Monday, 20 March 2017

Waiting for the medicine

This post is about something not normally discussed in politics in New Zealand but really should be.

Amid all the hubbub and rhetoric, all the hate and vitriol, all the policy and propaganda that makes up the normal political discourse; little time is given to discussing what we as a nation want to be, where we want to go and what ideals do we want to make the pillars of our society (as well as what ones do we wish to cast down or denigrate).

What got me thinking about this was the recent (and ongoing) issue of National deciding to raise the superannuation age from 65 to 67.

What I heard amid all of the statistical double talk coming out of the mouth of Bill English, and Treasury, was the simple and repeated phrase of "we cant afford it!"

And if you look at it from a pure numbers perspective, maybe he is right. Maybe.

Maybe we as a nation cant afford it, maybe will will just have to tighten out belts and cut costs and make savings.

Then again maybe not.

The reason I am writing this is because I reject outright any argument or position about what we as a nation wish to be which is based on numbers first and foremost and I will tell you why (or why else would I be blogging?).

First and foremost such an argument, as is being made by English and National, seems suspiciously aligned with the kind of Neo-Liberal thinking which has infected parties like National, and ACT, where the hidden agenda is always about enriching one small group at the bitter expense of all the rest.

Of course under John Key, that agenda was always carefully hidden away behind layers of careful spin and even Keys own antics served to distract from the gradual erosion of the welfare state which has been built up in Godzone over the last 100 years.

And the greatest piece of spin Key ever embarked on was his unequivocal promise to not raise the retirement age which not only neutralized populists like Winston Peters (who counts retirees, and soon to be retirees as a large chunk of his core vote base) but also poured oil on one of the most contentious issues in western politics today (that of an aging population).

So unequivocal was it that he tied it to his position as Prime minister by promising to step down if it ever went up on his watch.

And so for nearly nine years that issue was swept under the rug and anyone approaching retirement breathed a sigh of relief and went back to sleep.

Now with Key gone and English and Co slavering like vampires at the blood bank, one of the first big announcements (apart from muddying the waters around the muddy (and toxic) water issue) was that come 2040 the retirement age will go up to 47 and to announce it in a manner that seems suspiciously like pushing so far into the future that it will not factor as an issue in the coming election (even the Retirement Commission report said 2034).

But again the rational repeated by English and others again and again (and again for this and other issues) is that we simply cant afford it and here is a raft of tables, charts and graphs to show how we cant afford it.

Such an approach has been used by National before to say we don't need as many police (although that changed once things started getting out of hand and suddenly there was extra money, for the next four years at least, to get more cops back on the front line), to keep public service salaries down (although MPs get that pay rise every year adjusted for inflation and backdated regular as clockwork), to keep the minimum wage below the living wage (because keeping businesses happy is more important than people being able to live off the money they make), to sell of state housing stock, to reduce what goes to beneficiaries and to justifying almost anything done under their watch which has seen things get just that little bit harder, more expensive or difficult to achieve for the majority.

But even if English is not just an ideological puppet and we really can't afford to keep the retirement age at 65 what else as a nation cant we afford?

Can we afford to watch our nation slide into poverty or casually gaze around as significant chunks of our population (I am thinking principally about Maori here but this could apply to anyone) suffer disproportionately across a range of health and social statistics while a small minority sleep well in their beds and keep on running things for the benefit of themselves only.

Can afford to piss away the cleanliness of our water or leave our economy desperately dependent on things like tourism and dairy products?

Can we afford a parliament full of long serving (and mostly useless) politicians who have become so divorced from reality, due to their well paying positions by which they insulate themselves from the effects of their policies and decisions and allow themselves to become slaves to various bunk ideologies?

And once questions like that start they do not stop, they go on forever until madness ensues because such unfocused examination of our nation and its direction atomizes the issues down to a series of fragments which sometimes fit into the bigger puzzle but often get swept away in the next batch of change that politics and the media spews on us and always leaves us coming up short so that we eventually throw our hands in the air and decide to leave it to the "experts" or (shudder) the politicians.

But whats not being usually discussed or questioned is the bigger picture to which all these fragments contribute; that of "what kind of nation do we want to be"?

Listen to a parliamentary debate, read the paper, watch the TV news or just engage in a vaguely political discussion and see how quickly the dialog get swamped in the details while the guiding principles get ignored.

