No limits to political imagination

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    The trouble with the celebrity culture we’ve stumbled into this past few decades is that it’s a passive spectator sport. Sound and fury that plays to the gallery but essentially signifying nothing. One-upmanship writ large with glittering dollar stakes to match. 

    It’s an agent for unrealisable ambitions in the young but also for a general mean-spiritedness in the wider populace.

    I’ve got to the stage in life where I seriously care that our young will look back to 2020 and know we loved them, caring enough to fight for the real, infinitely intricate world when the chips were down.  

    Italian writer, politician and political theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), who also lived in interesting and rather appalling times, said: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

    New Zealanders rank climate change above Covid-19 this election, the Guardian reported earlier this month.

    In addition to this overwhelming interest in the climate crisis, many also cited persistent wealth inequality, poverty, the environment and a lack of housing affordability as the issues they care about.

    Although New Zealand officially entered a recession in recent weeks, few said they’d vote on economic policies or jobs. 

    “For many,” the article stated, “2020 seems to have crystallised their major priorities, summed up by a Māori proverb that is also a favourite of the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.

    “He aha te mea nui o te ao? (What is the most important thing in the world?) He Tangata, He Tangata, He Tangata. (The people, people, the people.)” 

    People look after each other and the environment. Economies don’t.

    “We’re chucking all of this money at the [Covid] rebuild, but are we actually going to build something worth having? Or will it just be more stuff? Is there social infrastructure we can be investing in? What can we do to build resilience, not just wealth” said a 30-year-old from Papakura. A 71-year-old from the Bay of Plenty said the country needs “leadership that acknowledges that neoliberal economics is damaging the world”. 

    Brilliant young New Zealand academic Max Harris wrote The New Zealand Project (published in 2017) as an Examination Fellow at All Souls College in Oxford. It’s a masterful and optimistic analysis of the forces and frictions at play in New Zealand, and he’s now warning that our economic response to the pandemic risks being blinkered by old orthodoxies at a time when investment is sorely needed.

    “New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been rightly praised,” Harris wrote, again in the Guardian. “Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said New Zealand was ‘working … to build the kind of economy that should mark the post-pandemic world’. The finance minister Grant Robertson, acknowledged the opportunity to showcase a new approach in a bold speech in May in which he said: ‘There are few times in life when the clock is reset. Now is the time we should address … long-term issues. It’s not one we should squander’.”

    But as electioneering takes a grip, rather than widening the window of what is politically possible, New Zealand’s response to the pandemic risks being blinkered by old orthodoxies, says Harris.

    “In particular, hyped-up concern about government debt among most political parties is cramping a vision of what the state can and should do in the lead-up to the October election.

    “Excessive fear about government debt is not just a technical matter for economists. It spells further under-investment in health, housing, and other essential public services. It limits political imagination. And it could lead to New Zealand squandering the opportunity to build a progressive post-pandemic economy.”

    Whipping up worry about high government debt is a convenient route to less spending and a smaller state, he says. The National party set an initial debt target of three percent of GDP which one economist described as “taking a chainsaw to government services” – the party’s leader Judith Collins called it “aspirational”.

    The New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union, a lobby group opposed to government spending, devised a “Debt Monster” to “stalk politicians … as they campaign”.

    Ten years ago, the global financial crisis and those infamous bank bailouts taught us that government spending can boost demand in the broader economy, increasing the tax take and overall government revenue while allowing the money-go-round in the community. 

    As anyone who has read Auckland University’s Professor of Law Jane Kelsey knows, GDP is a flawed measure at best, and fear of debt has been a tool of austerity since the 1980s. At 44 percent, ours is very low by international standards. 

    We have choices and there is an appetite to seize them.• Liz Waters

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