Tapu Misa writes that the growing divide between rich and poor makes solidarity and a sense of community more difficult.

What would last week's Budget have looked like if inequality wasn't just an abstraction that John Key and his Government seem to have trouble getting their heads around?

The Green's alternative budget, Mind the Gap, has a few clues: a comprehensive capital gains tax excluding the family home, for example, and a $10,000 tax-free income band that would have benefited everyone.

What we got instead was a carefully crafted package that continues the red-carpet treatment of our star taxpayers and completely ignores the existence of a problem.

Whatever the gap, John Key was urging unworthy bottom-feeders not to get too worked up about it.

"We can be envious about these things but without those people in our economy all the rest of us will either have less people paying tax or fundamentally less services that they provide."

I like the way he said "the rest of us" as if his $50 million fortune didn't exist.

Maybe it doesn't matter that the two-thirds of taxpayers who earn under $40,000 (quite a bit less than the oft-quoted average wage of $50,000) will get between 9 cents and just under $10 a week after GST, while the hard-pressed top 2 per cent who've been struggling to make ends meet on $150,000-plus a year will pocket nearly half a billion in tax cuts.

Auckland University economist Dr Susan St John calls the tax package "a very significant shift from progressive taxation". More of the tax burden will now fall on the lower-paid middle and bottom ranks of taxpayers.

This means we're not likely to lose our ranking as one of the most unequal countries in the OECD any time soon.

We can't talk about inequality and the rich-poor divide, or dare to suggest the rich should pay more tax, without being accused of playing the politics of envy. Or fomenting class warfare.

As the billionaire Warren Buffett once quipped: "There's class warfare, all right - but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning." Indeed.

Mr Buffett made the comment in a 2006 New York Times article after discovering - much as Trade Me founder Sam Morgan did recently - that even with his "immense income" from dividends and capital gains, he "paid far, far less as a fraction of his income than the secretaries or the clerks of anyone else in his office ... 'How can this be fair?"'

Buffett would happily have paid more taxes if someone had asked him. So would Morgan. But we don't ask this of Morgan or others like him, just in case they run off to Australia, where the top tax rate is higher.

Inequality, as epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue in their 2009 book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, hurts us all. As well as links to higher crime, ill-health, shorter life expectancy and a range of social pathologies, inequality drives a wedge between people, corroding trust and raising levels of anxiety. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised then that an annual Massey University survey has found we've become more tolerant of income inequality, even as we've become more unequal.

In his 2009 book Justice, the Harvard professor of philosophy Michael Sandel writes that while politicians have largely ignored inequality, philosophers have been debating the just distribution of income and wealth since the 1970s.

He argues an important reason to worry about the growing inequality of American life is that "too great a gap between rich and poor undermines the solidarity that democratic citizenship requires".

As inequality deepens, "rich and poor live increasingly separate lives". The affluent send their children to private schools (or to public schools in wealthy suburbs), leaving urban public schools to the children of families who have no alternative. A similar trend leads to the secession by the privileged from other public institutions and facilities. Private health clubs replace municipal recreation centres and swimming pools.

Upscale residential communities hire private security guards and rely less on public police protection. A second or third car removes the need to rely on public transportation. And so on.

The affluent secede from public places and services, leaving them to those who can't afford anything else.

This has two bad effects, writes Sandel. "First, public services deteriorate, as those who no longer use those services become less willing to support them with their taxes.

"Second, public institutions such as schools, parks, playgrounds, and community centres cease to be places where citizens from different walks of life encounter one another.

"Institutions that once gathered people together and served as informal schools of civic virtue become few and far between.

"The hollowing out of the public realm makes it difficult to cultivate the solidarity and sense of community on which democratic citizenship depends."

Envy isn't the problem. It's our increasing distance from one another.

tapu.misa@gmail.com