Colonial constructs

A couple of weeks ago the Sunday Star Times had a full page article – in a Money supplement, self-described as offering “Intelligent Money News, Tips and Insight – by Jade Kake headed Debt as we know it is a colonial construct (the online version runs under the title “Maori have colonisers to blame for concept of individual debt”.) The column ends even more starkly: “Debt is a colonial construct”, observing that “the implications of which continue to be felt in the colonies”.

As it happens, Ms Kake herself could probably be described – without animus – as something of a “colonial construct”. When I looked her up it turned out she was Australian (born, bred, and educated), of parents who themselves had been born in New Zealand and the Netherlands respectively. Lots to celebrate there one might have thought, and certainly it would have been inconceivable – impossible really – prior to, say, 1769. These islands and the descendants of their first settlers had been almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world- whether people-to-people movements, trade or technologies. And one of those missing “technologies” was credit – or debt.

There doesn’t seem to be any real debate about that. Ms Kake states it herself, and when I looked up some books on the pre-contact Maori economy they all made more or less the same point. There was some gift-exchange elements, but nothing at all resembling credit/debt as it had been known for some time – rather a long time in some places – in much of the rest of the world. A few years ago there was a book by the American sociologist David Graeber called Debt: The First 5000 Years. and I’ve written here about debt jubilees from thousands of years ago But that innovation, and evolution, had completely passed this part of the world by. Consistent with the absence of so many technologies and trade here, material living standards were very low.

“Colonial” is one those ill-defined words. Sometimes it means lots of permanent settlers from abroad, and sometimes just a period of control and government by a foreign power. In New Zealand, of course, it involved both, although the control by the foreign power was very short-lived. But, as people sometimes point out, even if these islands had never fallen to any foreign power, or if there had been little or no foreign settlement, many of the technologies would still have found their way here. Credit/debt is surely one of those sets of technologies. And that is a good thing.

Ms Kake is, of course, less sure (to put it mildly). But even she doesn’t really seem able to make up her mind. On the one hand she laments the arrival of the first bank in New Zealand (an ANZ forerunner) – but interestingly doesn’t mention our first very early quasi central bank, the Colonial Bank of Issue – but by the end of her column she is lamenting what she sees as evidence that it can be a bit harder to get credit if you are “visibly Maori”. If the latter is true it is, of course, unfortunate, but then we are left thinking that really credit/debt isn’t so bad after all. It depends – on what is used for, the reasons it is taken on, the conditions applied etc etc. Hitler’s regime borrowed in World War Two, but so did our side to defeat him. But when private parties take on debt, and do so not under duress, it is generally enabling and empowering.

Could one envisage a modern technologically-advanced world without debt? One could (and I briefly did here, in a debate a couple of decades ago with a visiting monetary reformer), but they’ve tended to go hand in hand. And no doubt Ms Kake would tar arms-length equity investment – also unknown here in centuries gone by – as another “colonial construct”. One might – as I do – wish there was much less household debt (because governments fixed the land supply regulatory disaster and got house/land prices a long way down), without having any particular qualms at all about young couples being able to borrow to buy a first house (rather than, say, generally wait until they were 50+ to buy a house outright). Much the same goes for business credit. Credit/debt is a sophisticated device enabling risk-taking, enabling smoothing of consumption, and so on. Financial development tends to go hand in hand with more intensive economic development and much higher material standards of living – not necessarily causally, although there are probably causal aspects (long-distance trade tends to rely on credit, on trust).

It is simply silly to say the debt is a “colonial construct” – it was simply one of the many things (institutions, cultures, technologies) that residents of these islands got access to when these remote islands finally opened, so late, to the wider world. There was – and is – nothing particular British – or even Dutch or northern European – about debt, technology itself transferred to, refined in etc, those parts of the world from elsewhere well before anyone settled here.

There has been a bit of debate over the weekend about the legacy of colonisation in New Zealand, prompted by some remarks by National’s education spokesman suggesting that in his view colonisation had, “on balance” been beneficial for Maori. One might debate aspects of his framing, and I don’t want to launch into an extensive debate here (a couple of pieces of mine that might be relevant are here and here). But, equally, the state of economic development and material living standards tend to speak for themselves about at least some aspects of such a question.

There is a big academic literature on the influence on imperial government, colonial settlement etc on the level of (say) real GDP per capita of different countries, and I’m not going to attempt to summarise it here. My own take is that the effects of imperial rule are not that large, but those associated with colonial settlement often have been. British settlers to (say) New Zealand and Australia in the 19th century brought with them many of the aspects – legal systems, culture, education or whatever – that had then made Britain the country with the most advanced economy and highest incomes.

Here is the IMF’s estimates of real GDP per capita this year for a variety of Pacific countries.

IMF real GDP

All of these lands were governed for a time in the 19th or 20th centuries by countries from outside. Two had large scale settlement – complete with the attendant, often embodied, “institutions” broadly defined – from places that were among the very richest and most productive on earth. It shouldn’t really be a surprise that the inhabitants of those two countries now – and not just the descendants of the settlers but the descendants of the earlier inhabitants (categories now often quite mixed) – have by far the highest material living standards of any of the countries in this region (all of which had previously been largely cut-off from the technologies of the rest of the world). Of the other countries on the chart it probably isn’t a coincidence that Palau and Fiji had the largest degree of settlement of peoples from outside the region. (As far as I can see the French territories – French Polynesia and New Caledonia – would come between Palau and New Zealand on the chart, but their stories are complicated by the ongoing ties to – and subsidies from – France.)

My best guess is that if, somehow, these islands had not been settled by outsiders but had simply been governed from outside for 100 years or so – as with most of these other Pacific states – real GDP per capita here might be similar to that in Samoa. They have computers, they have phones, they have credit. But they do not have an advanced economy offering high material living standards for their people (many of whom prefer to migrate to New Zealand). There might be reasons to debate this view, but even if these islands somehow generated per capita incomes twice those of Samoa they’d still be very low by advanced country (or modern New Zealand/Australia) standards.

Material living standards aren’t everything by any means. But they do seem to count for quite a lot.