• How Did We Get to Here?

    As the negotiations drag on and a no-deal Brexit remains a possibility, anti-Brexit opinion (for example, in the Guardian) asks, how did we get to this? The answer required to the question is presumably meant to be – by voting mistakenly for Brexit.

    But there is an alternative – and more accurate – answer to that question. We got to this point by joining up in the first place to an arrangement that was always (because it was intended to) going to disadvantage the UK. We eventually arrived at Brexit, with or without a deal, because our experience of EU membership had been so disastrous.

    Our leaders had misled us grievously by promising a future of sunlit uplands. But the arrangement was always a Franco-German stitch-up – perhaps a payback for the differing roles played by us and them in World War Two. For the supposedly great economic benefit of opening up our market to German manufactured goods, we took on the privilege of funding a huge outdoor relief scheme for French agriculture – known as the Common Agricultural Policy.

    These burdens meant the decimation of British manufacturing, a permanent rise in food costs, a hefty annual subscription, the tearing up of our links with (largely Commonwealth) trading partners who had provided us with efficiently produced food and raw materials and privileged markets for our manufactures, the loss of exclusive rights to our fishing waters, and the cession of the powers of self-government to European institutions like the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the European Court of Justice.

    None of these outcomes mattered greatly to the Euro-fanatics; they were obsessed with the notion of joining a romantic concept called “Europe” (something that only the bien-pensants could understand), as if we had not from time immemorial been historically, geographically, economically, culturally and politically an integral part of Europe.

    As the hollowness of the promised benefits, and the reality of a Europe that was a hard-headed and self-serving economic arrangement and a nascent super-state became apparent, and the costs (including the influx of cheap labour from Eastern Europe) mounted, it is little wonder that the British people leapt at the chance to say “enough!” The sequence of events since the decision to opt out has surely done much to reveal the reality of the “Europe” we have abandoned.

    The romantic “Europe” cherished by anti-Brexiteers has certainly not been much in evidence. EU leaders have shown little interest in a constructive post-Brexit relationship, based on mutually beneficial trade and on functional inter-state cooperation wherever it makes sense.

    Rather, the EU priority, reflecting their own fears and insecurity, has been to make life as difficult as possible for us, in case other members might also decide to leave and conclude that it is a relatively easy option.

    So, the answer to the question as to why the journey we undertook should have ended up at this destination, is that it was misdirected in the first place – something Euro-fanatics still refuse to acknowledge.

    Bryan Gould
    19 December 2020

  • We Trusted Each Other

    As 2020 draws to a close, we can reflect that it will live long in history as the year when the health of the world, and of our nation, came under serious threat and we were all put to the test.

    We can also reflect that we, as a nation, overcame the threat pretty well, while many other parts of the world didn’t do so well.

    We should also recognise that the threat to our health was twofold; it was a threat to both our physical health as individuals – in the form of the death and illness delivered by the coronavirus; and also to our societal health – the challenge the pandemic represented to our capacity as a society to deal with it.

    The facts about our relative success in bringing the virus outbreak under control are well established. We were arguably more successful than any other comparable country in limiting the numbers of both individual cases and deaths, and in maintaining the capacity of our health services to operate effectively in treating the cases we did have.

    We can afford to celebrate that medical success – but it is our response as a society, and our willingness and ability to stick together and do what was necessary, that really stand out.

    As many overseas commentators have observed, both successes owed much to strong, clear and empathetic leadership, but we – as a people – can also claim some of the credit. In the end, both our leaders and we, the led, were united by a quality we all held in common – we trusted each other.

    Our leaders asked us to trust them, and we did, because they showed themselves to be worthy of our trust. They told it like it was, drawing on all the expert advice they could muster, and they explained exactly what we would have to do and why, and showed that they understood the impact of what they were asking of us – and we believed them and accepted that we would need to do it.

    They, in turn, trusted us to do it, and we did. And we all trusted each other to do it too. We all knew that the sacrifices we were making – in terms of restrictions on our freedom of movement, the losses of income and the blow to economic and career prospects, and the barriers to contact with our loved ones – were all worth it and that others were doing likewise; we were confident that there would be no – or very few – backsliders.

    Like other countries, we had our instances of those hoping to make political capital from the price we had to pay for defeating the virus. There were those – aping those of similarly extreme views from overseas – who declared that the virus was a hoax, that it was a conspiracy designed to deprive us all of our freedom, urging us to refuse to comply with the restrictions required of us.

    Fortunately, we kept clear heads and clear eyes, and sent the conspiracy theorists packing. We knew enough about the way our society operates and the values it represents to allow us to maintain our trust in each other.

    A crisis of the kind we have been through puts us to the test as to how far we are ready to act on the belief that we are at our best when we act together – that we are all better off when we act in the common interest.

    Sadly (for them, certainly), the American people seem to have failed that test. Many of the tribulations they have suffered are the consequence, not only of poor (not to say, worse than useless) leadership, but also of a societal disintegration.

    They seem to have been more concerned with differences between them than with working together. They have paid a heavy price for being unable to trust each other.

