Over the three and half years that Jacinda Ardern has been Prime Minister and Grant Robertson Minister of Finance it has become increasingly obvious that not only do they have no serious ideas for turning around decades of productivity growth underperformance, and no intention of doing much on that score, but they have no real interest either.
Appointments are among the things that help reveal priorities. A couple of years ago they had the opportunity to look for a new Secretary to the Treasury who might revitalise the agency and start generating serious credible advice on fixing that economic failure – with all its ramifications for opportunities in other areas of life. They chose to pass up that opportunity.
More recently – and the focus of this post – there has been the Productivity Commission, set up a decade ago with some vision that it might offer medium-term analysis, research, and advice focused on reversing that economic failure. It hasn’t done a great job at that over the years, partly because the Commission is heavily constrained to work on specific inquiry topics that the government of the day determines. Neither government has really been interested in tackling the decades-long failure.
Late last year the government had the chance to appoint a new chair of the Commission – the key position in this (small) organisation. They could have found someone serious: someone with wide credibility on these issues, and preferably not seen as a partisan figure. As it was, they appointed Ganesh Nana. I wrote a bit about the appointment at the time.
Nana took office on 1 February. There was always the hope that reality wouldn’t be as bad as I (and others) had feared. Unfortunately, this week we’ve had two public contributions from Nana – an introductory statement, and a first on-the-record speech – that suggest reality is at least as bad as feared.
Take first his introductory statement, posted on the Commission’s website the other day. I described it elsewhere as just another marker in the sad decline of the Productivity Commission. In 1000 words there was not one hint of any insight on New Zealand’s productivity challenges just – in the style of the modern public sector – lots of Maori words, together with straw men (as if any government – or person – ever has cared only about GDP). It wasn’t much more than, as one other observer put it, a “word salad”. Perhaps it warmed the hearts of parts of the Labour Party and places further left, but it was almost entirely substance-free. He just doesn’t seem that interested in the medium-term performance of the economy – for which productivity is a key marker.
Perhaps more disconcerting was his speech yesterday at a Waikato University event called the 2021 New Zealand Economics Forum (which continues this morning), an event focused on the longer-term economic challenges New Zealand faces, especially in the wake of Covid. The organisers seem to have attracted a reasonably impressive array of speakers. After a welcome and introduction from the Waikato Vice-Chancellor, Nana – newly inducted head of the Productivity Commission – was the first speaker. It would seem like a forum and topic tailor-made for a powerful and insightful speech from the Chairman.
You can watch the whole thing yourself – about 45 minutes into the recording of yesterday’s event here. It was quite remarkable for how little there was there (and in fact how low-energy it all was). His title was “Challenges and opportunities for inproving productivity in a post-Covid world” but I heard not a single serious idea and hardly any supporting analysis. He did acknowledge that New Zealand’s productivity performance for the last two decades “and probably longer” (as if there is any serious doubt on the matter) had been “sobering”, and that productivity growth had been slowing. But that was about it. And if one of his messages was intended to be “you can’t keep on doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results” well, I’d agree. But that was really it. And when he suggested -in the body of his talk – that perhaps tourism shouldn’t come back to the way it was pre-Covid, it was supported by precisely no analysis at all, nor any suggestion as to where – if his idle prognostication or wish came true – the earnings and employment that tourism has generated might be replaced from. Perhaps someone might ask the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Tourism, or the PM what they think of their new Chairman’s perspective.
To be clear, I do not regard international tourism as the sort of industry likely to lead us back to first world economywide productivity performance – there is no country I’m aware of that it plays such a role – but them I’m not the only idly, but publicly, as head of a significant government agency, suggesting that the industry might usefully shrink. There seemed to be no mental model behind the comments, no research, and no policy prescriptions. And, of course, no cross-country comparative analysis or perspectives, and no sense of how far behind the productivity leaders we now are. It was as if he really wasn’t that interested.
There was quite a bit – none insightful – about the “Four capitals” Treasury likes to go on about. And just to reinforce the doubts that Nana has little or nothing useful to say about productivity, and not even much interest, in the question time we got a comment about how while the Commission would continue to publish its annual statistical report on productivity, he didn’t really like to pay too much attention to productivity. There was a fair point – but one that no one disputes – that productivity is really a medium-term thing and that he doesn’t pay much attention to a couple of quarters (to which I’d add, among other things data revisions reinforce that point). He described it as akin to a “profit and loss” measure, while he preferred to look at the “balance sheet” – those four capitals again, which might perhaps sound good to some but (a) for economic assets, the value is in the returns they generate (or credibly could generate, but (b) by comparison with labour productivity for which there is a good time series data, and reasonable cross-country comparisons, most of the “lets value the capitals” approaches offer neither. If, of course, there is a well-understood, long accepted, point that simply raping and pillaging the environment is, all else equal, a less valuable form of economic growth than income that does not do so, it doesn’t help in the slightest address the issues of New Zealand’s economic failure.
But perhaps that is the point. Robertson and Ardern have no interest in doing so – simply in cutting a small pie a bit differently – and so why bother appointing a chair of the Productivity Commission who might lead some hard thinking on the issues and offer options that might improve productivity – and wider “wellbeing” that stems from productivity possibilities. Easier simply to handwave and feel good.
Shame about the prospects for our country.