Monday, 1 August 2022

Fifty Wasted Years.

Beyond Fixing? The critical question confronting New Zealanders is whether we any longer have the resources to repair our physical and human infrastructure?

WHO WILL MAKE the New Zealand of the next 50 years? We had better hope that, whoever they are, they make a better job of it than those responsible the last 50 years. The condition of the country in 2022 offers a stark contrast to the New Zealand of 1972. The country of 50 years ago offered young New Zealanders world-class education and healthcare, full employment, an affordable home of their own, and a future secure enough to contemplate starting a family without trepidation.

The country has been riding on the back of that much stronger New Zealand right up until the present day. As my friend Dr Chris Harris pointed out to me just a few weeks ago, the modern and highly efficient infrastructure of 1965 served a New Zealand population of 2.5 million. In the space of less than 60 years, our population doubled. Harris’s jarring question: Is the infrastructure required to service a population of 5 million in place? Do we have twice the number of hospitals? Twice the number of schools? Have we made sure that the New Zealand of 2022 still possesses the same high-quality scientific, engineering, medical, teaching, commercial and skilled-trades expertise as the New Zealand of 1972?

The answer to that question is the stuff of contemporary headlines. The construction of the physical and human infrastructure necessary for the maintenance of a strong, first-world economy and society has not kept pace with New Zealand’s burgeoning population. On the contrary, it has languished far behind. Not only have we mended and made-do, but we have also relied upon a qualified workforce that is growing older, but not larger, to keep the social and economic engine ticking over. These experts are rapidly running out of puff. But, when they look over their shoulders, what do they see? Too few replacements, and too far away.

The explanation for New Zealand’s crumbling infrastructure is, almost entirely, bound up with politics. The right-wing populism of Rob Muldoon was effective but expensive. His cancellation of Norman Kirk’s contributory superannuation scheme, which could easily have funded our required infrastructure investments, left him politically marooned and fiscally vulnerable. His increasingly idiosyncratic style of economic management also set up the conditions for the economic and social revolution unleashed by the Fourth Labour Government in 1984.

The neoliberal ideology which drove that revolution (and swiftly captured the National Party) was a reaction to, and an implacable foe of, the active state that produced the prosperous New Zealand of the 1960s and 70s. The “hands-on” style of nation-building which had been a feature of both Labour and National governments since 1935, was unceremoniously dumped. If infrastructure was in genuine need of refurbishment and/or replacement, then the Market would step in to claim the profits.

Except that capitalism has always relied upon the state to construct and preserve the physical and social infrastructure necessary for the realisation of private profit. If the behaviour of sovereign states since the global financial crisis of 2008-09, and during the current Covid-19 Pandemic, has not made that clear then it is difficult to imagine what could! Free movement of capital. Free movement of goods. Free movement of labour. Such is the neoliberal catechism – and New Zealand has been an apt pupil.

It was the free movement of labour that hurt New Zealand the most. By forcing tertiary students to take out loans to pay for their tuition, neoliberal education policy more-or-less forced the country’s best and brightest to join the “Anywhere” class of globalised professionals and managers. By destroying organised labour, neoliberal workplace relations policies drove New Zealand’s best workers across the Tasman to Australia where wages were 30 percent higher.

It was a deadly cocktail. In order to secure and retain some form of democratic mandate, successive neoliberal governments were obliged to offer tax cuts to their most reliable voters. This hollowing-out of the state’s fiscal position meant key infrastructure was either overburdened with demands it could no longer safely fulfil, or simply shut down. To this ailing physical infrastructure was added a human infrastructure no longer equal to the nation’s needs. The only way to keep the state even semi-functional, was by opening New Zealand’s borders to tens-of-thousands of immigrant workers.

When traffic is reduced to a crawl, and broken water pipes send geysers soaring into the air, the neglect of the past 50 years can no longer be ignored. When crippling shortages of medical specialists and nurses render our hospitals unsafe, and there are no longer sufficient qualified teachers to adequately staff our schools, polytechnics and universities, then the crippling infrastructure deficit simply has to be addressed. The critical question confronting New Zealand, however, is: can these deficiencies be made good?

