Bernard Hickey is right to rail against the inter-generational transfer of wealth that hies in this year's Budget, but there's no need to throw the bathwater out with the baby boomers
Business commentator Bernad Hickey and I share the same low opinion of the impact the baby boomer generation is having on the politics of our great country. My immediate reaction to the budget was frustration at the way the boomers were protecting their own economic interests at the expense of the generations following in their life-rattling wake.
Bernard, a former student media chum, fellow Generation Xer, and the face of financial website interest.co.nz, came to the same conclusion last week, with a blog post for the Herald in which he also pointed out the inter-generational transfer of wealth wrapped up in this year's budget. We Gen Xers will be paying more for the boomers' retirement because they couldn't suck it up and save for it themselves, via the Cullen Fund. Bernard added that it will stop Gen Xers being able to afford their own homes, going so far to advise them to bail out and leave the country because the boomers will continue to have the numbers to elect governments that pander to their rental property-obsessed prosperity.
At the "leave the country" point, we started to part ways, and today he followed up with another post, in which he came up with ten ways the baby boomers could redeem themselves for the greater good. On nearly every point, I couldn't disagree more.
From the same starting point, we've headed in very different directions. His solutions seem to be to encourage Gen Xers to be as greedy and visionless as the very boomers he's condemned. There's no long-term strategy to lift all boats, simply an invitation for every post-boomer to fight their own corner at the expense of others. We can do better.
Let's put aside where we agree. With his first point Bernard calls for a land tax (as opposed to a capital gains tax). While he doesn't spell it out, I'm assuming he'd only apply it to second homes and rental properties. Land? Capital Gains? I'm not sure, but, it makes sense to tax rental properties in some form or another so that property affordability increases and those with a bit of spare cash are encouraged to look further for investments than the real estate page of their local paper.
Beyond that, however, Bernard goes off into a realm of ideological economics that does nothing to lift wages, build more sustainable growth, or create a country that's desirable to those coming up behind the boomers.
2) Bernard wants a flatter tax system – indeed a flat tax – in the belief that it would "encourage productive work". Nonsense. In terms of fairness, social cohesion and the maintenance of public services, a flat tax is frankly nuts. I wrote about its lunacy for the Guardian back in 2007, pointing out that the only place it's politically popular is a few former Soviet states. If Bernard's worried about the unfair transfer of wealth from Gen X to Baby Boomers in this budget, just wait until he sees the unfair transfer of wealth from poor to rich that a flat tax would generate.
But hey, if it sounds fair that you, me and Graham Hart should all contribute equally to the government's coffers, then go ahead. Without me.
3) Then, Bernard wants to get rid of Working for Families and interest-free student loans. Redistributing wealth is a no-no, it seems. Although why it's a bad idea to move money closer to the needs of children – currently being raised by Gen Xers – and their future education, I fail to comprehend. Seems like it would only hurt Gen Xers even more and undermine our efforts to upskill New Zealanders.
4) As angry as I am about baby boomers not contributing to their own national retirement savings, I don't favour Bernard's preference to nuke the whole darn thing. He wants to raise the retirement age from 65 to 70 and reduce Super from 66 per cent of the average wage to 60 percent. While we will have to raise the retirement age in the next decade or so thanks to National's mismanagement, 70 is unnecessarily high; 67 or 68 should do. As for cutting Super payments, well, I'd like to see Bernard lose all his money to finance companies and then have to live on less than $20,000 a year. A cut of that magnitude would see retiree poverty skyrocket. I'm sure there are more decent ways for us to get our own back at the boomers without driving them to the poorhouse!
5) Bernard says, "Open up monopolistic industries to competition wherever possible..." Woah, sorry, 1980s flashback. And we all know what fabulous growth that generated. Let's learn from our own past that strategic assets, such as electricity grids, don't work so well in free-markets. We Xers want re-investment in infrastructure, not more short-term profit grabs.
6) Sadly, the public sector keeps getting bashed as Bernard's list continues. The government should be "ruthless" with its spending and "crack down on" sports stadiums, wharf developments and railways. It's an odd line to take in the middle of a recession caused, in part, by dumb private sector spending. Why do we assume that's superior to targeted government spending? Public sector spending can be directed toward the national good in a way that the private sector never will be. If we look at the other countries that we're trying to catch up to and consider what draws Gen Xers and hungry entrepreneurs to them to do business, we covet their technology infrastructure, the waterfront developments in their great cities, their public transport... and guess where the seed capital for them came from? Public spending lays the foundation for a smart economy.
7) "Open up the immigration taps", he says. I'm sorry, but if Bernard's concern at the start of his post was about housing affordability, advocating a flood of immigrants is like a doctor prescribing a bottle of gin to an alcoholic. Sure, new migrants stimulate growth, and it's worth debating who and how many we're accepting, but mere population growth isn't smart or sustainable development and will only push house prices higher again.
8) Supposedly converting the Cullen Fund into individual accounts would make New Zealanders more financially literate... Or simply put financial and risk management in the hands of people who are financially literate. Y'know, when you throw people in the deep end, sometimes they just drown.
10) "Free money" for every Kiwi to spend on tertiary education? First, that would simply strip guaranteed funding from our already under-funded tertiary institutions, because, second, there's no such thing as 'free' money, with or without quote marks.
Sorry Bernard, right target, wrong arrows.