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Insights 21: 15 June 2018
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Wellington event: Jenesa Jeram lecture on measuring child poverty

How the West was lost
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
Almost a decade ago, I published an opinion piece that called for the abolition of what was then the G8, the group of the seven largest industrial nations and Russia.

After the dramatic conclusion of last weekend’s G7 summit in Canada, we may be a step closer towards this goal.

Except I am not happy about it.

Back in 2009, I was dismayed with the G8’s zealous ineffectiveness. “Time and again the G8 has shown itself unable to let action follow its finely crafted declarations,” I wrote in The Canberra Times and the New Straits Times. “But this has not stopped it from promising to eradicate poverty, stop climate change and bring peace to the Middle East. The list of good intentions declared at G8 summits is endless.”

Had I only known I would ever yearn back for such inconsequential idealism.

By withdrawing his support for the final communiqué via Twitter from his plane, US President Donald Trump has made a mockery of the summit. He showed his disregard for the meeting and its meagre results. And he questioned the need for any more such conferences.

The diplomatic debacle of La Malbaie may well signify the end of the G7 process, which had started in the 1970s. That by itself would not be such a deplorable outcome because other formats such as the G20 are better suited to 21st-century geopolitics. What is the point of a global summit that includes Italy but not India, and Canada but not China?

What hurts more than the demise of the G7 format is the end of the tacit arrangement between the leading Western democracies.

Until Trump, there was a rough Western position on most issues. It was based on commonly held values. This understanding had its formal expression in the G7 process, but it did not need the G7 to create it.

That certainty has gone, and now it is every nation for itself, starting with ‘America First’.

The G7 members, including the US, are the biggest losers of this development. And those opposing the values of democracy, freedom and trade are the winners.

The world’s autocrats no longer face a united bloc of Western leaders. Instead, they might regard the US President as one of theirs. At least Trump now looks more comfortable with Kim than with Trudeau, Merkel or May.

Over the years, the G7 had become a farcical folly. And yet our new geopolitical realities will make me miss it.

A poverty problem by any other name
Jenesa Jeram | Research Fellow |
As a researcher, I sometimes feel a bit awkward or apologetic talking about poverty, and particularly how to measure it.

It is easy to get stuck in the abstract, talking about definitions and statistical accuracy, and forget that there are families struggling and children whose basic needs are not being met.

Meanwhile, there are people working in social services who are making real changes to peoples’ lives regardless of how the government defines poverty.

But there are good reasons for talking about how to define and measure poverty. This is not just a conversation for people in the Wellington beltway, but should be a conversation of national interest.

The Government’s Child Poverty Reduction Bill sets out ten different measures of poverty that will be reported on annually: four primary measures, and six supplementary.

One of the purposes of the Bill is to hold current and future governments publicly accountable for reductions in child poverty. A laudable goal. Most experts also rightfully applaud the Government’s decision to include a range of measures, as different measures emphasise different things.

But for the public to demand better results from government, the public first has to understand the ten measures. If not, it is too easy for the government of the day to emphasise the most flattering measures, rather the ones that reflect the most severe or persistent suffering.

For example, would most people know the difference between fixed poverty lines and moving poverty lines? Before housing cost and after housing cost measures matter too. Do they know the difference between income and hardship measures?

There is a risk that some of the more telling measures will be downplayed. The persistence measure is the only measure to tell us how the same households are going over time. A measure showing households who suffer both income poverty and material hardship also ought to be given more prominence, as this is what is considered the most severe hardship.

For the measures to be compelling, there needs to be public understanding and buy-in. Emphasising measures that are wildly out of step with the public’s perception of poverty could be counterproductive.

The good thing is no government will be able to sugar-coat their actions (or inaction) by relying on favourable measures for long.

When there are reports of people living in cars, the public knew there was a housing crisis well before the government was willing to use the term. Whatever you call it, the need for action on social issues remains.

But if that is the case, it does make you wonder what more the grandiosely titled Bill contributes.

Jenesa will be speaking on this topic at Presbyterian Support Northern’s free public lecture series on child poverty in Auckland (28 June) and Wellington (29 June). You can register for the event by clicking the links.

We are not amused
Dr Bryce Wilkinson | Senior Fellow |
Have you noticed how often the disembodied “we” word is used to justify policy action in government today?

A stray document that reached our inbox this week may explain why. It is an extract from the Ministry of Truth’s guidance on the correct use of words.

Apparently, successful careers for aspiring public servants and politicians can result from the successful application of just two rules.

RULE 1: Use the “We” word often, but always ambiguously

Ambiguity is everything in government. NEVER specify who “we” are. If no one is excluded, everyone can feel included. That is what we want.

This is a suggested template:

“We all want to see a [heart-warming adjective] New Zealand.”

Adjectives like “cleaner”, “fairer” or “safer” illustrate the genre; “prospering”, less so.

RULE 2: Change the subject of the “we” word at least once per sentence

Rule 2 is easily adopted by adding a clause beginning “we should or must” to the Rule 1 template.  The augmented template might look like this:

Because we all want to see a [less obese] New Zealand, we must [impose a sugar tax].

This formulation scores 8 out of 10. It flatters those in the wanting group to think they are also part of the governing group. Elites will fall for this every time.

By going straight from apparent problem definition to remedy, it looks like policy analysis; and is in fact all the policy analysis that is needed most of the time.

Corollary to Rule 1: Use “we” when you mean “you, not me”

To retain the illusion of empathy and inclusiveness, write: “We are poor savers” or “we have a love affair with housing” when you really mean other New Zealanders. Example:

Because we are poor savers, we must subsidise KiwiSaver.

Good savers can see the con and feel flattered.

A rock star example of how to combine aspiration and ambiguity

The guidance reserves its highest score, 9/10, for this example of the genre:

“We are going to clean up our rivers”, said the Prime Minister.

Study the technique. The aspiration exudes passion and conviction. She cares. She is also safe. She is safe if her group, (the government?), does not own any rivers. She is safe if it does since there is no timeframe. Sheer brilliance.

Perhaps some readers have received other extracts they can share?

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