The central issue dividing the main parties in this election should be this: which is our bigger problem right now, too much debt or too few jobs?
Instead Labour seems intent on showing - rather implausibly - that it will worship just as ardently as National at the altar of fiscal austerity.
Last week's labour market data told us that more than two years of recovery have made scant inroads into the unemployment rate.
The 157,000 people officially unemployed (a subset of the 254,000 counted as jobless) represent 6.6 per cent of the labour force. That compares with 6.5 per cent in September 2009 and an average of 6.5 per cent over the interval.
Certainly, Christchurch's travails have not helped; 27,000 jobs have been lost there over the past year. But on the other hand the unemployment rate would have been higher without the net loss of 33,000 people to Australia over the past year.
The employment rate is the proportion of the working age population (everyone 15 or older) actually working (for payment). It is 63.9 per cent.
It has been around that level for the past two years, down from around 66 per cent during the last boom, but higher than the 60 per cent in the Asian crisis recession and 56 per cent of the early 1990s recession.
This is a high employment rate by international standards, Bank of New Zealand economist Craig Ebert says, which in turn reflects the fact that labour force participation has held up remarkably well during the recent economic downswing and is structurally far higher than in the past.
Well, good for us.
But the bottom line is that the rate at which the economy has been generating new jobs has been barely keeping pace with growth in the labour force, even with Australia as a safety valve.
Is that good enough? Is that the best we can do?
The unemployment rate peaked at 7 per cent in December 2009.
Goldman Sachs economist Philip Borkin points out that the improvement since then, at just 0.4 percentage points, is the slowest for any recovery since the 1970s.
Part of the explanation is cyclical - a weaker-than-normal recovery generally - but Borkin's analysis suggests there has also been a rise in the structural unemployment rate.
Structural unemployment reflects a mismatch between the supply and demand for labour. It therefore does not respond to monetary stimulus as cyclical unemployment would and is longer-lasting.
Borkin estimates the structural unemployment rate at 5.4 per cent, up from a pre-recession trough of 4.6 per cent.
Business surveys have been recording a rising proportion of firms saying they are finding it harder to find the skilled labour they need.
Unemployment rates are particularly high among the young - 28 per cent for those aged 15 to 19 and 11.2 per cent in the 20 to 24 group.
If that means there is an especially large mismatch between the skills they have and what employers are looking for, the fact that they are young also means they have more time and incentive to acquire the skills that are required.
But it will not happen by magic.
The challenge for the politicians contending for our votes is to explain what structural policy changes they offer to deal with this structural problem.
So the question about which is the more pressing issue, too much debt or not enough jobs, and whether the times call for austerity or more stimulus, is far from rhetorical.
Bill Gross is interesting on this point. He is the co-founder and chief investment officer of Pimco, one of the biggest fund managers in the world with more than $1 trillion entrusted to it.
The investment question of the day, he says in a recent commentary, should be: "Can you solve a debt crisis with more debt?"
Since 2008 policymakers have been proceeding on the basis that the answer is yes.
Central banks slashed interest rates to encourage more borrowing, and governments have resorted to deficit spending on a scale that has pushed public debt through the roof.
Such policies make sense if, and only if, they generate growth.
But Gross argues that the relative lack of growth of the past few years in developed economies is structural rather than cyclical and resistant to the traditional remedies of stimulative monetary and fiscal policy.
The factors he cites are globalisation, technological innovation and demographic change.
Consider how much the world economy has expanded over the past 20 years, with China and the Soviet bloc abandoning communism and India abandoning its post-colonial doctrine of autarky.
Globalisation has opened access to cheap labour elsewhere.
New Zealanders who have to compete with that are on a hiding to nothing.
The challenge for politicians is therefore: what are you doing or would you do to lift education and skills?
Twenty years ago, most people had not even heard of the internet. Now the revolution in information and communications technology, liberating as it may be in many respects, is challenging the traditional business models in all sorts of industries, from retailing and entertainment to newspapers.
The challenge for politicians is therefore: what are your policies to foster innovation and the commercialisation thereof?
Twenty years ago even the oldest of the babyboomers still had 20 years of their working lives ahead of them.
Now, as Gross puts it: "If boomers are starting to retire or at least plan more seriously for retirement, why will lower interest rates cause them to spend more?"
On the contrary, low interest rates may encourage them to save more to compensate for lower-yielding nest eggs.
The challenge for our politicians is therefore to explain what they would do to ensure a larger pool of savings gets to irrigate job-rich and export-focused investment in this country.
ASSET POLICY WON'T SHIFT BOTTOM LINE
The fishiest of the red herrings in this election's debate are the claims both major parties are making about the fiscal impact of their preferred policies on state asset sales.
National highlights the fact that every dollar it gets from selling down its stake in the four state-owned energy companies and Air New Zealand is a dollar less it has to borrow.
Labour highlights the fact that by maintaining the status quo it would not be diluting the Government's share of their future dividend streams.
What these shares are worth is the present value of the future income they will deliver, adjusted for risk.
If they are sold at a fair price and the Crown's borrowing requirement reduced by the same amount, it will shrink both sides of the balance sheet, assets and liabilities, by the same amount.
There is a world of difference between reducing debt that way and doing it the hard, old-fashioned way by curbing spending.
It will neither strengthen nor weaken the Crown's financial position.
Equally, retaining the assets and keeping the dividend flow intact entails correspondingly more debt and a higher interest bill. Both revenue and expenditure (which includes finance costs) will be higher.
Again, broadly, it is a wash.
There are, of course, all sorts of other reasons why you might want to partially sell, or to keep, the SOEs.
But the impact on the Government's finances is not one of them.