private returns to individuals’ greater human capital but also a variety of externalities.

For highly developed countries, the most frequently discussed externality is education investments’ fostering technological innovation, thereby making capital and labour more productive, generating income growth.

Despite the enormous interest in the relationship between education and growth, the evidence is fragile at best.

The 15 percentage point reduction in New Zealand economic growth since the late 1980s because of inequality is so large over a 30 year period that this half a percentage point reduction on average per annum qualifies as an independent source  of business cycle shocks and an equally implausible driver of real business cycles.

Our intrepid reporters closed by claiming large increases in child poverty:

In December last year, the second annual Child Poverty Monitor showed a slight decrease in the number of Kiwi children living in income poverty, from 27 per cent to 24 per cent. But 30 years ago, it was 14 per cent.

Figure 7 below shows their numbers, which is child poverty in New Zealand for poverty thresholds of 60% relative to a contemporary median measured both before and after housing costs.

Figure 7: % child poverty in New Zealand (before and after housing costs), 60% relative to contemporary median, 1982 – 2013


Source: Bryan Perry, Household incomes in New Zealand: Trends in indicators of inequality and hardship 1982 to 2013. Ministry of Social Development (July 2014), Tables F.6 and F.7.

The first thing to notice in figure 7 is before housing costs child poverty has been pretty stable for 30 years the New Zealand. Few celebrate this.

Figure 7 does show a large increase in after housing costs child poverty in the late 1980s. Since the early 1990s, after housing costs child poverty has slowly tapered down from the high 30% in the mid-1990s to 24% now – see figure 7.

In the longer run after housing costs child poverty rates in 2013 were close to double what they were in the late 1980s mainly because housing costs in 2013 were much higher relative to income than they were in the late 1980s.

– Bryan Perry, 2014 Household Incomes Report – Key Findings. Ministry of Social Development (July 2014).

Before housing costs child poverty in recent years as been the same as it was in 1982 – see figure 7. Although there were large cuts in the social security benefits in the 1991 mother of all budgets in New Zealand, before housing child poverty increased to 25% but was back to 20% by the mid 1990s.

As figure 7 shows, the problem was not income, but the rising costs of housing that had to be paid out of  benefits and wages. The Left over Left will not let go of the 1991 benefit cuts even 25 years later despite the fact that the issue was rising housing costs rather than perpetually higher before housing costs child poverty.

The problem is not income, it is rising costs of housing. Increasing wages and benefits will not solve that if more money is simply chasing the same limited stock of land and urban housing.

A proper comparison of the diverging trends in figure 7 between before housing costs child poverty and after housing costs child poverty rates since 1982 gives a much clearer picture of what is increasing child poverty. It is rising housing costs as a result of regulation on the supply of new urban land.


Source: OECD Better Life Index.

The driver of inequality in New Zealand is government regulation of the land supply – policies supported by the middle-class and the left-wing parties. Rising inequality is not inequality between high and low income earners as suggested by the Dominion Post.

John Rawls on the limits of inequality


The other econometrics of the minimum wage in New Zealand

Auckland University of Technology Associate Professor Gail Pacheco is not quoted as often she should be in the politics of the minimum wage in New Zealand. Her research repeatedly finds that the increases in the minimum wage over the last  10 to 15 years in New Zealand reduced employment, increased unemployment, and reduced skill acquisition among teenagers:

