• 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

  • A School in Good Heart

    A year ago, my wife and I attended the Senior Academic Prizegiving at my old school, Tauranga Boys College.

    I recall writing at that time a piece in which I registered how impressed we were at the evidence provided by the ceremony of a school in good heart, excellently led, and serving its pupils so that they achieved to the very best of their considerable abilities.

    This year, we again attended the annual Prizegiving and were again impressed by what it showed us of the school’s excellent spirit and high level of achievement.

    But this year, we had two additional reasons for being impressed. The first of these was intensely personal in nature. We were able to see our grandson, Benjamin Adams, awarded the distinction of becoming Dux of the school.

    His accolade was a proper recognition, not only of his academic prowess, but also of his commitment and application to his studies, and the effort he had put in to achieve his success. It was greeted by a standing ovation from all of those present – a salute to his exceptional abilities in which my wife and I were delighted to participate.

    When it came to the second reason for being impressed, we were able to be a little more dispassionate. It is the tradition at the school that the Head Boy, at the conclusion of his year of service in that capacity, addresses those present with his thoughts on what the year as Head Boy has meant to him and – perhaps even more importantly – what it has taught him.

    On this occasion, the task fell to a young man called Logan Green. It was a task – speaking to the large numbers present – that would have daunted most of us. He discharged it with great aplomb and confidence – but it was not just his manner and assurance that impressed us.

    It was the content of what he had to say that bespoke a young man who had thought deeply and carefully about what he might say. He took as his theme the role and concept of leadership and what constituted its true meaning – a topic that might rightly preoccupy many of us in view of events both at home and overseas, including what is currently happening in the US.

    He described a mode of leadership which he labelled “everyday” leadership, by which he meant leadership that did not depend on grand gestures and flamboyant posturing, but consisted instead in innumerable small, daily interactions, on a basis of common interests and mutual regard, between the leaders and the led.

    He rightly identified such an approach as building confidence between leaders and led, and drawing out the best from both. It is a concept of leadership that rests less on the self-importance of the leaders and more on the service they can render to the cause which they cherish in common with those they serve.

    We were greatly impressed by this thoughtful treatment of a complex subject – all the more remarkable when found in someone who seemed (at least to those – like my wife and me – of advanced years) just about to set off on life’s journey.

    We left the ceremony, not only in high spirits in light of our grandson’s success, but also marvelling at the school’s achievement in producing and developing a young man like Logan Green. The school is clearly doing some – or perhaps many – things right.

    Any school would be proud of exceptional alumni like Logan Green and Benjamin Adams. What was even more worthy of congratulation was the evidence provided by the ceremony that the school was enhancing the life chances of all its pupils by ensuring that, whatever level or range of ability they enjoyed, whatever their background and ethnicity, they were able to take the chances offered them by a school that cared about all its pupils.

    Well done, Tauranga Boys College.

    Bryan Gould
    17 November 2020

  • A Slow-Motion Coup

    We all know what a coup looks like – we have seen them often enough in benighted counties around the world.

    They usually begin with the appearance of armed troops in the street, with people being arrested and taken away, with radio and television studios and newspaper offices being closed, with opposition leaders being imprisoned and put on trial, with the newly dominant leader making speeches to proclaim his victory.

    We are less used to, and therefore less likely to recognise for what it is, a coup that takes place in slow motion – one that takes place in small stages and is brought about by inertia rather than aggression, contempt for the law rather than violence – yet that is what we may be witnessing in the US.

    How else are we to characterise the attempts by Donald Trump to maintain himself in power by refusing to accept the result of a democratic election? What is surely clear is that he is asserting his right to exercise power, even though that flies in the face of the people’s choice.

    He is refusing to comply with the rules and precedents established by the US constitution, and he is doing so by sitting tight and defying others to remove him. He continues to assert that he won the election and to rely on the unwillingness of his Republican colleagues to gainsay him.

    He is preparing for an eventual showdown by removing (from the Pentagon, for example,) those unlikely to support his claims and replacing them with others who will be more compliant. He is exploiting the interest of other Republicans in hanging on to power, and their fear of losing his support.

    What more do we need to convince us that we are seeing a coup that is unfolding in slow motion and that depends for its success, not on decisive action, but on craven inaction? As Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

    Trump’s Republicans may or may not be good men (or women), but they are – sure as hell – quite happy to do nothing.