Monkey morality

A few years back, I wrote a book called Falling for Science, a response to a year spent at The Alan Wilson Centre, a research organising specialising in molecular evolution. The book was a response to my first encounter with the philosophy of science, and was my way of trying to make sense of the way science and story telling are necessarily intertwined. The conclusion, perhaps banal, was that we make sense of the world both by constructing models of our physical experience, and by using story to interpret those models, so freighting them with personal meaning.

Next week I’ll be giving a talk to The Sea of Faith conference, where a theme is the relationship between brain science and spirituality. I want to look at the way certain scientific discoveries constrain our meaning models, and specifically to make the case that, if we are to accept evolution, we are led to the conclusion that the human mind has no reliable access to moral truths.

That’s a reasonably challenging view; for most of us, the idea that some things are just right and wrong, and we know what they are, dammit, is instinctive. And, for most of us in the modern age, evolution stands uncontested. So, if these two cherished views are incompatible, that’s going to cause a problem. Not surprisingly, a great number of people, amongst them eminently qualified philosophers, disagree with me. Here then, in truncated form, is the case against moral knowledge, along with a quick examination of a counter-argument, from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which was provided by a correspondent, Darrell.

Two fundamental scientific models are being assumed. First, that complex design in nature is the result of natural selection. Given that the brain is the most complex piece of design we know of in nature, the argument is that it slowly developed its characteristics over time, in response to the differential survival rates of particular genetically determined variants. Second, that the laws of quantum physics are reliable. That is, that the physical sub-structure of the brain behaves according to probabilistic determinism. A particular state of the brain exists as a probabilistic function of its state in the previous time frame. In other words, we don’t have non-physical entities exerting any systematic influence on physical entities.

The moral argument is a conditional one. It doesn’t say, we must accept such science, but rather says, if we do, we are left concluding that the brain does not reliably access moral truths (it may hit them by random, from time to time, if they do indeed exist). In form, it is essentially a plausibility argument. It says, if we know of no mechanism by which a physical occurrence could occur, and have no evidence that it is occurring, we should conclude it does not occur. Think of this in terms of the claim that at night, while you sleep, your kitchen furniture levitates. A strong scientific argument against, that most would accept, is that we know of no mechanism by which a table or chair could levitate. So it is with this particular argument.

What then, is the equivalent of levitation? Consider a moral judgement. You see a child being beaten and cry out ‘stop, that is wrong!’ We can think of the time between the beating being observed, and the utterance being offered, as a sequence of physical states. First, light of the image hits the retina. Next the light information is converted to electrical impulses and so forth, right through to the brain state required for the utterance to be primed and offered. Physics suggests that every physical state is probabilistically determined by the previous state. In other words, the information at state one is sufficient to explain state two. Nothing uncaused happens within the physical brain, beyond the random element of the quantum equations (which being random, is without cause or purpose).

So, if the final utterance is reliably moral, then in some way, the design of the brain has been set up such that this ‘machine’ is calibrated to true moral values. However, evolution tells us that the design is the result of pragmatic forces. In other words, our particular moral instincts have evolved over time in response to the impact they have on genetic reproduction. Hence a fierce desire to protect one’s own children, that does not extend with the same ferocity to the children of strangers. We have no reason to believe that such pragmatic needs also match the true moral compass. If they do, it can only be because moral truth is identical to pragmatic need.

We have also clearly evolved a mental plasticity, which allows us, by way of culture, to overlay new behavioural tendencies, and we see this in the way moral mores change over time. We can teach our children to not only follow their instincts, but also to moderate and to some extent modify them. But again, there is no obvious reason why our cultural tendencies, which often reward either power interests, or the interests of social stability, should track some higher truth.

So, imagine a universe in which the beating of children is, in fact, morally good. How would the evolved brain, or the subsequent cultural overlay, ever discover this truth, let alone shape the brain to track it?

My argument is that we know of absolutely no mechanism by which this might happen and so, as with the levitating furniture, we should conclude it is not happening. (Some will argue that, unlike the furniture, we have clear evidence via our personal conviction, that moral truths exist. But ask yourself, should you meet a person with clear personal conviction, but no physical evidence, that the chairs levitate, would that also sway you?)

So, what’s the argument against this? Darrell suggests an answer can be found in this Stanford entry:

Consider how a moral realist will approach the above debunking argument. It is intended to show us that realism is untenable, which of course means that this conclusion cannot just be assumed from the start. Yet if we begin the argument allowing that there may be independent moral truths, then why should we accept the initial claim about the pervasive influence of evolutionary forces on the content of our moral thinking in the first place? If there are independent moral truths, then we may plausibly have grasped many of them through autonomous exercises of our capacities for moral reflection, whereby we have come to recognize good reasons for thinking certain moral propositions to be true...”

The above makes two important claims. First, just because we may have established the way evolution can shape our moral intuitions, this does not in itself preclude the possibility that some of our moral intuitions refer to something more than mere selective contingency. In other words, science may provide one way of moral knowledge entering the system, but this need not be the only way. To assume in advance it is the only way is to beg the question.

