Location matters

That was, more or less, the theme of my talk to the Fabian Society in Wellington last night.

I outlined some of things that seem to matter in explaining which countries prosper and which ones don’t.  The people and the “institutions” they develop, or adopt, matter most of all.  But natural resources also do –  note, for example, the contrast between the GDP per capita in Sweden (high) and Norway (materially higher).  But location, or geography also seem to matter. Once, much of that was about access to navigable waterways, and perhaps some climatic issues.  These days it seems to be more about proximity.  Whether in the past or present, one just doesn’t find many really prosperous places, or many people living in those places, at the peripheries.  As I noted

the total population of Kerguelen, the Azores, Hawaii, Seychelles, Fiji, Iceland, Tasmania, Reunion, St Helena and the Falklands is just a bit less than New Zealand’s.

If anything, proximity and personal connections seem to have become more important, not less.  Quite why this should be so, despite the rise of communications technology, isn’t entirely clear to me (it must be something about the nature of the products/services), but that it is so seems evident in the continued economic outperformance of big cities, even in already-advanced countries.  That puts New Zealand at a big disadvantage –  we have able people, a moderate level of natural resources, but are a very long way from anywhere.  And the stock of natural resources is largely fixed, and doesn’t need lots more people to make the most of (indeed, often fewer people –  think of how many more cows an average farmer can run now, compared with the situation a century ago).   New Zealand just isn’t a very natural place for many global businesses to develop successfully, or to stay.

The Treasury was the first organization really to capture my attention on the significance of distance.  About 15 years ago they drew a useful comparison:  if one drew a circle with a radius of 1000 kms around Wellington one would capture (now) 4.5 million people and a lot of seagulls, but the same circles drawn around northern European or Asian capital would encompass hundreds of millions of people.  But it is puzzling that Treasury doesn’t seem to have taken that point and applied it in thinking about the appropriate immigration policy for New Zealand.  They tend to ignore the market signal (the hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders (net) who have left), and also ignore the logic that if distance is, in effect, a tax on economic prosperity here, it isn’t obvious why one would set out, as a matter of policy, to expose even more people to that tax.    Nothing of these ideas was in the recently-released Treasury material that I wrote about the other day.    Implicitly, Treasury and MBIE immigration policy advice- and the advice of bodies like the OECD (perhaps more pardonably, located in the heart of Paris) –  is being formed as if New Zealand were moored just off the coast of western Europe or North America, or perhaps even in the South China sea.  They need to take more seriously the fact that these islands are in the middle of nowhere.  High value economic activity takes places on such islands, but mostly only stuff that is location specific –  the iron ore is in the heart of Australia, the fish stocks are off the coast of New Zealand etc.  But it is really hard for modern, non-location specific businesses, to develop, and be the best they can be, in such a remote location.  It isn’t specific to New Zealand –  check out those other remote islands too.

But we make it all the harder for anyone with the drive and ideas to develop such firms.  Having persistently the highest real interest rates in the advanced world, and a real exchange rate that never sustainably adjusted down following our decades of relative decline, just further skews things against the prospects of the tradables sector.  Business investment has been consistently modest.  And the Think Big mentality, of bringing in enough –  modestly skilled –  migrants each year to have given us one of the faster population growth rates in the OECD, both reinforces those pressures on real interest and exchange rate –  resources have to be used to accommodate a growing population rather than enriching the existing population –  but also ensures that the fruits of the largely fixed stock of natural resources is spread over ever more people.  In effect, we trade away one of our few advantages.

I argued that we need our politicians and their advisers to both take more seriously the constraints of our location, and abandon the sense –  embedded in the New Zealand psyche almost ever since first European settlement –  that we need more, and more, people.  There is simply nothing wrong with a country of around 4 million people.   There are plenty of successful small countries.  For many of them perhaps it is more of a discretionary choice. At such distance from world markets, mostly trading on our ability to apply smart ideas to natural resources, it is much more of an imperative –  at least if we are serious about trying to give our people material living standards that match those of the better-performing OECD countries.

Anyway, here is the text I spoke from. It was delivered to the Fabian Society –  where we had a good discussion and lots of questions.  But for readers skeptical of the left-wing audience, it is almost identical to what I would say on these issues to an audience anywhere else on the political spectrum.

Fabian Society speech 20 May 2016

As ever, comments (and questions) are most welcome.