A matter of our general self-interest

The United States says Kim Dotcom purloins intellectual property (IP). Well, he does seem to filch the memories of some who come into his orbit. Perhaps they are stashed in a dungeon at his mansion.
John Banks had a massive memory loss. John Key has owned up to a memory fade about a briefing from the Government Communications Security Bureau, which had a collective memory fade. Detective Inspector Grant Wormald’s memory seemed to skip a beat in court.

On an outer orbit Bill English appeared last week to have a memory blip: his expressed openness to feeding poor kids in schools did not chime with the Prime Minister’s dismissal of the notion when it resurfaced in the Children’s Commissioner’s poverty report and then got a run from David Shearer.

It appears English and the Prime Minister share less these days than efficient government requires, judging by his not telling John Key about the GCSB’s bid to suppress its nefarious goings-on in service of the FBI’s mission to uplift Dotcom for infuriating Key’s film mogul mates.

Professional cabinet management demands tight congruence between the top two. When light appears between a Prime Minister and deputy their government loses coherence and then voter trust.

That applies even when the top two are in different parties. Jenny Shipley fired Winston Peters as her deputy when they fell out over selling Wellington airport in 1998, since when Peters has slagged National, his original party up to 1992. Jim Anderton stayed deputy to Helen Clark when most of his Alliance party walked and eventually in all but name rejoined Labour, his original party up to 1989.

English is not Peters. He is onside the Key-backed, Steven Joyce-driven dominant economic development agenda.

For example, he often says only private businesses create productive jobs, which is an argument for smaller government and deregulation to create more space for private enterprise to grow and produce. (English appears to mean a nurse hired by a private hospital is productive and one hired by a public hospital is not but leave that aside for now.)

The development-is-paramount positioning rests ultimately on self-interest: the materialist self-interest most humans in most places have in more food, drink and goods and services. Anthropologists trace this deep urge back to the hazards of life on the savannah at the dawn of humanity.

But on the savannah there was a second self-interest: in children’s wellbeing as the future of the band.

It was towards that second self-interest that English, ever the small-c conservative (of a Catholic sort), edged is his reported comment to the New Zealand Herald on Saturday that he was “quite open” to school meals for hungry kids.

In the case of “kids in homes where there is not a strong sense of responsibility … the obligation on the rest of us is to do something about it,” English was reported as saying. When children missed breakfast, he said, “they are not in great shape to learn”. “We are willing to grapple with that,” he said, presumably meaning by “we” the government.

It is a small step from there to recognising that if children are not in shape to learn they won’t learn, won’t be work-ready at the end of their school years and won’t be productive workers (in either private or public jobs).

And that is not in the self-interest of the rest of us who then pay taxes for remedial education or to pay their benefits and health costs or put them up in prison — and for their kids after them. The general self-interest is in all children growing up to be productive workers, pay taxes and contribute to general wellbeing.

This is a long way from seeing government spending as mostly undermining economic development by siphoning off resources that could be going into profit-making enterprises. It fits better with the notion that a society of well-functioning individuals is a good investment for the economy. That in turn argues for a “living wage”, as advocated by the Service and Food Workers Union, now with 110 organisations in tow and a couple of cities getting interested. A living wage affords kids breakfast.

English’s repositioning also reflects rising discomfort in the cabinet with the growing media interest in poverty and inequality and suggests the cabinet is starting to reposition to head this off before it arouses too much voter interest. That discomfort was evident in some Beehive heavying of a one-day conference on the Children’s Commissioner’s poverty report last month.

On Thursday Paula Bennett will issue her “white paper” on vulnerable children, which she narrowed to the “most vulnerable” in her preface to the precursor green paper, on which there were nearly 10,000 submissions.

The general self-interest is not limited to rescuing the “most vulnerable”. It is in ensuring a fair go for all children so they all eventually contribute fully to the economy and society. English seems now to be sort-of saying that. Is he right or are Key and Joyce?