The second claim made here is that, in fact, we do have another means of grasping moral positions, and this involves our capacity for reason, what here is referred to as autonomous reflection or autonomous moral reasoning. This is the observed human capacity to reason our way towards new truths. We have after all reasoned our way to the fact that there are infinite prime numbers, or that the world is round. Nobody claims our access to such truths is precluded by evolution. So, if we can reach mathematical or physical truths in this way, why not also moral truths?

The first point is valid, and one would be foolish to question it. An argument showing how evolution shapes moral judgement is not in itself sufficient to show either that there are no moral truths, nor that we have no access to them. The problem, it seems to me, comes about with the second claim. For, the argument I am making is that, while moral truths may exist (I have no opinion on this either way) we should conclude we have no access to them because we have no plausible mechanism by which they could be grasped. And that is an explicit claim that the appeal to autonomous moral reasoning does not work, if its intention is to show it to be a reliable generator of morally true statements. In other words, the analogy with scientific or mathematical reasoning is a false one. Here’s why:

Remember that the argument is not that we can not reason our way to moral beliefs, clearly we can and do, but rather that such reasoning will not reliably guide us towards external, or objective, moral truths. To see this, consider how both mathematical and scientific investigations work. Mathematics is essentially the process by which we unpack the implications of a set of axioms. So, in the case of prime numbers, we first set up a mathematical system, with a set of rules and definitions, and once these are accepted, we can work our way through various proofs (say the unlimited number of primes). So, we can say, given a particular set of axioms, a certain set of results must follow. The closest we can come to statements about mathematical truth is to say, if A is true, then it implies B must be true.

Clearly this is problematic if we hope that moral reasoning can reliably deliver up moral truths. For such reasoning to work, first we will need to define and accept our moral axioms. For example, a person starting off with the proposition that a moral goal is greatest benefit for the greatest number will be able to reason their way to a number of moral propositions that therefore follow (imperatives ruling tax systems, perhaps). However, the propositions thereby reached will only be reliably true if the starting moral assumptions are already true (that’s just how deductive logic works) and we must ask, well where did the truth of the starting assumptions come from? And, the evolutionist will argue, we know of no mechanism that would make the starting assumptions reliably true.

Science works slightly differently, in that both its starting assumptions and reasoned to propositions will then be tested against the world as we experience it. The belief that the world is round was tested against the angle of the sun at different geographic locations, for example. We say the model holds, not just because of the way we reason towards it, but also because of the way our experience of the world matches the model’s predictions. In moral reasoning, however, the real moral world exerts no influence against which we can test it (unless we redefine morality in pragmatic terms – the moral is that which fulfills us, for example – which was the evolutionist’s point in the first place).

So, where does all of this leave us? Well, we can still construct, consider and refine our moral systems, and set great store by them socially. We can use them to attain the goals we value, and to work towards a shared sense of humanity. What we can’t do, if we are to cleave to our scientific understandings, is hold that our moral discoveries are indicators of some higher, unchanging truth.

Dear Politicians of the Left,

Dear Politicians of the Left

 

Well, I suppose Saturday night was a tad frustrating for you all. You got an old fashioned shellacking, by any standards. I imagine you’re now so caught up in games of blame and shame, that you’re not much interested how it feels to be one of the minority who voted for you. But you know what, we’re mighty frustrated too. I voted for you because I thought some of your policies made sense, and I share a great many of your values. I rather hoped the polls were wrong, and you might contrive of a way to sneak over the line and put some of those policies in place. It was, of course, a naive form of optimism. With all due respect, you screwed up. So here is a short list of things I would love to see from the Left, as you regather and start thinking about another three long years in opposition.

First, I would love to see you concentrating on something other than beating each other up. Seriously, I don’t mind that most of the Labour caucus don’t much like David Cunliffe, but I do mind that I know about it. How the hell did you think people would vote for the man when you made it so patently clear you, his colleagues, didn’t like him? Shut the hell up about this stuff, keep it behind closed doors. The only possible reason you could have had for so gleefully spreading your disdain is personal gain. And I really object to having my views represented by politicians more interested in their own careers than the trajectory of their policies. When Bill English got rolled, he took a  deep, grown-up breath, and went to work as a loyal finance minister. I can’t imagine everybody in the National caucus likes everybody else, but they’ve worked pretty darned hard to keep their feelings private. You folk, however, have made an art form of disloyalty. And it turns out voters don’t find that venal approach to careers appealing. Who knew?

