Kiwi Dream? More like a nightmare

Last week’s Covid cases in Auckland delayed Finance Minister Robertson’s housing policy announcements. The housing shortage has been at crisis levels for a long time, but the delay in this case is not likely to make any difference.

The government has hinted that further tinkering on the demand side is coming, but enabling more building is what is needed.

Demand-side initiatives from both National and Labour-led governments have failed to address the underlying shortage, so house prices continue to rise.

If homeownership is part of the Kiwi Dream, we are deeply into nightmare territory instead.

And the problem is worse than you probably thought.

The Initiative’s new report, The Need to Build, discusses the relationship between population ageing and declining household sizes. Places with older populations require more and different housing than places with younger populations. As New Zealand ages, the housing shortage will worsen. The trend holds both here and across the OECD.

The problem is hardly unknown. Statistics New Zealand and local councils already consider declining household sizes when estimating housing demand. But it is underappreciated elsewhere.

We projected new housing needs for 2038 and 2060 – the numbers are striking.

Even if the the border stayed closed for the next 20 years, we would still need to build at least 20,000 new net dwellings every year to meet demographic changes.   

For the six most realistic scenarios in the report, from 2019, New Zealand will need to build between 26,000 and 35,000 net dwellings – above and beyond the replacement of decrepit houses –  every year until 2038, and between 15,000 and 29,000 per year by 2060.

But we also have a current shortage of some 40,000 homes that also needs to be filled. There has not been nearly enough building for well over a decade. While the current construction boom has brought consenting numbers to the highest level since the 1970s, consenting rates are only a little above long term averages.

Population ageing adds fuel to the fire.

The Kiwi Dream for younger generations – Millennials and Generation Z – is slipping further away. Shortages mean high rent and little disposable income after housing costs. Continuously tinkering with demand policies such as the LVR, bright-line tests, and first home buyer programme will do little to make housing more affordable. 

The government must switch priorities to rapidly free up housing and land supply, or find ways to incentivise councils to be more pro-development.

Report: The Need to Build – The Demographic Drivers of Housing Demand

Leonard Hong

The political ‘buck passing’ of the responsibility for unaffordable housing by successive governments in New Zealand has created extremely expensive housing markets in cities such as Auckland and Wellington – and a national housing crisis. Auckland is the sixth least affordable city among 92 major global housing markets, according to the 2020 Demographia housing survey. The real price of housing in New Zealand increased by 171% from 2000 to 2019, compared with just 11% in Germany in the same period. Despite former Housing Minister Phil Twyford’s reforms, the government has prioritised supressing demand and targeting financial speculation from overseas. Demand-side solutions are just tinkering at the edges of the problem. Long-term demographic transformations and changing household sizes are affecting overall housing demand. Inflexible housing development is the core problem, and only freeing up enough supply can solve our housing unaffordability and overcrowding.

The projections in this report show that our housing problems are set to worsen. From 2019 to 2038, the annual average additional dwellings needed will increase from 26,246 (‘low’ migration and ‘low’ fertility) to 34,556 (‘medium’ migration and ‘high’ fertility). From 2019 to 2060, we will need 15,319 (‘low’ migration and ‘low’ fertility) and 29,052 (‘medium’ migration and ‘high’ fertility) additional dwellings annually. These figures do not take into account the annual demolition and replacement rate of dwellings and the current undersupply of 40,000. Since 1992, New Zealand has added only 21,445 net private dwellings annually to the housing stock. We are simply not building enough to meet the looming demographic changes and demands.

Our housing needs are also set to rise much faster than population growth. The average annual number of dwellings needed based on just projected population growth, excluding the smaller household size, was between 5,452 (‘low’ migration and ‘low’ fertility) and 21,543 (‘medium’ migration and ‘high’ fertility) to 2060 in our analysis. The difference represents an annual shortfall of 9,867 dwellings for the former and 7,509 for the latter (or 64% and 26%, respectively). This means housing policy using only projected population growth will markedly underestimate future demand.

Covid-19 and the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s monetary response to the ongoing recession has led to much financial capital flowing into the housing market. Consequently, the national house price average reached $725,000, an increase of 19.8% from October 2019 to October 2020. Low interest rates created incentives for greater borrowing and investments in real assets such as financial stocks and housing. However, if sound institutional arrangements were established and growing supply could meet growing demand, there would be far fewer speculative incentives.

