Book Review: Government for the Public Good: The Surprising Science of Large-Scale Action, by Max Rashbrooke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_government_fo_the_public_goodMax Rashbrooke’s book is an analysis of what good government would like if it was essentially based on policy analysis, rather than being determined by an overriding ideology. Governing in the ‘public good’ and utilising ‘large-scale action’ could be seen as the same old 20th Century formula for imposing big government. So it obviously goes against the prevailing economic ideology labelled as ‘neo-liberalism’.

Of course, ‘neo-liberalism’ was a term adopted by the academic critics, so what Rashbrooke has done is distil the views of mostly academic writers who have been analysing why right wing policy prescriptions have failed, with regard to what they discern as the ‘public good’. However, it is not clear why the book is subtitled the ‘surprising science’ of large-scale policy action: it is not really surprising that there has been a lot of analysis of activist government policy by other social scientists, if not economists; and also not surprising that the evidence supports collective action.

If it were just a matter of ‘bring the State back in’, then this has already been done, with a well known American academic using the exact phrase for a book title long ago. Rashbrooke proceeds by looking at the evidence about the ‘strange half-death of government’ in the Western world. He is mainly concerned with what he calls the Anglosphere, or English-speaking countries, which are apparently the key examples of the neoliberal philosophy and market-based solutions. Rashbrooke then suggests a new model of government of policy action based on ‘ten habits of highly successful governments’, and compares this to the market-based model. From there he examines very specific policy areas: urban planning and infrastructure, health and education, economic management and income distribution, and law & order. He finally proposes more public participation in policy-making, a concept he calls ‘liquid government’.

For those familiar with academic writing about policy-making, and social science approaches, this will no doubt be a triumph. It is certainly readable, and Rashbrooke explains complex ideas very well, being able to simplify things down to the essential points. However, this is very much a compendium of writing by overseas professors and a few New Zealand academics, with some authors outside of the academy. So there are a lot of quotes from international experts, but I’m not sure it is much more than a useful synthesis of the overseas literature. Some of the local experience doesn’t fit that well with the European examples, such as in urban planning where our ‘State Housing’ is barely mentioned, and he seems to favour a new social housing tenure.

There is a more significant problem with the term Anglosphere and its key feature, which involves international finance. Rashbrooke acknowledges that the Anglosphere countries control the tax havens, or secrecy states, which allow the large corporations and richest individuals to hide their money. Besides not examining New Zealand’s role in the ‘offshore world’, it seems rather naïve to think that the Anglosphere is going to lead the way in policing the tax havens or re-imposing financial regulation. Rashbrooke quotes from an IMF report, which apparently recognises that the State should be able to control the flow of international funds and thus prevent speculators destabilising national currencies. However, these are very policy tools that have been systematically removed by the right wing parties in government, and this has been mostly accepted by social democratic parties, due to the power of offshore finance.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Government for the Public Good: The Surprising Science of Large-Scale Action
by Max Rashbrooke
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781988545080

Book Review: Wealth and New Zealand, by Max Rashbrooke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_wealth_and_NZInequality of wealth between people has become quite a topic of interest recently – think Thomas Piketty and similar writers. Reports such as “The wealthiest 20 Americans own as much wealth as the poorest 50% of Americans” (that’s 152 million if you’re keeping score) crop up frequently, and there is a widespread belief overseas that “the 1%” have way more than everyone else.

What about here in the quarter-acre paradise? There’s no really wealthy people here are there? What’s the difference between wealth and income anyway? Is NZ facing a problem of inequality becoming more marked? And is inequality a problem anyway?

Max Rashbrooke has written widely in print and on-line about inequality. He edited Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis in 2013, and that has been on my to-do list for many months (next year, I promise). When I saw this BWB Text I grabbed the opportunity to at least get a start at the material.
Rashbrooke takes the debate about wealth and inequality, and puts it into a New Zealand setting. He presents a lot of data, and raises a lot of question.

What is wealth anyway – as opposed to income? Why does it matter? What does wealth look like in New Zealand? Who are the holders of wealth, and what do they do with it? It isn’t all fast cars and booze you know.

Having NZ data changes the way that we think about things. The level of inequality and the rate of growth of some people’s wealth while others go backward staggered me. It is sobering too to read that “we are not immune to his [Piketty’s] prognosis of a return to Victorian-style levels of inequality”.

Some of course will argue that the disparity of means between groups is unimportant, and that inequality is not a problem. Some too will argue that wealth is not, in fact, all that unevenly spread about the community. The author presents data which will disabuse them. It is hard at first to understand why the share of the national income going to wage and salary earners is so low compared with other developed countries. Rashbrooke shows that this trend started in the 1980’s (surprise!). He also shows that a partial but erratic correction has occurred since early this century. This is just one example of the material he presents in a very clear series of graphs and occasionally tables. Be aware though that some of the graphs have been truncated, so care is required reading them. Some of the data has not be published before, at least in this form.

As well as asking questions and drawing conclusions from them, the author advances possible policy responses to reduce wealth inequality and wide income gaps. There’s quite a variety here, and they should make anyone think. Some are obvious: taking the heat out of housing by making life-time renting both more ‘normal’ and more comfortable, for example. Others are quite controversial: mandating mixed neighbourhoods, for example, or giving everyone a share of the national accumulated wealth as of right.

This is another success in the BWB series of short books. It does things right: presents the facts simply, shows their importance, raises the questions, and proposes some answers. And it’s about economics yet is understandable and readable: a rare combination. I really must get into his earlier book next year.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Wealth and New Zealand
by Max Rashbrooke
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780908321575