Stop pretending you’re the only party that cares. You might believe this, but nobody else does. The average voter believes that, by in large, our politicians are interested in solutions that make our lives better. We won’t agree with all of their ideas, but we find it awfully hard to believe that just because somebody tends to the right politically, their great aim in life is destroy our environment, and torture the young. We don’t believe John Key lies awake at night dreaming up new ways to compromise our privacy or steal our children’s toys. He strikes us as slightly over-enthusiastic, sure, a little goofy too, and we don’t love all his policy solutions, but the devil incarnate he just ain’t. Key supported the anti-smacking bill, and gay marriage to boot. And his economic instincts are nothing like the craziness of the Roger Douglas era Labour Party (yeah, we’ve not forgotten about that. Sorry.) So why on earth did this campaign turn into one attempt after another to undermine his credibility? I know, you’ll argue that circumstances overtook you, but who invited Dotcom to the table, and who came running to the media to express their outrage every time another slur hit the headlines?

And how about paddling together? Seriously, the election was barely over and we saw The Greens lining up to position themselves as the true voice of the opposition. So what, your plan, now that Labour is on its knees, is to start kicking it? They don’t need you to kick them. They’re doing just fine on that front all by themselves. Here’s a thought, how about The Green Party go back to being, you know, Green. Doesn’t it make a certain amount of sense, if your reason for being is the saving of the planet, to focus on environmental policies? Do you know how many clicks of your website it takes to get you to anything substantial on Climate Change? Because you want to feed the children. Well guess what, so does everybody else. But, by couching this earnest concern in terms that make it impossible for you to work with anybody on the right, you have left yourself with precisely zero political leverage. If the only party you can work with in government is Labour, then you can only have influence when they’re in power, and even then you can’t negotiate credibly because they know you have nowhere else to run. Meanwhile, the planet grows hotter, and you’ve given the major parties no political incentive to worry about it. Who’s plan was this, exactly? Why haven’t they been fired?

Here’s a final thought. New Zealand elections are fought in the centre because our instincts are remorselessly moderate. You will regain power when you find a way of appealing to the centre. And the big problem, that you don’t much like to talk about, is this: you don’t much like middle New Zealand. You should get over that.

There, that’s out of my system now. The thing is, I really wanted you to win. It’s bad enough living in Wellington and having to support our sports team, but this too?

 

Your sincerely

 

Bernard

 

 

 

 

It isn’t easy, being …

Continuing on with my pre-election assessment of major party policies, I’ve been thinking about the way the major party’s policies on poverty, the environment and housing compare.

Poverty should have been a  big election issue. David Cunliffe assumed the leadership talking up the Left’s special concern for the poor, and has attempted to brand Labour as the party that cares, the implication being that the current government don’t lose sleep over the current levels of deprivation. The poverty debate, however, has all too readily degenerated into arguments about the extent of the problem (ranging from bad to extremely bad), along with vague assertions about who is to blame. The important stuff, what we might do about it, has had much less air time than the Left had surely hoped.

If this were the only issue I considered when voting (and there are worse single issues to focus on) then this would be a particularly easy vote to cast. National’s policies, it seems to me, are predicated on the notion that there just isn’t much one can do about the problem, and therefore, beyond aiming for economic growth, and hence more jobs, it’s just a fact of life and we have to get used to it. There are a number of reasons why this strikes me as a hopeless approach.

First, while jobless rates are clearly a crucial part of the equation, it’s not the case that they are the only determinant of poverty levels. Wage, benefit and cost of living issues are also crucial. Over the past thirty years we have seen dramatic changes in poverty. The reforms under the stewardship of Roger Douglas saw a significant rise in poverty, mostly because people did not exhibit the kind of flexibility the architects of the reforms envisaged. Although new jobs and industries did to some extent emerge eventually, an entire subsection were by then moving towards entrenched unemployed that in turn became intergenerational. The reforms failed to manage resource re-allocation adequately, and thousands of families have suffered ever since. The benefit cuts under Ruth RIchardson also saw a large rise in poverty levels, whereas the implementation of Working for Families saw a material reduction in poverty for those fortunate enough to be in work. So, while one might choose to argue about the pros and cons of various interventions, it is simply not true that poverty is not responsive to policy settings. That National has been so reluctant to engage about the issue of which settings they might try to change and how, strikes me as little more than an abdication of leadership.

My other main objection to the ‘jobs first’ approach to poverty reduction is that it rather ignorant the fact that no party is currently projecting a future where we return to full employment. In fact, as joblessness falls, and we experience upward pressure on prices, the Reserve Bank Act mechanism essentially requires that the brakes are put on growth.  So, given we all expect unemployment to persist, and even have sanctioned an in-built mechanism to support that persistence, suggesting that the sole answer to the poverty question is jobs is disingenuous. Considered as a package, a Labour/Green approach to poverty strikes me as simply taking the problem more seriously. The only possible defence the Right might construct at this point is to argue that the proposed measures will hurt job growth, the case they’ve tried to construct against a rise in the minimum wage, but they haven’t produced the studies or data to support their claims, and for me it has the feel of rhetoric.

