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 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!
I think there is little doubt that the corporate world is out of control. They are drunk on their own power and they are arrogant enough to use that power in the most cynical and self-serving ways. And even after they complete their immoral activities they still expect the rest of the world to admire them for their cleverness.
I’m not denying that many corporations have some positive aspects as well as negative. But the same could be said about any group or organisation. I could make a case for some positive aspects of Nazi Germany (they created a great rocket program used by both the US and USSR after the war) or Stalinist Russia (Stalin was a strong leader which made the defeat of Germany possible), for example. It is the balance which really matters.
For example, take one of the most admired big corporates in the world: Google. I think Google’s search engine is brilliant. I use it in preference to all others. And while I cannot get enthusiastic about their Android platform (I am an iPhone and iPad user) I still recognise it as a valuable basic operating system, especially for cheap devices. And Google Glass shows some promise although I think it is so far from being genuinely usable that it’s future is very uncertain.
But that’s where it ends: an excellent search engine, an adequate operating system, and a new technology with some potential. But what is my complaint? Well the main one (but certainly not the only one) would be that, like all big corporates (as far as I know), Google is very good at avoiding their tax responsibilities. Not only do they use every dirty trick imaginable to avoid paying tax but they are proud of their achievements in that area.
At the end of last year the Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, defended their tax avoidance strategy and said he was proud of the steps they had taken to cut their tax bill, and that it was just “good capitalism”.
In the UK (the country this particular story applied to, although similar strategies are used everywhere) Google generated 2.5 billion pounds in sales but paid only 6 million pounds in corporate tax. That is a tax rate of 0.24% which is practically zero.
I understand that many people don’t like tax and don’t like the way the tax they do pay is used, but that’s not really the point. Those of use who can’t afford to pay experts to help us avoid tax still pay it, and at a rate a hundred times higher than Google. And quite honestly, even if I could afford to avoid it I wouldn’t because, even though I know the tax system has a lot of faults, it is still the best system we have to fund many essential services.
But when I see Google not paying their fair share I do feel a lot more resentful about paying tax myself. Google have more money than they could ever use, and certainly a lot more than they deserve for what they do, yet they fail to participate in a system the rest of us do contribute to.
And yes, I now that technically their avoidance practices are legal, but it is also legal not not hide profits in Bermuda and to pay the full tax which you know you are responsible for. And which is moral? Schmidt trots out the same old tired excuse: that they are responsible to their shareholders, but that is just a feeble justification and a way to shift the blame to someone else.
He also says “It’s called capitalism. We are proudly capitalistic. I’m not confused about this.” Well if he is proud of a system which is so deeply flawed and unfair then maybe it’s the system we should be trying to change, not those who exploit it. And of course that is the answer: capitalism in it’s current form simply doesn’t work and we need either a better version or an entirely new system. Since I’m not sure what that new system would be I guess I have to regretfully recommend a new form of capitalism!
Remember that I am only using Google as an example here and I know that other corporates, including Apple, are just as bad. But I think Google deserves a little bit of extra criticism because of their arrogance in saying “no, we don’t pay tax and we’re proud of it” especially after their original catchphrase which was “don’t be evil”.
Well I’m sorry but refusing to participate fairly in a society which can only operate the way it does because of the tax the rest of us pay, and which has made you very rich, is evil!
I recently listened to an item which featured Steve Job’s first boss, from the company Atari. He thought that Jobs was an unusual and difficult person to work with, and that he might have a lot of trouble even getting a job in the modern work environment. He thinks most employers reject individuality and difficult and critical personalities in favour people who are easier to get on with and more compliant.
Clearly Jobs was an awkward person and it’s easy to see why he might have been seen as difficult to manage, so there is an obvious reason why he might have had trouble being hired, but whose fault is that really? Sure Jobs was difficult but he was also brilliant. It seems to me that most modern personnel management policies favour people who will fit in a mould rather than do genuinely brilliant work.
Of course having an awkward personality in no way guarantees that a person is brilliant but there does seem to be a correlation between the two. It seems to make sense that people who are going to be able to make a genuinely unique contribution to a company are likely to “think different” from the rest and those people are unlikely to fit in with the standard profile most managers are looking for.
There is also the possibility, which I have discussed in the past, that managers might feel threatened by someone who would be employed in a position below themselves but might be far more capable than they are.
The ultimate example of the failure of a conventional mediocre leadership was the “bad times” at Apple. During the time when Jobs wasn’t there and the “suits” controlled the company they almost destroyed it. Apple is an exceptional case and relies on constant innovation and cutting edge design but it does make me wonder whether every company being run by suits (that is, almost all of them) is achieving well below its potential and could do so much more if they were just prepared to take on an exceptional person instead of just another one from the same old mould.
