The Prime Minister continues to shame us

The Prime Minister has been attempting to defend her handling of the meeting with the Malaysian Prime Minister, following his apparently quite forthright comments on the South China Sea.  She parrots a line about not taking sides in the dispute, but surely she knows that when you don’t take sides between a bully and his (or her) victim you side with the bully.  And when you say

New Zealand’s position on the issue had been “utterly consistent”, and the country had never taken sides, she said, adding all claimants should uphold international law, and the law of the sea.

and yet fail to point out which party –  the PRC –  consistently refuses to uphold international law in this area, you make yourself a party to the abuse, the aggression, aiding the new status quo in which the PRC has taken control.  It really is like not taking sides when Germany takes Czechoslovakia or Poland.

But perhaps journalists could also ask the Prime Minister to explain New Zealand’s absence from this list

Australia, Canada, and the European Union as a whole, but not New Zealand, are part of an approach to Beijing over the abuses in Xinjiang.

Life –  even foreign policy – really has to be more than the sums of the deals, or the sum of the donations.

The Government’s stance is these areas –  much the same as the Opposition’s –  shames us.

UPDATE:  A reader sends me this (I’m not sure from which publication)

“We decided not to sign it because we have raised concerns about the situation in Xinjiang directly with Chinese authorities,” a spokesman for Ardern told Newsroom when asked if New Zealand had joined the protest.

“New Zealand concerns have been registered by the Prime Minister with senior counterparts, including yesterday with Premier Li. Concerns have also been raised at officials’ level, including through New Zealand’s bilateral human rights dialogue with China, and at the UN in Geneva,” the spokesman said.

This is pathetic.     As if none of the other countries has made direct or bilateral comments, and –  as noted here –  other countries (including the US, UK, and Australia) were much more visible and vocal at the recent UN human rights review on China.   There are those old lines about “stronger together”, and people being known by the company they keep.   I don’t think trade agreements and the like should drive our policy stances –  our values should – but you have to wonder what the EU (with whom New Zealand wants to sign of an agreement) makes of a New Zealand government so supine it won’t join its (erstwhile) friends in this process.   Perhaps unilateralism is an option for the US, but it is the same Prime Minister who regularly reminds us, and the world, about the merits of acting together.  Just not when it comes to never ever upsetting Beijing?

More kids means more education spending

I’m tied up with other commitments today, but I happened to notice this chart from the OECD.

education spending

Since today is also the day the primary/intermediate teachers’ strike hits Wellington, it seemed timely.

In some ways, it is quite a striking chart.  New Zealand devotes the second largest share of GDP to education of any OECD country, exceeded only by super-rich Norway (as far as I can see this is an estimate of total public and private spending).

And yet, once one looks even a bit more closer it is less interesting than it might have seen.  For example, at the other end of the chart both Ireland and Luxembourg have GDPs that are flattered by unusual effects –  in Ireland’s case, the impact of their corporate tax system (which ends up exaggerating the true economic value occurring in Ireland, and does not reflect value accruing to the Irish), and in Luxembourg’s case, the fact that a lot of the GDP arises from people who work in tiny (financial centre) Luxembourg but live across the border in various neighbouring countries (their kids won’t be using Luxembourg’s schools).

And in our case, who uses schools and universities?  Mostly children and young people, and if you don’t have many children you’ll need to spend less (as a share of GDP) on education.   As this chart shows, of the OECD countries only Turkey, Mexico and Israel have a higher total fertility rate at present than New Zealand does.   Our TFR this particular year was 1.9 (births per woman) while that for, say, Japan was about 1.4.  That makes a big difference to how much needs to be spent on schools (all else equal about a third more).  Iceland spends as much on schools as we do, but with quite a bit smaller a birth rate.

Total fertility rate (2016)
fertility-rates

And the other thing that marks us out relative to most OECD countries, although not all, is a high rate of immigration.  Not all migrants, by any means, have children with them when they move here (temporarily or permanently) but some do.  It all adds to the amount (share of GDP) needing to be spent on education.

Both birth rates and migration rates are just one of those things that people doing education budgets just have to take as given.    The other thing that you’d expect to influence education spending quite substantially is class sizes –  even at tertiary level the old Oxford/Cambridge tutorial system is a lot more resource intensive than, say, stage 1 lectures with 350 young people with largish tutorials run by honours students. But there tends to be more of a focus on school class sizes.  Unfortunately, the charts in the OECD Education at a Glance publications don’t have New Zealand data for pupil/teacher ratios, but here is the chart.

Average class size in primary education, by type of institutions (2016)

ratios

What I found striking is how wide the range of practices is.  It isn’t just that richer countries have smaller class sizes –  Chile is at one end and Costa Ricas at the other –  even though my understanding of the educational research is that smaller class sizes is mostly just a luxury item, with little or no impact on educational outcomes.   Shifting from one end to the other is likely to have significant implications for the cost of primary school education.  I have no idea where New Zealand would sit on the chart: I’m always a bit surprised how small my children’s class sizes have been, but that probably just marks me out as an old fogey, recalling classes in the mid-high 30s back in the early 1970s.

I don’t have any particular conclusion to this post, other than the caution that a high share of GDP devoted to schooling sheds –  on its own – precisely no light on the reasonableness, or otherwise, of the teachers’ claims, and their strike.  Having said that, I’d have preferred my daughter’s Principal not to have been using public resources to email us all urging parents to support the industrial action, join the protest rally etc.

Making the Trump administration look less bad

I’m no fan of Donald Trump.  He is unworthy of the office he holds, and almost every week there is new data to reinforce that view.   And if his character is unworthy, there is no offset in the way in which he attempts to govern or in the clarity and excellence of his thought or vision.

And yet, when it comes to the People’s Republic of China, our Prime Minister –  probably with the full support of the Leader of the Opposition –  manages, somehow, to leave the US Administration looking as though –  for the moment at least – it is on the side of the angels.   And as if it is our governments that are simply all about “the deal” –  be it an “FTA” upgrade, party political donations. or just students flowing to our public universities that have made themselves so dependent on not upsetting the thugs in Beijing.

Then there is Scott Morrison.  I guess he probably won’t be Australia’s Prime Minister for long, but a couple of weeks ago he gave a pretty good speech under the heading “The Beliefs That Guide Us”.  Sadly, I didn’t see it reported here at all (from the Australian media there is a good commentary on it here) but it comes in stark contrast to the way in which our governments (present and past) behave and talk (or simply refuse to talk).  Rhetoric is, of course, easier than action, but at least the words were good (emphasis added).

Our foreign policy defines what we believe about the world and our place in it.

It must speak of our character, our values.  What we stand for. What we believe in and, if need be, what we’ll defend. This is what guides our national interest.

I fear foreign policy these days is too often being assessed through a narrow transactional lens.   Taking an overly transactional approach to foreign policy and how we define our national interests sells us short.

