Two poems from Simonov and Bornholdt

Konstantin Simonov’s poem Wait for Me inspired Russia during the Great Patriotic War. Most soldiers knew it off by heart.  Many carried with them a locket with the poem and a picture of their wife or girlfriend inside.

Wait for Me by Konstantin Simonov.

Wait for me and I’ll return, only wait very hard.
Wait when you are filled with sorrow as you watch the yellow rain.
Wait when the wind sweeps the snowdrifts.
Wait in the sweltering heat.
Wait when others have stopped waiting, forgetting their yesterdays.
Wait even when from afar no letters come for you.
Wait even when others are tired of waiting.

Wait for me and I’ll return, but wait patiently.
Wait even when you are told that you should forget.
Wait even when my mother and son think I am no more.
And when friends sit around the fire drinking to my memory
Wait and do not hurry to drink to my memory too.

Wait for me and I’ll return, defying every death.
And let those who do not wait say that I was lucky.
They will never understand that in the midst of death
You with your waiting saved me.
Only you and I will know how I survived:
It was because you waited as no one else did.

Wait for Me is read below by Laurence Olivier:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQ2gMcFx3No

New Zealand has never faced an existential crisis such as the Great Patriotic War.  However, on our more humble individual level many of us take risks tramping, and Jenny Bornholdt’s 1989 prose poem Make Sure speaks to us:

 

Make sure by Jenny Bornholdt

Make sure you fall in love with a man who you know will survive in the bush.

This way, when he is three nights overdue from his trip and the search and rescue team is out looking for him and the helicopter has been called back because the weather is closing in and they’re interviewing you on television in a close-up camera shot, asking you what you think his chances are — hoping you will cry and your lip will tremble — you can look them straight in the eye and say you know he will be all right, he has had plenty of experience and he knows what to do, he was carrying plenty of food and warm clothing and he is strong.

Even if he is hurt, you know he will be all right.

He’s a fighter, you’ll say. He won’t give in.

But the weather is closing in, you must be worried, they’ll ask. You keep your resolve. He will be all right, you say. I know he will.

Jenny’s poem is read below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHzuvf-q-3s

…and sung by a choir:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVxENfYelsc

 

 

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Reflections on Kenneth Arrow and health economics

Kenneth Arrow’s 1963 paper Uncertainty and the welfare economics of medical care created health economics as a coherent field.  It argued that markets do not work well in medical services.

Medical services demand is unpredictable.  People look through a veil of ignorance about future health risks.  Adverse selection and moral hazard mean risk-bearing devices such as insurance do not allocate resources efficiently.  Medical service prices may be unrelated to value.  Revealed preference may be revealed ignorance.

To counter such problems, medical services are heavily regulated and publicly funded.   High professional expectations and the trust they give rise to reduce the risk of doctors exploiting information asymmetry between themselves and patients.

Medical qualifications confer property rights on practitioners.  These property rights also create duties to patients.  When there are more qualified candidates than places, medical school entry can favour those best able to overcome cultural barriers that impede information flows and healthcare access.

In his 1963 paper, Arrow was aware of but did not address wider sociological health drivers.  Health is an indivisible social phenomenon: no-one is an island.  Diseases can be contagious.  Low socio-economic status within rank-based hierarchies can create stresses that erode immune systems.

Antibiotic drug resistance is an unintended negative externality arising from doctors doing the “right thing” for an individual patient without recognising the cumulative impacts of many other doctors also doing “the right thing”.

Medical systems should therefore be managed within a social cost benefit framework that takes account of all private and social costs and benefits, whether or not they are revealed through market trades.

The opioid epidemic reflects US health care system weaknesses. The US lacks comprehensive and affordable medical care coverage.  Drug companies overly influence the FDA regulatory system.  Without social cost benefit analysis that measures all relevant variables it appears “cheaper” to give patients a prescription than to support wider approaches to pain management such as physio and cognitive therapy.

Kenneth Arrow preferred the contemplative to the activist life. He liked the freedom to see the world from others’ perspectives, the weaknesses in one’s own arguments, the ironies, and the freedom to unlearn as well as learn anew.  His 1963 paper was mainly concerned with information (knowledge) asymmetry. He might also have noted that a fundamental health sector problem is the difficulty specialists have in “unlearning” what is untrue.

In 1847 Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that many women who had given birth died from infections caused by doctors with poor hygiene practices.  His reward was ostracism, and death in a lunatic asylum.

Barry Marshall in the 1980s inferred that bacteria rather than stress or spicy foods caused stomach ulcers. The medical establishment initially rejected his insights, until a 2005 Nobel Prize vindicated him.  Marshall’s work advanced understanding of links between the Helicobacter pylori bacterium and stomach cancer.

