Book Review: Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World, by Jonathon Boston

Available now in bookshops nationwide.cv_safeguarding_the_future

Given the context of our world, with its 24/7 news cycle and incessant need to be ‘current’, the rise of populist politics that pander to reactive tendencies, a desire for quick ‘fixes’ (whether this be wall-building or oil drilling), and ‘perpetual election campaigning’, one could argue that we live a little too much in the now (which, as it happens, passes pretty quickly). The ever-widening gaps in society (both ideological and economical) and climate change mean that how we think about time and subsequently plan for the future could result in unprecedented consequences.

It follows that good governance is vital for keeping short-term thinking in check. In Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World, public policy expert Jonathon Boston makes a well-argued case for wise stewardship and ways to achieve this with economy and clarity. He starts by asking ‘How . . . can the chances of short sighted policy decisions – ones that threaten or undermine citizens’ long-term wellbeing – be minimised?’.

In response Boston proposes a design-based approach – one that is ‘more practical than ethical and more applied than conceptual’. He lays out the concept of safeguarding the future and does not shy way from the difficulties involved in achieving such an approach in the face of competing interests, before examining ‘The attributes of anticipatory governance’.

He goes on to assess how New Zealand is faring in light of this; it is a performance that is cause for both ‘celebration and lament’. Although there are some good frameworks and structures in place to protect long-term interests, such as Treasury publishing a report (independent of the Ministry of Finance) on the country’s long-term fiscal position, Boston emphasises that attempts to address environmental and socials issues have failed, grounding his argument in research and analysis.

The major hurdle he identifies is the ‘presentist bias in policy-making in the democratic world’ and the ‘excessive weight given to short term considerations’. This presentist bias plays out in a series of ‘Politically salient asymmetries’ or the time difference between the flow of costs and benefits. Yet this presentist drive is not the reserve of politicians alone, but shared across society: ‘On the whole, when individuals are confronted with intertemporal choices . . . biases tilt their preferences and behaviours towards the present.’

Both citizens and politicians find it difficult to pay for something now, when they personally might not see the benefits later. This might not matter as much for something like roading, which can be fixed at some point in the future, but it does matter for those long-term impacts that cannot be undone, such as the extinction of a species. This seemingly wilful refusal to heed massive long-term costs ‘reflects deeper pathologies within our democratic institutions, civil society and political culture.’

He illuminates the discord in our accounting, and what we, as a society and through our representatives, attribute value to. The types of costs and benefits typically reported on have the same old themes: capital, manufacturing, finances. But natural resources, as well as human and social cost-benefits, are not given the same treatment. Auditing these assets is important to ‘affect how policy-makers and citizens perceive the world, assess progress and judge governmental performance.’ Accountability is key. As Boston points out there are currently no requirements for government to consider whether their policy frameworks are intergenerationally fair – even when long-term impacts are highly likely.

In his agenda for reform, where the ‘aim is to shift the political context in which decisions are made by incentivising forward thinking and countering the presentist bias’, Boston sensibly advocates for change that is ‘evolutionary rather than revolutionary’ because this is cheaper, politically more expedient and less time consuming.

Crucially there is a need for durable, cross-party agreements for any meaningful change in policy and institutions to take place (otherwise things are undone, done poorly or stalled) – Boston cites superannuation as the most successful to date; political leaders need ‘to frame policy problems and proposed solutions in ways that can attract broad public support – perhaps because they appeal to long-standing cultural narratives and deeply held values’. Our parliamentary system needs examination (ones similar to ours show a similar lack of resolve) – he recommends commitment devices, the stating of long-term goals, and the strengthening of monitoring. And extending the term of governance to four years.

As Boston himself concludes in the book, the aim is not perfection, but betterment and this certainly available to us, not to mention critical. There is an implicit call to action for citizens within this – after all, citizens in a democracy have not only rights but obligations too.

Boston’s case for an intergenerational duty of care and ways to enable and better this are convincing and clear. Future generations are not able to advocate now, so we should. After all, as the philosopher Rawls is quoted in the book, ‘The mere difference of location in time, of something’s being earlier or later, is not in itself a rational ground for having more or less regard for it.’

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World
By Jonathon Boston
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947518257

Book Review: Child Poverty in New Zealand, by Jonathan Boston & Simon Chapple

This book is available from today in bookstores nationwide. 

“Child poverty” is one of thosecv_child_poverty_in_Nz things that it is hard to support. But whenever I hear the
term used it is to “support” someone’s case for their special interest or policy. So it is immensely valuable to see this in-depth, and broad-ranging, survey of the problem, and possible options for its relief.

