Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Logic? Sorry, it's over our heads


It's easier to cling to old jalopy beliefs than change and start driving a Porsche.

Head of the Business Roundtable, Roger Kerr. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
Head of the Business Roundtable, Roger Kerr. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

I admire Roger Kerr, the giant-brained, pixie-faced policy wonk who's been the Business Roundtable's long-time executive director. Kerr not only has a formidable intellect, but also great personal courage.

Even wets who don't share his devotion to the market must surely admire his unfaltering commitment year in and year out, like a mad Pink Floyd fan going to see The Wall every Sunday night.

It was wacky to see Kerr get some recognition in the Queen's Birthday honours, since most of the time the stirrers behind our much-needed 1980s liberalisation reforms get bollocked for every social malaise from emo youths to leaky buildings. Your car didn't start this morning? Blame the Business Roundtable.

In response, Kerr has been unfailingly donnish; I hope the cost of being so gracious didn't make him ill. He is now battling cancer; in a very intellectual and studious way, of course. Although, maybe, he secretly burns some aromatherapy candles.

Of course the reporter who interviewed Kerr was obliged to make the tediously predictable comment that the Business Roundtable is full of yesterday's men. Boring, but true.

The grunty think tank has been too clever. It has stuck to the granola end of policy - monetary policy settings and all that crunchy stuff - rather than following the vogue for behavioural economics. Economics is really psychology these days - even the Treasury has recently been pondering what makes New Zealanders happy, not just rich.

Ted Klontz, a behavioural psychologist, recently explained to a conference of financial planners how we have three parts to our brains: on top, the Einstein level (rational, abstract); the reptilian level, which is animalistic and only understands the concept of friend or foe; and the mammalian brain, like a chimpanzee.

When people are confused or under threat they resort to the lower bits. Sorry Rog, but there's not much point arguing over nuances of tax brackets if people are only engaging their mammalian brain.

We seem to be having a bit of a Jungian "moment" - suddenly everyone from the makers of the movie Inception to New York Times columnist David Brooks is aghast at how much we are governed by our unconscious. Who knew? And in our collective unconscious, I don't think New Zealanders feel we deserve to be a wealthy country. It is hard to change that view.

I'm not sure if many economists know self-verification theory: if people develop firm beliefs about themselves they will prefer that others see them as they see themselves, even if their self-views are negative. It's too scary to change our self-image as it makes us doubt the world's coherence, so we fight to keep old beliefs even if it means enduring discomfort.

We are such perverse creatures, even positive changes are painful as they threaten that vital coherence. I even felt uneasy when, for the first time in my life, I got a fancy car (a VW R32, five stars from Jeremy Clarkson). As I had only ever seen myself as a shambolic individual in a dilapidated vehicle, I actually felt quite uncomfortable. I had to expand my self-image. Now I zip around in it quite happily.

I think Roger Kerr has been trying to say: "Look New Zealand, you do deserve a Porsche."

But unless we start to understand our half-witted reptilian brains New Zealand will prefer to backfire in its old jalopy.

- NZ Herald

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