It is not just a question of finding the huge amounts of capital need to repair, replace and augment the nation’s physical infrastructure – it’s the strings that are attached. At the heart of the Three Waters controversy, for example, isn’t the fraught issue of “co-governance”, but the non-negotiable requirement of international lenders that the administrative entities needed to oversee the spending of the billions of dollars needed to bring our drinking-, storm-, and waste-water up to scratch are hermetically sealed-off from democratic interference.

Of even more concern is the quality of New Zealand’s human capital. Young New Zealanders of 2022 are simply not as literate, nor as numerate, as they were 50 years ago. Google, Wikipedia and YouTube notwithstanding, their general knowledge is abysmal. This is far from being a trivial objection. A good general knowledge is essential if young people are not to fall prey to misinformation, disinformation and the wild conspiracy theories that infest social media. It is what we don’t know we don’t know that leads so many of us down the rabbit-hole.

Most terrifying of all, when considering the scale of the repairs and renovations required of New Zealand over the next 50 years, is the question: who is going to do it? If the best and the brightest graduates New Zealand’s taxpayers can produce are snapped-up by overseas recruiters, who are we left with? The graduates the recruiters didn’t want? Who wants to live in a country built by the second-best engineers?

And then there are those who not only fail to make it to university, but don’t even make it to school? The unprecedented number of truant kids who struggle to read simple instructions and perform basic calculations. How do you build a country with the people our over-stretched and understaffed education system failed to engage – failed to teach?

From somewhere, New Zealand needs to find the hope and the energy that built the physical and human infrastructure we’ve been living off these past, tragically wasted, 50 years. The only place to start looking for either of these qualities is at the bottom. God knows, we’ve done little enough to foster much in the way of hope or energy in our social depths, but we’re not going to find it anywhere else. Because the people who robbed this country of both were the people at the top – and most of them don’t even live here anymore.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 1 August 2022.


Anonymous said...

My son is a chem engineer, second in his yr at Canterbury and sought by no fewer than 5 unis incl Purdue and Edinburgh to join research teams. He is a brilliant engineer and he chooses to stay in NZ. Not everyone's motivated by money Chris.

Wayne Mapp said...

I know you are nostalgic for the past. You asked a series of rhetorical questions on the number of houses, schools ( more accurately school classrooms), universities, etc. The basic question was, have all these doubled, being your measure of whether life has improved.

The answer in all cases would be "yes". Classroom sizes are much smaller than 50 years ago. It is way easier to get a tertiary education. There are almost certainly there are twice as many houses, with the average size being much larger. Medical advances are obvious, just look at average life expectancies, with a better quality of life for many years into retirement.

I would agree there is a bigger spread of wealth than in the past. No longer do we have waterside workers earning as much as doctors. I personally think that is a good thing. The level of qualifications required by a doctor should count for more than 6 months training (at most) driving a straddle carrier.

I recall the struggle of my parents to make ends meet. None of my generation and the immediate next have had anything like the struggle my parents had. However, a major difference is house ownership. This is clearly more difficult for those aged under 35 or so and under, at least in Auckland and other main centres. Not nearly so difficult in places like Whangarei, where a decent house can be bought for $500,000.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

