• Natural Disasters

    I was struck the other day by a news report about the floods and storms in the UK. Some of those whose homes had been flooded were interviewed; they complained bitterly that the government had done nothing to prevent the disaster or to help them in its aftermath.

    What struck me about the report was the immediate assumption on the part of ordinary citizens that they were entitled to expect “the government” to “do something” about the effects of natural disasters and to complain if remedial action was not forthcoming.

    We live in an era when, because of climate change, natural disasters are likely to come thick and fast. There will be some instances, such as the Australian bushfires, when governments are justifiably put in the dock because of their failure to foresee that their policies are likely to increase the chances of damage to people, animals and property.

    But, in most cases, natural disasters come out of the blue. In New Zealand, we have had our fair share of floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, and we have, on the whole, recognised that, while governments certainly have a role in helping people to recover from the worst effects, they cannot be held responsible for their occurrence.

    “Natural” disasters are, by definition, forces of nature, and governments are merely human agencies. They should certainly be expected to mitigate the consequences of natural disasters but they have no ability to wish them away.

    We now know that the category of natural disasters is not limited to weather events. The advent of the coronavirus outbreak teaches us that the definition of natural disasters now includes the spread of dangerous viruses.

    We can all sympathise with those caught up in the consequences of the outbreak. Those Kiwis who found themselves in Wuhan at the time of the outbreak, and those who were unlucky enough to find themselves on the cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, in Yokohama, quite naturally turned to their government to bail them out of their dangerous and difficult plight, and get them home to safety.

    It has to be said that our government stepped up to the plate pretty effectively. They were able to organise a flight out of Wuhan back to New Zealand, and they had the generosity and foresight to find seats for Australians and Pacific Islanders as well.

    That foresight paid off when it came to planning a rescue for those imprisoned on the Diamond Princess. The Kiwis anxious to escape their plight were able to cadge a lift on an Australian flight out of Japan when the Aussies decided to return the favour.

    Those rescued will still have to endure a further period of quarantine, but that is clearly needed, and justified in the public interest, given the level of infection that had arisen on board the cruise ship. On the whole, the issue has so far been handled by the government with good sense and to good effect.

    The economic effects of the crisis are less easily counteracted. Particular areas of economic activity, such as tertiary education, forestry and tourism, will clearly take a hit, but the government is already considering special measures to help them – and there is little to be done to withstand the overall impact on the economy of the blow delivered by the virus to international trade and movement.

    We can, however, and sadly, still expect to hear voices raised to echo the complaints of the victims of the UK floods. The government, we will be told, “has not done enough” or has acted “too late”.

    A mature democracy should have learned by now, though, that – in an era when natural disasters are likely to become the norm – governments do not have a magic wand. We should adjust our expectations accordingly. We can expect them to be efficient and sympathetic in mitigating the adverse consequences, we can hope that they will usher in improved policies designed to minimise the risks of further disasters, but we have to accept that, human as – like us – they are, their power to negate natural disasters when they happen is strictly limited.

    Bryan Gould
    18 February 2020

  • We Can Learn From Our Pets

    Over recent months, I have, for my sins, been thinking about, and trying to write, a book that is intended to answer the question of how we might arrive at a system of values that would guide us as to how we should treat each other.

    My tentative conclusion so far is that, in conducting such an inquiry, and in the absence of any external authority telling us what to do, we should draw on our own reasoning ability, our own accumulated knowledge as to how our world works, and our own experience as to what is most likely to provide us, as individuals, with fulfilling lives, and to give us – as a society and as a species – the best chance of survival.

    There are many sources of experience and inspiration that might help us in such a quest and that will allow us to identify those behaviours that we can approve and that will make us feel better. One such experience, and one that many of us will have shared, is the experience of having a pet.

    My wife and I have long been dog-lovers. Our little West Highland White Terrier, Brodie, has now been with us for a year – and he has been a major influence on, and factor in, our lives over that period.

    He was born on a farm, and into a family with small children. He was, accordingly, cosseted and fussed from the moment he was born, and grew up to expect that he would be well treated.

    It is that early experience of being loved and cherished that explains, we think, his sweet temperament – and, in the whole of his life so far, he has continued to experience nothing but love and kindness.

    As a result, he likes everybody, and expects that everybody will like him. He approaches everyone with a wagging tail, and everyone responds to him with pleasure and warmth. He has created a self-fulfilling virtuous circle for himself – because he has been kindly treated, and expects to be so, he responds to people with pleasure and affection, and when people recognise that this is what he expects in return, they respond accordingly.

    My wife and I are the beneficiaries of this virtuous circle. We are rewarded with the constant pleasure and enjoyment of our little dog’s companionship, affection and eagerness to please. He has repaid us many times over for the care we lavish on him.