While there are any number of environmental issues in play, from water management to oil exploration, climate change is surely the biggest issue. Although it’s hardly had a run during the political discussions this election, that doesn’t mean it’s a problem that’s about to go away. Indeed, our best attempts at modelling the phenomenon have grown no less alarming, and it seems both that change is coming and that, if we  don’t act collectively and decisively, that change will be hugely costly. Given this backdrop, one  might expect any serious political party to both have a strategy for adjusting to these changes, and a strategy for contributing to the global effort to minimise them. Perhaps the most depressing element of this election is the fact that an observer could easily be left concluding the problem doesn’t even exist.

National score poorly here. Under their watch, the Emissions Trading Scheme has fallen over, and their official line seems to boil down to ‘it’s not for us to lead the way.’ The argument, I guess, is that any action taken unilaterally by a small trading nation will make no difference to the overall situation, but will hurt us significantly. Against that, I would argue first, that the assertion that adjusting to the new imperatives first will hurt us economically is by no means established. What it will surely hurt is those industries built upon the assumed right to pollute without paying for their mess, but there is also genuine potential for growth amongst clean industry alternatives. Ethically speaking, I’m not particularly comfortable with the argument that, because I can’t fix the entire problem, there’s no need for me to do my bit. Pragmatically speaking, if we were to extend this approach to social behaviour, in the name of consistency, we’d buy our way into a pretty mess, I imagine. I can’t shake the feeling that the real problem on the Right is that they’re just not convinced by the science. Perhaps Colin Craig will be able to push for Creationism in Schools if he makes government, or classes in moon landing conspiracies.

On the other side, Labour are not pushing this policy area at all, and to my mind their approach (mostly trying to reform the ETS) tends towards the token. Not surprisingly, the Greens are more active on this front, although I have to say I’m disappointed that they have chosen to use clean waterways as their flagship environmental policy this time around. I suppose they’re attempting to appeal to a broader swathe of voters, but if The Greens can’t be relied upon to keep climate change front and centre, then what hope is there? This feels like one of those times in history that will take a bit of explaining, when our grandchildren start asking their pesky, ‘what were you thinking?’ questions. Nevertheless, by comparison, the Left win this one without raising a sweat, and I’m feeling much better about sending my vote their way.

Finally, and briefly, housing. This isn’t an issue that would normally be on my radar, but it is remarkable just how dysfunctional our housing market has become, and how brutally this impacts the standard of living of middle income earners. Should we find a way of bringing prices back in line with international guidelines, a massive amount of income would be freed up for the next generation of mortgage holders. Of course, for every person’s gain, another must lose, and so it is worth noting where the winners can be found in during a housing bubble. Essentially, rising house prices see a transfer of wealth from the new entrants to the existing owners, which is an intergenerational transfer in favour of the middle aged and beyond. The servicing of the debt generates income for the banking industry, so in our case that’s money being earned by NZ mortgage holders being transferred offshore in the form of banking profits. And it’s a transfer of wealth (untaxed) towards landlords, who in general would find themselves above the average for income and wealth levels. Reversing all of that scores points in the name of both equality and international debt, as well as offering the next generation a way into the most secure and reliable method of savings we have. So, any party that could turn this round would be doing something incredibly positive.

And here I stop, because I don’t know how you do that. The obvious point is that this is mostly an Auckland problem, house prices there are well out of step with the rest of the country. It’s tempting to conclude this is purely a supply issue, and that the inability of the Auckland housing market to keep up with migratory demand is the problem. To this end, efforts to free up land, encourage higher density living, or even just having the Government build the houses, all have merit. And it’s possible the Capital Gains Tax will have a positive impact here, although I can’t imagine it will be huge (I don’t think there’s any case internationally of it having this effect.)

However, and here I’m wandering well beyond the sphere of any expertise, I’m not convinced this is all about a regional supply problem. Internationally, bubbles seem to rise up unexpectedly, and the housing market has some curious features, not least of which is that the headline price (and so expected value next time you put your own price up for sale) is the result of marginal trading, which is to say, most of the time, ost houses, are not on the market, they’re just being lived in. The strange behavioural quirks this causes, from owners remortgaging  to exploit their new, and largely illusory wealth, to sellers feeling they have lost if they don’t meet their newly inflated expectations, mean that house markets can go nuts even when the underlying supply conditions are not particularly dire. Which is not to say supply won’t be part of the solution, but I wonder if policy makers shouldn’t be thinking a little more broadly.

All of that said, I’m simply not expert enough to know which of the two sides is more likely to ease the problem and so, even though it’s an undoubtedly an important issue, it won’t be part of my decision making. Not that there’s really much of a decision left. It turns out I’ll be voting Green again, all the while hoping against hope that The Conservatives aren’t part of the next Government.

The road less travelled

With the election only three weeks ago, I have decided it is time to think a little more carefully about who I might vote for. And how better to do that, than try to write those thoughts down? An oddity of the MMP system is that for the most part you are voting not just for a party, but also for a coalition government. So it seems to me part of the voting equation is a comparison of the lead party’s policies. Which of the two large centrist parties is most deserving of my support, either directly or by way of a tick for one of their support parties? The usual way to do this is to break it into policy areas and put them head to head. The obvious problem is that for most of us, most of the time, we know very little of the nuts and bolts of any particular portfolio, and have to make do with ignoring the complexity, and attending instead to far simpler substitute problems (perhaps the rhetoric-soggy policy statements, or just a gut feeling about values, or, heaven forfend, the ‘seems like a nice enough person’ test.) It’s a fairly average form of democracy at this point, but it’s still far better than not engaging at all.

