Why Shakespeare is important for young people

By Peter Winsley, December 2016

William Shakespeare is the world’s greatest playwright and poet.  He is also the greatest psychologist, because he reflected human nature as he observed it, not as it was later theorized to be.

Shakespeare wrote around forty plays, 154 sonnets, narrative and other poems.  A key theme in Shakespeare is never to waste time:  “I wasted time and time wasted me”.  “Better three hours too soon than a minute too late”.

He was a gifted poet, but as a friend observed, poets are made as well as born – he worked hard at his craft.

Some think of Shakespeare’s characters as fictional creations, some as real people, some as possible people.  Those of his plays with original plots were the exemplars of the imagination: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.  The first celebrates language and word-play for its own sake:

This fellow pecks up wit as pigeons pease, And utters it again when God doth please: He is wit’s pedler, and retails his wares At wakes and wassails, meetings, markets, fairs… To show his teeth as white as whale’s bone…

O, never will I trust to speeches penn’d,            Nor to the motion of a schoolboy’s tongue…

The latter two plays assert the human mind’s unbounded capabilities, the joy of language, rhymed or unrhymed, staying with you even without the story:

Before the time I did Lysander see, seemed Athens as a paradise to me.

I’ll follow thee and make a heaven of hell, to die upon the hand I love so well.

I am as ugly as a bear, beasts that see me run away for fear.

…Do thy best, to pluck this crawling serpent from my breast.

What a dream was here – Lysander look how I do quake with fear, methought a serpent ate my heart away, and you sat smiling at his cruel prey.

…those things do please me, that befall preposterously.

Since night you loved me, yet since night you left me.

Lord, what fools these mortals be

She was a vixen when she went to school, though she be little she is fierce.

…be thou here again, before the leviathan can swim a league…

…I’ll put a girdle around the earth in earth in forty minutes.

You minimis of hindering knot-grass…you acorn.

Shakespeare believed in individual uniqueness, in human rights and dignity, and in the universality of human consciousness.  His works cannot be captured by any cultural, religious, political, ethnic, or other identity group that divides people.  He is the supreme poet and dramatist of humanism; humanism as a belief system, and as a guide to how to live.

Shakespeare’s works elevate humanity beyond what it thinks itself capable of: “we know what we are, but not what we might be”.  He tells us things can get better – then leaves it up to us.

Shakespeare’s language is still modern English, but some words and phrases are unfamiliar, or their meanings have changed.  The No Fear Shakespeare website[1] gives you all his works with parallel translations into today’s easy to understand English.  Take Shakespeare to heart by reading his words quietly to yourself, and then read them aloud so you listen to yourself in Shakespeare’s words.  Memorise lines and scenes you especially like.  Refer to No Fear Shakespeare only when you don’t understand the meaning, and then go back to his original words.

There is no powerful human experience, emotion or relationship that Shakespeare does not shed light on and help you to understand better.  Throughout your life, in good and bad times, lines you think you’ve forgotten will come back to you.  They will also become more meaningful as your life changes, and you understand more.  You will find that Shakespeare is teaching you more.

You should value Shakespeare for such reasons as:

Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language

Shakespeare observed social psychology (human nature in action), and saw it so much more clearly than others that he had to invent new language to describe what he saw.

Shakespeare coined something like 1,700 English words, and much of the English language’s most memorable and commonly-used sayings, phrases and metaphors.  Phrases such as stalking horse, hobby horse, green-eyed monster…

Many Shakespeare lines have evolved: “the cat will mew and dog will have his day” becomes “every dog will have his day”.  The expression “weasel words” comes from the lines:

I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs.

Few English-speaking people go a day without quoting Shakespeare, typically without realising it.  Expressions and sayings from Shakespeare include:

I shall be loved when I am lacked.

All that glisters is not gold.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

They’ll take suggestion as a cat laps milk.

Out of the jaws of death.

The world’s mine oyster.

I will wear my heart upon my sleeve.

More sinned against than sinning.

The better part of valour is discretion.

In the end, truth will out.

The be all and end all

The mirror up to nature;

Nothing can come of nothing.

It is a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.

A little more than kin, and less than kind. –

Neither rhyme nor reason.

Trippingly on the tongue

Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.

As mad as a March hare.

In my mind’s eye

There is no virtue like necessity

As dead as a door nail.

Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. –

Who alone suffers, suffers most in the mind.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be.

Cleft my heart in twain.

The apparel oft proclaims the man,

I must be cruel only to be kind.

When sorrows come, they come not as single spies but as whole battalions.

That was laid on with a trowel.

Shakespeare’s support for human rights and dignity

Shakespeare judged people as individuals, not on their race, ethnicity, wealth, status, family affiliation or gender.  He understood that individuality is almost infinitely variable, even within the same family – two of King Lear’s daughters are evil; one is an angel, and “good wombs have borne bad sons”.

Everyone is ultimately what they are: “I am that I am”, and no-one can really see truly inside someone else:

You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play’d on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.

Shakespeare tells us to stand up for our rights, even if we are outgunned:

The poor wren, the most diminutive of birds, will fight, her young ones in her nest, against the owl.

The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on.

An excerpt of Sir Thomas More that Shakespeare wrote expresses sympathy for refugees, recognising their common humanity.

Shakespeare treats all with dignity.  He notices the servants, fools, shepherds and “rude mechanicals”.  He confers on them as well as on the great and mighty the power of his words.

Shakespeare saw how multi-faceted people can be.  We sympathise even with evil characters such as Claudius in Hamlet when we see them from different angles, or eavesdrop on them as they reflect on being trapped by circumstances or the consequences of past action.

Shakespeare notices the nondescript and invisible people ignored by the powerful. Shakespeare treated even his minor characters as worthy of his genius and his sympathy.  In The Tempest, although Caliban has sought to burn his books and kill him, Prospero says “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”.  Caliban draws from the innate dignity Prospero has helped foster within him, and his last words are “to seek for grace”.

Shakespeare’s worse characters degrade good people to overcome their own feelings of inferiority.  Shakespeare understood the consequences of humiliating people.

Iago in Othello feels slighted by being passed over for promotion.  Iago knows that a brazen lie, spoken with confidence, will often be believed, and this leads to tragedy.  In King Lear, Edmund’s dignity is violated by his branding as an “illegitimate” son.  “Fine word, ‘legitimate’ …Now, gods stand up for bastards!’  Only as he lies dying and reflects on the deaths of Goneril and Regan, who both desired him, does Edmund discover his humanity: “Some good I mean to do, despite of mine own nature”.

Shakespeare never stereotypes, and is not callous to individuals in his pursuit of higher causes.  Shakespeare is with his characters, and has an understanding and moral feeling for them.

Human individuality is infinite and people should not demean themselves by surrendering their individuality to groups.  Shakespeare understood that individuality is selfish and destructive unless it relates to one’s wider social connectedness.  “To one’s own self be true” is actually quite shallow advice.  After all, Hitler and Stalin were “true to themselves”.

Shakespeare portrayed mental health issues with empathy.  He acknowledges the stigma and ill-treatment associated with mental illness in Twelfth Night, but also sees mental disorders as deeply human, affecting both the dove Ophelia and the preternaturally intelligent and noble Prince Hamlet.  Hamlet pretends to be mad, perhaps becomes mad, but recovers his composure:

I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.

King Lear’s madness in the storm is depicted with love and sympathy:

Why, he was met even now As mad as the vex’d sea, singing aloud, Crown’d with rank fumiter and furrow weeds, With harlocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo flow’rs, Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow In our sustaining corn.

Shakespeare is in his element portraying feigned madness, as in the “ravings” of Edgar when pretending to be a Tom o’Bedlam mad beggar:

Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o’er bog and quagmire; that hath laid knives under his pillow and halters in his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, made him proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting horse over four-inch’d bridges…

Pillicock sat on Pillicock’s Hill.

Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the todpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog, drinks the green mantle of the standing pool; who is whipp’d from tithing to tithing, and stock-punish’d and imprison’d; who hath had three suits to his back, six shirts to his body, horse to ride, and weapons to wear… But mice and rats, and such small deer,have been Tom’s food for many a long year
Child Rowland to the dark tower came; His word was still Fie, foh, and fum! I smell the blood of a British man…

Be thy mouth or black or white, Tooth that poisons if it bite; Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim, Hound or spaniel, brach or lym, Bobtail tyke or trundle-tail- Tom will make them weep and wail; For, with throwing thus my head, Dogs leap the hatch, and all are fled

Shakespeare lived at a time of rising awareness of the New World and its possibilities.  In The Tempest, Miranda has been stranded on an island since three year’s old.  She sees a “primitive” in Caliban, yet also sees her father’s art and books, and then visitors from his former old world.  She comes to see the old world as new: “O wonder, how many good creatures are there here!  How beauteous mankind is!  O brave new world, that has such people in it!”

People are shaped by social norms and what is around them.  Edmund commands the murder of Cordelia because “men are as the time is”.  He obeys the social norms of the time, and does not see beyond them, until his last act of redemption.  In Corialanus, uncritical adherence to custom is criticized: “What custom wills, in all things should we do it, the dust on antique time would like unswept and mountainous error be too highly heaped for truth to o’verpeer”.

People can be objects of circumstances as well as the creators of them.  Macbeth does not begin as evil, and is a reluctant and morally-torn murderer.  However, once he has committed his first murder his character changes, and it becomes easier to kill again.  He then becomes an irredeemable monster who grows weary of the sun and of life itself; “this tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

The nature of the mind, emotions and human creativity

Shakespeare saw the mind as related to the brain, and not for example to an imaginary spirit world.

A core theme in Shakespeare is that poetry, love and madness are related, and are part of unbounded human imagination.  He saw that they come from people not from spirits, devils and witchcraft or cold rationality. “The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact”.  He knew that imagination can misfire, people can see things that are not there: “…or in the night, imagining some fear, how easy is a bush supposed a bear”.

Shakespeare used devices such as staging scenes from a play within his plays, having characters disguise themselves, or pretend to be mad.  He makes his audience do much of the work by using their imaginations.

In Midsummer Night’s Dream some workers stage a play and make a mess of it.  One pretends to be a wall, another a lion, unconvincingly!  However the audience within “the play within a play” loves it, as they have used their imaginations to “create” for themselves a fine, entertaining play.  What they “see” is different to what is “the reality”, yet is just as real…  “The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”.

In Midsummer Night’s Dream, magic potions see men and women fall in and out of love based on mistaken identities, including a lady falling in love with a man turned into an ass.  In As you like it, genders are muddled, men and women fall in love with illusions, with the deeper irony that in Shakespeare’s time boy actors played the female parts.

Life as acting and drama

Shakespeare’s life was poetry and above all drama on the stage.  He saw the stage as life itself:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms; Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lin’d, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side, His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing.

People are actors, play different roles, and shift between different identities in life.  This is why we should not encourage people to confine themselves to one dominant role such as ethnic, religious identity.  Acting also requires an audience and others on the stage – life is inherently social.  Shakespeare almost certainly began professional life as an actor.  Hamlet says of visiting actors:

Let them be well us’d; for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.

Hamlet then watches a play within a play:

O what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Is it not monstrous that this player here, But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, Could force his soul so to his own conceit … And all for nothing! For Hecuba! What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, … He would drown the stage with tears …The play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King

The play that is life can also have its weepy moments:

When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.

Shakespeare’s last play[2] reflects on acting and its effects on the imagination:

These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air…We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.

And at the play’s end, Prospero’s farewell to the audience, and perhaps Shakespeare’s goodbye to the stage:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s mine own, Which is most faint: now, ’tis true, I must be here confined by you, Or sent to Naples. Let me not, Since I have my dukedom got And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell In this bare island by your spell; But release me from my bands With the help of your good hands: Gentle breath of yours my sails Must fill, or else my project fails, Which was to please. Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant, And my ending is despair, Unless I be relieved by prayer, Which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.

Shakespeare’s stimulation of others’ creativity

Shakespeare’s works inspired many other creative contributions, including art, music, poetry and novels.  Romeo and Juliet inspired West Side Story, and Taming of the Shrew, Kiss me Katie.  The Tempest alone inspired around 37 operas.  Countless novels from Dogs of War, Brave New World, Owls do Cry to Pale Fire take their titles from Shakespeare lines.

The rising power of the internet and multi-media mean that Shakespeare’s works, and the works he has inspired will continue to trigger more creative achievements, and these in turn will spawn others in an unbounded way.  This reflects and helps to drive ever-lasting creative achievement in literature, music and other arts.

His inspiration for you when things go wrong

Shakespeare’s mind roamed so freely that anyone immersed in his work can think of Shakespeare scenes or quotes that provide insight into all major events and emotions in their lives.  These insights can answer questions, or give you another way of thinking.  They may help you see you are not alone, that others have faced similar problems and got through them.  They also allow you to see yourself from outside, as if you are observing another person.

Shakespeare is inspiring when things go wrong.  When you are out of luck and a social outcast, read sonnet 29[3] and realise that Shakespeare too was once at the bottom, and rose from it to touch the stars.  When you look back, angry and bitter at bad things that have happened in the past that you can’t forget, turn to sonnet 30.  When annoyed by criticism or by shallow, insincere flattery, sonnet 112.  When disgusted by others’ bad behaviour, sonnet 66.  When you are depressed for no good reason, remember it’s not real and it’s all in your head: “there is nothing neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so”.

Shakespeare also makes clear that suicide is never acceptable:

O that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!

…To be, or not to be- that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-

… To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub! For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

…. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office… But that the dread of something after death- The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn No traveller returns- puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of…
Shakespeare knew that sometimes we have to accept that bad things happen, even to the best people such as Cordelia:

We are not the first Who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst.

When you have to act quickly and only you can do so, know that “the time is out of joint, Oh cursed spite, that I was born to set it right.”


Shakespeare is the supreme poet of love, with its complexity, power, its focus on the bond between unique individuals that overrides all else, its ineffability, its immunity to other’s understanding, and its relationship with the mind’s imaginative powers.

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

Love can turn tragic, as in Romeo and Juliet from which we draw some famous lines:

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.

But soft what light through yonder window breaks, it is the East and Juliet is the sun…

O Romeo, Romeo, where art thou Romeo?

Take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine, that all the world will be in love with night.

Death, that have sucked the honey of thy breath.

…parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow. –

Shakespeare can also be pragmatic and not allow love or its loss to consume all: “no one ever died for love”.  Sonnet 30 sees Shakespeare brooding over the past, even over things that should be long forgotten, such as “love’s long since cancelled woe”, overcoming past sad times by thinking of someone he cares for:

Then a while when I think of thee, dear friend, all losses are restored and sorrows end.

Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are his most heart-felt personal statements and may not even have been intended for publication.  Most of them are love poems that capture how his feelings for the one he loves free him from despair, anger with things that have happened in the past, sadness, cynicism, fear of death or world-weariness.

For Shakespeare, “love is not love when it alters when it alteration finds’.  In sonnet 124, his love is immune from short-term political conniving, and he contrasts this with those who die repentant having spent their lives being sinful:

It fears not policy, that heretic, Which works on leases of short-number’d hours, But all alone stands hugely politic, That it nor grows with heat nor drowns with showers. To this I witness call the fools of time, Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime

His love and his expression of it in verse out-lives marble and gilded monuments of princes (sonnet 55) and tyrant’s crests and tombs of brass (sonnet 107).

For Shakespeare, “music was the food of love”, and love inspired music:

It was a lover and his lass https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPOz01Ckxvo

Shakespeare knew that love could be puzzling, that it sometimes passed with youth, but it should be embraced when it is there.

What is love? ’tis not hereafter; Present mirth hath present laughter; What’s to come is still unsure: In delay there lies no plenty; Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty, Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

He warned that love often brought all kinds of trouble with it:

Lysander: Ay me! for aught that I could ever read, Could ever hear by tale or history, The course of true love never did run smooth; But, either it was different in blood,—

Hermia: O cross! too high to be enthrall’d to low.

Lysander: Or else misgraffed in respect of years,—

Hermia: O spite! too old to be engaged to young.

Lysander: Or else it stood upon the choice of friends,—

Hermia: O hell! to choose love by another’s eyes.

Lysander. Or, if there were a sympathy in choice, War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it, Making it momentany as a sound, Swift as a shadow, short as any dream; Brief as the lightning in the collied night, That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth, And ere a man hath power to say ‘Behold!’ The jaws of darkness do devour it up: So quick bright things come to confusion

Polonius in Hamlet, intercepts a love letter from Hamlet to Ophelia:

Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love. ‘O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; I have not art to reckon my groans; but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu. ‘Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him, HAMLET.’

Relationships between children and parents

Shakespeare understood the power of love between children and parents.  He captured the poignancy of the love between the elderly King Lear and the daughter he had banished and become reconciled with:

Cordelia: O my dear father, restoration hang Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss Repair those violent harms that my two sisters Have in thy reverence made!

Lear: You do me wrong to take me out o’ th’ grave. Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears Do scald like molten lead…

I am a very foolish fond old man, Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less; And, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind. Methinks I should know you, and know this man; Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant What place this is; and all the skill I have Remembers not these garments; nor I know not Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me; For (as I am a man) I think this lady To be my child Cordelia.

Cordelia: And so I am! I am!

Lear: If you have poison for me, I will drink it. I know you do not love me; for your sisters Have, as I do remember, done me wrong. You have some cause, they have not.

Cordelia: No cause, no cause.

Shakespeare on friendship

Shakespeare’s plays are full of close friendships, and the role they play in good times, in advice and counsel, and in helping in times of need.  He understood the difference between friends you could rely on, and those you couldn’t:

Every one that flatters thee Is no friend in misery. Words are easy, like the wind; Faithful friends are hard to find:

He that is thy friend indeed, He will help thee in thy need: If thou sorrow, he will weep; If thou wake, he cannot sleep; Thus of every grief in heart He with thee doth bear a part. These are certain signs to know Faithful friend from flattering foe

Overcoming fear of mortality

Shakespeare lived in a time of high infant mortality within large families, and much lower life expectancy due to illnesses that in many cases can now be treated.  Many of his sonnets and plays are concerned with overcoming mortality, by having children, creating great immortal art, affecting other people positively, or through a life narrative or reputation that survives you.

The fact that you are reading this tells you that Shakespeare is immortal, and is still with us, that people affect each other and the future in all kinds of ways that live beyond us.

Who tried to censor Shakespeare?

Shakespeare has been pilloried, censored or banned for centuries, and for all kinds of reasons.  These include ignoring prevailing moral codes, atheistic tendencies, contempt for inherited privilege, internationalism, disparagement of identity politics, exposing the shallow nature of kingly power, promotion of market trade, usury, suspected grain-hoarding, lack of a class angle or socialist realism, unpatriotic sentiments, portraying black people and continentals in too favourable a light, and promotion of teenage sex, homoeroticism and cross-dressing.

The common grievances all censors, banners and book burners have with Shakespeare are his humanism, the unbounded nature of his intellect, his love of life, and belief in human potential.  There is also jealousy from minds inferior to Shakespeare’s.  Shakespeare in his plays often exposed tendencies by the mean-spirited to drag others down.

The common aim of those who censored or banned Shakespeare has been to limit human consciousness as revealed and expanded in Shakespeare, in order to promote narrow moral, religious, nationalistic, cultural or racial codes or world views, or simply for small-mindedness itself.

What Shakespeare admired and despised

Shakespeare valued honesty, integrity and loyalty. In sonnet 25, beauty is truly beautiful when it comes with honesty and integrity. Sonnet 105 encapsulates Shakespeare’s view of an ideal lover; someone who is “fair, kind and true”.  Cordelia is “so young my lord, and true”.  Rosalind and Celia, Orlando and Adam are loyal to each other, without instrumentality or likely reward.  Kent and the Fool are loyal to King Lear, at risk to their own lives.

Shakespeare did not elevate intelligence above human character, concern for others and honesty:

No legacy is so rich as honesty.

Iago and Edmund are intelligent, and evil.  They easily outwit more admirable characters such as Othello, Cassio and Edgar. The fool in King Lear has the emotional intelligence to realise things will end badly when Cordelia is banished from the kingdom.  He pines away when Cordelia has left, feeling early what others cannot see.

Corin in As you like it, the old shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, and the servants in King Lear are of kindness and character.  Rosalind in As you like it needs composure, self-regulation, prudence and agility as well as her intellect to survive in the Forest of Arden.

Shakespeare saw love between individuals as something that survived time and shallowness.  In sonnet 18 it lasts “as long lives this and this gives life to thee”.

Shakespeare also knew that the mind can play tricks.  Psychology can misfire, and romantic love can distort judgement or stumble over the tedium of domestic life.

For Shakespeare, the worse sins are cruelty, deception and flattery. Shakespeare values compassion and despises its absence in Goneril, Regan and Iago.  It is often the humble people who are most horrified by cruelty, such as the servants who are disgusted by Cornwall and Goneril in King Lear.

Shakespeare despised superficiality, insincerity, and “dwellers on form and favour.”  Ophelia in her “madness” gives fennel, signifying flattery to Claudius.  Goneril and Regan flatter Lear, and Cordelia is banished for she lacks that “glib and oily art to speak and purpose not” and cannot heave her loving heart into her mouth.  She says:

Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound reverbs no hollowness.

Lear bitterly reflects on his two oldest daughters:

They flatter’d me like a dog, and told me I had white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there. To say ‘ay’ and ‘no’ to everything I said! ‘Ay’ and ‘no’ too was no good divinity. When the rain came to wet me once, and the wind to make me chatter; when the thunder would not peace at my bidding; there I found ’em, there I smelt ’em out. Go to, they are not men o’ their words! They told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie- I am not ague-proof.

Shakespeare despised fair weather friends:

That sir which serves and seeks for gain, And follows but for form, Will pack when it begins to rain and leave thee in a storm But I will tarry; the fool will stay, And let the wise man fly.

Power and governance

In Shakespeare, the cream does not always rise.  “Some rise by sin and some by virtue fall”.  It is often the power-hungry and sociopaths who seize power, and the humble people who hold them to account.

Shakespeare did not believe in mob rule.  He was a man of order, and a constitutionalist.  He was acutely aware of how disorder can bring out the worst in people.  In Julius Caesar and Corialanus he sees how crowds can be gullible, easily swayed, capricious, and subject to mass neuroses.

Shakespeare was nuanced enough to understand that pacifism can invite attack, and that some good people shed blood, including their own.  There are few pure angels or devils in his works.  People have reasons for what they do.

Some of the deepest humanism in Shakespeare comes from simple people who stand up against personal malignity, for no reward, and at risk to their lives.  It is a servant who comes to the defence of Gloucester when he is being maimed by Cornwall, dying as a result.  Another servant understands the corrupt effects of top leaders such as Cornwall being vicious psychopaths: “I’ll never care what wickedness I do if this man comes to good”. A servant says of Goneril: “If she live long, and in the end meet the old course of death, women will all turn monsters”.

Later on in King Lear, Regan realizes that good people are horrified by cruelty, and rues letting the blinded Gloucester “smell his way to Dover” for “where he arrives he moves all hearts against us”.

Shakespeare’s histories are often extended narratives on the creation of order, perhaps through successions of rulers, and often involving unethical behaviour.  Henry IV tells his son and future successor: “God knows, my son, by what by-paths and indirect crook’d way I met this Crown.”

Richard 111 is written for an audience within a power structure that wanted to brand the king as an evil tyrant.  Shakespeare plays to the gallery, but often parodies the narrative.  Richard 111 was born with teeth fully formed in his mouth!

Shakespeare recognises the importance of the “genuine authority” that Kent saw in King Lear.  Shakespeare attacked illegitimate and unconstitutional power achieved through murder in Macbeth, Richard 111 and Hamlet. In King John “there is no sure foundation set on blood, no certain life achieved by other’s death”.

Lear finds that his evil daughters and their followers do not respect him but only his kingly power, and when he gives this away he no longer has authority.  Order then breaks down, and is only restored at the end of the play by those who respect constitutionality and reestablish it over the dead bodies of those who have destroyed Lear, Cordelia, and the fool.

In King Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Edmund and Oswald live in accord with savage law.  The good characters are fools, have blind spots, or refuse to flatter and connive.  However, they have the affiliations, affinities and truth that make people highly developed humans and make civilized life possible.  Albany himself is disgusted with his brother-in-law, Cornwall.  He says if there is no punishment for Cornwall “humanity must perforce prey on itself.”  He then sees the black heart of his own wife Goneril, and turns against her.