You've probably never noticed Chris but I don't usually make comments like "great article", that's usually reserved for when you say something conservatives approve of. Anti-wokeness for instance.
But in this article you've hit on the crux of the neoliberal experiment – and it's obvious failure. Roger Douglas said that his policies would give us a high wage high skill economy. What we have, whatever it is – is certainly not that. It has been in those terms anyway, a miserable failure. Great for some – the few at the top of the business/government bureaucracy world (two things which seem to have merged somewhat).
Putting education and training in the realm of a private good has meant that as usual, companies have tried to avoid the expense of training – particularly companies which have always relied on the government to provide trained people in the past. They simply haven't taken up the slack, preferring to rely on imported cheap labour. At the same time they are whining about lack of people prepared to take on lower paid jobs. Apparently New Zealanders don't want to work. Well yes, at the wages they are offering. Capitalism in theory says that if there is a shortage of something, the price increases. It obviously doesn't apply to wages in their minds.
If you want people to work for you, you should make sure that the pay and conditions are such that people want to do the work. Which means in practice that you should try to make your company more efficient, and employ somewhat fewer people but at higher wages. This is a major indicator of successful companies overseas and successful countries for that matter.
The alternative is something like the US system where 90% of workers can be fired "at will", which means there is great flexibility in the labour market, but this only advantages employers on the whole. And do we want a society like the US where millions can't access basic rights such as medical care?
Of course conservatives in the US don't regard medical care is a right, certainly not on an equal basis with the right to bear arms.
So we've had 40+ years of make and mend – or should that be mend and make do? And the longer you put it off, the more it's going to cost to fix it, although fixing it will in the medium term create jobs, some of them skilled and/or well-paid.
But I guarantee it's not going to happen now that pretty much all our politicians have accepted neoliberal capitalism – which is always a step or two behind needs. I guess we're lucky that the libertarians haven't taken over given the abysmal record of libertarian political entities.
Unfortunately many of our children and grandchildren have been brainwashed by this social engineering to accept things the way they are. And there is basically nothing – no organisations such as the trade unions – that can undo this. This is one of the times where I give into despair.

Patricia said...

We do need a new party. A Social Democratic Party that is designed to deal with these issues. There are two types of money. As our currency is not tied to any other, unlike the Euro countries, the New Zealand Government can and does issue its own currency, the NZ$. The other type of currency is what we earn from selling our goods overseas. The government can invest the former in what ever it wants. Eg roads, hospitals, schools, universities, fast trains etc.
The latter is used to buy things from overseas. I remember when the Government bought TV parts from overseas and they were assembled here. You may laugh but think that through. It gave jobs to New Zealanders who by assembling them learnt how they were made. If the Social Democratic Party came up with a monthly platform of what it was going to do over its first year I am sure it would be voted in. The day after election it should announce all student loans would be forgiven. The second month it should announce that the Universities would revert back to how they were run prior to the neoliberal era and all tertiary education would be free, as it used to be. Third month it could announce a tax free threshold of $20000.00 with an increase in the tax threshold for incomes over whatever…Fourth month it could announce an abolition of GST on food. Fifth month….. all this comes from money issued by the Government. The neoliberal economic way is not the only way to run a country. There is a variety of ways but what we do know is that the neoliberal way beggars a country.

Gary Peters said...

Well Chris, imagine if the current government had injected a large chunk of the wasted billions spent since 2020 on infrastructure rather than straight welfare we could have made a decent start.

Even if they had invested it directly into health and education we could have made a decent start on turning the clock back a little to gain some of those previous positives.

You are right, we are failed as a country by those at the top and the current lot at the top seem devoid of the ability to learn from the past. Most were not even born when godzown was alive and well.

Maybe it's our fault for not focussing on history as part of the education of our children but whatever, we need a radical change and I truly hope 2023 is the start of that rather than a continuation of the steep slide.

greywarbler said...

In vino veritas Chris? Up the glasses! Good stiff drink and cogitate on. Then what? It isn't that we have been sitting and chewing our cud all these decades. How do you get through to these barmy people who would sell NZ for a handful of beans? I believe in a different type of magic, and Jack only made good really by stealing the Giant's treasures. That's no way to run a proud and effective country.

Barry said...

Totally agree. Remember that tax rates were higher mid last century.
And so are rates in Scandinavia - which is often pointed to as an ideal model.
But without doubt the politicians have been totally without vision over the last 50 years.
I often recall what made Singapore great. Lee Kwan Yee said " education and health is whats needed to make Singapore world standard." And he was right.
The last 50 years in NZ has sen the country go backwards in these two vital areas.
Increasing benefits and making gender studies and Te Reo important are big backward steps.

Archduke Piccolo said...

A cogent and clear reminder...