If we allow such an approach to compromise our beliefs, we let ourselves down, and we stop speaking with an Australian voice.

We are more than the sum of our deals. We are better than that.

And what does Morrison regard as the “beliefs that guide our interests”?

We believe that the path to peace and liberty demands the pursuit of prosperity through private capital, rights to own property, entrepreneurialism and free and open markets. That is what lifts people out of poverty.

We believe that acceptance should not be determined by race or religion. Rather, we accept people by their words and judge them by their actions.

We believe in freedom of speech, thought, association and religion.

We believe in peaceful liberal democracy; the rule of law; separation of powers; racial and gender equality where every citizen has choice and opportunity to follow their own paths and dreams.

A fair go for those who have a go – that is what fairness means in Australia.

We believe in the limits of government – because free peoples are the best foundation to show mutual respect to all.

We believe in standing by our mates, side by side with nations that believe the same things we do.

Few or none of those things would be embraced by the People’s Republic of China, or the Party that controls it.  As he goes on to point out, by omission in listing the sorts of nations which do.

From the United Kingdom and the democracies of Europe to the United States and Canada. From the state of Israel to the city state of Singapore. From Japan and South Korea in North Asia to New Zealand, across the ditch.

He goes on later to observe, of Australia’s participation in various conflicts

We have done this because we believe it is right. Being true to our values and principles [will] always be in our interest.

Whereas, so it seems, in our Prime Minister’s mind (and that of her Opposition counterpart) not only are the two in constant tension, but the values and principles of this nation are constantly sacrificed to some short-sighted, limited, and mercenary conception of “interest”.    It is shameful to watch.

What of the US Administration?  You might think, as I do, that the focus on the US-China bilateral trade deficit is wrongheaded and economically illiterate.  Which isn’t to say that there are no real economic issues that it is right for the US Administration to take the lead in addressing –  with, so it appears, pretty widespread endorsement across the political spectrum in the US.  Even if you think –  as I generally do –  that intellectual property protections generally reach too far, and even if you recall that most rising powers have attempted to gain an edge by purloining the technology or insights of firms/countries nearer the technological frontier, China’s approach is particularly systematic, aggressive, and unacceptable.  It needs to be called out.  China doesn’t offer anything like an open market in many areas (services and investment notably), and if  –  in the longer-run –  those choices will mostly harm the Chinese, I don’t have any problem with a big and powerful country attempting to encourage change.  They are the sort of changes most in the West probably looked towards when China was allowed into the WTO.  It was clearly a sick (if opportunistic) joke when New Zealand agreed to deem China a “market economy”, when it remains far from that –  and, in many respects, getting further from it.

But it isn’t just about trade and investment.  Last month, the Vice-President gave a pretty forceful speech on the Administration’s approach to the People’s Republic of China.    There was a trade dimension

Over the past 17 years, China’s GDP has grown 9-fold; it has become the second-largest economy in the world. Much of this success was driven by American investment in China. And the Chinese Communist Party has also used an arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and industrial subsidies doled out like candy, to name a few.

But there was so much more. The military position for example

And using that stolen technology, the Chinese Communist Party is turning plowshares into swords on a massive scale…

China now spends as much on its military as the rest of Asia combined, and Beijing has prioritized capabilities to erode America’s military advantages – on land, at sea, in the air, and in space. China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the Western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies.

Beijing is also using its power like never before. Chinese ships routinely patrol around the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan. And while China’s leader stood in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2015 and said that his country had “no intention to militarize the South China Sea,” today, Beijing has deployed advanced anti-ship and anti-air missiles atop an archipelago of military bases constructed on artificial islands.

and systematic issues with a more individual impact

Nor, as we hoped, has Beijing moved toward greater freedom for its people. For a time, Beijing inched toward greater liberty and respect for human rights, but in recent years, it has taken a sharp U-turn toward control and oppression.

Today, China has built an unparalleled surveillance state, and it’s growing more expansive and intrusive – often with the help of U.S. technology. The “Great Firewall of China” likewise grows higher, drastically restricting the free flow of information to the Chinese people. And by 2020, China’s rulers aim to implement an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life – the so-called “social credit score.” In the words of that program’s official blueprint, it will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven, while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

And when it comes to religious freedom, a new wave of persecution is crashing down on Chinese Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims…

Last month, Beijing shut down one of China’s largest underground churches. Across the country, authorities are tearing down crosses, burning bibles, and imprisoning believers. And Beijing has now reached a deal with the Vatican that gives the avowedly atheist Communist Party a direct role in appointing Catholic bishops. For China’s Christians, these are desperate times.

Beijing is also cracking down on Buddhism. Over the past decade, more than 150 Tibetan Buddhist monks have lit themselves on fire to protest China’s repression of their beliefs and culture. And in Xinjiang, the Communist Party has imprisoned as many as one million Muslim Uyghurs in government camps where they endure around-the-clock brainwashing. Survivors of the camps have described their experiences as a deliberate attempt by Beijing to strangle Uyghur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.

And the sort of influence activities that Anne-Marie Brady has written about here

I want to tell you today what we know about China’s actions – some of which we’ve gleaned from intelligence assessments, some of which are publicly available. But all of which is fact.

As I said before, Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach to advance its influence and benefit its interests. It’s employing this power in more proactive and coercive ways to interfere in the domestic policies and politics of the United States.

The Chinese Communist Party is rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state, and federal officials.

He explicitly championed Taiwan as an example of a better way –  a country, actively threatened by China, and which is not only free and democratic, but more prosperous than China.

As far as I can see a few people in the US quibbled at the margins, but there was no great dissent from the broad thrust of the speech. It characterises the regime, and its threat, in a way that many or most experts seem to regard as pretty descriptively accurate.  The PRC is a threat to its own people of course, but abroad –  to countries in the region who espouse the sorts of values Scott Morrison talked of, and in the internal political processes of countries like our own, Australia, or the US (and many others).

It wasn’t just a one-shot effort from Pence, who is representing the President at this week’s summit meetings.  In the Washington Post yesterday there was a report of new interview with Pence.  With political theatre in mind, the interview took place as Pence’s plane flew across the contested South China Sea.  The report included

The vice president said this is China’s best (if not last) chance to avoid a cold-war scenario with the United States.

In addition to trade, Pence said China must offer concessions on several issues, including but not limited to its rampant intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, restricted access to Chinese markets, respect for international rules and norms, efforts to limit freedom of navigation in international waters and Chinese Communist Party interference in the politics of Western countries.

and ended thus

I asked him what would happen if Beijing doesn’t agree to act in Asia in a way that can avoid a cold war with the United States.

“Then so be it,” Pence said. “We are here to stay.”