Shakespeare, his father, and no doubt others in his social circle were often victims of petty tyranny, hierarchal privilege, imperiousness or mendacious use of the law.  Hamlet reflects on the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the law’s delay and the insolence of office.  In Shakespeare’s late play, Cymbeline, death is seen as a liberation from the tyrant’s stroke:

Guiderius: Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, Nor the furious winter’s rages; Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages: Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Arviragus: Fear no more the frown o’ the great; Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke; Care no more to clothe and eat; To thee the reed is as the oak: The sceptre, learning, physic, must All follow this, and come to dust.

Guiderius: Fear no more the lightning flash,

Arviragus: Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;

Guiderius: Fear not slander, censure rash;

Arviragus: Thou hast finish’d joy and moan:

Guiderius: All lovers young, all lovers must Consign to thee, and come to dust.

Guiderius: No exorciser harm thee!

Arviragus: Nor no witchcraft charm thee!

Guiderius: Ghost unlaid forbear thee!

Arviragus: Nothing ill come near thee!

Guiderius: Quiet consummation have; And renowned be thy grave!

Economics and economic justice

William Shakespeare was good with money and property, believed in trade, a market economy and strong property rights.  He saw the relation of these things to liberties, human rights, self-determination and artistic freedom.  Shakespeare saw the relationship between property and power.

In Shakespeare’s time, a merchant class was emerging from feudalism.  It was supported by new forms of property right, including those over such abstractions as loans and creative works.  Shakespeare’s own father had been accused of usury (charging excessive interest), and this is a theme in Merchant of Venice.  The bard himself understood the time value of money and the need for a premium for risk.

You can imagine Shakespeare as a salesman:

Lawn as white as driven snow; Cyprus black as e’er was crow; Gloves as sweet as damask roses; Masks for faces and for noses; … Come buy of me, come; come buy, come buy; Buy lads, or else your lasses cry: Come buy.

In the mediaeval times that preceded Shakespeare, the major barriers to human advancement were lack of tradeable property rights, of open markets and of trade betterment.  In Shakespeare’s own time hierarchy unrelated to merit was the biggest barrier to betterment.

Shakespeare’s father was a glove maker and merchant and his mother a prosperous farmer’s daughter.  Shakespeare came from a rising but still insecure middle class which wanted to do better, and which was constrained and in some cases threatened by both privileged hierarchies and by poorer people jealous of success.

Shakespeare was fascinated by the cultural and economic achievements on the continent, especially in the Italian city-states which were settings for some of his plays.  The Renaissance had begun in Florence in the 14th century.  It was in Italy that the modern banking system emerged, and trade betterment gained the momentum that would over time drive economic growth and rising per capita incomes throughout the western world.   Shakespeare mandated commerce, trade, and a justice system that enforced contracts.

There are more trading states than castles in Shakespeare, and he saw that trade betterment through market exchange needed individual rights as well as prosperity.

Shakespeare saw money as a means to an end, not a higher human value or a substitute for the person herself.  “Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor…”

He understood how poverty often compromised behaviour.  In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo buys poison from a reluctant apothecary (pharmacist):

Romeo: I see that though art poor.  Hold, there is forty ducats….Art though so bare and full of wretchedness and fearest to die?  Famine is in thy cheeks, need and oppression starveth in thine eyes, contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back.  The world is not thy friend, nor the world’s law; the world affords no law to make thee rich; then be not poor, but break it and take this.

Apothecary: My poverty but not my will consents.

Romeo: I pay thy poverty and not thy will…There is thy gold – worse poison for men’s souls, doing more murther in this loathsome world, than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.  I sell thee poison; thou has sold me none.  Farewell.  Buy food and get thyself in flesh.

Shakespeare sees how money can be used to gloss over bad character: “O what a world of vile, ill-favoured faults looks handsome on three hundred pounds a year”.  He sees how it can: “place thieves and give them title, knee and approbation, with senators on the bench”.

In Shakespeare’s time, scientific and rational ways of thinking were challenging religion.  This was supported by rising capabilities in measurement, of time and money and of people’s lives, and the quantification underlying trade and the betterment it created for people.  Forms and symbols of quantitative measurement abound in Shakespeare, typically with multiple meanings.  Coins are associated with men’s character and mettle, in King Lear love is divisible by thirds and Cordelia’s “price has fallen”.  In Macbeth, Shakespeare characterises time as linear, sequential, grammatical and physically moving:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time…
Shakespeare did not confuse kindness and decency at the individual level with abstract political or religious causes.  He was no socialist.  Shakespeare in Corialanus satirizes the credulity of the public masses understanding of economics: “let’s kill him and we will have corn at our own price”.

Shakespeare spoofs the political logic, consistency and denial of agency of those who banished Corialanus: “….though we willingly consented to his banishment it was against our will…”

Public uprisings, overthrows of government and referenda can blow back and harm the very people who supported them.

Shakespeare moved to London to make his money by combining different words in new ways.  He retired to Stratford-on-Avon to invest in houses, farmland and other tangible properties.  He was successful because he was able to trade in markets that rewarded his talents.  His humanism and feeling for the poor was reflected in his will.  However, his mindfulness of poverty came through most strongly in works such as King Lear.

The banished aristocrat Edgar escapes with his life, disguising himself as a Bedlam beggar[4].

To take the basest and most poorest shape That ever penury, in contempt of man, Brought near to beast. My face I’ll grime with filth, Blanket my loins, elf all my hair in knots, And with presented nakedness outface The winds and persecutions of the sky. The country gives me proof and precedent Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices, Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary; And with this horrible object, from low farms, Poor pelting villages, sheepcotes, and mills, Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers, Enforce their charity. ‘Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!’ That’s something yet! Edgar I nothing am


As so often in the topsy-turvy world of King Lear, it is the fool’s commentary which is the wisest and least foolish:

Fathers that wear rags Do make their children blind; But fathers that bear bags Shall see their children kind. Fortune, that arrant whore, Ne’er turns the key to the poor

King Lear shows compassion to the poor only after his fall into poverty and dissolution.  Reduced to destitution he sees for the first time the wretched poverty of his former subjects, and feels compassion for them.  Approaching a hovel he tells his fool:

In, boy; go first.- You houseless poverty… Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel…
Lear understands others through affinity with the suffering of those in the “poor, pelting villages”.  Shakespeare understood that an economy must ultimately deliver acceptable outcomes for the poor if it is to support a good society.

Cordelia reflects on what he has been through when Lear is rescued from being an outcast in the storm:

Was this a face

To be opposed against the warring winds?

To stand against the deep dread-bolted thunder

In the most terrible and nimble stroke

Of quick cross lightning? … Mine enemy’s meanest dog,

Though he had bit me, should have stood that night

Against my fire. And wast thou fain, poor father,

To hovel thee with swine and rogues forlorn

In short and musty straw


Nature of justice

Shakespeare understood that life was not a morality tale, that good did not triumph in every instance, and that there was no inevitable justice.

Shakespeare understood that justice is a human creation.  As such it is flawed, but better even with its imperfections than no law, or the law of the jungle.   Shakespeare felt injustice at times in his life, and he also defended his legal rights in disputes with others.  King Lear in his “madness” sees the potential for hypocrisy within a justice system:

Lear: See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear. Change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?

Gloucester:  Ay, sir.

Lear: And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office… Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks; Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it. … Get thee glass eyes And, like a scurvy politician, seem To see the things thou dost not.

Measure for Measure contrasts large-minded and small-minded justice, while Portia in the Merchant of Venice sees mercy as integral to it:

Portia:. The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

Witchcraft, astrology, predestination, luck and magical thinking

Shakespeare did not believe in ghosts or witchcraft but drew on it for its dramatic effects.  From Hamlet:

‘Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world.

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!

But that I am forbid To tell the secrets of my prison house, I could a tale unfold whose lightest word Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, Thy knotted and combined locks to part, And each particular hair to stand on end Like quills upon the fretful porcupine…

‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark Is by a forged process of my death Rankly abus’d. But know, thou noble youth, The serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown…

Fare thee well at once. The glowworm shows the matin to be near And gins to pale his uneffectual fire. Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me.

And from Macbeth:

First witch: When shall we three meet again In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Second witch: When the hurlyburly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won.

A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap, And munch’d, and munch’d, and munch’d:— ‘Give me,’ quoth I: ‘Aroint thee, witch!’ the rump-fed ronyon cries. Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger: But in a sieve I’ll thither sail, And, like a rat without a tail, I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.

And the very ports they blow, All the quarters that they know … Though his bark cannot be lost, Yet it shall be tempest-tost…

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble…

Shakespeare challenged astrology, predetermination and magical thinking that denied people’s individual responsibility.  In sonnet 14 he writes: “not from the stars do I my judgement pluck”.  Helena says in All’s well that ends well: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie which we ascribe to heaven”.  Julius Caesar tells Brutus: “Men at some time are master of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Edmund in King Lear listens to his father Gloucester attributing human discord to mysterious forces and higher powers.  He soliloquises:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on.

An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing

Free thinking

Shakespeare understood the risks of speaking truth to people in power.  Kent stands up to the imperious King Lear, defends Cordelia, and is banished.  Kent is the model of a high integrity public servant.

Relationships based on gratitude cannot be relied on, any more than King Lear could buy loyalty by giving away his lands.   People, especially the vulnerable, must take care of themselves, and not depend on others for protection.

The strongest characters in Shakespeare are individuals who think for themselves, who refuse to adopt uncritically the views of others, who see things as they are and stand up for themselves.  They do what it takes to survive in a harsh world.

Humanism and human potential

William Shakespeare is the poet, dramatist, psychology and philosopher of the humanist world view.  He is above cultures and above race.  At the heart of his humanism is the dignity of individuals, their individuality and autonomy, human capacity to love, and the power of human imagination. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.”

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!

Language, music, and high culture

Shakespeare understood that language, music and high culture are what distinguishes humanity from base nature.

Music is the soul of love, and is integral to such plays as As you like it and The Tempest.  Cordelia and a doctor use music to try and restore Lear to health.  Shakespeare distrusts action men who have no time for music and poetry and creations of the higher mind.  Julius Caesar mistrusts Cassius’s “lean and hungry look” (would he were fatter!), for thinking too much: “he reads much, looks through the deeds of men, loves no plays, hears no music… Such men as he be never at heart’s ease whiles they behold a greater than themselves and therefore are they very dangerous”.

The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; The motions of his spirit are dull as night And his affections dark as Erebus:

Shakespeare’s love for music even permeates plays unrelated to it, such as Merchant of Venice[5].

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony. Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold: There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st But in his motion like an angel sings…,
While Shakespeare loved folk music, he also parodied its overly fantastic flourishes:

Here’s another ballad of a fish, that appeared upon the coast on Wednesday the four-score of April, forty thousand fathom above water, and sung this ballad against the hard hearts of maids.


Shakespeare was influenced by Christian culture, yet his world view was secular and humanistic.  He was deeply sceptical of the integrity of priests and others who claimed to be God’s representatives on earth:

When priests are more in word than matter; When brewers mar their malt with water; When nobles are their tailors’ tutors, No heretics burn’d, but wenches’ suitors; When every case in law is right, No squire in debt nor no poor knight; When slanders do not live in tongues, Nor cutpurses come not to throngs; When usurers tell their gold i’ th’ field, And bawds and whores do churches build: Then shall the realm of Albion Come to great confusion… This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time

King Lear’s deep current of irreligious thought and scepticism is set in pre-Christian times, and Lear and the fool in a dream-like conversation ask whether something can come from nothing, distantly challenging the Genesis account of creation.

Shakespeare understood that religion can be used for evil purposes:

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

There is a sense in Shakespeare that things can and will move on and will get better.  This theme is reflected in sonnet 32 where Shakespeare imagines his lover outliving him, that future poets will exceed Shakespeare’s heights, but that this will not take away from the love Shakespeare had while he lived.  His lover who outlives him can admire another living poet for his achievement, and Shakespeare for his love…

Tragedies such as King Lear are incompatible with a belief in God or in divine justice.  The gods are appealed to in King Lear; all of them are silent.

O you mighty gods,

This world I do renounce, and in your sights

Shake patiently my great affliction off.

If I could bear it longer and not fall

To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,

My snuff and loathèd part of nature should

Burn itself out. If Edgar live, O, bless him!


Ophelia responds to Laertes’ cautions about her relationship with Hamlet:

But, good my brother,do not as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine, himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, and recks not his own rede.


Ophelia is victimised by hypocritical and life-denying religion even after her death. The priest minimises the rites for Ophelia’s funeral.  She is given a Christian burial against the priest’s objections that her death was a suspected suicide, and therefore should condemn her to lie in unsanctified ground.

However, Shakespeare acknowledged his Christian cultural heritage in his will.


Shakespeare was acutely conscious of the stages of life, how different ages face different challenges, and that we must enjoy life when we have it:

When that I was and a little tiny boy, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, A foolish thing was but a toy, For the rain it raineth every day. But when I came to man’s estate, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, ‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate, For the rain it raineth every day But when I came, alas! to wive, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain By swaggering could I never thrive, For the rain, it raineth every day But when I came unto my beds, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain With toss-pots still had drunken heads, For the rain, it raineth every day A great while ago the world begun, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain But that’s all one, our play is done, And we’ll strive to please you every day.

He understood that teenage years were difficult ones:

I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting—

King Lear is partly about despised old age.  Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmund see old people’s existence as a burden on themselves, “the old must give way to the young”.  They hunger to inherit Lear and Gloucester’s property and power.  “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, that it had its head bit off by its young.”

King Lear himself satirises his two older daughters’ contempt for him:

Dear daughter, I confess that I am old.  Age is unnecessary.  On my knees I beg that you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food.


“Ingratitude, that marble-hearted fiend.”  “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child”.  King Lear ends:

The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest have borne most; we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Elderly people may give away their property to their children, only to find their children suddenly lose interest in them, or even secretly hope they pass away. This is a timeless issue.

Shakespeare brought out some of the best in humanity in those such as Cordelia, Edgar and Orlando (in As you like it) whose love and fidelity to elderly relatives or servants was ineffable but truer and less instrumentalist than those with the “oily arts” of the Gonerils and Regans.

Family tyrannies, both internal and between families

Shakespeare’s plays are full of authoritarian parents, especially fathers, tyrannising their children.  Desdemona in Othello, Hermia in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and Cordelia in King Lear are all bullied or threatened with death or banishment if they marry someone they love, refuse to marry someone they don’t love, or fail to give all their love to an imperious parent, even at the expense of reserving at least some love for a future husband.  Desdemona is a victim of her father and husband. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHT7WM2nsFk

Romeo and Juliet is of course the supreme indictment of the tyranny of feuds between families and branding through a family name: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.

Gender issues

Hamlet, driven up the wall by his mother Gertrude, says “frailty thy name is women.”  However, Shakespeare himself has extraordinary sympathy with female characters.  They are often the most powerful and intelligent people such as Rosalind and Viola, or those with the purest, deepest character such as Cordelia.

Rosalind is at Hamlet’s intellectual level, but has far more self-control.  She sustains her strong self and character while disguised as someone else, parlays a weak hand of cards into a winning one, and gets the last words in, in the epilogue where she looks the audience in the eye.  Interestingly, Celia in As you like it is the only character who maintains her autonomy from Rosalind, while also being her great friend and forest sister.  Celia is the one person Rosalind cannot command.

Rosalind is also very down to earth.  She is in love but will not die for love, she is in control of her own self, not maddened by the teeming brain of lovers.  She cures a youth of puppy love:

…full of tears, full of smiles…would now like him, now loathe him, then entertain him, then forswear him, now weep for him, then spit at him…to forswear the full stream of the world and to live in a nook merely monastic…


Even in the superficially patriarchal play Taming of the Shrew, Katie is really in control, while feigning subservience.

That Shakespeare was passionate about women is clear, and he fathered the first of his three children out of wedlock at age eighteen.  However some of his sonnets are addressed to one or more men, whether as patronage or authentic love.  He may have been bisexual, and arguably there is a homoerotic theme in the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio in Merchant of Venice.

Racism and cultural identity politics

Othello is a deeply anti-racist play.  https://winsleys.wordpress.com/2015/04/28/the-upstart-crow-and-why-i-feel-i-belong-here/

It was banned in Nazi Germany and in some southern US states, at least where Othello was played by a black actor.  In Merchant of Venice, Launcelot the servant is expected to make an honest woman out of the black girl he has gotten pregnant, and the black Morocco is a credible suitor for Portia.  In contrast the racist Gratiano is portrayed as venal and corrupt.

Shylock is portrayed with humanity and sympathy:

Shylock: I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? …If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

Nationalism and group identity politics

Shakespeare always put individuals and relationships between them as paramount in his works, and never put political theories, national, racial or cultural pride ahead of them.

Hamlet is a man alone facing a tyrannous rule and consumed by the need for a just revenge against one murderer.  He contrasts this with an invading army where thousands may die purely for a worthless symbol:

Witness this army of such mass and charge, Led by a delicate and tender prince, Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff’d, Makes mouths at the invisible event, Exposing what is mortal and unsure To all that fortune, death, and danger dare, Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great Is not to stir without great argument, But greatly to find quarrel in a straw … to my shame I see The imminent death of twenty thousand men That for a fantasy and trick of fame Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, Which is not tomb enough and continent To hide the slain?

Plays such as King John, Richard 11 and Henry V include some fine rhetoric that seems admirably patriotic at first blush.  England in Richard 11 is “this royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle…” In King John: “Nought shall make us rue, if England to itself do rest but true.”

Shakespeare’s historical plays such as Henry V are full of heroic speech.  “The youth of England are on fire…they sell that pasture now to buy the horse…”Tomorrow is Saint Crispian day … we few, we happy few” are portrayed as lucky because honour and glory are a fixed quantity and so the fewer there are the more honour and glory they get!

However, in King Lear, the French army are on the “good side” and the British on the “bad side”.  Shakespeare’s Henriad plays are subtle attacks on nationalism and its relationship to abuse of political power.  Henry V is an ironic attack on megalomaniacal state power. Henry V threatens a French town’s inhabitants with mass murder if they do not surrender.  French prisoners are massacred.  Shakespeare exposes the evil of war and deflates its “heroism”.

A key device in exposing nationalism’s dark underbelly is Falstaff, a larger than life, drinking and womanizing hedonist.  Falstaff teaches us not to moralise.  Lear laments his age while Falstaff transcends it.

In Henry IV part 1, Falstaff is told that he “owest God a death” and should die with honour.  Falstaff replies:

What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.



Shakespeare hates the “churlish knot of all-abhorred war…contumelieous, beastly, mad-brained war”.  Shakespeare’s military figures are typically deeply flawed and come to bad ends.  In Troilus and Cressida Greek classical heroes are shown in an unflattering, unheroic and unvirtuous light.  Heroes such as Edgar and Hamlet only take up arms reluctantly.

In Henry 1V Part two King Henry warns his son Hal he may have to pursue foreign quarrels to protect himself against civil strife. “…be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels…”  At the end of the play Hal rejects Falstaff so he can become a serious-minded, war-mongering monarch.

Despite the bombast of “once more into the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead” Shakespeare does not gloss over the horror of war. At the end of Henry V the audience is reminded that “they lost France and made his England bleed”.

Aristocratic privilege, bloodline and inheritance

Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies show kings, nobles and other aristocrats in a human and often unflattering light.  While individuals can murder other individuals, only people in positions of great power can do harm on a mass scale.  There are kings and aristocrats who murder their way into power – Richard 111, Macbeth and Claudius.  Others can lose their power, lands, sanity and lives through imperiousness and vanity (Lear).

Above all, kings and aristocrats are shown in Shakespeare not as having divine rights but as flawed human beings who make mistakes, can be ineffectual, mad, outsmarted, misunderstand things, have fatal flaws or behave capriciously, irrationally or with bad intent.

The histories and tragedies eroded the distance between the human and royalty.   They removed the artifice and the divine justification for power and its aura of invincibility.  They paved the way for the English revolution.

False pride and spurious and shallow honour and show of appearances

Shakespeare attacked pride, spurious and shallow honour displays and shows of appearances: “Small things make base men proud”.

The world is still deceived with ornament. In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt, But, being seasoned with a gracious voice, Obscures the show of evil? In religion, What damned error, but some sober brow Will bless it and approve it with a text, Hiding the grossness with fair ornament? There is no vice so simple but assumes Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:

In sonnet 25 Shakespeare notes that those patronized by the aristocracy, and famous warriors with honour and privilege are all vulnerable to having these baubles stripped away.  In sonnet 91 Shakespeare shows how people can be proud of the wrong things – wealth, inherited social status, clothes, hawks, hounds and horses.  Sonnet 125 disparages those who favour appearances and covet powerful people’s favours.

In the history plays Hotspur is in love with honour, Falstaff with wine and womanizing.  Pistol, Nim and boy in Henry V comment cynically on honour, militarism and conflict.  They are characters who are happy to trade off the chance of fame for a mug of beer, and safety.

Insecurity of power and greatness

A powerful theme in Shakespeare is how everyone is human, and that death conquers and levels all, the beggars and kings.  In Hamlet, “Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away”.

Richard 11 in a meditative moment reflects upon the underlying human frailty even of kings:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground And tell sad stories of the death of kings; … I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king?

Henry V reflects that, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”.

Political tyrannies

Shakespeare as a humanist was deeply suspicious of power that comes from inheritance and ambition for power.

Shakespeare’s plays often contrast power-hunger and the destruction it unleashes with humble, sane people ordering their lives around their family, friends, their loves and there making a living.   Shakespeare celebrates those “who doth ambition shun and love to live in the sun”, and woodland fellows “that always loved a great fire.”

Such people, and sometimes nature itself constitute the real world rather than a political fantasy world.  The porter scene in Macbeth is the only humorous scene and the only one where sane, balanced humanity is represented in a world of vaulting ambition, murder, witchcraft and power struggles.

Shakespeare’s attacks on tyranny are enduring and everlasting and take new forms as new tyrannies emerge.  This is reflected in the fate of Shakespeare’s works in Stalin’s Soviet Union.  Russian writers were long the conscience and abstract chronicles of that long-suffering nation, embodied its soul, and were often in the forefront of challenges to tyranny.

During the 1940 blitz when the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany, Anna Ahkmatova telegraphed which side Russia’s literati were on in To the Londoners. https://creativeconflictwisdom.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/anna-ahkmatova-1889-1966-conflict-poem-to-the-londoners-1940/

As George Orwell revealed in his essay Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool[6], Tolstoy could never abide Shakespeare’s unbounded love of life and wideness of mind, refusal to agonise over his soul and over death, and his exposure of hypocrisy.  Above all, he never forgave Shakespeare for the lessons from King Lear: if you give away your money and power as a way of getting an indirect advantage for yourself, don’t be surprised if others play by different rules and you live to regret it.  Loyalty to family does not always exist, especially with “pelican daughters” such as Goneril and Regan.

Stalin hated Hamlet, ostensibly because “Hamlet’s indecisiveness and depression were incompatible with the new Soviet spirit of optimism, fortitude, and clarity”.  Stalin banned Hamlet from 1941 till his death.  The great Soviet theatre director, Meyerhold was obsessed with Hamlet and had plans to stage it.  He was murdered by Stalin’s secret police and his wife stabbed to death.

Hamlet was too close to the bone for Stalin. Like Claudius, Stalin had murdered for power.   He believed the ends justified the means.  Shakespeare never believed that individual dignity, rights and lives should be sacrificed for some collectivist mass project or delusion.  Hamlet was a highly intelligent, sceptical observer who was close to power, and just a sword stroke away from the head of state…

Hamlet retains his autonomy in the midst of a tyranny, and this is dangerous to an autocrat: “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer…The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them..”


In Shakespeare’s England, except in London and a few larger towns, people lived close to and as part of nature.  He loves the “cuckoo buds of yellow hue that paint the meadows with delight[7]”, the owls’ ‘tu-whit too whoo’, the icicles hanging by the wall, as Tom drags logs into the hall…

In places his works shows an awe of the stars and night sky, but his love for nature is mainly expressed through man living in and with nature, in farms, “poor pelting villages”, in the forest of Arden where there are books in brooks and words in streams and poems on trees… Shakespeare alludes to herbal remedies, and to the use of egg white and cobwebs for their antiseptic or healing properties.