If I think about things I believe the government can have a positive influence on, and that I care about, I’d immediately nominate: health, education, the economy, poverty, the environment, housing, race relations and maybe justice.

I know almost nothing about our health system, apart from the fact that it’s one of the biggest areas of government spending, and that as technology moves on, lifestyle disease becomes more prevalent and our population ages, it’s going to get an awful lot bigger. So clearly, the smartest use of the money is what we’re after. It’s also an area, like the environment, where there’s a strong delineation between short term and long term interests. In the short term, the health imperative is to fix those who are ailing now. In the long term, the imperative is reduce the number of people ailing in the future. My largely uniformed guess is that it is in battling with this distinction that a government can do the most good. The immediate spending needs are urgent and compelling. Furthermore, they are the most amenable to political reward. Reduce a waiting list here, expand a hospital service there, approve a new drug for subsidy in that area, and you are seen to be making a real difference. The slower programmes, those that aim to get greater engagement with the health system from the most reluctant participants, those that encourage healthier lifestyles, or enable earlier intervention, are a much harder sell. First because they do not silence a crying need, and second because the benefits will accrue long after the responsible minister has left office, so where’s the upside for them? My tentative conclusion, then, is that our political system will crete a bias towards short term fixes, and preventative measures with better dollar for dollar outcomes will be overlooked.

If that’s true, then I ought to vote for whichever side seems most capable of taking a popularity hit in the name of future benefit. Listening to National and Labour on this, there’s a strong element of tweedle dum and tweedle dee. Neither seems to be promising to take the bull by the horns on this issue, let alone following up on such promises. There is an instinctive left/right divide in play, though. As a general rule prevention means social intervention, altering the conditions that lead to the undesirable behaviours. And, as a general rule, the right don’t much like intervening. Partly it’s a belief intervention just doesn’t work (which feels defeatist to me, it sure worked with smoking, and seatbelts in cars, it’s working with immunisation, and breastfeeding…) and partly it’s the spectacularly stupid idea that individuals, left to their own devices, will tend to make the best decisions. I certainly don’t behave like this, and nor have I ever met anybody who does. Environment makes a huge impact upon my decision making. One would have to be far removed from the social stream to believe otherwise (come to think of it, what social traits do these folk have in common – John Banks, Jamie Whyte, Don Brash… in education we would refer to them as ‘on the spectrum.’) We’ve seen hints of this tendency from National – a reluctance to embrace healthy food in schools policies, for example, and so health leads me to the left, but not by much. I don’t see a game changer here on either side.

Education is a little clearer, and as a teacher of twenty five years, I feel better informed, or at least closer to the action. National have put their money where their mouth is, and backed two major reforms The first is national standards in reading, writing and maths for primary, the second is the proposed new employment condition, wherein teachers and principals are paid extra to share their expertise within and across school groupings. I think both moves are well intentioned, but I have serious reservations about how smart they are. Seen in its most generous light, national standards is a system whereby we get better information about a school’s ability to add value. Presumably, under the system, there is an opportunity to identify schools that have found a way to make a difference. Take that information, and use it to share the successful school’s secrets, and maybe you’re on to something. Particularly when the point of focus is that subset of students we are struggling to educate well. The second change is presumably the mechanism by which the information can flow from the outstanding practitioners to the rest of us. As I say, good intentions, and ultimately they’re about addressing a real problem, which is the difficulty that exists internationally when it comes to educating the socially marginalised.

Nevertheless, they’re very average policies. National standards is very much about using a sledgehammer to crack an acorn, and exists much more because it appeases a paranoid middle class support base than because it does the job it sets out to do. A focus on testing, at the expense of education, is just plain bad practice, especially when the information regarding standout performance could already be gathered so easily. It’s made primary teachers grumpy and suspicious, and so undermined progress in the sector. And the new scheme is probably worse. Whoever thought that identifying the very best principals and teachers and then removing them from their jobs was the way forward has spent way too long inside an office. By all means keep exploring ways to more effectively transmit knowledge about best practice. But surely the easy way is to have people whose job it is to move through schools, observing, comparing and then mentoring. Like, I don’t know, the old inspectorate? The proposed system is ill thought out and deserves to be dropped. Against this. However, the left seem frustratingly wed to the idea that things are fine and all we need is more resources. So Labour are interested in more teachers, and the Greens want to address underachievement by addressing the root cause, namely poverty. This annoys me because it ignores the very great potential there is for changing practice within schools in ways that will lead to more meaningful engagement, particularly for those who are suffering the most. If the right have a slightly defeatist approach to health care, then at the moment the left could be similarly accused when it comes to education. So, well intentioned ideas that fail in the execution, versus no real ideas at all? It’s a difficult call. Maybe I’d give it to National, by a whisker.