  1. Tim Maloney and Gail Pacheco  (2012) found that the real minimum wages increased by nearly 33% for adults and 123% for teenagers in New Zealand between 1999 and 2008. Where fewer than 2% of workers were being paid a minimum wage in 1999, more than 8% of adult workers and 60% of teenage workers are receiving hourly earnings close to the minimum wage. They estimated that a 10% increase in minimum wages, even without any offsetting reduction in earnings due to a loss in employment or hours of work, would lower the relative poverty rate by less than one-tenth of a percentage point!
  2. Gail Pacheco (2011) review the impact of rising minimum wages on employment in New Zealand over the time period 1986–2004. She found significant negative employment effects of a higher minimum wage.
  3. Pacheco and Cruickshank (2007) found the youth minimum wage  increases resulted in some age groups undergoing a 91% rise in their real minimum wage over the last 10 years. They found that for 16–19 year olds, minimum wage rises have a statistically significant negative effect on educational enrollment levels.  But the introduction of the minimum wage appears to have had a significantly positive impact on teenagers’ enrollment levels. This is a possible indication of the ineffective level the minimum wage was set at, in terms of reservation wages of youth in New Zealand.
  4. Gail Pacheco & Vic Naiker (2006) reviewed the consequences of  where in March 2001, the eligibility for adult minimum wage rates was lowered from 20 to 18 years while the youth minimum wage for 16–17 year olds was also increased from 60 to 70% of the adult minimum wage. Most minimum wage workers in New Zealand work in the four sectors: (1) Retail, (2) Textile and apparel, (3) Accommodation, cafes and restaurants, and (4) Agriculture, forestry, and fishing. Using an event study methodology we examine the economic impact of the substantial increase in youth minimum wage rates on employers in industries with high concentrations of minimum wage workers. All conclusions point to there being an insignificant impact on profit expectations for low wage employers by investors.

In summary, increases in the youth minimum wage in New Zealand reduced employment, increased unemployment but did not reduce the profits of employers.

If the minimum wage is operating off the monopsony power of employers, investors should have anticipated that the profits of these employers will fall, but they did not. Investors anticipated that most of the consequences of the minimum wage increases would fall upon low paid workers themselves in terms of loss of employment, greater intensity of work effort and reduce training opportunities.


The minimum wage is an inefficient way of tackling poverty because many minimum-wage earners are actually teenagers or second earners in wealthy households in New Zealand and in all other countries that have a minimum wage. As soon as one person is unemployed as a result of the minimum wage increase or otherwise disadvantaged, applied welfare economics comes into play with concepts like Pareto improvement. How do you trade-off the losses for one with another’s gains.


Most are those who support the minimum wage shift gears their applied welfare economics in all other social context to emphasise how the losers should be given priority and greater weight when adding up the social gains and social losses of economic change.

The social cost of the minimum wage is not discussed in this way: how many jobs are lost and that these job losses are much more important than any gains to society. All that is done is the number of jobs lost is compared with some other social metrics such as how much the wages go up for those that still have a job and that is enough to conclude that there is a socially beneficial change from a minimum wage increase.

Any low paid workers affected by the minimum wage increase are just reduced to numbers and added and subtracted with great ease and few moral compunctions about interpersonal comparisons of utility

A minimum wage increase is not free if one worker loses their job. The Paretian Criterion states that welfare is said to increase or decrease if at least one person is made better off or worse off with no change in the positions of others.

As Rawls pointed out, a general problem that throws utilitarianism into question is some people’s interests, or even lives, can be sacrificed if doing so will maximize total satisfaction. As Rawls says:

[ utilitarianism] adopt[s] for society as a whole the principle of choice for one man… there is a sense in which classical utilitarianism fails to take seriously the distinction between persons.

Minimum wage advocates fail to take seriously that low paid workers who lose their jobs because of minimum wage increases are real living people who suffer when their interests are traded off for the greater good of their fellow low paid workers, some of whom come from much wealthier households.


If  the Left want to improve the lot of the poor, they would be doing better by either promoting an institutional framework that promotes general wage growth and by simply increasing the earned income tax credit.

The application of John Rawls difference principle to New Zealand

An urban legend in New Zealand is that income inequality is going from bad to worse.

Since the mid 1990s to around 2011 there was a small net fall in New Zealand’s income inequality trend line in the graph for the Gini coefficient for the income distribution for New Zealand shows. inequality in New Zealand is similar to that in Australia, Ireland, Canada and Japan.

gini coefficient nz

Source: Ministry of Social Development (2014)

Taxes and transfers have reduced inequality in New Zealand when measured by Gini coefficients, but the trend is been relatively stable for many years.

gini after income transfer

Source: Ministry of Social Development (2014)

Rawls pointed out that behind the veil of ignorance, people will agree to inequality as long as it is to everyone’s advantage. Rawls was attuned to the importance of incentives in a just and prosperous society. If unequal incomes are allowed, this might turn out to be to the advantage of everyone. Robert Nozick said that:

Political philosophers must now either work within Rawls’s theory or explain why not.

