New Zealand’s long-term economic underperformance, and what can be done about remedying it, should be one of the most keenly-debated topics in New Zealand public life. Sadly, it isn’t. Too many of our political and economic elites seem to view it as something for the too-hard basket, or perhaps are simply reconciled to declinism, or implicitly take the view that “New Zealand is still a nice place to live, and me and my children will be fine – after all, they can always leave”.
I don’t think that is good enough.
To the credit of The Treasury, they have sometimes sought to engage with these issues. A couple of years ago, they ran a series of lunchtime presentations for staff, inviting in various people to offer their views. I was one of those invited – and the invitation encouraged me to be a little provocative. As it happens, the presentation itself never happened, but I took the opportunity to write down what I would have said, in pretty much the style I would have said it. I’ve distributed copies to a wide range of people, then and subsequently.
The very short version of the story: New Zealand had an abundance of productive land, made valuable by the urbanisation of Britain and the emergence of refrigerated shipping in the late 19th century. That natural endowment, and the associated technological innovation, was – and is – enough to support very high living standards for a quite limited population. Since World War Two, New Zealand has had no big new opportunities – unlike, say, Australia’s mines or Norway’s oil – and our governments haves repeatedly handicapped the country’s prospects by pursuing large programmes of inward migration. Particularly in the last 25 years, governments have been actively hindering adjustment – more than replacing the many New Zealanders who have responded to market opportunities and left. Growing population has rarely, if ever, been a basis for successfully lifting per capita income.
I’d write some things a bit differently now, and I will flesh out many of the points in later papers and entries on this blog, but for now here is one hypothesis for
As ever, I will welcome comment and debate.