What do we want New Zealand’s economy to look like in 20 years?
If we stick to some broad themes it isn’t such a tough question.
We want it to be more prosperous. We want it to be fairer. We want less poverty and more opportunity for everyone to thrive.
We want it to be greener - we know we need to reduce our carbon emissions, but clean rivers and clear air would be nice too.
We want a more diverse economy, with less reliance on a handful of industry sectors and international markets.
We want it to be high-tech and create the kind of vibrant meaningful work that our children and grandchildren will want to stay in the country for.
We want a country with world-class infrastructure - more efficient transport options, safer roads and enough housing for everyone.
And we want to be more productive. We want our children to work smarter not harder.
We want future generations to enjoy the beach and the bush and the mountains. We want them to enjoy thriving cultural scenes with great food, music and entertainment.
We want to pass on the Kiwi lifestyle that has defined our national character and made us proud and thankful to live here.
None of that is too controversial, is it? It’s not hard to find plenty of consensus around those sorts of goals for this country.
I think the leaders of all the major political parties would sign up for the ideas outlined above.
So why does making progress towards those goals feel so hard?
Obviously, things can get tricky when we dig into the detail.
Particularly when we start to look at how we share the costs and benefits of investing in the future.
But that’s ultimately just transactional. Sadly, I think there’s a bigger issue holding us back. I think it’s our politics.
This week, the Herald has launched a new series aimed at identifying the challenges New Zealand faces in the coming decades. And, more importantly, solving them.
One of the aims of the series is to de-politicise these issues. Not in an absolute sense. Clearly, there is a political dimension to all choices we make.
We’re up for that debate.
But we’re trying to minimise the party politics and look past the daily and weekly scraps about the short-term economic cycle.
One of the ever-present roadblocks to progress is the binary divide in our political, economic and (ultimately) philosophical ideas about human behaviour and social organisation.
It’s a traditional shorthand to say “left” and “right” when we talk about politics. But what does that mean when it comes to building and improving an economy?
At its heart is a difference of opinion about the merits of centralised control and regulation, versus individual action and regulatory freedom.
Last month, Herald columnist Richard Prebble expressed concerns about the centralised model, arguing that “when the government takes everything, people stop working. The result is famine. Thirty million Chinese starved to death in the Great Leap Forward.”
Some might say that’s hyperbole, but Prebble is right in the sense that Mao Tse-Tung’s Great Leap Forward probably represents the most extreme example of the failings of a centralised command and control model.
But Prebble failed to balance his argument by acknowledging the equally nightmarish scenario that eventuates if we follow deregulation to its ultimate extreme.
I’d describe that as the “state-less warlord” model. Somalia in the 1990s is just one grim example.
If you want to live in a truly libertarian society, without any bureaucratic bother, then good luck to you.
Just make sure you have a sturdy machine-gun mounted jeep and enough food to feed your gang of teenage mercenaries, lest they turn on you.
Both examples are absurd in the New Zealand context.
Funnily enough, a lot of us quite like a central government based on a few high-minded human ideals.
Without it, life would be “nasty, brutish and short”, as Thomas Hobbes once said.
In this country, we’re blessed with a broad social consensus around the role of the state in things like health, education, industry and finance.
There are no major political parties advocating the dismantling of public healthcare or education.
Nor are there any advocating for the nationalisation of private industry.
The private sector is much better and designing and building things than the public sector. I’ve always argued that the failure to design a decent pair of jeans was one of the underlying reasons that the Soviet Union failed.
They couldn’t compete with America’s ability to make cool stuff and they lost the support of their youth.
Making policy is a balancing act but it shouldn’t be a race to the dead centre.
Failing to take policy action for fear of offending or alienating voters at the margin won’t move this country forward.
What we need is bold leadership with the confidence to accurately implement the right policy approach for the right issue.
That’s always going to be contentious too.
But if we approach these debates on an issue-by-issue basis then we at least remove the entrenched tribal dynamic which leads to big policy failures on both sides of the political spectrum.
I’ve always been highly sceptical of anyone whose politics makes them certain that one way is right and another way is wrong.
And frankly, I think it is these people who are holding this country back.
I’m sick of it and I suspect a lot of New Zealanders are too.
There’s a lot of angry noise on social media but compared to politics in places like the United States or Brazil, or any number of more violent chaotic states, New Zealand is well placed.
One suspects that present and (potentially) future finance ministers - like the late Sir Michael Cullen, Bill English, Grant Robertson and Nicola Willis - could sit in a room and sort all this stuff out if they didn’t have to go back to the more conservative wings of their own parties.
For me, the debate about how we build a better economy and better country is not about who wins the election next year.
I’m old enough and middle-class enough to know that my world doesn’t change when the government does.
We live through far bigger events in our lives - births, deaths, and relationship break-ups. Real trauma is personal ... in this country at least.
You don’t have to spend long reading the world news to be reminded that is a privilege.
It’s a privilege to live in New Zealand with its robust and resilient economy. Don’t take my word for that, or Grant Robertson’s or Adrian Orr’s. Read an international report - S&P, Moody’s, Fitch, IMF, World Bank. It doesn’t really matter which one. They all say the same things.
We are in great shape relative to most countries in the world. And, yes, that is thanks to sensible management by a succession of National and Labour governments.
What is frustrating is that we know in our hearts that things could be much better and we can see that it really shouldn’t be that hard to get them there.
Collectively we have a bad habit of letting ourselves down with a small-minded, short-sighted outlook.
We often look inwards and worry unduly about little things. New Zealanders are tough but we can also be a bit grim and prone to pessimism.
But, when we decide to act, when we decide that something is worth doing, when we are inspired and motivated to make change, we are unstoppable.
Of course, we can rebuild a better economy in the years ahead.
We just have to get over ourselves and decide to do it.