In 1984 New Zealand began its great experiment in open and free markets, minimal regulation, and user pays. Strangely it was all started by a Labour government, which would traditionally be far from enthusiastic about these concepts. But that government had been hijacked by extreme idealists form the libertarian camp and bore little resemblance to what would normally be expected from them.
Since then these extreme neo-liberal policies have peaked and are now gradually being backed away from, unless you are one of the few people left in the libertarian wing of the dying Act party. So the experiment has clearly been a failure although some people might argue that things would have been even worse if we hand’t followed the path we did (but who can prove or disprove that?)
And this phenomenon didn’t just happen in New Zealand. As I said in a recent blog entry titled “Zeitgeist”, during the late 70s and 80s it seemed to be an idea whose time had come and many countries were following similar ideas, with Reagan in the US and Thatcher in Britain being great enthusiasts for it.
But let’s just move all the politics and economic dogma aside and look at the concept of user pays from a purely logical perspective. Whatever the political ideology it is usually associated with, is it a good idea? Actually yes, in many ways it is a good idea, but only in certain contexts. Let me explain…
A basic idea behind user pays is that nothing is free. Every user pays for what they need – for housing, food, education, electricity, etc – and the market will establish appropriate prices for these items based on true costs and on market forces such as competition.
So if electricity supplies don’t keep up with demand then the price will go up which will either persuade people to economise to save power or will provide more money to build new power plants. It sounds great in theory and in fact it can be a very effective economic mechanism.
But there are certain necessities for living which any person living in a relatively rich, modern democracy like ours (or in the US or Britain for example) should expect. There is no real excuse for New Zealand having a whole family living in a garage or in a single room, or in getting sick because they can’t heat their homes (or their garage) in winter, or for relying on charities to supply them with food because their other expenses are so great.
So user pays is fine as long as the users can afford to pay for the basics. And in many cases today that just isn’t true. Many user actually can’t pay for housing or for electricity or for food in an open market because their income just isn’t sufficient.
And that is also a natural outcome of user pays. Most employers will pay as little as they can get away with and will claim they are just following the model (which they are). But at the same time people who own rental housing will charge as much as they can get away with. So the user pays a lot but isn’t paid a lot to compensate.
User pays seems to be naturally suited to making the privileged minority much richer while they prey on the majority of “users”. And that’s exactly what we see in every case. I discussed the obscene extremes this phenomenon has reached in the US – where the top 1% have about as much wealth as the bottom 90% – in a blog entry called “When the Revolution Comes”.
So in summary I support the idea of user pays but only if the minimum income is linked to how much a user needs to survive with a reasonable standard of living. Where that point is will depend on individual opinion, but I think compromise is possible. One thing’s for sure: the point certainly isn’t at the income level which the minimum wage provides.
And if there are no jobs for a significant number of people and if the income of many people on poorly paid jobs isn’t sufficient then a user pays system simply isn’t appropriate. We can’t have it both ways: we have to either make sure people have enough to participate in the user pays system or use a different system. It’s a simple choice.
What should we be more afraid of: possible harm from terrorists and anarchists who might or might not be real, or possible harm from draconian and unsupervised laws which are allegedly there to protect us?
It’s a difficult question and I suspect the answer might depend on the exact circumstances involved, but at this point I am far more concerned about repressive government laws specifically intended to inhibit citizen’s freedom rather than some uncertain threat which can just too conveniently be labelled as “terrorism”.
There have been a series of recent incidents in New Zealand which have prompted me to tackle this subject, but the issue goes beyond any single country because it exists in many western democracies (so-called) where governments are granting themselves similar powers.
The first incident is the new ability, now being introduced by our government, of New Zealand’s spy agency (the GCSB or Government Communications Security Bureau) to spy on New Zealand citizens. In the past they were (in most circumstances) only allowed to spy on alleged enemies of the country. But they illegally spied on innocent (no arrests resulted from their activity) citizens instead.
So what is the natural response of our government to this immoral and illegal action? Obviously not to hold the agency accountable, because in modern New Zealand the rich and powerful are very rarely held accountable for anything. No, the response was to make the illegal actions legal. Well they can do that if they want to, but they can’t make immoral actions moral.
There is little accountability from our increasingly untrustworthy police force either, even though they clearly broke many laws and acted in a truly outrageous and scandalous way during the 2007 Urewera raids.
Innocent people were terrorised by armed police in a totally unjustifiable way and yet this – which is really the only genuine act of terrorism I can recall happening in New Zealand (except perhaps the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior by agents of the French Intelligence Service in 1985) – resulted in no legal punishment, resignations, or even really any real condemnation of police by those in authority.
Finally there is the Kim Dotcom case, another totally immoral over-use of brutal police violence. I have discussed this in previous blog entries but effectively Dotcom was illegally spied on, and was arrested in a violent armed attack by police purely at the request of American agencies acting on behalf of big business in the US.
So yet again terrorist tactics were used by the authorities for a totally unjustified purpose. Who is the good side and who is the bad in this conflict? I would suggest that we have far more to fear from armed police jumping out of helicopters and smashing down doors and stealing private property than from a single fat nerd running a file sharing site.
