Book Review: Better Lives: Migration, Wellbeing and New Zealand

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_better_lives_migration_wellbeing_and_nzWith migration being an ongoing political topic, and a tricky policy area, this book would seem to be a timely one. Julie Fry and Peter Wilson are both independent economists, and the former has already co-written a 2016 text on migration, with Hamish Glass, for Bridget Williams Books. However, this version is a lot longer and becomes more of an academic text, rather than an extended essay on a specific topic.

Besides utilising their economics training, and referring to well-recognised academic economists, Fry and Wilson introduce the ‘Wellbeing’ framework, which introduces a range of qualitative aspects for policy-making, to complement the existing quantitative measures. But the authors also refer to the shortcomings of aggregated statistics such as Gross Domestic Product, before setting out all the categories of the Wellbeing approach. Since the so-called Wellbeing approach will apparently feature prominently in next year’s Budget documents, this is a useful way to think about nuances in policy.

However, the idea of Wellbeing is open to criticism for being somewhat subjective, or even nebulous, and introducing political criteria, such as considerations of the Treaty of Waitangi. One can perhaps expect right wing economists to find it all a bit too politically correct, and also lacking in econometric rigour. There is a conceptual problem that is rather obvious here, and migration exemplifies it for economists. While most economists want free movement of money, capital and goods across borders, there seems to be an exception with the mobility of people, at least for people who don’t have useful skills. Yet that mobility also aids in moving wages and prices.

The difficulty provided by this conceptual problem, of having free markets but not free movement in people, becomes clear in the chapter on applying the Wellbeing framework. This chapter is actually significant in itself, highlighting the current issues in tertiary education, and the health profession, caused by temporary and permanent migration. But, certainly with regard to tertiary ‘export’ education, especially in private training (with work visas), the authors revert to wearing their economic hats.

First there is a criticism of export education as a contributor to national income, given the free movement of capital, as a business decision. The point being that so-called export education is not necessarily good for the economy just because it provides an ‘export’ income. Then a few pages later the authors claim, while making a point set within parentheses, that ‘export’ education is not really an export at all, if those graduating from tertiary courses stay in New Zealand, and don’t actually return home.

The latter point is made in the context of an important discussion about the health sector workforce. Indeed, it seems that New Zealand has almost the highest number of foreign-born doctors in the world, apart from Israel, and has the most foreign-born nurses. It might have been better to focus on these migration issues within the tertiary sector, and the related question of training an indigenous based health profession, more directly.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Better Lives: Migration, Wellbeing and New Zealand
by Julie Fry & Peter Wilson
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781988533759

 

Book Review: The Forrests, by Emily Perkins

This book is in bookstores now, and is aImage finalist in the Fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Reading this book some time after its release and well after the first reviews, I feel privileged to not be influenced by other comments. I have few expectations. Seeing comments like ‘sad, pointless lives’ and ‘nothing happens’ made me wonder, did they really read THIS book? Of course others (more like me it seems) said it was ‘exquisite, carefully crafted and entrancing’. And it was all of that and more.

The Forrests are an almost normal family that move their family halfway across the world from an affluent New York lifestyle to what ends up being a challenging lifestyle in New Zealand. Emily Perkins is a master of observation and detail. The snippets of the family’s life that are revealed are believable and delicious. My book is dog-eared from all of the times I read a sentence that I wanted to treasure. For example, when describing the first view of the decrepit house where their estranged father was living,
The no-colour paint on the windowsills and door frame was crackled…
and, ‘Evelyn unpeeled her sandwich and tweezed out the alfalfa sprouts with her fingertips and dropped them into the sea.
and, when making a cake,
In the bowl they created a separated viscous swirl with the creamed-butter mixture, the yolk trailing through the pale butter, the transparent whites floating jellyfishy around the surface.

Emily Perkins is observant beyond belief, and her descriptions based on these observations, are absorbing. Utterly so. I loved this book that led me through this family’s seemingly ordinary life in a subtle and engrossing way. The reader is drawn into family and invited to fill in the blank between the episodic narrative.  This family is neither boring, nor ordinary, but it could be yours or mine. The ending is sad, but so is the ending of most lives. Dot, the mainly main character leaves these pages in a slightly confused way, but I suspect that, too, is the way in which many lives come to the final end.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

The Forrests
by Emily Perkins
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408831496