Non Fiction Reviewby Bryan Gould
Published by Craig Potton Publishing. ($29.99)
Reading through this book is like reliving the worst moments of a nightmare. Not that it is in any way a bad book. On the contrary, it is a superbly crafted condemnation of global economics and the impacts they have on democracy. No, the nightmare begins as you sift through Gould's arguments and realise that what some suspected all along was true: that in New Zealand, the free market fantasy sold to us by politicians and business leaders was a con; that its benefits were largely illusory; that it punished the poor while rewarding elites. All of this is bad enough but Gould, a Kiwi Rhodes scholar and Oxford Don has outlined how this single world market threatens democracy itself. Gould is clearly no devotee of ideologically driven free market policy but neither is he blind to the benefits of the market. Essentially he is a pragmatist who asks if the global economy has delivered on a world scale (no); whether it has delivered for individual countries (ditto). Given the underlying passion in these pages, his book is still remarkably dispassionate and the clarity of his writing helps readers find their way through often complex material.
This is a book which makes the reader pause - for all sorts of reasons. One is to ask why we weren’t as an electorate - or even as a readership - told about some of the less attractive impacts of the Market. Gould provides part of the answer in a section on multinational media, (who now dominate New Zealand media). He offers a working definition of the global economy as ‘a world economic order in which capital, trade, production, information and technology flow to and from the destinations determined by market forces without having regard to the barriers erected by national or regional governments, policies and jurisdictions'.
The key which opened the door to globalisation was, he says, the dismantling of exchange controls across the world’s leading economies so that capital could move freely across national boundaries. In the post war era of the 1950s and 1960s, Governments were firmly in control and acting on behalf of their citizens.
By the 1970s Market theory began to take hold and flowered after 1980 under British Prime Minister Dame Margaret Thatcher, and US President Reagan.But Gould points out some discomfiting facts for Market enthusiasts: World Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew much faster before 1980 than it did afterwards.
New Zealand's GDP rate before the 1984 economic revolution was, he says, an unimpressive 2%. But for the next seven years the rate of growth averaged just 0.7% . No gain without pain was the official catchcry and thousands of New Zealanders felt the pain though the financial economy flourished. One of the results of the Kiwi experiment was vastly increased inequality. From being one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, New Zealand moved more rapidly than any other OECD country to become one of the most unequal – second only to the United States, according to a 1998 ranking published by the Economist magazine. Gould says most of society has not shared in any benefits, ‘but has rather contributed resources to that small minority who have done well, and who have used their power and influence – especially their control of the media – to proclaim the benefits of the reforms'.
There are other depressing facts to ponder in this important book. Gould cites the United Nations Development programme whose figures show that national disparities have widened as globalisation has advanced. Why does it matter so much? Gould marshalls evidence to show that as society becomes more unequal, social cohesion diminishes. Divorces increase, families fall apart and people resort to shortcuts like crime and gambling. Power lies not with citizens, but with multinationals who have recruited Governments to their cause. The global economy has become a straitjacket and he cites a growing number of influential voices raised against it.
Gould says change is possible - if Governments took steps to ensure the liberalisation of capital movements was brought back under control. China, India, Malaysia have all done it and their economies are growing. Not only that, but those countries have won back a measure of autonomy. Gould argues that a case could be made for taking a wider, longer term view than allowed by Market forces.
Issues like social cohesion, social justice, and the environment ignored by purely market provision, could be re-instated as the proper concern of policy, according to Gould. He finishes his book with an appeal to politicians to show courage in remedying the problems.
'It has always been the task of democratic politicians to identify and counteract concentrations of power that might threaten the proper functioning of democracy. That challenge, that threat, are here and must now be confronted.'