Book Review: Sugar, Rum and Tobacco: Taxes and Public Health in New Zealand, by Mike Berridge & Lisa Marriott

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_Berridge_Marriott_Sugar_rum_and_tobacco_TIP_02This book is a very short treatise on the perils of sugar consumption, and the possibilities of taxing it. The title refers to the view of classical economist, Adam Smith, that all three commodities are proper subjects of taxation. The authors agree that it being universally consumed, but not a necessity of life, makes the difference.

But whereas government appears to have had great success in taxing alcohol and tobacco consumption, it has not been willing to tax sugar as such. The book begins by making a scientific case for the deleterious effects of sugar consumption, based on statistical links to obesity, to build a case for a targeted tax. Most of the rest of the book is a review of the attempts to tax soft drinks in particular countries, and a review of the literature on the effectiveness of targeted taxes used to curb demand. As with any book based on economic theory there is a reliance on terminology, some of which is inconsistent – sometimes they refer to the ‘elasticity’ of demand, and at other times specify the price inelasticity. This is probably confusing to most potential readers.

But the economic theory is secondary to the science. An early chapter describes the role of sucrose, glucose and fructose in human digestion. The main message seems to be that what the authors term ‘added sugar’, as in the average can or bottle of Coke, immediately raises the level of intake beyond that recommended by health authorities. In New Zealand the World Health Organisation guideline has been adopted, which is 9 teaspoons for adults per day, when the average intake is apparently closer to 40. So, unless one is a professional cyclist riding hundreds of kilometres, that means no Coke.

The medical case that the authors put up may seem convincing, but also hopelessly unrealistic. To stay in the guidelines would mean cutting out virtually any treat food completely. Indeed, if the effect of added sugar is so bad, and the health impacts are so great, it would seem better to regulate rather than try to tax soft drink products. Most of the discussion is spent examining how to make a tax effective in economic terms, and create a permanent effect on consumption. But the specific parts referring to elasticity and income effects involve dependent variables, i.e. the fact is that the pattern of consumption of low income households is determined by their poverty. It would seem that just raising poor people’s household income would improve health.

This particular book would have done better to look more closely at retailing in New Zealand, rather than exhaustively review the international literature. Those that shop in supermarkets often notice the sale of 1.5 litre soft drink bottles at 99 cents, which makes it less expensive than an average imported orange or locally produced tomato. Local dairies and 4 Squares also have permanent specials of soft drink cans at $1 or $1.50, depending on the size or number purchased.

And, though the authors briefly mention the lobbying by the retail industry groups, and the political impact of this on the previous government, the profit motive is not questioned in the book. So, instead of micro-designing a new tax to target consumption, the real issue is the retail sector, the supermarket duopoly, and the fact that small dairies rely on Coca-Cola Amatil’s discounting for their survival. Since the authors don’t recommend other measures, such as removing GST from healthy food, they also put economic efficiency first.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Sugar, Rum and Tobacco: Taxes and Public Health in New Zealand
Mike Berridge and Lisa Marriott
Published by BWB
ISBN 9780947518301

 

 

 

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Book Review: The 9th Floor, edited by Guyon Espiner and Tim Watkin

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_9th_floorThis was quite a difficult book to review, with the election campaign all over bar the shouting. I almost feel like we need to know who the next Prime Minister is, to put it all in context. It is also quite difficult to assess the book as a book, because the ‘conversations’ with the former PMs are also running on Face TV at the moment, after playing on RNZ.

So do we really need to read the book, given that the conversations are still available on-line at RNZ’s website, and playing on a TV channel? The short answer is no. While the introduction to the book adds some context, the reader does not get the same amount of information about the interviewee as the visuals provide. And some of us may feel that we have already heard enough from the former PMs anyway.

Another issue is that the conversations are effectively verbatim, with some tidying up of the transcripts, and are mostly opinion. In other words, there is no attempt to clarify any points involving detail, or expanding them with the help of statistics. Then there are the interviewing and personal idiosyncrasies: Guyon Espiner knows most of the subjects from being a press gallery member for TVNZ, which meant reporting in soundbites rather than lengthy interviews, and his approach to radio is similar.