I’m not suggesting in any way that all New Zealand police are immoral, violent thugs, although I have no doubt that some of them are. What I am suggesting is that the police are being mis-used by those near the top of the hierarchy and especially by politicians (even though they cannot theoretically influence police operations). Actually, that sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory but I’m sticking with it anyway!
It is interesting that those who distrust the government the most seem to be the ones who are most supportive of these actions. Maybe it’s because these immoral police and spy agency activities will be most likely be directed against the political opponents of the right, and those who demand most freedom for themselves seem to be extremely enthusiastic about ensuring that no one else gets that same privilege.
I don’t want terrorism (whatever that actually is) or other forms of violence here, and it is something we need to guard against. But the question which we all need ask is this: who will guard the guards themselves?
Many people hear useful information each day and later when it might be relevant (such as in a discussion with a political opponent) they might have forgotten that piece of information which might have allowed them to deliver a devastating riposte!
Yes, that used to happen to me until I started using my iPhone to its full capabilities. No, when I hear a useful tidbit I just pull out the phone and make a note of it. The notes are synchronised automatically to my computer and I just do a “tidy up” every now and then and file all the facts away in a file based on the subject area involved.
But many of these little gems have never been used, so I thought why not share them here with my blog readers? And why not start with something moderately controversial like environmentalism? So here they are, some of the contents of my “Environmentalism Random Facts” file which show that what many people believe isn’t necessarily true!
Fact number 1: The energy content of a fabric shopping bag is 130 times greater than that of a plastic supermarket bag. (source: unknown)
Commentary on fact 1: Many people think they are doing the environment a favour by using reusable fabric shopping bags, but this isn’t necessarily the case. A fabric bag involves (in manufacturing, transport, etc) 130 times more energy than a plastic single-use bag. So, if you shop once a week, you would need to have the fabric bag last almost 3 years to make it worthwhile.
Judging by how many of the fabric bags we use break, I’m not sure that many would attain this lifespan. Also, this assumes that the plastic bags aren’t re-used. We re-use ours for rubbish, etc, so that gives them a second life.
I’m not saying that plastic bags are more environmentally friendly that fabric but I am suggesting that the issue isn’t quite as straightforward as many people think.
Fact number 2: Within 50 to 100 years of the Maori (native New Zealanders) arriving in New Zealand the moa (a large flightless bird) was extinct. (source: RNZ podcast, Moa Flourished Through… 2012-08-08)
Fact number 3: The Pacific rat, which was introduced by Maori, caused more extinctions than any other mammal species. (source RNZ podcast, Part 2 the next extinction?)
Fact number 4: In New Zealand 34 species were made extinct by Maori, and just 15 by Europeans. Originally there where were 245 species, of which 174 were endemic. (source RNZ podcast, Part 2 the next extinction?)
Commentary on facts 2 to 4: Many people think that the arrival of Europeans was the greatest factor causing the extinction of native species. These facts show that (at least in New Zealand, but I expect also elsewhere) it is humans in general which are the problem.
Contrary to politically correct belief there is good reason to think that native human populations are no more “in touch with the land” or “integrated with nature” than anyone else.
Fact number 5: Less than 1% of the ocean is fully protected, and just 13% of the land area. (source: RNZ podcast, Managing Our Oceans, approx 2013-01-25)
Commentary on fact 5: Many people who are opposed to conservation claim that industries which exploit the environment (fishing, forestry, etc) are being blocked by excessive environmental protection and regulation. But the facts are that very little of the total area of the planet is fully protected.
Fact number 6: In the US acid rain was stopped by a government cap and trade scheme on sulphur dioxide emissions. Emissions are now 50% below what they were in 1980.
Commentary on fact 6: I often hear conservatives and libertarians claiming that government imposed cap and trade schemes can never work. If that is the case then how do they explain the apparent success of this one?
Note that I am not necessarily a proponent of these schemes myself – just look at the rather dismal failure of the current carbon trading scheme to see why – because they can often be easily manipulated by the exact people they are designed to control. But clearly they can work if they are set up correctly.
I think that any scheme is potentially open to abuse but I also think a carbon (or other pollutant) tax is a better choice. Whatever scheme is put in place the governments involved need to be committed to it and be prepared to stop cynical manipulation by those who will sacrifice the greater good of the planet for their own monetary profit.
Fact number 7: Over half of New Zealand’s recreational rivers are unsafe due to pollution. 52% of those monitored were rated poor or very poor and unsuitable swimming. This was mainly due to farming discharge. (RNZ Podcast 2012-10-17)
Fact number 8: In New Zealand 18,000 to 30,000 people per year contract water borne diseases. These are almost entirely related to pollution from dairy farming. (RNZ Podcast 2012-10-17)
Commentary on facts 7 and 8: There are two common myths which these facts contradict: first, that New Zealand is a “clean and green” country; and second, that farming is a safe and natural activity.
Many parts of New Zealand are clean and green, and some farmers are quite responsible about their farm’s effects on the environment. But as these figures show, neither of those statements are true in general. Dairying is the biggest source of pollution in New Zealand, and the country isn’t particularly clean or green in many places.