    We, on the other hand, I am glad to say, were able to demonstrate that we are in good health – not just in the medical sense, but also as a society. We are in good health and good heart, affirming all our long-held values, and all the stronger for it – ready to face whatever further challenges may be thrown at us.

    Bryan Gould
    5 December 2020

  • Why Not A National Investment Bank?

    The independence of the Reserve Bank is widely seen, in New Zealand and elsewhere, as a cardinal principle of good economic management; but I have never understood why removing important areas of economic policy from democratic accountability is thought to be so commendable.

    The Reserve Bank is, after all, a powerful government entity; its decisions on monetary policy have an immediate impact on the economy as a whole and on the well-being of all of us. Why should they not be answerable, like the rest of the government, for the decisions they take? And how do we benefit if fiscal and monetary policy-makers potentially sing from different hymn sheets, and ministers – while held to account in parliament for fiscal policy – are not entitled to direct or even guide the Reserve Bank as to what is needed on monetary policy?

    A recent international survey has rated New Zealand as the country that has been most resilient in reacting to the pandemic. That is not surprising, given our success in virtually eliminating the virus.

    But it also owes a great deal to the rather more surprising success we have had in returning our economy to its pre-covid trajectory – and that is a reflection of Grant Robertson’s steady hand on the economic tiller.

    He quickly recognised that the economy needed an injection of new money, and that the most obvious source of new money is the Reserve Bank. He didn’t have quite the courage needed to ask the Reserve Bank simply to “print” new money, that is, to make it directly available to the government, but has instead used the new money to buy bonds in the private market, thereby lumbering the taxpayer wth a substantial debt that will eventually have to be repaid.

    The new money has nevertheless allowed our post-covid economy to perform better than most expected. But the minister’s problems are not over; his new money has flowed into assets rather than productive capacity, with the result that house prices have risen sharply, as have stock markets. This entirely predictable asset inflation has made life difficult for new house buyers, creating a political as well as economic problem for the government.

    This problem could have been avoided if the new money had been used to increase benefits or to make a one-off payment to every household (so-called “helicopter money”); the new money would then at least have been spent, boosting jobs and the retail sector, and could have addressed child poverty, rather than just inflating asset values and prices.

    New Zealand has not been alone in creating new money, with asset values worldwide rising as a consequence. That is what explains the sad fact that the pandemic has seen the fortunes of the world’s billionaires grow rapidly, while the living standards of working people have slumped.

    As the old British working man’s song has it,

    “It’s the same the whole world over,
    It’s the poor wot gets the blame,
    It’s the rich wot gets the gravy,
    Ain’t it all a bloomin’ shame?”

    There is a solution to the Minister of Finance’s problem, if he cared to take it. Instead of leaving it to the commercial banks to decide how to distribute the new money (no prizes for guessing that their preference is to lend it on mortgage), he could establish a new entity that would allocate the money to productive purposes.

    That new entity could be called a National Investment Bank – countries as diverse as Germany and Ghana already have one. It would, in cooperation with the Reserve Bank, and in line with a national industrial strategy agreed by employers and trade unions, fund infrastructure projects and lend the money to new and existing ventures so as to promote new technologies and increase production, jobs, sales, profits and wages.

    And if the foreign exchange markets were nervous about this strategy, wouldn’t a lower dollar be an additional advantage?

    Grant Robertson himself recognised the desirability of these outcomes when he wrote to the Governor of the Reserve Bank, asking him to take more account of rising house prices and the problems of those trying to enter the housing market.

    Why not himself take the step of establishing a National Investment Bank?

    Bryan Gould
    8 December 2020

  • Sport Must Be the Winner

    The All Blacks’ win last weekend against the Pumas, and their reminder to us of how good they can be, brought a great deal of pleasure to thousands of kiwis. But we have also had evidence over recent days and weeks that sport is not always a generator of sweetness and light.

    The All Blacks’ loss to the same opponents, a couple of weeks earlier, brought out of the woodwork some of sport’s perennial naysayers – people like Stephen Jones, the rugby correspondent of London’s Sunday Times, who has been distinguished for years by his long-standing resentment of the All Blacks’ success, and who never misses the chance to celebrate and put the boot in if they stumble.

    The loss to Argentina gave him the chance to demonstrate just how nasty he can be. New Zealand, he opined, should – in the light of that result – be relegated to the second tier of rugby-playing nations. He appears not to realise how clearly this jibe demonstrates the limitations of his supposed expertise in such matters.

    Anyone with just a smidgin of knowledge about the more than century-long history of the All Blacks would know that it is, inevitably, marked by occasional low points from which the ABs have always quickly recovered.

    Sadly, rugby was not the only sport to produce commentators with inflated views of their own importance and distorted views of what really matters.

    We saw a prime example of this in the public pronouncements of Shoaib Akhtar, the former Pakistani test bowler. He took it upon himself to admonish New Zealand cricket – and New Zealand as a whole – for daring to object to the irresponsible way in which the Pakistani cricket team, visiting New Zealand on tour, has ignored the quarantine requirements we require of visitors, particularly those who have tested positive for Covid-19.