... and not only were these outcomes predictable, they were predicted, if not so much in 1975 (though it was even then), but certainly during the middle years of the fourth Labour Party's administration. I knew 'trickle down' ('let 'em eat shit') to be a crock the moment I first heard it uttered, I could see the Unions and Service organisations abandoning their memberships, could not see the slightest evidence that private 'enterprise' was in any way more cost-efficient than the state (I had worked in Public, State and Private sectors). I never could understand how privatising State-built, State-funded and State-owned enterprises (infrastructure) could possibly benefit New Zealand's people or its economy. I still have not discovered how the removal of $11 Billion via Telecom into oversea pocket was of any benefit to this country. No one has explained to my satisfaction why oversea owners refusal to invest in the infrastructure they bought accrued to this country's advantage. No one has come up with the slightest justification for the wholesale gouging of a market captive to an increasingly substandard infrastructure.

One thing was painfully clear: the policy makers had not the faintest clue why the Post Office Savings Bank was created (1867), nor Government Life Insurance (1869). None whatever. Be it noted, neither was created by a Labour administration - predating the First Labour Government by more than nearly seven decades.

The governments and their fat cat enablers of the last 50 years have a great deal to answer for. But no one will be asking the questions.

Back in the late '80s, someone was asked what the result of Rogernomics would be. His response was that maybe 10% of Kiwis (i.e. the already richest) would gain; perhaps a further 10% might stay where they were; the remaining 80% would lose. The further down the socio-economic scale, the greater the loss. This country has not only failed to recover from the ignorance, incompetence and vandalism of Douglas and Richardson, it has been bleeding to death ever since. Not all the sticking plaster, bandages and splints have arrested the decline.

Cheers (after this Jeremiad!),
Ion A. Dowman

John Hurley said...

These days the cry is migrants AND infrastructure, but infrastructure is a tax on growth.
Unless they can demonstrate tangible benefits across society (rather than concentrated in eg tradies and others who are doing well), it is just a death spiral.
The post-ethnic SOCIETY envisaged is just an uneasy compromise: a total less than it's parts.
Ethnic groups typically have a referent (place) and lense (history) and a stock of symbols. They are organic and subjective - adaptive mechanisms of evolutionary environment.

Diamond Harbour Writers' Group said...

A chillingly accurate summary of the situation. Easy to diagnose, but fiendishly difficult to correct. Ideologies need to be tested in the crucible of human well being. As the Baha'i writings state "If long-cherished ideals and time-honoured institutions, if certain social assumptions and religious formulae have ceased to promote the welfare of the generality of mankind, if they no longer minister to the needs of a continually evolving humanity, let them be swept away and relegated to the limbo of obsolescent and forgotten doctrines. Why should these, in a world subject to the immutable law of change and decay, be exempt from the deterioration that must needs overtake every human institution? For legal standards, political and economic theories are solely designed to safeguard the interests of humanity as a whole, and not humanity to be crucified for the preservation of the integrity of any particular law or doctrine."

Step one on the journey is look into our reality; to recognise we're all in this together. This means setting aside all prejudices, whether of race, gender, religion, nation, politics - whatever.
Step two is to recognise we have choices, and those choices have consequences: "Whether peace is to be reached only after unimaginable horrors precipitated by humanity’s stubborn clinging to old patterns of behaviour, or is to be embraced now by an act of consultative will, is the choice before all who inhabit the earth. At this critical juncture when the intractable problems confronting nations have been fused into one common concern for the whole world, failure to stem the tide of conflict and disorder would be unconscionably irresponsible." The Universal House of Justice: "The Promise of World Peace"

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Wayne – easier to get a tertiary education? Yes if you're willing to go into debt. My generation got out tertiary education practically free. Almost every kid in my class at secondary school went to university. And only the ones who took advantage of the secondary teachers studentship ended up with any debt. We had pretty reasonable paying jobs in the holidays as well.
So your measure of what someone should be paid simply relates to qualifications? My son helps keep the city going through the night and works extremely unsocial shifts sometimes. Should that not count? What about those who work in dirty and dangerous conditions? I think pay should reflect more than simply how much time you spend educating yourself for the job. A fundamental philosophical difference maybe.

Barry said...

I forgot about another serious change.
In 2000 the Clark government changed the law about local bodies in that the Govt gave Councils the "power of general competance" - meaning councils could forget the traditional list of responsibilities (roads, water, waste parks) and could spend money on anything "the community " wanted. So money was wasted on things like V8s, shows , rainbow pedestrian crossings and all sorts of crap.
Thus we now have failing local body infrastructure.
Hamilton was spending $140,000 a WEEK to repay the V8 losses.
The inmates were in charge of the asylum......and still are.

