For Easton, MMP is the way forward

by Brian Easton (Auckland University Press, pb $39.95)

Reviewed by Keith Rankin

Evening Post, 8 Oct 1999

THIS sequel to The Commercialisation of New Zealand brings Brian Easton's analysis of New Zealand's post-1984 "commercialisation" reforms into the era of MMP politics.

The title - a play on Simon Upton's The Withering Of The State - is something of a misnomer, and could give book browsers the impression that this is an Old Left, anti-MMP tract. Easton argues, however, that any diminished vigour in the New Zealand state today is to the benefit of a nation that used to be dominated by "winner takes all" politics.

Whimpering includes a commentary of a failing economic revolution, a sketch of the MMP policymaking environment, discussions of recent economic policy initiatives, and a "paradigm" for a reinterpretation of the microeconomic reform process. The book's core, however, is its chapter on the "social basis for an economy".

Like Jane Kelsey's Reclaiming The Future, this book is a critique of the "blitzkrieg" approach to policymaking. And like Kelsey, Easton employs Karl Polanyi's 1944 social analysis of popular democracy as commercialism's Achilles heel. MMP arrived as a backlash to a policymaking process that was contrary to our national culture. Unlike Kelsey, Easton's exposition of the Polanyi thesis is second-hand, courtesy of the late Bruce Jesson.

Elsewhere, Easton's writing is confined to the worldview of a Keynesian social democratic economist. While happy to use any rhetorical device to put down the New Right commercialisers, his style can become quite dry as he seeks the approval of his economist peers. Occasionally he commits the economists' vice of slipping from cautious prose to extravagant metaphor and back again. The use of a term like "basket case" to describe Ireland in the 1980s actually mimics the rhetoric of New Zealand's "bolsheviks of the right".

The computer-generated graphs in Whimpering are tiny and poorly labelled. One graph, on growth trends, contains four data series that are indistinguishable from each other. Another, labelled "health spending as a proportion of GDP" in fact charts life expectancy against healthcare expenditure.

Overall, the book is a useful, if uneven, record of the political and economic landscape of New Zealand in the 19905. Easton's perception of governance is centred around a concept of publicness that we call "the State". While touching on the issues of private property rights, the ownership of water and rangitiratanga, he seems unable to articulate a vision of publicness based around public property rights. Instead, he envisages a textured society that acts as a counterweight to the coercive power of the State. He adopts a Jessonian vision of socio-cultural nationalism as the direction towards which New Zealand can move, and indeed is moving, thanks to MMP.