Local councils and Statistics New Zealand already factor demographic changes in their household and dwelling projections, but the effect of the average household size on housing demand is rarely discussed in the public sphere. The aggregate housing demand is based not just on population growth, but also the composition of each household. With household sizes shrinking, fewer people living with many children, and population ageing, we have ‘empty nests’ and ‘crowded houses’.

For this report, we calculated long-term population numbers using the demographic software Spectrum. Based on three fundamental factors – net migration, total fertility, and life expectancy – 36 scenarios were projected to 2060 (and 2038 for dwelling projections). In 33 out of the 36 scenarios, New Zealand’s population in 2060 will be larger than it is today. Under all 36 scenarios, the median age will be higher. The 36 scenarios were further narrowed to the six most plausible based on New Zealand’s recent demographic history. Among the six, the variation in median age and population size by 2060 was vast – the projected population ranged between 5.55 million and 7.26 million, while the median age was between 41.0 and 48.5 years. Even if migration is low (say, 14,000 per annum), New Zealand’s population will still grow substantially over the next few decades.

The current housing crisis is just the tip of the iceberg – if the government does not change course, future generations will face abysmal housing affordability prospects. Stopping migration completely would only produce new problems while doing little to fix the housing problem.

Demographic changes also have long-term implications for fiscal prudence. Under the six most plausible Spectrum scenarios, the dependency rate rose with population ageing, and the number of those over 65 years by at least 23% by 2060. This will result in fewer future taxpayers and more demands on working-age New Zealanders to fund public services such as healthcare and pensions.

Policymakers need to make our economic institutions more versatile so New Zealand can cope with any combination of demographic or household scenarios in the future. New Zealand had net zero migration in 2020 due to Covid-19 related border closures but this did not stop housing inflation. Politicians should stop blaming the housing crisis on migration, land banking investment, and speculation, and instead find policy solutions to free up urban development and housing supply. Faster productivity growth too would help fund additional public services in the long term.

Building now and fast is imperative for the nation’s future economic and social wellbeing.

Click below to download the two-page summary of The Need to Build: The demographic drivers of housing demand.

Housing crisis? You ain’t seen nothing yet

NZ Herald

Against the predictions of most economists early last year, the housing market has boomed through Covid-19. Since March last year, house prices have risen by 20%, rents by 12%. During the period, the economy suffered its worst-ever quarterly fall in GDP, and net migration has been virtually zero. Low-interest rates and limited land supply make a powerful combination.

But there is even more trouble on the horizon for housing. An ageing population results in declining average household sizes – this will add fuel to the housing fire. These demographic changes will be with us for decades, long after the Bitcoin becomes the primary global currency.

If you think the current housing circumstances are dire, wait till you see the potential long-run implications – you ain’t seen anything yet.

The housing crisis is a core supply problem. For decades, housing construction has not kept up with the growing population, which means house prices have gone through the roof.

Analysis by Infometrics shows more construction in a region slows down the rate of housing inflation. Auckland and Wellington’s stagnant building resulted in rapid inflation of 20% for the last decade. In comparison, Christchurch and Hamilton’s construction building surge resulted in prices increasing by only 13%. 

Gross construction rates across New Zealand have increased substantially in recent times. According to Statistics New Zealand, residential completion numbers peaked at 38,624 in November 2020, the highest number since the 1970s.

This is great news, except that the population in the 1970s was 3 million and today it is 5.1 million. On a per-capita basis, we are nowhere near historical peaks. There were 13.2 new builds per thousand people in 1973, but only 7.6 per thousand people in 2020.

New Zealand’s housing construction rate is nowhere near adequate in proportion to population, let alone the long run effects of an ageing population.

The Initiative’s new report, ‘The Need to Build’, shows that long-term housing demand in New Zealand is set to rise as New Zealand’s population becomes larger and older, adding fuel to the ‘housing crisis’ fire.

An older population results in fewer people living per dwelling and a larger population further increases housing needs. Across all the OECD countries, including New Zealand, the average household size has declined, which means more houses are needed per capita regardless of net migration levels.

In the report, we consider a range of housing for the period 2038 to 2060.

Under all the six most realistic scenarios, from 2019, we will need between 26,246 and 34,556 per year by 2038, and we will need between 15,319 and 29,052 additional dwellings per year by 2060.

The point is that cutting migration entirely would stop new housing demand – it does not because we still have an ageing population.

