The equal op­por­tu­nity mes­sage

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION -

The rich get richer, the poor get poorer: to some, this may be a fa­mil­iar story, but the po­lit­i­cal fall­out is less pre­dictable.

Ob­vi­ously, the sig­nif­i­cance of in­come in­equal­ity at this year’s elec­tion will de­pend on whether the much- touted eco­nomic re­bound does even­tu­ate, and how widely the fruits of re­cov­ery are shared.

If vot­ers be­lieve the cur­rent eco­nomic set­tings will even­tu­ally lift their own boat as well, they will be less likely to gam­ble that a change of govern­ment is needed to im­prove their lot.

On one hand, the polls have shown that the con­cern about in­come in­equal­ity has risen among the elec­torate at large over the past three years – to where it now ranks ahead of un­em­ploy­ment or the cost of liv­ing.

On the other hand, last week’s Fair­fax poll also showed a sig­nif­i­cant rise in op­ti­mism that the econ­omy is on the right track.

Ul­ti­mately, vot­ers will have to de­cide whether they think the cur­rent eco­nomic set­tings are part of the prob­lem, or part of the so­lu­tion. Even if the op­ti­mists are right, sig­nif­i­cant lev­els of in­come in­equal­ity do seem likely to per­sist, de­spite any re­cent im­prove­ments.

In the Sal­va­tion Army’s lat­est State of the Na­tion Re­port, for ex­am­ple, there were still 202,500 chil­dren liv­ing in ben­e­fit­de­pen­dent house­holds in 2013.

Sur­pris­ingly, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion may have some po­lit­i­cal tips to of­fer on how to garner pub­lic sup­port on this is­sue.

Since Obama shone a spot­light on in­come in­equal­ity in his State of the Na­tion ad­dress last month, the White House has framed this is­sue as be­ing one of ‘‘equal op­por­tu­nity,’’ and not ‘‘in­come in­equal­ity’’ as such.

Obama has caught some flak for do­ing so.

Pre­dictably, much of it has been from Repub­li­cans, who think that Obama (and Pope Fran­cis as well) is preach­ing so­cial­ism.

Yet many Demo­cratic Party nota­bles also want to see Obama talk­ing more about jobs and wages as the proven route out of poverty.

Re­gard­less, the couch­ing of this is­sue in terms of ‘‘ equal op­por­tu­nity’’ may be a more po­tent ( not weaker) mes­sage when it comes to win­ning the votes of the un­com­mit­ted, es­pe­cially in the con­text of an im­prov­ing econ­omy.

As Amer­i­can con­sul­tant Ruy Teix­eira says, US vot­ers may tell poll­sters they be­lieve in job cre­ation, or in poli­cies that pro­tect the mid­dle-class and the poor.

How­ever, the mes­sage that poll­sters have reg­u­larly found to have the strong­est res­o­nance is the one that says the econ­omy needs to work for ev­ery­one, and not just for the for­tu­nate few.

Amer­i­can poll­sters call this con­cept ‘‘Ev­ery­one Eco­nom­ics’’.

By fram­ing in­come dis­par­ity as a cri­sis of op­por­tu­nity and loss of so­cial mo­bil­ity, Obama has been able to tap into pub­lic anx­i­ety that our eco­nomic sys­tem now ben­e­fits only the wealthy and cor­po­ra­tions, while stack­ing the deck against ev­ery­one else.

‘‘Ev­ery­one Eco­nom­ics’’, Teix­eira says, is based on an in­clu­sive pop­ulism, rather than on pit­ting one class against an­other.

Iron­i­cally, in this coun­try both Labour leader David Cun­liffe and Prime Min­is­ter John Key like to em­pha­sise their hum­ble ori­gins.

In that re­spect, both are ev­i­dence to the con­trary of any ‘‘equal op­por­tu­nity’’ or ‘‘ loss of so­cial mo­bil­ity’’ mes­sage that Cun­liffe, at least, might want to pro­mote.

This year, how such mes­sages are framed – rather than the pol­icy mix – is likely to de­ter­mine the elec­tion out­come.

GOR­DON CAMP­BELL

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