Tuesday, May 21

The blah leading the blah

The other day I was talking to an economist friend and discussing – or rather we were bemoaning – the state of the university in New Zealand, the wider school system, society in general. We wondered how New Zealand had found itself reduced to a low skill, low wage, poorly educated (even at tertiary level), low productivity society and his response was ‘It’s not that in fact things are getting much worse, rather we have reached base mediocrity’.

What he meant by this is that New Zealand has become a mediocre society that, in too many facets of life, is happy to accept and, in many ways celebrate, mediocrity. If we examine our political and civil leadership, the acceptance of mediocrity becomes even more apparent. Our largest cities seem led by incompetents at both mayoral and council level. No-one could say any of our cities are working the way they should – but nor have they for decades. A decade ago, American political theorist Benjamin Barber wrote a famous book extolling civic leadership, grandly titled “If Mayors Ran The World”. Yet imagine if our mayors ran New Zealand? But wait, in many ways they do. Daily city and town life is affected by local government and its decisions in a myriad of ways that have a far greater impact than most central government decisions. The sense I am getting is that in in many places, especially in our largest cities, there is ever-increasing dissatisfaction, despair, and despondency regarding our civic leadership.

However central government offers very little hope either. Here mediocrity triumphs in leadership, MPs, and policies. Labional and Natour are interchangeable in mediocre leadership, membership, and policies. The rest are called minor parties for a reason and so it is really the failure of both the centre-right and center-left in policies and delivery that results in base mediocrity society. But then do we really want too much change, because that might in turn expect more change of us and from us? Yet when my 83-year-old mother, a one-time Labour party member and life-time Labour and Green voter repeatedly says, with mounting frustration, that she doesn’t think she can vote for anyone this election then we know the centre-left is in trouble. But then so is the centre-right. ‘It’s not ok’ say boomers, a sentiment echoed down through every generational cohort in a way I haven’t observed since the last years of the Muldoon regime.

This acceptance and endorsement of mediocrity seems to be the only version of trickle-down economics that has survived and thrived in our neoliberal society – a neoliberalism of the left in the anti-societal ethos of identity politics and intolerance and the neoliberalism of the right in social and economic policy. Our response to everything seem to be to cancel people, to fire people, and yet extol them to do more with and for less.

Let’s start from the ground up. We know the welfare state is failing and it has been for decades. Its real aim has become to keep the middle-class stable in their mediocrity while ignoring the realities of the poor and marginalized. And in many ways, fair enough because traditionally the middle class is the revolutionary class. If you don’t want change, you try to keep the middle class happy or at least complacent. It is when the middle class get seriously grumpy that change happens. Yet our failing welfare state is now making the middle class grumpy. Failing health, housing, policing, education, transport, and infrastructure are now directly impacting middle class lives, options and opportunities. The opiate of the masses in New Zealand has, since the 1970s, been the opiate of a mediocre welfare state. We may no longer really believe in God – and even less in the churches – but we still try hard to believe in the welfare state. Yet if the welfare state was, in the first Labour government manifesto, ‘applied Christianity’, what we get today is applied mediocrity. Nietzsche famously proclaimed that we had killed God with our indifference, and yet we hadn’t noticed. I would argue that we have in fact killed the welfare state with our indifference – but crucially, we are now, slowly, beginning to notice. If the death of God confronts us with the abyss of nihilism, the collapse of the welfare state confronts us with the abyss of mediocrity. In the face of nihilism, we are tasked with creating meaning and value – and so too is this our task in the face of mediocrity.

I would like to see some proper, serious, thoughtful discussion and thinking on the future of the welfare state, a welfare state that leads change, not follows mediocrity. This is centrally reliant on a greatly improved economic and productivity performance both from government and business. The cost of living needs to come down and productivity needs to increase. A welfare state is expensive but the social payoff of doing this successfully improves all lives. Therefore, the aim actually needs to be to create more middle class New Zealanders, not less; and this starts with greatly improved education and health outcomes.

We need to ask more of our schools and our tertiary institutions, of our businesses and government agencies, of our leaders and of ourselves. But if we only ask and do not deliver, if we demand and extract but do not reward and celebrate, if we demean and dismiss and not enable and facilitate, if we order and ignore and do not engage in conversation, then we will continue to churn in the indifference of mediocrity.