In my experience I have seen this phenomenon a lot. I see very mediocre people with no innovative ideas at all in senior roles and far more capable and original people being controlled by them. So the less brilliant people are not only enjoying the benefits of seniority themselves but they are also holding back those below them who might otherwise really achieve something.
I do recognise, especially in large organisations, that creative people do present a risk because while they might be theoretically capable of excellent original work, that might not fit in with the “bigger picture”. I also recognise that most bigger companies are very risk averse, and would generally prefer to sacrifice the possibility of a very positive new innovation if there is also a chance it could go wrong.
This problem (if it really is a problem) extends to all levels of human organisation: from national politics all the way down to small groups. Despite the claims to the contrary there is generally very little chance of anything genuinely innovative coming out of a typically organised company or other institution.
It’s difficult to say where the cause of the problem lies. It could be, as I have suggested above, that innovative people are blocked from advancement because they are seen as a risk or a threat. It could be that innovative people do get promotions but they are forced to become part of the “machine” once they do gain senior status so their ideas are wasted. And it could be that creative people just aren’t interested in politics or management. I suspect it is all three.
There is no obvious answer to the problem because the people who need to make the changes are exactly the ones who can’t see that there is a problem which needs to be solved. The best we can realistically hope for is that the power of big corporations and senior business and political leaders is kept under control. But how realistic that is, I really don’t know.
Maybe we’re all doomed to living in a world of increasing mediocrity, where people like Steve Jobs are often wasted. It certainly seems that way to me.
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.
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!
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.
I always enjoy situations where things are not what they seem, where subtle effects produce unexpected outcomes, and especially when the result of an action is the exact opposite of what the original intention was. It’s not so much that I enjoy seeing people fail (although sometimes, depending on the person involved, I do) its just that I like the weirdness the laws of unintended consequences often result in.
The most interesting sub-type of the law of unintended consequences is, I think, the Cobra Effect. In this effect an attempt to fix a problem results in the exact opposite: the problem is made worse.
The law got its name from an alleged incident during the British colonial rule of India. Whether this really happened – and if it did what the exact details were – is disputed, but this is a great anecdote anyway.
Apparently the British were concerned about the number of venomous cobras in Delhi and decided to offer a bounty to get rid of them. Any dead snake a person (mostly native Indians) brought in would earn a reward. Initially things went well and the cobra population decreased, but after a while it was noticed that more and more were being handed in. After a while the British government figured out that some enterprising individuals were breeding the snakes in “snake farms” and then killing them for the reward. Of course the British wanted to stop this so they refused to give out any further rewards. Naturally the farms were no longer viable so the “farmers” released all of their snakes resulting in an even greater population than at the beginning of the intervention!
As I said above, whether the story is accurate is hard to ascertain because the sources I could find were hardly definitive. But that’s not really the point. The point is that the effect itself is real and occurs in many different areas of modern life.
Here’s another example from more recent times…
Road safety experts assumed that cyclists would be safer if they wore a bike helmet. This seems to make sense because head injuries are a common result of accidents. So many countries enacted laws to force cyclists to wear helmets. However some research indicates that people wearing helmets are actually more likely to be injured on the road. Why? Because car drivers assume cyclist with helmets are safer so don’t give them so much space. And the cyclists themselves feel safer so take more risks. This leads to more accidents and because of the way bike crashes happen the helmets often offer only minimal protection anyway. So in fact the number of injuries goes up, not down.
I must emphasise that this research is uncertain and is disputed by many people and cycle helmet laws are still in force in most countries, but the increased risk is real. Whether it really outweighs any protection the helmets offer is unsettled, but it’s certainly an excellent candidate for the cobra effect.
I will now offer an example from the experience of my colleague (whom I have mentioned before – he works in a very similar organisation to mine) Fred (not his real name). When he started at his current place of work (many years ago) there were few rules and not a lot of supervision of what different staff were doing. This meant that sometimes people would work on wacky projects of doubtful relevance, occasionally work odd hours, and not worry too much about keeping track of leave taken, etc.
Over the years a more and more structured model was introduced to control these “rogue” behaviours. Work was charged using a cost recovery model where the client (from the same organisation) had to pay for the time taken to complete the project, hours worked were watched and recorded, and leave taken was strictly enforced.
You would think this would result in a far more efficient workplace wouldn’t you? Well if you have been paying attention your answer should be “no”. In fact the total opposite was achieved. People stopped working on innovative projects and just did the stuff which generated income easily. They deliberately worked more slowly so they could charge more hours. They got sick of the inept management and left the organisation completely. They only worked the standard hours instead of working to all hours of the night to get projects finished. And they used up their total allotment of leave instead of just taking a part of it as was common before it was all carefully tallied.
