A pause in hostilities


    It’s a weird interregnum we are in; a space where it is almost poor form to discuss politics, so fine is the balance. Even the clamour of ‘moral entitlement’ that filled the Saturday night media reaction to our temporarily-hung Parliament has sobered.

    The fact remains that an arguable 50 percent of us – young and urban in particular – want a change in the fundamental values underpinning governance decisions. And the other half don’t.

    Like it or not, there are shades of Trump tribalism in this stalemate scenario which came with three whopper lies playing to voter fears. There was Steven Joyce’s imaginary $11 billion hole in Labour’s budget, equally groundless but apparently compelling fears about new taxes (the present Government has put in 18 in its time) and Prime Minister Bill English’s astonishing claim that a $20 a week tax cut promised by National will raise 50,000 children out of poverty on 1 April. Hasn’t the man seen the price of butter recently?

    I suspect that the more you want to win in this scenario, the more you’ll lose. Half of your citizenry is still a lot of people to ignore, to disappoint, to infuriate.

    If I were young, the temptation to blame the conservatism of baby boomers would be inevitable. They have always had a house, were educated for free, travelled and had their children without having to wonder whether they could afford them.

    The modest family benefit (how ‘nice’ that sounds now) could even be capitalised to make a handy stepping stone to home ownership.

    Out of the exceptional fundamental human equalities of the post-war 1950s and 60s came the opportunities to experiment with Woodstock music, Springbok test rallies, Bastion Point and nuclear protest. You could put your head down and save for a new bedroom suite instead but the culture of family, concreting each other’s patio, home baking for charity cake stalls and generally belonging to the human race was fairly inescapable.

    This might sound like some sort of nostalgia out of The Lorax – the moment where all the trees have been cut down and sold and there’s nothing left of a thriving community but an acorn of hope. Actually, there’s evidence.

    Author John Lanchester’s digression into political history Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay is a casually, eye-wateringly funny and excoriatingly accurate roadmap to the crazed world of contemporary finance. He charts the rise and rise of the global casino we know as the stock market to the point where cowboy capitalists could make money whether the market is up, down, going sideways or has slipped out for a cheese sandwich for lunch (a line which had me gleaming at fellow passengers on a late-night ferry recently, looking for someone to share the moment).

    The author’s prescience extends fluently into geopolitics, the post-war years a golden epoch (in the west) when the competing ideological hegemonies of communism and capitalism created a tenuous balance.

    Capitalism had a stake in appearing, at least, to have a social conscience. Communism was a basket case, ran the narrative, while the West was moral and dignified and people could live well. And to a large extent they did, living in suburbs that mirrored the public’s imaginings of the lives of earlier gentry.

    In sleepy, isolated, fiscally insulated New Zealand, cars were antiquated, debt was mildly immoral and life was idyllic. The easy going ‘she’ll be right, mate’ was a bone-deep reality and Jack (for once) was as good as his master.

    Dismantle the Berlin Wall and the moral high ground of democracy and capitalism was no longer necessary, says Lanchester (who more usually writes fiction). With the ideological hegemony of capitalism no longer challenged, excess followed excess and the market was able to reward itself with disproportionate pieces of the economic pie.

    “There was no global antagonist to point at and jeer at the rise and number of the fat cats; there was no embarrassment about allowing the rich to get so much richer so very quickly.”

    Here, debt and Marac Finance storefronts appeared in every provincial town. Cosmopolitanism was in.

    By the late 1980s, we were either complacent in our visible history of nuclear free, high flying adventurers and an egalitarian society or secretly beglamoured by the opportunities of passive income and the new financial instruments. Finance oracle Warren Buffett described them as ‘weapons of mass destruction’, both because they were lethal and because no one knew how to track them down.

    Baby boomers, to use what is a fairly pejorative term, will be needed in the re-writing and underwriting of a more socially sound history, as we need the young and the youth-adjacent to reclaim their own power in a workable succession. • Liz Waters

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