Today’s challenges include the incentives governing how new knowledge is created and turned into technology.

Alexander Fleming and Graham Liggins captured little private benefit from their great medical advances.  However, much innovation requires the incentive of intellectual property (IP) rights granted in exchange for public access to knowledge.

Excessively long-term rights can lead to monopolistic rents (supernormal profits).  Single “buyer” agencies such as Pharmac can countervail monopolistic power.  Contestable market theory suggests that the simple threat of competitive entry can erode rents and expand access to medical technology.  For example, the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective publishes instructions for making low cost versions of drugs and devices without itself actively making and marketing them. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Thieves_Vinegar_Collective.

However, there are deeper problems to address than countervailing market power.  The potential for IP rights can distort research targets and therefore inventive activity towards what might deliver a profitable proprietary drug rather than what can deliver the best health outcomes.

For example, billions are spent trying to develop drugs to counter amyloid plaque build-ups in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s.  An effective drug would be a mass market blockbuster since patients have years to live and generate profits.  This prize may be channelling Alzheimer’s research into narrow scientific pathways based on what may deliver a proprietary drug rather than what may lead to the most effective treatment.  This may be at the expense of, for example, non-appropriable stem cell research.

Neuroplasticity treatment of some cognitive conditions may come from free on-line resources and cultural products more so than from drug advances.  Some immunological, vaccine-based and combinational off-patent drug therapies may be unattractive to the pharmaceutical industry but effective in improving health.  For example, cervical cancer can be prevented through low cost vaccinations.

The basic science community’s self-referenced nature creates different problems for  research pathways and methods.  It shapes research to fit its methods and win peer respect rather than to create technology.  Scientists become accountable to each other more so than to patients.

Both research directed at creating proprietary rights, and undirected self-referenced basic research may be misallocating human capital and financial resources on a massive scale.

Medical research should create technology that works, regardless of the property rights potential.  Technology connects science to the real world.  It creates demand for and gives targeted direction to basic research.  Pragmatic trials on how treatments can be brought into clinical practice need to complement randomised control trials.

It is plausible that medical research priorities should initially exclude cost benefit considerations when research targets are first defined.  This ensures the most effective research routes are followed.  The cost effectiveness of any resulting treatments may be inescapably prohibitive.  However it is more likely that cost benefit will be mainly dependent on how society chooses to define property rights over knowledge.

Since 1963, behavioural psychology has given deeper insights into economics.  “Baumol’s cost disease” afflicts industries such as health services where tasks are hard to automate.  However, psychology also plays an important role.  People are not dumb objects that can be manipulated like steel parts on an assembly line.   There is near infinite individuality, making it difficult to develop standard operating procedures or predict how individuals will behave.

The finance, gambling and advertising industries have long manipulated human psychology.  The health sector has lagged, though the gains could be enormous.  For example, overcoming psychological hurdles to regular medical check-ups would boost early cancer diagnosis and successful treatment rates.

Behavioural psychology suggests that too many options to choose from leave people confused.  Like Kiwisaver offerings, patients need a choice of credible, regulated options.  If patients can’t decide doctors should do so for them.  In some cases, the government should determine through regulatory intervention.

Government can use its regulatory powers more actively in an evidence-based way, and within a social cost benefit framework.   After all, huge health gains have come from fluoridation, iodised salt and banning lead in paint and petrol.

A social cost benefit analysis of a regulatory ban on smoking would factor in greater longevity, productivity and well-being.  Tobacco tax revenue would drop, and superannuation and other age related costs would rise.  However, money spent on cigarettes would be spent more wisely.  People would be more productive longer in the paid and unpaid workforce.  The end result would be net lifecycle wellbeing enhancement.

Medical knowledge is vast and it is more and more difficult to detect the signal in the noise.  Specialists dominate medicine, and information may flow within but not between disciplines.

Complex problems such as pain, mental health and obesity that may have genetic, psychological, biomechanical and sociological dimensions are addressed as if they have one reductionist cause.  The “solution” is profitable such as proprietary drugs or surgery, or simplistic such as a sugar tax.

Obesity likely arises from a combination of sociological, cultural and genetic factors, and the food industry’s manipulation of behavioural psychology and neurological pathways to drive food and beverage consumption patterns.  Integrative solutions are needed, and most of these will be non-proprietary.

Given this, do we need an amplified General Practitioner speciality, or competencies within it?  Can we embed within specialities more explicit connections with other disciplines?

Kenneth Arrow was a conceptual, mathematical and theoretical genius.  He was famously kind to people.  Right up to his death at 95 he was also an economic technologist, tackling real world problems.

