Some big issues behind the here and now

This is election year so the policy argument will focus mainly on what will win. But in January there is space and time to think about some deep currents and their big policy challenges.

Start with the big changes in work.

In the 1990s-2000s that meant mainly the changing location of work.

This went two ways. In one direction migrants went to rich countries in huge numbers. Governments which used to see external threats and opportunities mainly through the lenses of war and trade now see a threat to their societies’ stability as they go multicultural.

In the other direction rich countries sent manufacturing, assembly and back-office work to poor countries. China hauled hundreds of millions out of poverty. India built an IT reputation. Supply chains became highly complex. Global wage differences for routine work narrowed a lot.

This rebalancing stripped out from rich countries many processing and clerical jobs which could fund a mortgage and a decent living. Societies which had been shaped like a rugby football turned barbell-shaped: a thinning middle and bulging ends, at one end the new poor and at the other the new well-off “creative class” and executive and rent-taking rich.

But it is not just where work is done that has changed. The nature of work is being changed by new digital technologies: multi-tasking and sensing robots, 3D printing, cloud and crowd design, funding and marketing, data mining of customers, online selling and global mini-firms. Work is more fragmented and insecure. The new technologies are also repatriating some activity, though few jobs, to rich countries.

This affects not just those who used to have the middling jobs. It affects the educational meritocracy, which from the 1960s turned degrees into good livings and passed that privilege to children and grandchildren. A degree now is not an automatic meal ticket.

This change will come in time in the rising economies, too.

Rich countries have broadly exhibited two reflex responses: to say globalisation is inescapable, then hope, as in the 1980s-90s, that in time prosperity will trickle down and fix the now glaring and grinding inequalities; or to reach back to the 1930s-1970s welfare state wage-fixing and redistribution mechanisms.

The first hasn’t worked for 30 years now. The second requires nation-state sovereignty, to part-insulate societies and economies.

The extreme example is North Korea. Less obvious are myriad and growing behind-the-border protections and favouritism devices now bedevilling “free” trade. Rich countries are trying new forms, as in the United States push to extend its intellectual property and investment laws (and lawyers) through the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (which aims also to set de facto global product and services standards).

Expect climate change, ecological and environmental arguments to play a part in this protectionism. Europe claims first-mover status on climate change. But watch China, now the biggest maker and user of wind and photovoltaic electricity generating equipment. Sovereignty is big in China.

New Zealand’s government worries that it might get ahead of the pack on these issues and forfeit GDP growth. Actually, we are slipping behind: a sham emissions trading scheme, a massive lurch in net emissions looming from the big tree harvest next decade, tepid interest in energy-efficiency and renewable motive energy and only last year the beginnings of serious talk –notably, at last, by Federated Farmers — on agriculture’s environmental impact.

In our hyperglobalised world which is changing the nature of work and prompting new protectionism, ill-judged climate and environment settings risk adverse consumer and government responses, a lesson partly learnt from last year’s botulism scare.

That scare reflected another deep change: the unpredictable impact of the speed and reach of talk in our hyperconnected world.

The bright side is the capacity to organise democratically and enhance direct participatory democracy (supplementing and part-supplanting voting).

The dark side is the mining of data to keep an eye on citizens and potential and actual enemies, now embodied in legislation here, and to flush out customers.

Is this the end of privacy? Most law-abiding citizens will trade less privacy for the conveniences digital technology showers on them, including escaping tax on online foreign purchases, a problem the Treasury ignored in its long-term forecasts last year.

But demand will also grow for governments to protect privacy. Will they have the necessary sovereignty? More likely, technology will itself generate — some say is already generating — privacy mechanisms. But that could bring new issues.

In short: governments face increasingly complex — and shadowy — threats and opportunities. But don’t expect this year’s election to focus on those deeper currents. Elections are about symptoms and there are plenty to be going on with.