The economy is another area where I feel at least vaguely qualified to have an opinion. I have a degree in economics although, in truth, I’m not anywhere near as familiar with the statistics as I’d need to be to put that skill set to much use. Still, that doesn’t stop one from forming an opinion. In general, I think New Zealand has been lucky with its finance ministers. Things got seriously wacky with Rob Muldoon and then Roger Douglas, and gave us a close up look at how badly it can all go wrong, but since then we’ve have a succession of fairly steady hands. History is likely to be kind to Michael Cullen and Bill English, both careful and pragmatic ministers, capable of informed diligence. We hit the financial crisis which much more room to move than most countries, thanks largely to the Cullen stewardship, and Bill English, despite representing a nominally right of centre government, was happy to spend up in order to flatten the downturn. We’ve had the good fortune of a trade bonanza with China, and the misfortune of a major earthquake, both of which have contributed greatly to growth. Unemployment is low by international standards, and jobs remain the surest way out of the poverty trap.

Against this, we remain very exposed internationally. Our current account deficit is high, and in this respect our exchange rate is overvalued, as capital inflows continue to indulge our overspending. There’s a sense that the rewards of growth are not being evenly shared, and like a great many world economies, we see a gap opening up between rich and poor (recent growth has seen this stabalise, but in big picture terms, the last three decades have seen poverty become entrenched.) There’s also a sense that our productive base is still too narrow, with the manufacturing base shrinking, and too little being done to utilise the potential of a highly educated workforce. Basically, we’re awfully good at finding ways to grow more grass and transform it, by way of cows, into milk products, but questions remain as to the long term growth capacity for this particular strategy. It’s not unfair, I think, to characterise National as good managers of the day to day stuff, they’ve provided a predictable, stable base environment, while wondering if they have what it takes to think smartly about the future.

In part this weakness is a reflection of another right-leaning instinct. Government’s, the right often opine, are simply no good at this stuff. Ask a government to think about how the future might look, and what we ought to do to get there, and they’ll get it wrong. That’s why they’re in parliament, and not in business. Personally I think that’s a little gutless, and also flies in the face of international experience. The one thing the great success stories, be they Singaporean, Korean, Japanese or Scandanavian, have had in common, is a government with a very clear sense of where it wanted its country to go. Labour, while not exactly visionary, have been using their time in opposition to put together a plan of sorts, and there’s a lot to like about it. I’ve written previously about how smart it is to be thinking more laterally when it comes to the reserve bank act, and they’re to be applauded for this. A capital gains tax makes sense, as does their more aggressive support for kiwisaver, and they’re talking the talk on research and development. In terms of personnel, there’s good reason to believe that David Parker will also be an excellent finance minister, and on this one the Labour coalition is more to my taste. National have worked hard to paint the Greens as loopy when it come sot economic management, and suggest Labour’s policy will be severely compromised. This though is bluster. As perhaps the last person left in the country who still thinks the Green’s quantitave easing approach was worth pursuing, I’m obviously not one to be spooked by an idea just because the self-appointed wise old men of NZ media commentary don’t approve, but the fact is that the Greens’ approach to the economy is, by international standards, mainstream economics, and the ease with which we’ve swallowed the right’s rhetoric on this is, frankly, embarrassing.

So, that’s me, halfway through my criteria, and this post is plenty long enough already. I’ll be back soonish with part two. Until then, it’s a very narrow lead to Labour and friends, which is reassuring given it’s who I habitually vote for.

The Return of Labour

During the run-up to the 1984 election, that was to usher in the Roger Douglas government and change forever the face of New Zealand politics, Bob Jones liked to make a typically brave and simplistic claim. You don’t need to worry about trade imbalances, he said. All you need to do is float your exchange rate, and the system will automatically balance itself.

The basic thinking was this. When we export goods and services, the overseas customers must buy $NZ in order to complete the transaction. Similarly, when we buy goods and services from overseas, we must sell our $NZ in order to purchase the required oversees currency. If, by Sir Bob’s reasoning, imports outstripped exports, there would be more people trying to sell $NZ than trying to buy them, the exchange rate would fall, making our exports cheaper to the world, and imports dearer to us. So exports would rise, and imports fall until the whole system was in balance. Simple.

During the subsequent years, exactly this experiment was tried, and coincidentally they were the years when I was in university, completing an economics degree, so it was an issue I followed with interest. The economists who taught me warned that things would not be quite so simple. For, apart from buying and selling exports, currency is also traded by people seeking to lend and borrow in foreign markets, and indeed by speculators betting on long term trends in currency values. So, for example, a country could run long and sustained current account deficits under a floating exchange rate, if the circumstances were such that foreign investors were consistently purchasing $NZ in order to lend on our financial markets, or indeed if they were seeking, and able to, buy up local assets or invest in local infrastructure.

