Let’s play spot the difference;
What’s going on in New Zealand this week? General freaking out about Peter Thiel buying New Zealand citizenship, that’s what. This brand new Kiwi is now the proud owner of a humble pile in Wanaka, apparently hedging his bets against a global, US centric clusterfuck.
Bolt-holes in New Zealand are the latest asset of the uber wealthy, or so we’re told. Don’t worry about being forced out of your country though, like other peaceable, desirable countries with WIFI and vegetables, NZ has an Overseas Investment Office (OIO). It ensures that only the most criminal of oligarchs can purchase state significant land.
So why didn’t Thiel go down this route? Well, as we all know, waiting for approvals on multi-million dollar purchases is so tedious. Sometimes it takes literally months. Luckily there’s another option. You can simply buy New Zealand citizenship, and then purchase whatever land you want! Just like in the olden days. Cos let’s face it, New Zealand citizenship has been a tidy export earner since The New Zealand Company*. Add to cart!
It’s not like Thiel, who is a US citizen, hasn’t bought little bits Pacific islands before. He recently purchased a home on Maui. He’s in good company, his friend Mark Zuckerberg also bought a hugely expensive estate on Maui. In a magazine article (that now seems to have disappeared) locals described Zuckerberg’s attempts to muscle out his neighbours, some of whom are indigenous owners. Zuckerberg started off by offering his neighbours inordinate amounts of money for their land. In the case of the indigenous owners, he got a few representatives to sell him pieces of land. Trouble is, indigenous title is famously complex – it doesn’t always mesh with Western capitalist version of land tenure. While some ‘owners’ took the money, others argued that it wasn’t really theirs to sell. Some people simply didn’t want to leave the place they’d called home for generations. For those who quibbled about the process, Zuckerberg’s lawyers applied force. This is called negotiation between unequal actors. Or, to use its older term, Treaty.
This is just another form of blockbusting – a co-ordinated attempt to reach a tipping point in a neighbourhood. YOU might dig your heels in and stay but everyone else has buggered off. You’re no longer among friends. But hey, if you need a job as a gardener….
It’s not that Zuckerberg or Thiel behaved illegally in Hawaii. After all, they’re simply participating in the real estate market, a market underpinned by the legitimate structures of US government. The same government that turned up about about a hundred years ago and put those structures in place, by legitimately negotiating with the indigenous Hawaiians to cede their sovereignty and accept a US system of private property and governance ….Kidding! Phew, that was getting awkward…
Seriously though, these uber wealthies seem to be doing something relatively unremarkable on Maui; using their wealth to reach a tipping point in the property market, the point at which those who’re left behind choose the carrot (take the money) instead of the stick (community dislocation and/or expensive lawsuit). Simply put, the peasants move on. Forget capital flight! Deficit flight is where it’s at!
Johnny Moore’s article suggests that Thiel’s New Zealand property venture will be more exciting than his foray into the Hawaiian market. He describes oligarchs on the run, their children kidnapped, houses burnt to the ground. In this age of global connectedness, he argues, the only real bolt-hole is on the moon.
I think this is alarmist. The consequences he suggests are violent and also illegal. You can bet that Mr Thiel won’t be waiting a year for police to turn up at his place when someone sets fire to his woodpile. Not all NZ citizens are equal. ( I also found the casual discussion about kidnapping children bloody terrifying – I think others would too).
What’s more likely, I think, is people like Thiel will engage in a form of hyper-gentrification, a market distortion where one bolt-hole turns into a series of enclave economies. Ordinary New Zealanders will resent being made to feel like second class citizens, but hey, we’ve seen this movie before. See; New Zealand Company. Who’s dispossessed now?
*For those playing at home…The New Zealand Company sold parcels of land to British citizens who then sailed all the way to the other side of the world to set up house, only to discover someone else was already mowing the lawn.