    In Mr Akhtar’s view, New Zealand should be grateful that the Pakistani cricket team, whether or not its members carry the virus or comply with quarantine, has deigned to visit our country. How dare we require them to obey our rules; why should we give priority to defeating the virus? Doesn’t our Covid-free status matter little when set alongside the interests of the Pakistani cricket team?

    No matter that Pakistan – according to Mr Akhtar, “the greatest country on the planet” (which gives us some insight into his mindset) – is riddled wth the virus. It matters not that their cricketers are guests in our country and, as such, – as a matter of common sense and common courtesy – have an obligation to comply with our rules.

    If gratitude that the tour is taking place is to be expected from either party, it is surely from Pakistan – only a country as generous as New Zealand, would even contemplate admitting visitors from a Covid hotspot; it is the Pakistanis who should feel lucky to be here.

    Such is Mr Akhbar’s assessment of his own standing that he feels entitled to lecture New Zealand – the country which tops the international league table as the world’s most resilient and successful in handling the pandemic – on how it should treat visitors and guests who test positive to the virus.

    It would be unfair to the Pakistani cricket team to lumber them with responsibility for Mr Akhtar’s ill-judged and arrogant remarks. We can only marvel that someone can be found to utter such drivel and who suffers from the misconception that a visiting cricket team is worth more than the interests of a whole nation.

    Given the continued prevalence of Covid-19 in their homeland, we might excuse the cricketers themselves for failing to recognise our determination to keep it under control; calls for the team to be sent home immediately are understandable but we need not show ourselves to be as intemperate and self-obsessed as Mr Akhtar has been.

    International sport is a wonderful way of spreading goodwill and breaking down barriers. It would be a tragedy if the views of one opinionated individual – inflated by his own self-importance – should, at a time when the virus threatens all of international sport, erect a new set of barriers quite unnecessarily. Cricket – and New Zealand – deserve better than that.

    Bryan Gould
    1 December 2020

  • Hitler’s Playbook

    No one can now doubt that Donald Trump is making a determined and sustained attempt to overturn the result of a democratic election and to defy the will of the people. He is clearly determined to hold on to power, whatever the verdict delivered by the ballot box – even to the extent of subverting, if necessary, the electoral college process.

    Donald Trump may or may not have read Mein Kampf, and may or may not be familiar with the history of the Third Reich, but he is – knowingly or otherwise – following Hitler’s playbook quite faithfully.

    Hitler, in the Germany of the 1930s, chose to blame an “enemy within” for the continuing hardships of the German people after their First World War defeat; if, he argued, the power and influence of German Jews could be eliminated, Germany could return to its former glory.

    On the basis of this extreme appeal to nationalism, and a readiness to target “others” as scapegoats, he and his Nazi party were able in 1933 to win a democratic election – but he rapidly turned his back on the democratic process that had brought him to power; he demonstrated his contempt for democracy by burning down the Reichstag, the building that housed the German parliament, and made it clear that his continuing power was to be maintained by non-democratic means.

    He continued to foment a nationalistic fervour and a “Germany first” ideology by encouraging attacks on Jews, gypsies, “communists”, homosexuals and other supposedly “non-German” influences, and built the image of an all-conquering Germany by launching unprovoked military attacks on neighbouring (and weaker) states.

    He held huge rallies of his supporters and used extravagant displays of lights, flags and pageantry to build up their enthusiasm and state of excitement. He made it clear that there was no role for a free press or any other form of potential criticism, and that adherence to the Nazi Party was the pre-condition of promotion across the whole public service. Nazis were appointed to all the top jobs, including judgeships. The Christian church, too, was recruited to the cause.

    Does any of this seem familiar? Can anyone doubt that Donald Trump, whatever his other shortcomings, is first and foremost a fascist in the making, and that his refusal to accept the presidential election result is his version of burning down the Reichstag?

    Was not Trump’s threatened post-election attack on Iran his version of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia? Does he not share with Hitler a readiness to target racially defined scapegoats – both at home and abroad – as being to blame for the country’s ills?

    For friends of the US, the most worrying aspect of this descent into totalitarianism is not just the parallel that can be drawn between Trump and Hitler, but the fact that there is, apparently, in large parts of American society, an appetite – even a welcome – for this kind of politics.

    In both Nazi Germany and now in today’s America, large numbers who could be in little doubt as to where their leaders wish to take them were ready to abandon their principles at the behest of leaders whose personalities were so extreme and laughable as to be almost buffoon-like.

    Sadly, both the Germans – and, now, the Americans – were able to close their eyes to what was staring them in the face. They preferred to indulge and inflame their own prejudices, and to target scapegoats, rather than adhere to the principles of the rule of law, civil rights and democracy. Those who should have been able to protect them went along with what they must have known was wrong.

    Following the Second World War and the defeat of Nazi Germany, most people felt that we would never again see the rise of such a malevolent ideology, let alone another major state under its sway.

    The post-election US crisis shows us, though, that “the price of freedom” is not only “eternal vigilance” but also the strength of character to recognise the threat to freedom when it appears and to fight it by summoning up every sinew.

    Do the American people (and especially Republican leaders) have that strength? On the evidence so far, we must have our doubts.

    Bryan Gould
    24 November 2020