This week, with the gentle November sun lancing down on a calm ocean around Waiheke, this may well be the most beautiful place on the most generous of planets. According to one smart young physicist in the news this week, it may be the only one, in all of time and space, to have developed to this point of intricacy and perfection.
Yet here we are, holding our breath, if not actually plumbing the depths of despair and grief. Nearly two years ago, the pandemic brought out the best in us. Modest, underpaid essential service workers were the new heroes. Kindness was an option. We were all in it together. Capitalism’s unsavoury side was increasingly unfashionable and a new fairer deal stood out as a possibility.
We – the muddled, well-meaning, sometimes lazy bulk of us in the middle between the privileged (the top one percent of New Zealanders, who now own a quarter of the whole country) and those in the vicious grip of poverty at the bottom – could see what needed to be done and thought we could build back better.
But now, quite suddenly, the latest COP environment conference is whimpering to a close and a bullish Australian mining executive is bludgeoning us from the evening news with his company’s rights to keep on tearing coal out of our own earth. This while a spew of murderous, faceless social media grievance out of the US starts enacting itself on the streets.
The gun-in-your-arms version of freedom that comes with America’s rugged individualism normally jars with our own culture’s more inclusive societal focus and adds further confusion when paired, as it was this week, with slightly bemused farmers who have their own influential lobby on government policy and are ready to acknowledge they have had an easier time of the Covid pandemic than cities and businesses.
If one thinks about it at all (and, frankly, it is probably better for our mental health if we don’t), it seems as if the planet’s monetary settings still have the power to keep us on the path to a dystopian hell of the kind my generation encountered in the science fiction novels of our youth.
Most cast Mother Earth as either an abandoned wreck of a planet in a far corner of the galaxy or an impregnable jewel planet for an entrenched privileged class fed by slave colonies mining minerals in hostile terrains (like Mars).
It’s all disturbing, not least because global money, in its present iteration, still delivers extraordinary advantages to the already wealthy who rarely notice the gross injustices that surround but cannot touch them.
The theme was taken up by the media last weekend, with the Sunday Star-Times running extensive coverage of New Zealand’s deeply unequal monetary policy levers over the past 30 years, the main theme of the newly published Too Much Money, by political researcher and author Max Rashbrooke.
It comprehensively bursts the myth of New Zealand as a classless society – we are on an exact par with Britain on that one – and alleges a “wilful national blindness” that has seen us fail to collect reliable data on wealth or engage with the strategies that keep the real effects of intergenerational money transfer from public view.
We have been gradually becoming aware of it but suddenly it’s too close for comfort.
The share market is a great indicator in New Zealand, says Rashbrooke, whose 2018 book, Government for the Public Good, challenged the dogma that markets must be entrusted with the tasks previously carried out by government and set out a framework for a revived and deepened form of democracy.
“Seventy percent of all the shares in this country are owned by that wealthiest one percent. So, if that’s doing well, it’s mostly telling you that the one percent are doing well. What we’re seeing often in the past 30 to 40 years in this country is growth in things like that being relatively strong, but the share that goes to the average wage earner is massively lagging behind.”
Work is being done. Revenue Minister David Parker has instructed officials to develop better data on upper-end wealth, says Rashbrooke. In the 1990s the National Business Review’s Rich List broke through the $10 billion mark, reaching $89b in 2019. Now called just The List, its 2021 edition devoted space to the philanthropic work of the rich; a rebranding he says shows the public’s enthusiasm for enormous wealth inequalities has diminished.
We don’t have to go to the barricades but a specific and measurable rebalancing to equalise financial and social opportunities for everyone has to be got over the line. •