Welcome to the first ever Windshift Observations Sunday newsletter. Each Sunday I’ll update you on things I’ve read, seen, heard and thought about. I hope you’ll find it interesting enough to join in the conversation. Please go to Windshift’s Facebook page or comment on Twitter if you have something to add or object to.

 

 

I’ve Been Reading: Sapiens

I’ve been reading Sapiens. Actually I think I will probably always read Sapiens. It seems to have answers to, or at least perspectives on, all of the major questions I’ve ever asked about life.

It’s by Dr Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer in world history. His PhD is from Oxford. He works at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Here are the first words in the book: Sapiens: a brief history of humankind

‘I encourage all of us, whatever our beliefs, to question the basic narratives of our world, to connect past developments with present concerns, and not to be afraid of controversial issues.’

It’s the idea of narratives that interests me. Harari asserts that our rapid evolution from unremarkable ape to world dominator lies in our ability to share ideas and stories with each other. Many other animals have enough language to share factual information, but only we can share our fictions. Just ask Donald Trump about that.

I’ve Been Listening to: Smart Talk at the Auckland Museum

.Last weekend I listened to a recording on National Radio of a panel discussion on inequality in New Zealand The panel comprised:

Dame Diane Robertson – poverty expert – Dr Teuila Percival – health expert, Dr Lisa Marriott – tax expert, Lisa King – Eat My Lunch charity. Damon Salesa of the NZ Institute for Pacific Studies facilitated.

The following facts emerged:

1. Inequality in NZ is bad and getting worse.

2. if you start life too far behind the rest of your peers it’s likely you won’t ever catch up.

3. it could be fixed but many of the current palliatives make the system worse.

4. It’s bad for our society, and we know it, but we, as a society, don’t prioritise solutions.

I’m very interested in why we don’t fix it. An audience member, Pat Sneddon talked about the “crisis of confidence that we have about our capacity to do something about this” but I think there’s more to it than that.

Lisa King, founder of Eat My Lunch, who migrated here when she was two, characterised our myth of New Zealand as being “this beautiful country where everyone [has] their basic needs met”. That myth [or narrative] holds us back. It creates myopia, even stops people believing there’s a problem and contributing to the cause.

I’ve Been Thinking About: New Zealand Narratives

1991 was the first year I did any major work on social trends. It was a bad year, the kind of year that when you get to the end of it you think: next year can only be better. The new Finance Minister at the time, Ruth Richardson, had produced what she billed as the ‘mother of all budgets, which slashed and burned its way through the welfare state. [Like George Osborne’s austerity drive in the UK, it came after a devastating, though self-inflicted, economic crash.]

The social mood in 1991 was at an all time low. I recall writing that New Zealanders were in shock – like little birds that had been pushed out of their nests. Eventually we learned new strategies and that feeling faded. By the late 90’s we were upbeat again and as the new century began, New Zealand was growing faster than most of the rest of the western world.

But something had fundamentally changed. There had been a profound shift from dominant collectivism or inter-dependence – a belief that government and other social institutions will look after you – to dominant individualism or self-dependence – a belief that you have to look after yourself.

If you interview people of different generations you can observe this shift – like strata in rocks. Baby boomers – despite the fact that some of them were the architects of this change – have far more collectivist values than those who were in their formative years in the 80’s and 90’s – Generation X. Younger Millennials are different again – another layer.

Even though inequality is a systemic issue, the values we have today rule out a lot of collectivist solutions like universal child allowances and tax redistribution, even security of tenure for renters. Children that go to school hungry or move around from rental to rental and slip through the cracks may well become people who are less able to contribute to society and the economy. But we don’t see that as our problem. We tacitly agree that it’s OK to let them grow up in poverty, because it’s their parents’ fault if they do – not ours, is it?

Well yeah – it kind of is, diffusely – if our view of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ systematically excludes people who are poor, sick or at a social disadvantage, an underclass will inevitably appear. Then bars on the windows and gated communities, I guess.

It’s clear, from our recent migrant study, that we’ve created an enviable society here in New Zealand, with many attractive qualities, so why would we be reluctant to have everyone share in those? It doesn’t make our life worse if a hungry kid has food, and long-term it probably makes our lives better – more Stockholm, less Rio.

This isn’t something I can fully unpick in one small newsletter. I’m working on a longer analysis. I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses so please go to Windshift’s Facebook page or comment on Twitter if you have something to add or object to.

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