Today was a less good lockdown day. I was glooming my way through a rebuild of a drawer unit this afternoon. I had managed to make the drawers the wrong way round, which meant they were 24mm too narrow. That didn’t seem too problematic until I also discovered I had made the drawers 24mm too long in the perpendicular dimension! The consequence was I had to add strips on two sides, cut 24mm off the ends and put the drawers back together. By the time I had completed this I was having no fun at all, and that was about the time that the afternoon programme on Radio New Zealand starting playing Peggy Lee music.
It is amazing how a random song can completely change one’s mood. ‘Hey Big Spender‘ was first performed in 1966 and its lyrics are hardly meaningful, but the tune is seriously catchy. I suddenly found myself dancing around the shed, forgetting that I still had incomplete set of drawers.
The tune didn’t just make me dance, it also chimed in with some clips I heard on the radio in the last couple of days. This week Paul Henry started a new TV show called ‘Rebuilding Paradise’, following on from and answering to our COVID-19 crisis. First off I have to admit that I didn’t see it, because I have never owned a TV and don’t plan to start watching TV on my computer. The radio item said Henry had interviewed Michael Hill. The ‘music’ that always echoes through my head when I hear that name is Hill’s monotone repeating “Michael Hill jeweller, Michael Hill jeweller, Michael Hill jeweller” as his advertising for his very successful jewellery business; this music does not make me feel particularly happy as Michael Hill sold low end, glittery jewellery which most likely made people feel short term happy and Michael Hill long term rich.
But, back to the point, Michael Hill now lives near Queenstown. He noted that the cessation of tourism means Queenstown will feel like it used to several decades ago, and much quieter – nothing too notable there (we have to excuse his 81 year old brain). Then he said that he hoped the people who would come to Queenstown once tourism reopened would be the rich people. I will give Michael Hill some benefit of the doubt – let’s hope he was meaning that the people who would come would be those with lots of money who would spend a lot of money. There was something grating about that comment.
Then, today, we heard Rod Drury being interviewed by the Epidemic Response Committee as one of a group of big thinkers and strategists. The economic hole that used to be the tourism sector is entertaining the minds of many and the government is looking for ways to fill the gap. Drury’s great idea was that the government should let up on the regulations around purchasing of property by overseas buyers, and allow them to buy sections in specific locations (he noted Queenstown and the Tukituki Valley, in Hawkes Bay) to support the building industry. Rod asked, ‘How do we feel now about adding 1000 sections at $5 million each to support the economy?’.
Aside from the practicalities of finding 1000 sufficiently desirable sections, and the issue that scarcity is a known driver of value, rather than selling a glut of 1000 at once, how do I feel? I feel like it is a quite a repellent idea. We will keep our builders working for rich-listers while a whole lot of New Zealanders still can’t afford houses and live in substandard accommodation. Oh yes, let’s further increase the differential between the rich and poor in New Zealand to keep a small number of builders employed. Not to mention that, those builders in Queenstown have been absolutely creaming it in over the last several years, and are probably not the people we most need to help. Rod implied there would be a trickle-down effect to the rest of the economy; I remember the much-touted trickle down effect from the 1980s. The term got reframed as ‘them peeing on us’. Somehow, I doubt that trickle-down of wealth from the rich to the less well off has changed markedly, it certainly wasn’t a feature of the Queenstown of the 2010s.
It would seem that, if you ask rich people to solve the problems that New Zealand is now facing, their solutions focus on the rich and don’t necessarily involve betterment of the less well off. If what we are hoping to come out of the COVID-19 situation is a better society, it sounds like rich people’s solutions might not be all that we need. One of the most memorable aspects of the Canterbury earthquakes were the GapFiller projects (including the Dance-O-Mat) and associated street art (covered in this RadioNZ interview). GapFiller projects ran on a shoestring, or a washing machine, and livened the city and the people. Today they have been leveraged into city tours and ongoing entertainment. They form a long term reminder that creativity can be driven by extremis and that good ideas can come from surprising quarters.
However, Gap Fillers won’t fill our economic hole, and any government might well quail at a hole at the scale of 5% of GDP or 8% of employment. The chance of a quick fix at that scale seems slight; do we need to figure how to manage our country with a smaller sized economy while we consider the new opportunities that emerge from our existing capabilities, combined with the needs of our rethought country and world? The eternal economic growth mantra is tattered and torn, we can see through the gaps, we just can’t yet see how to create a strong and desirable alternative. The most important aspect will be national synchrony on what we need and want, such that we can choose opportunities which lead us along the path on which we want to travel. For our government to achieve that synchrony will be one of their hardest tasks, out of a set of colossal challenges. The task for each of us is to become clear in our own minds as to where we want our country and world to head; without citizens having clarity the government will flounder.