Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Equality is so unfair…

Is there any reasonable argument for trading-off some of the efficiency in societies for some more equality among children? For kids in Finland, Korea and Canada PISA shows that both high averages and low inequality are achieved - and no trade-off need be made. But then ask the kids in Turkey with low average and low inequality on the PISA science scale if they would switch with New Zealand with a high average and high inequality? Which is better, to be honest I don’t know… and that is so unfair.

Efficiency and fairness are guiding principles in any civilised society. Equality, on the other hand, is not.

There is no overarching expectation in society for all people to achieve the same outcomes; your outcome is in part a reward for your efforts (or the efforts of someone else on your behalf). In capitalist economies, without some level of inequality, competition would be pointless, development (progress) would falter and efficiency would suffer. People thrive on competition - So why should kids be different?

Ask yourself now how life is treating you? In amongst the reminiscence of times gone by, you think of others achievements, you think relatively, your place yourself in a league table, you compare and you compete. To know whether or not you are happy, you need to gauge whether or not other people are happier than you. Again we can ask - why should it be different for kids?

At the national level inequality in income is not good news. Ideologically you can be of the mind that it shows a society is not good at sharing its resources, or you might think that some people in society are not putting in their shift. In practise higher income inequality has been shown to associate with a range of unpleasant outcomes for children including: higher child poverty rates, more school dropouts, higher infant mortality rates, and lower child well-being: associations which are not always found for average national incomes (see The Spirit Level). Inequality studies of health and education (and the transmission between generations) also give us good reasons for concern.

So presumably inequality in outcomes in the adult world is not good news for children, but the way our societies work make it necessary, and not necessarily unfair if a ‘fair fight’ has been fought. And although inequality can make you terribly unhappy, people can’t be happy without it.

But is inequality in societies inefficient, is inequality the result of fair fights? Findings above suggest that income inequality is inefficient if you want to promote child well-being amongst other things. On the other hand inequality might be efficient if your goal is one of promoting competition and productivity. “Fair fights?” you ask… not likely! Time infinite has passed since people were born into truly equal opportunities. Some of us have more support from day one, support which affects every aspect of our lives. If life were a running race (a marathon not a sprint), some of us were born with running shoes, others weren’t… I expect some people are even born knowing the course!

What is a natural level of inequality for children, and at what point does this inequality become counter-productive harming the broader goals of your society and economy? Some kids will naturally do better at school, the competition it provides gives them some control over future choices, and can produce positive learning environment for them and for their classmates. In today’s societies much of what we do (and how we make sense of it) is driven in part by inequality – the goal is to be different, to be better, and to feel different.

Let’s imagine for a moment that Utopia in our times is unachievable – imperfections require trade-offs – and finding the balance is key. The balance in today’s societies requires some inequality; the challenge now is to make sure we know when we have enough.

P.S Following up on a previous blog. Research in the UK has shown that approximately 57 million GBP is down the back of the nation’s sofas. Annually this would cover the one fifth of the cost the soon to be withdrawn universal baby bond. So digging around down the back of the sofa in the UK could pay for a mean-tested version of a baby bond for around 20% of poorest children in Britain. And you thought I was joking…

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