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Insights 39: 19 October 2018
Read: Roger Partridge argues in the NBR that poverty is in decline, as progress pushes us past the tipping point
Read: Eric Crampton writes in Newsroom that the EQC should be left open
Latest report: Fit for Purpose? Are Kiwis getting the government they pay for?

Why Good News Matters
Roger Partridge | Chairman |
In the media they say if it bleeds it leads. That may be so, but last Friday I took the unusual step of writing a column about some good news.

According to the Brookings Institute, a global tipping point has just been reached. For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population is living in households with enough discretionary income to be considered “middle class” or “rich.”

What is more, over the last two decades, the proportion of the world's population living in extreme poverty has almost halved to fewer than 8%. While this is still a large number of people, in the 1950s the proportion exceeded 40%. Indeed, the UN estimates that more people escaped extreme poverty in the second half of the 20th century than in the previous 500 years.

My column generated an unexpected flood of positive feedback. Readers seemed both surprised and relieved to read some good news among the media’s daily diet of gloom.

Of course, positive feedback from readers is always welcome. But that is not why it is important to write about what is going well with the world.

As Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker warns, there are dangers in the media’s indiscriminate pessimism.

One is that it leads to fatalism. If the world is going to hell in a handcart, why bother? If there really is a poverty trap, if intergenerational welfare dependency is a fact of life, is there any point searching for solutions?

Another danger is the risk of radicalism. If the system is broken, and our institutions are beyond reform, then why not smash them and start again?

Succumbing to these views could be easy. And when all our news is bad, it is inevitable that some people will have a sceptical perspective on human progress.

Yet, as I noted in my column, the facts are otherwise. Today humanity is wealthier, healthier, better fed, more peaceful, safer, freer, more equal, more intelligent, more literate, and happier than ever before.

Of course, that does not mean there is no work left to do – either globally or in New Zealand. Indeed, in several critical areas, our own policy settings are failing our least well-off – especially in education and housing.

But at the Initiative we are unrelentingly optimistic that solutions to these problems can be found. And, fortunately, the history of human progress is on our side. We just need to spread the good news.

Freshwater Progress
Dr Eric Crampton | Chief Economist |
Normal politics too quickly leads to despair about democracy and humanity. If you are tired of reality-TV political shenanigans, turn off the Twitter feed and turn an eye to the government’s promising work on freshwater management.

Last week, the government released consultation documents outlining its intended approach to improving freshwater quality. The documents reflect years of careful thinking in the Ministries, and a Minister who is prepared to take the time to get things right.

The two high-level documents, “Essential Freshwater” and “Shared Interests in Freshwater,” explain the government’s goals of improved water quality, better management regimes with a stronger role for local iwi, and allocation regimes that recognise the interests of existing users and potential new users.

But the real meat is in the cabinet papers forming the appendix to each document. There, the Ministry for the Environment lays out the complex trade-offs and issues yet in need of resolution.

In a welcome change from the more typical farmer-blaming, the documents remind us that urban water quality is “generally worse” than water quality outside the cities: E. coli concentrations are more than twice as high in urban areas than in pastural areas.

The documents also explain how the main options affect potential iwi water claims. Royalty regimes for water use are likely to result in Treaty claims that the Crown has asserted an ownership interest in water. Working through Treaty of Waitangi processes could stall solutions for years.

The Ministry instead suggests regulatory routes recognising water use-rights. Finding equitable ways of allocating those use rights will not be easy: Existing users have standing that must be recognised, but Māori land in overallocated catchments should have the potential to use water. The regulatory route would allow the kind of trading in use-rights that makes it far easier to achieve environmental objectives.

The most important and difficult work still needs to be done. Where the government talks about establishing mandates around best practice in agricultural uses, it may be better instead to allow water catchment communities to define their goals and experiment with different ways of achieving them.

But the process here is promising. The government’s ban on new oil exploration permits in Taranaki reflected policy process at its worst: Politics in that case left no time for the Ministries to work out anything reasonable. The contrast provided by the government’s approach to freshwater management is sharp – and welcome.

Politician of the Year
Joel Hernandez | Policy Analyst |
At a time when everyone and their grandma is glued to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on their smartphone, what better way to target people during a political campaign than through social media.

That is how the kererū won Bird of the Year 2018.

Now in its eighth year, Forest and Bird’s Bird of the Year campaign has been successfully raising awareness of New Zealand’s native birds and habitats.

This year, the kererū, also known as kūkūpa or wood pigeon, glided to a landslide victory. The drunk and gluttonous bird won an overwhelming number of votes, receiving more than 5,800 in the final polls, nearly 2,000 more than the runner up, the kākāpō.

Not only did the kererū get a majority vote – Bird of the Year does not have MMP yet – but it also overcame an Australian hacking scandal mid campaign.

The success of the Bird of the Year’s social media campaign is highlighted by its international coverage, particularly by The Guardian and the BBC – neither of whom has yet to mention any other New Zealand story this week.

Our own Green Party MP Chlӧe Swarbrick, one of the kererū’s campaign managers, was interviewed by BBC world news to discuss the popularity of the bird.

Swarbrick pointed to the kererū’s drunk and disorderly behaviour after having eaten too much fermented fruit as its major source of popularity. Like many young New Zealanders returning home at three in the morning, the bird is often heard before it is seen. The kererū has even been known to fall out of the odd tree after having eaten too many fermented fruit.

Despite the kererū’s rambunctious personal behaviour, it acted with the utmost decorum publicly during the entire campaign. In all of the bird’s media appearances, it didn’t fall out of a tree drunk once.

If there is one lesson to be learnt from the kererū story, it is that social media is the key to a successful political campaign.

If a drunk and gluttonous bird can get away with drunk and disorderly behaviour, imagine what a politician could get away with, that is with the right social media campaign.

On The Record
All Things Considered
  • Graph of the Week: Twice As Long – Life Expectancy around the World.
  • Which Countries Are Raising The Most Productive Humans?
  • The Banana Is Dying. The Race Is on to Reinvent it Before it's Too Late.
  • Children in Singapore Will No Longer Be Ranked By Exam Results. Here's Why.
  • Study Findings Suggest Greater Density Could Unlock Health Opportunities
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