Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Buying the election

Among the many chunks of meaty goodness in the latest Agenda program, Michael Cullen was detailing what the unallocated budget funding was for. Remember before last election, when Dr Cullen hid the interest-free student loan bunny in unallocated spending? Remember it was only an OIA request that brought the Treasury costing estimates to light just before E-Day? If you're looking for how to buy an election, unallocated spending is where you'll find it.

Deborah Hill-Cone was hassling the FM about the $2 billion black hole of unallocated money in last week's budget. Dr Cullen filled in that hole, pointing out that about one billion is to pay for the business tax cuts. Around three-quarters of a billion is for increased health spending. Assuming a 2 million personal taxpayer base, that is an increase in health spending of $375 per worker in one year (Remember, by definition government spending cannot cause inflation). That's about a quarter of the premium on a private health scheme.

Yes, Dr Cullen is right; the health ticket is getting pricier all the time. When the old man got his hip replaced in 1981, it was bleeding edge technology. The procedure was so novel it made the headlines. There was even a picture of Trev holding up his old hip bone next to his most trusted friend, a German short-haired pointer called Kaiser, who was looking wistfully at the bone. Nowadays, hip replacements are soundbite units of measurement for health sector productivity. Every New Zealander has the right to have their hips replaced on the government purse.

Thing is, $750 million into health will buy votes and little else. One could arguably do more for the health sector by throwing even half that much into R&D. Hell, even a tenth would be an improvement on what was offered to R&D in the budget.

So, why the fixation on R&D? Well, if you want to make money, look for where the lawyers are. There they are, feasting on patent and intellectual copyrights. NZ's path to riches, or at least mediocrity, lies in thinking up shit no-one else has and clamping a monopoly on the idea for a few years. It is the only feasible way for NZ to catch up in the OECD league and stop our housing being snapped up by Yanks.

NZ used to be the flipside of fickle weather countries such as Ireland (William Hamilton), Scotland (Logie Baird, inventor of the electric babysitter) and the Scandinavians (dynamite, anyone?). We've had William "Bill" Hamilton, inventor of the jet boat, Joseph Nathan, founder of Glaxo of Bunnythorpe, and the creator of the first carbon fibre motorbike, John Britten.

There are some lights on the horizon. Anyone who has followed David Haywood's blog knows that somewhere, somehow, some Kiwis are exploring wave tech. Which, considering we are surrounded by waves, seems a good path of enquiry. Work on superconductors continues apace. But the government could do much more to encourage new ideas. To give you a random fr'instance, research into the medicinal qualities of marijuana honey still lags. Now that would give you a bit more bang for your health dollar.