Who knows whether his boss really means it – or will still mean it in six months time –  but at least it was being said.   And there is an interesting article in today’s Financial Times, highlighting the apparent bipartisan support (including among business leaders) for a more robust stance.  There was also an interesting Bloomberg column which observed

Trump usually gets the blame (or credit, depending on where you stand) for souring relations. He’s not the real culprit, though. The man truly responsible is China’s president. Xi has altered the course of Chinese policy in ways that made a showdown with the U.S. almost inevitable, whoever sat in the White House.

Even that interview wasn’t all that can be set to the credit of Mike Pence in this sort of area: speaking out about manifest evil, actions that don’t align with the sorts of values countries like the US, Australia, and (once upon a time at least) New Zealand sought to espouse and –  rather imperfectly to be sure – operate by.  There was Pence’s meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, where he talked plenty bluntly and openly.

“The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse,” Pence said.

And then there is the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, our Prime Minister.

On the day the Chinese deputy foreign minister warned other countries not to “obstruct” China’s growing activity in the Pacific, it was as if our Prime Minister was just falling into line when, in an interview yesterday, she refused to even address the issue of China’s activities in the Pacific.

When she met Aung San Suu Kyi –  who, as far as I can see has no New Zealand economic “interests” to threaten –  her language seemed to be much more muted than Pence’s

“We, of course, share the concern of the international community around what has happened in Rakhine State, and the ongoing displacement of the Rohingya,” Ardern said following the meeting.

As the Newsroom report puts it

[Aung San Suu Kyi] has also been stripped of the US Holocaust Museum’s Elie Weisel award and Freedom of the City awards, which were revoked by Edinburgh, Oxford, Glasgow and Newcastle.

While in Singapore, Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Suu Kyi was “trying to defend the indefensible”.

But Ardern said she did not detect any defence from Suu Kyi during their meeting.

And US Vice President Mike Pence also had firm words for Suu Kyi during the pair’s meeting in Singapore.

“This is a tragedy that has touched the hearts of millions of Americans. The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse.”

Suu Kyi was brief in her remarks, saying each country knew their own situation best. “So we are in a better position to explain to you what is happening and how we see things panning out.”

Sounds pretty defensive to me.   When the Trump Administration and Mahathir Mohamad are more willing to speak out on human rights abuses than a New Zealand Prime Minister, something is very wrong.    “Kindness” and “empathy” might be her watchwords, but I didn’t suppose she meant them for tyrants and those who abet gross and systematic abuses.

And what of the PRC regime.  Here was how the Herald reported her

Ardern said before her meeting with Premier Li that she would be raising human rights issues with him but they were kept to the closed door session.

In her opening remarks she said: “New Zealand’s relationship with China is incredibly important to us. We see that relationship being incredibly important not just from an economic perspective but from a regional perspective.”

Only sweetness and light in public –  this, after all, from someone who only a few months ago pledged stronger ties between Labour and the Chinese Communist Party –  and if she politely indicated in private the odd area of possible difference, who really cares?  I’m sure the Chinese won’t.  After all, her party president is on record –  not behind closed doors – lauding the regime and its leader.

Has she ever said tried to lead ther discussion and debate at home about the character of the regime?   Has she ever said anything openly critical about one of the most dreadful regimes on the planet –  about its activities at home (a couple of weeks ago she said she “might” raise Xinjiang privately) –  and –  more importantly –  about its activities abroad, let alone its activities in New Zealand?  Even “small” things like, for example, the presence in our Parliament of a former PLA intelligence official, close to the PRC Embassy, who acknowledges misrepresenting his past to get into the country, and who has never once said anything critical of the regime.  Decent people shake their heads in disbelief (as I do each I write this), but not the Prime Minister.   Or arranging –  with the National Party –  to award a Queen’s Birthday honour to a non-English speaking Chinese-born businessman, who associates closely with MPs (and mayors) from all sides of politics, seems to arrange party donations (partly with a view to getting additional MPs into Parliament) and who the record shows is very closely associated with the Chinese Communist Party and the regime –  back in China, and here.

The local media seemed taken with the fact that Mike Pence was reported to have asked to be seated next to our Prime Minister at one of the summit dinners.  But strangely, while the local media talked up how the PM might raise such issues as steel and aluminium tariffs, or even speculated on the (manifold) political and personal differences between the two of them,  I didn’t notice anyone speculate on the possibility that China, and New Zealand’s rather shameful and supine attitude to the PRC, might have been among Pence’s list of talking points, amid the pleasantries and fine food.  I’m sure our allies welcomed the P8 purchases, and even the additional money New Zealand and Australia are (for how long?) throwing at the Pacific, but someone who won’t utter an open word of disapproval of such a regime, who won’t even speak out about the disgrace of Opposition MP, Jian Yang, who does nothing –  and refuses to openly take seriously –  the domestic interference issues is hardly someone showing any sign of living by those sorts of values that Scott Morrison enunciated in his speech.  And yet I suspect they represent rather well the values of most individual New Zealanders –  just not our political classes, who seem to act as if “values” are just some nice-to-have for other people, not something integral to how they live and act and speak.

It is pretty shameful when the Trump adminstration –  for now at least –  puts our country in such a poor light, on such a significant (and potentially a defining) issue. I remain sceptical about Trump’s willingness to follow through (on almost anything) or indeed about US administration’s willingness to pay much of a price to, say, defend Taiwan (and, if perchance, the trade strategy puts real pressure on, the temptation to action  – and distraction – there may only increase –  the Falklands weren’t invaded when Argentina was prospering).  The South China Sea is already, in effect, lost.  And no outsider can do much about China’s awful internal record.  But words still matter.  They express what we care about, what we value (more than just a deal).

And on these issues, the Trump administration at least has the words.  Jacinda Ardern –  and Simon Bridges –  sit cravenly silent.  It is as if, to upend Scott Morrison’s words, they think New Zealand is defined solely as the sum of our deals. It is shameful.

More thoughts on financial crises and economic performance

In my post yesterday, focused specifically on Geoff Bascand’s speech on financial stabilty, financial crises etc, I used this chart

crisis costs

to, again, raise questions about just how much of the poor economic performance over the last decade or so can really be ascribed specifically to the financial crisis (bank failures, large loan losses etc).  After all, the US was the epicentre of the crisis, and my other group of countries (long-established advanced countries, also with floating exchange rates –  Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Israel, and Japan)  didn’t have domestic financial crises.

I’d been playing around with that data with a view to writing a post about an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, The Crisis Next Time: What We Should Have Learned from 2008″, by Carmen and Vincent Reinhart (she an academic researcher, and he a senior market economist and formerly a senior Fed official).    The Foreign Affairs website is having open access this month, so the link should work for anyone wanting to read the (accessible and not overly long) article itself.