    As I reflect on this interaction with our dear little friend and companion, I cannot help but wonder whether it could form a kind of blueprint for our relationships more generally. If we can establish such a mutually beneficial interaction with another sentient (though, in this case, non-human) being, why could those behaviours not be similarly rewarding when applied to inter-human contacts?

    We all know and recognise the pleasure that acts of kindness can bring us – when we receive kindness, offer it ourselves to others and observe it in others. And it is not just as individuals that we derive these benefits; the society in which we live and of which we are a part is also healthier, and functions better and more harmoniously – and our chances of survival as a species are also enhanced, as are those of our planet.

    It may be that I am, in setting up our little dog as an exemplar of good behaviour, asking Brodie to bear too heavy a burden. Perhaps it would be better to leave him in his own happy little world. But why should we humans be so arrogant as to assume that we can learn nothing from other species? And why should we be reluctant to conclude that love, affection and kindness, wherever they may be found, are the building blocks of a society that functions well and that allows us all to make the most of our lives?

    Bryan Gould
    11 February 2020

  • Where Did the Billions Come From?

    In the midst of the blanket news coverage of the coronavirus outbreak, how many people registered the news report that the Chinese government had taken action to counteract the adverse effects of the outbreak on the Chinese economy?

    The report was to the effect that the Chinese government was to inject around $170 billion of new money into the economy, so as to provide a stimulus that would help to offset the slump in economic activity brought about by the virus outbreak.

    And how many people would have wondered, on hearing this news, how the Chinese government could find such a large volume of new money. Was it, up to that point, just lying around doing nothing? Or did they borrow it from somewhere? Or did they sell off assets in order to produce the cash?

    The answer is that they did none of those things. The Chinese understand very well that, as a sovereign country with their own currency, their government is able to produce money at any time in whatever quantity and for whatever purpose they like. They understand that the one thing that a modern country should never be short of is money. They understand that, as a modern western economist has recently said, “we can afford whatever we can do”. They realised that money is their servant, not their master.

    This, after all, is how the Chinese are able so often to buy up foreign assets, including New Zealand assets, whenever they wish. When New Zealand enterprises languish for lack of capital, they can be easily picked off by a Chinese purchaser, usually government owned or backed, and able to raise new money by a stroke of the pen.

    The Chinese are not alone in realising that they need never be short of money, provided their government is ready and willing to create the money that is needed. The Japanese have followed a similar strategy and used it to transform a war-torn and shattered Japanese postwar economy into a manufacturing powerhouse.

    It is tempting to say that we, in the western world more generally and in New Zealand in particular, have never been clever or brave enough to follow suit – but that is not quite true. In the Depression years before the Second World War, the Labour government headed by Michael Joseph Savage used exactly this technique to finance and build thousands of state houses.

    The result? The government found itself, as the owner of the new houses, sitting on a major new income-producing asset. Thousands of construction workers had jobs they wouldn’t otherwise have had, and wage packets that enabled them to buy goods produced by other Kiwis, while yet others were able to settle into affordable homes for the first time – and New Zealand escaped the Depression in better shape than virtually any other country.

    Sadly, the lesson learnt then has long been forgotten, and we have found ourselves taken over by the timid and the ignorant, convinced by orthodoxy to the effect that “printing money” must always be a bad thing – and this in a world where the banks are allowed a monopoly on creating money out of thin air and when governments have used “quantitative easing” (just a fancy way of saying “printing money”) to bail out the banks when they behaved irresponsibly and produced the Global Financial Crisis.

    But, while we might wait in vain for a New Zealand government to learn this simple lesson, hats off to the Chinese, who have not been held back by stultifying orthodoxy and who have taken effective action to ensure that the coronavirus does not ruin their economy as well as the health of their people.

    If only we had politicians with similar vision and ability to think for themselves.

    Bryan Gould

    5 February 2020

  • The Dogs of War

    For the Polly Toynbees of this world, the battle continues, though quite what victory might look like for them is not clear. We can only assume that, having done all they could, as the exit process took place, to predict Brexit doom, they are now pulling out the stops to try to ensure that their predictions are validated and justified.

    Now that the UK is no longer a member of the EU, they have changed their focus. They now profess to see a myriad of obstacles standing in the way of a sensible and mutually beneficial trading arrangement between the EU and a newly independent UK. So, both British remainers and EU leaders to some extent, prepare to “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war”.

    What they do not seem to have grasped is that the bargaining position of the parties has changed fundamentally in light of the British departure. The UK and the EU are both now sovereign entities; whatever the obligations that might have been owed by one to another in an earlier relationship are now consigned to history.

    The UK is fully able and entitled to approach negotiations on a new trade deal, unencumbered by any concern for customs unions and single markets or any other EU preoccupation. And the EU, as would be the case in a negotiation with any other sovereign country, has no power to insist that acceptance of the rules enjoined by either or both a single market and a customs union, is the pre-condition of a trade agreement.

