Looking forward, Tim Hazledine

The Big Questions: What is New Zealand’s Future? 
Various authors
Penguin Random House, $38.00
ISBN 9780143772378

I’ve been worrying about Trump. Not the man – a lost cause, that – but the movement: Trumpism – the apparently bigoted, intolerant, resentful roilings that are driving apart, not just nations, but people within nations. Why has this happened? What, exactly, has happened? Could something similar arise in New Zealand?

Digging into the issue, I unearthed two big puzzles, of which the second is generated by the answer to the first. The first puzzle is this: given the evident awfulness of the man, how could it come to pass that very nearly one half of the just over one half of Americans who bothered to vote in November 2016 voted for Trump? 

Now, we have long known that Americans, on average, are quite weird by the standards of other Western societies. They are (on average) significant outliers in their views on evolution, abortion, guns, climate change, “socialism”, government, imprisonment, pills, sugar, Israel, God, and American exceptionalism. But they aren’t particularly wicked, or even wanton. Indeed, with the tragic exception of their entrenched racism, Americans tend to be notably courteous and decent people, in my experience. So it seemed just about impossible that a voting majority of them would support a deeply (if “deep” is the right word) narcissistic, egotistical, unstable, selfish sociopath for president.

But I read George Saunders’s account in The New Yorker (July 11, 2016), of following Trump and his campaign around smaller cities and towns of the United States, and I saw the first part of the answer: you don’t have to be like Trump, or even to like Trump, to support him. It is what he stands for – actually, often, what he stands against (which is more clearly defined) – that delights, even inspires, so many ordinary Americans. Saunders writes:

The Trump supporters I spoke with were friendly, generous with their time, flattered to be asked their opinion, willing to give it, even when they knew I was a liberal writer likely to throw them under the bus. They loved their country, seemed genuinely panicked at its perceived demise, felt urgently that we were, right now, in the process of losing something precious.

Another New Yorker writer, Peter Hessler, who embedded himself before and after the election in the depressed Colorado city of Grand Junction, would write (July 24, 2017):

People have reasons for the things they believe, and the intensity of their experiences can’t be taken for granted. Almost everybody I met in Grand Junction seemed more complex, more interesting, and more decent than the man who inspires them.

So that was one puzzle solved. There could be an electoral victory for Trump because there were enough people not like him to supply a majority. But this just sets up another conundrum. Why would they want to? Why would decent people vote for an indecent man? You see, I thought I knew what the people’s problem was. It was an “economic” problem of stagnation – even decline – in wages and working conditions of working and now middle-class Americans (and New Zealanders!), beginning around 1980, and following a brilliant quarter century after WWII when wages and salaries had increased in line with overall growth in the economy, more than ever before (or since). 

But there’s the second puzzle. If people were finally fed up with crummy, low-paid, insecure jobs, why wouldn’t they vote Democrat – the traditionally “progressive”, pro-labour, anti-privilege party? Why, in particular, would they be attracted to a self-proclaimed billionaire plutocrat, with a long personal history of bankruptcies and financial shenanigans? Well, it now seems that the clear, simple old left/right, liberal/conservative battle lines have been just about erased, by a quarter century of systemic economic decline and social disintegration.

For starters, it turns out that economic strugglers don’t now necessarily despise the rich, or even resentfully envy them. They admire successful entrepreneurs, aspire to wealth themselves, respect people who “know how to run a business” and create jobs. Their anger is directed sideways – at the non-working beneficiary class whose numbers have exploded from almost nothing in just a generation. They are, of course, angry about immigrants, especially legal and illegal Latino immigrants, whom they blame (mistakenly, in most economists’ views) for taking jobs and creating crime, etc. They have contempt – brilliantly fomented by Trump – for the bi-coastal “elites”: soft-handed liberals who quietly monopolise access to the best schools, universities, healthcare and jobs, with many of those jobs in the public sector, paid for by the taxes of working folk. That is, the “deplorables”, as Hillary Clinton deplorably labelled (one half of) Trump supporters, themselves deplore the Democratic Party establishment, and its candidates, including the Clintons.

The sum of these and other parts is a by now near cosmic malcondition of dis-ease and dismay, and it is to Trump, with his apocalyptic “Make America Great (Again)” oratory, that they turn for hope.

So: could it happen in New Zealand? Has it happened in New Zealand – that is, the festering of the pre-conditions for demagoguery? The shadow of Trump and nationalism must hang over us, along with the shadows of truly cosmic matters such as sustainability and climate change. What are our chances?

“What is New Zealand’s Future?” is the subtitle of The Big Questions, a collection of independent essays by authors who were each asked to write about the causes of our “many problems”, and what we should do about them. (No credits are given, but the book was produced in-house at the publisher: curated by Margaret Sinclair, and expertly copy-edited by Sarah Yankelowitz.) There are 16 contributors in 14 chapters, all solo-authored except for Chapter 9: “Will my job be taken by a robot?”. So, the answer to the question: “How many human workers does it take to write a short essay on the replacement of human workers by robots?” is “Three”.

That’s fine. It is a good essay, as are all 14 contributions. In fact, they are excellent. It’s a very good book. There may be a few editorial sins of omission – no economist, no political scientist, no social psychologist – but surely not of commission.