The groups that have been doing best in New Zealand have been Maori and Pasifika. In real terms, overall median household income rose 47% from 1994 to 2010; for Maori, this rise was 68%; for Pacific, 77%!


Source: Ministry of Social Development (2014)

The large improvements in Māori incomes since 1992 were based on rising Māori employment rates, fewer Māori on benefits or zero incomes, more Māori moving into higher paying jobs, and greater Māori educational attainment (Dixon and Maré 2007).

Maori unemployment reached a 20-year low of 8 per cent from 2005 to 2008. Labour force  participation by Maori increased from 45% in the late 1980s to about 62%  in the last few years.

Most of the remaining income disparities between Māori and non-Māori flow from differences in educational attainment and demographic and socio-economic characteristics including household composition (Chapple 2000; Maani 2004; Dixon and Maré 2007).

How much of the massive increases in incomes over the last 20 years spread throughout the entire community are you willing to give up for a little more equality? How much of your income will you donate to charity to lead the way?


Equality, incentives and progress



Rawls, Nozick and Gore Vidal on envy

Nozick argues that one of the unchallenged assumptions made by egalitarians is that the have-nots resent the haves only to the extent that the haves possess power and wealth that were unearned. The envious man, if he cannot also possess a talent and success that someone else has prefers that the other not have it either. The envious man prefers neither have it if he does not have it.

An old Russian joke tells of a poor peasant whose better-off neighbour has just bought a cow. In his anguish, the peasant cries out to God for relief from his distress. When God replies and asks him what he wants him to do, the peasant replies “shoot the cow.”

Nozick said that what really rankles the have-nots is the haves who clearly earned their status and possessions:

It may injure one’s self-esteem and make one feel less worthy as a person to know of someone else who has accomplished more or risen higher.

Nozick said that proximity is a bigger factor in the creation of envy than just desert. Envy is local rather than global in its scope with your neighbour as the target of your envy is rather than far-off figures you don’t really know who may be far more wealthy and successful than the people you actually envy in your day to day lives:

Workers in a factory recently started by someone who was previously a worker will be constantly confronted with the following thoughts: ‘Why not me? Why am I only here?”

Whereas one can manage to ignore much more easily the knowledge that someone else has done more if one is not confronted daily with him.

The point, though sharper then, does not depend upon another’s deserving his superior ranking along some dimension. That there is someone else who is a good dancer will affect your estimate of how good you yourself are at dancing, even if you think that a large part of grace in dancing depends upon unearned natural assets.

These considerations make one somewhat sceptical of the chances of equalizing self-esteem and reducing envy by equalizing positions along that particular dimension upon which self-esteem is importantly based.

Knowing that another’s superior ranking along some dimension depends in part upon unearned natural assets does not soften this loss of self-esteem. These considerations made Nozick sceptical of the chances of equalizing self-esteem and reducing envy by equalizing positions along that particular dimension upon which self-esteem is importantly based.

Nozick said that a contraction of options through regulation, redistribution  and other government mandates will only increase envy because it will inevitably result in fewer socially acceptable ways of demonstrating personal worth. With fewer options (i.e. less freedom), the perception of inequality and emotion of envy are likely to be more, not less pronounced. Nozick has point here: primitive societies were racked with envy and  any good fortune good fortune has tainted by genuine luck from  escaping harvest failures and disease.

Nozick said we should expand a person’s options through capitalism thereby making it more likely that he will find something that he does well and on which he can base his self-esteem. Nozick said we should expand a person’s options thereby making it more likely that he will find something that he does well and on which he can base his self-esteem.

Adam Smith wrote that matters of justice can only be resolved if people distance themselves from the grubby particulars their own positions in particular disputes. This view evolved into Rawls arguing that the justice of social institutions should be tested from behind a veil of ignorance where people are ignorant of their particular role in society and individual talents.

Rawls had no place for envy behind his veil of ignorance:

  • Principles of justice should not be affected by individual inclinations, which are also mere accidents; and
  • The parties behind the veil of ignorance should be concerned with their absolute level of primary social goods, not with their standing relative to others.

Rawls was nonetheless alive to the possibility is that:

The inequalities sanctioned by the difference principle may be so great as to arouse envy to a socially dangerous extent.

