Sunday, March 30, 2003

And now for something completely different...

Something that isn't directly or indirectly related to the war!

I went to a lecture by Dr Don Brash, the opposition finance spokesman, on wednesday. The lecture was part of a series put on by Massey University's School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work. They have a different politician every week; last week was Jeanette Fitzsimons; next week is Winston Peters.

Anyway, Dr Brash's talk was on a subject close to his heart: economics. He was concerned about the gap in per-capita GDP between New Zealand and Australia; he thought that if the gap continued to grow (or simply remained), the talented would flee NZ for wealthier shores, and New Zealand would turn into the sort of society New Zealanders wouldn't want to live in.

Unfortunately, National's proposed "solutions" to this problem - tax cuts for the wealthy, benefit cuts for the poor - would transform New Zealand into the sort of society New Zealanders don't want to live in. While economists believe that gross inequality is healthy, it goes against the egalitarian grain of most New Zealanders; similarly we want the government to provide decent public services, or else there's simply no point in having one.

Other things Dr Brash talked about:

  • He claimed credit for the current good economic climate :) This is apparantly the case in economics, where fundamental changes like those we went through in the 80's and 90's can take decades to work their way through the system (alternatively, however you break an economy, it eventually settles down and gets used to it).
  • He talked about adult literacy rates as a potential drag on our economy, using data from the International Adult Literacy Survey which showed that ~40% of adult New Zealanders are ranked in the lowest two categories. Improving literacy is a good goal, and something we should work on, but OTOH looking at the data shows that our literacy levels aren't out of line with other western nations, the notable exception being (of course) Sweden. The fact that the Swedes can do better shows that we can as well, but it doesn't seem to be the enormous economic problem Brash thinks it is. In fact, it seems more like an attempt by Brash and National to tap into the pervasive middle-class angst about how well their children are doing in school - a suspicion confirmed by his mention of phonics.
  • He did the usual beat-up on welfare, focusing on the massive increase in beneficiaries between 1975 and ~2000. He focused on 4 benefits - sickness, invalids, unemployment and (of course) the DPB. Unfortunately, he didn't do much else besides saying "this is bad" (and especially not saying why, which can be revealing), and throwing around anecdotes about how Maori wanted to eliminate the welfare system (this seems to be part of National's current political strategy, especially since John Tamihere opened his mouth).

    (Just off the top of my head I can think of several reasons why beneficiary numbers have increased over the period in question:

    • We've gone through dramatic economic changes, and the entire basis of our economy seems to have changed from one offering full employment to one which has a permanant floating unemployment rate of around 5%.
    • Over the same period, the divorce rate has roughly doubled. Divorce became dramatically easier after 1981, and as a result it went from ~7% to ~12%. The increase in numbers on the DPB is directly attributable to this (and not, as National likes to claim, to teen mothers in South Auckland popping out sprogs to get the benefit).
    • Some of the rise in sickness and invalids benefits is undoubtably due to case managers at WINZ shuffling people around to meet their perverse targets (you have to ditch a certain number of people a month, and its easier to move them onto another benefit than solve their problem...), but Brash himself mentioned some research suggesting that the rise in invalids and sickness beneficiaries was an international trend. This suggests that modern life is unhealthier than it was in 1975 (or that we're more willing to recognise it), and raises the question of how many people are on sickness and invalids benefits for psychological reasons.)
  • Someone asked him whether he was being "groomed to take over the leadership of the National party", to much amusement. Unfortunately, his training as a politician is sadly incomplete - the correct answer to such speculation is "you may very well think that, but I couldn't possibly comment".

So, overall a fairly interesting and informative lecture. I wonder what Winston s going to talk about next week? I hope it won't be immigration...