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On ‘Wellbeing budgets', Corporate Handouts, Eudaimonia and Stoicism

“Some things are within our power, while others are not.
Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing;
not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.

(Quote from Epictetus, Enchiridion I – Stoic philosopher and the original source of the Christian serenity prayer made famous by the AA 10-step programme.)

The Government’s 2018 budget is the result of a balancing act between the demands of a sulking yet powerful corporate sector and a civil society shattered, bedraggled and desperate for change. The light on the horizon (or the carrot at the end of the stick) is the announcement of the Government’s planned 'wellbeing' approach for the 2019 budget. We are essentially being asked by the Government to wait until 2019 (or perhaps the following two budgets) on the faith that we might just get more... if the economic conditions are right of course. Whilst giving with one hand, the Government continues the damaging neoliberal practice of subsidising undeserving (and ungrateful) corporate sectors and groups such as farmers that are destroying our environment and tearing our communities apart.

Sorry, I’m not sold on this approach. Even if the Government's intentions are good and their plan is to free things up over coming years, it is going to be a rough ride. The reforms of this budget are going to do little to improve life or dull the sense of abandonment of many, particularly Māori and Pasifika communities who are going to be taxed more for fuel etc and continue to suffer the consequences of decades of neoliberal policy wreaking havoc on our communities and social services. So buckle up for the next 3 years – they could get rough.

In light of the fact that the Government's new Wellbeing Budget concept is derived from the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy of ‘stoicism' and its concept of 'Eudaimonia' or 'flourishing', I think a fitting response to this delay is to practice Stoicism. The Stoic philosophy is perfectly encapsulated in the phrase above, stoicism involves letting go of that which we cannot control. If you need mental health assistance with acceptance of what is in (or more accurately not in) this budget, please in all seriousness read How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci - it helps.

However, in light of the announcement that this will be the last ‘traditional’ budget and next year will be the first ‘wellbeing budget’ I wanted to explore exactly what that actually means. I will also explore how this current budget would be scored under the three new indicators of this new framework (Natural, Human and Social Capital) if applied correctly. I also give some suggestions for what sort of indicators the future assessors could take account of in an ideal world.

Why The waiting game?

As Gordon Campbell points out today Robertson’s aim in this budget “was to politically future proof the Ardern government from attacks by either the left or the right, while juggling the wishlists of the three political parties involved. No easy feat, all things considered.”

So instead of borrowing, (as Campbell says we could have without credit agencies blinking), the Government budget aimed at pleasing the corporate sector, the mainstream media pundits and the ‘middle New Zealand’ voters who gobble up their nonsense. As a result many of the worst off members of our society will have some relief from this budget, but will continue to suffer.

Some might also suggest that the more pressing issue we face is whether our precariously interlinked planetary civilisation and global economy can even survive until the future date, yet to be disclosed ,when the Government coffers will open for real. Or for that matter, it is debateable whether said global agencies will be prepared to lend to us in the future, especially if times are tough. The clock ticks as icebergs melt, and the world is teetering on the brink of nuclear war both in the East and the Middle-East.

As global resilience guru Vinay Gupta has said one intersection of climate change and food system is all it will take for chaos to emerge.

“The world is dying, and we have a 30% chance of making it through the end of this century. Certainly, we’re likely to see a capitalist famine in which maybe a few hundred million or a few billion starve to death. The first time that global warming gets heavily intersected with the food supply is going to be a massive termination event. And everybody is going to turn around and say ‘Oh my god this is terrible, we never saw it coming!’”

What is A Wellbeing Budget 2019

Treasury’s wellbeing framework has been modelled on the OECD’s Living Standards Framework (LSF). This framework apparently was inspired by the ancient Greek concept of the pursuit of "eudaimonia" as a guiding principle. Eudaimonia is defined by Psychology Today as "a state of having a good in-dwelling spirit or being in a contented state of being healthy, happy and prosperous",

This word is used to refer to ‘the right actions’ as those that result in the ‘well-being of an individual’ a well-lived life. In this concept, well-being becomes an essential value as it places the personal happiness of an individual and his or her complete life at the core of ethical concern.

This approach to be created by Treasury over the coming year uses the Four Capitals approach of the LSF and will take into account unique NZ factors such as te Ao Māori. To me Eudaimonia sounds a lot like the Ao Māori concept of ‘Mauri ora’ – loosely defined as good life principle, positive life force, the essential positive quality and vitality of a being or entity.