I thought the article was a bit of a mixed bag (and this post ends up only partly being about the article).  Carmen Reinhart, in particular, has been at the forefront of efforts to remind that recessions associated with financial crises are often more severe than other recessions.  That is a useful reminder, but hardly surprising.  Mild recessions tend not to generate many loan losses, and even if the banking system wasn’t rock solid in the first place, nothing too serious is likely to follow.  But if resources have been severely misallocated in the first place, supported by ample new credit, then when the correction occurs –  and views about what is profitable have to be revised –  it isn’t surprising that the associated recession can be deep and the financial system can come under stress.  In New Zealand, for example, it wasn’t the financial system crisis (failure of DFC, repeated near-failures of the BNZ) that made the 1991 recession so serious; rather than pressures on the financial system were part of the same aftermath of excess –  over-inflated expectations – that the entire economy was caught up in, combined with some serious efforts to break the back of high trend rates of inflation.

As the Reinharts point out, the problems can then be particularly severe in a country that has few or no macro policy levers left open too it –  a fixed exchange rate or a common currency, tied to the fortunes of a group that may not share the particular problems you did (thus, for example, Ireland in a euro-area in which Germany is the largest economy).  Adjustment can be a lot slower without the ability to adjust the nominal interest and exchange rates.  Perhaps more than the authors, I’m a sceptic on the euro.

For my purposes, there is a convenient couple of sentences in the Reinhart article

Financial crises do so much economic damage for a simple reason: they destroy a lot of wealth very fast. Typically, crises start when the value of one kind of asset begins to fall and pulls others down with it. The original asset can be almost anything, as long as it plays a large role in the wider economy: tulips in seventeenth-century Holland, stocks in New York in 1929, land in Tokyo in 1989, houses in the United States in 2007. 

It usefully highlights a key difference between, say, the US (or Ireland or Iceland) late last decade, and the experiences of the group of non-crisis floating exchange rate countries whose experience is reflected in that first chart above.   Stock markets in those latter countries took a short-term hit, of course, but there was no sustained loss of (perceived) wealth akin to what happened in the crisis countries.

It isn’t entirely clear from the article how much the authors want to focus mostly on the depth of the initial recession and how much on the disappointing economic outcomes in many countries over the last decade.  But both are mentioned, and there seems to be a tone that conflates the two in a way that I’m not surely is overly helpful (given the goal of learning lessons that can help better prepare us for future severe adverse events).  There also seems to be a very strong focus on the demand side, and none at all on the supply side (no mention at all of productivity growth).

And yet, if we look across the OECD as a whole, the unemployment rate was right back down to where it had been in 2007.  If (and there is) a disappointment about the last decade as a whole, it can’t be now about excess labour supply (unemployed workers) –  slow as the unemployment rate was to come down, it did eventually.  As it happens, the unemployment rate in the US (epicentre of the crisis) is now lower than in the median of my non-crisis floating exchange rate group –  which wasn’t the case in the years running up to 2008.

I have plenty of criticisms for the way many central banks (including our own) handled the years after the 2008/09 crisis and recession.  In some cases, actually tightening when it wasn’t necessary or appropriate, and often a hankering for some sort of return to “normal” interest rates (that may have prevailed in the previous couple of decades) when as has become increasingly apparent something about what is “normal” has changed.  Throw in the lack of any pro-activity in addressing the existence of the near-zero lower bound on nominal interest rates (itself arising from regulatory and legislative choices), and it is clear that more could –  and should –  have been done in many countries.

But even if such changes (in macro policy) had been made, the differences in economic outcomes would probably have been at the margin:  helpful (eg in a New Zealand context, getting core inflation back to 2 per cent, and getting unemployment down to the NAIRU perhaps two or three years earlier), but it is unlikely that it would have made much difference to productivity growth, or indeed to levels of real GDP per capita today.

In yesterday’s post, I showed a chart comparing labour productivity growth trends in the US (epicentre of the financial crisis) and in the group of non-crisis floating exchange rate advanced economies.  But what about multi-factor productivity?

The OECD only has MFP data for a subset of member countries.  Of my sample of non-crisis advanced countries, they don’t have data for Norway and Israel.  But here is the comparison for the US and the group of four non-crisis advanced countries, all normalised to 2007.

MFP crisis.png

In both cases –  although perhaps more starkly so for the non-crisis countries –  it is clear that the slowdown in productivity growth was underway well before the recession (and crisis).  The financial crisis (centred in the US) cannot be to blame for something that is (a) apparent across crisis and non-crisis countries (especially when the non-crisis countries are less productive than the US to start with), and (b) when the phenomenon got underway before the crisis or recession did.

(The Conference Board Total Economy database does have MFP estimates for my full group of non-crisis countries.   They use a different model to estimate MFP, but the same two key observations hold in their data: the slowdown was apparent in both lots of countries well before the crisis/recession, and (if anything) the US has done better than the non-crisis group both before and since its crisis.)

But what about some of the euro-area countries you ask?  And the Reinharts themselves rightly point out how poor the economic performance of Italy (and Greece) has been.  The OECD doesn’t have MFP estimates for Greece, but here are the estimates for three other embattled euro-area countries: Portugal, Spain, and Italy.

MFP crisis 2

All three countries have been in deep trouble for a long time now –  the estimated level of MFP peaking around 2000.   On this score, the trends don’t look materially different over the last decade than over the years leading up to 2007.    Whatever the cause of their problems with productivity, it can’t have been the financial crises these countries went through.

And perhaps nor would you expect it.  Readers might recall a wrenching financial crisis that Korea went through in 1998.   And here is the OECD estimate of multi-factor productivity for Korea.

mfp crisis 3

You can see the 1998 crisis/recession in the data, but as a short-term blip.  In the decade after the crisis, Korea productivity growth kept on at much the same rate experienced in the decade prior to that crisis –  before (presumably) joining in the global slowdown this decade.  (That had also been the experience of the United States in earlier crisis episodes –  estimates suggest that the 1930s, for all its problems (around demand shortfalls) was a period of strong MFP growth.)

There is lots to learn from the searing experience of crisis, recession, and slow growth in the advanced world over the last decade or more.   But I still reckon there needs to be a much more careful unpicking of the different strands of the story than central bankers –  who tend to see the world through money and finance lenses, and who are often keen to champion their future role –  are prone to.  To me, the cross-country evidence just doesn’t square with a hypothesis in which the financial crisis itself plays any large part in the sustained disappointing performance of so many countries over what is now such a long time.

Central bankers meanwhile might be better off rethinking the merits of arrangements like the euro, or of the continued passivity around the near-zero lower bound, both of which look as though they have the potential for causing very major problems the next time there is a serious economic downturn.

We need better foundations for financial stability policy

Adrian Orr is now 7.5 months into his term as Governor and we still haven’t had an on-the-record speech from him about either main strand of his responsibilities: monetary policy or financial supervision and regulation.  Is he just not engaged on these issues?

