Why the Rich List is 'unhealthy, disturbing'

Graeme Hart is New Zealand's richest man and a familiar face on the Rich List.
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Graeme Hart is New Zealand's richest man and a familiar face on the Rich List.

An obsession with capitalism drives Kiwis' "unhealthy" interest in who has the most money in New Zealand, an academic says.

The NBR's Rich List - a compilation of the country's richest individuals and families - was being released on Monday. You need at least $50 million to qualify for the list.

Many of the faces appear year after year, including the country's richest man, Graeme Hart.

Peter Thiel, pictured with US President Donald Trump,  is a new addition to the annual list of wealthy Kiwis.
DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES

Peter Thiel, pictured with US President Donald Trump, is a new addition to the annual list of wealthy Kiwis.

Some of the names have been there since the first list in 1986, including Craig Heatley, Sir Ron Brierley and Sir Bob Jones. Newcomers this year include Chris Liddell, adviser to Donald Trump, controversial new citizen Peter Thiel and Carmel Fisher, of Fisher Funds, whose wealth has been boosted by Kiwisaver.

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But University of Auckland senior lecturer in sociology Ronald Kramer said the list was unhealthy.

Kiwis seemed to have an "unhealthy" interest in the list, according to University of Auckland senior lecturer in ...
CAMERON BURNELL/STUFF

Kiwis seemed to have an "unhealthy" interest in the list, according to University of Auckland senior lecturer in sociology Ronald Kramer.

He said it encouraged people to value wealthy people and wealth - at the expense of social considerations.

"It's ideological. It comes out in publications owned by wealthy people produced for mass consumption but targeted at other relatively wealthy consumers."

The appeal of the lists reflected how ingrained the ideals of capitalism were, he said.

Sir Bob Jones has been on the list since 1986.
ROBERT KITCHIN/FAIRFAX MEDIA

Sir Bob Jones has been on the list since 1986.

"It only makes sense to value such incredible wealth when you take for granted the society in which it is possible to have that sort of inequality.

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"The idea is that it's possible for everybody and this is held up as an ideal to aspire to, something people should try to accomplish. But 99 per cent of people will never be that wealthy." 

He said the lists rarely talked in detail about how people amassed their wealth.

"They don't discuss the problematic nature of where it comes from. They are put on the list as if they are doing society a favour. It's disturbing."

Sommer Kapitan, a senior marketing lecturer at AUT, agreed the lists were a sign of a culture obsessed with capitalism.

"It has to be tied to the Protestant work ethic of our forefathers," she said.

"I think, like in the States and Canada, many of our cultural forefathers left England during the Protestant reformation, and it's buried in our psyche to seek for 'more' and to 'pull ourselves up by the bootstraps'.

"We're not stuck, as we all once were in English society, but rather if we work hard enough we can 'make something' of ourselves? Hence, money is a sign that we have social mobility."

Jessica Berentson-Shaw, head of research at the Morgan Foundation, said the list raised other issues.

"I would like us to consider if we are going to rate people on their wealth why don't we also tax them on that wealth? If people recognise that wealth matters then we should choose to recognise that wealth in our redistribution systems. 

"It would be useful to report regularly on how wealth is distributed in New Zealand, who has the least wealth as well as who has the most, perhaps how much tax as a proportion of total wealth individuals and families were paying from different groups in society, also." 

A better list might be the top 10 people who gave money away, Kramer said.

"I'm more interested in lists of generosity but that doesn't necessarily mean financial stuff. Just a cultural contribution to society.  The top 10 greatest cultural contributions of the last year ... wouldn't that be much nicer than ranking people on the basis of their money?"

While Hart is not known to be an active philanthropist, most of the highly-ranked Richlisters are involved in charitable work.

The Todd Family operates the Todd Foundation, which gives out millions in grants each year. Michael Friedlander was knighted in 2016 for his philanthropy. The Chandler brothers are involved in international work, including Chris Chandler's Freedom Fund, which works to reduce bonded labour through the world.

Berentson-Shaw said it was risky to get into the mindset of thinking it was appropriate for wealthy individuals to provide for the needs of vulnerable people.

She said people or issues that were not attractive to the wealthy individuals might miss out.

"The evidence tells us if we choose universal solutions paid for by shared funds - that is, tax revenue collected - we pool the risk and ensure better outcomes are achieved for all. Universal solutions also ensure more people in society are committed to making a policy work as they have skin in the game."

 - Stuff

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