THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT would like our children to have “a better start”. Which is nice. What’s more, the Nats are putting our money where their focus groups say their mouths should be. How do we know? Because, two days ago (1/5/13) Steven Joyce, the Minister of Science and Innovation, identified “A Better Start: improving the potential of young New Zealanders to have a healthy and successful life” as one of the ten selected “National Science Challenges” slated for additional Government funding. Over the next four years an extra $73.5 million will be disbursed by Mr Joyce’s jolly boffins. Exactly how much of this largesse will end up giving kids “a better start” the Minister did not disclose.
Given the involvement of Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the Government’s “Science Advisor” in identifying and prioritising these research “challenges”, the scientific studies eventually approved are much more likely to involve a search for the genetic “predictors” of children’s ill-health and dysfunctional (as opposed to ‘successful’) lives, than they are to focus on the bleeding, bloody obvious reason for a less-than-optimal childhood: poverty.
If the solution to childhood ill-health and failure can be shown to lie in controlling the diet of pregnant women, or DNA-testing their offspring for a genetic propensity to become big fat drains on the public purse, then conservative politicians can be absolved of all responsibility for addressing the social conditions which contribute so decisively to physical and psychological morbidity in children.
The quest for some kind of eugenic “fix” to the problems of capitalism is as venerable as it is disreputable. Aldus Huxley’s novel Brave New World, written 82 years ago, in 1931, brilliantly satirizes the sort of techno-authoritarian, socio-biological, re-formulation of the human condition that Professor Gluckman’s enthusiasm for gene-based solutions unfortunately calls to mind.
While we’re waiting for the scientific breakthroughs, however, the problem of what to do with all those pesky, unhealthy and dysfunctional children remains.
One approach, currently favoured by the busy little ideological beavers who inhabit right-wing think tanks, involves simply redefining the big problems of poverty into smaller, more manageable, problemettes – readily resolvable by market forces.
One of these busy beavers is Kristian Niemietz “Poverty Research Fellow” at the London-based Institute for Economic Affairs. His big gripe with most of the current research into poverty in advanced capitalist societies is that, fundamentally, it’s not about poverty at all. At least, not in the sense of absolute, life-threatening destitution: the sort of poverty encountered in Somalia or the slums of Mumbai. No, what nearly all Western sociologists study is relative poverty.
“Much of academic poverty research is therefore quite predictable” writes, Niemietz. “A typical poverty research paper starts by constructing a model which expresses the poverty rate as a function of a number of economic and social policy variables. After a lot of formula-shuffling, the paper then ‘finds’: More government spending, less poverty; less government spending, more poverty.”
The solution, Niemietz offers is as old as cowsfoot jelly and food stamps: make available to the poor only what wealthy people consider to be the bare necessities of life.
According to the ingenious Mr Niemietz: “We should approach poverty measurement from an altogether different angle. Surveys in the UK show that people may wildly disagree on what constitutes poverty when asked in abstract terms, but when asked more specifically which goods constitute ‘necessities’ in our day and age, there is a surprisingly robust consensus. So why not build a poverty indicator around that consensus? One could assemble a consumption basket containing all the goods and services that the majority consider necessities, gather the market prices of these items, add them up, and use the total cost of the basket as a poverty line.”
No, this is not an argument for subsidising these “necessities” – one does not get a job at the Institute for Economic Affairs by advocating subsidies! Somehow (Niemietz has no time for bothersome details) the all-powerful, all-knowing “Market” can be relied upon to work things out to the satisfaction of all concerned.
This solution would, its author reassures us: “. not just provide a more realistic account of how much poverty there is in developed countries. It would also encourage more sensible policy responses. The policy focus would be less on income redistribution, and more on creating the conditions for competitive product markets. A market structure which makes the basics of life (generously defined) easily affordable, right across the income distribution, can be seen as a safety net of sorts. And it is a safety net which does not trap people in dependency and inactivity.”
Until we break them down and examine their true meaning, such stock neoliberal arguments present a dangerous plausibility. They deceive us by conflating poverty with the experiences of starvation and exposure. Their purpose is to mask the lived reality of poverty and divert us from its true meaning.
To be poor is not to be cold or hungry or homeless – even wealthy people, from time to time, experience such conditions. Poverty is the leaden understanding in the gut of every person who is cold and hungry and homeless that they are powerless to alter their situation. In other words, poverty is always and everywhere a manifestation of unequal social and economic relationships. It is about who gets to decide how resources are distributed. In the classic contention of Vladimir Lenin, all human relations may be reduced to the formulation: Who? Whom?
All poverty is relative poverty.
If ships ceased to call at New Zealand ports, and all our power stations fell into disrepair. If a terrible combination of drought, flood and pestilence meant that there was only just enough food to feed the population. Would the possession of a trust account containing ten million dollars, no longer accessible, still entitle its owner to describe him or herself as a wealthy person?
But if, driven by an equality of deprivation and suffering, the New Zealand population decided to work together to ensure that every individual was provided with food and shelter and could count on the care and companionship that human-beings, as social animals, are genetically programmed to provide; would these reborn New Zealanders count themselves rich or poor?
And, if you had to send your children away, without money or possessions, and your choice of destination was between the New Zealand I’ve described above, and the capitalist New Zealand of today, where would you send them?
In which New Zealand would they be most likely to live a “healthy” and “successful” life? In which New Zealand do you think they would get the “better start”?