Farming is just another exploitative industry but obviously we need it. But it should be much more closely controlled to prevent farmers from destroying the environment just for their own profit. If farming can’t be carried out in an environmentally responsible way then it shouldn’t be carried out at all.
And the myth of our country being clean and green is both a carryover from the past and an invention of the tourism industry. Tourists can certainly visit many parts of the country and not see many signs of pollution, but they would need to stay away from intensive farming areas.
So those are some of my “random fact” highlights. The key feature of many of the facts I gather is that they show things are rarely as they seem, both because of political correctness and the propaganda power of the rich and powerful. I rarely believe what is presented on mainstream media so when I do hear more credible facts from experts I make sure I keep them somewhere safe!
Many of my political opponents – mainly consisting of conservatives and extreme libertarians – like to rant about how evil or incompetent those more on the left of politics are. And because they are so extreme in their views they see even moderate philosophies as being the opposite of their own beliefs, so even centrists to them appear “far left”.
Now I will be the first to admit that I have been known to indulge in the occasional rant myself, but at least I recognise that and I even have a tag “rant” which I use on the WordPress version of this blog and a rating system on my OJB blog with red indicating that the post tends towards controversial ranting!
But in future I am going to try to limit my use of rants to special occasions and therefore make the times I do use that rhetorical technique even more rewarding!
So I am not going to rant about the New Zealand government’s latest budget, even though it is basically hopeless as far as I am concerned. In fact I am going to avoid ranting about our right-leaning parties at all, useless they particularly deserve it of course!
Why? Because I look at the mindless rants of my opposition and I don’t see why I should bring myself down to their level. They rant on about the Labour (left-leaning) Party being hopeless financial managers even though I can show them figures which prove this simply isn’t true. They rant about left-wing conspiracies and communist influences even though the true left and communist supporters would be horrified at how far towards the center-right Labour (and even the Greens) have moved.
So my opponents look pretty stupid (is this starting to sound like a bit of a rant on my part now?) when they take extreme positions. Now I am going to evaluate the current New Zealand (center-right) government, especially in terms of their just released budget, without ranting or making silly, extreme statements!
For a start, the current government isn’t extreme right, but neither is the opposition extreme left – not even the Greens, despite my opponents’ assertions to that effect. An extreme right government would never have passed the marriage equality law and they would have fully privatised our assets instead of just selling 49%, for example.
But a true far-left opposition would have announced they would nationalise those assets when they returned to power, instead of just saying they will create a mechanism to try to control prices in the electricity market the right have created.
So the National Party aren’t evil or incompetent, they just follow a philosophy which I disagree with. Primarily this involves a naive belief in the powers of the market and in private enterprise, and a refusal to use government powers directly to achieve political outcomes.
The Labour Party – at least as it is evolving now, because in the past 30 years it has really just been a clone of National – are prepared to intervene when they think it is necessary. Sure, government intervention sometimes produces unintended consequences and occasionally is poorly considered, but I would say that the risk of a poor intervention to correct market failures is better than not even trying.
And anybody who says anything like “markets never fail if they are left alone to work the way they are supposed to” should have a think about the logic of that statement. How do they define market success? Usually it’s achieving what the market wants. So they are really defining market success using a circular argument: market success is defined as the market doing what it wants, and doing what it wants leads to success.
I say we should allow markets to operate (they will anyway) but to shape them and limit them for the greater good. How do we know what that greater good should be and therefore in what direction markets should be lead? I think we all know the answer to that…
If we see a tiny fraction of people becoming incredibly rich while an increasing proportion of the population can barely survive, then I think we have a market failure. If people can’t afford to buy milk, even though we are the biggest producer in the world, but can afford as much Coca Cola as they want, then I think we have a market failure. If the price of electricity rises several times faster than anything else, despite the fact we have a high proportion of cheap hydro power, then I think we have a market failure. The list of failures could go on for pages.
People who deny the reality of these failures aren’t really evil or incompetent – at least not in most cases – they are just wrong. They are wrong because they have let their minds be trapped by the ideology of the market. They will probably never escape this trap because, like most ideologies: political, religious, or philosophical, there are built-in excuses for when the ideology fails.
Pointing out the deficiencies of mindless rants about these problems by so-called left-oriented people like me is just one of the ways the market ideology tries to hide its failures. So what’s the point? Maybe I should be more positive. As I said above: at least we have a government which isn’t actually evil or incompetent… they’re just wrong!
For the last 30 years New Zealand, along with most of the rest of the world, has been run according to a classic neo-liberal agenda. I use that word quite a lot so let me explain my interpretation of it. To me it means free markets uncontrolled by governments, all major assets in private hands, the smallest possible sized government, and increased trade and production efficiency.
These policies have been followed by parties traditionally from both the left and right, and the reality is that there has been little choice for anyone who disagrees with the whole idea. But who would disagree anyway? The aims I listed above all sound fantastic, don’t they? I mean, who doesn’t want freer markets, smaller government, greater freedom for business, more trade, and greater efficiency?