But yesterday, his deputy Geoff Bascand delivered  –  in Australia –  a substantive speech on financial stability issues.  There were a few good elements in the speech.  For example, I was pleased to see this in the conclusion

The capital review gives us all an opportunity to think again about our risk tolerance – how safe we want our banking system to be; how we balance soundness and efficiency; what gains we can make, both in terms of financial stability and output; and how we allocate private and social costs.

It may be that the legislation underpinning our mandate can be enhanced, for example, by formal guidance from government or another governance body, on the level of risk of a financial crisis that society is willing to tolerate.

At present, the legislation is drafted so broadly and loosely that a single unelected and unaccountable official gets to make any such choices.  He (as it typically is) gets to make choices in a pretty much unconstrained way and we (including our elected political leaders) just have to live with the consequences.    Whether the sort of formal guidance Geoff refers to in that second paragraph is (meaningfully) feasible is open to question, but we need to improve on the current situation.  If such guidance isn’t feasible –  if society can’t write down its preference and give them as a mandate for the technocrats –  the big decisions around banking supervision policy frameworks (as distinct from the application of them to individual institutions) should be made by elected politicians (the Minister of Finance).

But, sadly, most of the speech just wasn’t that good.  It had plenty of politicially popular lines, and there was even the obligatory reference to the Reserve Bank as a tree god.  On climate change we had this

Climate change presents significant financial stability risks both through the direct implications of physical events for insurers, farmers and households, the indirect effects on insurance availability and property values, and through the potential social and economic disruption it promises.

We are working on developing a climate change strategy, which will be informed by discussions with banks and insurers in due course. Our role as a regulator is to try to ensure that financial institutions are adequately managing these risks, even though the horizon for their realisation could be decades away.

Given that the best evidence for New Zealand is that projected increases in global temperature are probably neutral and at best slightly positive for New Zealand in economic terms, and that all sorts of relative price changes occur every year changing the economics of all manner of businesses banks might have lent on, all this should amount to nothing.  But we know the Governor is a zealot –  why, he bets billions of dollars of your money on particular views of the economics of climate change, while so obscuring the choice there is no effective accountability –  so no doubt there will be pages and pages of bureaucratic bumpf from an agency with no expertise in the issue (or mandate), simply adding to compliance costs (especially for small institutions).

There was a rather lame attempt to defend the Bank’s involvement in the bank conduct review.  I noticed that the Governor had a bit of spat with ACT MP David Seymour at FEC last week on just this issue, which ended with the Governor (to whom any concept of deference or politeness seems unknown) responding as follows

When Seymour persisted, Orr simply said: “I am right, you are wrong”.

My own take is that they are probably both right.  Seymour is right on the fundamental point –  the bank conduct review was about politics and perhaps about Orr advancing his standing, not about financial soundness and efficiency (the Bank’s statutory mandate).  And if Orr is correct –  about the law giving him scope to do this –  it is only because the legislation was written –  guided by Bank officials – far too broadly in the first place.

But what bothers me rather more is the Bank’s weak understanding of the nature of financial crises, systemic risks, and so on.  These are concerns I’ve raised over several years in various contexts, including the cases the Bank has made for LVR restrictions and the (longed-for) debt to income restrictions.

For example, they continue to claim that

Household sector indebtedness represents the New Zealand financial system’s single largest vulnerability.

Yes, household debt is the largest component of financial system assets, but that is a quite different proposition.  As their stress tests have repeatedly shown, banks’ housing portfolios are constructed in a sufficiently cautious way that even very large adverse shocks (rising unemployment and falling house prices) wouldn’t threaten the soundness of the banks.   They run this cross-country chart of credit to households as a share of GDP.

novspeech-figure2

Yes, there is a lot more household credit than there was. That is the inevitable consequence of things like land-use restrictions than make urban land artificially scarce (and highly-priced).  And in New Zealand’s case, household debt to GDP is still a touch lower than it was going into the last recession (and at that time the servicing burden was also much heavier).  Despite all the angst, bank housing portfolios came through that severe recession unscathed –  as they did in Australia, Canada, and the UK.

But perhaps my biggest problem with the speech is a combination of three things:

  • the attempt to suggest that the system is very fragile –  at least without wise bureaucrats –  and that crises are always just around the corner, coming for us,
  • the continued failure to pay attention to the experiences of countries that had significant asset and credit booms and didn’t have a domestic financial crises, and
  • the inexcusable failure – in a central bank –  to distinguish between countries with floating exchange rates (which greatly assist adjustment in the face of shocks) and those without.

In combination, the Reserve Bank leads us towards quite misleading conclusions about the economic costs of financial crisis.  By overstating those costs –  hugely overstating –  they seek to strengthen their own position (and our respect of them) as regulators; the people who will do everything to keep us safe. (As commonly, one never sees mentioned in the speech that in all the financial crises they like to cite, there were in fact banking regulators who no doubt thought they were doing their job well.)

Of my first bullet, they say

First, why does financial stability matter? The answer is that bank crises are frequent and bank crises hurt.

Since the mid-1970s there have been over 140 banking crises around the world.

and (without any backing for this claim)

Serious incidents (that could have led to a crisis) are more common than people realise.

Yes, there have been lots of crisis, although since (depending on your definition) there are getting on for 200 countries in the world, even the number the Bank cites is less than one crisis per country over 45 years.

But there haven’t been many at all in stable, well-managed, floating exchange rate countries.  And in countries like ours –  for example, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Norway –  the only financial crises in 100 years have related to the period just after liberalisation when everyone was just getting grips with what a market financial system meant (and when, for that matter, regulators also didn’t cover themselves with glory).    Of course, well-run banking systems can run into trouble, but since it is New Zealand that our Reserve Bank is supposedly focused on one might expect some grounding in the Australasian experience.   That experience just doesn’t suggest danger (massive credit losses) lurks continually.

The Reserve Bank has long been keen on citing the experience of Ireland as somehow relevant to New Zealand.  It pops up again in this speech

The consequences in terms of employment are also severe. After the GFC, Ireland’s unemployment rate rose from 4.6 percent in 2006 to 15 per cent in 2012

And yet –  prosperity and geography aside –  what is the biggest relevant difference between New Zealand and Ireland?   We get to set our own interest rates, and our exchange rate can adjust freely, while Irish monetary policy is set in Frankfurt for the entire euro-area, and they have no nominal exchange rate to adjust.  The Reserve Bank knows very well that floating exchange rate exist in large part because they provide greater leeway to cope with severe adverse economic or financial shocks.  Thus it was from the beginning –  at the time of the Great Depression –  and is now too.    I did post a few years ago –  which I can’t now see –  documenting that no floating exchange rate advanced country has ever experienced an increase in its unemployment rate of the magnitude Ireland put itself through.  I could commend to the Reserve Bank the experience of Iceland (which went through a financial crisis which, in many respects, was even nastier than Ireland’s, and yet had only a fairly moderate increase in its unemployment rate).