Shakespeare delighted in nature, the colours, dynamism, plants and what they connoted, birds, their calls and animals.  So much of his love involved people interwoven in and interacting with nature, the “shepherds piping on oaten straws” and “merry larks are ploughmen’s clocks”:

Where the bee sucks. there suck I: In a cowslip’s bell I lie; There I couch when owls do cry. On the bat’s back I do fly After summer merrily.
He did not see nature as separate from people:

Ceres, most bounteous lady, thy rich leas Of wheat, rye, barley, vetches, oats and pease; Thy turfy mountains, where live nibbling sheep, And flat meads thatch’d with stover, them to keep; Thy banks with pioned and twilled brims, Which spongy April at thy hest betrims, To make cold nymphs chaste crowns; and thy broom -groves, Whose shadow the dismissed bachelor loves,

He was the supreme poet of man as part of nature, drawing meaning from what plants stood for and what birds’ songs meant, and how nature’s storms and cold felt for people.

In Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy world transcends human brick and mortar existence and merges with a magical world where plants and insects live their own lives to be admired in themselves and as they relate to human needs for medicines, for wonder, for lighted candles, for peaceful children, and for sheer delight:

Your eyes are lode-stars; and your tongue’s sweet air More tuneable than lark to shepherd’s ear, When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.
The contending world of humans and spirits are intertwined:

Puck: How now, spirit! whither wander you?

Fairy: Over hill, over dale, Thorough bush, thorough brier, Over park, over pale, Thorough flood, thorough fire, I do wander everywhere, Swifter than the moon’s sphere; And I serve the fairy queen, To dew her orbs upon the green. The cowslips tall her pensioners be: In their gold coats spots you see; Those be rubies, fairy favours, In those freckles live their savours: I must go seek some dewdrops here And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear. Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I’ll be gone: Our queen and all our elves come here anon.

Puck: The king doth keep his revels here to-night: Take heed the queen come not within his sight; For Oberon is passing fell and wrath, Because that she as her attendant hath A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king; She never had so sweet a changeling; And jealous Oberon would have the child Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild; But she perforce withholds the loved boy, Crowns him with flowers and makes him all her joy: And now they never meet in grove or green, By fountain clear, or spangled starlight sheen, But, they do square, that all their elves for fear Creep into acorn-cups and hide them there.

Fairy: Either I mistake your shape and making quite, Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he That frights the maidens of the villagery; Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern And bootless make the breathless housewife churn; And sometime make the drink to bear no barm; Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm? Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck, You do their work, and they shall have good luck: Are not you he?

Puck: Thou speak’st aright; I am that merry wanderer of the night. I jest to Oberon and make him smile When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile, Neighing in likeness of a filly foal: And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl, In very likeness of a roasted crab, And when she drinks, against her lips I bob And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale. The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale, Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me; Then slip I from her bum, down topples she, And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough; And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh, And waxen in their mirth and neeze and swear A merrier hour was never wasted there.

Oberon: Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania…

Titania’s rebuff to Oberon is eerily predictive of climate change:

Titania: These are the forgeries of jealousy: And never, since the middle summer’s spring, Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead, By paved fountain or by rushy brook, Or in the beached margent of the sea, To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind, But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport. Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain, As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea Contagious fogs; which falling in the land Have every pelting river made so proud That they have overborne their continents: The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain, The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard; The fold stands empty in the drowned field, And crows are fatted with the murrion flock; The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud, And the quaint mazes in the wanton green For lack of tread are undistinguishable: The human mortals want their winter here; No night is now with hymn or carol blest: Therefore the moon, the governess of floods, Pale in her anger, washes all the air, That rheumatic diseases do abound: And thorough this distemperature we see The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose, And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer, The childing autumn, angry winter, change Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world, By their increase, now knows not which is which: And this same progeny of evils comes From our debate, from our dissension; We are their parents and original

Shakespeare can turn giving someone directions into supreme naturalistic poetry:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine: There sleeps Titania sometime of the night, Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight
Titania’s last act before wishing others goodnight is not something mundane, like putting the cat out, but:

…a roundel and a fairy song; Then, for the third part of a minute, hence; Some to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds, Some war with rere-mice for their leathern wings, To make my small elves coats, and some keep back The clamorous owl that nightly hoots and wonders At our quaint spirits. Sing me now asleep; Then to your offices, and let me rest…

You spotted snakes with double tongue, Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen; Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong, Come not near our fairy queen. Philomel, with melody Sing in our sweet lullaby; Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby: Never harm, Nor spell nor charm, Come our lovely lady nigh; So, good night, with lullaby. Weaving spiders, come not here; Hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence! Beetles black, approach not near; Worm nor snail, do no offence.

And she is so imaginative in her kindness:

Be kind and courteous to this gentleman; Hop in his walks and gambol in his eyes; Feed him with apricocks and dewberries, With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries; The honey-bags steal from the humble-bees, And for night-tapers crop their waxen thighs And light them at the fiery glow-worm’s eyes, To have my love to bed and to arise; And pluck the wings from painted butterflies To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes..

In Romeo and Juliet, the headstrong and mercurial Mercutio has a flight of imaginative fantasy where he communes with an imaginary fairy world:

Mercutio: O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes In shape no bigger than an agate-stone On the fore-finger of an alderman, Drawn with a team of little atomies Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep; Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders’ legs, The cover of the wings of grasshoppers, The traces of the smallest spider’s web, The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams, … Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub, Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers. And in this state she gallops night by night Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love; O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight, O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
In As you like it , Orlando, Rosalind, Celia and others are banished to the Forest of Arden, where “there is no clock in the forest”.  Orlando loves Rosalind, and nature becomes the paper on which love poems are written:

O Rosalind! these trees shall be my books, And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character…, Run, run, Orlando; carve on every tree, The fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she. If a hart do lack a hind, Let him seek out Rosalind. If the cat will after kind, So be sure will Rosalind…

And this our life, exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
Those who live in harmony with nature can enjoy a simple and contended life:

Sir, I am a true labourer: I earn that I eat, get that I wear; owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness; glad of other men’s good, content with my harm; and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck…

the property of rain is to wet, and fire to burn; that good pasture makes fat sheep; and that a great cause of the night is lack of the sun…

he that doth the ravens feed, yet providentially caters for the sparrow be comfort to my age

Even the worse weather causes less pain than bad things that happen between people:

Blow, blow thou winter wind, though art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude…thou sting is not so sharp as friend remembered not.

Life must be lived, and love of life

The Middle Ages asserted a supremely powerful and all-creating God who lay in judgement on our immortal souls, and who divinely mandated the earthly powers of royalty and aristocracy.  In contrast, humanism was more concerned with living life as it was, and the nature of human relationships, rather than treating life as a transitional preparation for an after-life.

Shakespeare’s loved life for itself and within its bounds. He accepted the conditions of life, and that it is there to be lived.  Shakespeare had no obvious belief in an undiscovered country from which a traveller may return.  You have to enjoy live now, enjoy all things around you, and knowing that some things survive: poetry, children, others’ memories of you, and your enduring achievements.

Shakespeare plays with the image of time moving in one direction only, “if as a crab I could go backwards.”  He uses distance in time and sequencing of events and lifetimes to protect himself from accusations of heresy, apostasy or political subversion.  “These prophecies Merlin shall make, but I live before his time.”  

There is no evidence he believed in an immortal soul in a strictly literal and religious sense.  In his poems and in the last lines of Hamlet and Othello his tragic heroes want to be remembered after their deaths, for the right reasons.

There is no greater lover of life in Shakespeare than Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV and in the Merry Wives of Windsor.  He is an intelligent and quite learned man.  He debunks honour, glory, and nationalistic cant.  He is allegedly a coward but defends himself, pointing out that discretion is the better part of valour.  Rather than a “victory of death” rhetoric on the battlefield, his cry is “give me life”. He praises drinking and has a bottle of Spanish wine rather than a pistol on the battle field.

Falstaff appears in three plays, and Mrs Quickly has known him for over 29 years, has seen all sides of him, and still loves him.  In her account of his death she told of how Falstaff:

…babbled of green fields…and all was as cold as stone.

While Lear and Ophelia are garnered with weeds or drowned with them, Falstaff engaged with flowers and symbols of life to the end: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PedB0DWay0

However, Shakespeare knew the danger of excessive drinking, warning “O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains”.  He alludes to “falser than vows made in wine”.  The porter lines from Macbeth are famous:

it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance: therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him

Vaulting ambition

Shakespeare’s bad characters are often motivated by “vaulting” or “blown” ambition, motivated by power for its own sake, not for what the exercise of justice, fair dealing or human advancement.  “Lowliness is young ambition’s ladder whereto the climber upward turns his face”.  Macbeth reflects that, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on the other.” In contrast, Cordelia says, “No blown ambition doth our arms incite, but love, dear love and our ag’d father’s right.”

The love of language and poetry for its aesthetic powers

Shakespeare loved words, language and poetry for the aesthetic beauty, how they sound.  The poetry was in his head and he had to write his plays and poems to express them, even when the plots and themes do not require them.

If you read and relish Shakespeare, understand him and take him to your heart he will always be with you.  The following includes some lines memorable for their poetry, and some for meaning that may only come later in life, so you can read them and reflect on them as you live life to the full:

I go, I go, look how I go, swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow.

Hence, away! now all is well, one aloof stand sentinel.

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.

Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth.

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

The moon’s an arrant thief, whose pale fire she snatches from the sun.

I am constant as the Northern Star.

Light seeking light doth light of light beguile.

Winter of our discontent

Put out the light and then put out the light.

Deeper than did ever plummet sound I’ll drown my book

Rising and cawing at the gun’s report.

I have set my life upon a cast and will stand the hazard of the die.

How bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes.

Give me that man that is not passion’s slave.

Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Is’t possible a young maid’s wits should be as mortal as an old man’s life?

Let the stricken deer go weep, the hart ungalled play; for some must watch while some must sleep: so runs the world away.

What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.

To my sick soul (as sin’s true nature is)

Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss.  So full of artless jealousy is guilt,

It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.


Love all, trust a few, Do wrong to none.


Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind; the thief doth fear every bush an officer.


The night is long that never finds the day.


I have a kind of alacrity in sinking.

O God! that one might read the book of fate

And what makes robbers bold, but too much lenity.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones;

When majesty stoops to folly.

Thus Kent, o princes, bids you all adieu, he’ll shape his old course in a country new.

He hath ever but slenderly known himself.

If our father would sleep till I waked him.

To be a comrade with the wolf and owl.

Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness.

I do not like the fashion of your garments, you will tell them they are Persian but let them be changed.

And I’ll go to bed at noon.

You have been sunshine and rain at once.

I know you what you are.

Love, and be silent.

Come not between the dragon and his wrath.

The worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.

To be acknowledg’d, madam, is o’erpaid

Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither; ripeness is all.

I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats; If it be man’s work, I’ll do’t.

The lady protests too much.

This is the very coinage of your brain.

More matter, with less art.

Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low- an excellent thing in woman.

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all?

I have a journey, sir, shortly to go. My master calls me; I must not say no.

On a day–alack the day!– Love, whose month is ever May, Spied a blossom passing fair Playing in the wanton air: Through the velvet leaves the wind, All unseen, can passage find; That the lover, sick to death, Wish himself the heaven’s breath.

All my pretty ones…

Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.

Out, damned spot!

But what’s his offence?  Groping for trout in a peculiar river.

How far that little candle throws his beams – so shines a good deed in a naughty world.

And the country proverb known, that every man should take his own, in your waking shall be shown, Jack shall have Jill, naught shall go ill..and all will be well.

The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief.

It’s not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but it’s enough,’twill serve: …

A plague on both your houses!.

Come away, come away, death, And in sad cypress let me be laid; Fly away, fly away breath; I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

I have drunk, and seen the spider.

This is fairy gold, boy.

If ever you have looked on better days…and know what tis to pity and be pitied.

Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead, excessive grief the enemy of the living.

There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.

This quarry cries on havoc.

I shall not look upon his like again.

There’s daggers in men’s smiles.

Fortune, turn thy wheel.

It is as easy as lying.

When a father gives to his son, both laugh.  When a son gives to a father, both cry.

Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.

Love thrives not in the heart that shadows dreadeth.

Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.
Read and immerse yourself in Shakespeare for a lifetime and he will always be ahead of you!

[1] https://www.google.co.nz/?gws_rd=ssl#q=no+fear+shakespeare+sparknotes

[2] That is, the last play he wrote entirely himself; in semi-retirement he collaborated with some other writers on other plays.

[3] There are wonderful dramatized, and often set to music versions of Shakespeare sonnets at http://sonnetprojectnyc.com/


[4] Bedlam beggars were often mentally people left to roam the countryside begging for survival.  They were the subject of one of the most famous anonymous poems in the English language: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_o%27_Bedlam

[5] These lines are set to music by Vaughan Williams. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFBj-qWLrsw


[6] http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/lear/english/e_ltf

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSLodFqYlPQ


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Overcoming child poverty, with the future in mind

Overcoming child poverty, with the future in mind

By Peter Winsley, December 2016


Child poverty in New Zealand can be defined as an economic and sociological state that impedes children reaching their full potential.

Poverty in New Zealand is relative not absolute.  Compared to other developed countries, New Zealand has good material consumption levels and inequality is not extreme (Grimes & Hyland, 2015a, 2015b; Perry, 2016).

In dynamic economies inequality is associated with high social mobility.  It should reflect meritocracy, not impermeable class barriers.  It should see people connected to the same country and its journey through history, rather than divide people.

High inequality is not a problem if the social mobility traffic stream is moving forward.  Problems arise when the traffic becomes grid-locked.  Inequality then becomes entrenched and frustrates expectations people have that life will get better.  Child deprivation results from entrenched inequality, and perpetuates it into future generations.

This in turn can lead to socio-economic class segmentation and conflict.  Norman Kirk once said people “don’t ask for much: someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work, and something to hope for”.  Without social mobility as “something to hope for”, people become alienated as they see fair society narratives ringing hollow, implicit contracts dishonoured, and trust in institutions decaying.

“Social class” is a self-defeating term in meritocratic societies with high social mobility.  It is a descriptive term where economic stagnation, corporate and capital owner welfare and poor childhood environments impede mobility.

Class barriers can erode New Zealand’s fair society narrative and implicit social contract.  This narrative and contract assume people can reach their full potential if they behave in certain ways, and there is a supportive environment.  They delineate the rights and responsibilities of individuals, society and government.  From these are derived laws and social norms.

Child deprivation damages health, learning, and leads to benefit dependency and crime.  When people fail to reach their potential, New Zealand forgoes productivity gains, cultural achievements and community.  Deprivation hurts us today, and its longer-term effects harm future generations.  Addressing it effectively at the right lifecycle stages delivers exceptional returns.  Why then is New Zealand as a society making so little progress on reducing child poverty?

Why are we making so little progress in reducing child poverty?

Reducing child poverty is impeded by:

Denial of key issues

 Key issues are denied through opaque or vapid language, or silence.  Since language is the medium of thought, this corrupts our ability to see issues clearly, and to think them through.

Examples include denial of the importance of family structure, that cognitive ability is partly heritable, that poverty degrades parental competencies, and that some cultural behaviours cause deprivation.  There is a tacit ban on the term “social class”.

We deny the realities that some people will not learn from mistakes, that some are incapable of parenting, and that most child deprivation would disappear in a generation if people decide only to have children they will love, nurture, and can afford.

 Failure to distinguish between situational and cultural deprivation

Child deprivation in developed countries can be considered as either situational or cultural, though there are inter-relationships between the two.  Situational deprivation is effort-independent.  It arises from events beyond individual control.  These include downturns leading to job loss, changes in unavoidable costs such as housing, food or energy, or unexpected health problems.  People are prepared to help others overcome situational deprivation.

Cultural deprivation is closely-related to individual effort, or lack of it. It results from bad parenting, poor values, weak self-control, and denial of personal responsibility.  People are reluctant to help others manage this deprivation.

People innately sympathise with the situationally-deprived.  Support for social welfare systems depends on whether people are perceived to be trying or not, and whether outcomes are effort-independent or not (Petersen et al, 2012).

There is an innate lack of sympathy for those whose plight is self-authored.  The mind has modules for cheater detection and punishment.  We innately resent free-riding and paying for the costs of other’s negligence, laziness, or weak self-control.  It may also be rational to oppose resource transfers to those who will make poor use of them.

Insufficient distinction between today’s deprivation and avoiding it in future

To tolerate or reward poor parenting allows the behaviour to continue, get worse, and persist inter-generationally.  However, it is morally bereft not to address today’s child deprivation, since children are dependent on adult care.

The public policy challenge is ensuring children have the best opportunities in life, without reinforcing poor parenting.  For example, sanctions such as conditional obligations may be tough on parents, but they must not harm children.

Today’s child poverty must be addressed differently to how future deprivation is avoided.  This means intervention must address today’s challenges, while creating incentives that shape a better future.

Deviation from socially productive resource allocation

Market workings can be subverted by those in powerful positions influencing policy and regulatory frameworks.  This leads for example to policies that are pro-business rather than pro-market.  It is associated with private capture of rents, and socialisation of losses.

The regulatory machinery, tax and property rights regimes can disconnect economic rewards from people’s real, socially valuable productivity contributions.  For example, teachers are as skilled as Wall Street bankers and are more socially valuable, but are paid much less.  Teachers do not cause macroeconomic crises, and when they fail they are dismissed, not bailed out.

Globalisation and technological change are welfare-enhancing so long as economic growth and returns on human capital are broadly dispersed and exceed returns on concentrated physical and financial capital.  However, “trickle-down” policies and regulatory capture allow privileged people to turn income streams into concentrated physical and financial capital that amplifies their advantage and creates barriers to social mobility.

Corporate welfare, business environmental free-riding, weak regulation of financial markets, of building quality and of workplace safety, regulatory barriers to new business entries, and restrictions on new housing developments have typically favoured capital owners, at others’ expense.  Largely middle class students have captured the benefits of interest-free student loans, depriving the school system of resources and impeding higher education access for many from poor backgrounds.

High-performing economies require human, financial and other resources being directed to socially useful effort that benefits people, and at the right life stages.  This applies to government services, as well as to businesses delivering value to customers.

Value destruction results from ignoring this principle.  The 2008 financial crisis partly resulted from banking system “innovation” that involved profit not service maximisation.  It was exacerbated by government-mandated lending policies, and a failure to track property right transactions in a publicly visible way.

Product market companies such as Apple and Big Pharma businesses engaged in tax arbitrage, financialised their businesses through share buy-back and other activities, and ignored their product lines and customers (see Lazonick, 2014, 2015).  This reduced innovation and productivity growth investment and led to massive output loss.  Housing purchases focused on speculative gains, rather than on expanding housing supply.

Addressing child poverty means being supportive of well-regulated markets that allocate resources effectively, and for socially beneficial purposes.

Proposed ways forward

 Ways forward for public policy depend on guiding principles.

These are that children’s interests are paramount, and in a fair society all can reach their potential.  An individual child’s interests must prevail over ethnic, religious, cultural, kin or political identities and ideologies.  This may mean overriding group ideologies relating, for example, to female education, blood transfusion, or child custody transfers between kin and non-kin groups.

Children should not suffer for societal or parental failings.  Government should reinforce good parenting through services it provides and incentives it creates.  Parents have primary responsibility for children’s well-being, and they have obligations as well as rights.  Lifting children out of deprivation should not reinforce parenting harmful for children.

Addressing child poverty requires a multi-partisan strategy.  This must be developed within a social cost-benefit rather than accounting frame.  It must form part of an economic growth strategy with widely-shared benefits.  The focus must be elevating the bottom and middle through productivity growth and new opportunities, rather than redistribution within a static zero sum game.

Investing in children can be delivered in ways that lift savings and capital formation rates.  It can reduce crime and other social costs.  It is associated with intergenerational transmission of education.  It can counter the economic effects of an ageing population, address secular stagnation, lift future productivity and increase labour market participation.  In short, our children are our future and are the best of all possible investments.

Specifically, two distinct but complementary strategies are proposed.  One addresses today’s deprived children, whether victims of situational, effort-independent variance, or cultural, effort-dependent variance.  It ameliorates deprivation through services best delivered by government, rather than by families themselves, while avoiding crowding out individual responsibility.

This strategy should invest in beneficiaries’ children on similar terms as those of working parent’s.  Welfare to work strategies are good policy, and mechanisms such as in-work tax credits can have positive health as well as economic benefits (see Muennig et al, 2016).  However, children’s interests are paramount and so links between work, tax advantages and other incentives should not be punitive.  Therefore, resources delivered to non-working beneficiaries’ children should directly benefit children, and not reward parental disengagement from work.

This strategy needs to be reinforced by asymmetrical paternalism.  This can benefit those suffering from bounded rationality and weak self-control, without imposing costs on others.  Examples include contract “cooling off” periods, and framing of business promotions in ways facilitating informed consumer choices.

The second strategy focuses on avoiding future deprivation.  This includes changing the calculus of parenting decisions in ways that avoid children being born into cultural deprivation in future.  It includes a capability development approach to grow individuals’ future wealth-creating capabilities, rather than social welfare transfers to subsidise consumption.  This aims to lift productivity through expanded human and other wealth-creating capital formation.

Interventions for today’s deprived children

 Poverty degrades parental capabilities, leaving child development deficits that public interventions can address efficiently.  Children are resilient to some deprivations, such as poor clothing and few holidays and entertainments.  They are highly vulnerable to other deprivations, such as epigenetic risks and respiratory illnesses.

Interventions must be precisely targeted to where they can make the biggest difference.  Key interventions include:

 Investing early and at the right points in children’s cognitive and social development

Poverty causes stress, and can have biochemical effects on child development (see Gluckman, 2009; Gunnar & Quevedo, 2007).  Children from stressful backgrounds can suffer from under-development of the prefrontal executive system and the brain’s language system (Noble et al, 2007; Farah et al, 2006).  This harms working memory, task planning and impulse control, with low executive function especially harmful for self-regulation.

Early development of executive function shapes language abilities and predicts later academic achievement (Blair & Diamond, 2008).  Language ability is critical, and high vocabulary correlates with real work ability (Hirsch, 2013).  Low socio-economic status is associated with around 30% of variance in language ability (Noble et al, 2007).

Child cognitive and non-cognitive skills diverge at early stages between families of different permanent income (Heckman & Mosso, 2014).  At least 50% of the variability of lifetime earnings is due to attributes determined by age 18 (Heckman & Mosso, 2014).  Cross-fostering studies suggest that around 50% of IQ disparity in children is experiential (Capron & Duyme, 1989).

Cognitive skills are largely formed by around eight to ten years old, and the ability to change human neural circuitry is highest early in life and decreases with time (Knudsen et al, 2006).  Investing early in children avoids poverty damaging cognitive and non-cognitive development.  Cognitive ability and soft skill development can be improved through early intervention at key life-stages (Heckman & Mosso, 2014; Heckman & Kautz, 2012).

There are excellent returns from high quality early childhood education (Doyle et al, 2009).  Advances in neuroscience, psychology and sociology, and growing data analytical capabilities, can allow interventions to be targeted effectively.

There is no equity-efficiency trade-off in investing in the capabilities of young children from low socio-economic backgrounds.  However, adult education programmes to remediate earlier educational neglect produce poor results for most individuals (Knudsen et al, 2006).

Deal with failures in information, construal and response

Information failings underlie child poverty.  These relate to complex epigenetic, pre-natal, child development, education and socialisation knowledge, through to nutritional understanding and financial literacy.

Government has a key role in some specialised knowledge-intensive services.  Examples include diagnosing and treating health issues and learning disorders, helping people navigate educational processes, and delivering financial literacy programmes.

Government can regulate framing and choice architecture to make information construable and likely to be acted on (see Kahneman & Tversky (eds), 2000).  Low cost psychological interventions can enhance aspiration for those from low income families (Yeager & Walton, 2011).  The evidence suggests that cognitive performance is not a fixed resource, and it can be expanded if people believe it can be.

 Focus on female education

Better educated parents and especially mothers have healthier children.  A mother’s education is a key determinant of children’s later achievement and life prospects (Currie & Moretti, 2003).