If it was as simple as that we all should want to pursue these aims but unfortunately only presenting a positive spin on them is misleading. The reality is that there are many negative aspects to these policies which their supporters fail to tell us about.
The key concept in neo-liberalism is letting the markets work to produce the best outcome, so the critical point is do they? Well of course they do. Free markets produce the best outcomes for the free markets, and many people also do very well when free market economics is in force, but the vast majority of people actually lose.
So when politicians, economists, and business leaders say we must look after the markets I want to know why. What have the markets ever done for us? I’ll tell you what they have done: they have caused many industries to fail, they have taken jobs from one economy and replaced them with workers from lower paid workforces, they have made a small minority of people really rich while making the majority poor, they have pushed wages and conditions down, and they have increased the freedom of the rich and powerful while decreasing it for the rest.
So I can’t see why markets should get any special consideration, which brings me (finally) to the point of this entry…
We finally have a significant divergence in policies for the two major parties here in New Zealand. The (vaguely conservative and neo-liberal) National Party wants to sell shares in the previously state owned power companies and the (vaguely left-wing) Labour and Green Parties disagree and want to control power prices at a government level.
Of course government control is a complete anathema to the neo-liberals, and the value of power companies has dived significantly after the power price control policy was announced, robbing hundreds of millions from the potential value of the companies. Naturally groups who support free markets (investment companies, share brokers, big business) are predicting the end of the world, and maybe they’re right.
It is sort of like the end of the world to those who hope to make personal gains by exploiting the need for an essential commodity by those who already barely survive. It is like the end of the world to those whose whole worldview is based around free markets and to whom government control is the ultimate evil. It is like the end of the world to those who have got used to getting everything their own way just because they benefit from the market system.
But who (apart from the small minority those groups represent) cares? It’s time to look at where the markets have really got us. Has the electricity market worked, for example? Well no, in many ways it hasn’t. It has generated huge profits for the shareholders (the government up until now which at least meant the money went back to the people). It has pushed prices up at a rate many times greater than inflation. It has resulted in the loss of many skilled technicians while creating huge management and marketing bureaucracies.
The market has failed, and in reality almost every other market also fails to live up to the high ideals promised by the neo-liberals. And the pathetic excuse by market proponents that we haven’t given it enough time should really be treated with the contempt it deserves. The market has been given a fair chance and has failed miserably. It’s time to apply those neo-liberal ideals to the market itself: we need something more efficient and the “free market” of ideas should be able to give us something better.
It may seem like a backward step returning to policies we had before the neo-liberal revolution but should that even be a consideration? We should look at all possibilities, including those which have been out of favour, those which are scorned for no good reason, and those which disturb the currently accepted wisdom.
If the current system isn’t working well for the majority then we should look at alternatives, even if those alternatives are branded a backward step by certain groups in society. And when people predict disaster look at why they might say that. Are they exploiting the free market for their own benefit? Are they ideologically attached to free markets and blinded to the possible alternatives? Have they committed to free markets politically and are they unprepared to accept the political damage of having to make a change?
I would suggest the vast majority of free market supporters are in those categories, or maybe in one other: the category of people who have never heard anything else for 30 years except the pro-market propaganda that the rich, the powerful, and the single-minded ideologs have fed them.
Well, according to Lincoln (or at least attributed to him): you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time. The lie we have all been told about the magic of markets is becoming apparent. The fact that a significant number of people see a lot of merit in what many see as quite a radical proposal (but in fact isn’t radical at all) should tell us that all of the people aren’t being fooled any more!
The biggest local story here in New Zealand over the last few days has been the passing of same-sex marriage legislation, making us the 13th country in the world, and the first in the Asia-Pacific region, to legalise same-sex marriage. Considering we have a conservative government this is quite an impressive achievement and shows what happens when MPs are allowed to vote based on their conscience instead of voting for what their party tells them to.
Surely all votes should work this way. Apart from the dictatorial NZ First party all the others have members who voted for the legislation even when you might not expect it (Act and United Future for example). You have to ask if these votes are “conscience votes”, does that mean that the others require some MPs to vote against their conscience? Is that really OK?
Anyway the vote was fairly comprehensive in the end – 77 for and 44 against – which is considerably better than the more common 61 to 60 votes we get when people vote based on their party’s orders rather than what they think is right.
Of course the more conservative (and nutty) parts of society are already predicting disaster just like they did when other controversial social laws were passed.
When homosexuality was made legal, when prostitution was made legal, and when the anti-smacking law was passed the more extreme conservatives predicted disaster but of course nothing happened.
Let’s look at some of the ignorant, bigoted comments about similar changes in the past.
When the homosexual law reform bill was passed in 1986 some politicians predicted that it would cause a decline in morality, that homosexuals would come to New Zealand in their thousands, and that the country would be a Mecca for homosexuality and sodomy. I see no signs that this has happened.
When the civil union legislation was passed the Destiny Church suggested that we should not forget the name of Lord God Almighty (what is that exactly?) and organised a march of 5000 people against it. They predicted legalised child sex and bigamy would be next. Again, I see no signs that this has happened.
When the prostitution law reform law (decriminalising prostitution) was passed in 2003 there were predictions it would lead to more prostitutes. A later review showed no signs that this has happened.
