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".

Comments (21)

by on August 17, 2011

Hi Tim, Interesting connections. Youth beneficiaries, social unrest and economies may well be interrelated, and not just through a rhetoric of responsibility, but as mutually influential. Not that youth beneficiaries can influence the markets as much!

For Key, the focus on nz teens is likely a distraction from the woes of the economy, a vote winning tactic, and indicative of a sense of entitlement - privileged entitlement.

You're right: by blaming those with the least 'choices', he's excusing those with the most resources. As is credited to Churchill: "The price of greatness is responsibility". What are the rich's responsibilities to the the wider system that facilitates their generation of wealth?

by Tim Watkin on August 17, 2011
Tim Watkin

Hi N-G. It's interesting to read Buffett's whole piece - I'd recommend it.

To start to answer your question, he talks about his mega rich mates being grateful to the country that gave them their opportunity and the society that nurtured them (not quite those words). And his desire to pay more stems from the observation that people with less than him are paying more – not just in terms of income tax, but by fighting in Afghanistan and the like/

by Frank Macskasy on August 17, 2011
Frank Macskasy


Well analysed and insightful. I point out many of your insights on my Blog scribblings as well. To go a step further,

Baby boomers and neo-liberals castigate the young for their irresponsibility and selfishness.


Is this the same Baby Boomer Neo-Lib generation that enoyed free tertiary education, free medical prescriptions,  etc, etc - paid for by our parents and grandparents?

And when it came time for Baby Boomrers to pass these same social services onto our children, we held up our hands and said, "Nah. You kids pay for what you want." And then we introduced User Pays and gave ourselves hefty tax cuts, whilst privatising many of those state assets that used to provide us with good services.

And we expect the younger generation not to be selfish?!?!

Maybe I'm turning into a Grumpy Old Bugger, but I say "a pox on my generation" - my sympthathies are with the younger people who were well and truly shafted by my lot.

As for the neo-liberals; they got what they wanted; a society of individuals out to get what they wanted; screw society; and devil take the hindmost.

And it was all utterly predictable, 20, 30 years ago.




by on August 17, 2011

I have to agree with Frank.

I have started thinking about this recently - there is a massive expectation on young people that is out of kilter with how the older generations have gone through the system.

I will leave University next year with about $60,000 in student debt into an economy where opportunities are few and far between. My parents never had such problems, the job market may have been difficult but they at least had free tertiary education. I will likely work for the next 50 years saving for my retirement (and paying my student loan!).

by Gareth Ward on August 17, 2011
Gareth Ward

Buffett's point about investment decisions being made regardless of minor shifts in upper tax rates is a really solid one too, that should be pulled out the next time anyone goes on about "turbocharging economic growth" by cutting the top tax rate (or, more likely, claiming people will stop investing and earning if the top rate goes up a few points)

by Tim Watkin on August 17, 2011
Tim Watkin

Frank, if you search this site you'll find some of my past criticism of baby boomers - including pitched battle with Chris Trotter on the topic. I do think baby boomers have, in broad terms, cast a dark shadow on following generations. Because of the power of their vote, no politician will take them on, so they're the spoilt brat in the demographic family.

And while I have sympathy KH, I know the boomers will calculate inflation etc and say they DID pay for university and it wasn't that much less than today. They just worked summers etc to get through... Actually, if anyone knows an accurate comparison between university costs in 1971, say, and today, sing out...


by Tim Watkin on August 17, 2011
Tim Watkin

Gareth, I thought that too. The whole premise of centre-right tax cut ideology is that cuts incentive people to work harder and businesses to invest more. Buffett dismisses that in a line, which is interesting. I almost wrote the post on just that point... it would have been shorter if I had! But couldn't resist the Cameron link.

by on August 17, 2011

Quite right. - You might have drawn attention too to the murdock media dogs, and even the british police force recently implicated in the same cosy club. Hopefully you've touched on a groundswell that might decide eventally that the whole regan/thacher/rogernomics thing has been a complete con from begining to end. Fay/Richwhite et al looted this country just as certainly as the barstards of Hackney. Keep up the good work, and, please, not all baby boomers feel good about present circumstances for those younger, some still believe in what we believed in then in that regard!

by The Falcon on August 17, 2011
The Falcon


Billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s latest call for the federal government to soak the rich was prominently – and rather uncritically – featured on the major networks’ evening news last night.

A year ago I noted that when given the choice, Buffett gave his money to a private charity rather than the government.

No one, not even Buffett, wants to give money to the government because the government is such a wasteful, vote-buying, lumbering juggernaut. But he wants other people to pay more taxes. Just like the lower classes do.

by Andrew R on August 17, 2011
Andrew R

John key is so keen to avoid talking about the increased unemployment, especially youth unemployment, under his reign that he is now saying that the official youth unemployment figures are inaccurate.  Not that he is willing to go on Morning Report (or even answer Phil Goff) questions about it.

John Kenneth Galbraith said something like: Nothing calms society like squeals of pain from the rich.

