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Beer and beaches

Published in The Listener (Auckland), 6 September 2012

http://www.listener.co.nz/commentary/diary/oliver-hartwich-beer-and-beaches/

An economist ponders the deep questions.

Being an economist is tough. You can’t even enjoy a beer without considering the macro-economic consequences. I just discovered my local New World is now stocking Flensburger Pilsener. Not only is “Flens”, as it is known in my native Germany, one of the most hoppy and bitter beers you can get under the German beer purity law, but its legendary advertising campaigns also disprove the cliché that Germans don’t have a sense of humour. So, in short, I should have been happy to see Flensburger on the shelves. And yet, the economist in me was asking whether it is not precisely such imports that need to be cut if New Zealand is to tackle its balance of payments deficit.

I’ll have to ponder this over a beer.

One of the most enjoyable parts of working in a think tank is meeting visiting lecturers. Last week, The New Zealand Initiative hosted star economist, former International Monetary Fund director and ex-Italian finance minister Vito Tanzi. In his lectures, Tanzi provided a useful reminder: It’s the role of government to prevent hell on earth, not to create heaven. Fair enough, but what to do with politicians who believe they are saints, or at least Santa Claus? I must have irritated Tanzi a bit because at one point he wanted to know whether I really was an economist. “Of course, why do you ask?” I replied. “Because you write so well.” What a sad state our profession is in when only unintelligible jargon signals your qualifications.

On the day I published a book on Australia’s population growth that I wrote before moving to New Zealand, Statistics NZ released new data on transtasman migration. It confirmed two things: first, that I swam against the current by relocating from Sydney to Wellington; and second, that some of Australia’s population growth is due to New Zealand’s population loss. Ironically, neither side is happy about it. Australians are moaning about their population growth while Kiwis are unhappy to see their young generation disappear across the ditch. How much could we help those whingeing Aussies by making sure our best and brightest no longer flock to the big West Island? It would make Kiwi parents happier, too.

For the past four years, I have been attending an annual conference hosted at the Sunshine Coast Hyatt resort. Since my last visit, the hotel ownership has been transferred to mining magnate Clive Palmer, and that’s not the only thing that has changed. Controversial billionaire Palmer has turned a once-decent subtropical resort into his very own theme park. Vintage cars are scattered between palm trees; a beach has been renamed “Palmer Beach”; photos of Professor Palmer (a lack of academic degrees is balanced by an adjunct professorship) with visiting dignitaries grace nearly every wall. He is also promoting his plan to build a replica of the Titanic – just a few metres wider than the original and apparently equipped with lifeboats. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, from food and shelter to self-actualisation (or rather self-aggrandisement) has never been better illustrated. If money could buy humility, Palmer would have bought that, too.

I am puzzled by the public resistance to changing the frequency of Warrant of Fitness checks. Apparently, close to two-thirds of us want to keep six-monthly checks for older vehicles. Apart from the fact that studies show little or no link between road safety and frequent WoF inspections, New Zealand’s regime is also out of touch with international practice. A 10-year-old car in Germany would have had four inspections, compared with 14 in New Zealand. If that’s safe enough for a country with no speed limit on its motorways, it ought to be good enough for Kiwi roads.

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