But the main problem is with the former PMs themselves. Only two out of the five were elected as Prime Minister. Both Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore were effectively caretakers, and Moore’s tenure was so brief he rarely made it into the office. Palmer is quoted as saying the whole thing was a nuisance for him, and Moore’s opinions remain scattered and often risible. By contrast, Jenny Shipley was the first female Prime Minister, but it is difficult to find the substance in what she says, and the rhetoric is often completely adrift from the substance of what actually happened. The central part of the conversation remains what she did to welfare policy before becoming the Prime Minister, in a rather unseemly move to unseat Jim Bolger.

The Bolger conversation is the most interesting, even to those who don’t wish to recall his tenure in office. It is obviously the most significant to Espiner, who has used one particular comment in his campaign interviews with the current leaders of the National and Labour Parties. Bolger is probably the only political leader, and perhaps the only right wing politician, to confess to having adhered to the neo-liberal doctrine. This seems interesting but does not accord with the facts, particularly since the term was not invented when he was elected. He actually won a massive majority under the previous electoral system, and therefore got to implement his party’s agenda without any impediment. This was not simply a case of following a theoretical doctrine.

Some of what Bolger talks about is significant, even while unconvincing. The key part, perhaps, is the question of the fiscal hole creating by the BNZ losses up to 1990. The issue seems important, as the journalists state that they also interviewed the previous finance minister, David Caygill, about the BNZ debacle. But none of this information is presented in the book, and nor is it related to the Winebox saga, which was the biggest story of the 1990s. So, while Bolger comes across as sincere and something of a maverick as a conservative politician, not much new is being added. This also applies to the conversation with Helen Clark, which is disappointing in not providing much insight, perhaps because she is still active in public life. All in all, this book highlights an era of unstable government, and rather mediocre political leaders.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

The 9th Floor: Conversations with five New Zealand Prime Ministers
Edited by Guyon Espiner and Tim Watkin
Published by BWB Books
ISBN 9781988533223     

Book Review: Tax and Fairness, by Deborah Russell & Terry Baucher

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tax_and_fairnessTwo well-known tax experts try to write a concise and intelligible book about tax. For the most part they succeed. This book is also intended to be part of a moral conversation about why we pay tax. In fact, its main contribution is to highlight some of the more technical aspects of tax in New Zealand, and make some useful comparisons to overseas practice.

The central part of the book involves explaining why the taxation of savings has gotten so complex and arbitrary. This affects both Kiwisaver and the Government’s Superannuation Fund, which appears to pay an inordinate amount of tax. Meanwhile, the country’s ‘love affair with property’ sees that go effectively untaxed, while the regular reviews of tax put a comprehensive capital gains tax (CGT) in the ‘too hard basket’, and the Treasury and IRD can’t agree on how to formulate a CGT in any case.

These chapters on the taxing of investment, and absence of tax on land and housing, are essential and could have been expanded. As it is there are many unfamiliar concepts to explain, and there is a risk of getting confused in all the acronyms. After learning about the ‘financial arrangements regime’, there is Tax, Tax, Exempt (TTE) policy; the Foreign Investment Fund (FIF) regime; the fair dividend rate (FDR) method; and the Portfolio Investment Entity (PIE) regime, before we get into Kiwisaver.

In particular, the FIF regime appears to have been rather baffling from the start in the 1980s, and has had to be re-booted a number of times. This points to the underlying theme within the narrative of the book. A lot of the key changes stem from the mid 1980s when there was supposed to be a simplification process, and the basic principle was to have a ‘broad base and low rate’ across all forms of income. However, examples like the FIF regime appear to be based on a theory of their own specific to the idiosyncrasies of New Zealand policymakers, especially in Treasury, as does the trust law change from the same period.

The trust law is mentioned a few times in the text, and both authors discussed the foreign trust regime in public debates during 2016, after the release of the Panama Papers. They seemed to agree that this had created a tax haven operation, but, rather curiously, they do not use the term at all in this book, even when discussing the tax-dodging multinational corporations. There is instead a nuance, when referring to the forms of income in ‘foreign trusts’ that goes untaxed; and this is apparently due to a loophole in the law. In truth, it was not a loophole at all, as the creation of the ‘foreign trust’ category was quite deliberate, and went against the advice of overseas experts in the crucial 1987-8 period. The only real question is why it remained unnoticed for so long, and why it was not reformed as well.

