*Note this is an opinion piece in response to
Confucius once said that the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their name. It sounds like something you’d pull out of a fortune cookie, but the more you think about it the more it makes sense. After all the motto of my alma mater (Latin for that place which charges you 30,000 dollars for a fancy bit of paper) is sapere aude – dare to be wise. It seems fitting that I should exercise the capacity for wisdom, instilled upon me in exchange for a kidney and my firstborn child, especially when it comes to reading the news.
For those who don’t keep up with New Zealand news, Bill English, former prime minister of New Zealand and finance minister of the National Party (Tories or centre-right), was awarded a knighthood for “services to the state”. Given New Zealand currently has the highest rate of homelessness in the OECD, an underfunded healthcare system on the brink of collapse with hospitals full of asbestos and mould, a public school system that is struggling with massive teacher shortages, declining educational standards, and the lowest home ownership rate in 66 years, one must wonder what services the man who has sat in the top position has rendered to the state. It would be much more accurate to describe it as services to the estate – a neoliberal and corporate estate comprised of overseas investors and the upper classes. Or in the ordinary language of the regular people, who do not bask in the glow of the ‘rockstar economy’, to call it what it is - bullshit.
In an elaborate masturbatory exercise disguised as journalism, the writer states that, “He [Bill English] is one of the country’s most celebrated finance ministers, and has also earned praise for being a vocal champion for his groundbreaking approach to social issues.” Given this is a man who voted twice against gay marriage, voted for keeping abortion a criminal act in New Zealand, directed nine years of budget cuts that gutted social support services for the most vulnerable people – including housing, mental health, and access to healthcare, and has overseen one of the worst housing crises in New Zealand’s history (owing in no small part to the National’s policy regarding suspected ‘meth houses’ using fraudulent science). What exactly is groundbreaking about vocally yelling FUCK THE POOR as loudly as possible for nine years straight?
Remember this is a key member of the political party which stated for nine years that homelessness is not an issue, child poverty is not an issue (Bill English spearheaded budget cuts that wiped out Working For Families), healthcare is fine – look at the ‘surplus’ (generated by taking massive amounts of money out of these aforementioned programs and services). If ensuring the expansion of inequality (the top 10% of New Zealand own 51.8% of all the wealth while the poorest 50% own 5.1%), and sharply declining living standards for the vast majority of New Zealanders, is a ‘groundbreaking’ approach to social issues; perhaps we should be giving knighthoods to the Israeli snipers for shooting unarmed civilians (medics, doctors, journalists clearly uniformed with their hands raised) for their ‘groundbreaking’ approach to protests.
The lettered hand shandy continues by dribbling, “As Finance Minister from 2008 until 2016, Mr English oversaw one of the fastest growing economies in the developed world, steering New Zealand through the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch earthquakes and ensuring the Crown accounts were in a strong financial position.” Aside from Christchurch still not being rebuilt (outside of banks and shopping malls) after 7 years, note that missing from this statement is fastest growing economy for whom. You see the same language in America, where journalists and media pundits repeatedly yammer the corporate line of an ‘economic recovery’.
If there are ten people and one of them has 10,000 dollars and the other nine have a hundred dollars the economy is growing rapidly for the one person with 10,000 – but for the other nine it doesn’t look so pretty despite the projection that on average the economy is ‘growing’.
When people wave the term ‘the economy’ you already know they’re trying to pull a fast one because what you see from the perspective of those in a good financial position (the average National MP owns 2.5 houses) is going to be completely detached from the reality on the ground especially since they are only interacting with other people from their socio-economic background. It is no coincidence that people from upscale Epsom vote for A.C.T. and people from Mangere vote for Labour.
A fast growing economy is utterly meaningless to those who are not benefiting from the growth. Especially since this economic growth is not driven by productive output but by speculation. Between 2007 to 2017: the average housing price in Auckland (the centre of the ‘rockstar economy’) has gone up between 121% to 197% (depending on suburb). The exact same house, regardless of if you do renovation on it or not, magically explodes in value by 121-197% simply for existing in Auckland. This is because there is no capital gains tax in New Zealand (a capital gains tax is a tax on money you make from investment – e.g. assets or property similar to how there is a GST – goods and services tax for products and services you buy) which creates an extremely lucrative loophole for those who are rich enough to enter, particularly overseas investors who want to launder their money.
A house, instead of being something that should be available to everyone who is prepared to work, becomes a capital asset, like a particularly valuable share to jealously guard and hoard. Higher property values drives up rent, which creates an increasing divide between home owners and renters, as the higher the rent the larger the percentage of income it absorbs, making it less likely for the renter to be able to buy a home in the future. You are now financially incentivised to shut down or slow down the production of houses in your area, particularly affordable housing, because it attacks your profits.
Artificial scarcity is one of the easiest ways to manipulate the price of a commodity, just ask DeBeers for diamonds. Citing housing council laws, banding together in homeowner associations (dominated of course by those who own multiple properties) and screaming NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) you exacerbate the problem of a lack of affordable housing because it enriches you.
Since New Zealand is also a country that allows for foreign ownership of property (til the recent government) you actively court wealthy investors overseas to invest in property. These investors do not live in New Zealand, are able to purchase citizenship, do not care what happens to the citizens so long as they can wet their beak. It’s better for them to do this because there are no capital gains taxes so they can skirt tax laws in their own country – impoverishing their own citizens as well as ours – and to keep the properties empty to continue to drive demand and speculation. The less housing available, the more rent you can charge for other properties, the more your property value increases because the more desperate everyone becomes to scramble for a home of their own.