Shane McDowall said...

By one estimate, each migrant to New Zealand requires $90,000 of infrastructure.

Last year before Covid hit, more than 100,000 people arrived in New Zealand than left.

Did the government, local and central, spend $9 billion on infrastructure to accommodate the new arrivals?

Seriously, did they ?

DS said...

Of even more concern is the quality of New Zealand’s human capital. Young New Zealanders of 2022 are simply not as literate, nor as numerate, as they were 50 years ago. Google, Wikipedia and YouTube notwithstanding, their general knowledge is abysmal. This is far from being a trivial objection. A good general knowledge is essential if young people are not to fall prey to misinformation, disinformation and the wild conspiracy theories that infest social media. It is what we don’t know we don’t know that leads so many of us down the rabbit-hole.

Nonsense. The major difference between 1972 and 2022 in terms of education is that in 1972 you could get a job without a university education, so only the elites went. In 2022, everyone goes to University, which means the median university student looks far more like the general population than they did fifty years ago.

I'd also point to the Flynn Effect, whereby IQ levels continue to rise - not actually a measure of increasing intelligence, but rather that 2022 requires more abstract thought processes than 1972.

David George said...

G.K. Chesterton: “Every high civilization decays by forgetting obvious things.”

I'm sure that the political changes over the past fifty years have had very little to do with what ails us; it's much deeper than that. This gets closer, Chris: "Young New Zealanders of 2022 are simply not as literate, nor as numerate, as they were 50 years ago. Google, Wikipedia and YouTube notwithstanding, their general knowledge is abysmal. This is far from being a trivial objection. A good general knowledge is essential if young people are not to fall prey to misinformation, disinformation and the wild conspiracy theories that infest social media. It is what we don’t know we don’t know that leads so many of us down the rabbit-hole."

There's a book out by a dedicated teacher "Hollowed Out" a warning about America's next generation. Reviewed here:

Excerpts: "It is not just that many students can’t recognize America’s leading politicians; it’s not just that they lack knowledge that you might expect them to have; it’s not just that they appear to have no interest in acquiring wisdom. That would be bad enough, but it goes far deeper, and is far more worrying. They seem bereft of an understanding of what it means to be fully human. What do I mean by that? I mean that they seem mysteriously barren of the behaviors, values, and hopes from which human beings have traditionally found higher meaning, grand purpose, or even simple contentment"

"Post-modernism is not ascendant, it is triumphant; it is how my students live and see the world; it represents their underlying assumptions, and they are no more aware of its impact on their minds and souls than a fish is cognizant of water. To young people, radical individualism is not emblematic of being a renegade, an iconoclast or a rule-breaker; it is not zealotry; it is, in a strange way, its own banal conformism."

"The job of the modern teacher is largely therapeutic—make students feel safe, make them feel good about themselves, impart the curriculum without insisting with too much awkward emphasis on how they might benefit from engaging with big thinkers, big ideas, big themes, thinking historically or philosophically rather than about the Almighty Me."

"Many teachers feel they are being held hostage to an ideological experiment that harms them and their ability to teach, that harms innocent students who are trying to learn, and that in the end harms the very people it is meant to help by not holding them accountable for their actions."

greywarbler said...

Well Jamie Belich gives us something more to think on:

If Covid slows our already feverish rise to the stars - which are draughty and cold I hear - then some good may come from it.

But in one of history's greatest paradoxes, it was followed by an unprecedented cultural and economic renewal, a revolution which enabled Europe's global expansion.

Such is the contention of James Belich’s latest book The World the Plague Made, which explores how the Black Death of the 14th century not only halved populations but also helped bring about Europe’s rise.

"The population hit in England was catastrophic, he says. Out of a population of 4.8 million 2 million died in less than two years.

“It is absolutely amazing, and the human resilience displayed is quite extraordinary. It seems almost incredible that people can overcome a disaster like that.

“But perhaps we need to think in terms of the Japanese and German economies after World War II, they showed extreme resilience.”
While populations were being ravaged economic activity remained strong, he says."