As our thinking grows from the foundation he created, health economists and medical researchers must become technologists. That is, they should aim to get things done.  However, they must be wary of simplistic solutions to complex problems that traverse disciplinary boundaries, where psychology, individual variance and social context matters, and where received wisdom can be as dangerous as ignorance.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for health economics and medical innovation itself is the ability to see with fresh eyes, undistorted by financial prizes, peer networks and today’s textbooks, and to create technology that makes what is learnt productive in the real world.

As a small, agile country without a politically powerful pharmaceutical industry New Zealand may be well placed to take a lead in niche areas of medical innovation opportunity.  Let’s invest more in medical research, do things more cleverly, and see what we can achieve!

 

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Matariki, Walt Whitman and the Pleiades

In Walt Whitman’s On the Beach (1871) a father and daughter gaze up at the night sky:

On the beach at night,

Stands a child with her father,

Watching the east, the autumn sky.

Up through the darkness,

While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,

Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,

Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,

Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,

And nigh at hand, only a very little above,

Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.

From the beach the child holding the hand of her father,

Those burial-clouds that lower victorious soon to devour all,

Watching, silently weeps.

Weep not, child,

Weep not, my darling,

With these kisses let me remove your tears,

The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious,

They shall not long possess the sky, they devour the stars only in apparition,

Jupiter shall emerge, be patient, watch again another night, the Pleiades shall emerge,

They are immortal, all those stars both silvery and golden shall shine out again,

The great stars and the little ones shall shine out again, they endure,

The vast immortal suns and the long-enduring pensive moons shall again shine.

Then dearest child mournest thou only for Jupiter?

Considerest thou alone the burial of the stars?

Something there is,

(With my lips soothing thee, adding I whisper,

I give thee the first suggestion, the problem and indirection,)

Something there is more immortal even than the stars,

(Many the burials, many the days and nights, passing away,)

Something that shall endure longer even than lustrous Jupiter

Longer than sun or any revolving satellite,

Or the radiant sisters the Pleiades.

The Pleiades are named after seven sisters in Greek mythology. They were known to cultures around the world for thousands of years, mentioned in the Iliad and the Odyssey, in Hesiod and in the Bible.

For Maori the Pleiades were Matariki, a mother and daughters.  They marked Matariki for centuries, as we mark it now.

In Whitman’s poem the daughter senses her mortality in the burial clouds, and her father consoles her. There is something that will last longer even than the lord-star Jupiter, and the delicate sisters the Pleiades.

Feelings of mystery, awe and spirituality are cultural universals. They may involve wilderness, love, birthplaces, churches, or watching the sun rise when young dawn shows her rosy fingers. We should accept such feelings in the same way science accepts our other illogical traits.

Einstein said that ‘the most beautiful and profound experience is the feeling of mystery. It underlies religion as well as all deeper aspirations in art and science.’  He sought to understand laws of nature while his violin touched the divine.

So celebrate Matariki, and read Whitman’s poetry!  Touch the stars through Mozart and Shakespeare!  The feelings evoked drive great science, music and poetry, because we know what we are but know not what we might be.

 

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What Nassim Taleb is on about, and why you should read him

If you have something to say do so simply.  Nassim Taleb drifts between probability theory and Mafia morality codes.  He peppers his work with insights from the Levant, ancient Greece, Rome and central Asia, through to modern Iraq and the Beltway.  His rambling style, verbosity and arcane references lose many readers, and his personal attacks turn others off.  Yet he has much to say.

In Black Swan, Anti-fragility and Skin in the Game Taleb addresses three inter-related questions.  Why do bad things like financial crises and the Iraq and Syrian debacles occur?  Why do good things, from great literature to traditional cooking survive?  Given these, how should we behave?

Black Swan argues that extreme outlier events have impacts vastly disproportional to their statistical probability.  In a normal distribution, some extreme tail risks can be so catastrophic we can’t afford to take them.

Genetic engineers, economic forecasters and financiers ignore the risk of extreme outliers.  Investment bankers and policy makers caused the 2008 GFC because they had no skin in the game.  After such events, bureaucrats then develop regulations that grow in complexity and make future black swans more likely.

Resonant with Hayek’s Pretence of Knowledge and Joshua Ramo’s The Age of the Unthinkable, individual creativity and innovation should be fostered in a devolved not centrally directed way. Rather than over-regulate financial instruments it may be better to reduce risks obliquely, for example by lifting individual savings rates and fostering more devolved, small scale and relational banks and investment agents.

Anti-fragile argues that some things are fragile and break too easily, some are robust but don’t improve over time, and others are both robust and evolve over time – the anti-fragile.  Anything that is anti-fragile has more upside than downside from random events.

An ancient cathedral is robust enough to outlive Le Corbusier and New Zealand leaky home architects.  However, it does not improve over time. Some Christian beliefs and canonical literature such as Shakespeare can be robust and improve over time as they inspire further human endeavour.