Compared to the old budget frameworks of only looking at GDP and a few other limited human factors in glancing fashions, this is a huge improvement as it puts the human and social and environmental on an equal footing with econiomic considerations.

However, this approach is not without critiques. Especially when it comes to viewing nature or people as simply capital. Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher point out in their piece on The Conversation that

“the move from nature to natural capital is problematic because it assumes that different forms of capital - human, financial, natural - can be made equivalent and exchanged. In practice - and despite proponents’s insistence to the contrary - this means that everything must potentially be expressed through a common, quantitative unit: money.”

The ‘four capitals’

Natural Capital

In response to today’s Budget 2018 announcement, Greenpeace Executive Director Dr Russel Norman said:

“This Coalition Government has made a number of good decisions for the environment recently but it is set to continue to spend over $800 million a year subsidising greenhouse gas pollution from the agriculture sector by not bringing agriculture into the Emissions Trading Scheme.That’s $800m a year that could be spent on providing critical public services for New Zealanders; not to mention cleaning up our environment and accelerating the transition to a clean, low-carbon economy.”

The reality is, the approach of planting pine trees and shifting to a ‘Green growth’ based approach simply isn’t doing enough to tackle climate change. This is especially problematic because the agriculture industry is the biggest single contributor to this problem and is doing nothing to contribute financially to solve it. Farmers are getting a massive handout from the Government in the form of exemption from the carbon trading scheme.

Furthermore, the Provincial Growth Fund will be helping them out by planting up erosion prone hillsides and rivers to restore and protect their natural capital for their future prosperity before they destroy it forever. Yet do they get thanks from the farming industry and its vocal lobby groups or the National party that expresses so much concern for the industry for this?

No, what they get is the Nats crying a brown river of cow crap over the perceived lack of funding for MPI and bio-security . I realise the Government essentially felt compelled by such lobbying to provide M.Bovis funding, however we should call it what it is – another corporate handout to farmers. This is an ecological problem the industry itself caused through its factory farming and unsustainable approach over the past decades leading to unsanitary conditions and a breeding ground for costly biosecurity hazards like M.Bovis. The funding they have received is far more than they deserve and is effectively a taxpayer subsidy for their inefficient and incompetent running of their own industry.


Thankfully, Robertson also announced in his budget speech that the Government will conduct a review into the way biosecurity risks are handled in the future. Hopefully this will conclude similarly and encourage a move away from factory farming. Here is a tip to that future working group; permaculture - cows are proven to be less disease prone on organic and green farms with thriving permaculture based ecosystems. It is in the sterile factory-farm settings that have become all too common in NZ of late, that these diseases thrive.

In fact – we also need to be aware that it is not only cattle but humans at risk of disease from cattle but human health. There have been well-documented outbreaks of E-coli and other infectious bacteria linked to dairy farming recently. In addition, the media has not covered it much at all yet, but a close relative of Mycoplasma Bovis that appears under similar conditions can in fact infect humans.

Mycobacteria Avium Paratuburculosis (MAP) also known as 'Johnes Disease' in cattle, is proven to be contractible by humans. In fact Christchurch researcher John Aitken has received international recognition for his work on the link between MAP and Crohn’s Disease. .

New Zealand has one of the highest incidences globally of this autoimmune disease, and if this link to dairy industry is even potentially correct, we need to do more to prevent the conditionsd that allow such diseases to not only emerge but find their way into our natural ecosystems.

Proposals for budget 2019:

Incentivise organic and ecological permaculture farming further by putting far more funding into initiatives like the green growth initiative announced this year and place heavy taxes and fines on farmers who refuse to limit herd numbers within defined biomass and ecosystem limits or to transition away from factory farming.

Human Capital

Investments have certainly been made into human capital in this budget, however more must be done to address the massive human cost of poverty and inequality in our society.


Prisons

Robertson, for example talked yesterday about the Government’s goal of reducing the prison population by 30% over the next 15 years. This is a pretty unambitious target for a start as it amounts to accepting that 70% of our population should continue to be denied their human right to freedom, often without good cause. In addition the Government are spending more on prisons and police than ever before. As People Against Prisons Aotearoa spokeswoman Emilie Rākete says:

‘This government is saying one thing and doing another. While it calls for a “more humane justice system” it pours billions of dollars into a prison system that doesn’t work,’

Instead they could halve the incarcerated population overnight by taking a few simple steps: Legalising all drugs and investing in healthcare and welfare instead, and reforming the court system to make it more equal (eg reform bail laws) so that money and access to a lawyer does not determine outcomes.