When the ani-smacking law was passed there were dire predictions that innocent people would be prosecuted for reasonable discipline of their children. Since 2007 there have been 8 prosecutions for smacking, and the police (hardly a source of liberal propaganda) say the guidelines are working fine. So yet again there are no signs that the bad predicted outcomes are real.
So what predictions are we getting this time?
Family First predicts marriage celebrants will be bullied into performing same-sex marriages against their will. This right is specifically protected in the law and who would want a ceremony to be performed by someone who doesn’t want to do it anyway? It’s just silly, bigoted nonsense.
The National Marriage Coalition says it will be an open door to group relationships and incest type marriages. This is the old slippery slope argument. Another good one is the prediction that people will be able to marry animals in the future. There is a general trend to liberalisation of laws and who knows, maybe one day group marriages will be OK, after all many respected characters in the Bible had multiple wives, so it must be OK!
The Catholic Bishop of Auckland tried really hard to sound reasonable and to not admit that his objections were based on the intolerant ideas promoted by his belief system. But you could see they were, and it was hard to listen to a member of the Catholic Church lecture the rest of us on the topic of sexual morality. Is it possible to think of anyone with less credibility on the subject?
He made a few vague references to it being a sad day for New Zealand, and to re-defining the meaning of marriage being bizarre, and not being sure what the implications might be for the future (presumably his god will take a terrible revenge on us after he has dealt with the other 12 countries who have already taken this step).
After all of this mindless drivel it was refreshing to hear from a supporter of the bill who treated the subject with intelligence and humour. He described how he had received messages from Christians threatening eternal torment in Hell. He replied that he had calculated the thermodynamics of burning in Hell and it would take only a few seconds for him to be consumed: a sacrifice he was prepared to risk! Ridicule of primitive superstition is great!
But the way so many believers react so badly in these situations is bizarre. They are always so intolerant and unforgiving. Didn’t they listen to what Jesus told them? As I always say: if you really want to see an example of true evil have a look at religion!
Many people ask me why I care. Well that’s the whole point, I shouldn’t. I’m not gay, and I don’t know any gay people who want to get married, so why should I care? It’s just a matter of fairness. The people who object to this law might find gay and lesbian lifestyles unpleasant, and it’s their choice to feel that way, but what real difference does it make to them if same-sex marriage is allowed or not?
Some people say it discredits the “real” meaning of marriage. I would say that there are plenty of heterosexual couples who have done a good job of that already. Celebrity marriages which last a few days, people who marry multiple times and split up seemingly at a whim, married couples where the relationship is maintained through violence and intimidation. What else could possibly make it worse than it already is?
Another argument is that marriage is primarily to produce children and gays can’t do that. Well neither can post-menopausal women or people with various medical disorders. Should that be a pre-requisite for being allowed to marry as well?
In reality there is no good reason not to allow same-sex marriage. There is really only one (bad) reason to reject it in the final analysis: that the objector is uncomfortable with same-sex relationships. Well they are a fact and it’s time to grow up and accept them even if you don’t like them. Progress is inevitable and by trying to halt it, especially by presenting dishonest objections which disguise your real opinions, you just look like a fool.
And just like with past changes of this sort, in a few years we will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.
The way that different ideas become established at different times in history is interesting. It seems that often an idea reaches a point where it becomes inevitable and nothing can really stop it from taking over the mindset of the leaders and people of the time.
The original reason I cam up with this topic was the recent death of the ex-prime minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher. She is well known, of course, for introducing a radical form of neo-liberal economics to the country and, depending on who you listen to, either saving it from inevitable decline or destroying a lot of the existing positive aspects of British society.
Thatcher was extraordinarily good at pushing through these “reforms” because she had a strong personality and – right or wrong – was single minded in achieving her aims. She is admired by many for her strength and that is fair enough. Whether the direction she took the country in was good or bad was much more open to question.
But it probably didn’t matter because, as I intimated in the opening to this entry, the neo-liberal revolution was probably inevitable and would have happened anyway. Thatcher was lucky because the UK entered a war with Argentina over the Falklands which gained her a lot of patriotic support, plus oil was discovered during her time in power giving her a financial bonus as well. Note that neither of these events could be attributed to her and were more a matter of luck than anything else.
But during roughly the same period of time similar policies were being pushed through in many other countries. Reagan was doing it in the US, and a bit later here in New Zealand we had one of the most radical and “pure” forms of neo-liberalism forced onto us by the 1984 Labour government (who were totally hijacked by a libertarian wing lead by Roger Douglas). Labour would not be traditionally associated with these types of policies but maybe this was an idea whose time had come, even here in distant New Zealand.
There is also the fact that after the governments who initially set up these changes were replaced with their opponents the policies continued without major changes. In the UK the conservatives were replaced by Tony Blair’s Labour which was intent on continuation of the new agenda. And here in New Zealand the opposite happened: the Labour Party was replaced by the conservative National Party and again things just continued on their course.
So even a complete change (theoretically at least) in political perspective didn’t change much. It really does seem that the idea was inevitable and couldn’t be stopped. I do have to say though, that just because an idea is inevitable doesn’t mean it’s right!