Adversity creates learning and adaptiveness and makes things anti-fragile.  Jewish culture has been anti-fragile for over 2000 years. Getting sick improves the immune system and makes people healthier.  Israeli attacks on Hizb’allah actually strengthened it by forcing it to adapt.  Overuse of antibiotics leads to bacteria becoming more resistant.

Keynesianism is an anti-fragile economic paradigm.  Obamacare is so cleverly designed it will survive the Trump administration’s attacks and become stronger – it is anti-fragile.  Kiwisaver might prove to be anti-fragile in the New Zealand context.

In Skin in the Game Taleb argues that leadership and business success depends on people taking risks and bearing the up and down sides.  Most great firms are started by those with skin in the game and grow organically.  CEOs create less value than entrepreneurs who have put their houses on the line.

You should also be prepared to put your body on the line.  Taleb cites warrior kings who died leading their armies. George Orwell wrote that the English aristocrats he disparaged for their dimness were morally sound because they were prepared to die in war.

Duels between two people with skin in the game can stop conflict between them spreading wider.   Menelaus and Paris’s duel in the Iliad could have ended the Trojan war if Aphrodite (someone with no skin in the game) hadn’t interfered.

Politicians who dodge the draft are often the worst warmongers. The Iraq invasion resulted from politicians and their advisors not having skin in the game.

Learning comes from practical engagement with the world rather than risk-free theory.  Unschooled street traders learn the English and arithmetic needed to trade. Steve Jobs was a craftsman more than a theoretician.  Artisans have soul as well as skin in the game, and this drives their success.

Taleb associates skin in the game with moral symmetry between people.  This includes such principles as the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.  He adds a “silver rule” – “do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you”.   He who seeks a benefit should bear the cost if things go wrong.  You should not give advice that you yourself are not following.

Taleb argues that an authentic conversation must be on equal terms. Caveat emptor is unethical.  All involved in a transaction should have the same information.    This overcomes information asymmetry and bounded rationality, and reduces rent seeking.  He cites the Islamic ban on gharar, a form of trade with high uncertainty which can damage other parties.

Taleb highlights some basic rules to live by.  Live by the Golden Rule rather than pay lip service to it.  Ignore what people say and watch what they do.  In business, only trust people who put their money where their mouths are.  Learn in the real world, not through abstractions.  Keep things as simple as possible.

When readers put their skin in the game, Taleb’s insights stay with them.  However, he could say things more simply, following one of his own rules…

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Henning von Tresckow: 10 January 1901 – 21 July 1944

We are not the first who, with best meaning, have incurred the worst.

Cordelia, in King Lear

Today is the 117th anniversary of the birth of Major General Henning von Tresckow, mastermind of the 20 July 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henning_von_Tresckow

Tresckow was from a long line of Prussian aristocrats and military officers. His father was a cavalry general, and his grandfather a Prussian Minister of Education.  He fought in the German army in World War One, gaining a reputation for intellectual independence.  His commanding officer predicted that “You, Tresckow, will either become Chief of the General Staff, or die on the scaffold as a rebel.”

Resistance within the German army to Hitler began before the war, and was intensified by wartime atrocities. When Tresckow learnt of the “Commissar Order” requiring the execution of captured Soviet commissars his reaction was:

If we don’t convince the Field Marshal [Fedor von Bock] to fly to Hitler at once and have these orders cancelled, the German people will be burdened with a guilt the world will not forget in a hundred years. This guilt will fall not only on Hitler, Himmler, Göring, and their comrades but on you and me, your wife and mine, your children and mine, that woman crossing the street, and those children over there playing ball.

 

Army officers began planning Hitler’s removal, if necessary through assassination.  However, they faced moral as well as security challenges.   Hitler had bewitched a nation with the “stab in the back” narrative – that Germany was betrayed in World War One by the “November criminals” who sued for peace when the German army had not been defeated.  This led to a Versailles agreement that dismembered Germany and imposed crippling reparations.

 

Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) predicted that impoverishing Germany through the Versailles agreement would lead to disastrous future conflict.  Apirana Ngata also predicted dire consequences from destroying German pride.

https://winsleys.wordpress.com/2011/11/19/risking-lives-for-health-apirana-ngatas-support-for-maori-participation-in-world-war-one/

The 1923 hyperinflation and the Great Depression from 1929 created the conditions for Hitler to come to power.  Infrastructure investment and rearmament expenditure then made huge inroads into unemployment and bolstered support for the Nazi government.

While Hitler closed down political opposition, he had been democratically elected, and could claim constitutional credibility.  German soldiers were also required to swear loyalty oaths to Hitler, and many Generals were further bound by Prussian honour codes.