Policy settings mean that for young, poorly educated females having children gives income and a social status.  A transition from school to motherhood can appear attractive compared to unemployment or minimum wage, casual work.

Engaging young females in education builds their capabilities, flowing through to higher aspirations.  It also delays fertility to an age when people have higher self-awareness and self-control.  This is when better decisions are made on whether to have children, how many, and what obligations this entails.

Uplifting female education has transformative multi-generational impacts, thereby bridging today’s needs and tomorrow’s opportunities.

 Focus on children’s health

 This means free and accessible children’s health care, with a strong early stage and preventive orientation.  It includes timely intervention to address such “third world” illnesses as rheumatic fever.  It means that no smoking or drug abuse become fundamental lifestyle tenets.

Healthy diet must become a habit rather than an exception.  Good diet is a parental, not a state responsibility.  Breakfast programmes run by businesses or social agencies reinforce parental irresponsibility and the deprivation it gives rise to.

Government’s role is to ensure people have good nutritional understanding, and to nudge them to act on it.  This is an informational role, and may require regulatory intervention, for example through sugar drink taxes.  Government might also support cost-recovery school lunch programmes where parents are time-scarce and have poor nutritional understanding.

Children’s health also means healthy, quality, affordable housing.


Piketty (2014) hypothesised rising economic returns accruing to capital compared to labour.  However, much of the evidence reflects housing ownership and higher imputed rents to home owners, rather than entrepreneurship, venture capital or new wealth-creating endeavours (La Cava, 2016).  Wilkinson & Jeram (2016) also highlighted the impact housing prices have had on inequality and deprivation.

Housing must be seen more as a foundation for life, family and bringing up children in a good environment, rather than as a store of wealth or a speculative investment.

Reducing regulatory restrictions on housing supply would expand affordable housing stock and reduce deprivation.  It would make it easier for people to move from low to higher productivity regions, delivering a productivity and incomes dividend.

Social housing development should replicate the housing conditions of well-functioning families, including household stability.  There is room for social housing innovation for middle class New Zealanders, as well as for the lower income.

 A social housing model could be developed based on permanent leases with rents set on a fixed ratio to the cost of rates.  This could promote secure tenure for families within a predictable rental band, without requiring home ownership.  It could foster similar household stability to that which home owners enjoy.  It would give tenants an incentive to participate in local government elections to ensure value for money for rates-funded services.

Unlike home ownership, a permanent tenure social housing model would not act as a store of wealth that could be liquidated.  However, tenants/leaseholders would have similar tenure stability as home owners.  Such a model would allow individuals to invest more in the productive sector, such as through entrepreneurial and equity investments, rather than invest in inflating the price of a fixed housing stock.

 Removing temptations and stresses from the financially and time-poor

George Orwell in Road to Wigan Pier, and economists such as Mullainathan & Shafir (2013) noted how poverty degrades self-control and rational behaviour.

Energy, time and computational ability are scarce resources that can be depleted. Rich and poor people have the same basic psychology.  However, poorer people’s self-control is more depleted because of the greater stresses they face, rather than because of moralistic failings.

Poorer people have fewer margins for error, and face worse consequences when self-control fails.  More automatic behaviours demand less self-control than active choices (Baumeister et al, 1998).  Under stress, people can “downshift” and rely on automatic responses rather than rational decision-making.  Poorer people may face unexpected repair, health or other unbudgeted expenses that wealthy people can easily handle, but which can push deprived households further into difficulty.

Interventions can reduce the space within which poorer people make bad decisions.  They can remove temptations that erode self-control.  The approach is to “tie Odysseus to the mast”.  Fresh food-free zones can be replaced with junk food-free zones around schools.  Pokie machines, fringe lenders and food trucks can be banned from vulnerable neighbourhoods.  This means they will disappear, as they cannot survive in self-determining places.

Avoiding deprivation in future generations

Key interventions include:

 Fostering responsible decisions on parenting and family structures

Large families were associated historically with high infant mortality, old age insecurity, patriarchal control, religious and traditional strictures and poor education.

Family size has declined as a result of better education, lower child mortality rates, enhanced women’s rights, and changing cultural and religious beliefs.

We now have universal sex education and access to birth control.  High quality health care, housing and nutrition have dramatically reduced infant mortality.  Superannuation, ACC and other safety nets reduce adult dependence on children’s support.

Fewer children mean more can be invested in their education and capability development, removing deprivation risk.  Having children is a choice.  Having a large family reflects recurring choice, with the consequences becoming increasingly obvious.  It is a fundamental obligation for parents to have only those children they can nurture to their full potential.

High fertility in low income families now largely reflects poor decision-making capabilities, and vertical transmission of behaviours through deprived families, not rational choices and responses to horizontal learning from wider sources (see Zakharenko, 2016).

Some people are incapable of good parenting, yet they still have children without being held accountable for the resulting deprivation.  Where past behaviour predicts likely future bad outcomes then there is no longer a moral right to have children.  Some potentially capable parents fail because of weak obligations on them to treat parenting as their most fundamental human responsibility.  Their behaviour can change in response to high societal obligations, and to conditionality in government services and resource transfers.

Society must encourage the right parental understanding and decision making on fertility and parental obligations.  These go beyond legal obligations.  They mean active, concerted parenting, not just meeting basic needs and then leaving children to their own devices.

Currently, disengaged parenting and child neglect are “sins of omission”, while child abuse is a “sin of commission”.  Child neglect through passive and disengaged parenting should be progressively reframed as a sin of commission.  We will know we have succeeded when we no longer see children and young people hanging around unaccompanied, lacking parental guidance or other mentorship.

Society can augment parental capabilities and enrich children’s lives through expanding green and public space and cultural services.  These influence positively the environment in which children develop.  Their non-rivalry and openness to all encourages wide public support for their provision.

Family structure is a key determinant in child well-being.  Many children are born without a formal family structure being in place.  Mitchell (2016) noted that the proportion of children born to married couples fell from 95% to 53% between 1961 and 2015.  Between 1968 and 2015 the proportion of Maori children born to married parents fell from 72% to 21%.  Around 51% of children in poverty live in single parent households.

Fundamental in psychology is the importance of symbolic and substantive commitment devices that force parties to think about their obligations and which pose a psychic cost to reneging on them.  Moral commitment is needed to engaged parenting and to family structures that support good childhoods.

A marriage is a commitment with legal standing, symbolic power and moral heft.  Marriage breakups, single parent and blended households may not be damaging to children when parents are educated, responsible, and in good financial shape.  They can lead to child deprivation when parents have weaker capabilities.  While many marriages will fail, commitment to a socially and legally mandated family structure will reduce child deprivation.

Reductions in corporate and special interest group welfare

Rent-seeking behaviours, special interest groups and the regulatory barriers that entrench them create private but not social value.

Business and capital owner welfare must be challenged.  Wilkinson & Jeram (2016) cite the one billion dollar bail-out of South Canterbury Finance.  Rose (2014) also sought to quantify corporate welfare.  Some income support can subsidise employers and keep downwards pressure on wages.  There is significant non-compliance with minimum employment conditions in some sectors.

New Zealand is rightly an open society with a permissive immigration system that welcomes diversity.  However a factor in low skill migration is business owners wanting cheap labour, and home owners and landlords wanting housing price inflation and higher rents.  Immigration could focus on the highly skilled and innovative, and for humanitarian reasons on refugees whose motivation to do better compensates for any language or skill deficits.

Rising house prices and rental costs have exacerbated effort-independent child deprivation.  Removing barriers to new housing developments would make a huge dent in child deprivation.  Funding for accommodation supplements should be used to expand housing supply, not to subsidise landlords and indirectly inflate property prices.

These issues require changed policy settings that avoid corporate and capital owner welfare, and improve resource allocation.

Shifting from social welfare transfers to capability development

Social welfare transfers that maintain consumption rather than expand capabilities effectively keep people in poverty.

Addressing cultural (as opposed to situational) deprivation with income transfers erodes personal responsibility and makes people passive.  Dependency-based welfare can make life devoid of meaning, leading to higher morbidity, suicide rates and other social ills than in less developed countries.

Subsidies for consumption without reciprocal obligations guarantee child deprivation.  They should be replaced progressively by an education, capability development and asset creation approach to children’s development.  The aim is to avoid deprived childhoods turning into deprived adulthoods.

The best way to reduce child deprivation is to lift economy-wide productivity.  Investing in children must be a part of economic growth strategy.  It needs to benefit the wider society as well as individual children.  In the same way, compulsory savings can help to both lift individual net worth and create investment capital to drive economy-wide growth.

Children could have vested in them at birth an account to be used only for their capability development.  Eligible expenditures might include early child through to tertiary education costs, health expenditures, home ownership, investment assets, and net worth enhancement.

Child poverty discourse largely excludes net worth, though recent work (Chapple et al, 2015) is starting to address this.  Net worth creates financial leverage and supports self-determining mind-sets.  Holding assets is associated with better socio-economic outcomes (Brynner & Paxton, 2001) and with children’s educational attainment (Zhan & Sherraden, 2003).

Child capability development accounts could serve wider purposes such as macroeconomic stability, smoothing out lifecycle incomes, and fostering retirement saving.  These accounts could be universal, with government and other contributions being weighted to the poor.

Capability development accounts would expand human and investment capital.  By lifting future earnings capacity and net worth they would be a form of pre-distribution rather than re-distribution.  They could therefore be core to a strategy to reduce inequality.

A capability development strategy can attract multi-partisan support, since education and capital asset formation contribute to higher productivity and therefore wider societal benefits.  Crucially, it means investment in children’s capabilities, not subsidies for parental consumption.

We will see optimum investment in deprived children when it is seen to benefit all, and when it reinforces the right parental behaviours.  Failing these, child deprivation will persist, get worse, and degrade opportunity and our fair society narrative even further.

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Maori, identity and socio-economic development

Maori, identity and socio-economic development

By Peter Winsley, July 2016


Maori[i] always wanted to do better economically.  Their ancestors migrated to Aoteoroa for a better life.  Their culture rapidly adapted to new technological and institutional opportunities and circumstances.  From earliest European contact Maori sought trade, technology and new institutions to deliver higher incomes, net worth and economic self-determination at the individual and whanau level.

Maori have failed to reach their full potential, partly due to their initial technological and institutional starting point, and the Crown’s failure, largely in the nineteenth century, to fully implement the Waitangi Treaty.  More recently, Maori suffered from labour market change, from policy settings that created passivity and short-termism, from negative stereotypical attitudes, and from flawed narratives and mind-sets relating to education, incomes and net worth.

For Maori to achieve their full socio-economic potential we need to drive off core time-honoured culture and kaupapa which have historically been instrumental in Maori survival.  We need to reject out-dated and self-defeating cultural behaviours, mind-sets and narratives, and foster those relevant to the modern world.  Policy and institutional settings need to support capability-based approaches to socio-economic development at the individual and whanau level.

Maori have made extraordinary socio-economic gains from early European encounters till now.  However these gains have been in absolute terms, and the relative gaps between Maori and other New Zealanders have not been closed.

Because people compare their status with others, rank status inequality has negative health[ii] and other effects, even within communities with high absolute prosperity.  Inequality and people falling short of their potential also erodes social cohesion and reduces net economic welfare.

It is in New Zealand’s wider interests to ensure Maori achieve their full potential and at as high a socio-economic level as their compatriots.

Why are Maori still disadvantaged?

The starting point for Maori was their socio-economic capabilities and institutions in pre-European times, and the culture and mind-sets that grew up around them.

Human societies evolved largely from hunter-gatherer origins through kinship-based tribalism, shaped by limited resources, technologies, and the property rights and institutions governing them.  Ideas, domesticated animals and plants and technologies moved through trade and exchange.  This was especially between east and west along the Eurasian continent, and through other trade routes[iii].  More isolated parts of the world such as the Antipodes had less access to the resources and ideas underlying higher technological levels.

Romantic images of pre-European Maori life would be ridiculed by those that had to live it.  In pre-European times Maori life was hard and short.  Maori infant mortality was around one third to one fifth, and life expectancy from childhood was around thirty.  Many died from degenerative or malnutrition-related illnesses, and from violence.

Through accidents of geography and history Maori had a stone age, oral culture lacking metallurgy, pottery, and the key domesticated crop and animal species available in more technologically-privileged societies.  Bracken fern-root, which is essentially unpalatable became a staple food for survival.  One can only marvel at Maori ingenuity in surviving with so few plant and animal resources and at low technological levels.  Maori endured, and created oral culture and artefacts that testified to their resilience, sustained them culturally, and passed on heritage to the modern world.

Maori development in the nineteenth century was impeded by the Crown failing to implement the Waitangi Treaty in a fair and timely way.  The Treaty is New Zealand’s founding document as a British colony[iv].  It has been a connecting thread within a wider Maori narrative.  This focused on economic self-determination (tino rangitiratanga) at the individual, whanau and collective level.  This involved defending property rights, while also acquiring European technology and institutions.  This concern for economic outcomes was common to all major nineteenth century Maori spiritual, cultural and political leaders.

The Treaty constitutes a Preamble and three Articles.  The Preamble expresses a need for strong government[v] and rule of law, acknowledges immigration and contemplates more.

Article One transfers sovereignty or kawanatanga[vi] (governance) to the British Crown.  Crown sovereignty is exhaustive and indivisible.

Article Two protects Maori property rights at the individual as well as collective level, effectively extending Magna Carta and English common law rights to Maori.  It limits chiefly power by referring to individuals and families, not just chiefs[vii].

Article Three extends to Maori the citizenship rights and obligations of Crown subjects.  It establishes a non-discrimination principle that implies Maori will not be subject to laws that do not apply to non-Maori, and the inverse.  This principle was often not honoured by the Crown.

The Treaty of Waitangi created an equal partnership between Maori and other New Zealanders, not an equal partnership between Maori and the Crown.  All New Zealanders were made subjects of the Crown, with equal rights and privileges.  The Treaty is therefore an open rather than a closed institution, and colour-blind in its universality.

Nineteenth century Treaty breaches largely involved the Crown not being strong enough in preventing conflict between different Maori groups[viii] and Maori not being treated the same as other British subjects.  The Crown also failed to fully enforce Article Two Magna Carta and common law rights, and it engaged in or facilitated unfair or fraudulent land confiscations and sales.

Early conflict between Maori and Pakeha reflected largely cultural and institutional differences and misunderstanding.  Racism damaged Maori from earliest times.  However, it was diluted by high inter-marriage rates, Enlightenment philosophy, education, open Christian institutions, and the gradual emergence of a shared national identity.

Nevertheless, generations of Maori had to put up with subtle or direct insults, stereotypical attitudes, neglect or suppression of culture and language, and patronising and sometimes blatantly racist attitudes.  This does not however explain enduring socio-economic under-performance.  Asian and other minorities have been subject to worse racism than Maori and yet often do better than both Maori and Pakeha.  This suggests a critical role for cultural and family mind-sets as they relate to education and to individual and family advancement.

Maori were affected negatively by some technological and labour market changes.  In the boom times from the end of World War Two to the late 1960s regulation and labour market dynamics compressed wage and salary differentials.  This was egalitarian, however it weakened incentives for higher education[ix] and reduced New Zealand’s microeconomic flexibility and therefore its productivity.

High Maori birth cohorts from the 1950s and 60s[x] meant young people entered the labour market in the 1970s and 80s as conditions were becoming unfavourable to blue collar workers in fields such as manufacturing, meat processing and transportation.  The labour market began to favour the services sector and more highly educated workers.  This made it difficult for young Maori to secure well-paid jobs, start families, and to become home owners.

The lack of male breadwinners who earned enough to support a family led to solo mothers leading households.  Social welfare created passive welfare dependency and made it financially more attractive for poorly educated females to have children supported by the state than to enter the workforce.

Maori socio-economic disadvantage reflected largely problems of social class rather than race or ethnicity.  Research[xi] suggests the mind has modules that recognise cues of possible coalitional relationships, however there are no innate mental modules for race as a discrete coalitional marker.  Race is highly visible but substantively minimal in determining meaningful differences[xii] between people or groups.  Likewise, human psychological universals overwhelm cultural differences.

However, group identity is shaped by how others react to what is visible (even if it is superficial), and how this influences self-identity.  The high salience of Maori identity and the lower salience of class disadvantage led to some diagnosing of race and ethnicity, or the stereotypical attitudes that it triggered, as being causative of poverty.  Some saw cultural revival[xiii] as a solution, some as an entrepreneurial opportunity.

From the 1980s much effort was put into cultural solutions to socio-economic problems.  This involved Maori-centred educational initiatives, devolution of services to Maori providers, Te Reo[xiv] and advocacy of biculturalism.  Such initiatives created new businesses and public service careers based on cultural service, boosted Maori pride[xv], made New Zealand more responsive to Maori, and fostered Maori institutions with deep community linkages.

However, these initiatives sat uneasily with an increasingly multi-cultural and internationalised New Zealand, and diverted resources away from employment, higher education and net worth objectives and the mind-sets needed to fulfil them.

What should we do from now on?

New Zealand has much of the conditions in place for Maori and other New Zealanders to reach their full socio-economic potential.  These include strong and inclusive government and rule of law, and a market and trade betterment-based economy.  New Zealand has effective property rights, civil and political rights, macroeconomic stability and microeconomic flexibility.  It has well-developed civil society.

Given the above, we need to:

Recognise that core Maori culture supports high socio-economic outcomes

Modern cultural-related initiatives have had mixed effects on Maori and may have kept alive tikanga and mindsets that are irrelevant[xvi] and in some cases harmful[xvii].   However, core aspects of time-honoured Maori cultural identity are consistent with the highest socio-economic outcomes and need to be affirmed.  These include:

A willingness to move to where the opportunities are

People’s destinies are shaped, though not always determined by accidents of birth. Maori ancestral migrations came through Asia and the Pacific to New Zealand, probably to escape over-population, resource scarcity and conflict.  This migration is at the heart of Maori history and identity.  Maori moved throughout New Zealand, and later on rapidly seized opportunities arising from modern technology, institutions and urbanisation.

This culture of moving to where the opportunities are predates and will outlive narrow place-based indigenous[xviii] identity, turangawaewae, mana whenua and tangata whenua concepts.  Post World War Two urbanisation dramatically improved Maori well-being through better education, housing, employment and healthcare.  In parallel there were high rates of inter-marriage.  Inter-marriage transferred new ideas, mind-sets and human capital to Maori through horizontal transmission of knowledge, and this led to dramatically improved education and economic outcomes.

Rising education and socio-economic levels came at some cost to Maori cultural identity and language.  Socio-economic advances from the 1920s on to the 1980s were strongly correlated with the decline of the Maori language and traditional culture.

People need to move to where the opportunities are rather than be confined to arbitrary place-based identities.  However, strong kinship ties can weaken social and geographic mobility.  Many Maori still live in rural and provincial areas that lack rich labour markets and higher educational institutions.  They lack visible role models who can demonstrate what is possible in life.

Narrow, place-based interventions often fail and it is better to facilitate people moving to where the educational and career opportunities are[xix].  This is mandated by Maori history, practice and narrative, and is not in conflict with it.

Cultural adaptiveness

Culture is a product of available resources, knowledge, property rights, and stages of social organisation.  It evolves to achieve practical purposes, such as resource allocation, sustainability, food safety, conflict resolution, and to maintain social harmony.  As circumstances change, culture needs to adapt.

Customs often emerge in response to observed past behaviours that are stable over time.  In tribal societies technological change is slow or non-existent, and customary practice and dependence on elders’ views is critical.  Elders may be repositories of traditional knowledge.  Deference to their memories of past food-gathering or ecological events is valuable in stable technological environments.  In a rapidly changing environment it can become maladaptive.

In pre-European times, high effort-independent variance and lack of banking and other institutions meant Maori struggled to accumulate savings.  This encouraged a culture of living for today and sharing of surpluses to create future return for remembered favours[xx].  Koha is a form of saving in that it psychologically stores claims for future reciprocity.  Kin-based sharing and reciprocal altruism leads to short-term consumption[xxi] rather than individualised and whanau-level education and investment in the future.

However, Maori adapted their culture and customs flexibly in response to the impacts of European engagement.  Maori used rahui and tapu to protect resources and restrict trade.  Cultural behaviours were therefore valued for their practical functionality, and adapted as circumstances changed.  Maori culture is therefore dynamic and adaptive not static.  It must be allowed to evolve as circumstances change.

Hunger for learning, trade, new ideas, technology and institutions

Learning and the institutions that support it can be conceived simplistically as open and horizontal, or as closed and vertical in nature.  Open institutions learn from others and are open to all.  A closed institution has exclusive membership based on discrete characteristics such as race, ethnicity or gender.

Horizontal learning is open to new ideas, pluralistic, contested, and from internationalised and non-kin sources.  Vertical learning is more closed within cultural or kin-based groups and may be narrowly transmitted through families.[xxii]

For socio-economic advancement, institutions should be open and ideas horizontal and international.  This also means intellectual and cultural heritage will be validated, passed on and enlivened, and that which is invalidated will be forgotten.

At the time of the first European encounters, Maori were behind European technological and institutional levels, which had origins in Middle Eastern, Greek, Roman and Asian knowledge communicated through trade routes across cultures and through time periods.

However Maori were thirsty for knowledge and technology and were fast learners.  Early European observers such as Marsden spoke highly of Maori intellect.  Thousands of Maori were literate as early as the 1850s, at a time when many Pakeha were illiterate.  European engagement meant that horizontal learning from international outsiders and strangers supplanted much traditional learning passed down vertically through kin.

Maori engaged with Christianity because of its openness[xxiii] to them and its association with missionary school education.  They actively competed to attract missionary stations to access European knowledge, literacy and technology.  Churches and schools became tapu and were protected even during conflicts.

Maori rapidly picked up market opportunities created by European technologies and trade contacts.  Rawiri Taiwhanga, of Nga Puhi was believed to be New Zealand’s first dairy farmer in the 1830s.  Maori adopted new ship-building techniques.  In 1848 Tamati Waka Nene ordered flour-milling machinery from Sydney – leading edge technology for the time.  Competing missionaries plying the Wanganui river were played off against each other with promises of “souls for flourmills”.

A core driver of learning was inter-marriage.  Inter-marriage created a richer set of ideas, opportunities and social mores from which Maori and part-Maori could choose[xxiv].  Learning from other cultures was the key kaupapa of top Maori leaders from early engagement.

Over time, Maori had to adapt their cultural belief systems to the European world, and decide what to retain and discard.  The Young Maori Party was established by ex-students of Te Aute college from around 1902, evolving from the Te Aute Students’ Association established in 1897.  It was made up of elite Maori who had European-style education to New Zealand’s highest standards of the time.  It included Apirana Ngata, James Carroll, Maui Pomare, Paraire Tomoana and Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck).

The Young Maori Party promoted Maori health, education and advancement.  This they saw coming mainly from western-style education and practices.  Party members supported Maori Parliamentarians such as James Carroll (Timi Kara) and Wi Pere in pushing through the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907.  However Ngata, Tomoana and others also emphasised cultural revival and Maori pride, while getting the best out of the wider world.

Strong concern with property rights

Maori always had a strong concern with private as well as collective property rights.  In pre-European times Maori property was individual (personal tools and effects), communal (a capital-intensive meeting house or large canoe) or tribal (tribal boundaries).   Property was inherited, with ohaki being a public statement of someone about to die, disposing of property.  There were associations between the ownership of things and who provided the labour input into them.

In 1847, George Grey wrote of Maori that there were no people in the world “more sensitive upon the subject of money matters, or the disposal of their property”.  Tellingly, most Treaty of Waitangi claims have been property rights disputes.

In common with other tribal societies, Maori land ownership was communal in nature.  Communal property rights develop for land where there is low value of output per unit, highly variable resources, low returns from intensive investment, and large economies of scale in use and in infrastructure.  These conditions often coincide with low technological levels, lack of accumulation and specialisation, and with tribal social organisation.

Communal rights can be economically efficient where there are resources that are difficult to individualise because of their diffuse spatial distribution, mobility, seasonality or sustainability constraints.  However, economically effective property rights require clarity of title, excludability, tradability, ability to be represented in an abstract form, and integration into a transaction cost efficient information system.

This typically means that individualised private property rights are more economically productive than communal ones.  Some Maori communal assets are now dead assets partly because they are weakly titled and so cannot be leveraged.

