The same Treasury muppets responsible for the Budget security fiasco now claim to have solved a problem that has defied the world's greatest minds for at least 4000 years - the definition of human wellbeing.
The optimistic view is that this Government's "wellbeing" claptrap is just the same sort of Wellington puffery that "social capital", "sustainability" and "innovation" were for the last three.
The good news is that so far this seems most likely. It is difficult to see that any of the major spending announcements in today's Budget would have been any different had the so-called "wellbeing dashboard" never been dreamed up.
No one needed the "dashboard" to tell them that mental health requires a big boost after 9, 18 and 27 years of neglect, nor that it is time to upgrade the Air Force's 50-year-old Hercules and Orions.
When the Government caves in to teacher demands for a bigger pay-rise that will be because of industrial pressure and political polling - not any analysis of a bureaucratic wellbeing framework.
The pessimistic view is that Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson are actually sincere that their "dashboard" – designed under embarrassed outgoing Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf – should guide all future government spending.
As always, the biggest victims would be the most downtrodden in society, well below any of the "wellbeing" thresholds.
The development of the dashboard was in response to obvious issues with using GDP, even in per capita terms, as a measure of a society's success.
For many years Professor Marilyn Waring and other feminist economists have rightly pointed out that GDP fails to capture much economically valuable work traditionally carried out by women. The classic example is that when a mother picks some apples and preserves them for her children, that is not included in GDP. When Mr Wattie does it, it is.
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Arguably even more perverse is the Exxon Valdez effect, that after the 1989 oil spill Alaskan GDP infamously increased.
The Waring issue is a problem that might usefully be solved by statisticians finding a way to include household activity in GDP data.
The Exxon Valdez issue is not really a problem anyway because we all adjust for it intuitively. That is, imagine Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel issuing a statement boasting that Christchurch's GDP had increased in the second half of March 2019. She would hardly be applauded; more likely she would be so savagely pilloried that she would be forced to resign.
Nobody, let alone a serious economist, has ever treated GDP as the only measure of how well a society is going.
It is used because – especially were the Waring issue resolved – it records all the goods and services that we make in a given period, and it can be compared easily both within an economy and among them. It is properly used as a rough-and-ready measure that can be assessed in context.
The danger of the plethora of alternative measures in Ardern and Robertson's "dashboard" is that they encourage bureaucrats to game policy to shift the numbers just enough to make it look like things are improving when they are not.
It is government not just for bureaucrats who have been forced to play Makhlouf's widely mocked "wellbeing" card game but those who played too much Dungeons & Dragons as kids.
Where D&Ders focused on getting strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma points, bureaucrats will be incentivised to propose measures to manipulate numbers in things like "civic engagement and governance," "cultural identity," "subjective wellbeing" and "social connections".
This effect was well documented in the UK after Tony Blair - for whom Ardern worked in the Cabinet Office - published a whole range of targets. The bureaucratic response was to do whatever it took to meet those targets rather than look more holistically at society the way a single measure like GDP per capita is more likely to encourage.
We saw this effect playing out in the 2017 election campaign in New Zealand, where one of the most common yet completely artificial measures of "poverty" is a household having disposable income below 60 per cent of the median income.
In their leaders' debates, Ardern and Bill English argued which of their welfare or tax cut policies would put more people over that line. Political reward came from designing policy to get people from 59 to 61 per cent but we heard much less about getting people from 57 to 59 per cent. Those well below the threshold cease to be relevant to the Wellington bureaucracy, along with the middle class.
Defining wellbeing is something human beings have tried to do since they first evolve ed to be speculative. The suggestion that where Aristotle, the Buddha, Confucius and Bentham may have failed, Ardern, Robertson and Makhlouf have succeeded would be comical were it not for the likely perverse effects on tens of billions of dollars of public spending.
Their hubris is astounding. The result will be gross distortion in who we care for and support.
Ardern and Robertson would be better to remember that, if you want to get somewhere safely, better to look broadly at the whole road ahead. Avoid getting distracted by the detail on the dashboard.
- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.
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