The pattern of the last thirty years post float has been pretty much this. Sustained and very high current account deficits (our balance of business with the rest of the world) without a correcting fall in the exchange rate, due to strong capital inflows. In essence, on the back of the amount of overseas money coming into the country, we have been able to consume far more of the world’s produce than we in turn have been able to sell to the world. This is a problem for a number of reasons. First, over time it means that less of the local economy is locally owned, and so each year more income goes off shore in the form of dividends and interest. It also means that the Government, which is answerable to both its voters, and the business community, becomes increasingly answerable to non-local interests, so trade imbalances can lead to a slow eroding of democracy. And finally, it makes us very vulnerable to international shocks. If, for any reason, international financiers were to lose confidence in the NZ economy, their withdrawal of credit could force a massive correction. So, there are good reasons to be concerned about our inability to deal to the large (by international standards) current account deficit, even though it’s barely made the headlines over the recent decades.

Labour’s monetary policy, announced yesterday, is perhaps the first serious attempt in three decades to address this issue, and as such is to be applauded. Working out what exactly drives the financial inflows is not easy, but two factors are often mentioned. One is a low savings rate, so that local savers do not provide the deposits the banks need to meet their lending needs, and so they go overseas. Some dispute the extent to which we are a low savings economy, when housing ownership is factored in, but nevertheless the idea that if we saved more, there would be less demand for international finance, appears to have merit. The other big factor is the interest rate. If the return on lending on the NZ market is greater than the return foreign investors can find elsewhere, then of course they will seek to lend here (once other factors such as risk are accounted for). And since the reforms of the eighties, we have deliberately used interest rates as a mechanism to choke off nascent inflation. Higher interest rates both suppress local spending, and make imports cheaper through the higher exchange rate, and the Reserve Bank has explicitly targeted the exchange rate in this way. As a matter of policy, then, we’ve been asking our export sector to pay the price of reining in inflation. No wonder our current account has suffered.

Labour’s idea, then, is to increase savings rates through compulsory Kiwisaver contributions, and then using variations in the contribution rate as an alternative tool for suppressing local demand, rather than pushing up interest rates. So, rather than being hit by a mortgage increase, you get hit by higher savings deductions, the difference being, in the long term the money is still yours. And, for the first time in thirty years, the export sector doesn’t suffer every time a dysfunctional housing market threatens inflation targets.

In conjunction with this, Labour also hope to be able to bring the pressure off the housing market by building a great number of low cost houses. And, probably most importantly of all, they’re broadening the Reserve Bank’s brief, so that the oddly single-minded pursuit of an arbitrary inflationary target will no longer become the altar at which all other economic policies must worship. It’s slightly embarrassing it’s taken us this long to shake free of the shackles of our 1980’s ideological excesses, but so be it. For the first time in a very long while, I find myself excited at the prospect of voting for Labour.

 

Fire!

2014 is election year in New Zealand, and it would seem that education is going to be one of the defining topics. This isn’t surprising. Education is one of those issues where almost everybody feels invested. If you’re not directly involved yourself, chances are you have children, grandchildren or neighbours who are. Furthermore, it’s about children and the future, both great platforms from which to launch one’s rhetorical missiles. This time round, there’s also a sense that the gap between rich and poor is going to be used by opposition parties to establish a clear point of difference between them and the current goverment, and whatever the solution offered to that particular conundrum, education clearly has to be part of the package. Good schools and good teachers do offer kids from deprived backgrounds a way of breaking the cycle; there’s strong evidence that this happens. Not to the extent that it can be the whole solution, the front end of deprivation also needs addressing, but the best policies are going to come at this problem both ways.

First out of the blocks were National, with a move that surprised most commentators. Their plan is to use financial incentives as a way of spreading best teaching practice through and between school communities. Just shy of $360 million over four years is being put into a four pronged attack. Struggling schools looking to appoint new principals will be able to offer $50, 000 incentives in order to attract top quality candidates. Of the moves, this strikes me as the smartest and most hopeful. An effective leader can do a huge amount for a school, (Makoura College in Masterton is an excellent example that I’ve seen in action) and maybe this is a way of moving talent to those areas where it can be best used. I like that, at the very least, it’s a policy with a focus.

The second move, taking principals who are identified as doing a good job, and then  inviting them to take a leadership role across school clusters, seems to me to be far more speculative. Although relief time is provided to release those principals, it’s not at all clear that removing them from a function they’re performing well, in order to involve them in what could very easily turn into another layer of consultation and bureaucracy, is high risk. Perhaps this level of engagement across schools will lead to better sharing of resources and systems, but my hunch is it’s mostly going to lead to a while heap more talking when there’s work to be done. If this is the outcome, then it will be money badly spent. The detail of how the policy makers plan to avoid this trap is the level at which this should be judged, and that’s something they’re working on.