Even in extreme scenarios where net migration is zero for the next few decades, it does not stop new housing demand. By 2038, New Zealand would still need between 20,933 and 24,665 per year under medium life expectancy.

The report’s figures exclude the annual housing replacement rate, and the ongoing undersupply of 40,000 – estimated by Infometrics – adds to the chronic housing shortage.

What does all this mean for the outlook for housing in New Zealand?

The projected figures in the reports are well above the average annual construction rate of 21,445 since 1992. The implication is that house prices will rise a lot more unless house construction is much greater.

Fortunately, New Zealand is relatively young, with a median age of 37 years. Older countries across the OECD provide a window to the future. Kiwi policymakers have a unique opportunity to prepare what we can do now regarding housing policy.

In countries like Germany, the country is ageing, and the average household size has already been decreasing. Germany’s median age went from 37.6 in 1990 to 45.9 in 2020 and the average household size dropped from 2.3 to 2.0.

Since 1990, Germany’s population has been roughly stable at just above 80 million, but the household numbers went from 35 million in 1990 to 42 million in 2020 – 7 million more households in 30 years.

New Zealand is on a similar trajectory. New Zealand’s median age is currently close to 37 and is expected to increase to around 43 by 2038 and 50 by 2060. Our household size is also likely to drop from 2.6 to 2.4 by 2038 and even lower afterwards. The German illustration shows a potential image of New Zealand’s future, albeit with a far smaller total population size.

Even if annual construction increased closer to the 1970s, it would likely struggle to meet a more extensive and older population’s housing demand.

And estimating housing demand just on population growth is insufficient. On our projections, the dwelling stock in 2060 will be between 64% (‘low’ migration and ‘low’ fertility) and 26% (‘high’ migration and ‘high’ fertility), below what is needed to cater for the projected population need.

Tinkering the edges of demand will do little to address the chronic shortage in housing supply. Once the border opens, housing demand will continue to escalate, and the problem could become even worse.

All of this is fuel to the house fire, especially considering the revival of an open international economy after the global pandemic ends.

The housing crisis affects all Kiwis, but especially the millennials and Generation Z. There has been a growing intergenerational inequality preventing younger Kiwis from fulfilling their Kiwi Dream. The younger generation’s homeownership prospects are close to nil unless their parents are homeowners. Housing supply must expand substantially to give the younger generations a chance. 

Kiwi undiplomacy

“In archaeology, you uncover the unknown. In diplomacy you cover the known,” former United States Ambassador Thomas Pickering famously quipped. And Pickering’s wisdom is still relevant today.

In the aftermath of New Zealand’s free trade agreement upgrade with China, New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O’Connor decided to reprimand its Trans-Tasman neighbour. He believed that Australia should follow New Zealand and “show respect” and “a little more diplomacy” with the Chinese government.

This incident alarmed many senior members of the Australian government and created unnecessary tensions between the two nations.

Cosying up to the Chinese with an upgraded trade agreement is not something government ministers should brag about to the world.

His comment explicitly signals for the first time, that China could just assert pressure on countries such as New Zealand and even divide the Five Eyes security alliance.

Although both the Aussies and the Kiwis are part of the Five Eyes, each has its independent foreign policies. New Zealand took a more ambivalent approach towards China, while the Australians pursued an aggressive and defensive strategy.

Some of O’Connor’s  sentiments are understandable. Smaller powers such as New Zealand and Australia rely on the multilateral international order for its economic interests.

In an anarchic international system, great powers rule supreme.

China is a significant power across the Asia-Pacific. Under President Xi, the ‘Middle Kingdom’ has continued to exert itself across the world stage and expanded its influence across the region.

Therefore, it is vital to conduct foreign policy in a practical and realist manner.

For New Zealand, upgrading the free trade agreement was necessary for the country’s economic recovery, especially considering the global recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the short run, the deal itself was the right step for New Zealand, especially considering the United States’ current circumstances. The new Biden Administration must deal with its domestic affairs before even thinking about returning to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement, let alone containing the Chinese.

But O’Connor’s comments were not helpful. Australia is one of New Zealand’s critical western brothers and partners in the Five Eyes alliance. So isolating New Zealand from its security partners is not in its best interests.

In soft power, the less interest you reveal, the more superior you seem. As Pickering said, diplomacy is all about covering the known. Avoiding silly comments in the future would be the best way forward.

Leonard Hong is a Research Assistant at The New Zealand Initiative based in Wellington and a former intern at CIS.