Rawls’ project was to outline a realistic utopia — a society that could really exist given actual human nature. Political philosophy must describe workable political arrangements that can gain support of real people as they are.

On envy, Rawls’ main fall-back was the background institutions (including a competitive economy) making it likely that excessive inequalities will not be the rule. He recognised that the income of the poorest, along with the whole of society, benefit from competition in a market economy. Richard Epstein explained how the market is important to distributive justice and social peace despite envy:

Strong competitive markets do not favour one individual over another. They work well to harness individual self-interest to generate massive amounts of wealth, widely distributed in society, through voluntary transactions. Behind the veil, rational people should the support of strong and transparent markets as their first order of business.

John Rawls in a nutshell

Would you rather be poor in a poor society or poor in a rich society?

In the four hypothetical economies A to D below, the difference principle selects Economy C because it is the income distribution where the least-advantaged group does best.



Least-Advantaged Group

Middle Group

Most-Advantaged Group

















The inequalities in economy C are to everyone’s advantage relative to equal division (Economy A), and a more equal division (Economy B).

The difference principle does not allow the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor in Economy D.

Under the difference principle, a smaller share of a bigger pie might be better than an equal share of a smaller pie.

There is no good reason for the poor to shoot themselves in the foot by demanding equality, when inequality would serve them better. Robert Nozick said that:

Political philosophers must now either work within Rawls’s theory or explain why not.

Central to the difference principle is natural talents and endowments are undeserved because they are accidents of birth.

A citizen does not merit more of the social product simply because she was lucky enough to be born with gifts that are in great demand.

The fact that citizens have different talents and abilities can be used to make everyone better off.

In a society governed by the difference principle, those better endowed with talents are welcome to use their gifts to make themselves better off, so long as they also contribute to the good of those less well endowed.

“In justice as fairness,” Rawls says, “men agree to share one another’s fate.”

For Nozick, as long as economic inequalities arise from voluntary exchange, they cannot be unjust. Nozick was content to establish the rules of the game and let the legal moves by individual players determine social outcomes.

What did Robert Fogel and John Rawls learn from getting chickenpox and pneumonia as a child?

Robert Fogel was a Nobel Prize winning economist. His first career was as a full-time communist party organiser in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

John Rawls was much more famous as a political philosopher who developed the difference principle.

John Rawls.jpg

Rawls suggested that behind a view of ignorance concerning where we would end up in life and in terms of luck and talents, we would all agree that social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions:

(a) they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and

(b) they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

Rawls was attuned to the importance of incentives in a just and prosperous society. If unequal incomes are allowed, this might turn out to be to the advantage of everyone because everyone could be wealthier than in a more equal society. Rawls excluded envy from considerations behind the veil of ignorance.

Robert Fogel had an interesting life that contrasts with that of John Rawls:

  • Rawls was sick as a small child with diphtheria and then pneumonia.
  • In each case, a brother caught the disease from him and died.
  • Rawls spent his life wrestling with the arbitrary nature of good fortune and bad luck.

Robert Fogel contracted chickenpox as a small boy in 1932.

The city health department quarantined his family’s apartment within 2 hours for the next few weeks. His father was out of the house at the time so he could leave groceries at the door but not enter.

In the early 1950s, Fogel’s son contracted chickenpox:

  • He contacted the family doctor full of fear based on his own childhood.
  • The doctor was calm and routinely said it was a mild year for chickenpox.
  • His son was back in school within a few days.

Fogel made a second career studying the economics of physiology and how much healthier and long-lived people have become because of the industrial revolution.

Rawls made no similar contribution to remedying the blights of his childhood, explaining what institutions made them a relic of recent 20th century history.

Innovation and entrepreneurship produced major improvements in overall well-being, with disproportionate advances for the poor. No egalitarian theory of society can deliver on the promise to level differences in income and wealth without seriously compromising overall levels of social welfare, and in particular of the poor.

Rawls was a profound thinker and open to different interpretations. It is hard to disagree with his ideas of equal liberty, equal opportunity, and such inequalities that are to everyone’s advantage!? Robert Nozick had to box real clever to get passed Rawls. That topic is for another post about the rags to riches story of J. K. Rowling.

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