And then there is the hoary old chestnut about just how expensive financial crises supposedly are.  Here is Bascand

Since the mid-1970s there have been over 140 banking crises around the world. And they have had large costs for the affected economies and societies.

On average a bank crisis costs a country 23% of its GDP, while public debt increases by around 12 percent.3 The amounts are higher for advanced economies.

That footnote records that the numbers are calculated as deviations of actual GDP from its (pre-crisis) trend.

They sound like scary numbers, and if true (in some meaningful sense) they might even be so  (although even if a crisis happens every 20 years, a loss of 23 per cent of one year’s GDP is roughly a loss of 1 per cent of the total GDP over that full period).  But they aren’t meaningful, on a number of accounts.

First, the calculations (implicitly) assume that any deviation from the pre-crisis trend is a result of the crisis itself –  and not, for example, the misallocation of real resources that might well have occurred even if the financial system had stayed sound.  At best, these numbers conflate the two effects.

Relatedly, the estimate ignore things that might have getting underway in the year or two prior to the crisis.  Thus, as I’ve shown before, productivity growth in the United States had already begun to slow very markedly a couple of years before the crisis hit.

fernald

A small amount of that might make its way into the pre-crisis trend measures, but most of it won’t.

And thirdly, the Bank –  and many of their peers among other keen regulators –  makes no attempt to compare the experiences of countries that went through serious financial crisis and those that did not.   US economic performance over the last decade has been underwhelming to say the least.  The US was at the epicentre of the 2008/09 financial crises.  But it is simply a step far too far to conclude that the extent to which the US has done less well than in the previous decade is the measure of the cost of the financial crisis, especially if other countries that didn’t have a crisis also did less well than they had done the previous decade or so.

I’ve touched on this issue before, including in this post last year.   Of course, finding good comparators isn’t just a matter of a random into the OECD bag of countries.  For a start, as I’ve already noted (and as the Reserve Bank knows), a fixed exchange rate tends to exacerbate the severity of any shock.  The United States –  epicentre of the financial crisis –  is a floating exchange rate country.   Some floating exchange rate countries –  notably the UK and Switzerland –  were caught up in the 2008/09 crisis primarily because of the exposure of their internationalised banking sector to the US and its housing debt instrument (rather than because of domestic credit exposures).  But there are six well-established floating exchange rate advanced countries that didn’t have a serious domestic financial crisis at all in 2008/09:  New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Norway, Israel, and Japan.

Here is how the US experience, on real GDP per capita, compares with the median of those non-crisis floating exchange rate advanced economies

crisis costs

The US experience was a little worse than that of the median of this group of countries, but the differences are small, and there is a lot of variability in the experience of the non-crisis countries (since 2007 Israel has done much better than the US, while Norway has done much worse).   And as I noted in the earlier post, the comparison still tends to exaggerate any contribution of financial crises themselves, as the US had less fiscal leeway than all the other floaters except Japan, and the US had less monetary policy leeway (running into the lower bound) than New Zealand, Australia, and Norway.

That’s GDP per capita.  But what productivity?  Quite a lot of the arguments about the cost of financial crises attempt to build a story about persistent dampening effects on innovation, risk-taking etc, reflected in the productivity numbers.  Here is the chart, showing the same comparison countries, for real GDP per hour worked (OECD data).

crisis costs 2

Perhaps this chart is a bit more favourable to the story, depending on how you read it. Over the whole period –  pre and post crisis –  the US managed faster labour productivity than the median of the six non-crisis countries.  But perhaps the slowdown in productivity growth is a bit more in the US than the others (even if, as the earlier chart showed more clearly) the slowdown pre-dated the crisis?  Then again, the level of labour productivity in the US is higher than in all but one (Norway) of my non-crisis collection of countries, so if there was a global productivity growth slowdown (for whatever reason) you might be expect the US to be hit more visibly than the other countries (that sitll had catch-up and convergence opportunities).   Even among the non-crisis countries, there is considerably divergence –  since 2007 Australia has had the strongest productivity growth and Norway the weakest.  (Remarkably, Iceland –  savage financial crisis and all –  has had faster labour productivity growth than all these countries.)

I’m not wanting to suggest that recessions and financial crises don’t have costs.  At an individual level almost inevitably they do, and at a national level recessions are rarely pleasant or welcome (that’s why we have active monetary policy).  But we deserve much more searching analysis from our central banks and financial regulators (and those holding them to account, including national Treasurys) when they bidding to persuade us to entrust them with so much power, and  the deference due to people who make so much difference (so they claim).

A good starting point remains this very long-term chart (due originally to Nobel laureate Robert Lucas)

maddisonUS

As I noted in a long-ago post

It is a quite simple chart of real per capita GDP for the United States, back as far as 1870.  These are Angus Maddison’s estimates, the most widely used set of (estimated) historical data, and as Maddison died a few years ago they only come as far forward as 2008.  The simple observation is that a linear trend drawn through this series captures almost all of what is going on.  More than perhaps any other country for which there are reasonable estimates, the United States has managed pretty steady long-term average growth rates over almost 140 years.  And yet, this was a country that experienced numerous financial crises in the first half the period.  Lists differ a little, but a reasonable list for the US would show crises in 1873, 1884, 1893, 1896, 1901, 1907, perhaps 1914, and 1929-33.  There were far more crises than any other advanced countries experienced.

And yet, there is no sign that they permanently impaired growth, or income.

If we are to have good financial stability policy, and confidence in it, it needs to be based on good searching robust and honest analysis, that recognises the puzzles and the ambiguities in the data, not the sort that rushes to support the conclusions policymakers have already settled on.

Reserve Bank whimsy

I was meeting someone in town this morning. I was a bit early and the person I was meeting was a bit late so I found myself standing for some 20 minutes across the road from the Reserve Bank.   As I did, I became a bit curious about these four guys.

orr1

In the entire time I watched them, this is all the activity there was (the chap with his hand on the cone).

Most of the Bank’s building is apparently still closed as a result of the asbestos scare, although the ground floor museum has now reopened.  But it isn’t at all clear what these guys were doing.  Access to the turning circle is now controlled (remotely) by those metal bollards, and although there will probably be billions of dollars of notes in the vaults, electronic security systems –  and big thick steel doors and walls – will be guarding that.  They weren’t acting as a guide to members of the public –  various people walked up the main steps into the museum while I watched and none interacted with the security men.  They seemed to be just standing there.  And when I walked past again 45 minutes later, they were still there….just standing.  Is the Bank a bit overfunded, or is it just the average productivity in New Zealand is so low that labour intensive operations (accomplishing what?) are still affordable?