Building for the Future

Everyone knows that the status quo with respect to housing is “unsustainable”. The Prime Minister now seems to recognise the need for fundamental change and the opposition has recently offered to work with the government to find non-partisan solutions. 

While many people in the public assume that a key driver of house price growth is migration, recent trends show that even without migration rapid house price inflation can occur.

Because of Covid-19, the government closed the border for international travel early last year. As a result, monthly net migration was close to zero for most of 2020. Nevertheless, over the last year, both rents and housing costs increased by 12% and 20%, respectively.  

Migration is only one part of the story. A myriad of factors contribute to housing dynamics in both the short and long-run, but not all of these receive equal attention.

Discussion of the effects of demographic change and an ageing population on our housing markets is limited. Yet, these drivers are also set to contribute to our housing woes over the coming decades, especially if the housing supply does not respond. That is because ageing populations require more homes for the same number of people.

For instance, when the typical group of a hundred people consists of 20 couples, each with two young kids, and ten retired couples, those hundred people fall into thirty households. Thirty homes might be needed. When the hundred instead are 15 couples with two kids each, and 20 retired couples, 35 homes might instead be needed.

In New Zealand, the average household size has fallen from 3.2 in the 1970s to 2.6 in 2020 (like other OECD countries). According to Statistics New Zealand’s projections, it could fall even further in the next two decades or less.

So, are we gearing up to build the additional housing that our changing demographics require?

Policies that target land supply and infrastructure bottlenecks are key. However, the asymmetry of political and economic incentives between councils and the government has created a frustrating gridlock.

Growth and economic expansion in areas bring little revenue to councils but impose upfront infrastructure costs, such as water pipelines. This adds to councils’ reluctance to free up land for development.

Restrictions on density further add to housing supply issues.

The housing market is bad enough already, even without considering the effects of demographic change that will only worsen the problem. The government’s proposed policy responses must address the root of the problem rather than tinkering around the edges.

The housing shortage is worse than you’d thought

NZ Herald,

According to the OECD’s Building for a Better Tomorrow report, New Zealand now has the least affordable housing market for the poorest families. We have left more Kiwis with a slimmer chance of achieving the Kiwi Dream and exacerbated social inequality.

New Zealand’s housing is a national catastrophe. House prices have gone up by 37% nationally since 2015, according to ANZ. Shortages drive rising prices. And the problem will only worsen as an aging population means even more housing will be needed.

At a press conference last week, Prime Minister Ardern too called the housing market “unsustainable,” a U-turn from last year’s position of “sustained moderation” of housing inflation.

But the Prime Minister’s proposed solutions, thus far, have addressed the symptoms of the housing shortage rather than its root causes.

The Prime Minister re-launched the Public Housing Plan to build up to 18,000 social houses by 2024. Social housing is important, but would there be nearly as much need for it if a surplus of housing overall made for affordable rents? The barriers faced by private developers are also faced by government-led building initiatives, as Labour discovered with KiwiBuild.

Making it easier to build more housing in places where people want to live is the only thing that can solve a housing supply shortage.

While demand-side measures, like banning foreign buyers, can be tempting, they do not address the problem. The pandemic has done far more than any foreign buyer ban to curb housing pressure arising from overseas. International students and international visitors, each of whom needs a place to live while here, have largely gone away. Net migration has dropped to zero. But rents and housing costs are sharply up regardless.

Hopefully, vaccination programmes in 2021 can restore normality to the border. But even if the border remained closed forever, migration is only one part of growing demand for housing.  Demographic change and an aging population, all on their own, will also worsen the shortage.

An aging population, all else equal, requires more dwellings. And while those kinds of changes are incorporated in household projections by Statistics New Zealand, and consequently into Council forecasts of future housing demand, they are underappreciated in popular discussion of housing pressure.

Long-run demographic changes in household composition (such as from nuclear families to single-person households) and population ageing affect overall housing demand and require flexibility about the kinds of housing that can be built.

In New Zealand, average household size has dropped from 3.2 in the 1970s to 2.6 in 2020 (similar to OECD countries as seen in the figure below). It could drop to 2.4 in the next two decades or less, according to Statistics New Zealand’s projections. 

As family sizes reduce, median age increases along with demand for housing.

When the typical group of a hundred people consists of 20 couples, each with two young kids, and ten retired couples, those hundred people fall into thirty households. Thirty homes might be needed. When the hundred instead are 15 couples with two kids each, and 20 retired couples, 35 homes might instead be needed.

