Houses built on sand


    With Budget Week upon us and post-covid mortgage woes stretching out for working homeowners and renters until at least the end of next year, it seemed a good week to come to grips with that ubiquitous but flawed bit of public policy that is the Conservative Right’s weapon of choice.

    Gross Domestic Product, GDP, ‘measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country’, said American economist Simon Kuznets, talking about his own brainchild.

    It “measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile,” he said.

    Trying to make sense of the Great Depression and its impact on the economy, he created the economic tool most used in the last 70 years to measure national wealth, but lived to be alarmed by the uses to which it has been put since.

    “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP.

    “Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between its costs and return, and between the short and the long term. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what – and for what,” he said years later, deploring the 20th centuries ongoing “fetishisation” of GDP.

    GDP measures how much we spend buying and selling cars and couches and luxury stuff, adds on what the government and business spend in the same year, then divides it by population to create an average level of economic prosperity across the whole population.

    A population that shops a lot gets a better GDP score than one that takes its pleasures gently – home-making, educating itself, helping the neighbours with a concrete driveway, bringing up children.

    No wonder we are conflicted and simple happiness is draining away.

    If wellbeing is to be valued, and calamitous change sufficiently channelled into healthy progress, communities will have to be informed and valued and it’s pretty obvious that a reboot will have to come from the grassroots. Interestingly, the mood at last week’s annual independent community newspaper conference was optimistic, despite the industry-wide mining of its revenues and highly relevant content by Google and Facebook and capitalism in general.

    There are growing numbers of new community papers being started up around the country to fill the niche for informed, relevant local community glue that they provide and it can be reported – in respect of simple pleasures and small town stuff – that Gulf News won the Community Involvement category with last year’s main street Trolley Derby initiative and our Waiheke Weekender was again Magazine of the Year for its lively content and relevance to its community, while our long-time designer Michelle Lewis won the Best Graphic Designer award.

    Since we were already into Budget Week, and with Waiheke’s continuing, agonising drain of young families unable to sustain island costs, I took an opportunity to ask  eminent economics commentator Brad Olsen, who spoke at the conference, how continuing to plunder family budgets for at least another year was to help curb inflation and allow reserve bank lending-rates to come down.

    The country had eaten “too much sugar” Brad said, during the Covid years and we had needed to “rebalance”, although, as far as I can see, that particular brainchild of the global Reserve Bank hegemony hasn’t worked except to syphon a vast windfall of money to all the obvious villains of the piece.

    So while the government cries poor, in the way of the hard right, and the Reserve Bank calmly continues to impose mortgage austerity five years on, we are left begging the question of why working New Zealanders are effectively taking medicine for a sort of fiscal diabetes so every utility, multinational corporation, bank, council, insurance company and global monopoly industry, including supermarket food, can continue to binge on unconscionable price hikes and ignore the social consequences.

    The pain is now being amplified by giant leaps backwards in, well, pretty much everything, from housing stocks to school lunches.

    Even if today’s Budget revelations come with some sugar, that’s not what we wanted, or, actually, what we got from the despised Covid response that literally kept businesses of varying shapes and sizes (and their staff members and families) in working order and the money going round in communities – as it needs to do.

    A government that re-introduces competition on existing stock between investors and speculators, shrinks the country’s pool of potential home owners, removes housing security for renters and forces the Salvation Army and other community housing providers to scrap building projects – while delivering $2.9 billion to landlords on a silver platter – needs to be brought into line.

    What sort of elected public servant can commit such vicious, unnecessary cruelty? Inflicting such a Scrooge mentality and winner-takes-all politics is as shameful as it is morally bankrupt. • Liz Waters

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