As Tania Sawicki Mead points out in this excellent piece on RNZ:

Budget 2018 does not give us any clear answers. What it does show is how, having invested in failure for so long, successive governments are struggling to turn that investment around. If we only spent money on things that worked in criminal justice, we would likely end up with a dividend.

Prison sentences impose an astronomical cost on society, both for those who serve them as well as their community. A child with a parent in prison is ten times more likely to end up in prison themselves. In Aotearoa, one in every 124 Māori person is behind bars.


Climate Justice

The Funding allocated to support workers in making a fair and just transition to a more sustainable economy overnight is nonexistent. This is a huge blow to the many South Auckland workers who will be taxed to drive to work on congested motorways in Central or West Auckland. Meanwhile the trucking industry is destroying our roading infrastructure and paying little in return as it continues to pump carbon into the atmosphere.

Relief is coming in this area with increased public transport spending, but it is cold comfort for those paying the taxes now. These same poorly paid workers struggling to heat their homes in South Auckland this winter can watch their ancestral Pacific Island homelands sinking into the sea.


Health

The health of citizens also must be taken into account more seriously in future budgets. This budget delivered some money for maintaining basic health infrastructure, however it was woefully inadequate to improve the overall health of our society.

Where was the money to invest in rapid development of the natural medicines such as cannabis that we could be producing ourselves on a massive scale to decrease our massive and unnecessary reliance on Pharmac and the US Big Pharma industry?

Instead the Government announced more corporate subsidies in the form of the Pharmac funding which will essentially be passed on to these multinationals for drugs that in many cases are unnecessary and counter-productive. New Zealand is in the grips of an opioid addiction crisis where cannabis is proven to do a better job with fewer side effects for dealing with chronic pain.

Welfare

As Sue Bradford pointed out on RNZ this morning, some $100 million has been allocated for the America’s Cup, but damaging aspects of WINZ culture (one that would have cost only $25 millionfor example) have been left unfunded.

Proposals for Budget 2019:

Invest in law reform for all drugs, bail laws and cut prison funding. Invest in social welfare, health, addiction and support services for addictions and mental health. Invest in developing a local homegrown medicine industry starting with cannabis. Announce meaningful funding for tax exemptions for fuel impoverished workers as has been done in other countries.


Social Capital

Democracy

This Social aspect of the LSF is all about the Democratic system of our nation. The inclusion of this measurable in future budgets is an opportunity to ensure a more open government. The 2018 budget saw the Government put some money into the Independent Fiscal Watchdog, which is a good step but it should have gone further. There was very little money allocated comparatively for the important issue of democratic reform to meet our commitments as a member of the Open Government Partnership.

Those in power who stand in the way of such suggestions of opening up government are either ignorant, or scared of the consequences. Those with power rarely vote for the divestment of it to the people and this ‘cult of the expert’ elitism that has afflicted modern democracies is what has gotten us so far into this mess of inequality injustices and division we have created.

Open Government and Participatory budgeting is growing in prevalence around the world in progressive countries and cities. All experiments in this approach show resulting better decisions and more collaboration across political divides.


We urgently need to restore the faith of our communities in the political process and engagement as the negative experiences of politics most people experience today are putting them off from engaging which creates a dangerously imbalanced power dynamic in society.

Tax System

As Gordon Campbell pointed out Robertson has given business a massive R& D tax deduction, in one of Budget 2018’s prominent examples of corporate welfare. However, taxes on poor people will continue unchecked. A budget taking account of social capital might have concluded that this is unacceptable and tried harder to find other ways to fund the budget spending than by taxing poor people. For example the Government needs to work harder at taxing multinational corporations dodging tax and foreign money transactions. The announcement today regarding cracking down on tax dodgers is a good start, but it does not look to go far enough.

Seattle for example has announced it will be taxing Amazon to fund affordable housing.

Such a radical approach to tax is needed here too if we are to find the funds needed to reverse inequality on any meaningful level.

Conclusion

On the whole I would conclude this budget failed pretty badly on the Social, Human and Natural capital measureables. It seems that all we can do is hang on and wait for more generous spending in the years to come. We will need to practice stoicism and acceptance, however it does not mean we cannot also push this government to be more radical and push for more real say in the decisions that affect us. We may just find that if we wait and wait, these promised changes will never arrive.


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