Aging populations require more homes for the same number of people.

The causes of the housing shortage have been reasonably well canvassed. Over decades, councils have borne the costs of accommodating more housing while central government enjoys the tax revenues that flow from growing cities – higher income tax, company tax, and GST revenues. Making it harder to build more housing has been one way that councils have sought to contain the costs of growth.

Years and years of restrictions on development have resulted in a construction sector scaled to the amount and types of building that have been allowed, rather than the amount and types of building that might be demanded by a growing and changing population.

The effects are stark. Housing shortages and high resulting housing costs undermine social cohesion. Families are forced to live in less pleasant and overcrowded dwellings, leading to deprivation, adverse health and social outcomes, and unstable environments for young children to grow and learn.

As of 2018, one in nine Kiwis were living in crowded housing, with Maori and Pasifika families most affected.

It will be impossible for the government to achieve promised increases in wellbeing without changing the fundamental direction of housing policy. But whatever your view on the best way of enabling more supply, the extent of the shortfall is larger when an aging population all on its own will increase the number of homes that are needed.

The government will soon be announcing its plans for remedying the problem. When thinking about the government’s proposals, ask yourself whether they enable more housing to be built, or whether they provide more tinkering around the demand side. Reform of the Resource Management Act will also be coming, but unless it improves the incentives facing Councils to enable more housing, it will not be as effective as it should be.

The housing shortage is bad enough already, even without considering the effects of demographic change that will only worsen the problem. Let’s hope that the government’s proposed policy responses strike to the root.

Who I am?

My first picture with the Initiative.


Kia ora, my name is Leonard and I’m a Research Assistant currently based in Wellington. I’m in my second year with The New Zealand Initiative, one of the largest research organisations in the country. It’s a non-partisan think tank committed to creating a far more productive and better future for New Zealand.

We are the organisation to sketch pathways towards a better future. Our mission is to help create a competitive, open and dynamic economy and a free, prosperous, fair, and cohesive society.

I’m a 1.5 generation Kiwi-Korean and I hope to use my skillsets, knowledge and abilities to contribute to the intellectual debate in New Zealand. I began this webpage for people to follow my writings, blogs and commentary on political and economic affairs.

I have strong interests in urban economics, globalisation, international relations, political science, international political economy and self-help.

Please feel free to contact me on matters related to these subject matters.

Happy New Year and I hope you all have a great 2021.

Kind regards,

Leonard Hong

Why America matters – The Liberal World Order and New Zealand

“In recent years it has become evident that the consensus upholding this system is facing increasing pressures, from within and from without… It’s imperative that we act urgently to defend the liberal international order.” — President-Elect Joe Biden in 2017.

The Liberal World Order is one of the most used phrases in international relations scholarship. It’s a repetitive term, but a significant one, considering the fact that it affects everyone around the world. The United States began the Liberal International Order with the end of World War II and the defeat of the Nazis. With Franklin Roosevelt’s vision, the Western superpower set up international institutions and created long sustaining alliances for a greater multilateral and tolerant global society. Without the liberal world order and brilliant American leadership in the likes of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan, New Zealand and other allied nations would have not been able to thrive during the Cold War period. Regional and international institutions such as GATT, WTO, IMF, the World Bank, European Union, and NATO provided security and economic cooperation among allied nation-states.

And yet, there are a lot of people in New Zealand that criticise America for its role as the leader of the world. In fact, many of them want to see its role reduced substantially. I agree with that statement somewhat, I’ve been very critical of their nonsensically hawkish interference in the Middle East, its naive attempts at forcefully spreading liberal democracy around the world. Its eastward expansion of NATO and the EU was also a great mistake that resulted in the military retaliation of the Russians. America’s neoconservatives and liberal hawks that were fundamentalist on the ‘end of history’ ultimately created all this mayhem.

However, if they mean America’s leadership getting entirely compromised and allowing authoritarian governments to enter that space – such as Communist China – then my answer is an absolute ‘no’. As President-Elect Biden noted, “it’s imperative that we act urgently to defend the liberal international order”. The Thucydides’ Trap is incoming at this stage in history and the US-China geopolitical contest will be the defining historical turning point for global liberal democracy. As John Mearsheimer noted before, this security competition will continue even under the Biden Administration and beyond.