I basically reject neo-liberal economics, as will be obvious to anyone who reads this blog. I’m not much of a fan of extreme left-wing economic dogma either but I really think we have gone too far in the direction of classic free-market libertarian politics. And a correction back to more moderate economic policies does seem to be the new zeitgeist, at least I hope so.
By almost any standard the great libertarian experiment has failed.
Economic turmoil has been constant since the 1980s because banks and other private financial institutions have been given great freedom. They have taken advantage of that privilege for their own benefit but the vast majority of people have suffered as a result. The problems with financial institutions over the last few years are a clear result of the policies of the the 1970s and 1980s.
Whatever income equality previously existed has been totally destroyed by the reforms. In every country the rich are becoming overwhelmingly richer, and the poor are worse off in real terms in almost every case. I discussed this and showed how incredibly unbalanced wealth distribution in the US is in a blog entry called “When the Revolution Comes” on 13 March.
I haven’t looked at recent figures for other countries but I know that if you look at the numbers for New Zealand it soon becomes apparent that since the economic revolution here almost every indicator has become worse. Unemployment is greater, total foreign debt (including private debt) is greater, we have less democracy, we have less control of our own resources, we have more income inequality, and we have a lot less economic certainty.
So what has really been achieved? For the top 5% the revolution has been great. Big corporations and foreign banks can demand freedom from government intervention so they can do what they want (of course they don’t get total freedom but get a lot more than they should). But when things go wrong it’s time for government handouts they are the first in the queue.
And as I said in anther recent blog entry (“Personal Responsibility” on 4 April) the new aristocracy are given huge salaries and complete respect (and agan plenty of free handouts) even though their competence is highly debatable.
But if the revolution only favoured 5% of the population why do the other 95% continue to vote for these policies? Well in many cases their is really no alternative. Both major parties in the US are very pro-big business and very much accept the existing economic ideology. The same has been true in the UK and New Zealand where the traditionally left-wing Labour parties have embraced the new ideas as much as anyone.
But there is also the idea I started with. These ideas’ time had come and people were swept along on a tide of change without really understanding why. There are definite signs that this is finally starting to change. The “left” is in power in the US and demographics have weakened the Republican party there. The Tory government in the UK is unpopular. And even our current conservative government in New Zealand has backed away from the extreme policies of the past. Sure they still want to sell off assets but only 49% instead of the lot like they would have done in the past.
There are signs that the new zeitgeist is more moderate than that of the past. I just hope that it is real and can be as irresistible as the last one which has turned out so badly.
There seems to be no end to the silly, frivolous things people today get upset and offended about. Surely there are serious issues which we should all be concerned about and wasting time on trivia just seems to be counter-productive. One of the more common trivial problems is that one group is “offended” by what another group or individual says.
Well OK, so they’re offended. So what? I would suggest two possible responses: first, show why the comment or action they are offended about is untrue or harmful in some way; or second, don’t get offended so easily. In other words: get over it!
There have been a few issues recently where people have become offended for various reasons and instead of reacting in one of the two way I mentioned above, they have chosen a third alternative: threaten and abuse the person who offended them. In other words, act in an even more offensive way than the original!
First, there is very odd case of St Matthews in the City church selling a billboard “skin” depicting a gay baby Jesus which has gained a lot of interest on the on-line auction site TradeMe. The billboard was used for publicity at Christmas and depicts a baby Jesus with a rainbow halo and the words “It’s Christmas. Time for Jesus to come out.”
Last time I heard the auction had reached $855 and had 29,000 views, although I can’t find it on the site now. The ad agency involved, “Einstein’s Hairdresser” (honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up), added many humorous and frivolous comments in response to questions about the auction.
It all sounds like a bit of fun and some great free publicity for both the church and the advertising agency, but many people have taken it away too seriously and sent quite bitter and vitriolic comments to both the church (such as that they are surely going to Hell, which means nothing to an atheist like me but is presumably a bit disturbing to a believer) and to the comment system on TradeMe.
The same church has done other similar advertising stunts in the past, some of which have been quote amusing, so presumably the risk of eternal damnation hasn’t concerned them too much. One thing they will be happy about though is all the free media attention they have got as a result of all the complaints!
A second issue was possibly a but less frivolous. It involved the comments made by a visiting Danish far-right politician who called a powhiri (a traditional Maori “welcoming” ceremony) an “uncivilised ritual”. She was shocked to be welcomed by “dancing half-naked men” instead of with handshakes or salutes as she expected.
She received many emails criticising her and some advising her never to return to New Zealand. But why? She only expressed an opinion. The artistry, appropriateness, and sophistication of various social and cultural activities is surely a matter of opinion and why shouldn’t she express hers instead of (as many people do) being disgusted or amused at the spectacle and keeping it to herself.
Of course the freedom to criticise this sort of stuff should apply to all cultures. If anyone doesn’t like the Maori hongi (touching nose and forehead with the person you are greeting) for example they shouldn’t object to others rejecting a handshake. People should also consider whether it is really worth making a big point out of something which is generally fairly innocuous and should maybe just go along with the social norms.
