Sunday, March 11, 2012

Joining the Dots in New Zealand

I'll outsource comment on the latest welfare reform news to Gordon Campbell. who once again makes the point that:

...welfare is not the root cause of the problem. Blaming the welfare system for the current existence of poverty is like seeing the incidence of Third World diseases in this country, and blaming it on the existence of hospitals. Similarly, the social safety net does not cause people to live in poverty and be out of work – it is an effect, not a cause. And the current state of the welfare rolls is precisely what you would expect to find when the jobs market is barely off its sick bed after the global recession.

Also, Danyl Mclachlan, who puts things into context with posts and home made charts here, here and here

Meanwhile, ongoing cuts to the public service are now seeing some push back, while so far they haven't really even achieved their stated objective.

The welfare reforms and public service cuts have this much in common: they have been presented as being about economics, but really they are about ideology. As Campbell and many other commentators have noted, increased burden on the welfare system is a result of economic conditions, not a cause. Similarly, so-called reforms of the public service bear little relation to any of the big challenges facing New Zealand.

The claim that it's about "moving resources from the back office to the front line" is misleading. (It would be interesting to do a discourse analysis of what is actually being signified by "back office" and "front line", but that's for another post.)  The main point is, there just aren't that many resources to move to the front line. Public servants are a small part of the workforce, and the bureaucracy makes up a tiny fraction of the costs of public services. In another moment, I'll try to put together a summary of this book chapter on the history of the public sector workforce in New Zealand.

 It's not very surprising that few savings have been achieved through the job cuts to date, since, as I've argued before, you could disestablish the entire bureaucracy and all its functions, and you still wouldn't save very much.  

A friend of mine who is a self-styled centrist argues that it's a question of swings and roundabouts. Centre-left governments, he says, will by inclination tend to expand government functions, implementing ambitious new programmes and being reluctant to diestablish any existing ones. Centre-right governments will tend to be more sceptical, trimming and making efficiencies. If you accept that argument, you might expect a rightist government to maybe be a bit stingier with their departments' and ministries' budgets. They might reorganize a bit and make some changes where there's evidence the benefits will outweigh the costs. You wouldn't, however, expect them to respond to a range of serious economic, social and environmental challenges by making the elimination of public service jobs one of their most important policy platforms.

Then, it's hard to find rational arguments for beating up on welfare recipients during a recession, either.

I've been trying to come up with an analogy for this approach. The best I could do so far is that it's like repsonding to the discovery that your house has some serious leaks by deciding to clean out your cupboards.

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