Saturday 10 November 2012

A Titanic discussion

Last Sunday's Voyage of a Lifetime seminar, hosted by the local Fabian Society, went down well at Wellington's Downstage Theatre. I had hoped to video the whole thing, until my camera displayed a heat warning and powered off - the first time it's ever done so. But with about 250 people crowded into a theatre on a sunny day, it probably wasn't surprising. Russell Brown was MC for the event, and Keith Ng - fresh from his exposé of unsecured WINZ kiosks - was also in attendance, as were Zippy Gonzales and my workplace's landlord. Michele A'Court kicked off the event as a stand-up comic would and should.

(Note: the video is from the Auckland event from several months earlier, but the themes were similar for Wellington.)

Voyage of a Lifetime (10.06.12) from Voyage of a Lifetime on Vimeo.

The seminar drew on analogies between the ill-fated Titanic voyage and New Zealand's struggle to achieve its full economic potential. There were various topics discussed that have barely been debated in mainstream media:
  • Rick Boven (formerly of the NZ Institute) explored ecological limits and resource depletion, and the seeming inability or refusal of major organisations - governments and businesses alike - to adapt.
  • NZMEA's John Walley explained the Dutch disease, in context of NZ's dairy industry and the property bubble.
  • Bernard Hickey raised the issue of household debt in the midst of an obsession with public debt, as well as quantitative easing, and the world's billions of hoarded wealth not being put to productive use
  • Rod Oram recounted NZ's over-reliance on agri-business, and the 'good' and 'bad' types of foreign direct investment
  • Selwyn Pellett related to the disconnect between innovation and commercialisation, from his own experiences as a tech startup founder
  • Arena Williams (Auckland University) and Rory McCourt (VUWSA) touched on intergenerational and wealth disparities.
Afterwards, I got to ask the panellists some interesting questions. I had the opportunity to suggest The Pine Tree Paradox to Selwyn Pellett, and the author's suggestion of Stanford University setting up shop in NZ.

I also caught up with Russell Brown again, this time to discuss the finer points of demographic vagaries. Some of us had come to the observation that Fabian attendees tend towards the (shrinking) comfortable middle classes, but there are still people like myself who don't quite fit the income bracket and yet still identify with Fabian ideals. He concurred with my view that there's no point in keeping up with the Joneses because they've been declared bankrupt, their McMansion foreclosed, and their Range Rover repossessed.

I told Rod Oram about a David Smick column in the Washington Post in which the prevailing globalisation model was breaking down with nothing obvious to replace it, and asked him what he believed the replacement would be. He didn't pretend to have all the answers, but we both agreed that 3D printing was one potential avenue for re-localisation, and hence a reduced dependence on the globalist model.

We also discussed where the line should be drawn between New Deal-esque regional development and pork-barrel politics - both of us agreed that the Puhoi-Wellsford Holiday Highway and the Gravina Island Bridge are pork-barrel projects with poor returns on investment. I theorised that the big difference is whether the benefits of such projects are shared by the many or the few, with Oram saying the Clifford Bay ferry terminal proposal was a complex case.

Bernard Hickey reliably informed me that his new project isn't too far off, with an expected launch early in the new year. He's a particularly relevant player in the economic debate, given that up until a couple of years ago, he was an unabashed apologist for the Wall Street globalist orthodoxy.

Seminars like these have been done before, but they've never been more relevant in light of the Great Recession, and the turning of the global financial system on its head.