Many people mock the US of A for having a document like the Constitution which sets out clear ideals to which they as nation want to aspire to but which currently seem to be slipping form their grasp but at least they have something to which they can say they are basing their society on, what doe we have in New Zealand?

For one we have the Treaty of Waitangi, but that in and of itself does not seem to be enough to keep us on course as the debate has not always been one which parties can agree on or which clearly sets out goals for our future but rather sets in place the idea of two parties working together towards something greater but where that "something" has not been clearly defined.

So do we want to be a country slipping downwards in the race to the bottom or do we want to be a nation which is going to hold up certain ideas and ideals as being sacred and worth keeping?

NZ was a country that enshrined a strong egalitarian streak which shone through in all manner of ways from being the first country to give women the vote; to affordable state housing; to a social welfare system which worked (not to mention things like ACC); to how we used to regulate alcohol and gambling (with most of the profits generated going back to the community) to all manner of systems, rules and laws which make us (although for how much longer?) a country which is seen as one of the least corrupt in the world and a host of other little things which made New Zealand what it was and is.

And behind all those things was a serious and robust discussion about what we as a nation wanted (not what we could afford) and how we could achieve that. Its no accident that the egalitarian (and yes socialist) ideals which helped build or nation were articulated broadly across all spectrum of New Zealand because if we wanted it, we found a way to afford it.

Some might say that such ideals without sound consideration of the costs is madness and they are right in the small sense that reality must always be considered but not as the primary or only determinant of our direction because that way leads to a group of "nice" people sitting around a table deciding what to do with their countries surplus population.

And I am sure that tucked away in dark corner of the National party (probably copied from ACT) is a "nice" Treasury style power point about how democracy is too damn expensive and we should just scrap it so we can balance the budget and grow the economy 4.3% in the next four quarters.

Democracy, freedom and a just and equitable society don't come cheap, they cost, and sometimes they cost a lot more than the budget says we can afford but once you sell them off or privatize them its very hard to get them back and the balance sheet might look better but everything else wont as it is easy to glance around the world today at nations where such things as egalitarianism, just laws and a free society are not in abundance and grok how unappealing those nations appear when compared to those which do make those things a priority.

So when Bill English says "we cant afford it" what he is really saying is "I* don't want to pay for it" that reflects a societal view which is moving away from a nation built for all and governed by principles greater than the balance sheet and one just for those individuals able to grab what they can at the expense of anyone else (and consequences be dammed!).

Lets have a discussion. Lets ask ourselves what kind of New Zealand we want to be. Lets divorce it from the politics of the left and right and decide if we want to be a Nation which people are flocking to or one which people are fleeing from because right now Aotearoa is still an appealing place where people do flock to (from creepy US Billionaires buying citizenship to Syrian refugees fleeing the war zone that their nation has become), but for how much longer?

Of course all I have just written sounds like the kind of idealistic rot which you would expect from someone with their head in the clouds, someone divorced from reality, just thinking pie in the sky and all I need is a solid does of reality to wake me up but you would be wrong.

John Ralston Sual (my favorite philosopher) in his book On Equilibrium listed the five qualities most important for an effective society and economics is not among those things (although he does note rationality which could be considered the seed of economic thought).

What he lists as qualities or virtues which are important to a healthy society are common sense; ethics; imagination; intuition; memory and reason and that these are of equal and universal value for a society if it is not to be captured by one, or a few qualities (or their dark disciples) that have morphed into dangerous ideologies (and their respective ideologues).

And that is why the whole manner of the superannuation announcement sits rather badly with me.

Its not about bashing National or supporting Labour. Its about the fact that Bill English has made a choice which reflects one single consideration or quality and where all others have been ignored and where the manner of the announcement, when viewed inline with Nationals broader goals and direction, indicates that the figures, graphs and tables being touted as the basis for Nationals argument is really just buttressing an ideological position that needs justification rather than Bill English thinking about the actual well being of New Zealand as a whole.

So yes lets discuss the superannuation situation but lets also discuss the direction that we want to take as a Nation (and the values related to that direction) and lets also keep in mind that facts graphs, tables and charts as the basis of forecasts for the future are subject to the same kind of factors and considerations that Thomas Malthus failed to account for in 1789 when he predicted that the world would be overpopulated and starving in short order (by ignoring improvements in food production and other things which killed his prediction that population growth would outstrip food production).

So my question to you is whats the cost of an egalitarian and just society, and do you want to live in one?

*-As well as his political party and its backers.

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