However, Maori historical focus on avoiding communal land alienation partly reflected the instinct that inalienable land can convey net worth, not just income, that it survives individual transience and is associated with intergenerational group identity.  Nevertheless, for Maori to fulfil their potential in today’s economic environment their property rights focus must be on individual and whanau-level net worth rather than communal property.

What is also critical for Maori is that net worth[xxv] should be transferred vertically to individuals and families and to future generations[xxvi].


In pre-European times rangitira (at the hapu and whanau level) and ariki (at the iwi level) had responsibility for governance, keeping the peace, protecting hapu or iwi property and resources, and providing social welfare functions.  Excessive accumulation was punished by muru, or pillage – a form of forced redistribution.  Chiefly power was contingent on their meeting their obligations.  Maori culture did not mandate chiefs capturing hapu or iwi assets for their own use.

Maori society was therefore deeply equalitarian, and Maori were (and still are) highly sensitive to even slight differences in rank status between individuals[xxvii].  Pakeha settlers were escaping from Britain’s class system and had a strong egalitarian ethos.  These forces have helped shape New Zealand’s deep egalitarian culture.

Egalitarianism implies minimising socio-economic differences between groups and individuals, consistent with rewards for effort that create good incentives.  It assumes that relative as well as absolute incomes and net worth matter.

Policy neutrality between Maori and other New Zealanders, or assuming that we are all just “one New Zealanders” will not close the socio-economic gaps.  Analysis of inequality in developed countries shows that when the return on capital exceeds the rate of economic growth, inequality rises[xxviii].  The low net worth of Maori individuals and households is therefore a severe disadvantage that could well be compounded in a time of declining housing affordability.

Maori relative disadvantage has been associated with, and can often be subsumed within wider sociological factors.  However, even when other variables are accounted for, Maori identity is an independent variable associated with negative outcomes such as high crime and incarceration rates.  Therefore, broad-based policies addressing socio-economic disadvantage affecting all ethnic groups will not close the gaps between Maori and their compatriots.

Closing the socio-economic gaps between Maori and others will require disproportionately large investments in capability development for Maori.  This investment would not be for Treaty of Waitangi or cultural reasons but for New Zealand’s socio-economic development and for the self-interest of New Zealanders as a whole. Given the relative youth of the Maori population, investment in education will lead to correspondingly higher returns[xxix] over the lifecycle, while enhancing egalitarianism.

Multi-generational collective identity

People seek to connect to cultural narratives involving a past, shared values, behaviours and mind-sets.  These collectively allow individuals to transcend their ephemeral existence and see themselves as part of something wider and more enduring than themselves[xxx].  Multi-generational narratives also pass on valuable heritage to future generations, for example taonga such as artworks, music and literature.

Collective narratives can be positive or negative.  They can be as toxic as Nazism or ISIS, or as rich in universal humanism and intellectual achievement as those of ancient Greece or of modern European and American Judaism.  Lack of positive cultural narratives creates vacuums that can be filled by inertia, by drugs that suppress consciousness, or by negative, identity-based in-groups hostile to out-groups.

Moreover, positive narratives can foster what people want to live for, as well as how they make a living.  Maori have a sense of belonging to something wider than the individual.  This includes recognition of inter-generational property, cultural heritage,  whakapapa, war history, patriotism, faith in the Waitangi Treaty, cultural and linguistic revival and connections with the natural environment.

Intergenerational communitarian identity can be consistent with high individualised achievement.  Minority groups such as some Jewish, Sikh, Lebanese, Chinese and Gujaratis communities have harmonised distinctive cultural identity with high intellectual, economic and business achievement valued and rewarded in open and internationalised rather than in-group environments.

Maori are increasingly achieving across more intellectual and international business fields, and weaving these new strands of achievement into their multi-generational collective narrative.

Foster a whakapapa of the mind

Without written language, oral history prevailed in traditional Maori society.  Whakapapa reflected kinship relationships and also provided a memorisation structure to transmit environmental, property rights and other knowledge.

However, there are conceptual problems with defining any group of people in bloodline whakapapa terms.  Everyone has two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents and so on into deep evolutionary history.  This means every individual has over a billion ancestors, with some being ancestors several times over.  This leads to rapid dilution over the generations in the importance of any one ancestor to an individual’s genetic inheritance and identity.

Furthermore, Maori culture was never rigidly bloodline-based.  It sometimes supported meritocracy unrelated to bloodline[xxxi], reflecting at least some recognition of achieved rather than ascribed status.  In Maori culture, incapable ariki “would be set aside in practical affairs, and only called upon to perform certain religious rites”[xxxii].

In the same way that consanguinity can lead to health problems in isolated populations, inward-looking kin-based cultures can cut themselves off from new learning from others.  Kinship-based tribal identities are closed.  In their most inward-looking manifestations parents and extended family pass on narrow mind-sets to their children, rather than casting a wide intellectual net and learning internationally, from other cultures, and from universal human intellectual and cultural heritage.

The most powerful and efficient means of transmitting knowledge and culture is through the horizontal interchange of ideas and learning.  This requires connections to people who know something you don’t.  The more people you interact with and the more pluralism, ideas and perspectives, the better the outcomes[xxxiii].

Maori identity has been progressively reframed by inter-marriage and higher educational levels, and redefined for legal and statistical purposes.  Now any amount of Maori blood entitles people to “feel Maori.”  In every generation, inter-marriage enriches whakapapa links to a more open society and humanistic world.  Almost all New Zealand-born people will have some Maori blood within a few generations, as well as links to other cultures and to open society more generally.

Maori are now embracing a more internationalised rather than parochial whakapapa of the mind.  This is driven by information technology, movement of people and inter-marriage.  Maori socio-economic development now requires that a whakapapa of the mind must prevail over a bloodline whakapapa.

Foster multiple identities and matching identity to the right content

People have multiple identities[xxxiv] and different identities will prevail in different contexts.  The right identity has to be matched to the right context (a surgeon who is also a rugby player, juggler, lay preacher and jazz musician must only be a surgeon in the operating theatre).  The mix of identities an individual embodies will shape their ability to see themselves in others.  President Obama governed for all Americans, not one ethnic group.  However, his black American identity gave him affinity with minority groups, while still acting for all.

Everyone is at the centre of a unique web of valuations that does not exactly duplicate anyone else’s.  For this reason, Maori or any other specific identity can be seen as just one of many identities that overlap with others’ multiple identities.

Maori identity may be of different significance to Maori of similar bloodline ancestry, depending on relative economic and psychological incentives.  It may appear of different salience and relevance, depending on varying professional, sporting, recreational, avocational, family, religious, political and other contexts.

Understanding which of one’s multiple identities is most critical in a particular context leads to positive socio-economic and wider life outcomes[xxxv].  Some advocate a Maori-centred and closed view of identity leading to a “Maori achieving as Maori”[xxxvi] kaupapa[xxxvii].  This can build pride and be a partial defence against stereotypical threat and cultural stigmatisation.  It is consistent with multiple identities if Maori identity is matched to the right and relevant context.  However, if any one dominant group identity overrides the ability to match the right identity to the right context it can lead to bad outcomes[xxxviii].

Promote cultural narratives that support top socio-economic outcomes

Cultural identity and narrative can foster mind-sets and behaviours consistent with positive socio-economic outcomes.  Positive identity is typically not narrowly ethnic or race-based and can involve any group identity that gives people values and life directions, consistent with better socio-economic outcomes.

Some research[xxxix] suggests that, compared to non-Maori, Maori are more likely to have beliefs inconsistent with economic prosperity.  These include belief that a better life is due more to luck than hard work, that Government is doing too little, that business should not be run solely by the owners and stakeholder models are preferable, and that the environment should be given more priority over the economy.  These beliefs, together with collectivism and kinship ties are argued by some to have constrained Maori economically.

Some Maori may well have a greater propensity for non-market goods such as cultural and recreational activities.  However, this may result from social class rather than ethnicity.  An ethic of short-term sharing among kin and fatalism about the future impede Maori economic development.  However, businesses run along stakeholder lines can succeed, and sustainable development approaches can harmonise environmental and economic objectives[xl].

A positive cultural narrative must be placed within an internationalised and humanistic frame, however it can encompass the Treaty of Waitangi, nation-state identity and multi-culturalism.[xli] Patriotism does not need to be the last refuge of scoundrels.  It can reflect mutual liking between people who interact a lot, who inter-marry and share a common destiny.

A shared New Zealand national life requires more than tolerance.  It requires admiration, whether for Maori film, folksong and language, for kapa haka, the emotional power of tangi, open marae, or simply for individuals.  Maori television is widely enjoyed by non-Maori, including for its commitment to long-term cultural and historical heritages which are not supported by mainstream media.  Educated Pakeha increasingly use Maori expressions such as ‘arohanui’ and ‘kia kaha’ to express profound emotions ineffable in English.

Maori pride in artistic, musical, film-making and sporting achievement can become pride in New Zealand’s wider achievements.

Challenge damaging cultural behaviours and mind-sets

Some past cultural behaviours may now be damaging.  In early times children were adopted out to relatives (whangai) to overcome straitened whanau resources.  In modern times such extended whanau and caregiver relationships[xlii] can confuse parental accountability and make children vulnerable.  This is not a trivial matter to be glossed over to be “culturally sensitive”[xliii].  Placing vulnerable Maori children in the care of whanau or other kin can lead to higher abuse rates than those released into the care of non-kin.

The exacerbation of cultural distinctiveness can amplify the differences and mask much more significant commonalities.  It leads to issues being addressed as ethnic rather than socio-economic and humanist in nature.  This leads to cultural content as a solution to problems which are socio-economic in nature.  This however compounds closed rather than open mind-sets and institutions, reduces exposure to new ideas and learning, and exacerbates socio-economic inequality.

Different cultural groups achieve different socio-economic outcomes even when faced with the same external circumstances.  This is associated with mind-sets rather than ethnicity as such.  Low socio-economic well-being can, for example, be influenced by identity-based “cultural storylines” that poor outcomes are the result of others’ actions, not of the individuals themselves

Maori were rightly aggrieved with Treaty breaches, and the government has responded to them.  Settlement of historical Treaty claims is largely about justice, and to some extent about re-distribution.  Settlements also reduce grievances and encourage people to focus on the future.  Substantial Treaty settlements are being invested in productive enterprises and education.  They are also fostering the growth of Maori institutions that can be leveraged off.

However, some parties have an interest in perpetuating grievances and constructing new ones[xliv].  There are risks in a psychology where people feel that “others” or “history” are limiting what they can achieve.  This reduces the incentives for the education, labour market performance, asset creation and business entrepreneurship that can create new wealth, and instead focuses people on lobbying or litigation.

Cultural attitudes are changing positively.  More and more Maori want to be judged by their professional or other performance in their field, not typecast as narrowly and stereotypically “Maori”[xlv].  Many are uneasy with the faith they are asked to have in cultural identity-based solutions.  Criticism of canons of this faith can trigger hyperbolic over-reactions.  These might be triggered by concern that such criticisms can mask prejudiced attitudes.  They might also suggest there is little substance in the canon or the alleged “cultural offence” against it, and people must be discouraged from scrutinising it too closely.

Work with Maori institutions to support better outcomes

Every developed country has unique institutions that reflect historical contingencies and path dependencies rather than textbook economic models.  Maori institutions such as iwi collectives have connections with and can influence people it is hard for government to reach.  Some ban alcohol, drugs, smoking and gangs from their recreational and cultural events, and this supports positive behavioural change.

Maori collectives manage some large scale and long term investment funds.  This is important in an economy with thin capital markets and short-term investment horizons.  Some collectives promote individualised savings schemes, such as Ngai Tahu’s Whai Rawa scheme.

Other initiatives could be explored to permit individual investment aligned to collective structures.  Examples include A share and B share structures and initiatives akin to Fonterra’s Shareholder Fund.   Maori institutions can therefore be leveraged off for social and economic development, including at the individual and whanau level.

Promote Maori capability development

Tribal social organisation worked in the past, but not in modern times.  Adam Smith’s insight was that self-interest (rather than selfishness) within complex and impersonal markets leads to labour specialisation and economic growth benefiting society as a whole.  However if people’s psychology is still influenced by tribalism their self-interest may be constrained by cultural, kinship or relational loyalties.  This causes disadvantage in modern economies with different rules.

The focus for Maori development must start with the individual.  Individuals are the ultimate unit of moral concern.  They exist in a social and cultural context, but intervention must be evaluated in terms of effects on individuals.  The social group, such as the hapu and whanau cannot be the ultimate unit to engage with as it masks inequalities within these groups, for example in relation to the status of women.

Mind-sets must now turn to capability development and socio-economic outcomes at the individual and whanau level.  This must be the driving kaupapa of the Maori and the wider New Zealand narrative, however it requires supportive social and economic policy settings.

Social welfare that subsidises consumption keeps people in poverty, while investment in capability development gives them the educational and other tools to rise out of it.  Passive dependency conflicts with traditional Maori culture.  Maori proverbs and sayings valued hard workers and despised the lazy.  There was strong social stigma against infidelity, and against people not supporting their families. 

New Zealand’s existing social policy settings contrast, for example, with those of Singapore.  Singapore made individuals responsible for their own and their children’s well-being, while the state invested in capability development and net worth creation.  It invested heavily in educational, home ownership and savings-based financial asset capabilities and avoided consumption-based “welfare”.  It thereby stopped a passive underclass developing.

Singapore’s policies are paternalistic in recognizing that people’s self-regulation needs external support and “ties that bind”, such as compulsory savings.  They are supported by a culture of high savings, strong families, individual aspiration, self-regulation and respect for authority.  Such policies could take root in New Zealand if they were recast in our own cultural terms, which might include a healthy scepticism for excessively hierarchal authority.

In New Zealand today, the disadvantaged are not Maori as a whole but a subset with poor education, within certain age groups, living in certain places and with particular mind-sets.  Better data, and Maori institutions with deep community connections will increasingly enable resources to be targeted more effectively.

The key investment target must be Maori capability development through high level education focusing on career achievement, individualised incomes, ability to adapt to change, and high net worth.

Maori failure to achieve must not be misdiagnosed as a cultural malaise and be “treated” with cultural activities or sport.  We must not be confused between making people feel culturally comfortable in education (and using culture as “hooks” into education), and culture being the content of what is taught[xlvi].

What is required is not inward-looking cultural content but maths, science, advanced IT, English, and major international languages taught by open society educationalists[xlvii].

Strong affirmative investment is also needed, for example through scholarships and additional student support.  This is especially important in highly-rewarded professions, and where there is tight regulation, limited entry, and often challenges in navigating educational and professional pathways.

Such investment in education, and in wider capability development with a strong net worth focus are the only ways to achieve fairness and allow people to reach their full potential.  Maori must not be passive, and must self-author their lives in an active and self-determining way.  This will see tino rangitiratanga made manifest at the individual and household level.  It will benefit all New Zealanders over the longer term socio-economically, and through a more integrated, cohesive and open society collective narrative, with more and more authors sharing the pen.


[i] ‘Maori’ in this paper refers to those who self-identify as Maori, and to their pre-European ancestors.  ‘Maori’ historically meant ‘ordinary’ and only took on its modern meaning from the early 19th century in counterpoint to non-Maori ethnicities.  Different protocols influence who is categorised as Maori for statistical purposes.  Maori identity is also fluid and responds to economic and psychological incentives.  See Chapple, 2000.

[ii] See Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009.

[iii] See Diamond, J. 1997.

[iv] The New Zealand Constitution Act 1986 marks the point at which the Crown, after a long and incremental evolution, was finally stripped of all but a symbolic or procedural role. The Constitution Act is therefore New Zealand’s founding document as an independent parliamentary democracy.

[v] The absence of strong government underlies current turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, triggering refugee crises that are challenging immigration policy frameworks in Europe and elsewhere.  The benefits of strong government are often taken for granted, until it is absent.

[vi] Kawantanga was translated as “governorship” in early Bible translations available to Maori in the late 1830s.  By 1840 hundreds of Maori had visited New South Wales and would have observed how powerful Crown governors were.  Some had also visited Britain and observed Crown power.

[vii] Rangitira were heads of households or hapu rather than powerful ariki or chiefs leading iwi.  Over 500 of them signed the Waitangi Treaty.   Tino rangitiratanga in the Treaty is about self-determination at the individual, household and hapu more than the iwi level.  Article Two protects individuals from chiefly or tribal dominance as well as from rapacious settler land buyers.  It was influenced by memories of the social devastation Scottish “chiefs” caused during the Highland enclosures.

[viii] This was a factor in the emergence of the Kingitanga movement.

[ix] Tertiary education expanded dramatically in the post-World War Two period, however most Maori at this time lacked tertiary-educated whanau and peer group role models.  Their family structures were also being disrupted by move to the cities, labour market and social change.

[x] Maori gangs emerged in the 1960s, a time of full employment and prosperity.  Their emergence suggests not poverty but absence of a positive social narrative for young Maori living in urban areas in which they felt isolated.

[xi] Kurzban et al, 2001.

[xii] It is important to acknowledge that racial classification can be important in health and medical diagnosis.  Morphology and skin colour have implications for health, and the genetics underlying some diseases and allergenic risks are disproportionately present in some racial groups.

[xiii] Many countries, ethnic and religious groups have promoted cultural revival in response to socio-economic challenges.  These range from the benevolence of the European Renaissance and the nineteenth century Danish folk high school movement to the malevolence of 1930s Germany.  The lesson may be that cultural revival is positive when it is open and humanistic and negative when it is closed and xenophobic.

[xiv] Kohanga Reo began in 1982 and Kura Kaupapa schools from 1985.

[xv] Benefits included Te Reo revival, vast historical scholarship, the revitalisation of interest in Maori poetry and song from Rihi Puhiwahine Te Rangihirawea through to modern popular music, and film-making achievement of international renown.

[xvi] Peter Drucker argued that business processes should be regularly put on “trial for their lives” to see if they are still needed.  Such an approach could well be taken with customs that no longer appear logical and relevant.

[xvii] Examples include restrictions on women speaking on some marae, and bans on women tradespeople working at night on some “culturally sensitive” buildings.

[xviii] Indigenous means “of or belonging to a place”.  There are Pakeha and Asian New Zealanders who have had multi-generational connections with, and are indigenous to specific places in New Zealand.  Conversely, there are Maori born in Australia who have never visited New Zealand.

[xix] As Gorky wrote, “people are not trees; we are not supposed to lead all our lives on the one spot”.

[xx] In contrast, small business owners in communities dominated by tribal or indigenous populations are often of minority ethnicities such as Asian.  They are free from local community demands for insecure credit, gift-giving, reciprocal altruism and other social claims inconsistent with longer term accumulation and well-being.

[xxi] Coleman et al (2005) reported nineteenth century accounts of a low thrift and savings culture among Maori.  However, this might have reflected the Crown’s depredations and the distrust it created in banks and other savings-related institutions as well as, or rather than cultural factors.  A Maori saying in the 1850s was “out of debt is out of trouble”.

[xxii] See Zakharenko, 2016.

[xxiii] Christianity began as a Jewish sect which, unlike its Jewish spiritual competitors, was open to Gentiles, women and other outsiders.  Later in its development, Augustine’s culture of openness won out over Donatist and other competing factions that were exclusive.  Christianity created a moral foundation of openness to other cultural and ethnic groups.  Europeans then promoted Christianity through exploration and colonisation.  Christianity also co-opted from other cultures, for example secular karakia became a basis for Christian prayers, reflecting two way cultural learning.

[xxiv] This suggests a hypothesis that Maori who intermarry with non-Pakeha ethnic minorities may do even better since they access and can draw the best from three different cultures: Pakeha, Maori and a third ethnicity that comes with its own knowledge base, insights and mind-sets.

[xxv] The transfers of net worth in the form of, for example, home ownership and business equity stakes to children and grandchildren is critical to breaking out of inter-generational poverty.  This has to be at the individual and whanau rather than communal level.  This is because individual rights in communal resources are diluted in every generation, and communal property rights are not geared to individual and whanau development.

[xxvi] These arguments resonate with Keynes’ view that ideas should be international and capital should be local.

[xxvii] It is possible this leads to over-stratification, and over-reaction to micro-cues of perceived status differences that are not in fact very material.

[xxviii] See Piketty, 2014.

[xxix] These returns would include higher labour market participation, economy-wide productivity gains and avoided costs through lower crime and reduced benefit dependency.

[xxx] This is associated with “terror management theory” in sociology.

[xxxi] For example, Te Rauparaha was not of the highest bloodline rank but rose to Ngati Toa leadership on his merits.

[xxxii] See Grimes et al, 2015.

[xxxiii] The Controller and Auditor-General (2016) noted that Maori school achievement was lower in schools with higher proportions of Maori students, and that smaller schools do worse for Maori.

[xxxiv] See Sen, 2006.

[xxxv] It is fine to be incompetent in juggling and excellent in the surgical theatre, but not the other way round.

[xxxvi] Top New Zealand business leaders such as Rod Drury and Rob McLeod have Maori ancestry, however they do not noticeably promote “Maori succeeding as Maori” as integral to their commercial achievements.

[xxxvii] The Controller and Auditor-General (2016) notes that achieving as Maori means different things to different people.  This does not suggest a credible kaupapa, if taken in isolation from an open society, multiple identities framework.

[xxxviii] Some cultural markers can impede the ability to match identities to different contexts.  For example, indelible and visible tattoos can be commitment devices that imply one identity dominates over others.  They can materially harm job prospects in some parts of the world.

[xxxix] Grimes et al, 2015.

[xl] See MAF, 2007.

[xli] For example, Singapore’s economy has been established largely through Chinese, Indian and Malay immigrants working within what began as a British colonial institutional framework, and with a common economic vision that has co-existed with multi-culturalism and multi-lingualism.

[xlii] It is important to acknowledge, with admiration and humility, the great love and care present in many Maori extended whanau that have taken responsibility for grandchildren, adopted children, or picked up vulnerable people who would otherwise be poorly cared for.

[xliii] Silence on some matters may be a sign not of “cultural sensitivity” but of weak character.

[xliv] Treaty processes can blame the Crown for bad outcomes that really result from factors such as poor attitudes to education.  They can also create the fiscal illusion that there is remote entity (“the Crown”) that can deliver settlements that do not impose costs on New Zealanders, such as on low income taxpayers.

[xlv] An example is Maori succeeding in highly individualistic sports, academic and professional fields, breaking down stereotypes that Maori are better at team sports and group learning.

[xlvi] Lourie & Rata, 2014 argue that the “cultural solution” is in fact a cause of Maori educational under-achievement.

[xlvii] Many of whom will have Maori among their identities.




Chapple, S. 2000: Maori socio-economic disparity. Paper for the Ministry of Social Policy. Labour Market Policy Group, Department of Labour.

Coleman, A et al 2005: Maori economic development – Glimpses from statistical sources. Motu Working Paper 05-13.  Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.

Controller and Auditor-General 2016: Education for Maori: Using information to improve Maori educational success.  Wellington, Controller and Auditor-General.

Diamond, J.1997: Guns, Germs and Steel: The fates of human societies.  Norton & Co, New York.

Grimes, A.; MacCulloch, R.; McKay, F. 2015: Indigenous Belief in a Just World: New Zealand Maori and other Ethnicities Compared. Motu Working paper 15-14. Motu Economic and Public Policy Research,

Kurzban, R.; Tooby, J.; Cosmides, L. 2001: Can race be erased?  Coalitional computation and social categorization. PNAS Vol. 98, No. 26.5387-15392.

Lourie, M.; Rata, E. 2014: A critique of the role of culture in Maori education.  British Journal of Sociology of Education.  Vol. 35, No. 1, 19-36.

MAF, 2007: Sustainable Development Framework for New Zealand Agriculture and Forestry.  Agriculture and Forestry Perspectives 1.  Wellington, MAF.

Piketty, T. 2014: Capital in the Twenty First Century. Cambridge, MA, Belknap Press.

Sen A. 2006: Identity and violence.  New York, W W Norton Books.

Wilkinson, R. Pickett, K. 2009: Spirit Level.  Why more equal societies almost always do better.  London, Allen Lane.

Zakharenko, R. 2016: Mathematical Social Sciences 2016 No. 80, 58-64.



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How can we achieve better socio-economic outcomes

How can we achieve better socio-economic outcomes?