This is what is largely responsible for the so called ‘rockstar economy’ – it’s great for those who already own a house (purchased back when wages were higher and property values were exponentially lower) and for those who are rich enough to buy because the growth allows you to snowball your wealth at a much faster rate than anybody else. But for everybody else, particularly the future generation emerging from universities saddled with debt that did not exist a generation ago (Billy Bullshit and his bunch of bootstrapper buffoons all went to uni for free), with less careers and more ‘gigs’ (unstable contract work without the protections and benefits given to long term employees), with less pay relative to the growth in productivity and with higher living costs (such as rent), this short term growth comes with severe and devastating long term consequences.
You create a highly enfranchised upper class, a landed gentry (much like the Queen: a German descended, inbred, monarch who enshrines inequality based on birthright), who hold such a ridiculous quantity of wealth through speculation, that it distorts economic averages to give the illusion of prosperity; while simultaneously, creating a massively disenfranchised lower class who are being strangled of the opportunities for socio-economic mobility that existed for their parents. The whole time those who hold the levers of economic power sneer down from their gilded estates by saying that they ‘earned’ their wealth by ‘working hard’, that the poor deserve their misery and are envious of their success, and that the government needs to get off their back and cut their taxes (that they don’t already hide through accountants, shell companies, trusts, and the aforementioned capital gains tax).
But the metaphorical man cream of this literary flute polishing is the utterly absurd statement on social investment, “It’s an approach in doubt under the current Labour-led Government but involves the use of big data and evidence-based investment practices to tackle some of New Zealand’s most entrenched social problems.” Note the key phrase – EVIDENCE BASED. Now I may not hold a chairman position on a board of a major bank or investment firm (conveniently awarded to both John Key – Prime Minister and leader of the National party til his resignation and his Consigliere Bill English after their term in politics. It’s almost as if there is a revolving door between conservative politicians who benefit big banks and overseas investment firms and getting a cushy overpaid job on their boards afterwards) but last I checked, evidence based social investment involves funding schools, hospitals, infrastructure and mental health instead of gutting them.
Evidence drawn from internationally recognised think tanks and experts conclude a single dollar invested in public education is equivalent to 1.5 (up to 8 dollars for each dollar invested in high quality early childcare education) dollars returned, one dollar invested in mental health is equivalent to 3-4 dollars returned (an Australian study found the economic cost of suicide and mental health disorders is 6.73 billion a year), investment in public infrastructure (the American Economic Policy Institute calculate every 100 dollars invested in public infrastructure increases the output of the private sector by 13-17 dollars) uplifting people out of poverty through social programs saves more money than it costs to incarcerate them (unless you own the prisons) or to treat them or their victims in hospital. Even the IMF, which exacerbates inequality through trapping the developing world in cycles of debt bondage, acknowledges that wealth does not trickle down and building wealth in the lower classes boosts the economy for everyone because they spend instead of speculating.
Furthermore there is little to no evidence that building for profit prisons, and criminalising marijuana and relatively harmless Class A drugs (alcohol scores 72 out of 100 on a multi decision criteria analysis study on drug harm, compared to 20 for marijuana, and 7 for LSD) has any impact on ‘entrenched social problems’ unless we consider spending 90,000 NZD a year to lock them up to be an adequate solution. Marijuana generated in one year 319 million USD in tax revenue for the state of Washington, the revenue generated then being poured back into social programs and healthcare services.
The fact that a reputable mainstream media publication has quoted Billy Bullshit saying ‘evidence based’ in the same sentence as social issues, while his policies have been disastrous for these social issues, is so full of shit I could open up trade relations with China by bulk selling the article to be used as fertilizer. It would be a more productive use of this manufactured masturbatory mess of a fluff piece to be used to grow rice to feed people than to continue to render the minds of its readers into mush.
There is remarkably little evidence that cutting school lunches for disadvantaged children helps them succeed in life. Because starving a human being who, through no fault of their own (none of us choose our parents or the conditions of our birth), is dumped into a poorly funded school, and unable to concentrate because of hunger, does not magically make them climb up by their bootstraps. Nor is there evidence that poor people overall spend more of their money on booze and cigarettes as Billy Bullshit and his clique of conservative-rhymes-with-hunts- love to anecdotally trot out to justify their budget slashing.
But the spotlight is never on the losers of the ‘rockstar economy’ because it doesn’t generate views. A ‘rockstar economy’ is precisely that – an economy for rockstars, the internationally based few who are already doing well. For the nationally based many that are struggling to get by, there is a very different story being swept under the rug. But if you want to secure exclusive interviews with the people in power you gotta exchange your commitment to truth and informing the public for handjob lessons and complicity in their crimes in service to the estate; but as for me I’m going to call bullshit when I see it.
After all, one should dare to be wise.
https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11765250 – note Bill English U turns on his public stance on gay marriage in the time period where he is stated to run for election but has voted twice against it.
 https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2018/05/national-had-no-idea-meth-guidelines-were-wrong-judith-collins.html - National continues to deny, deflate, and decry
Born somewhere between the old world of Korea and the new world of New Zealand Isaac is an award winning writer, teacher of literature and nomad currently residing in Nanjing.