I’ve commented here on the new Governor’s enthusiasm for all manner of green causes.  But he seems to be doing his bit personally, or maybe just saving a few dollars for the staff cafeteria.  Someone pointed out to me that the Bank now has a dinky little vegetable garden right on the corner of Bowen St and The Terrace.  I guess the space is too small for a tree?

orr2

On a slightly more serious note, readers will recall that a few weeks ago the Governor was billed as giving a speech on transparency, to the annual meeting of the (largely) taxpayer-funded lobby group Transparency International, to be introduced by the State Services Commissioner (who has responsibilities for open government)……..and yet the speech was to be totally non-transparent (no text published).    Potential attendees were told that the Governor was to be thanked by the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Andrew Kibblewhite, who is shortly to take up the job of Secretary for Justice, with responsibilities for the Official Information Act.

As it happens, the newsletter of Transparency International dropped into my inbox the other day.  It featured a report of the Orr address.

Guest Speaker: Adrian Orr

Guest speaker, Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ), Adrian Orr, was introduced by Adrienne Meikle, CEO of the Commerce Commission. Noting that people referred to her as “the other Adrienne” she augmented her introduction with comments about the key priorities of the Commission.

The RBNZ Governor provided a most insightful, off-the-record address with ideas to stimulate thinking about the relevance of transparency, accountability and integrity for more-effective governance.

The vote of thanks was delivered by Lyn McMorran, Executive Director of the Financial Services Federation, who has contributed an account of Adrian’s presentation below.

Perhaps Peter Hughes and Andrew Kibblewhite were just too busy in the end, or did they get cold feet about being associated with such a travesty –  the secret speech on transparency by a public official, to a (publically funded) transparency and governance lobby group?

Senior officials, in roles that are closely followed by markets etc, really shouldn’t be doing “most insightful” off-the record addresses.  If the speaker can’t be bothered writing a full text he or she can do as the Reserve Bank of Australia does and make an audio or video record available.

As it happens, Ms McMorran has given us a summary of this “off-the-record” address.  Here is an extract (emphasis in the original)

He said, however, that often constructs within society work against us doing the right thing. In terms of transparency he said that what gets measured gets managed. Too often what is measured are things that are short term and that managers are often being incentivised for the start line not the finish line.

It is, therefore, crucial to get the horizon right – determine what outcomes we want over time – horizons that matter.

Another excellent point Governor Orr made was about the principal/agent phenomenon where a manager owns the capital but is highly divorced from the managers and the managers of managers to whom they outsource this capital and it is hard for the person at the top to know how ethical all the layers are within their organisation.

Same old themes –  especially the bit about time horizons, where the Governor seems still to be convinced that he knows better than citizens and markets what timeframes are relevant for what sorts of institutions/issues.

Under the Official Information Act I also asked the Bank for the speech or –  if no full record existed –  a summary of what was said (memories are official information too).  For completeness, here is the summary I received.

Governor Orr did not use any notes for his speech but drew upon:

An outline of the speech from Governor Orr’s recollection, is as follows:

  1. Thanks for the invite.
  2. Congratulations on your work to raise transparency as a means of ensuring integrity in peoples/firms/governments behaviour.
  3. Property rights sit at the basis of a sound functioning economy.
  4. Macro stability is also very useful (monetary and fiscal policy).
  5. Microeconomic incentives to invest productively are also necessary (human and physical capital investment).
  6. 3-5 (above) are endogenous inputs to economic growth (see Conway and Orr, RBNZ Bulletin 2000).
  7. Transparency assists 3-5 occur – as it reduces the likelihood of some forms of ‘market failure’ – myopia, asymmetric information, time inconsistency in policy, and principal-agent issues.
  8. Even if people don’t aim to create bad outcomes, market failure can lead to sub-optimal outcomes.  Likewise, market intervention can suffer the same issues.  Hence, commitment and transparency can reduce these risks.
  9. Applause and thanks.

There were no questions as there wasn’t time.

I remain less interested in the specific substance of the speech than in the principle of openness.  Private fee-paying audiences shouldn’t have better access to the Governor’s views or insights than the wider market or public audience.

 

The Prime Minister: kindness, policy, and specific abuse

In the Canvas magazine supplement to Saturday’s Herald there was a brief interview with the Prime Minister that encapsulated well for me why she might be well-suited to being, say, Governor-General or some other empathetic public role, but also why she is unsuited to be Prime Minister.   The interview was reproduced from a new edition of a book called 200 Women. 

Asked what really matters to her, the Prime Minister responds “empathy and kindness”, and going on to note “because that’s what drives social change”.   I don’t want to downplay the value of either admirable quality, in an individual.  But they are manifestly insufficient in someone who puts themselves forward as a leader – of a local community, let alone of a nation.

The Prime Minister attempts to illustrate her point

“if you break some of the social challenges we face down to individual people, New Zealanders have a huge amount of empathy at that level. I’ve always viewed the world this way –  rather than seeing political problems as these large-scale statistical issues and as differences between peoples”.

We don’t want political leaders who can’t identify with individual need, opportunity and so on.  And yet, when one is dealing with five million people –  and government policy choices affecting many or all of them  –  you need to be able to stand back and think about things differently, to analyse issues systematically, to recognise (for good and ill) the force or incentives, to think about the longer-term as well as the short term, and so on.   And even to recognise that values and interests can, and often will, be in conflict –  in many areas hers aren’t Family First’s or the oil and gas industry’s  (or mine for that matter).  Politics is partly about navigating those differences, seeking reconciliation where possible, but also about making hard choices and trade-offs.

She goes on, apparently pretending none of this is real.

There are so many issues we end up divided on, which, if you distilled them down to a simple concept, you will find we are in fact united on.   Take the issue of child poverty; sometimes you’ll hear arguments like, “Well, this is an issue of parental responsibility, is it our role to be involved?”.  There’s a perception that, at some point, someone has neglected their duty of care.  But, actually, at the heart of the discussion is a child who –  whatever perception you might have of them –  is blameless, who is just a subject of their circumstances,

So while I might argue back that you can’t talk about parental blame as long as we have a low-wage economy in which people are working yet not earning enough to survive –  at its heart we’re talking about the same child.  If you take a view of kindness towards that child, then this starts to change the way you might think about solving the problem. You strip away some of the blame and get back to the simple values that every child should have a good start in life and that every child should have what they need to thrive.

But this is just vapid stuff, which doesn’t help make any serious or hard policy choices at all.  It suggests a near-total absence of any sort of analytical framework for thinking about the economy or society, about the limits of the state (or the family), as well as some sort of bizarre ahistorical perspective on things –  at the time when real incomes are higher than they have ever been in New Zealand’s history (and global real incomes are higher than in all of human history) apparently no parent can be expected to take responsibility for anything because people don’t earn enough to “survive”.   What an insult to our ancestors.

She goes on.  Asked about what she would change if she could she responds

If I could distill it down, there are things among this enormous programme of work that I’d like to walk away from politics feeling we had changed.  These are finally having agreement that child poverty is something which shouldn’t exist in a country like ours and that we all benefit if we rid ourselves of it.  And climate change.

