The new statesman
Sound familiar anyone? A politics of aspirational individualism is not a new phrase: indeed it is the phrase the entire US model has been built on. Like John Key, the poor individual makes good and rises to success through the very beads of sweat of his own work. It is the National Party narrative of rags to riches, of entry to the coveted realm of the selected few, the notion that we can all rise above our constrictions to bathe in the rewards of success.
Like Owen Glenn's Bond-like entrance into New Zealand, Key's Corporate Cabs ascension to the glittery interior of a swanky party at New Zealand's premier casino has captivated our fair nation. While Key's ascension speech proved he certainly ain't no Oprah without an autocue, the message of aspirational politics clearly resonated with voters on election day who voted en masse for "change" (or at least a move away from what they considered the minutae of politics).
So if change is related to a politics of aspirational individualism, what does this mean for people? It means more than just the battle over whether the Government or business can run our resources more efficiently, it signifies a shift in emphasis from the government to the individual in dealing with the key issue a National-led coalition will be facing: the problem of the economy.
We, like the rest of the world, need to keep spending. If we stop spending, our economy will collapse. The financial turmoils of the US sub-prime markets have sent off a chain effect across economies. Spending in the US is slowing alarmingly, while surveys indicate that consumer confidence has dropped from 50% to 37%. We are now a nation of debt attempting to stem the tide of being dependent on a global market. The National party intends to bring in a series of tax cuts to act as a stimulus to the economy and encourage us to continue spending. Tax cuts, in many ways, are a bandaid to greater systemic problems with the way our economy runs.
American Canadian economist John Galbraith was writing on these problems more than four decades ago. Galbraith, a Keynesian, noted that for the first half of the 20th century following the growth of industrialisation, capitalism was democratising the experience of consumption. Everyone was buying goods, enabled by their mass production. However, Galbraith was alarmed that during the latter half of the 20th century, the wealthy were beginning to limit their consumption and accumulate wealth, whereas the poor kept spending. This meant that running the economy would in many ways be dependent on the poorest people. In order to keep the economy turning over, governments would need to find a way of ensuring that money kept circulating through these groups. The solution to this issue Galbraith identifies has been the creation of a credit market that allows people to begin borrowing the money that they otherwise wouldn't have creating the conditions for the turbulence in the economy we now face. This is why two-thirds of the countries in the OECD have experienced a widening gap between rich and poor in the last five years, the majority of the wealth becomes concentrated and, like a house of cards, the potential for accumulating further wealth and thus stimulating the economy becomes dependent on those who have the least resources continuing to circulate money. This is also why many of the countries experiencing the most growth are those developing nations, and highly industrialised nations like the US are beginning to plateau (of course with the exception of Ireland).
So how will National deal with this issue? The idea is through a series of progressive tax cuts, household spending will rise up to levels similar to before. Further gains can be made through streamlining Government, thus giving more money back to the taxpayer. The problem is that this doesn't necessarily fix the problem. American taxpayers received a hefty cashback from their Government preceding the recession, but once spent, returned swiftly back to square one. Streamlining Government spending to a business model didn't resolve the problems in the US, it exacerbated them as essential services now resided in the hands of business, rather than the accountable hands of Government. As Government was linked to business, the interests of these groups did not necessarily coincide with the need for a democratic Government to strive to take care of the interests of the people. The increasing gulf between rich and poor meant that those who could not afford did not have access to vital resources such as healthcare. Having too many poor poses a problem for the security of the wealthy. Dealing with this is not an exercise in redistribution under this model, it's a business opportunity - you employ more police, build more prisons, or in the case of New York mayor Rudolf Guiliani, turn the city into a police state and buy homeless people bus tickets to San Francisco. Making wealth at the expense of an unstable, unsafe society under the neoconservatives has been one of the major reasons for Obama's election.
Key's rhetoric smacks of neoconservatism, no surprise considering the National party's ideological affinity. A politics of aspirational individualism has the potential to have great benefits for our economy in the short-term. We need, however, to make sure that these benefits are also maintained for the future, retain assets and understand the repercussions of our decisions.