Sunday, January 22, 2012

No hand unflapped

News item: Deputy prime minister Bill English and Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia are setting up a ministerial committee on poverty under the Maori Party's post-election agreement with the National Party.

News item: Labour's social development spokesperson Jacinda Ardern says with poverty and child abuse so interlinked, the committee could be an opportunity for parties to work together.

News item: Children's commissioner Russell Wills says attacking child poverty should be the first of seven goals in an action plan arising out of the government's green paper on vulnerable children.

News item: Spurred into action by Bryan Bruce's television documentary on child poverty, Whangarei schoolgirl Jazmine Heka plans to spend the summer collecting signatures for a children's rights petition that she hopes to see translated into law.

What do all these plans and statements have in common? Good intentions, yes; familiarity too—how many times have we heard them promoted? That they are being promoted, again, tells us how little progress has been made on tackling 'poverty' and/or 'child poverty' (to borrow the usual definitions for the moment).

But what they most have in common, I'm sorry to say, is their futility and, in the case of the politicians, their hypocrisy. The only honest-to-goodness approach is Jazmine Heka's, because it comes out of idealism, compassion and hope. Good luck with that. Sometimes, just sometimes, public pressure pays off. In this case, however, I don't think a law change is going to cut it.

The politicians' plans are futile and hypocritical because they know perfectly well that child poverty, or any kind of poverty, will never be 'solved' or 'eliminated' or even dramatically improved without fundamental economic changes of a kind neither major party is willing to contemplate, let alone embrace. The very fact that 'poverty' and its close relation 'child poverty' are defined the way they are gives the game away. They're like 'unemployment.' (Sorry about all the inverted commas, but we're dealing with the toy bricks of economists' and politicians' playpens here.) Unemployment, as a mass phenomenon, is not something that happens in spite of the economic system we have: it happens because of it. It's built in; it's no accident. Similarly with poverty, the main driver of crimes like child abuse.

Already a small child has died this year from non-accidental injuries and nothing is surer than that, by the end of the year, the roll of severely abused and murdered children will have risen to at least a dozen. The direct connection between such cases and the social and economic circumstances of the perpetrators is often acknowledged, but when it comes to tackling the root causes of those circumstances, all we get, if we get anything at all, is resource reallocation, greater frontline funding, committees, reports, anguished declarations etc. Hand-flapping, in short. Meanwhile the rich get rich, the poor get poorer and the killings go on.

Solution (or should I say 'solution'): change the system, really change it; don't just fiddle with a few knobs and levers. That doesn't require revolution; it doesn't even, in my view, require the wholesale rejection of capitalism. An example of genuine and far-reaching economic change would be the abandonment of growth as the be-all and end-all of national achievement and the adoption of a genuine progress indicator (GPI) that measures all the factors involved in economic activity. This is hardly a new idea; it has gained a little traction in recent years—even the Treasury has canvassed it; but National and Labour appear to regard it as the political equivalent of Ken Ring's moon meteorology.

Switching from GDP to GPI won't bring people out of poverty overnight, but I'm willing to bet it would be a big step towards practising economics as if people mattered (as E F Schumacher subtitled Small Is Beautiful) and therefore away from the aggressive growth-at-all-costs materialism that inexorably widens the gap between rich and poor. Like a capital gains tax, or amending the Reserve Bank Act to make full employment the main goal, it would start the reorientation of the economy away from its current principal purpose, which—let's be frank—is to serve the interests of shareholders and investors, not working people.

There are many things we could do; but given the persistence of child abuse, child murder and child poverty in our society, you'd have to be very obtuse to believe that simply repeating what's already been tried is going to succeed this time. As Einstein famously said, 'Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.'

Yet in his foreword to the government's green paper, the best the prime minister can come up with is: 'We will all need to work hard across a number of fronts and develop new, integrated solutions to improve outcomes for young people.'

That sounds like business as usual to me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You wrote:

"That doesn't require revolution; it doesn't even, in my view, require the wholesale rejection of capitalism."

Sorry dear boy, that is precisely what it does require.