So what is the point of this post? My message to New Zealanders in this blog is simple, America matters for the western world and in fact democracy itself. They have to win, and it is imperative that they do. I say this, despite knowing America’s complicated history.

In many ways, America is somewhat a hypocritical concept – it started as the first constitutional republic against the British monarchy. It set out laws for equal opportunity…but for only white men, and simultaneously set out a brilliant Federal system of power by instituting checks and balances. Constitutional amendments were made for free speech and inquiry… but also allowed slavery. It also intervened in smaller nations and participated as a colonial power during the Imperial era. Then slavery was banned under Abraham Lincoln, and racial equality was not legally achieved until the 1960s, under Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act… and also escalated the Vietnam War. They defeated the Soviets and ended Communist authoritarianism with the Berlin Wall falling. The American Pentagon stupidly intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. Then elected the first African American President, Barack Obama (whom I personally admire). Then the recent events that happened in Washington is another example of historical irony at work. It is clear that President Trump and his cronies led the world to a more chaotic, less democratic and hyper-partisan society. America as the beacon of freedom or just arrogance? In short, both. The American experiment is indeed full of both hypocrisies and social progress. Even today, many social science scholars such as Cornel West suggest that the nation has not lived up to its ideals, for instance, the inadequacy of equal opportunity for all. These are all empirically and historically accurate.

However, what separates America in contrast to other countries around the world is that it’s the first serious societal experiment in human history. The United States is like the ‘Republic City’ in the television cartoon, The Legend of Korra. The nation is defined entirely by civic values rather than on race, ethnicity, culture, background, or creed. You become American by embracing its liberal democratic values, its identity based on its historical strife against the British monarchy, its constitutional values, and individual liberty. It’s a nation created out of migration and a sociological result as a historical derivative of European enlightenment.

Diversity matters to many Americans, but what is unique is the tolerance towards others, the ability to fight for freedom around the world. Liberalism is the key symbol of America and that’s the beauty of it. As Francis Fukuyama mentioned in his column last year:

Liberalism was simply a pragmatic tool for resolving conflicts in diverse societies, one that sought to lower the temperature of politics by taking questions of final ends off the table and moving them into the sphere of private life. This remains one of its most important selling points today.

Indeed, liberalism allows for diversity. Other liberal democracies like New Zealand, Australia, the EU etc, need the United States for the sake of soft power. America as a symbol is still a liberal democracy with its political institutions stable. Even though there has been a rise of neopatrimonialism in their political process which has undermined the state to be held accountable to its people. Rent-seeking behaviour among some plutocrats has undermined Americans’ trust towards its politicians and state institutions. We witnessed such examples through the 2008 global financial crisis and the federal government’s response to Covid-19.

Historically the United States has been a success story so far, but it needs to sort its own domestic affairs out. We already have incoming challenges such as AI, automation, climate change and geopolitical tensions, that will cause more drastic disruption to the world. But those challenges cannot be solved if America’s civil society and political polarisation continues. The world needs America to be the genuine liberal captain it was when it led the liberal international order after WWII. As liberals, we have to preserve our values of freedom, justice, equality and liberal democracy in the face of rising China and revival of national populism. We cannot continue this trend of a global ‘democratic recession’.

As a liberal democrat – in the classical sense – I’m hoping that the new Biden Administration would bring some common sense back in the White House. The Electoral College just confirmed Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 US Presidential election – He will be the next President. It’s a sigh of relief for many (including me) after President Trump’s tumultuous, chaotic, and unpredictable 4-year term. Although I criticised the Democrats in a previous post, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to Biden Administration to do well.

They have a huge task ahead. The Liberal World Order and America matter to all of us.

Military Theatre

These days, even the German army cannot afford to neglect its green credentials. Pity if that’s the only thing it is good at.

German military manufacturer FFG just presented its latest tank. This is not your usual combat vehicle, not just because of its deep blue livery. It’s a hybrid.

The Genesis, as they call this beast, is a modern field general’s Prius. Except it runs on eight wheels, weighs up to 40 tons and has a 30mm automatic cannon. No Tesla can compete with that.

And it’s a technological miracle. The Genesis reaches speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour. In silent mode, the only thing you can hear is the gun, and it can drive submerged under four metres of water.

The tank’s green credentials excite Germany’s military strategists. Pity that the rest of the German military is no longer fit for purpose.