But the main point here is that if someone does feel uncomfortable in participating in a foreign cultural activity they really should be able to say so. It’s not like the politician said “Maori are disgusting sub-humans and I don’t want to have anything to do with their customs” (that would be genuinely racist) it was just one rather intimidating ceremony which she didn’t enjoy. Fair enough, I wouldn’t either.
The final issue involves a comment so extreme and bizarre that it does start reaching the point where genuine offense might be reasonable. A city councillor from New Zealand city Palmerston North has suggested Maori women should be sterilised to prevent them smoking in front of their children. Wow. What a comment. What can you say about that?
For a start this is crazy stuff, and making any sort of comment which is so out of touch with reality should cause concern whether it has a cultural offence component or not. The problem is more that saying something like this in a public meeting is just bizarre rather than being racist or offensive in some other way.
The councillor has apologised unreservedly and said he only made the comment out of frustration because no other actions seem to have worked. He has said he instantly regretted making it. I guess it is possible to say things you regret later in those situations and maybe the apology should have marked the place where things should have ended.
But again people are taking great offence and demanding that he should retire from office. It seems to me that the councillor is the person to have really been insulted here – by himself! I really don’t think there is any need for further efforts to inflict more damage on him as a result of any real or contrived offence.
So my point here is really that people who make what could be seen as offensive comments tend to be offering an opinion which might be seen as wrong by many, but which they should still be able to make. If it is so wrong then it should be easy to show that error, but just demanding that these opinions are never made because certain other people find them offensive is just hiding the phenomenon.
And for those who make comments which really are edging towards being offensive, they tend to do themselves more harm than good. Is it not better to know what they are thinking rather than have them them secretly acting on their strange ideas? As far as I am concerned all but the most extreme opinions should be welcome. And the most important point is this: anyone who does say something which is totally outrageous should be prepared to be criticised themselves.
But to those who hear something they don’t like and just expect it to go away because they are offended I say: grow up, and get over it!
It often seems to me that the people who should accept the greatest responsibility and have the greatest accountability are those who actually accept the least. The people at the top of most hierarchies seem to be very good at accepting all the accolades when their organisation is successful but are far less visible and suddenly seem to have a lot less influence when things go wrong.
And when things are going well these same people happily accept huge bonuses even when the success has little to do with them, but I don’t see a lot of them insisting on lesser rewards when things go badly.
In my main job I am paid a salary so I don’t get bonuses for the good stuff or penalties when things don’t go so well (and they do occasionally) but I also do after hours consulting where I can basically set my own charges. I work in IT, so of course things do intermittently go wrong! Sometimes it’s my fault and sometimes it isn’t, but generally when I am fixing a problem I don’t charge the client extra for doing that (unless it was very clearly the client’s fault).
If that sort of system is good enough for me (and my income is fairly moderate, despite doing the extra work) why is it not good enough for people whose normal rate of pay is vastly greater than mine? Why don’t they fix their own errors at no charge?
If you live in New Zealand or know anything about current events here you might have guessed by now who I have in mind here. I’m talking about our old friend Don Elder, former CEO of Solid Energy. This highly paid business leader took a well performing state-owned company and completely destroyed it. Before the degree of his incompetence became widely known he resigned, but being one of the new elite with a huge sense of his own perceived value and self-importance he continued to accept his grossly inflated salary for “helping” the company out of its precarious financial position.
Any decent human being at this stage would have either said “no sorry, I’ve messed this up, I will leave but don’t give me any more payments for a job I’m clearly incapable of doing” or said “yes, I will help fix the problems I created but I insist you don’t pay me to fix something which shouldn’t have gone wrong in the first place”. It seems to be that being paid over a million dollars a year to destroy a company and then charging the same rate to try to fix it is a bit self-serving.
As I said above, I would never contemplate charging a client to fix a problem which I was responsible for in the first place. And if people are paid based on how responsible their job is you would expect someone with over ten times my salary to demonstrate ten times the degree of personal liability when things go wrong. But in the case of the corporate aristocracy apparently that isn’t the case. The extent of their feeling of personal entitlement is unbelievable!
But I shouldn’t just pick on poor old Don Elder, should I? What about all the other numerous examples of gross incompetence from the top echelons of management in New Zealand? What about the evil Dame Jenny Shipley’s hideous ineptitude in helping drive Mainzeal Construction into bankruptcy? Doesn’t she deserve some of the blame? Well she was being paid a lot of money while she was on the board. Again, does she accept the attendant responsibility or not? Well I think we all know the answer to that!
And do you want a further list of the new incompetent elite? How about these prominent people who have also presided over similar disasters (this list is from the New Zealand Herald): Wyatt Creech and John Luxton at Blue Chip; Sir Roger Douglas, Fran Wilde and Philip Burdon at Brierley Investments; Don Brash and John Banks at Huljich Wealth Management; Sir Douglas Graham and Bill Jeffries at Lombard; Sir William Birch at Viking Pacific; and Ruth Richardson at Dairy Brands and Syft Technologies.
