Efficiency, the ecosystem and pubs-and-clubs

Some people claim a moral high ground with homilies of apocalypse and look down on those who cannot see what they see so vividly. Some others claim superior rationality and chant incantations to redemptive efficiency.

Both puzzle that in the pubs and clubs they are ignored. Both puzzle how to awaken the pubs-and-clubs frequenters to messages they think critical to their wellbeing.

We have had two examples this month: the Greens and friends at a well-attended day-long conference on the economics of sustainability, organised by MP Kennedy Graham; Don Brash with his second report on how to get as rich as Australia.

The two were on different planets, so to speak.

Brash heads the 2025 Taskforce of Business Roundtable economic analyst Bryce Wilkinson, rightwing Australian economist Judith Sloan and 1980s Labour deregulating minister David Caygill, set up under the National-ACT post-election agreement to monitor the wealth gap between Australia and New Zealand and promote policies to close the gap.

The script of the Brash reports is the 1980s 20 years on: reduce taxes, reduce regulation (including of wages), increase competition, especially in activities the state dominates (including education and health), reduce government ownership.

John Key flipped the second report into the bin almost as fast as he did the first. National’s focus groups don’t relish Brash’s efficiency recipes.

Yet the second report deserves better. It has more depth and subtlety, wider source references and more detailed analysis. And, if read in the context of rising generations’ expectations of more customised and differentiated goods and services, including “public” services, its supply-side fixes can be interpreted as touching on (though yet to convincingly answer) questions to which those generations are likely to begin wanting practical answers sometime in the next 10 years.

One is funding, delivery and rationing of illness care. Tony Ryall is squeezing the stone but eventually the stone will be dry — already some parts are. The taskforce thinks separating funding from delivery will assay some more moisture. Today’s 30-something politicians in cabinets in the 2020s will need to think more laterally.

Brash’s report verges on the formulaic: reducing corporate tax will prompt firms to research and import more technology, especially if labour market regulations are removed. (But will it?) In places it is contradictory: abolish the minimum wage (just as Hong Kong is introducing one) but also make it monetarily rewarding to get off a benefit into work. A graph shows a huge widening of the difference in terms of trade in the past six years which logically affects the GDP-per-capita gap.

But in any case in the pubs and clubs the emigrate-or-not issue is not GDP per capita but its distribution: that is, the real issue is the gap in wage levels. Removing labour laws is likely, at least initially, to reduce some wages.

Across in the green corner, catching Australia is at best irrelevant and at worst planet-wrecking. Graham’s erudite background paper contrasted “ecological economics” — the economy is a subset of human society, which is a subset of the ecosystem, is about “wellbeing” and is intergenerational — with “neoclassical economics” — which encompasses theories of equilibrium, marginalism, utility and optimal efficiency plus two add-ons, environmental economics, which assigns monetary values to environmental assets and a price to pollution, and resource economics which aims to ensure resources are available to future generations.

Instead of classical economics’ GDP, Graham’s ecological economics measures “throughput” and concludes that the economic subsystem is “very large relative to the ecosystem” and “throughput growth should be stopped before the marginal socio-environmental cost exceeds the marginal production benefit” — that is, it should be “steady state”.

The Greens’ pubs-and-clubs problem is to prevent this thinking subsiding into apocalyptic prophesy. That is where keynote speaker, biologist David Suzuki took the conference at its outset, evoking a spectre of approaching ecological collapse through over-exploitation which leaves us very little — maybe no — time before there are no choices left.

In the pubs and clubs they don’t see proximate apocalypse, any more than they feel the planet warming. So the Greens flirt always with marginalisation — unless they can somehow translate ecological economics into everyday experience.

It is the mirror image of the risk for ACT and Brash: hyper-efficiency seems to those in the pubs and clubs to reduce them to mere numbers.

Nick Smith and David Cunliffe need the pubs-and-clubs’ votes in next year’s election. At the conference they steered their middling courses, trying to elevate their lists of deeds and promises into language eco-worriers respect.

In the green political ecosystem that looks like first-small-steps. It looks the same from Brash’s efficient realm.