The past decade has been terrible for Germany’s armed forces. And this time, it did not even lose a war. Hardly a week goes by without new absurdities from the Bundeswehr. It is hard to imagine how this country ever threatened anyone but itself.

A couple of years ago, only four out of 128 Luftwaffe fighter jets complied with NATO’s basic requirements. But that was still a better percentage than the German submarine fleet back then: all six U-Boats were out of commission.

Maintaining marine equipment is not exactly the Germans’ strength.

The pride of the German navy is a three-masted barque, the Gorch Fock. Though it looks like a relic from the Crimean War, it was only commissioned in 1958. It should have undergone a €10 million repair job in 2015, but five years and €135 million later, the Gorch Fock job is still unfinished.

The list goes on. Airforce pilots losing their licences because their helicopters don’t fly. Soldiers complaining they need to bring their own thermal underwear on exercises and deployments. And the army apparently only has enough ammunition for two days of fighting should the country ever find itself at war.

Maybe the Bundeswehr is just a sign of the times. It virtue-signals some modern values and guarantees that no country ever need to fear the Germans again.

Even their electric tanks would need to be recharged shortly after crossing the border.

The Demise of Excellence – New Zealand is falling behind


One of the core cultural values I found quite hard to grasp in New Zealand is the inherent egalitarian nature of Kiwis. It shows that Kiwis are friendly, respectful, and courteous of others. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s viral catchphrase “Be Kind” symbolically embodies our culture. However, are there potential negative consequences because of our egalitarianism? I wondered whether if it was why we have a ‘tall poppy syndrome’ problem.

As Dr Oliver Hartwich mentioned in his recent column for The New Zealand Herald, New Zealanders have a lax attitude towards excellence. Although, we have a few world-class sportspeople, business CEOs and others. But as a society, it seems as though we put more emphasis on equality rather than excelling in anything. I’ve personally witnessed this through the Kiwi nature of the ‘Yeah, nah, yeah bro’ attitudes towards life. ‘She’ll be alright mate’ is the common answer we raise whenever we face internal troubles or domestic difficulties. This has had unintended consequences across the country reflected in our economic and social outcomes. I think New Zealand has a broad cultural problem  if most Kiwis take a complacent attitude towards life, we will witness a further decline. This starkly contrasts countries that outperform us such as East Asian nations like South Korea and Singapore. 

Economic and Social Indicators: 

Our ‘average’ international rankings speak for itself. Our international education standards have fallen substantially in the last few decades. In PISA, our scores dropped for Maths, Science and Reading substantially shown in Briar Lipson’s book ‘New Zealand’s Education Delusion’. Our productivity gap between Australia has continuously widened closer to 20%. Our economy is still heavily reliant on primary industries and international tourism, despite being a developed economy. Our FDI restrictiveness is number one in the OECD. Our Universities are nowhere near the top 50 in the world (In contrast to our neighbours Australia, which have more than 5 Universities). There are other economic and social indicators that I could mention, but the reality is that if Kiwis continue to be satisfied with mediocre economic, social and government policies, then our whole society will ‘pay’ for such mediocrity in the long term. 

The Dramatic Turnaround of East Asia: From Developing to World-Class

Figure 1: Labour Productivity Levels Relative to the United States (%), 1950-2019 (S. Korea & NZ)

Internationally, countries in Asia (especially North-East Asia) witnessed a remarkable economic recovery beginning during the post-WWII period. Beginning with Japan’s industrialisation, the new four Asian Tigers – South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore followed suit with the ‘flying geese’ model of economic development. Economists have coined these four countries’ world-class economic outcomes as the ‘East Asian miracle’. Coincidently, this contrasts starkly with New Zealand’s mediocrity witnessed in the last 70 years. 

Economist Dr Üngör of Otago raised this in his recent Newsroom column. As shown in Figure 1, South Korea’s labour productivity level was less than 12% of US labour productivity in 1950, but by 2019 it was 63%. New Zealand was at 92% of the US in 1950 but dropped to 62% by 2019. The figure provides a humbling picture for New Zealand – The South Koreans have overtaken New Zealanders and we are falling behind the best performers in the world today. Back then, New Zealand was once one of the few nations with one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, but since then we have faltered into a mid-tier economy. 

South Korea’s overlap of New Zealand should signal warning signs for New Zealand policymakers. The turnaround was possible because South Koreans built a prosperous nation by changing the cultural narrative towards competency, strived for excellence, and took greater communitarian responsibility towards long term prosperity. A similar change of mantra can be said about the Taiwanese and the Hong Kong people. 