So, what are our problems, what are the suggested solutions, and how similar is our condition to that of the United States, and the European countries where dogmatic populism has sprouted? On the face of it, things here do not look too good. As Rod Oram points out, despite cheating ourselves and the world by neglecting our environmental responsibilities, we haven’t managed to get our GDP per capita into the upper rank of first world countries. Our income distribution widened since the 1980s more than in any other rich country, along with our own explosion in beneficiary numbers. Our Māori imprisonment rate is shocking (Jarrod Gilbert); we have – unlike the United States – a housing affordability crisis (Leonie Freeman); also an obesity epidemic (Felicity Goodyear-Smith); stubborn gender inequities (Theresa Gattung); very worrying trends in the well-being of our children (Andrew Becroft); traffic gridlock (Patrick Reynolds); an extraordinary sequence of under-researched “myths” (theories or paradigms) continually upsetting our school system (Stuart McNaughton); and politicians who refuse to talk about all this (Tim Watkin).

And yet, cheerfulness keeps breaking in. Cheerfulness overall is high and stable. New Zealand persistently shows up in the top 10 of the World Happiness Report’s subjective well-being lists, amongst other relatively small, prosperous, democratic, Christian countries, even though we have lower per capita income than the other nine. There are sporadic outbreaks of cheerfulness in the essays. Patrick Reynolds foresees a dramatic increase in personal mobility following from public transit improvements already in train, to which I would just quietly respond: why so many trips? David Brougham, Jarrod Haar and Yumiko Olliver-Gray wisely play down the robot threat and note that such automation etc that does occur can free us up to find more creative and satisfying work. Peter O’Connor celebrates art, without falling into the trap of “valuing” it instrumentally: if you have to ask what the point of the arts is – well, you’ll never know. 

One aspect of Trumpism which we may believe to have eschewed in New Zealand is hostility to immigration and immigrants, of whom we get quite a lot, and from an impressive diversity of foreign countries. But there are some problems. Golriz Ghahraman, the only politician in the book, came here aged nine from Iran, with her political refugee parents. Her essay is an eloquent and often disturbing personal testament that, however, does not contribute to the fundamental debate we should be having about immigration. She tells us about “the lasting ache that comes from being excluded from the national identity”, but then coolly justifies the achingly offensive refusal of an all-male (why?) Iranian agricultural delegation to this country to shake hands in greeting with a (female) New Zealand Member of Parliament. To move in here, immigrants have to move away from there, don’t they?

Those who would prefer the “cultural mosaic” to the “melting pot” as their immigration metaphor should seriously consider this: even in countries in which multiculturalism has not been a bloody disaster – as it has in the Balkans and in sub-Saharan Africa – it has never succeeded economically. No officially multicultural nation (“multi” means more than two, by the way) has achieved first-world status in our life-times: think tri-cultural middle-income Malaysia versus rich monocultural Japan, South Korea, Singapore. 

So why is this? It is not, or not necessarily, because of racism or bigotry. It is because of something equally powerful, but more mundane: the crucial importance of what is called generalised trust: the ability to trust and be trusted by strangers. In complex modern societies, trust is crucial to the pervasive informal coordinating networks on which prosperity, peace and good politics depend. And how is generalised trust generated? It turns out to depend on the existence of widely shared and understood behavioural norms. It may not matter (within limits) what the norms actually are, so long as they are known and accepted by just about everyone. And that is the crucial advantage one-nation societies have over more stubbornly diverse mixes of multiculturalism and identity politics.

Where does that leave us? The two most powerful essays in The Big Questions are those by Anne Salmond and Jacinta Ruru. Both are firmly grounded in the pre- and post-colonial history of Aotearoa New Zealand, and both take this forward into nation-building proposals centred on Māori law and lore, culture and world-view. I note happily that these ideas also appear in many other chapters in the book, including that of Golriz Ghahraman. They point to a future hardly imagined just a generation ago, when we seemed to be stuck with a sort of sickly, unequal, “European”-dominated biculturalism. The surprising (to me, anyway) success of Treaty settlements, the climate change and sustainability crises crying out for a holistic vision of humankind and nature, the remarkably innovative Acts giving personhood status to the Whanganui River and Te Urewera: it all suddenly seems to be adding up to something very special and exciting. 

Of course, there remain “many problems”. The path to assimilation for British, South African, Muslim and other immigrants will be even longer than they expected. The huge economic and social problems of inequality and poverty (lamented but barely confronted in this book) can’t be ignored forever. But, as a Pākehā Kiwi citizen-economist, I was thrilled to read Ruru’s conclusion: “Together we can build respectful futures. Many solutions for the unity of our nation lie within Māori knowledges and Māori law.”

So, bottom-line time. We do not need a Trump or Trumpism in New Zealand. We are not panicking at our perceived demise. We are not held apart by the dogmatic populist divisions of America, Brexit, much of Europe. We have common ground, and the essays in this fine book point firmly and hopefully to the economic and social structure we should be planning to build on it.

Tim Hazledine is a professor of economics at the University of Auckland.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
Search the archive
Search by category