Although the book is apparently about fairness, the familiar terms for this – tax being more or less ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’ – are never actually used in the text. Instead the concepts of ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ equity are introduced, and are mentioned a few times in the detailed chapters. However, it is a pity that the concepts in the opening chapters, and the ‘moral conversation’ idea in the final chapter, are not necessarily integrated with all the technical detail.

Nonetheless, this short book is a credible effort in a very tricky conceptual minefield, and makes a good case for reforms.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Tax and Fairness (A BWB Text)
by Deborah Russell & Terry Baucher
Published by BWB
ISBN 9780947518608

Book Review: New Zealand’s Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key, by Michael Bassett

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

Michael Bassett is a former university lecturer in history, who was first elected for the Labour Party in 1972, and became a cabinet minister in the 4th Labour Government in 1984. He should have some unique insights into the careers of the Prime Ministers in New Zealand, both as an historian and as an insider. But during his career, Bassett has moved from the left of the Labour Party to become the main defender of the faith for “Rogernomics” – so, associated with the ACT Party.

The book begins as mostly elite political biography, moves into some sharp personal polemics during Bassett’s era as a politician, and ends up cheer-leading for John Key. As an elitist historian, Bassett’s text for the early Prime Ministers is based on some classic historical works, without accounting for recent scholarship from university history departments. And as an elitist, Bassett continually name checks retired right wing economists like Gary Hawke, and Don Brash, who regularly appear for their anecdotal accounts of politicians. Bassett himself often slips into the first person, and goes from the past to the present tense.

One of the idiosyncratic aspects of this book is the amount of text given over to caretaker Prime Ministers, like Harry Bell, who gets almost as many pages as days he spent in office. Bassett’s use of initials for Bell can also confuse him with his politician father, F.D. Bell. The reason for this focus on Bell is his influence on the likes of Coates and other key figures in the interwar period, which is Bassett’s main area of knowledge as an historian. But the post-war period has an underlying narrative based on economic transformation, and its apparent link to academic theorising. He digresses to talk about Don Brash’s view on the role of Canterbury University (p.335) in the chapter on Bill Rowling, who was apparently gripped by Keynes’ thinking.

For Bassett, after Kirk, the Labour leaders do not shape up. Most of the invective is reserved for R.D. Muldoon. This is where Bassett gets particularly petty, including referring to Muldoon as “Old Pussy”, based on a schooldays anecdote. He repeats this term a number of times in the Muldoon chapter, as well as other unattributed anecdotes, like when the Treasury secretary, Henry Lang, waited outside the minister’s office all day to get his point across. This is portrayed as an example of the Treasury officials’ views being overridden, but Bassett misrepresents their relationship with the finance minister.

Bassett’s book includes a lot of black & white images, some from library sources, and others from his own collection or offered by recent Prime Ministers. The caption on the photo for the first page of Jenny Shipley’s chapter states that it was contemporary, when it’s obviously taken recently. Indeed, with no photographs in colour, other than the cover photo of John Key playing golf, it is hard to justify the $50 retail price tag. But then this book is only really for the political conservatives in the current debate.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

New Zealand’s Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key
by Michael Bassett
David Ling Publishing 2017

NB: The views in this review do not necessarily represent those of Booksellers NZ as an organisation. All of our reviewers are independent commentators.

Book Review: Tell You What: 2017, edited by Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tell_you_what_2017This third AUP collection of ‘Great New Zealand Nonfiction’ was an engaging summer read, and may even turn out to be the best such compilation. Through a miscellany of styles and themes, patterns emerge, just like little ripples in a swimming pool, or batting statistics in test cricket history. At first it was a useful read during the slower periods in the recent Basin Reserve test match. But as the cricket got more exciting, and the injuries more serious, I realised that the essays demanded greater concentration.

Personal narrative and in-depth history are woven into everything from slave runs in 17th century Iceland and the 19th century Marlborough Sounds, to the previously unknown story of a Muslim immigrant herbalist, and a 1960s case of arsenic poisoning. Seriously obscure literary texts and pop culture kitsch from the 1970s form the background to tales of gendered angst. There are also some good selections from more mainstream journalism and essay subjects.