Resistance conspirators therefore risked their actions being perceived as a traitorous “stab in the back” that would alienate Germans and strengthen Hitler’s hold.  Field Marshal Erwin Rommel opposed Hitler’s assassination for fear it would make him a martyr.  Field Marshal Erich von Manstein declined to actively support the resistance, arguing that “Prussian officers do not rebel”.

In December 1941, Tresckow reflected:

I would like to show the German people a film with the title “Germany at the end of the war”. Then perhaps people would be alarmed and realize where we are heading. People would agree with me that the superior warlord [Hitler] must disappear. But since we cannot show this film people will create the legend of the “stab in the back” whenever we will act against Hitler.

 

However, resistance conspirators developed a counter-narrative to Hitler’s.  The struggle was for Germany’s soul and honour, and within that, for Prussian and wider German culture and values.  At his son’s confirmation at Potsdam Garrison Church in 1943, Tresckow argued that:

The real Prussian spirit means a synthesis between restraint and freedom, between voluntary subordination and conscientious leadership, between pride in oneself and consideration for others, between rigor and compassion. Unless a balance is kept between these qualities, the Prussian spirit is in danger of degenerating into soulless routine and narrow-minded dogmatism.

 

On 13 March 1943 Tresckow planted a time bomb on Hitler’s aircraft.  Unfortunately, it failed to explode.   After the Allied landings in France in June 1944, the conspirators decided to risk another attempt – planting a bomb in Hitler’s meeting room, and then launching a military coup in Berlin.

In the lead-up to the 20 July attempt, Tresckow argued that:

The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.”

Tresckow further noted that:

“It is almost certain that we will fail. But how will future history judge the German people if not even a handful of men had the courage to put an end to that criminal?”

On learning that Hitler survived the bomb that Claus von Stauffenberg had planted, Tresckow committed suicide. His parting message to a friend was:

 

The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defence of his convictions.

 

In the aftermath of the 20 July attempt, around 7,000 people were arrested and 4,980 executed.  These included army officers, diplomats, Christian leaders, conservative and liberal politicians.   Field Marshalls Rommel and von Kluge committed suicide rather than face treason charges.  While awaiting his death sentence, the ultra-conservative Prussian politician Carl Goerdeler wrote a farewell letter, which ended with “I ask the world to accept our martyrdom as penance for the German people”.

At the time, many Germans were angry with the assassination attempt.  For some years after the war ended the conspirators were not always seen positively within Germany.  East Germany’s communist authorities ignored the 20 July attempt because the conspirators were largely from conservative rather than socialist backgrounds.  However, the conspirators are now widely seen as German heroes.

Germany owes much to Henning von Tresckow, and to the other resistance members.

Most Germans today reject ‘kadavergehorsam’ (uncritical obedience).  Typically, German people apply critical thinking to politicians’ actions and words.   The German Army is sworn to obey parliament, and MPs are sworn to obey their conscience, not their party leaders.

 

 

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The future has more rights than the present: real interest rates, domestic savings and tax policy

 

New Zealand has long been in relative economic decline.  It suffers from stagnating productivity and a weak tradeable sector. It is a relatively low wage economy.

Understanding our persistently high real interest rates provides insights into these problems[1], and suggests how to deal with them.

High real interest rates discourage capital investment that lifts labour productivity.  They are associated with a high real exchange rate.  They reduce tradeable sector competitiveness.  This means lower per capita incomes.

Low domestic saving and high population growth cause high real interest rates.

New Zealand is one of the few OECD countries that lack compulsory retirement savings.  New Zealand’s superannuation policy settings mean people have weak incentives to save.  New Zealand has a thin share-market with limited liquidity and investor choice.  Many cooperative and private businesses are not open to external investment.  New Zealanders therefore have limited opportunities to invest savings domestically.

New Zealanders borrow or seek equity from offshore to make up for their low savings. New Zealand’s net private sector indebtedness is high by international standards, and dominated by home mortgage and farm lending.

New Zealand historically benefited from a high resource to people ratio.  While its birth rate is slightly higher than median advanced countries, many New Zealanders move overseas.  However, high non-citizen migration means net population growth over the past 25 years has been higher than the OECD median.

Highly skilled and entrepreneurial migrants are assets to the economy and society. However, many non-citizen migrants are modestly-skilled.  Population growth draws investment away from the tradeable sector into infrastructure, housing and other non-tradeable sector expenditures.  This drives higher real interest rates and real exchange rates that disadvantage our tradeable sector.

The above problems are compounded by lack of a capital gains tax, and restrictions on new housing developments.

New Zealand’s rural land prices are higher than for similar land in countries with capital gains taxes. Capital gains rather than productivity opportunities drive much farmer behaviour.