As well as a population drop, there is the combination of countries suffering, an unpleasant common trial understood by all. And a need to support each other where money is of less use than a present physical object or future crop ripening and availability. And then there is the Crichton situation, where the butler in a previous culture, becomes a manager and master of practicalities in times of plain need requiring thoughtful organisation of personal resources. › shows › the-admirable-crichton
When the party is shipwrecked on a deserted island, where a living can be hewn from the wilderness only by those with the skill to do so, the admirable Crichton ..

greywarbler said...

DS It could be that in 2022 there is more abstracted thought. A difference of two letters from 'abstract' that may be all the difference in the world. As abstract thought is about ideas that may have no physical or concrete existence, it may be of no surprise if people get abstracted. Mmmmm. Thought is required here. Is it abstract thought or not?

greywarbler said...

Anon at 11.28 Does your son work for nothing? Isn't that a bit dangerous - after working for so many years at understanding various equations results etc.
What you mean I think is that he could get a higher salary and perks overseas. I think you may be taking money for granted, thinking about quote below.

DG - G.K. Chesterton: “Every high civilization decays by forgetting obvious things.”

Barry said...

The Flynn effect basically stopped around the 1970s as double parent families became the minority and crap food was feed to children and school attendance started dropping.
James flynn put the rise in IQ down to
1. Two parent families
2. Good nutrition - not processed food.
3. A good education.
Without all three he found that you were bound for the lower socio-economic group.

Anonymous said...

The damage to the physical infrastructure is bad enough, but that is fixable, if there's a workforce able to fix it. As you point out, Chris, equipping the future workforce to do that isn't going very well either. I think it's also being greatly damaged by the drift away from scientific thinking.

The distrust of experts is understandable, considering the state of affairs that following the technocratic "experts" imposing neoliberal "reforms" has gotten us into. But there are real dangers in throwing out the scientific baby along with the neoliberal bathwater. Like rejecting vaccines against covid-19.

The controversial "Listener" letter pointing out that traditional Maori knowledge isn't science is correct, it isn't. The pile on against the authors is part of the problem, not part of any real solution.

Astrology and alchemy aren't science either. But they were the basis of astronomy and chemistry, once filtered through the further observations, experiments, and skeptical questioning associated with the rise of science.

Agriculture in New Zealand has long benefited from a scientific approach. For example, the Central Plateau of the North Island was originally found to be unable to support livestock farming. Attempts at such farming failed, as livestock got "bush sickness" and died. A taniwha? Abandoned by God? Cursed by the devil? No, a cobalt deficiency. Add a trace of cobalt to salt licks or fertilizer, and that particular problem goes away.

And science needs to be humble enough to correct itself. The woman boosting zinc against facial eczema in livestock was dismissed by scientists for a long time. But she was right, and dosing with zinc is now standard.

Which brings us to the current dismal state of affairs. 150 scientists under thirty, in 2019, wrote an open letter to the Greens, asking them to support a relaxing of the laws on modern genetic technologies. They were excited by the opportunities they saw to help with food production, fight climate change, and assist with kauri die back, Predator Free 2050, and other conservation projects. They were frustrated by the great difficulty of progressing anything, even in the lab, let alone outside it. Now that the borders are re-opening, why would any of them stay here? They would be welcomed in Australia, Canada, the US, and (now it's out of the EU), in the UK. They could earn more, and be working on projects that will come to fruition (literally, in some cases, like fungal wilt resistant bananas).

But to end on a less pessimistic note, I took heart from the protesters in Sri Lanka. They united people from diverse backgrounds to win the immediate demand of forcing the now ex-president out. That also now opens a real discussion of what to do next, knowing uniting to win demands is possible. It will be very interesting to see how the IMF gets on with imposing it's neoliberal conditions on a "bailout".

Anonymous said...

But Covid, like other SARS virus strains, has had nothing like the mortality rate of the Black Plague. I don’t see a “New Europe” rising from the rubble of this current pandemic, brought by some new found resilience amongst the population who survived. Given that Netflix and Amazon have been the largest beneficiary’s of this current plague upon our house’s I don’t hold out much hope there’ll be a great cultural awakening coming anytime soon.