My personal favourite example is the South East Asian city-state Singapore. With the brilliant leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, the nation went from a wasteland with no natural resources into one of the finest economics in the world. His style of government was highly technocratic. Singapore is very competitive, meritocratic, and pursues economic policies that were practical and results-driven. A combination of state-intervention and liberal free markets, it’s the fourth-highest in the world for GDP per capita. Not only is the country extremely efficient, but it is also environmentally friendly and clean. A perfect combination of sustainable development and world-class governance. Whilst the nation is regarded as a semi-democratic society, there are many things New Zealand can learn from Singapore’s system, institutional mechanisms and broad culture. Lee changed the mindset of the Singaporean people to strive to excellence and competence.   

Competent Response to Covid-19: South Korea and Singapore

In the earlier months of 2020, when Covid-19 hit the globe, the most effective responses were from East Asian states. I researched Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea during that period. They all had an exceptional public administration, competent execution of contact tracing, regular mask-wearing, mass testing of people and a well-mandated epidemic response team in their governments. These countries did well because they had a well-functioning society with the high-level expectation of competence and excellence. With these cultural factors in mind, they have world-class healthcare, government bureaucracies, a knowledge-based education curriculum and of course a competent response to Covid-19. This would have been impossible without having excellent administrators and a well-educated population. 

New Zealand’s Covid-19 Response: Mixed Bag 

New Zealand did very well responding to Covid-19 as well. However, I give much of the credit to our geographic proximity from the world. We were far away from epidemic centres such as China and Europe during the early stages of the pandemic. In addition, having Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – not some of her Cabinet members – at the time was essential to keeping the public disciplined in our efforts to contain the virus. The lockdown was effective at stamping out the virus, but with an economic cost. Our Debt/GDP ratio is now projected to be 56% by 2026, despite beginning at 19.2% earlier before the national shutdown occurred. 

Although this global pandemic is unprecedented, if we had the ambition and the drive to stamp out the virus without a national lockdown, I truly believe that would have been entirely possible. Our border quarantine procedures are still mediocre at best – after more than 9 months of Covid-19  and blunders have caused the continuous resurrection of the virus in Auckland for the second time after complete elimination. It seems New Zealanders are ‘happy’ with the outcome without realising the combination of luck, public discipline, geographic proximity, and sound leadership. We have witnessed numerous examples of bureaucratic incompetence and administrative blunders in contrast to the East Asian states I mentioned before. Our contact tracing, testing, and border quarantine are still woeful in comparison. 

Confucianism: The Cause of East Asian prosperity? 

Perhaps some people might consider this East Asian trait of “excellence, merit and competence” as a broad Confucian phenomenon. Although Confucius himself did say: 

“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.”

But I can’t entirely agree with the view that it’s just a Confucian phenomenon. Cultural change across societies depend on the decisions policymakers or what individuals themselves make. For instance, Japan industrialised as a result of forced trade embargoes imposed by the Americans under Commodore Perry which led to the prosperous Meiji period. Historical critical junctures and circumstances are what changes societal culture. 

The same thing can be said about the state of the Western world. Our cultural values have moved away from excellence towards equity. Previously, the West was leading the world on every economic, social and civilisational metric as indicated by historian Niall Ferguson. But now, the West – including New Zealand – are not as reputable as the past and the rise of Asia proves this declining trend. The West has lost the vital cultural component to its prosperity  The Weberian characteristics of work ethic, hard work and most importantly the strive for excellence. 

Conclusion: Cultural Rejuvenation is an Imperative

New Zealand needs to renew this virtue of competence, excellence and merit. Whilst egalitarian values are important to keep society strongly harmonious with good social cohesion and trust, it is imperative that we recover our prioritisation towards excellence once again. We see this with our excessive cultural obsession with diversity and inclusion. Tolerance and social justice values are indeed important, but without a prosperous and thriving domestic economy, these values mean nothing. We must rejuvenate our old virtues of excellence in New Zealand. Across our education standards and our economic performance in the last few decades, we have so far settled with mediocrity. 

The comparison and contrast between East Asian nations and New Zealand show us a few things. New Zealand is not good enough, we have been mediocre and sub-par at best across multiple performance indicators. We need to be more ambitious as a society for the long-run and we must rebuild our cultural values towards discipline, hard work, excellence and competence.