Incomes, net worth, choices in life, health and social cohesion all help constitute socio-economic well-being.  How can we achieve better socio-economic outcomes in future?

Good socio-economic outcomes are determined by environmental (when and where we are born) and social factors (who our parents are etc.) Economic performance is also shaped by history, resource endowments, institutions, and supporting cultures and civil society.  New Zealand has most of the conditions for better socio-economic performance and can do much better in absolute terms.

However, people are also concerned with their relative as well as real incomes and net worth.  Income inequality relative to others is associated with bad outcomes such as crime and poor health.  Relative income is a proxy for deeper variables, including psychological mechanisms associated with perceptions of status within hierarchies.

People do not so much aspire to equality as to fairness.  Even hard-headed businesses pay over the market wage for fairness, reciprocity and to support group norms.  Perceptions of procedural fairness better predict compliance with organisational norms than do specific rewards and punishments.

The best-performing societies and economies share common features including:

  • Strong government
  • Inclusive and responsive government
  • Rule of law, and rights
  • Effective property rights
  • Macroeconomic stability and microeconomic flexibility
  • Market economy and trade betterment
  • Public goods and infrastructure
  • Strong and open institutions, including those promoting innovation
  • Capability development
  • Civil society and social engagement, and trust in society

Strong government

A strong government must make and enforce laws and regulations.  It needs to guard against internal and external threats through policing, military and security services.

It is fitting that the preamble to the Treaty of Waitangi focuses on creating an authoritative government that can create and maintain order. Private and customary institutions cannot by themselves provide an institutional framework for social order for an effectively functioning economy.

Inclusive and responsive government

High quality of life and socio-economic prosperity depend on inclusive and responsive government.  This must be underpinned by universal suffrage and individual rights.  While physical laws and resources may be immutable, there is unlimited human imagination and individuality.  Individuals have unique perspectives, but people in the same position need to be subject to common rules, rights and policy settings.

People compete to control a society’s rule-making.  Elected and popular governments must moderate competing claims within a society, and must reflect peoples’ democratic will.  However, to protect individual rights from unfair majoritarian rule they should also be restrained by other institutions such as common law, constitutions (including those governing voluntary and community groups), social norms, the rule of law, and rights.

Rule of law and rights

Credible rule of law requires that the law bind the state and that the executive and judiciary are separate.  Complementing and moderating central and local government law and regulation are contract law, common law and supporting institutions.  Rights in law need to be tightly defined and enforceable, and remedies should be linked to underlying rights.

A good society depends on property rights, political rights (the right to appoint and dismiss governments) and civil rights.  However, different groups in society have different interests.  Property rights may be especially important to capital owners, and political rights to the majority who may vote for redistributive policies and better public services.  Civil rights are of special interest to minorities who may lack both wealth and the numbers to make their voice known through the polls.

These three types of rights – property, political and civil – are related.  They should be managed in complementary not conflicting ways.  For example, the apartheid era white minority in South Africa bargained and exchanged away their dominant political rights for property rights and civil rights.  The white minority in Zimbabwe failed to do so and got a worst outcome.

Of all rights, effective property rights are most important because they underpin political and civil rights and make economic growth and wellbeing possible.

Effective property rights

Property rights are legally mandated claims over resources.  They are intertwined with human rights.  They protect individuals, families and minorities against predatory governments and criminals.  They place value on and protect environmental resources.  They create incentives to plan and work for the long-term and they encourage capital formation that lifts labour productivity.  They allow workers to trade their labour inputs in markets that reward them, and allow innovators to capture rewards from their innovation.  They underpin markets and pricing systems and allow trade to occur.

Strong property rights give people a castle from which they can express their personal and cultural freedom.  They allow individual and family self-determination.

Effective property rights require clarity of title and excludability, tradability, ability to be represented in an abstract form, and integration into a quality information system:

Clarity of title and excludability

Property right titles must be clearly defined and linked to specific owners.  The nature of property, the boundaries around it and its title must be explicitly described.  Property rights must be exclusive if they are to be valued and used productively.


Tradability of property is needed to realise value and ensure resources move to their highest valued use.  Without tradability, property managers lack incentives to manage their assets efficiently and are deprived of their full benefits.

Representation of property in an abstract form

In developed countries, assets are integrated into market representational systems that integrate dispersed information.  In less developed countries assets may be extra-legal and their use limited to a small group.

Complex market economies and trade depend on the ability to connect tangible physical property to intangible abstract rights.  This allows property to be leveraged for such purposes as securing utility services, borrowing, accessing risk management services such as insurance, entering into and ensuring enforcement of contracts and conferring rights of succession.

In less developed countries many people own substantial property.  However they cannot leverage that property.  Without this and quality property information systems, utility providers lack confidence to connect electricity and telecommunications to slum dwellings, black markets emerge, taxes are evaded and public services stagnate.

Integrated into a quality information system

Property must connect to an information system that records property and tracks transactions and claims related to it in a public, accurate and verifiable way.  Quality property information systems must be public and generalised not limited and particularised.  They need to be protected from institutional failure.

The 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was associated with financial derivatives, credit default swaps and bundled and leveraged mortgages becoming too disconnected from underlying real property.  Property information systems became unable to relate abstracted rights and claims to specific property.  This meant, for example, that some mortgage foreclosures were unlawful because it was impossible to trace a particular mortgage to an actual property.

The property rights information system had therefore become particularised, opaque and private, not generalised and public.  It is always government’s role to police standards, weights and measures.  If we have a Metre Convention why do we not have a Convention to protect accurate public records of property rights and transactions relating to them?

Macro-economic stability and micro-economic flexibility

Macro-economic stability and microeconomic flexibility are both critical to high performing economies and are mutually reinforcing.  Stability requires such foundations as an independent Reserve Bank, flexible exchange rates, sound money, ways of storing and protecting wealth and a prudently regulated financial sector.

Flexibility is needed to allow resources to shift with demand in ways reflecting human individuality and creativity, dispersed information, and the highly differentiated and dynamic nature of modern economies.  Supporting institutions are needed to minimise market abuses and to allow people to adapt to change and stay connected to and make a positive contribution to society.

Market economy and trade betterment

Rising prosperity depends on trade betterment, including free entry to markets and innovation.

Throughout history, the merchant, professional and business classes engaged in trade betterment have been stigmatized in folklore, literature and popular culture. Stigmatisation turns individuals into abstract, dehumanised stereotypes.  This can become especially toxic when these stereotypes are associated with minority ethnicities or with stigmatised social classes such as kulaks.

History is littered with attempts to do away with private property and trade betterment and create utopian communities populated by “ideal people” behaving in ways anathema to human nature.  Shakespeare spoofed this in The Tempest:


In the commonwealth I would by contraries

Execute all things; for no kind of traffic

Would I admit; no name of magistrate;

Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,

And use of service, none; contract, succession,

Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;

No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil…

No sovereignty…

All things in common Nature should produce

Without sweat or endeavour…

Nature should bring forth,

Of it own kinds, all foison, all abundance

To feed my innocent people.


Trade betterment, competition and some level of inequality it gives rise to are needed for human advancement.  Free entry to markets is associated with property rights, human rights, freedom of association and with other-centredness.

Customers and customers cannot be forced to buy in a market. Those that want to sell to customers need to see through their eyes, respect their autonomy, and meet their needs.

Economic growth strategies can focus on markets and trade betterment or on political lobbying and state-driven solutions.  Market economies that protect property rights and trade betterment provide the best route for advancement.  Effectively functioning markets require supporting institutions to prevent exploitation of market power.

Capability development related to education, home ownership, compulsory or subsidised savings and financial literacy are also needed to allow people to fully participate in market economies and to minimise inequality.

Politics is vulnerable to manipulation of political, regulatory or social rules to protect privileged interests or to increase prices or returns from existing assets, rather than creating new wealth.  Rent-seeking behaviour can cause net economic loss by reducing allocative efficiency and diverting resources away from production into lobbying, litigation and other such activities.  People with credentials but few marketable skills can have a sense of entitlement and turn to politics to leverage opportunities unavailable in private markets.

Politicians and lobbyists can promote a sense of entitlement or grievance and create a psychology where people feel that “others” or “history” are limiting what they can achieve in the economy or society.  This reduces the incentives for the education, labour market performance, asset creation and business entrepreneurship that creates new wealth, and it instead focuses people on political lobbying.

Public goods and infrastructure

Public goods need to be publicly provided.  Economic agents must be rewarded for their positive externalities, and should bear the cost of their negative ones.  Public goods and wider public interests can require the state to exercise its eminent domain powers, for example to acquire private property for a public purpose such as infrastructure development.  This should follow due process and include adequate financial compensation for takings.

Goods best provided publicly include infrastructure such as roads, railways, telecommunications, electricity and water supplies.  These are fundamental to society and have a human rights dimension.  For example, communications infrastructure is needed for freedom of association.  Infrastructure can also overcome economic geography constraints.

People by and large do better in cities because of better infrastructure, more ideas and richer labour markets.  However, economic geography can also impede economic efficiency and social mobility even in large cities.  For example, there can be a structural mismatch between affordable housing and where in a city jobs are located.

Poorly educated people may stay in parts of a country where there are thin labour markets, low incomes and often high unemployment.  In such communities, the unemployed may impose negative externalities on those around them.  Quality communications infrastructure helps address these problems.

Strong and open institutions

Institutions evolve to deal with such problems as economic distribution, conflict resolution, and protection of rights.  They require time, social mandate, strong government, rule of law, and the civil society and social norms that reinforce them.

High quality institutions are generalised rather than particularised.  Generalised institutions are open to everyone and permit open trade and exchange between parties.  A particularised institution is based on privileged interests or on discrete, non-economic characteristics such as race, ethnicity, religion or gender.

Open and generalised institutions support growth and human rights, closed and particularised ones don’t.  Likewise, successful social movements and institutions arise from openness to outsiders.  Jesus was a leader of one of many tiny Jewish sects, most of them exclusive.  His sect won out because it was open to Gentiles and women and overcame racist and ethnic barriers to entry to what was an inclusive sect among exclusive rivals.

International market trade has become the most open and transformative of all institutions.  Its symbol, the World Trade Centre is in ruins.  However, its unbroken heart has lifted humanity out of poverty and become the dominant driver of human behaviour and resource allocation.

Institutions also need supporting social capital, practice and norms.  Humanism, an international secular belief system based on liberties, high culture and human unity, is a form of social capital that underpins generalised institutions open to all.  However, social capital can also be used to create particularised identity-based groups that share social capital within but not outside the particularised group.

Institutions that evolve and develop locally tend to be deeply embedded in society and link to local knowledge and practice.  They give rise to and are reinforced by social norms.  The Balinese system of irrigation management is a good example.

It is difficult to import and impose foreign institutions that are not supported by local culture and practice.  The rapid recovery of Germany and Japan after World War Two illustrated the value of working with local institutions.

When US-led forces occupied Germany and Japan after World War Two they destroyed Nazi and Japanese Imperial powers but protected and leveraged off underlying local and democratic institutions and much of the central and local government infrastructure.  Americans drafted the post-war Japanese constitution. However the Japanese modified it and translated it into a document they owned.  Like the Treaty of Waitangi, there are differences between the English and the indigenous language versions.

Institutions, norms and practices can also be supported by political and symbolic narratives that manage change and keep people together.  For example, after the downfall of apartheid Nelson Mandela connected to the white minority culture by wearing a Springbok jersey at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995.  In doing so he showed respect for the minority culture and signalled acceptance of its passions as well as those of its institutions that were open to all.

Capability development

Passive forms of social welfare that subsidise today’s consumption keep people out of absolute poverty but trap them in relative poverty since they have neither the means nor motivation to become more skilled and productive and to get ahead in life.  Capability development rather than income support is required to promote wealth creation and asset formation across lifetimes and through generations.  Support through capability development gives people the capabilities and mind-sets to enable them to earn more, build net worth and to self-determine their lives.

Education is society’s major investment in capability development.  It buffers people from situational depravation and allows them to escape from it.  For example, someone growing up in a single parent household may be situationally deprived.  However, if a child’s solo parent is highly educated or has high aspirations then that child may be situationally but not culturally deprived.  Outcomes for children in even one parent households are typically good where the parent is well educated.


Returns from education are distant in time, abstract, and may lack salience.  People in poorly educated families lack exemplars and social networks that show what is possible and give guidance on getting there.

Savings, investment and forgoing today’s consumption to build capability development for tomorrow are discouraged where there is high effort-independent variance in economic outcomes.  Institutions and social policy settings can reduce effort-independent variance and encourage future-oriented capability development. Safe, stable environments and nurturing parents help self-control and future focus while high variant, capricious social environments discourage it.


People’s innate cognitive biases such as short-termism lead to under-investment in education and low savings.  Peer group pressure and prevalent family or other norms can encourage self-defeating behaviours such as low educational achievement, gambling, drug and alcohol abuse or criminality.

There are advertising pressures to consume and to take on debt.  Debt offerings, whether in the form of bank credit or fringe lending, are framed in ways exploiting cognitive weaknesses.  Lower socio-economic households tend to be short of energy, attention and time as well as money.  Self-control is a limited resource, uses energy to exercise and can be depleted by use.  Therefore children from lower socio-economic backgrounds focus on the short term at the expense of the self-control needed to support longer term educational and other development.

Connections to workplaces as well as educational institutions are also important because they make real what is otherwise abstract.  Youth exposure to part time work builds social networks, work attitudes and social skills and helps transitions to adulthood and to higher level educational and labour market achievement.

While capability development must have strong origins in family environments, the state must play a role and encourage the right individual and family behaviours.  Singapore in the post-war period went from a poor backwater with negligible resources to a highly developed and wealthy city-state.  Lee Kuan Yee supported a culture in which individuals and families looked after themselves and were self-reliant.  Adam Smith’s fundamental insight was that self-interest was the key driver of success, and when people focused on their self-interest the collective interest was fulfilled.  Meritocracy, self-interest and reward for endeavour are not therefore class-based tropes and ploys but are rather key conditions of social mobility.

From the 1960s Singapore developed rapidly because it invested in capabilities and used this to drive economic growth and equity.  It invested in education, home ownership and financial assets and avoided welfare-based passive dependency.

Singapore recognized that people needed external support and “ties that bind”, such as compulsory savings to complement their own self-regulation.  Strict law and order and paternalistic policies such as bans on gambling and strictures against drugs removed temptations, enhanced self-regulation and helped people get ahead.  Part of the philosophy was that he who might be free must first be bound.  Singapore aimed to ensure everyone was on a development path and that a welfare-dependent underclass was not allowed to emerge.  Singapore’s policies were supported by a culture of high savings, strong families and individual aspiration.

Challenges faced in countries such as New Zealand and Australia have been those of passive dependency.  A capability development approach requires a move from the passive to the active, from the present to the future, and from consumption to investment in capabilities allowing enhanced future output leading to higher consumption over the longer-term.  It also requires a greater focus on net worth and asset ownership.

Holding assets has wider spill-over benefits and can change mind-sets.  It is associated with positive educational attainments for children.  In changing thinking, asset ownership can lead to a virtuous circle with future-looking cognition causing savings and assets causing future-looking cognition.

How could the above capability development be actively applied in the New Zealand context?  If we are ready for transformative ideas, passive consumption-based welfare such as Working for Families and other family support schemes could be converted into children’s individual development accounts to be used only for education, home ownership, business or financial investments to enhance future income-earning power and net worth.  Such capability development can underpin equality of opportunity and social mobility.

Civil society and social engagement

If we develop people’s capability we expect that people engage with society and contribute actively to it.  If one has a talent it should be leveraged and not buried in a field.  Financial assets should be invested productively not speculatively or for arbitrage.  Intellectual capabilities should do some good in the world and not be used for graft or rent-seeking.

Engagement in clubs, community groups and in voluntary organisations builds social networks and cohesion, shares knowledge, and leads to wider socio-economic benefits.  Politeness and self-regard is both an input into such activities and a result of them, leading to regard for others.

Should you wish to explore these ideas further, the bibliography below is a start.



Acemoglu, D. Jackson, M. 2015: History, expectations and leadership in the evolution of social norms. Review of Economic Studies (2015) 0, 1-34.

Acemoglu, D. Robinson, J. 2012: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty.  Crown Publishers.

Boettke, P; Coyne, C; Leeson, P. 2008: Institutional stickiness and the new development economics.  The American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Vol 67, No. 2.

Bynner, J. B.; Paxton, W. 2001: The Asset Effect.  London: Institute for Public Policy Research.

De Soto, H. 2000: The Mystery of Capitalism: Why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else. Basic Books.

Mullainathan, S.; Shafir, E. 2013: Scarcity: Why having too little means so much.  New York, Times Books.

Offer, A. 2006: The challenge of affluence.  Self-control and well-being in the United States and Britain since 1950.  Oxford University Press.

Otsuka, M. 2003: Libertarianism without Inequality.  Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Pipes, Richard.  1999: Property and Freedom.  London, Harvill Press.

Sen, A. 1993: Capability and well-being.  In M. Nussbaum and A Sen, eds: The quality of life, 30-53.  Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Wilkinson, R.; Pickett, K. 2009: Spirit Level.  Why more equal societies almost always do better.  London, Allen Lane.




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“I will not speak with her”: Ophelia, shattered narratives, and fragmented selves

One way into Hamlet is through Ophelia’s madness.  Before Claudius murdered Hamlet senior, Ophelia has a life narrative, cultural confidence, and an integrated self.  She lives in a settled state that has seen off its enemies.  Both the King and Queen are fond of her.  Her father is an esteemed adviser to the King, and she has a protective if somewhat patronizing brother.

Ophelia is confident in her folk culture and Christianity.  Although motherless, her female network includes the Queen. She is young, intelligent and beautiful and has the best years of her life ahead of her.  Her boyfriend is the Prince of Denmark, a noble and preternaturally intelligent man, albeit prone to abstract musings.  He is more a philosopher than a warrior prince, but may inherit the throne. Given Hamlet’s standing, Ophelia is likely to become a princess, perhaps a queen.

Hamlet and Ophelia begin the play with integrated selves and coherent life narratives connected to their cultures, institutions and personal relationships.  Hamlet’s narrative is shattered by his father’s murder, mother’s infidelity, and the treachery of his boyhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Ophelia starts the play strong enough to challenge her brother’s sanctimonious and hypocritical advice.  She ends up dead.  What kills her are men imposing on her what they want her to be and refusing to allow her to compose her own identity.  Her father Polonius manipulates her and uses her against Hamlet.  He violates Ophelia by intercepting Hamlet’s love letters to her.  She is required to return tokens of Hamlet’s love to him.  Hamlet turns on Ophelia brutally.

As the play progresses, Ophelia sees through Claudius, loses trust in Danish institutions, her brother is abroad, and her former boyfriend has rejected her and killed her father.  As Ophelia’s mental health deteriorates Gertrude, who might have been a motherly figure says: “I will not speak with her”.


Let Shakespeare speak for Shakespeare, through Ophelia in her “madness” scenes:

Enter QUEEN GERTRUDE, HORATIO, and a Gentleman


I will not speak with her.

This scene opens with a closure.  In refusing to speak with Ophelia, Gertrude is complicit in the bullying Polonius, Laertes and Hamlet have subjected her to.   Hamlet gives insights into bullying.  A typical bullying strategy is to isolate the victim from his or her social connections: “I will not speak with her”.


She is importunate, indeed distract: Her mood will needs be pitied.


What would she have?


She speaks much of her father; says she hears There’s tricks i’ the world; and hems, and beats her heart; Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt, That carry but half sense: her speech is nothing, Yet the unshaped use of it doth move The hearers to collection; they aim at it, And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts; Which, as her winks, and nods, and gestures yield them, Indeed would make one think there might be thought, Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.


‘Twere good she were spoken with; for she may strew Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.

Ophelia’s madness is dangerous enough to unsettle ill-breeding minds – never trust the great unwashed!

Let her come in.

Gertrude only agrees to speak with Ophelia to avoid disorder.  Then her mask slips…


To my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is, Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss: So full of artless jealousy is guilt, It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.

Re-enter HORATIO, with OPHELIA


Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?

Is Ophelia confused, given that Gertrude is standing in front of her?  Or is she challenging Gertrude, by pretending not to see her?


How now, Ophelia!


[Sings] How should I your true love know From another one? By his cockle hat and staff, And his sandal shoon.


Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song?


Say you? nay, pray you, mark.


He is dead and gone, lady, He is dead and gone; At his head a grass-green turf, At his heels a stone.


Nay, but, Ophelia,–


Pray you, mark.


White his shroud as the mountain snow,–



Alas, look here, my lord.


[Sings] Larded with sweet flowers Which bewept to the grave did not go With true-love showers.


How do you, pretty lady?

Claudius addresses her.  Ophelia lines him up:


Well, God dild you! They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. God be at your table!

‘Dild’ in Elizabethan English means to requite, to give people what is coming to them, for better or worse.  Ophelia is struggling for composure, grasping on to her Christian faith to restore her shattered self.  Lacking full succour from this, she falls back on a cultural narrative, a folk tale of the owl and the baker’s daughter.

In this tale, a wandering Jesus asks for bread from a baker.  The baker gives him bread, but his daughter demands payment.  The daughter is turned into an owl.  Ophelia then says to Claudius: “we know what we are but not what we might be”.  She is saying, “be careful what you might be turned into, especially if you get what you deserve”.

Shakespeare may also be ahead of us, foreseeing unbounded human possibility.  We know what we are.  Shakespeare can see what we might be.


Conceit upon her father.


Pray you, let’s have no words of this; but when they ask you what it means, say you this:


To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine. Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes, And dupp’d the chamber-door; Let in the maid, that out a maid Never departed more.


Pretty Ophelia!


Indeed, la, without an oath, I’ll make an end on’t:


By Gis and by Saint Charity, Alack, and fie for shame! Young men will do’t, if they come to’t; By cock, they are to blame. Quoth she, before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed. So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun, An thou hadst not come to my bed.


How long hath she been thus?


I hope all will be well. We must be patient: but I cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him i’ the cold ground. My brother shall know of it: and so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my coach! Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night.

Exit Ophelia

In a later scene, after an angry Laertes has confronted Claudius, Ophelia reappears.  It horrifies Laertes that a young maid’s wits could be as mortal as an old man’s life.


Ophelia gives herbs and flowers to those around her.



There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.



A document in madness – thoughts and remembrance fitted.



There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you; and here’s some for me. We may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference! There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end.

In Shakespeare’s time herbs and flowers were cultural symbols.   Rosemary signified remembrance and fidelity, and was used at weddings and funerals.  Daisies symbolised innocence and forsaken love, such as Ophelia’s for Hamlet.  Fennel stood for flattery and adultery, and columbine for ingratitude and unfaithfulness. Ophelia has no violets, signifying trust and loyalty to give to anyone.  Hamlet has not been faithful to her, nor Gertrude to Hamlet senior, nor Claudius to anyone.  There is no loyalty left in Denmark and the state itself is untrustworthy.

Ophelia keeps some rue for herself and hands some to Gertrude.  Rue was a toxic herb the Elizabethan English thought had abortive and contraceptive properties.  Does this suggest Ophelia is pregnant, given her suggestive song?  Perhaps the rue she gives Gertrude is a contraceptive to stop her becoming pregnant to Claudius. Wear your rue with a difference!

Rue symbolizes repentance and sorrow, and is also a herb of grace. The wearers of rue when entering a church dipped it in holy water to seek God’s grace.  Ophelia may be suggesting Gertrude wear rue to seek repentance, while Ophelia wears hers in grief over her father’s death.  Rue therefore has secular and religious interpretations.  Ophelia is struggling between worlds.

Hamlet is a play in which Catholicism, the Protestant reformation and secular worlds are contending.  Of her father’s death, Ophelia says “they say he made a good end”.  This has a deeper meaning for Catholics, connoting sacrament in preparation for death.  The absence of this grace leads to the ghost’s sufferings in purgatory: readiness is all.

Ophelia sings:


For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.


Ophelia sings snatches of old songs she may have heard as a child.  She seeks solace in reassuring childhood memories.  “Bonny sweet Robin is all my joy” is a line from a Robin Hood ballad. Cultural memes, narratives and languages can help individuals feel they belong to something bigger and more enduring than their mortal selves.


Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, She turns to favour and to prettiness.