For example, dairy farm debt to banks grew from $18.8 billion in 2007 to $40.9 billion in October 2017[2].  This equates to around $22 per kg of milk solids.  Some debts are equivalent to $30 kg of milk solids[3].  This debt is owed largely to overseas-owned banks[4], whose profits go offshore.

The overall effect is that scarce domestic savings are misallocated away from productive investment into inflating prices of inelastic farmland and housing assets.  Primary industries are left without the investment needed to both boost productivity and address environmental sustainability challenges.

Inflated housing prices harm tenants and aspiring first home owners, and benefit only incumbent owners in the short term.  In the longer term these owners can face higher costs of purchasing their next home, and they also suffer from the economy’s overall weaknesses.

New Zealand needs increased domestic savings, and this requires some compulsion.  New Zealand should also grow its own banking sector[5], and retain more profits in New Zealand.  A comprehensive capital gains tax is needed to channel savings into productive, tradeable sector businesses. Regulatory restrictions on new housing developments should be reduced.

Capital gains taxes can be implemented incrementally to align behaviour to long-term productivity enhancement and environmental sustainability.

Saving requires short-term sacrifices to support higher future consumption. The burden of increased savings can be shared between employers, employees and government.

The government introduced a compulsory contributory superannuation scheme in 1975[6].  This was designed to lift savings and enhance investment in the economy, as well as to supplement the old age pension[7].  However, the 1975 election result saw compulsory superannuation replaced with a universal non-contributory scheme with age 60 eligibility.  This might well be New Zealand’s worse ever economic decision.

Brian Gaynor and others estimate that, had the 1975 scheme been retained, it would now be worth around $500 billion. We would have deeper and more patient capital markets, and a lower real exchange rate. New Zealand might be one of the top five OECD economies.  More of our high productivity businesses would be global players, owned and anchored in New Zealand.  New Zealanders would have higher incomes, and our retirees would be better off.
The New Zealand Superannuation Fund (NZSF) was established in 2001 to partly pre-finance the state’s superannuation liability[8].  Around $2 billion was invested per annum in the NZSF, until payments were suspended in 2008.  The government’s $14 billion contribution is now worth more than $36 billion. The NZSF has returned 10.35% since inception, and 9% per annum over the past 10 years.

In 2007 KiwiSaver[9] was launched.  Its funds now total around $43 billion. In total, combined KiwiSaver and NZSF funds total around $79 billion.  The building blocks are therefore in place to expand domestic savings and investment, largely linked to retirement policy.

New Zealand’s government investment schemes invest globally, however they contribute disproportionately to our economic development. When terminated after just 37 weeks, all of the 1975 scheme’s $41.3 million in investments were in New Zealand.

KiwiSaver has about 44% of its funds invested in New Zealand. The NZSF has around 15% of its funds invested here, including in tradeable sector and technology-based businesses.  ACC has about 8% of its funds invested in New Zealand equities, and is a significant infrastructure investor.

Kiwisaver supplements the NZSF, and can also be drawn on for first home ownership.  However, it is not compulsory.  Furthermore, existing savings schemes are retirement focused, and no systematic effort is made to encourage savings to underpin investment in children and young people.

Currently, social welfare transfers typically subsidise short-run consumption. This partly reflects policy settings designed to support a low wage economy.  These settings create downwards pressure on wages, which in turn reduces business incentives to invest in innovation to lift both productivity and wage rates.  Many employers do not pay a living wage, so “working for families” type interventions make up the difference.

Some part of social welfare expenditure could be configured to boost long-term savings and investment, while achieving short-term social objectives.

For example, individual savings accounts could be established for children and young people[10].  These could be tagged for longer-term education and other capability development investment[11].  They could be weighted to enhance social mobility for children and young people from low socio-economic backgrounds.  Community groups and families[12] as well as government could contribute.

Policy design would ensure funds were used in young people’s interests, and aligned to key lifecycle points. Part of the social welfare budget could therefore help lift domestic savings, while also fostering social mobility.

The NZSF, compulsory Kiwisaver and capability development savings would make up a “whole of lifecycle” savings and investment package.  This would start with government and family contributions to capability funds for children, with a focus on early childhood through to tertiary education.  When young people join the workforce, Kiwisaver would cut in, funded through employee and employer contributions.  Retirees would have their national superannuation topped up with compulsory Kiwisaver.

All New Zealanders would benefit from higher savings and investment rates lifting productivity and per capita incomes.

Economic analysis is worthless unless policy makers translate it into action.  Inclusive, MMP government makes it difficult to take a long-term view and to carry through transformative change.  However, it also means when consensus emerges there is enduring multi-partisan commitment.