Perhaps the biggest problem in dealing with this topic is revealed in the back-cover blurb: “Between 130,000 and 285,000 NZ children live in poverty, depending on the measure used.” That’s quite a range – how should we determine the number? And that is just the first question. What do we mean by poverty? Sub-Saharan African conditions? Is “poverty” a euphemism for parental neglect, or a result of it? How can we reduce or eliminate child poverty, and at what cost? What effects does this poverty have on children, and their families, and “the rest of us”?

The authors take a comprehensive look at these, and other, questions in three parts which I’d paraphrase as “The current situation”, “Options to reduce poverty” and “Coping with its impacts”. An additional chapter titled “Investing for the Future” draws some conclusions.
This book is not just an overview. Certainly, it covers a lot of ground, but in depth, and with evidence. Lots of facts, statistics, graphs, and charts buttress the arguments throughout.

Both authors were members of the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty established by the Children’s Commissioner in 2012, and they have of course drawn on the papers and discussions which came out of that group. As the title of the group suggests, there are solutions: reforming aspects of the employment, tax and benefit systems for example. These solutions are evaluated, and both costs and benefits considered. The idea that I personally found most enlightening was that the elimination of child poverty is something that can be incentivised (the authors’ word), with flow-on benefits to many other areas of the economy. In other words, the problem gives us some opportunities.

The book is authoritative, and quite accessible, although at times the reader has to work hard. I was grateful for the glossary of terms, to give some precision around words which have a technical meaning as well as a commonplace usage. It is impossible to write about social policy without using lots of data, and the sources for that data are often given in end-notes; I found that I needed to keep a bookmark in the Notes section so that I could assess what was being said in the text, to gain reassurance that I wasn’t just reading uninformed opinions. This reassurance is important to inform the debate, and lift it out of the political swamp.

Overall, this is a hopeful book, with its conclusion that “New Zealand has the necessary resources to reduce child poverty, and equitable and efficient ways to secure these resources are available”. The book finds these means to suit those of both centre-left and centre-right political persuasions. It deserves a wide audience.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Child Poverty in New Zealand
Jonathan Boston & Simon Chapple
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781927247860

Book review: Soon by Charlotte Grimshaw

cv_soonThis book is in bookshops now.

If you are looking for a New Zealand novel to spend your NZ Book Month voucher on, here’s a good one.

Soon picks up the story of politician David Hallwright of Grimshaw’s The Night Book a couple of years down the track. Hallwright is now Prime Minister and is on summer holiday at his beachside compound north of Auckland with his posse of friends, family, and colleagues. The days are long and hot and you can almost smell the money oozing from the pages. This is how the wealthy and powerful holiday at the beach, from the personal trainers, tennis courts, and luxury yachts, to the cocktails served by the ever-hovering staff.

As in The Night Book, the focus of the story is on prominent obstetrician Simon Lampton and his friendship with the magnetic Hallwright family. The beautiful, but rather vacuous, Elke who was adopted by Simon and his wife Karen years earlier is the biological daughter of the Prime Minister’s wife; forever bonding the families in a fragile and silently competitive friendship. However, an encounter between Simon and a documentary filmmaker, Arthur Weeks, threatens to damage both the families’ friendship and the National Party’s public image.

When I reviewed The Night Book two years ago, I mentioned that the characters were “so intensely human and strangely familiar that, despite their many flaws, they remain surprisingly likeable”. Roza, Simon, Karen and David remain intensely human and very very flawed but the intervening years have hardened each of them.

Although Grimshaw has done another superb job of breathing life into her characters, I confess I struggled to find any of them at all likeable. These people are shallow, greedy, self-absorbed and bitter. Yet they are oddly compelling. It’s like watching the build-up to a car crash – you know things are headed to a collision yet you can’t look away. As a reader, I usually find that if I don’t like the characters, I can’t like the story. Soon has proved to be the exception to my “rule”: despite really not liking the characters, I still cared very much about discovering what happened to each of them.

One part of the book that I enjoyed less was the twisted fantasy story about Soon the warrior dwarf which was interspersed throughout the book as a game between Roza and her young son. Roza interrupts the book at semi-regular intervals to “make Soon talk” and weaves a weird allegorical tale about the bloodthirsty dwarf and his loyal court. Although clever, it was disruptive and strange.

There is no denying Grimshaw’s cleverness. She’s a fabulous writer and conjures up characters and scenes so vivid you can almost see the heat haze hovering over the deck and smell the sunscreen. Soon is a great summer read – even if summer is, unfortunately, over.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

by Charlotte Grimshaw
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781869799991