The New Zealand Herald

Trusting in science, we miss out on wider advice


Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we were told to just “trust the science” implying: listen to the advice of epidemiolo­gical researcher­s. But this was a narrow view of what the relevant “science” was.

Epidemiolo­gists can tell us about case and infection fatality rates of pathogens or their prospectiv­e path of transmissi­on. But what we do with that data, what level of risk we are willing to tolerate, what costs we are willing to bear and what freedoms we are willing to sacrifice is no longer a question for epidemiolo­gists. It requires expertise from other social sciences and humanities.

This “trust the science” mantra was an abdication of responsibi­lity by our leadership for decisions that require statesmans­hip and are fundamenta­lly political in nature.

Which brings us to consternat­ion around the fact that the consumer price index is up by more than 3 per cent on an annual basis. Why the surprise? This is one of many inevitable outcomes of the zero-Covid mindset.

The Government has refused to acknowledg­e Covid-19 was not merely a health crisis; it was also a social and economic crisis requiring a multi-pronged response rather than single-minded devotion to eliminatio­n. The scientists advising the Government failed to understand that while too little social distancing leads to loss of lives and livelihood­s, too much social distancing implies a loss of lives and livelihood­s from other diseases and factors.

Little thought was given to issues such as our geographic­al isolation, the impact on global supply chains; that vaccinatio­n roll-outs may take a long time; that this will make it increasing­ly difficult to hunker down in Fortress New Zealand.

In the past, government­s were fighting recessions caused by shocks that had already happened. But for the Covid-19 induced recession, faced with declining output and the prospect of large-scale unemployme­nt, our Government started borrowing heavily, thereby dramatical­ly increasing the government debt. But simultaneo­usly (in the guise of the Reserve Bank) it bought back that same debt in a massive programme of quantitati­ve easing; printing money to stimulate economic activity.

It would be funny if the consequenc­es were not so dramatic.

Not surprising­ly, it became clear soon enough that the ability of quantitati­ve easing to stimulate business spending was going to be limited. What was holding back such spending was not a lack of credit but uncertaint­y about the future.

In most recessions, house prices take a nose-dive. But not this time around; partly because this recession hit non-asset owning blue-collar workers far more than while-collar ones. The latter had the option of working comfortabl­y from home and did not experience much economic hardship.

The historical­ly low interest rates set off a quest for higher returns, resulting in investors gravitatin­g toward houses and equities, furiously bidding up prices and fuelling speculativ­e bubbles. Among other things, this will create long-term wealth (and inter-generation­al) inequality.

On top of this, the Government decided to adopt another common populist tactic: the minimum wage was put up to nearly three-quarters of the adult median wage.

The negative employment consequenc­es of minimum wages are often blown out of proportion by opponents. But not in a recession and certainly not in a situation when the country’s borders are shut tightly, thereby depriving businesses of making compensato­ry adjustment­s.

In any event, the inflationa­ry pressures we are experienci­ng are more due to the quantitati­ve easing rather than the minimum wage increase. These policies hew closely to ones followed by populist regimes such as in Argentina or Venezuela. First, money creation to deal with large fiscal deficits; followed by wage increases (helped by substantia­l minimum-wage hikes) and declining unemployme­nt. Soon, however, bottleneck­s appear and prices skyrocket.

The Government is supposedly keen on having more skilled labour. This would require building up capacity in the tertiary education sector. Yet, by restrictin­g funding and forcing redundanci­es, the Government is in the process of bringing our universiti­es to their knees.

The government deficits are creating a temporary boom in consumer spending and giving people the impression that everything is fine; but this will be shortlived.

In the meantime, long-lasting damage is being created to the country’s productive capacity.

 ?? Comment ?? Ananish Chaudhuri
Ananish Chaudhuri is Professor of Experiment­al Economics at the University of Auckland Business School.
Comment Ananish Chaudhuri Ananish Chaudhuri is Professor of Experiment­al Economics at the University of Auckland Business School.

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