Did you notice all the “Sirs” and “Dames” in this blog post? These really are the new aristocracy and their value to society is about equivalent to aristocracies everywhere: zero. But they are extremely skilled at acquiring undeserved honours like those. If the job losses and destruction of our economy wasn’t so serious the whole situation would be quite humorous. Sort of like a circus with these people the clowns!
It’s easy to rant about these people in a blog like this but surely it’s much harder to actually do what they’re doing, isn’t it? Actually, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. It seems to me that in most cases the failures were due to overly ambitious and poorly considered plans for expansion and forgetting about doing the job the company was supposed to be there to do. And it is all about the top management just walking away and moving on to the next unfortunate victim for their allegedly exceptional skills.
Everyone makes mistakes but these people are paid a lot not to make the same mistakes over and over again. And if they do make a mistake at least they could take a little bit of responsibility and do the right thing. But the “right thing” is about as far from the minds of senior management as anything can be. These people are the worst type of immoral, greedy, ignorant excuses for human beings on the face of the planet.
Even if they did work for free they would still be overpaid!
Apparently I’m a racist, at least according to some people. Why? Because I question the wisdom of giving some groups (let’s be specific: Maori, the original inhabitats of New Zealand) extra privileges based on their race, and because I dare to criticise some religions (again let’s be clear: I’m talking about Muslims) for their poor behaviour. By the way, I know race is a vague concept with little scientific validity, but we all know what these “racial” groups are – even if their origin is cultural more than biological – so the whole issue is still valid.
It seems strange to me that saying that certain racial (and cultural) groups shouldn’t be given special privileges is racist when the definition seems to suggest the exact opposite. Here’s the definition: “having or showing the belief that a particular race is superior to another”. I would have thought that if you think one group deserves extra privileges then you are strongly suggesting they are superior in some way, and of you suggest a group needs extra help you are suggesting they are inferior. Either way, those opinons (totally contrary to mine) seem racist.
Compare that with my view that every race should be treated the same and race based privileges and policies should be avoided. Surely it is my critics who are the racists, isn’t it?
A similar argument applies to my criticism of religion, because some religions are associated with certain racial groups. So my negative comments about religion are also sometimes criticised as being racist. But I criticise people based on many criteria: their politics, their philosophical perspectives, their moral standards, but never their race. And it seems fair to criticise them based on their damaging belief in superstition as well. If I don’t I’m effective giving that particular group (which might be associated with a racial group) a free pass. Isn’t that more racist than treating everyone equally?
I realise that the argument I am making is not a new one. I also realise that some people who actually are a bit racist use it, including some fairly extreme right wingers who are my usual opponents in political discussion. But in this blog I like to express my opinion clearly and directly, and if it fits with a particular ideology or not doesn’t really matter. It’s the logic and truth of the points which are important.
I think that is one of the reasons some people find my attitude in this area so disconcerting: I have traditional left wing views in other areas but this is seen as more reminiscent of the right. Generally the left are very politically correct around the subject so it seems more significant when I don’t follow the usual pattern. Of course, I have always said I reject these labels and if I did need to use a label I would see myself more as a rationalist rather than a leftist.
There is a current political event which has lead to this particular subject. It is the appointment of a new Race Relations Commissioner, Susan Devoy. Her opinions on the subject have caused a lot of consternation to many people and her apparent lack of relevant knowledge is also a concern.
Here’s what she said about Waitangi Day which is (in theory) our national day: “Waitangi has been hijacked and if it can never be really seen as a day of national celebration then perhaps the time has come to choose another true New Zealand day. … A recent poll showed more than 70 per cent of New Zealanders were in favour of a new holiday. This would leave Waitangi Day to be the day that recognises the importance of Maori, but the door open for a day that we don’t feel ashamed to be a New Zealander…”
I agree. I feel no connection with Waitangi Day at all and, according to many polls, neither do the majority of other New Zealanders. Waitangi Day has really turned into “Maori Day” which is fine for those who are interested in Maori culture and history (and a lot of that alleged history is very doubtful). But I have no interest in that area at all. Maori culture can be OK in small doses (some of the legends are quite cool) but in general I find it boring.
Many people would see that last statement as racist, but is it? Should I pretend to be interested in something just to be politically correct? I don’t think so. There are many other subjects and cultures I am also not that interested in but that doesn’t mean I think they are inferior, I’m simply just not interested!
Race relations in New Zealand is in a fairly healthy state but I think that is despite the modern trend of forcing people to participate in Maori culture rather than because of it. I have absolutely no problem with Maori culture being part of our society as long as people with no interest in it aren’t forced to participate. That really does create resentment.
The other thing that causes a lot of negativity is the seemingly constant hand-outs to Maori groups for some real and some imagined grievances. People quite rightly get annoyed when one group is given extra privileges (and money) for highly doubtful reasons. If you really want different groups to get on then treat them all fairly. That’s how to get real racial harmony.
So Susan Devoy might or might not be a wise choice for this role but in some ways it might be quite a good thing that we have someone who (at least in the past) has been prepared to stand up for the majority view. Maybe, just maybe, we might make some real progress towards equality and harmony now instead of the false situation we have now where resentment and indignation seem to be barely held in check.