People do put their children and grandchildren ahead of themselves.  Voters who reject short-term tax cuts are willing to support wider, including intergenerational public goods[13].

The political tension is between those who focus on today, and those concerned with the future.  It is between those who accept fragmented individualism, and those who believe society is on a collective journey.

Leaders need courage.  They must articulate a narrative where short-term sacrifice leads to greater long-term benefits.

Above all, they must recognise that the future has more rights than the present.

[1] Acknowledgements to Michael Riddell for his analysis of these issues.

[2] Acknowledgement to Keith Woodford for this analysis.

[3] This is bank debt, and excludes some Fonterra loans to farmers.

[4] ANZ is the major creditor, while Rabobank holds about $10 billion in loans to New Zealand agribusiness as a whole.

[5] An option to explore is government banking services being transferred to a New Zealand-owned bank.

[6] The scheme was established through the New Zealand Superannuation Act 1974 and brought into operation in April 1975.

[7] This scheme was established through the New Zealand Superannuation Act 1974. It was based on individualised and portable accounts.  After a short phase-in period, compulsory contributions were 8 per cent of gross income – 4 per cent by employees and 4 per cent by employers.  Contributors could take 25% of their contributions when they reached retirement age and the rest as an ongoing income stream.

 

 

[8] Another motivation was to invest government surpluses in the future, and avoid populist pressures to spend today.

[9] A criticism of Kiwisaver is weak transparency and alleged high fees.  Transparency can be enhanced, and the Simplicity Fund provides a low fees option.

[10] Ngai Tahu’s Whai Rawa savings scheme encourages saving for education and home ownership as well as retirement.  Saving schemes can therefore be designed to achieve multiple socio-economic objectives for individuals as well as strengthening the economy as a whole.

[11] This can include investment in enhanced net worth.

[12] For example, grandparents could contribute with confidence that the money would benefit their grandchildren and not be misused by parents.

[13] For example, there is growing support for action on climate change and other long-term sustainability issues.

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Frontier IT businesses, and how things may play out

Never in modern history has there been such equality across the world.  However, inequality has grown within developed countries, bringing tensions with it.

Aggregate US productivity has grown more than 250% since the early 1970s, yet hourly wages have stagnated.  Over the last decade, productivity within the top 5% of businesses has increased by more than a third, while productivity in other businesses has stagnated (Muniz, 2017).

Much productivity growth has come from IT frontier businesses such as Microsoft and Google.  These create IT platforms, with marginal costs diminishing sharply with new users.  These users are locked in through software upgrades and increased functionality.

IT frontier businesses capture information flows and the channels through which these are managed.  This creates barriers to entry, and cumulative gains to the businesses: “to he who hath shall be given even more”.   The IT businesses capture private information, and influence culture and politics as well as customers.  They face minimal controls over private information use, or sanctions for misuse.

Market rents incentivise innovation, however when they persist over time they concentrate wealth and create monopolistic power.  Kurz (2017) contends that since the 1970s US firms with widely distributed ownership have been increasingly superseded by (largely IT) businesses with highly concentrated ownership.  This creates monopoly surplus.

Unlike for example “Big Pharma”, dominant IT businesses have limited vulnerability to expiry of intellectual property (IP) rights.  IP typically exchanges a limited term property right for public access to knowledge.  However, IT monopolists use their control over networks and information to create barriers to competitive entry.  They may also buy up emerging competitors.  This means their market rents persist.

Frontier businesses are transnational, which precludes nation state “trust busting”.  For example, it is now difficult for governments to leverage the type of “grand bargain” that existed tacitly between the US government and AT&T until 1982.  This saw AT&T maintain a dominant telecommunications position, in return for innovations that spilled over widely to the economy.

Frontier businesses are difficult to tax.  They can arbitrage across jurisdictions through transfer pricing, differential asset valuation, and raising money in one jurisdiction and returning cash to shareholders via another jurisdiction.

In the past productivity gains were reflected in income growth and increased leisure time.  For example, since 1870 real per capita incomes in western countries rose by around five times, while working hours halved.  The difference now is that productivity and income growth are decoupled.

IT and other technological change hollows out the middle class, lower income service sector jobs grow, and wealth becomes concentrated among a few higher income people.  Those at the top have money to spend, but their marginal propensity to do so is low.  Middle income worker numbers shrink, lower income worker numbers grow, and both lack purchasing power.

The above suppresses aggregate demand, which needs to grow to trigger an investment response and expanded productive capacity to serve the demand.   With inadequate demand, businesses sit on cash and central banks expand money supply, causing downward pressure on interest rates. This pushes up bond and equity prices and reduces interest rates for middle class savers.  The world economy in the 1970s faced “stagflation”; now it faces “stag-disinflation”.