The other moves, focussing on classroom teachers, I’m even more sceptical about, although I note the secondary union have offered initial support. They would have done better, I suspect, to have held off on their judgements. These moves involve offering pay rewards ($10, 000 and $20, 000 positions, so both significant salary boosts) to teachers identified as being particularly proficient in key areas of delivery. In return, these teachers are expected to share their practice with colleagues, and in the more senior of the positions extend this across neighbouring schools. My reservations here are to do with a mismatch between the problem and solution.

We know where the problem area for New Zealand education is, we have a significant bunch of kids at the bottom end who are not getting the skills they need to participate fully in our society, and the price they’re paying is horrendous. And the thing is, these strugglers are not spread evenly throughout our school system. There are particular schools and particular regions where you’ll find them in far greater numbers. Crudely put, we’re failing Maori and Pasifika students, and we’re failing the children of the poor.

So, it seems to me, if you’re looking to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at that problem, then the absolute priority is to make sure every last dollar of it is put where it’s most likely to at least come into contact with the target group. So, I was expecting, when I heard of these incentives, that they would be specifically aimed at schools with low achievement profiles, but there’s been no talk of this at all. Rather, if I’m reading it correctly, we’re going to see the rewards spread amongst the workforce in a way that is regarded as fair, and the make-up of the steering group almost guarantees that this sort of compromise will occur. And that’s plain stupid. Not only should the money go to particular areas and decile ratings, but it should also go mostly into early childhood and primary institutions, because, developmentally speaking, that’s where you get the biggest bang for your buck (and I say this as a secondary school teacher).

There are all sorts of other fish hooks in this proposal, not least the way these lead teachers are going to be identified, but these are side issues. The crucial thing is that National have come up with the money, but rather than pointing the hose at the flames, so to speak, for some unfathomable reason have decided to squirt the cash about randomly and hope some of it will end up doing some good. There are perhaps good political reasons for doing it this way, but educationally it’s a lost opportunity.

This afternoon the Greens announced their alternative, which on first read looks smarter in terms of targeting, and Labour are surely scrambling to grab their share of the headlines as I type, so maybe I’ll get to talking about them soon.

A piece of PISA

The 2012 international survey of student academic prowess was released this week, and has led to the usual flurry of breast beating and pomposity . There is much to say about this survey, which provides a rich and provocative data set identifying educational trends around the globe. It’s certainly worth spending a little time at the official website where you can peruse the performance of 15 year olds in maths, reading and science at your leisure. The headlines, though a little shrill, capture the essential trends well enough. It does appear that a number of Asian nations are making great strides, educationally speaking, and as a result the top order has been shuffled somewhat (an effect exaggerated by the curious way in which Chinese results are reported).

On the home front, it is also true that New Zealand has suffered some significant slippage. It’s not just that we’ve fallen down the rankings, which I want to suggest is much less important, but rather that for the first time since 2000, we’ve seen a sharp decline in our raw scores. It’s not end of the world stuff, we’ve gone from being one of the elite nations to being still solidly above the OECD average, but the shift in results is large enough to cry out for an explanation. I can’t immediately think what the result does reflect, in terms of background education conditions. We’re talking the difference between a cohort born in 1994, and one born in 1997, and given that this fall doesn’t appear to be part of any broader international trend, the issue is presumably local. None of the usual suspects (socio-economic shifts, national standards, NCEA) seem well matched to the time frame. So, any thoughts, anyone?

Meanwhile, may I take issue with the obsession with rankings that seems to be emerging on the back of this survey. Whether we are educating our children well or not is apparently, if the way we’re reporting this reflects our mood, far less important than whether we are out-scoring our neighbours/competitors. Framing the debate in this way, as if the purpose of an education system is to produce young people who are better at tests than young people in other countries, requires a special, although apparently common, kind of stupid. As soon as we adopt the ‘must do better than others’ stance, we commit ourselves  to prioritising those incremental shifts that might just be enough to push us up a single place in the rankings. Dull minded politicians will begin to set targets and make promises, and as a result precious resources will be moved out of the true priority areas, like dealing with educational inequalities, or walking the talk on the broader values articulated in our world leading curriculum.

The premise on which the obsession with competition appears to be based is the rather crude idea that national economies are analogous to competing businesses, and which ever one can produce the best product at the lowest price will ultimately force the other  out of business. The fear then is that if New Zealand’s students aren’t quite as hot at algebra as those in Thailand, then that’s the end of economic opportunity for us.  Economist Paul Krugman, who’s won a nobel prize for his work on trade theory, and presumably knows a little about such things, has been most vocal in rubbishing this approach, and his work is well worth hunting down. Meanwhile, it should be suffice to note that in all the years where New Zealand’s educational performance sat atop the international pyramid, our economic performance remained below average. The correlation between educational achievement and economic prosperity, at least at the margins picked up by shifts in the pisa data, is negligible, and for very good reason.

Overall investment patterns are much more important than small shifts in the average measures of academic prowess, when it comes to determining economic capacity. The dullard with a dump truck is always  going to shift a load more dirt than the genius with a wheelbarrow.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 41 other followers