Not even actually eliminating child poverty –  whatever that means (in absolute terms we are long past that point, in relative terms almost by construction we can’t get there) –  just getting head-nodding agreement that “child poverty shouldn’t exist”.  Nor, in some ideal world, would many many other bad outcomes –  sickness, disease and so on.  And note that last phrase, which just hangs.  Nothing of substance follows it, nothing about the hard choices, conflicting values, economic costs and benefits.   This isn’t leadership, it is feelgood-ism.  It brings to mind the Disney lyrics

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires will come to you
If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do
Fate is kind
She brings to those who love
The sweet fulfillment of their secret longing

But it isn’t the way government, and policymaking, works…..or should work if the desirable change has any prospect of being achieved.  That involves hard and disciplined work, tough choices, looking beyond the superficial, and so on.   It involves leadership in more dimensions – probably more important dimensions – than just “kindness”,   including courage, responsibility, persuasion and so on.

So just to take the child poverty issue for a moment, whatever you might want to do about income redistribution right now, it might mean recognising that much bigger medium-term differences can be made –  and opportunities created –  by doing something serious about New Zealand’s lamentable productivity record (by contrast, reports of the Prime Minister’s first meeting with her Business Advisory Council suggests neither she nor they have any concept of what the issues might be, or even how to think about them).

And whatever might be done about immediate social housing issues (“for the kids”), much bigger and enduring differences –  for this generation and the next – can be made by fixing the land use restrictions that have given us some of the worst house price to income ratios in the world.  You might even think –  as I do –  that children are almost always better off growing up with two biological parents who are committed to each other for life, and think about whether well-intentioned (“kind”) policy choices in decades past might have contributed to some of the problems we see today.

In a sense that “well-intentioned” comment applies in all these areas, and many more.  Many policy choices made by successive governments were made by people who thought they were being “kind” (eg working in the best interests of others) –  no doubt there were a few that were just self-interested by design from the start, but they will be few –  but as a decisionmaking criterion it just doesn’t get you very far.   Bad (policy) choices can be just as readily made by “kind” people.  The Prime Minister may well be a “kind” person –  I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about her personally, which is admirable –  but it won’t help much to be the sort of effective leader New Zealand needs.

But if “kindness” is the criterion the Prime Minister wants to inject into all decisionmaking  – I’m still puzzling over how it is going to help her deal, say, with Chinese expansionism and interference in New Zealand (though perhaps it could help spark the odd genuine and open expression of concern about human rights abuses) –  there was an odd juxtaposition in Saturday’s Herald that left me wondering about just how seriously I should take even her talk of the priority of “kindness”.

The interview I’ve quoted from above was no doubt given some time ago, and presumably the Prime Minister didn’t control when it appeared in the Herald. But in that issue of the Herald was a truly awful, in-depth, story about a young man whose life may well have been destroyed by the organs of the state, for which if anyone is responsible (and accountable) it is the Prime Minister of the day.   It was this detailed account by Jared Savage, introduced this way.

EXCLUSIVE: A teenage boy wrongly accused of rape went to prison protesting his innocence. A year later, the so-called victim recanted the allegations. But the confession didn’t come to light for another 10 years. Jared Savage investigates.

But that intro barely even begins to capture the full horror of what seems to have gone on.

His constant claims of innocence counted against his rehabilitation and undermined his chances of parole. So he served every day of his 4 ½ year sentence.

But his prison time was far from over. He spent most of the next seven years bouncing in and out of prison for tripping up on the strict release conditions accompanying his status as a sex offender.

Simply saying hello to a child was enough for him to be locked up again.

“Release conditions” for something he didn’t do in the first place.    And which it was known years ago that he didn’t do.  And yet it was little more than good fortune that his conviction was finally overturned by the Court of Appeal.

I found it an incredibly harrowing read.  No doubt the young man concerned is no angel –  few of those to whom miscarriages of justice occur are –  and, as a victim of earlier abuse himself, his ability to function fully effectively in society might have been pretty compromised anyway.  But that isn’t the point.  When the state acts to take away someone’s liberty, when it imposes restrictions even beyond the end of a sentence, when it tars someone with the label “sex offender”, it needs to make utterly sure that it gets things right.  And since that level of confidence is impossible this side of eternity, when mistakes are made –  sometimes, as in this case, utterly egregious mistakes –  the agents of the state (the government) needs to be at the forefront of a generous pro-active approach to making atonement.  Nothing can restore than 10 years that young man has lost, perhaps there is slim chance now that his life can successfully be put on a high-functioning path, but that only reinforces how fundamental it should be for those in charge – our Prime Minister for example –  to take the lead in the apology, atonement, compensation and reconciliation processes.  Government agencies failed this man, but they failed us too.  These aren’t our values as New Zealanders –  locking up a young man for 10 year for a crime he didn’t commit, holding against him his refusal to give up and confess to a crime he simply didn’t commit, and so on.

At the end of the article we read

Phil Hamlin [the lawyer who took up the case] is now looking into whether Patrick is eligible for compensation for wrongful conviction, and, ironically, a separate claim against the state for abuse in CYF care.

Because of his youth and the relatively minor nature of the indecent assault Patrick admitted to, Hamlin said his client would not have gone to prison.

So most of his youth was spent in prison because of Mark’s now discredited rape allegations.

“I think it’s extraordinary it’s taken so long to be sorted out,” said Hamlin.

“The consequences have been huge. It’s wrecked his life.”

As for Patrick, he doesn’t really care about any compensation money.

“All I just want is for people to believe me. Then I can move on.”

Which is fine in its way, but where is the pro-activity of the state, the leadership of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice?  Someone who has been put through a dreadful ordeal of the sort this young man experienced shouldn’t have to go on bended knee now to the Crown.  If anything, senior government ministers should be going on bended knee to him (and his representatives), asking what they can do to make atonement for the specific and longrunning abuses of this young man by the New Zealand government and its agents.

And yet what have we heard from the Prime Minister or the Minister of Justice?  Nothing.

(For that matter, what have we heard from the opposition party leaders –  National’s leader and deputy having previously been Associate Minister of Justice and Minister of Courts, and Minister of Social Development and Minister of Police.  Nothing.)

Does no one say anything because the victim of this injustice is not some safe, blameless individual (as conventional politics would describe it)?  I don’t know, but the silence –  several days on now (and I’m not sure when that Court of Appeal ruling came down) –  is shameful.

This is one of those very specific episodes where “kindness” –  above and beyond the minimalist provisions of the law –  might begin to make a real difference in one person’s life, and in demonstrating to citizens (and public servants and government agencies) the sorts of egregious abuses we simply won’t stand for, no matter who they committed on.  Story always beats no-story.  Here she can really make a difference, and be seen to walk the talk.

I was interested to see Herald journalist Matt Nippert tweet about this story

I really hope he is right.