Giovanni Tiso makes a very good point about the assumptions of policy reformers over the course of a century when it comes to the spending habits of the poor. And Dylan Cleaver’s piece from the NZ Herald brings new life to the odd world of pigeon racing. There are also important and contrasting takes on the role of Maori protocol and sense of whakapapa in a number of the selections, some in specific cultural contexts, and others in the more complex considerations involved in the wreck of the Rena, or purchase of the Awaroa inlet. Talia Marshall’s treatment of the latter is both grammatically and thematically challenging, covers a whole sweep of Maori and colonial history, and also notes the loss of bird life in the Abel Tasman national park. Like a number of the authors, she questions our sense of place.

The main theme that emerges in this collection is the struggle for understanding between parents and children over time, including how to overcome a denial of family history. Toni Nealie’s ‘Bequeathed’ is a very structured piece that draws together her very fragmented family history, and focuses on lost grandparents, the complications of their ‘mixed race’ marriage, and the role of particular inherited items in creating meaning where memory had been shunned. The pain of maternal death and its implications are examined in Ashleigh Young’s ‘Anemone’, as she describes the journey to London to help her brother and nephew cope with the suicide of her sister-in-law. Young’s brother’s reaction is similar to that of a sea anemone; and her nephew finds an explanation in the intricacies of something called Minecraft. But Young herself can’t quite fathom the situation, or even use the word suicide.

Equally challenging, and somehow unfathomable, Tracey Slaughter’s account of her childhood in ‘Ashdown Place’, and the life changing effects of a swimming pool being installed. It becomes the venue for tawdry adult parties, what is now called ‘swinging’, and the seeds of permanent splits and reallocation of partners. Slaughter’s description of the cultural artefacts and reference points of the time are evocative in the extreme, at least for those also growing up in the ‘70s. And her final paragraph, where she recounts the seedy morning afters, as the child within returns to the swimming pool for a contemplative paddle, is sublime. But for all its literary merit I found myself troubled by this one, and the part where she suggests that the explanation is sociological – couples who married too young discarded their sexual mores in the heat of summer, but otherwise remained suburban conservatives. Perhaps infidelity was re-invented in the 1970s.

With that point made, Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood have done a fantastic job in compiling these essays. 2016 was also a good year for non-fiction writing if nothing else.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Tell You What: 2017
by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood (eds)
Auckland University Press
ISBN  9781869408602

 

Book Review: Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dont_dream_its_overThe title for this collaborative book of essays and insights, borrowed from the Crowded House song, “Don’t Dream it’s Over”, is apposite and timely. From the song there is the line “…they come to build a wall between us…”. If we took that literally with regard to journalism, applied to the commercial model for media, it seems that the quality product will soon be found behind a paywall; and the mass media will not provide anything in the way of investigative reporting in the future. The contributors to this book  make it abundantly clear that long-form print journalism is on the wane, and, in any case, the whole future of the print media itself is in doubt.

A lot has already been written about this demise, however, and though covered here the real insights are into the specific role of New Zealand journalism. We like to think of Crowded House as a New Zealand institution, but do we similarly think of any of the local media with this level of esteem? Other than the regard shown for public broadcasting on radio, in the form of RNZ, one’s reaction to the essays in general is to ask what is worth saving in the commercial media? And does it actually matter? Those of us who do listen to RNZ for much of the morning and early evening are still well informed, by and large, and can then pick and choose what to read or view from the commercial outlets. But even then, RNZ can be challenged for its content, as some of the contributors do, on the basis of a deficit in their indigenous and Pacific stories.

Industry insiders, such as Brent Edwards, do concede that there has been a loss of trust between the audience and the media, and he is particularly critical of political coverage. RNZ is actually the only media outlet that covers the proceedings of Parliament, while all the rest of the Press Gallery simply focus on the game of politics without any substance of policymaking. I suggest that the so-called ‘political editors’ don’t actually report anything, but simply provide an insider commentary. Morgan Godfery provides a brilliant chapter ‘Against political commentary’, where he wrestles with his own involvement as a commentator, and trappings of the elite company he has kept. He refers to the idea of ‘savvy commentary’, and the narrow demographic background of commentators creating a hermetically sealed world. He refers to the odd premise that this perpetuates: “a belief that political progress comes from pragmatic insiders who know how to manoeuvre within the system…” With his critique in mind, we should also note how partisan most of the broadcasters have become, even though the media insiders refer to certain examples to counter this.