And: The conspicuously wealthy turn up urging the character building values of the privation of the poor.

by Megan Pacey on August 18, 2011
Megan Pacey

Tim ... spot on!.  Cameron would do well to read the 1000's of messages written on the hoardings in Peckham and Brixton, where he's not yet felt it neccessary to set foot.  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 that are the basis of a 'healthy' community are arguably more present in some of the working classes than they are in the increasingly dysfunctional middle classes.  Middle class values aren't necessarily right or any better. 

by Tim Watkin on August 18, 2011
Tim Watkin

Falcon, just read Buffett's own words to see your error of fact.

Michael, I understand that baby boomers hold a range of views - I'm generalising on the basis of what's actually changed during their years in charge.

Megan, interesting that Cameron hasn't even covered all the suburbs yet. He clearly needs to get out more!


by Mr Magoo on August 18, 2011
Mr Magoo

The fact that some people are finally waking up the the class rort that has been happening for decades (or is that millenia??) is almost as depressing as the fact that it is happening.

Wake up people. Your government is bought and sold. The rich are laughing their arses off and down their noses at the working/poor class. They are not paying their fair share. The short-sighted money men (of all flavours) are driving our economy into a debt death spiral. And we the public are just as bad on that last point.

And while you are all asleep at the democratic wheel NOTHING is going to change.

Just be thankful we are living in a democracy so they have to play "the vote game" which reins them in from what they would do otherwise. Although considering the ease with which the public are distracted from important topics by "shiney" ones I am not sure how long this will last.

by Mr Magoo on August 18, 2011
Mr Magoo

PS: Falcon

As is almost always the case your comment is worth about as much as used toilet paper....


by DeepRed on August 18, 2011

What Messrs Cameron & Key are proposing will be doomed to fail, for the simple fact that they're fixated on attacking the symptoms. Cameron still doesn't realise that the London looters do actually have role models - the kinds of firms implicated in the documentary Inside Job.

by Frank Macskasy on August 18, 2011
Frank Macskasy

Falcon, - "No one, not even Buffett, wants to give money to the government because the government is such a wasteful, vote-buying, lumbering juggernaut. But he wants other people to pay more taxes. Just like the lower classes do."


Buffet "wants other people to pay more taxes"?  And pray tell, what do you base that idea on, Falcon? I read the article, and he clearly insists that ALL rich pay their share.

Perhaps you read something else?

Tim - "I know the boomers will calculate inflation etc and say they DID pay for university and it wasn't that much less than today."

I think they also had access to student allowances, Tim. Though I recall students working in part time jobs in various businesses that I managed in the 1980s.

The expenses that my generation ("Baby Boomers") incurred were expenses that any of us would've incurred whether or not we went to Uni; flat rent; food; clothing, etc.

What was different was that the expense of a university education was largely met by the taxpayer, with addition student allowance support from central government.

I will seek out your other articles, that you referred to.

by on August 18, 2011

On the day of Sir Paul Reeves’ funeral, its worth remembering how he stuck his neck out in 1987 when he was Governor-General, and criticized the economic reforms of the then Labour Government, saying that the changes were producing an increasingly stratified society. Rebuked by David Lange, he later responded, "...the spirit of the market steals life from the vulnerable but the spirit of God gives life to all".

 Its worth remembering that both Labour and National governments have followed market-driven policies for the last 25 years – it’s only the rate that varies – and we are now reaping the fruits of them.

by stuart munro on August 18, 2011
stuart munro

Yes - Sir Paul was that vanishingly rare thing - a good man in NZ politics.

Now that post-modernism is officially dead, perhaps we can return to classical models of human virtue. Of course most of the present generation of MPs are completely compromised, they will have to go...

by william blake on August 18, 2011
william blake

Great link Stuart but i'm not sure we can relax just yet. Peeps like Falcon have not even cottoned onto the demise of the meta-narrative yet, let alone what comes next. There are a lot of folk who still think in a cold war, polarised grand narrative fashion to make a return to first past the post a real possibility.

by stuart munro on August 20, 2011
stuart munro

Perhaps. The fact is that the right - your raptor there for example - never bought into the whole distributed truth assertion in the first place. It was the left that was gutted by this nonsense.

And in that sense it was the logical successor to late Marxist theory - another generator of an infinite variety of pitiful doctrines, dogmas, and doxies.


by Frank Macskasy on August 24, 2011
Frank Macskasy

"Its worth remembering that both Labour and National governments have followed market-driven policies for the last 25 years – it’s only the rate that varies – and we are now reaping the fruits of them."

Indeed, Simon. Yet, ironically, the greater the disparity of wealth and incomes; the greater the poverty and lack of jobs; and as social dislocation worsens - we still get those who blame the victims;



After 25 years, one would think that people would start to realise that the Great Free Market Experiment was an abject failure.

But then again, it took the Russians about 70 years to realise that conclusion with their particular experiment in extreme economic/social  ideology...

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