Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Recent Work on Inequality: Thoughts on Audience, Analysis, Advocacy and the Role of the Academic with Particular Reference to Max Rashbrooke's (Ed.) Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis and Joseph Stiglitz's the Price of Inequality

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Recent Work on Inequality: Thoughts on Audience, Analysis, Advocacy and the Role of the Academic with Particular Reference to Max Rashbrooke's (Ed.) Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis and Joseph Stiglitz's the Price of Inequality

Article excerpt

Introduction

Recent years have seen an explosion of academic work exploring the increase in economic inequality in western, developed countries over the last thirty years. This work gives accounts of the extent of this increase (Atkinson & Leigh, 2005; OECD, 2011; Perry, 2013), its possible causes (Autor, Katz & Kearney, 2006; OECD, 2008) and its various consequences. Accounts of these consequences may be divided (somewhat arbitrarily) into those that focus on broadly-experienced social consequences (Wilkinson, 1996; Jencks, 2002; Rothstein & Uslaner, 2005); political consequences (OECD, 2011; Bartels, 2008) and economic consequences (Persson & Tabellini, 1994; Piketty & Saez, 2003). Other work takes a more explicitly normative approach, or a focus on public attitudes towards rising inequality (Humpage, 2008; Bamfield and Horton 2009; Jost & Major, 2001). Academic work on inequality is thus a massive and massively complex field, even without mentioning work by such important authors as Bernd Wegener, Martin Gilens, Alberto Allesina, Peter Taylor-Gooby, Morton Deutsch, Christopher Jencks or David Miller). One might also note the increasing concern about inequality expressed by politicians and media sources. A non-exhaustive list would include figures hardly associated with the political left, such as David Cameron, the World Economic Forum, the Financial Times, and the Economist.

One thing that might be noted about the strictly academic literature in this area is that it has been strikingly unsuccessful (thus far, at least) in effecting policy change, or even attitudinal change. In this context it is understandable and - in my view - admirable that many of the academics listed above have sought to engage a broader audience. My interest here is on this specific sub- genre of the recent inequality literature: books on the issue written by academics but written for an audience beyond academia. Perhaps the best-known example of this type is Wilkinson and Pickett's The Spirit Level from 2009. Since then, we might add Stewart Lansley's 2011 The Cost of Inequality, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's 2010 Winner-Take-All Politics, Andrew Leigh's Billionaires and Battlers from 2012, Joseph Stiglitz's The Price of Inequality from 2012 and Max Rashbrooke's edited volume Inequality: a New Zealand Crisis.1 All of these works seek to bring together academic analysis with a committed, polemical intent that, for the most part, is made explicit from their title onwards.

To keep this review within reasonable bounds, I focus here on Stiglitz's The Price of Inequality (a popular treatment of the issue by an esteemed, Nobel Prize-winning academic) and Rashbrooke's Inequality: a New Zealand Crisis (for its obvious local relevance). It is a guiding principle in this review that it is not reasonable to critique books for failing to be or do what they do not set out to do. I do, however, seek to understand and evaluate the nature of what it is that they set out to do. In assessing the "by academics, for non-academics" genre, I consider the problems that inevitably confront popular treatments of contentious issues, including the tension between analysis and advocacy.

Two brief reviews

Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis

Rashbrooke's edited volume spreads its net wide: it features fifteen different chapters from seventeen different contributors, with fourteen "viewpoints" from a range of non-academic voices interspersed between those chapters. As a result, it brings together a variety of aspects of contemporary inequality (housing, education, political influence, skills training, and workplace relations, for example) that are more often viewed in isolation. This range of coverage is one of the book's great strengths although - as I will argue later - more could perhaps have been done to engage with the divergences and convergences between the various contributions.

Being an edited collection also constrains the editor to set the scene and cover some necessary background rather quickly. …

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