Ambitious project fails to convince

The New Zealand Project is heavy on grand vision but light on serious policy analysis. 

Max Harris
Bridget Williams Books


Picking up The New Zealand Project, I was interested to see if its youthful author, Max Harris, had any interesting and new ideas to address the economic, social and political challenges this country faces. Ultimately, I found myself disappointed as he fails to explain how the policies he advocates will deliver improved social outcomes.

There are some ideas worth exploring but the book's flaw is the author's lack of effort to seriously engage with those outside his own political tribe. In short, it is heavy on grand vision but light on serious policy analysis: disappointing given its ambition of expanding this country's apparently "diminished'' political discourse.

Harris wants to promote the "progressive'' values of care, creativity and community within a broader "politics of love''. Yet, we are never quite told how elevating these values would lead to concrete social change, though higher taxes and government spending will be involved. High income earners will pay more tax to address "inequality''.

Harris quotes an Oxford academic who says we need to "rehabilitate taxation''. However, there are two problems with this approach: firstly, it isn't clear what "social outcome'' would result from reducing inequality; and, secondly, it is unclear how much you can burden high-income earners with taxes before they take steps to reduce that liability, nullifying the intention of the change.

According to Treasury figures released by the Government for Budget 2017, those who earned $100,000 or more pay 42% of total income tax. This cohort comprises a mere 9% of taxpayers. How much more should they pay? Harris doesn't quite know, although he suggests introducing an additional income tax rate to kick in at $150,000.

A better approach to policy analysis might be to figure out what outcome should be achieved then look at what the Government is doing now and whether it can be improved.

Harris worries about inequality because it means New Zealanders have fewer shared experiences. I was unconvinced by this, mostly because I do not think a mechanic in Gore is seriously concerned about the wealth of an investment banker in Auckland. Each lives their own lives as they see fit.

In some places, Harris' diagnosis seems appropriate but his prescription is wanting.

He bemoans zoning, where children's education under the public system is determined by the public school within their "zone''. That's an issue because it means less well-off children end up attending poor schools. The solution Harris appears to favour is simply to allocate more resources to these schools, seemingly regardless of their performance. There is little room within the discussion for consideration of charter schools.

Another major problem is Harris's lack of imagination.

He believes progress only occurs through political means. Yes, political means can assist social change but Harris neglects the evolution of social norms that typically predate those efforts. Progress and tolerance comes from each individual's increased interaction with others who aren't like them. That comes through everyday social exchange.

My earlier criticisms not withstanding, there are some interesting ideas within the book.

A chapter on justice introduces us to the Norwegian prison system. I found this interesting and would have liked to hear more. Norway has low rates of recidivism that seem to be due in part to their active focus on rehabilitation and education programmes for prisoners.

The book is simultaneously ambitious and narrow-minded. New Zealand could do with thoughtful and imaginative policy analysis. Unfortunately, that is in short supply within the book's ideologically coloured pages.

Joshua Riddiford is an Allied Press communities reporter.


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