The Rich List: A pat on the back, but national treasures?

The NBR's Rich List today begs us to celebrate the richest of the rich for, well, being rich. Me, I'd like a broader definition of success if it's all the same

Good on 'em, eh. Yeah, those Rich Listers who again are being draped before the nation like so much fine ermine deserve a pat on the back, if for nothing else than the fact that, in most cases, they've shown how to stay in this country and succeed financially.

I'm especially delighted to read in the NBR this morning that, according to my Newstalk ZB sparring partner Ellen Read, "alongside the established old family money and commercial risk takers of recent years, we are pleased to recognise new faces". It's the new sprouts of growth that are most welcome.

I'm not here to pound the rich just for being rich, and to ignore the good works, or even just the hard work, of some on that list. But there are some 'buts' coming, as you might expect.

I take exception to Nevil Gibson's bold declaration that these 151 very, very wealthy folk are by definition of their wealth "national treasures". Is enriching yourself inherently really something of service to a country? Prosperity is to be valued, as a magnet, a job creator, an opportunity for philanthropy, possibly as a way of improving our terms of trade and our international profile, and more.

But Gibson makes no distinction as to what people do with that wealth. If any of these wealthy individuals buried their assets in a cave or spent their cash on crack, Gibson seems to still want to celebrate them.

The Ercegs, for example, given the role of alcopops in New Zealand's drinking problems, might not be deemed as worthy of praise as Sir James Wallace, who has built a great export business and given millions to the country via his art prize and donated collection. Shouldn't thinking New Zealanders draw a line in the jubilation between a Sir Stephen Tindall and a Graeme Hart? 

Getting yourself super rich on its own is no more worthy of national celebration than learning to losing a few pounds or quitting smoking.

What's more, if history teaches us anything, it's that there are likely to be some crooks, or at least a dishonourable few, on that list. Our wealthiest, from Michael Fay and the other grabbers of the '80s through to the finance company directors of more recent times, hardly have a pure, untarnished reputation.

And what about how they made their money? For a serious business paper, isn't it remarkable that there's no mention in the NBR of the fact that so many of these rich listers made their money in property or the primary sector? We have been told for years, by the likes of the NBR, how we need to diversify, how we won't get rich selling houses to each other. And quite right too.

As we speak, the government is trying to "re-balance" the economy towards exports and away from property, so why is there no discussion of this core issue? Perhaps because they were too busy celebrating wealth for the sake of it? Or does a property developer glisten as much as a high tech exporters in the NBR's eye?

You know what? When it comes to celebrating people in the media this week, I'm as inclined to offer a pat on the back to the beneficiaries featured on Close Up, in some of the best work that programme has done in a long time. Simple voices of people living on benefits, cutting through the stereotypes to the daily grind.

If you haven't seen any of the profiles this week, take a look here.

Without the benefits and privileges of wealth, they are raising families, making sacrifices, improving New Zealand. They were resisting the temptation to break the law, to hit their kids in frustration, or to become another negative social statistic despite the struggle for life's basics. They were getting by on very little and hoping for better for their kids. They may have made some bad choices, they had been struck by ill health or ill fortune, but they were getting on with life and doing their best.

It's not the NBR's job as a business paper to praise such folk, but as a country, I'd be just as happy to see them declared "national treasures" as many of the wealthiest. Gibson talks about the "hard work, persistence and dedication" of the richest. Well, ditto.

I reckon raising a child from hardship to be a contributing citizen is at least as much a mark of "success" as building a company worth $100 million.

So sure, go ahead and praise economic success. Praise jobs and smarts and risks and determination. It's all crucial to this country (assuming it's done right and fairly). But let's also honour other forms of success, however humble.

Which leads me to my last thought. I was struck by another comment by Read, quoted in the New Zealand Herald yesterday. Having interviewed some of the listers, she said:

"What emerged again and again was the need for a regulatory and operational environment that's conducive to wealth creation," Ms Read said.

"Eliminating excessive regulation, easing constrictions and freeing up the entrepreneurial spirit were regarded as essential to enabling wealth creation."

Which just made me a bit sad. Is the core message from these people not anything bigger than 'let's make it easier for me to get richer'? Is a self-serving ideology all they've got to offer in terms of an economic or political wish-list?

What's worse, is that not only is it a self-serving argument, it's not credible. The very business-friendly Heritage Foundation in the US ranks New Zealand 4th in the world in its 'economic freedom' rankings, behind only Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. It declares:

With a transparent and stable business climate, New Zealand has created a dynamic entrepreneurial environment. The average tariff rate is low, and commercial operations are aided by a flexible labor market and efficient regulations. Inflationary pressures are under control, and foreign investment is welcome.

What these rich listers seem to miss is that countries aren't run purely to create wealth. That's why they're called countries and not companies. While that's an important part of the job, government regulates and creates an "operational environment" that seeks to achieve numerous other goals as well - equality, environmental protection, civil rights, an educated population and so much more.

Regulations may well constrain wealth generation, especially for these folk. And I reply, 'so what?'. The goal is much bigger than you. Really, well done and all, but I'm much more ambitious for New Zealand than that.