[Sings] And will he not come again? And will he not come again? No, no, he is dead: Go to thy death-bed: He never will come again. His beard was as white as snow, All flaxen was his poll: He is gone, he is gone, And we cast away moan: God ha’ mercy on his soul! And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God be wi’ ye.


Ophelia’s cultural narrative and sense of self disintegrates. She is friendless in the world, while Hamlet stays connected to Horatio till the end.

Ophelia at her end has only enough volition to drown herself.  Even at her funeral the bullying continues, with a priest castigating her for her suicide.  Her brother and Hamlet fight at her graveside over who is most aggrieved by her death, rather than mourn for her.

In Hamlet the self is fluid, malleable, shaped by social interactions and by narratives.  Healthy people have an integrated sense of self and of the narratives aligned with it that give continuity over time and transcend individuality.  The sense of self is shaped by social relations and by ideas and memes passed on through people.  Destroying these can destroy the self.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the play.  The opening exchanges in Hamlet reflect shattered selves, not integrated people.  The first words are “Who’s there…”?  Francisco asks whether it is Bernardo, and the latter identifies himself in the third person: “He”.  After a further exchange Bernardo asks “Say – what, is Horatio there”?  Horatio replies: “a piece of him”.  Later, Claudius refers to Gertrude as “our sometime sister, and now our queen” and Hamlet as “my cousin Hamlet, and my son”.  Hamlet replies in an ambiguous aside: “A little more than kin and less than kind”.

Key characters in Hamlet describe themselves in the third person, as shattered people, partial people, pieces of people, or as something they are not.

Hamlet struggles with his sense of self and life narrative.  He puts an antic disposition on and loses his sanity episodically.  However, by play’s end he regains his composure.  As he lies dying with sword in hand he affirms his identity.  He asks Horatio to tell his story, so his narrative will outlive him.

Hardly an echo of Ophelia remains in the play.

It is we who must remember her.


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The upstart crow and why I feel I belong here

Many people drop out of education even where there are no financial or academic reasons for them to do so.  How can we explain this, and do something about it?

People from low socio-economic backgrounds, ethnic and cultural minorities, and women in fields such as physics and engineering can feel they do not belong. In developed countries it is often socio-economic status, rather than for example race and ethnicity, that is most associated with barriers to educational success.

Knowing why people feel they do not belong in an educational institution requires understanding how peoples’ identities interact with identities that institutions support.  Insights can come from someone who left school about age fifteen, who in an age of classical schooling had little Latin and less Greek, and whose knowledge of geography conferred a seacoast on Bohemia.

Shakespeare never went to university, unlike contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene.  Greene derided the young Shakespeare as an “upstart crow” who did not belong in the theatre, or no doubt in a university.

Othello is seen as a play about jealousy. It is at deeper levels a play about how one of an individual’s identities can be stigmatised in the eyes of those around him, and so amplified in external perception, and in their own internal self-reflection, that it leads to self-destruction.

Everyone has multiple identities, whether related to age, gender, race, religion, culture, family status, sporting, political or other affiliations.   A life challenge is to move between identities in ways that match them to context.

Othello is set in Venice at a time this trading city state was in conflict with the Turkish over Cyprus.  Venice in both Othello and the Merchant of Venice epitomises the emergence from hierarchal feudalism of cities based on market trade and meritocracy.  Like Shakespeare’s London, Venice was a city where people could rise from nowhere and become prosperous through their abilities rather than blood-line and inheritance.

Othello has several identities; as a Venetian state servant, an older male, a Christian, a Moor, and someone with an exotic cultural past.  However, the only identity that matters to the Duke of Venice and the senators is that of a revered Venetian general.  Othello has won the heart of a beautiful and young white woman, Desdemona.  Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, can see only a black man and not Othello’s other identities.

Othello has an evil and clever enemy, his ensign Iago, whom Othello has passed over for promotion in favour of another soldier, Cassio.  Rodrigo, a failed suitor for Desdemona, also resents Othello.

Rodrigo’s hatred for Othello is jealousy; Iago’s is dislike of the meritocracy that has seen Cassio promoted over his head.

IAGO: Forsooth, a great arithmetician, one Michael Cassio…the bookish theoric…Mere prattle without practice…’Tis the curse of service, preferment goes by letter and affection, and not by old gradation, where each second stood heir to the first.

Shakespeare himself was more prattle than practice.  He did not hew wood, draw water or wield swords, but combined words in ways rewarded in markets.  (He also transformed language, psychology, and human character in the process, but that is an aside).

Iago’s challenge is to detect and exploit Othello’s insecurities, cause him to falsely suspect people around him, and to manipulate him into self-destruction.  Iago intuits that Othello feels insecure due to his identity as a Moor, especially given he has married a white woman.

A key theme in the play is of people seeing, not seeing, or seeing only one part of someone’s identity so the whole person is not seen.  It is also about people being primed to see things that are not true and do not exist. Shakespeare in Othello is centuries ahead of psychological science in his understanding of framing, priming and choice architecture.

The Venetian authorities see Othello’s military identity as magnified in visibility.  At one stage the Duke greets Othello warmly, and then fails initially to see or acknowledge the Venetian senator Brabantio.

DUKE: Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you…  [To Brabantio]: I did not see you.

Othello is a play that grapples with what people are, compared to how they are perceived or painted by others.  Iago himself says: I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Shakespeare weaves into Othello images of gardening. Iago is a gardener who cultivates the destructive parts of human nature. It is also possible to foster life through “gardening”, to see through people’s outward identities to their uniqueness, and to focus on their strengths and make their weaknesses irrelevant.  This is what excellent teachers do.

Othello begins with a conversation between Iago and Rodrigo about a mysterious and typecast figure called “the Moor”.  The Moor has no name.  He is unseen as a person.  He is referred to only as a brutish type with “thick lips”.  This is the prejudice instilled in the audience before Othello even comes on the stage.  Only later when Othello appears does it become clear he is dignified, intelligent, of high character, and revered in wealthy and powerful Venetian society.

The audience therefore has to choose whether to believe the word picture painted by Iago and Rodrigo or to see the real Othello on the stage.  There is no greater debunking of prejudice in all of literature than the way Shakespeare forces the audience to do the work and to judge on the evidence from the stage.

Iago exploits Rodrigo’s jealousy over Desdemona.  He and Rodrigo incite Brabantio against Othello, using crudely racist language in doing so.  Iago tells Brabantio:

…you have lost half your soul…an old black ram is tupping your white ewe…you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you…I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs

Brabantio cannot believe his daughter could fall in love with a black man, and accuses Othello of witchcraft or potions that have destroyed Desdemona’s judgement:

She is abused, stolen from me and corrupted by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks; for nature so preposterously to err, being not deficient, blind or lame of sense, sans witchcraft could not.

Brabantio also argues that Othello marrying his daughter will undermine the Venetian state.

For if such actions may have passage free, bond slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be.

These words suggest fears for the state and society, and may be as much about economic class (“bond slaves”) as race.  They are not fears shared by the Duke or the other senators, who see Othello as one of their own.

Othello defends himself in front of the Duke, in a way that highlights Shakespeare’s preternatural genius in conveying meaning through language’s subtlest sounds.

Shakespeare uses tone and cadence to give away barely discernible micro-clues, such as someone losing confidence in himself. Much of Shakespeare’s work is in iambi pentameter, where an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed one, as in as long lives this and this gives life to thee. This creates a soothing dum-de-dum rhythm like a heartbeat.

When Shakespeare departs from this he signals a change in mood, action, or in a character’s innermost thoughts. Othello’s speech to the Venetian Senate begins:

Most potent, grave, and reverend seigniors, my very noble and approved good masters…

These lines are discordant and do not follow a soothing rhythm. The weak endings jar as Othello unconsciously signals to the senators his inner doubt as whether he is their equal, despite being so in formal standing. How common it is for people in educational or other institutions to feel such self-doubt, an equivocation and an ill-ease, an inner voice asking “are you not a fraud? You don’t belong here, do you?”

Othello is a highly respected Venetian state servant.  The Venetian state accepts multiple identities and can reward one identity and ignore other identities that do not detract from it.  However, the state does not fully reflect the society that surrounds it.  Othello shows how vulnerable a person can be if his equality in law and rights is not complemented by a deep social belief in this equality from the people surrounding him.

Othello defends his love before the Duke, the senators and Brabantio.  He recounts his exotic life history that has helped him win Desdemona.

Of being taken by the insolent foe and sold to slavery, of my redemption thence and portance in my travels’ history, wherein of antres vast and deserts idle, rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven it was my hint to speak – such was the process – and of the cannibals that each other eat, the Anthropophagi…my story being done, she gave me for my pains, a world of sighs, she swore, in faith, ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange…she wished that heaven had made her such a man…she loved me for the dangers I had passed and I loved her that she did pity them.  This only is the witchcraft I have used.

Othello’s exotic story differentiates himself, but also makes him vulnerable because its mystery and remoteness can trigger a fear of the unknown.  However his romantic narrative is validated by Desdemona, the Duke and senators.

Like Cordelia in King Lear, Desdemona defies her father in making clear that she cannot give all her love to her father if she is also to love her husband.  The Duke of Venice and the senators endorse the love between Othello and Desdemona.  In concluding his judgement favouring Othello and Desdemona the Duke urges Brabantio to accept what has happened and move on:

When remedies are past, the griefs are ended/ by seeing the worst, which late in hopes depended/To mourn a mischief that is past and gone/is the next way to draw new mischief on/what cannot be preserved when Fortune takes/patience her injury a mockery makes/The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief/he robs himself that spends a bootless grief.

The Duke of Venice would have made an interesting chairman of the Waitangi Tribunal!

The Duke’s final words to Brabantio signal that Othello’s high standing as a military leader, state servant, and above all as a man override any identity he has as a black man:

…noble signior, if virtue no delighted beauty lack, your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

These words however still imply that blackness is perceived as negative, if it is not overridden by other positive identities.

There is a testy exchange between Iago and Desdemona where Iago’s “wit” reflects his misogyny as well as his cultural prejudice:

IAGO:…You are pictures out of doors, bells in your parlors, wildcats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended, players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds.

DESDEMONA: O, fie upon thee, slanderer!

IAGO: Nay it is true, or else I am a Turk: you rise to play and go to bed to work…If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit, the one’s for use, the other useth it.

DESDEMONA: Well praised!  How if she be black and witty?

IAGO: If she be black, and thereto have a wit, she’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit.

The association between fair skin and beauty and goodness was embedded in English culture in Shakespeare’s time, with Shakespeare challenging it in sonnets 127 and 130.

Shakespeare gave black and Jewish people a presence on the stage at a time when society had not mandated it.  He made culture, racial and political identities subservient to other universal human affinities such as love, friendship and pity.

Shakespeare did not believe in blood-line identity and privilege any more than he believed in the divine right of kings, the right of authority to tongue-tie his art, hubristic honour, the law’s delay, or the proud man’s contumely.

Shakespeare disparaged family blood-line affiliations in Romeo and Juliet.  In the Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s common humanity is seen despite his uncommon inhumanity.  Morocco, a black, is a credible suitor for Portia (who disparages Neopolitan, Palatine, French, English and German suitors and comes across in places more like a snobbish legal pedant than as a voice of merciful justice). Shylock’s daughter Jessica marries a Christian, defying racial, cultural and religious taboos in doing so.

The Nazi regime banned Othello.  The American strictures against miscegenation  meant that until the mid-twentieth century Othello was played by white actors, or those of indeterminate racial identity.  Paul Robeson felt that playing Othello on the stage as a black man liberated him from racism.

The great Afro-American writer Maya Angelou wrote that reading Shakespeare’s sonnet 29, as a little black girl who had been abandoned by her parents and abused, saved her life by speaking for her.  It connected her to Shakespeare, and then to great literature, and this saved her self-regard and gave her the intellectual foundation for her stellar literary career.

Shakespeare’s own father, like Dickens’s, fell on hard times.  Shakespeare himself would have felt the disgrace of fathering his first child out of wedlock at age eighteen.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes/ I all alone beweep my outcast state/ and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries/ and look upon myself and curse my fate/ wishing me like to one more rich in hope/featured like him, like him with friends possessed/ desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope/ with what I most enjoy contented least/ yet in these thoughts myself almost despising/ haply I think on thee, and then my state/ like to the lark at break of day arising/ from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate/ for thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/that then I scorn to change my state with kings’.

This poem captures the feelings of those who stand alone and friendless with luck against them and society looking down upon them.  It restores their spirits when they reflect it was written by the only truly universal human genius, who was once on the bottom, with them.

Brabantio accepts Desdemona’s affirmation of her love for Othello, however his parting remarks contribute to Othello’s later suspicion of his wife’s fidelity:

Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see; she has deceived her father, and may thee.

It can take just a few seeds of self-doubt to grow and overwhelm one’s trust in oneself, in others, and in the world.

Desdemona sees past the image of an admired military leader (and of course past colour), and sees the authentic soul of a man she loves as himself.  I saw Othello’s visage in my mind.  As Othello says, she had eyes and chose me.  However, Othello had been primed by a society to suspect himself, denying him the opportunity to truly love himself, and let others love him.  Iago himself says “I never found man that knew how to love himself.”

Brabantio’s words make it easy for Othello to believe Iago’s later insinuations that Desdemona has been unfaithful.  Iago’s skill is to get Othello to think things that he does not want to think, and to make conscious subconscious doubts he has about himself and about Desdemona’s fidelity.  Underlying this is Othello’s own doubt about his racial identity and his age compared to Desdemona:

for I am black/and have not those soft parts of conversation/that chamberers have, or that I am declined/into the vale of years

Othello worries about how he is perceived and what others may be doing or saying behind his back, while the moon winks.

Iago’s manipulations mean that Othello loses the ability to see Desdemona’s love.  He fails to see what is there, and “sees” only what is not there.

Iago cloyingly says to Othello that “men should be what they seem…beware, my lord, of jealousy!  It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on”. 

Othello cannot self-determine because he is competent and autonomous on a battlefield but lacks social relationships and networks that traverse different identities and lets him switch between them as the context changes.  He lacks deep friendships outside his military and state servant circle, and has not established trusting family relationships outside his marriage, for example with his father-in-law.  He cannot fall back on cultural and racial peers in Venice.

Iago isolates Othello from his ensign and friend by getting Cassio drunk, knowing he will disgrace himself.   Cassio regrets that man should put an enemy in their mouths, to steal their brains.  Othello has no choice but to sack him.  Iago then manipulates Desdemona into speaking up in Cassio’s defence, thus cultivating Othello’s suspicion that Cassio is having a love affair with her.

The stigma Othello had been subject to was ego-depleting and allowed Iago to seed and fuel his suspicions and therefore corrode Othello’s judgement.  Iago dupes his wife Emelia into stealing a handkerchief that Othello had given to Desdemona.  This handkerchief is a trifle, but is steeped in Othello’s cultural narrative and connects him to his exotic past lifeAs Iago says:

Trifles as light as air/are to the jealous confirmations strong as holy writ.

Iago is able to link this love token to Cassio and therefore to provide the ocular proof that confirms Othello’s doubts about Desdemona’s fidelity.

When Othello finally snaps, he breaks with his military life and with a core identity:

Farewell the tranquil mind!  Farewell content!!  Farewell the plumed troop and the big wars that make ambition virtue.  O, farewell, farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump, the spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife, the royal banner, and all quality, pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war… Farewell!  Othello’s occupation’s gone!

Othello farewells his military occupation and identity and can move to no other and live and let live.

As Desdemona sees Othello’s deteriorating psychological state she recalls a family memory:

My mother had a maid called Barbary; she was in love, and he she loved proved mad and did forsake her.  She had a song of “willow”; and she died singing it.  That song tonight will not go from my mind; I have much to do but to go hang my head all at one side and sing it like poor Barbary…

Shakespeare may be suggesting that Desdemona’s mother had a black maid (“Barbary”) who may have paved the way for Desdemona’s ability to love a black man.  Desdemona sings the song she remembers, vaguely reminiscent of Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s drowning:

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree/sing all of a green willow/ her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee/ sing willow, willow, willow/ The fresh streams ran by her, and murmured her moans/ sing willow, willow, willow/ her salt tears fell from her, and softened the stones…sing all a green willow must be my garland/ Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve.

Othello’s thoughts turn to murder:

Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.  Put out the light, and then put out the light.  If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, I can again thy former light restore, should I repent me; but once put out the light, thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature, I know not where is that Promethean heat that can thy light relume.  When I have pluck’d the rose, I cannot give it vital growth again…

The ultimate proof of Desdemona’s fidelity and her love for Othello comes as she lies dying from his violence.

EMELIA: Who hath done this deed?

DESDEMONA: Nobody; I myself.  Farewell; commend me to my kind lord.

Desdemona absolves her husband of her murder in her last words, forgiving him.

Emelia exposes Iago’s trickery and culpability and Iago murders her.  After he has killed Desdemona, Othello has destroyed his future and decides to kill himself.   His choice of last words will determine which of his multiple identities he wishes to be remembered for.

Soft you, a word or two before you go.  I have done the state some service, and they know it.  No more of that.  I pray you, in your letters, when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.  Then must you speak of one that loved not wisely but too well; of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes, albeit unused to the melting mood, drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees their medicinal gum.  Set you down this; and say besides, than in Aleppo once, where a malignant and a turbaned Turk, beat a Venetian and traduced the state, I …smote him, thus.  [Stabs himself]…

Othello’s farewell speech affirms his identity not as a black, an exotic Moor or a Christian but as a Venetian state servant.  It is this identity, not race, ethnicity or cultural background that he wants to be remembered for.  He has affirmed the identity through which he has achieved standing in a society that he was otherwise a stranger to.

After he has stabbed himself, Othello’s last thoughts and words are for his wife whose death has extinguished the last light in his world:

I kissed there ere I killed thee.  No way but this, killing myself, to die upon a kiss.

The Venetian senators punish Iago for his treachery and for his wife’s murder.  They validate Othello.  In doing so they accept Othello as one of their own, even though some of his identities differed from theirs.  Their fairness and respect for Othello auger well for the European Enlightenment that came after Shakespeare’s time and which he helped seed.

What practical lessons can we draw from Othello?  Meritocracy should prevail over primogeniture or hierarchal privilege.  People should express their identity which best matches a context.  Othello should not try to succeed as a Moor outside a Moor cultural context, any more than he should be warlike outside his military life.

Educational advancement depends on stretching people and challenging them to move beyond themselves.  If people look inwardly and narrowly within a closed group they limit learning, intellectual stretch, cut themselves off from wider identities and networks and forego future opportunities in life. They also expose themselves to affinity fraud.

However, people are hard-wired to recognize cues of coalitional identity of any sort.  Although cultural and racial differences are only skin deep they are also obvious and can trigger group affiliations.

Cultural or racial group identities may help some people who would otherwise feel isolated, and bolster their defences against stereotypical threat.  These identities can be a hook into educational recruitment and retention and help sustain students to the point where they can develop richer and more diverse identities and then a paramount focus on their academic identity.

Educational institutions must be both identity-congruent and identity-multiplicative.  They must connect with at least one of a student’s identities, and then foster pathways to others.  If a student then has a sense of belonging setbacks will not be attributed to identity and will be overcome.

Culture, race and socio-economic background can still matter in education, even if we would like to assume them away.  Affirmative action may be needed. This is not to exacerbate differences between people, but to help them to see what Shakespeare saw, that the only true light in the darkness comes from universal human affinities, without which it is put out the light and then put out the light, and then regret it.

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Some working propositions on human capital development

Some working propositions on human capital development

This paper suggests some working propositions on human capital development and outcomes associated with it. These propositions are that:

  • investing in the earliest human development stages must be top priority
  • socio-economic status is the major factor associated with human capital development and socio-economic outcomes
  • concerted cultivation gives better outcomes than natural cultivation parenting styles
  • Self-regulation and ability are expandable not fixed resources
  • Identity and narratives matter, people have multiple identities and have to match them to context

Investing in the earliest human development stages must be a top priority

Who has children, and how many, shapes society.   Cognitive ability depends on who your parents are, some genetic variation, and on environmental and sociological influences starting in the first nine months and carrying through into childhood and beyond.

Better educated parents and especially mothers have healthier children with a better start in life (Currie & Moretti, 2002). A mother’s cognitive ability and education is a good predictor of childrens’ outcomes. Maternal IQ can influence child cognitive development genetically and through parenting.

Earliest development stages shape us irreversibly

The earliest human development stages have enormous effects on cognitive and non-cognitive skill development (Gluckman & Hanson 2006; Gluckman, 2009). The first nine months shapes us irreversibly. No innate genetic potential for intelligence will be fully realised if there is poor nutrition or severe damage from a mother’s ingestion of lead, alcohol or other harmful substances (see Chasnoff et al, 1998).

Epigenetics is the science of permanent gene expression in response to environmental influences. Before birth a foetus takes a “biochemical weather forecast” of the world it is likely to be born into (Gluckman, 2009). If the forecast is for favourable weather it will develop anticipating a long and peaceful life that favours long-term investments such as in cognitive development. If however the mother is subject to stress due to factors such as poverty or domestic violence, development may favour the physique and psychology needed to survive an uncertain and potentially dangerous world. In effect, fight or flight responses will be favoured over cognitive development.

A child’s early formative stages have an epigenetic, genetic and socialisation element. For example, a gene variant that predicts male conduct disorder and violence is most strongly expressed when child-rearing environments are adverse.

Any negative epigenetic impacts at foetal stage can be compounded by capricious and high variance childhoods, and a lack of parental stimulation and intimacy. Children exposed to a capricious environment will tend to focus on the short-term and lack the self-regulation needed for staying power. When they become young adults they often take high risks in the hope of short-term payoffs, however they may fear uncertainty.

Touching a baby or child, for example through hugs or combing hair, is a sign of surplus parental energy and time that provides subtle assurance that ongoing care can be relied on. Caregiver touch is therefore nurturing because it signals ongoing capacity to give (Field,1995). This relationship between nurturing (or the lack of it) and outcomes occurs in other species. Experimentally, when young animals are deprived of early stimulation and interaction with mothers their gene expression is altered in ways making them more susceptible to later life diseases.

Earliest childhood shapes lifelong health

Early childhood-related health problems can cast a long shadow through later life and into future generations. They are strongly associated with socio-economic status. Socio-economic status (SES) refers to a range of factors such as income, net worth, education, and the mind-sets and aspirations relating to individual and family advancement.

Cutler et al (2008) note that poor childhood health begets limited means in adulthood which in turn begets poor childhood health for the next generation. Some problems can be nutritionally-related, such as lack of trace elements and micronutrients, iron deficiency, and the effects of energy-rich but nutrient-poor diets.

Low childhood SES is associated with an increased risk of substance dependence and poor adult health over a wide range of dimensions. For example, Moffitt et al (2011) observed that individuals from low SES childhood backgrounds visit dentists less often in adulthood than those from a high SES upbringing.

Melchior et al (2007) conclude that a range of low SES factors studied accounted for 55-67% of poor health outcomes among adults from low SES childhood backgrounds.

Cognitive ability is shaped in earliest childhood

At least 50% of lifetime earnings variability among people is due to attributes determined by age eighteen (Heckman & Mosso, 2014). The ability to change neural circuitry is highest early in life and decreases with time (Knudsen et al, 2006). Core skills such as literacy and numeracy are shaped early and failure causes long-term problems (Wolf, 2002; Arnold & Doctoroff, 2003). Children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills diverge at early stages between families of different parental income (Heckman & Mosso, 2014).

Heckman & Mosso (2014) concluded that IQ can be improved in lasting ways up to age three and perhaps later. Supportive sociological conditions need to be in place. Evidence from adoption and cross-fostering studies involving different SES groups suggests that around half the IQ disparity between children is experiential (Capron & Duyme, 1989).

Cognitive ability is wider than measured IQ

Cognitive ability is wider than IQ. Achievement tests such as the US SAT predict later achievement better than narrower IQ tests (Heckman & Kautz, 2012).

High levels of non-cognitive skills promote higher levels of cognitive skills, so skill stocks are synergistic (Cunha & Heckman, 2008). Heckman & Kautz (2012) observe that stable personality traits exist, and they predict and cause outcomes. Soft skills and character can be learned, and prevailing culture and social norms shape them.