    The extent to which such preoccupations are implicit in the EU negotiating position is a matter for the parties to decide once the negotiations are under way, but they cannot be treated ab initio as an immutable feature of the negotiating landscape, as some seem to favour. The UK is no longer subject to the obligations of EU membership – that was the whole point of Brexit.

    It would be a major departure from normal practice if a trading partner were required by the EU, as part of the deal, to comply with EU domestic laws – not only existing laws but laws made in the future as well – that would dictate to that trading partner what it could or could not do in matters of its own domestic economic and industrial policy.

    If any such an ambition lurks in the EU negotiating position, then the EU should get over themselves. They no longer hold the trump cards; the UK is no longer subject to their jurisdiction. The EU have no choice but to enter the negotiations as anyone else would do – seeking the best possible and most beneficial trade outcomes for themselves, and using such cards as they hold in order to secure that outcome.

    They are, in other words, in no different a situation from that of the UK. Like the EU, the British have no power to lay down compliance with their domestic laws as the pre-condition of a trade deal. The extent to which the British might comply with any specific EU preferences is a matter for negotiations yet to be held.

    There is one other sense in which the situation has changed fundamentally. The British are no longer demandeurs or supplicants. They enter the negotiations like any other negotiator, and like the EU, eager to protect and further their own interests and to arrive at a deal that suits all parties.

    There seems to be no reason why negotiations entered into on this basis should not produce an outcome that is acceptable to everyone.

    Bryan Gould
    4 February 2020

  • Brexit Day

    Even at 12,000 miles distance, I was able to celebrate the moment when the UK left the EU. There was a personal element to my celebration. I recalled that, as I record in my published memoirs, I was shocked when I found myself – in a debate on the Maastricht treaty – speaking to an almost empty chamber, and my sense that, if British MPs couldn’t be bothered even turning up when significant powers of government were being handed over to an outside agency, I couldn’t see why I, as a Kiwi, should bother either – it was a significant factor in my decision to leave British politics and return to my native New Zealand.

    So, as the whole ill-judged episode was brought to an end on 31 January, I celebrated – but my principal feelings were those of relief, regret and anger.

    I felt relief that the British people’s decision to regain their sovereignty had at last been honoured. I felt regret at the wastage – of opportunity, of prosperity, of self-belief – that 47 years of vassalage had meant for us. And I felt anger at those who had led us into such a damaging dead end and who had more recently striven might and main to keep us there.

    It was, after all, the predecessors of today’s remainers who had persuaded us to sign up to the ill-fated venture in the first place. They sold the idea to us on a false prospectus – that it would open the door to greater prosperity and that it would mean no loss of the powers of self-government.

    I think I can claim to have been one of the few to have debunked such claims from the outset. I knew from my work in the Foreign Office and my years in our embassy in Brussels that the terms on which we were urged to join what was then the Common Market could hardly have been more calculated to weaken, rather than benefit, us.

    The record shows beyond doubt that my fears were justified. The British economy languished, our trade deficit swelled, our manufacturing industry was decimated, our trading links with the rest of the world were weakened, our cost of living was pushed up – not entirely the consequences of our European involvement, it is true, since domestic policy mistakes also played a part – but the operations of the Common Market, then the EEC and then the EU, were clearly inimical to British interests over the whole period.

    And all the while, as our economy faltered, we found that assurances that there was no intention to create a European super-state were just hot air. We found ourselves in an entity with its own central bank, its own supreme court, its own powerful executive and its own so-called parliament – all with the power to tell us what we could and couldn’t do, and all enjoying powers superior to those of our own institutions.

    We have discovered just how far-reaching those shackles have been as we have struggled to disentangle ourselves from them through the exit process.

    Those who had urged us on in the first place closed their eyes to these consequences. They were driven by what seemed to be an almost religious fanaticism, but which was in reality, I think, an expression of what they believed was a kind of cultural superiority. They saw themselves as European, rather than British, because they felt that, unlike their fellow-citizens, they alone were able to enjoy the great glories and pleasures of European civilisation – the music, art, literature, food and architecture. As a consequence, they were impervious to the concerns of those they regarded as their inferiors.

    Leaving the EU has at last restored to us the chance to shape our own future. There seems no reason, looking forward, why two entities – the UK and the EU – with so many shared interests and so geographically close to each other, should have any difficulty in agreeing on a mutually beneficial trading arrangement and on a range of other useful cooperations on what I like to describe as functional opportunities – that is, we work together where it makes obvious sense to do so.

    Our future is indeed bright if British energy and ambition are now put at the service of our own interests, rather than of some fanciful and elusive European identity. It might even be that Commonwealth countries like my own, so long cold-shouldered by the British, might be persuaded to forgive their ill-treatment and enter new arrangements that will benefit all parties.

    Bryan Gould
    2 February 2020