Review: Too Much Money: How Wealth Disparities Are Unbalancing Aotearoa New Zealand

Reviewed by Penny Hartill

Too Much Money is probably this country’s most insightful, well-researched, clearly written treatise on Aotearoa’s wealth divide to date.

“Bridget peeled back the white bread, looked at the margarine cresting in ridges on the meat, [and] put the sandwich aside,” quotes Max Rashbrooke from Rachel Kerr’s 2021 award-winning novel Victory Park. So much revealed in a single sentence.

Kara likely cannot afford the wholemeal bread or the butter that Bridget is used to. Bridget thinks that Kara’s tastes are literally and socially abhorrent. So much so, she refuses to eat what is offered to her. Rashbrooke compares this modern-day truth-in-fiction account with Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden-Party – renowned as much for its meticulous depiction of the chasm between the haves and have nots as it is for its literary prowess. Mansfield’s story and Kerr’s novel were written a century apart so such similarities can be seen as a reflection of the continuous nature of this country’s economic, social and cultural inequality.

This may not sit comfortably for some. In his new book Too Much Money, Rashbrooke points out that many New Zealanders consider themselves to be fair-minded and they’re uncomfortable with the thought that Johnny isn’t as good as his master. In reality though, New Zealanders have only had around 50 years of shared relative prosperity. The era began during the Great Depression of the 1930s which destroyed much upper-end wealth. This, together with Michael Joseph Savage’s landmark 1938 Social Security Act and the rise of unions’ power, is when things started looking up for those on the lower rungs of society.

It was this period that cemented the myth of our classless society. Rashbrooke is careful to point out that any equalities that existed at this time were not shared to the same extent by Māori or women and nor are any of the gains made more recently.

Using formidable primary and secondary research, Rashbrooke describes how, since the 1980s, wealth, income and social inequality have sharply increased. He also presents a clear case for how this wealth inequality is changing Aotearoa. We are shown how, “an unequal wealth distribution creates, and is created by, inequalities in many of the other ‘goods’,” that make for fulfilling lives: health, housing, schooling, income and political power’. In doing so, he addresses a concept that most of us like to avoid: class.

Class, argues Rashbrooke, is centred on three key elements: “a concentration of multiple goods among a certain group of people; implicit hierarchy between such groups; and some kind of stability or impermeability in this hierarchy.” We are provided with data confirming the existence of the first two factors, with only the third definer, he maintains, not yet firmly entrenched. This though may only be a matter of time as intergenerational educational mobility is shown to be declining.

Rashbrooke sees class as the most persistent of our social divisions. “It has wealth inequality at its core, but goes well beyond it, identifying a wider set of processes that can cast some up and others down, in enduring ways, leading to a clear difference in life chances.” To quote former Fletcher Challenge chief executive Hugh Fletcher cited in Rashbrooke: “I had the luck of birth. But a society based on the luck of birth isn’t a good society – and that in my mind, is the single biggest issue that needs to be tackled.”

The book draws on the work of many of the well-known philosophers and economists of the last 150 years, including Amartya Sen, Francis Fukuyama, Pierre Bourdieu, Karl Marx and Max Weber. Rashbrooke has put a great deal of thought into how to present their work in formats accessible to everyone, without speaking down to the reader. His summary of one of this century’s most influential economists, Thomas Picketty, is particularly good. Picketty’s celebrated equation r > g defines how passive income from capital wealth outstrips wage growth over time.

Picketty argued that if not checked by democracy, capitalist societies “tend toward a state of immense inequality similar to that of the Victorian era.” Rashbrooke, together with University of Auckland economics professor Tim Hazeldine conducted research that found assets held by the very richest New Zealanders, about .01 per of the population, rose from 6 per cent of GDP in 1996 to more than 21 per centn 2015. Are Picketty’s fears of a return to Victorian-era levels of inequality inevitable or a clarion call to action?

It is well documented that many of New Zealand’s colonial settlers left their British motherland in search of more freedoms and equality. They didn’t get it though. “By 1893, the wealthiest 10% of New Zealanders owned 93% of all assets”. Today, the wealthiest 10 per cent of New Zealanders have 60 per cent of all wealth – level pegged with Britain’s unequal wealth distribution. Rashbrooke methodically unpicks the argument of meritocracy = we became wealthy by working hard. “In the 1980s, for instance, the incomes of the richest 1% rapidly shot up, while those of the poorest tenth declined. Yet there is no evidence that the richest New Zealanders had suddenly become vastly harder-working or that the poorest had suddenly become less meritorious.”

Rashbrooke demonstrates throughout the book that he is a pragmatist. In his introduction he states that there will always be disparities of wealth and income; that concern about economic inequality does not imply a quest for perfect equality. He does, though, put a deeply considered case for change - which will appeal to the 70 per cent of New Zealanders who think income disparities are too large and who think the rich should be taxed more (that’s a finding from 2020 International Social Survey Programme respondents). His final chapter, Flipping the Future, offers several ideas for how New Zealand can become a more equal society and offers succinct moral arguments as to why we should.

Too Much Money is probably this country’s most insightful, well-researched, clearly written treatise on Aotearoa’s wealth divide to date. It’s food for thought for the one fifth of New Zealanders who don’t think the effects of widening inequality in this country are a problem - and will cement the view of the four fifths of us who do. It asks us to really consider whether we can reduce income and wealth disparities to the point where most people are doing well.

Reviewed by Penny Hartill