However, IT frontier business owners are restless.  Some are philanthropic research funders, others invest in IT-leveraged “physical” businesses.  This suggests the existing stasis will not persist.

IT frontier businesses are likely to transform transportation, manufacturing and primary production.  This will reverse the “Rolls Royce model”, where an aero-engine manufacturing business became more of a software-empowered services business.  Some IT businesses will evolve into material product-related businesses, fuelling new waves of innovation and Schumpeterian “creative destruction”.  Rents arising from such innovation are unlikely to be as concentrated and persistent as those captured by existing IT frontier businesses.

Given the above, how might things play out for New Zealand, and how should we position ourselves?

We must start with the long view: productivity determines per capita income and living standards.  However, it only does so if it translates into broadly-shared gains.  These gains can be increased leisure time, more social connectedness, greater human dignity and well-being as well as market returns.

People cannot eat IT, clothe themselves in it, or build houses and multi-story buildings from it.  Economic growth will create growing demand for New Zealand food and fibre products.  Mass adoption of electric vehicles forecast by Arbib & Seba (2017) will slash New Zealand’s imported oil bill.  This will be as positive an economic boost as the 1973 oil crisis was a negative one.

The combination of primary and manufacturing sector productivity gains and leveraging our renewable energy strengths will free up both the spending power and people to grow the services sector.  However, much of the services sector is low productivity, as measured conventionally.   This means the employment share of the economy made up of “low productivity” jobs will increase.

This challenges us to rethink the role of services.  While services are perceived as low value and low paid, the spectrum runs from surgeons to dishwashers.  Jobs with high cognitive, regulatory or other barriers to entry will continue to be well-rewarded.   People also pay premiums for quality personal services such as fitness coaching, physiotherapy, live music, and some tourist services.

Social fragmentation and alienation of people from each other is at the heart of many of our worst problems.  These include poor mental health, loneliness, household dysfunctions, neglect of the young and the elderly, youth disengagement and crime.   Everyone agrees these are serious problems and that those addressing them should be highly valued.  However, this is not reflected in labour market returns for many workers addressing these problems.

There is unmet need for face-to-face personal services to overcome social isolation, build people’s dignity and esteem, and enrich communities and lives. While easy to automate service sector jobs will disappear, society needs more face-to-face services that are currently underprovided.  These services require “the personal touch” – they cannot be automated.  If we place authentic rather than rhetorical value on such personal services, Baumol’s “cost disease” can look more like a health tonic.

Technological change lifts productivity in the primary, manufacturing and IT sectors and makes growth possible in people-intensive service sectors.  However markets fail in their redistributive function and in their valuation of social goods that are only partly transacted for in markets.

Where there are few barriers to entry and low differentiation, service sector employment is low paid, even though the services provided may be more socially valuable than they are privately rewarded.  We therefore need to think through how we can bridge the gap between social value and the market valuation of many service sector jobs.

To do so, government can regulate and unions can act to enhance the rewards from valuable but modestly-paid employment.  Examples include past action on wage rates for nurses and rest-home workers.  More fundamentally, society must value people-intensive services in ways going beyond market rewards.

Already, many people in boring, low paid or low status jobs gain high self-esteem and community standing from their non-market activities and the identities they build around them.  A worker with no autonomy, esteem or standing at work may be an iwi leader, a legendary trout fisher, an expert in local geology, a sailing coach or a jazz musician.  This builds esteem, and keeps people connected and socially productive.

Technological change delivers increased leisure time, and this can lead to additional private and social goods.  Private goods may include hobby pursuits and home improvements.  Social goods may range from enhanced neighbourliness through to transformative, unpaid scientific research.

An ageing population will mean more people working part time, or doing voluntary work.  For many, avocation will displace vocation.  Unpaid work will expand and, being voluntary, need not be onerous.

There will be growth in face-to-face, service sector activities involving deep institutions that bind society together.  Examples include sport and recreation clubs, churches, marae, educational, art and cultural groups, urban gardens, and environmental protection, civil defence, social service and special interest activities.  These services are typically unmeasured and non-market.

The future can therefore see more people involved in new social services, for a world abundant in material but not yet in social and community goods.

References

Arbib, J.; Seba, T 2017:   Rethinking transportation 2020 – 2030.  RethinkX.

https://winsleys.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/de550-rethinkxreport_051517.pdf

Kurz, M. 2017: On the formation of capital and wealth: IT, monopoly power and rising inequality.   On-line paper at:

https://web.stanford.edu/~mordecai/OnLinePdf/Formation%20of%20Capital%20and%20Wealth%20Draft%209%2010%202017.pdf

Muniz, M. 2017: Economic growth is no longer enough.  Project Syndicate, 25 October 2017.

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