In the US, the GED achievement test is given to school dropouts to let them demonstrate a high school graduate’s general knowledge. Those dropouts who achieve the GED at the same level as high school graduates still have worse outcomes, essentially because they lack other difficult to measure skills. After adjusting for cognitive ability, GED recipients are indistinguishable from dropouts, whereas high school graduates have higher incomes. Controlling for family background does not change this (Heckman & Kautz, 2012).

Quality early childhood education is a good investment


Early childhood is so important that the human, social and personal predictors of unemployment reach back to early childhood and begin to shape labour-market outcomes years before youth enter the work force (Caspi et al,1998).

Quality early childhood education (ECE) and remedial interventions have high returns over the lifecycle. Identifying and addressing learning disorders as early as possible and using early childhood interventions that “scaffold” children and supplement parenting have strongly positive longer-term effects.

Early intervention is more effective than targeting disadvantaged adolescents (Heckman & Mosso, 2014). Evidence in Doyle et al (2009) shows excellent returns from good ECE. Adult education programmes attempting to remediate educational neglect produces poor results for most individuals (Knudsen et al, 2006). These programmes may enhance social cohesion and help people fully participate in society, however they are not as good an investment as ECE.

Cunha & Heckman (2009) point out there is no equity-efficiency trade-off for investment in the capabilities of disadvantaged children. However there is a trade-off for investment in cognitive skills of disadvantaged adolescents and adults, though the trade-off is less dramatic for investment in non-cognitive skills.

For severely disadvantaged adults with low capabilities, subsidising work and welfare may be better in alleviating poverty than skills investment (see Heckman & Masterov, 2007; Cunha & Heckman, 2009).

Youth transitions are critical

Adolescent development and youth transitions to adulthood are critical. The early teen and adolescent years see young people adapt to physical and sexual development. This races ahead of their intellectual and emotional maturity, rationality, and ability to manage risk. They are developing their individual identity and crave group identity and peer recognition.

Important in late teens are secondary-tertiary transitions. Participating in the workforce while still at school is valuable. It is at the late teenage stage where the best adolescent interventions feature mentoring and scaffolding. Integrating work experience with traditional education can be valuable (Heckman & Mosso, 2014).

Differential susceptibility (or “orchid-dandelion” theory) argues that young people can be like dandelions surviving over a wide environmental range, or be like orchids struggling in most environments but flourishing in the right hothouse conditions. This emerging field may deepen our future understanding of late teen and early adulthood interventions.

The social capital built up in childhood shapes how teenagers address challenges and opportunities. This social capital will include aspirations, self-respect, how life choices and risk profiles associated with them are perceived, and the balance between today’s temptations and future human capital and other investment.

Low self-esteem during adolescence predicts negative real-world consequences during adulthood (Trzesnieski et al, 2006). Young people with little social or health capital may be more likely to take up hazardous consumption and shun investments in human capital. This raises their likelihood of a “rags to rags” sequence.

Youth from deprived backgrounds may have lower expectations of future success, independent of choices they make. Clarke et al (2006) found that fifteen year olds’ expectations of success predict the subsequent onset of smoking, lack of exercise, and failure to complete high school. While some of the influence of expectations can be explained by low social and health capital, IQ and other factors, expectations retain a direct effect on smoking and exercise once these other factors are controlled for.

Expectations are a better predictor of grades for socio-economically advantaged than for disadvantaged children. Small social-psychological interventions that target students’ expectations about school can lead to enduring gains in student achievement (Yeager & Walton, 2011).

Social-psychological interventions do not teach content. They set in play recursive social, psychological and intellectual processes. These interventions are especially important at key academic junctures. They are best delivered indirectly or even “stealthily”, that is without the knowledge of those whose behaviour is being changed. As such they do not feel controlling and they minimise resistance to the message. Interventions delivered stealthily do not stigmatize students as if they need help because of inherent failures, perceptions of which can reduce achievement.

Socio-economic status is the major factor associated with human capital development and socio-economic outcomes

In developed countries socio-economic status, rather than for example race and ethnicity, is the major factor associated with education and socio-economic outcomes. Lynch & Oakford (2014) report that black and Hispanic children in wealthier states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey outperformed their white counterparts in poorer states such as Alabama and West Virginia in the eighth grade maths component in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Socio-economic status shapes the family environment and therefore the parental and wider social environment children are subject to. Family environment in early years and parenting are critical determinants in shaping the lifetime skill base. Through dynamic complementarities they enhance the productivity of downstream investments. Family characteristics are often more predictive of student results than the characteristics of the schools themselves.   The greatest sources of differences in school achievement come from what children bring to school from their home and social environment.

Family income is only loosely correlated with the resources available to a child, for it is parenting rather than income that most matters. This is reflected in the high educational and wider achievement of immigrant minority groups who may start out poor in a new country but rapidly become socially mobile.

However, money does matter and relative poverty can be associated with higher fertility. This means resources of time, parental attention and money may be spread thinly. Teenage pregnancy is indirectly caused by poverty. It can be a rational choice for poorly-educated females for whom motherhood confers identity and gives access to resources. Birth order can also matter, especially for resource-constrained families. First-born children can receive relatively more early child investment than later ones (Hotz & Pantano, 2013).

Relative poverty and rank status inequality is stressful. Lynch & Oakford (2014) summarise a mass of US evidence that children from poorer households are relatively backward in other cognitive capabilities, and that poor early child development is associated with parental stress and with a lack of emotional support and cognitive stimulation for children.

High levels of childhood stress can have negative effects on cognitive development. This impacts particularly on the parts of the brain that support working memory, long-term memory, spatial processing and pattern recognition (Hackman & Farah, 2009).

Stress generates hormones which affect the brain (Gunnar & Quevedo, 2007). Mothers subject to chronic stress while pregnant have babies with lower mental development at twelve months (Davis & Sandman, 2010). The longer a child lives under stressful conditions the higher the basal levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Evans & Kim, 2007).

People under stress can become overwhelmed, and this can lead to using the wrong brain structure for a task. Stress can see the basal ganglia (which controls instinct and automatic behaviour) overcome the hippocampus (we forget things) and the pre-frontal cortex (we forget things or act irrationally). For example, someone under stress who should be thinking rationally can revert to automaticity controlled by the basal ganglia, leading for example to temporary child neglect.

Stress can have second order or indirect consequences. For example, women’s earnings can be lower because they have more distractions at home and they go into occupations allowing them to address home-life problems.

The conditions low SES children are subject to can harm development of language, working memory, task planning and impulse control. Low executive function can be especially harmful for self-regulation. Executive function is influenced by parent-child interactions in infancy. Low SES children suffer underdevelopment of the left perisylvian/language system and the pre-frontal executive system (Nobel et al 2007; Farah et al, 2006).

The executive system and function is from the prefrontal cortex brain structure. It enables flexible responding to non-routine situations where new information must be understood and responded to. Early executive function is a robust predictor of later academic achievement (Blair & Diamond, 2008).

Lawson et al (2013) show that childhood SES predicts executive function performance and measures of pre-frontal cortical functions, and that parental education significantly predicts cortical thickness.

Having nurturing parents at age four is related to the volume of the hippocampus (a crucial memory structure) at age fourteen. For children aged 22-44 months, simple sentence structure does not differ among SES groups but complex structure does. Low SES explains around 30% of variance in language ability (Noble et al, 2007). Language and vocabulary are critical because language is the medium through which most knowledge and skills are taught. High vocabulary correlates with real work ability (Hirsch, 2013).

Concerted cultivation delivers greater benefits than natural cultivation parenting styles

Two simplistic and contrasting models can be used to make tractable complex relationships between parenting and SES status: “concerted cultivation” versus “natural cultivation” (Lareau, 2011).

Higher SES parents tend to have a concerted cultivation parenting style involving intensive and structured parental input and organised children’s activities. They stimulate their children with lots of toys, trips, cultural experiences, sport and music. They engage their children more and increase the formative value of sport and cultural activities (Lareau, 2011).

High SES parents reason with and verbally joust with their children, giving them choices, and encouraging them to think for themselves and to challenge parents and teachers. They ask open-ended questions to encourage speech growth and adaptability. Their children are exposed to more words and develop richer vocabularies.

Lower SES parents adopt a more natural cultivation style where children are given more freedom and have to entertain themselves or be “entertained” passively with digital games or television. They have fewer active and engaged educational and cultural experiences and less exposure to reading and language. Hancox et al ( 2005) argue that excessive television viewing in childhood may have long-lasting adverse effects on educational achievement and well-being. It is unclear what the future effects of excessive electronic device and social media use may be.

Lower SES parents typically work in jobs with low autonomy. They therefore adopt more authoritarian parenting styles emulating their low working life autonomy. Their children are more subservient to adults, less creatively contrarian and less able to wing it among strangers. They are accustomed to black and white decisions or yes or no answers and this inhibits child response and speech development.

Concerted cultivation tends to create a greater sense of entitlement and a higher sense of available possibilities. Natural cultivation can see children feel constraint and limitations on what they can achieve.

Wider social connectedness is associated with good outcomes

A higher SES upbringing develops the non-kin relationships needed in modern economies and in the professional jobs they create. Social connectedness is an important pathway from adolescence to adult wellbeing (Olsson et al, 2012). Participation in clubs and other groups widens young peoples’ social interactions and exposes them to more ideas and more people outside kinship groups (see McGee et al, 2006). This latter is important as the wider one’s social networks the more opportunities become available and the more people get used to social variety, diversity and change. This hones the social skills needed in complex and changing workplaces where autonomous decision-making and self-management are required.

Human psychology has its origins in selfish gene, inclusive fitness logic, in kin-based relationships and in reciprocal, face-to-face trade. However, as societies become more complex, trade, cooperation and supporting institutions become impersonal. Institutions develop to create abstractions or symbolic representations of physical wealth. This allows capital to be leveraged for purposes of accumulation, borrowing, applying time value to money and allowing impersonal trade (de Soto, 2000).

In hunter-gatherer times there were no banks or superannuation schemes and so our ancient ancestors saved through reciprocal altruism. They survived by sharing a surplus today and banking up a sense of obligation that this favour will be returned when fortunes are reversed. Survival depended on consumption and there was no conception of capital or capital productivity. That is why people innately understand jobs and labour productivity but not capital productivity. It is why economic growth is associated with job growth rather than trade betterment or capital formation and why misguided theories such as the labour theory of value emerge.

In evolutionary times, resources were subject to effort-independent random variance as a result of seasonal, climatic and other factors. Sharing in situations of resource variance produces average net gains to participants because it shifts resources to those with higher marginal returns (Petersen et al, 2012).

However, high effort-independent variance in economic activities at the individual through to the macroeconomic level makes it impossible to achieve economic growth. It discourages savings, asset development, accumulation and future-oriented education and skill development. It triggers an ethic of widespread sharing for today rather than accumulation and human capital creation for tomorrow.

Not surprisingly, cultures that have more traditional and kinship-based relationships can have a live for today ethos based on tangible physical resources. Other cultures leverage abstract property rights from physical assets in ways underpinning future-oriented investment, and capital accumulation and sophisticated trade.

A psychology of future-oriented capability development and asset formation builds awareness of long-term ends rather than short-term consumption opportunities. Holding assets is associated with better socio-economic outcomes (Bryner & Paxton, 2001) and with childrens’ educational attainment (Zhan & Sherraden, 2003). It focuses children on future-oriented capability development rather than a hand to mouth consumption or living for today ethos.

High SES children do better in education

Low SES children suffer poorer parenting and compromised early environments over several dimensions (Heckman & Mosso, 2014). This affects educational performance. Higher SES parents connect better to the education system since they have themselves navigated the system and because educators are often peers. Lower SES parents may hand their children to educational institutions rather than be actively engaged with those institutions. These children can also be vulnerable to low teacher expectations as well as negative parental attitudes and peer influences.

Higher SES children are therefore able to disproportionately benefit from access to higher education because they have the necessary skill bases to benefit from it. Lower SES children are less able to benefit from university even where assisted by financial subsidies as wider skill bases as well as financial resources matter.

This has educational funding implications. Public investments in education lead to different outcomes independent of resource inputs. Increased public funding of education may not necessarily reduce educational inequality. More skilled parents increase the productivity of public investments. Public investments may or may not “close the gaps”, depending on patterns of substitutability with parental skills and private investments.

Bowen et al (2009) estimate that reductions in tuition costs can increase completion rates for students from the poorest backgrounds. There is also evidence that class size influences achievement and that reducing class sizes benefits lower SES children (Arnold & Doctoroff, 2003).

However, untargeted increased spending on education can increase inequality and lower net national income by creating “Mathew effects” (“to he who has shall be given even more”). It can increase “Red Queen races” where people have to run harder just to stay in the same place, and amplify credential inflation which increases total education costs and therefore places exceptionally high burdens on low income people.   This suggests that targeted rather than universal public investment in education may be more effective for social mobility.

Lower SES children have some advantages

Lower SES parents and children may have some advantages. They often spend more time together as a family and have closer links to kin. They may enter into more cooperative arrangements to share childcare and this can build stronger links, especially with kin.

High SES childrens’ organised activities can often replace rather than provide family interactions. Lower SES siblings may fight less and be more supportive of each other. They may listen more closely to others and be more differential to authority figures, which may be helpful in some environments. Kraus & Keltner (2008) find that high SES children can be less engaged in conversations with others because they are more self-reliant.

Higher SES children can whine more, be bored more easily and be less compliant with parental demands. They may initially appear older than low SES ones, however this can reverse in early adulthood. They may be more dependent on their parents even as adults.

Parents who protect their children from failure can make it more difficult for them later in life. While concerted cultivation helps children adapt well to today’s institutions, will this be true in future if these institutions struggle to adapt to technological, social or environmental change?

Self-regulation and ability are expandable not fixed resources

Self-regulation and will power are important traits needed in sticking at tasks and in foregoing immediate gratification in favour of longer term study, saving and investment. Conscientiousness predicts educational attainment, health and labour market outcomes as strongly as measures of academic ability (Heckman & Kautz, 2012).

Self-regulation, patience and staying power are fundamental determinants of educational performance and working life achievement. Higher cognitive ability is closely associated with higher patience, and is especially important with complex tasks (Heckman & Mosso, 2012).

Self-regulation is shaped from the first nine months and into childhood and later life stages and is influenced by external environmental influences.   Childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes.

Effects of children’s self-control can be disentangled from their intelligence and social standing. Interventions addressing self-control might reduce many societal costs. Moffitt et al (2011), in a study of sibling cohorts found that siblings with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background.

Self-regulation is a competency that can be developed and helps lead to choices in life and self-determination. The Ryan & Deci self-determination model holds that competence and autonomy give rise to self-determination and therefore control over one’s life (Ryan & Deci 2000). Self-determination depends on competency, relatedness to others, and an autonomous sense of personal responsibility. Where these traits are present they give rise to self-determination.

Self-regulation, as opposed to externally-imposed regulation depends on high intrinsic motivations. Intrinsic motivations for self-control thrive in an environment of external support, security, predictability and relatedness to others (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Relatedness to others is an important influence on self-regulation and self-determination. Self-regulation may improve when demands on self-control are especially strong, however, there needs to be a balance between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations and an understanding of how they interact.

External threats and rewards can diminish intrinsic motivation. This is because they conduce towards an externally-perceived locus of causality. Excessive, coercive regulation means people disown responsibility. Extrinsic influence must therefore be autonomy-supportive. Teachers who are autonomy-supportive catalyse in their students greater intrinsic motivation and the self-regulation associated with it.

Some religious beliefs can reinforce self-regulation by economising on cognitive energy and inducing something akin to a placebo effect. However such religious belief can also stifle expressivity and autonomy and channel energies in unproductive ways.

There are competing views on whether self-regulation is a limited resource that can be depleted by use (the “ego depletion” theory) or is expandable. Duckworth & Seligman (2005) argue that self-control is a limited resource. People may make short-term and irrational decisions because they have limited cognitive energy and attention. This scarce resource is focused on short-term problem solving driven by poverty and low human capital. In contrast, better paid people can pay attention in learning and at work because they have more “comfort goods” and fewer other things to distract them (see Banerjee & Mullthainathan 2008; Mullthainathan & Shafir 2013).

Job et al (2013a) argue that self-regulation and willpower are not limited resources and that people do better when they think of them as unlimited. They find that students who believe in an unlimited theory of self-regulation had better time management and less procrastination than those believing self-regulation is limited.

People also do better when they think that abilities can be expanded rather than being a fixed resource. Dweck (2006) argues some people have a fixed mindset and believe their abilities are immutable. Others have a growth mindset believing they will do as well as they are prepared to work. The former fear failure while the latter learn from it to improve performance.

How parents and educators frame and communicate abilities to support either a fixed or growth mindset has profound implications. Some students believe when they sit an exam they are starting with 100% and every mistake they make will cost them marks. Others consider they are starting with nothing and the harder they work the higher their marks.

Children’s motivation and persistence is encouraged by emphasising effort rather than intelligence (Kamins & Dweck, 1999). Praise for intelligence can undermine motivation and performance because it implies a fixed endowment that is a ceiling rather than a floor. It is better to say “you did well because you worked hard”, not “you did well because you are smart”. Teaching students that intelligence is malleable will buffer students from some negative stereotypes in school (Yeager & Walton, 2011).

While the effectiveness of the growth mind-set in boosting achievement is clear, mechanisms underlying this are less well understood. The brain can grow connections and become smarter as it works on more challenging tasks. There may also be something akin to a placebo effect at work, and this may interact with other variables.

For abilities to be malleable, people have to believe them to be so. Persuading students that cognitive ability can be grown can lead to higher achievement levels (Yeager & Walton, 2011).   School achievement is predicted by self-perceived abilities even after IQ is accounted for. Some evidence suggests that self-perceived abilities have some genetic rather than just environmental elements (Greven et al, 2009).

Identity and narrative matters, people have multiple identities and have to be matched to context

Consciousness researchers argue there is no “ghost in the machine” and that consciousness “makes up” a sense of individual identity to construct meaning from the world. This identity or sense of “I” seeks patterns in group identity and a coherent explanatory narrative. People seek connections to something wider than themselves that overcomes their sense of isolation. Abandoned children will cling on to one photo or other memento of the parents who deserted them.

The brain, faced with environmental stimuli, must decide on what is relevant and exclude irrelevancies. The brain creates missing information to fill in gaps and confirm a pattern it imagines should be there. Pattern, narrative and accumulated prejudices can build on valid assumptions and economise on cognitive energy that would otherwise be expended making things up afresh.

People lacking a coherent narrative and with little sense of transcendental identity or continuity over time seek immediate sensation as well as blocking out of self-reflection. Terror management theory contends that cultures, symbolic systems and narratives that make individuals feel part of something transcendental (such as an intergenerational group that survives individual mortality) imbue life with meaning and help overcome fear.

Learning builds on past foundations. Learning is cumulative and so curricula have to be designed to build knowledge cumulatively and coherently. Higher SES groups can engage in more academic rather than applied or vocational learning at secondary school. This often engages them in cultural heritage whether it be Shakespeare, classics, and languages (including “non-utilitarian” ones such as Latin).

This helps build up a sense of long-term cultural heritage, identity and narrative which connects people to their antecedents and to what will come after. This gives people perspective. This is most powerful when it constitutes a whakapapa of the mind rather than a more narrowly channelled kinship-based whakapapa. It also helps when it is outwards rather than inwards-looking.

Identity can shape outcomes (Akerlof & Kranton 2002; 2010). By young adulthood most people have well-developed group identities or a compelling need for them. Humans evolved in groups for such purposes as optimising sustainable food harvesting over discrete areas, while defending themselves from out-groups. Group identity evolved both a double standard of morality between in and out groups and the cultural markers to reinforce this.

Identity as part of a group provides access to resources and confers protection to an individual. Feeling part of a group economises on scarce cognitive energy, for example by giving a set of culturally heuristic rules of thumb that avoid the cognitive burden of making things up from first principles. Pride helps motivation (Williams & Destono, 2008) and pride in group identity can enhance performance.

Identities shape how individuals perceive and respond to opportunities. When individuals are insecure they can identify with groups who they perceive provide protection from out-group threats. People can attribute exaggerated influence to others or to enemies to compensate for reduced control over their own environment. Group leaders’ status reflects how people within a group perceive their ability to protect the in-group. Not surprisingly, group leaders can have incentives to amplify or even create external group threats.

Group identity will often be cultural. Cultural factors impinge on educational outcomes, however underlying economic circumstances give rise to culture more than the other way round.

With greater social complexity, identities become more multivariate. People have multiple identities relating to gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, political beliefs, sporting affiliation, community position, job, profession and a host of other identities. The identity most to the fore at any time must be matched to the right context. For example, a surgeon’s identity at an operating table must be that of a surgeon, not of a rugby player, libertarian, wine taster, Catholic, gay, sailing coach, trustee, sister, or any other identity that person may have in another context.

Identity’s multiple nature is fundamental to educational performance. People behave in ways that are identity-congruent rather than identity-incongruent. Schools should offer diversity in the identities associated with the school that children can connect to. This means more children can find a way to connect to the school and be connected to ways others see the world.

Learning is enhanced when group activities are more associated with cognitive development. For example, is a child’s most salient identity after school that associated with a rugby league team or a chess club?

However schools that seek to mould student identities to reflect religious, cultural or ethnic identities that exclude other identities will limit student prospects. If people look inwardly and narrowly they limit learning and intellectual stretch and as a result their cognitive development and memorisation abilities become constrained.

People learn not through rote and repetition but by being encouraged to think widely about what they are supposed to memorise. Fundamental to learning is memory and memory results from thinking about content. Memory is to a substantial extent the result of and residue from thought. Memories are recovered by cues, hence the value of mnemonic associations and of acrostic, music, rhyme and key word devices as cues to recall from the unconscious what is in the memory. The wider the learning and its interdisciplinary spread the more there will be in the memory and the more cues are available to recall what is memorised.

Group identities can see individuals with multiple identities typecast as belonging to one identity only. This can lead to stereotypying that threatens prospects in education, the employment market and life. Group identity can also risk affinity fraud by other members of the same group. Stigma associated with one of a person’s multiple identities can give rise to belonging uncertainty as people are sensitive to information diagnostic of the quality of their social connections.

Understanding which of someone’s multiple identities should be salient for the individual within a specific context is fundamental to people positively identifying with learning, and to avoiding stereotypical threats to people associated with one particular identity group which faces barriers.

Stereotypical threat occurs when a particular group identity an individual is associated with is treated negatively by others. This shapes how others perceive the individual, how the individual perceives herself, and this can constrain or enhance long-term achievement.

Stereotypical threats may emerge to ethnic minorities, women, and to people of certain ages or religious groups. Stereotypical threats might include a view that women are not suited to engineering or that Afro-Americans are better at basketball than maths. Stereotypical threat systematically reduces its victims’ achievement (Walton & Spencer, 2009).

Stereotypical threat undermines performance by taking up executive resources, through distraction, and probably through other mechanisms. Sexist or racist attitudes may also create tangible rather than purely psychological barriers to people reaching their full potential.   Some American evidence suggests that Afro-Americans and Hispanics may drop out of school partly because they accurately perceive the local labour market will not pay a premium for their education.

Reductions in stereotypical threat boost academic performance. However stereotypical threat cannot be countered effectively by exacerbating in-group intolerance to potential external “threats”, perceived or actual. Special religious or ethnic schools can risk signalling that students are problem children rather than requiring schools to support diversity. There is little evidence that same ethnicity teaching helps, though some limited evidence culture can matter in teaching (Arnold & Doctoroff, 2003).

Stereotypical threats can be countered through focusing on academic achievement-related identities rather than, for example, ethnic or cultural ones. Alternatively, when minorities see their academic future selves as consistent with their ethnic identity, students’ motivation will increase (Yeager & Walton, 2011).

Affirming important values, for example through writing short essays about what a person values about herself, can help people exposed to stereotypical threat do better academically.

Social belonging helps protect against stereotypical threat. Socio-belonging interventions have improved grades and school-related attitudes among Afro-American students and female engineering students in the US. If a person has a sense of belonging then setbacks may be negative but not diagnostic. For example, leading students to attribute worries about identity to difficulties of transition to a university, rather than being due to students’ identity, can bolster a sense of belonging (Yeager & Walton, 2011).

Concluding comments

The above propositions can focus future work on human capital development to enhance socio-economic outcomes in enduring ways.


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