The book’s editors point to the release of Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics as a catalyst for the collection, and contributors refer to the innovative use of the Panama Papers as a counter-example, whereby the government was held to account. Hager has his own chapter in the book, and the Panama Papers are mentioned a number of times, including in Peter Griffin’s essay on New Zealand’s fledgling data journalism ‘scene’. Griffin’s title is ‘Needles in the haystack’, but it might as well have been ‘Missing the wood for the trees’. This is because none of the contributors note that without the release of the Panama Papers as an international story, and with the New Zealand stories actually coming out of the Australian Financial Review, we would never have known that there was a tax haven operating in New Zealand. The local media seem to think that they are responsible for exposing this, and creating policy change, though nothing has actually happened yet to close the tax haven down. In fact, certain business reporters were aware of the trust law and the related industry, that is the basis for the tax haven. These are the same couple of reporters that noted that John Key’s agenda for an ‘international financial hub’ came to grief a few years ago. There is no mention at all of business reporting in this book, and its role in providing expert analysis of economic issues, even when it is still ideologically aligned to the right.

But, overall, the Freerange Press has done a great job with this book, and every chapter is worthwhile. Peter Arnett provides a foreword, and reflects on his being a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, something of a high point for the international press. There is also a chapter on the views of some journalism students, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they almost all want to work for major international broadcasters, other than the one who is happy to find a job at RNZ. The book has some very good design features, and some impressive motifs for each chapter heading, and the ‘tags’ at the end of the book. The ‘tags’ appear in place of a conventional index, which may, however, have been of some use given the length of the text. There is even a chapter that discusses the role of design in the digital age, which adds another dimension.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand
edited by Emma Johnson, Giovanni Tiso, Sarah Illingworth and Barnaby Bennett
Published by Freerange Press
ISBN 9780473364946

Book Review: Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene, by Rod Oram

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_three_citiesRod Oram is an interesting example of a business journalist who has escaped the somewhat narrow confines of the daily press to become a columnist, and is able to discuss some of the big issues confronting the world. On his most recent Tuesday morning slot on RNZ National he talked about civilisation being at risk from global climate change and ecological destruction. The man-made environmental change to planet is what Oram means when referring to the ‘anthropocene’ in the title. But he remains in a minority of financial journalists who delve into environmental issues.

So Oram goes to three of the largest metropolitan areas in the world to look for others who are interested in ecological questions. This looks promising at first, even though the opening chapter about Beijing includes a lot of rather dry statistical information. And there he finds about the idea of ‘ecological civilisation’ which China confronts as it continues to industrialise, but faces certain financial and institutional challenges. In the conclusion Oram refers to other ideas he discovers in the Western metropoles, like the ‘doughnut economy’ and the ‘circular economy’. The sub-title of the book claims that “conventional economic policies are failing worldwide”, and he refers in the text to the ‘lifeless’ economic theory that plagues elite policymaking in the West. Oram also mentions something called Californian Ideology based on Silicon Valley values.

But, unfortunately, the book doesn’t really delve into the new ideas in any sustained way. Oram’s visit to three cities is based on his own familiarity with them, rather than really seeking new experience and opinion. There is a lot of personal narrative here for such a short book. And there are quite a few digressions as well, though some involve finding a Kiwi connection, like the Chinese store owned by Japanese interests which sells a Comvita gift box of 5 honey related items for 3031 yuan ($NZ750). He also refers to some interesting facts about a New Zealand firm LanzaTech, which has relocated to Chicago. However, I found the chapter about London rather disjointed, with an odd beginning about Jeremy Corbyn and Yanis Varoufakis. Oram writes quite a bit about the Financial Times where he worked in London, and the Northwestern University where he studied in the USA, but this does not add much to the big themes.

There is another version of this story which Oram presented for the 2015 Bruce Jesson Foundation lecture. There he talked about three crises which are linked: a fiscal or financial crisis for global economy beginning in 1971; the ‘Eco shock’ which has also been developing over the same time; and what he calls the ‘Corporate shock’, as exemplified in the Volkswagen company’s systematic deception over carbon emissions from its vehicles, being emblematic of the environmental costs of big business. If only the book were more focussed on the analysis of these issues, though the suggestions for local change in New Zealand at the end of the book are useful.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene
by Rod Oram
Published by BWB Books (Text series)
ISBN 9780994135407