If John Key wants to talk about obligations and responsibilities, he should listen more to Warren Buffett and less to David Cameron. Building community is about everyone sharing those old rights and responsibilities
Sometimes fragments of news from all round the world fit together into a single story. In the past 48 hours, we've had John Key here in New Zealand demanding more from unemployed and non-training teens, David Cameron in Britain talking of slow motion moral collapse, and Warren Buffett, the king of investors, in the US demanding that he, and others like him, pay higher taxes.
While the words are different, they're all singing the same tune – one of mutual obligations and of how a society binds and holds together. In three different continents they are all expressing concerns about a lack of community. So who has it right? Who has more integrity?
For me, the answer sticks out like a queue for jobs at an Auckland supermarket. Key and Cameron are preaching responsibility whilst blaming others. Buffett, on the other hand, is talking sacrifice and offering it up himself. Writing in the New York Times, he concluded that his near-$7 million tax bill was insufficient when so many Americans are suffering.
My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.
Another mega-rich man, George Soros – or at least his spokesman – showed a similar understanding of the importance of community when he said:
"The rich are hurting their own long-term interests by their opposition to paying more taxes."
In other words, if you don't pay your fair share, others will get angry and take it. Or, in still other words, the sort of greed you saw on the Hackney high street is a response to the greed that lay at the heart of the global financial crisis.
Cameron doesn't seem to understand that. His words express the disillusionment of the past week, but he completely misses their repugnant irony if you read them in the context of the credit crunch and all that has followed. Take a look at them, but this time strip away the Tottenham context:
"Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences. Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control..."
Take out the orphans and schools and he might have been talking about Wall St, the City and the whole derivative-deriving, sub-prime preening, bonus-bloated bunch. But no, he's not prepared to look so closely and critically at his own mates. It's so much easier to vent against those "others" who don't, as Buffett put it, "have friends in high places" and whose stealing is less subtle (and so much less ambitious) than those who work for the big banks and financial companies.
Where is Cameron's passionate commitment to reform of the irresponsible, selfish markets? His anger at those traders who thought they had the right to repackage debt with no greater sense of responsibility than to maximise their own bonuses? Why the instant willingness to "review every aspect" of his broken society, but years of inaction on a over-leveraged and under-regulated financial system?
Without a sense of righteous rage towards the abuse of the system by the richest and most powerful, how dare he express such outrage at the least of these?
Still, he's hardly alone in his selective sight.
It is time many on the left were prepared to debate again the importance of the family, the sense of purpose given by work, and the social glue that are manners, morals and a sense of self-responsibility.
At the same time, many on the right need to recognise the impurities created by the pure free-market and what really trickles down when we put ideology above people; the fact that a belief in the nobility of work might mean actually creating work; and that in a world of finite resources, if the rich keep getting richer, the poor, well, they get pissed off.
Of course we should all be concerned when people take without giving, expect without expecting to give back and don't feel any sense of obligation to their neighbour. No man is an island, whether he's abandoning his child and support payments or running an investment bank that has nowhere near enough capital to cover its debts.
But if we're going to talk about people taking responsibility for their actions, we need to be consistent. Cameron somehow seems to expect the poor to have better morals than the mega-rich, when if anything the reverse should be true. For some reason, he expects those with the least to be grateful and dutiful, whilst those with the most have licence to loot people's retirement savings and entire national economies without sanction.
Which brings us to New Zealand, and National's creeping welfare reform. I've written too many words already to go far into this. In short, I welcome the information-sharing and budgeting support – the leaving schools years are probably second only to the first three years in terms of individual vulnerability and communal opportunity.
I even have sympathy for the government paying some of the bills, as they're proposing. But this post isn't about the policy details, it's about the inconsistency of principle.
John Key's making the same mistake as Cameron, demanding the poor pay their fair share, while cutting taxes for the rich and creating a more regressive tax system that sees the likes of Sam Morgan pay nary a cent.
When pressed on the embattled economy, lack of jobs and inequality, he points out that only two years ago we were in the midst of the worst global recession since the 1930s. The blame is not the government's, it's the economy's.
But oddly enough, when he addresses the number of people on welfare, he points the finger at them. The blame is there's, not the economy's.
Key is demanding more quid pro quo from 2000 teens, but in tough times is asking nothing more of the mega rich (such as himself) or for that matter of the hundreds of thousands who will start receiving superannuation in the next few decades.
He'll cut taxes to incentivise the middle classes to work harder and stop the top earners from fiddling the system to minimise their tax. But he won't raise the minimum wage enough to incentivise Kiwis to stop crossing the Tasman or boost benefits to incentivise those living on $20 a week (after rent, power and food) to not go out stealing or stop fiddling the system.
He's telling Poor Jack to buck up his ideas, but letting Rich John off the hook.
And that's why, if he does, as he claims, ask himself if he's done all he can for New Zealand's most vulnerable in the past three years, the only answer he can honestly give is "no".