Not only that but all the extra organisation meant that a large number of extra administration staff were required until it got to the point where there were more admin staff than actual core technical staff (I must admit that he doesn’t have exact numbers on that, but it must be close).
At this point you would think the management would see the error of their ways and at least try to go partly back to the old system wouldn’t you? Well no, in fact they just made the new system more and more draconian and bureaucratic because it go to the point where they forgot about why they were really there and the bureaucracy become their aim in life instead of just being a way to achieve the real goal of providing a good service.
And here is one final example from Fred which bizarrely closely matches one in my own experience. The organisation he works for is audited (obviously, since all similar organisations are) but for some reason (presumably total ineptitude) the auditor couldn’t find any obvious problems. But he had to earn his grossly inflated fee some way so he insisted that the free coffee being provided for the staff should be stopped. That should save a few hundred dollars a year, right?
Well no, and anyone with a modicum of common sense would see the cobra effect would strike there! Instead of sitting in their offices working and drinking coffee the staff now had to go to the nearest cafe, so hours of extra work time per day was lost. The few hundred dollars per year saved was wasted in a week. That should have been obvious before the decision was made, it should have been even more obvious when it happened, but the free coffee and the extra hours of work have never returned. The cobra strikes!
When you start thinking about it you see the cobra effect everywhere. Generally it involves decisions made by people who are fairly out of touch with reality, live in their own pathetic little dream worlds, and are unprepared to really examine the consequences of their actions (in other words politicians, managers, accountants, lawyers, and other similar low-lifes). It can happen to anyone though and that’s why everyone should be prepared to say “we were wrong, that didn’t work the way we expected, we’d better try something else”. But can you really imagine a politician or manager ever saying that? No, me neither.
If you have read my previous blog entries you will be very aware of my lack of respect for the process of management in general and most managers in particular. In fact I have been discussing this with my colleague Fred (not his real name) again and he has made some interesting observations which certainly have some resonance for me, specifically on the topic of change management. Here are some of his more astute comments…
When he debates (I get the impression these “debates” are often more like arguments) with the management team at his place of work an accusation often made against him is that he can’t cope with change. In fact this seems to be a very common criticism of anyone who is hesitant to endorse a new way of doing things. I’m sure that in some cases it is true, because many people really don’t like change, but I think more often this is just an excuse used to try to justify new policies and procedures which really don’t have a lot of merit.
In Fred’s case for example it seems counterintuitive that he would reject change when he works in an area (computing) where constant change is the norm. Where else is it necessary to be so open to change or be left behind? So the simple accusation that he doesn’t like change in general is ridiculous. In fact what he doesn’t like is change for the worse, or change for no good reason, or change without consultation.
But the problem with most conversations between a manager and a worker is that the manager doesn’t have to justify anything they do. Generally they initially go with the old justification of “you just don’t like change” and if that fails there’s always the classic follow up of “you could always work somewhere else”.
How would the manager feel if they had a complaint about a staff member’s work and the only response they got was “you just don’t like the new way I do things” or “you could always manage someone else”. They would find that unacceptable wouldn’t they? Yet they think the staff member should accept it when they use exactly equivalent statements. If anyone doesn’t have a good way to justify their conclusions then maybe they should re-examine them.
I guess every organisation does need some ultimate way to make decisions and enforce necessary change but if that is going to happen I think it’s really important that the change be open to criticism and should be able to be defended. Most people’s experience with change in bureaucratic organisations (and that is basically every organisation) is that it is forced on staff against their will, is unsupported with any real proof that it is necessary or advantageous, and is never properly evaluated later to see if it has been successful.
So let’s look at some of the changes Fred has had to endure in recent years to get an idea of why he might be resistant to them…
His salary in real terms has gone down, allegedly because funding is decreasing, but at the same time there is always plenty of money for managers and bureaucrats. Is this the sort of change anyone should be happy with? I can imagine being unhappy but accepting of sacrifice of that sort if it was applied fairly and gross waste wasn’t obvious elsewhere, but when it’s just a cynical ploy like this why should anyone accept it?
Fred has worked at the same organisation for many years and has noticed a lot of change over that time. In general the change has been in the direction of a huge increase in administration and loss of independence. A significant part of his time is now spent filling in time sheets, completing charging forms, attending meaningless meetings, and other activities which aren’t really part of his job. Interestingly the people who forced the cost recovery system on the technical staff are never required to work that way themselves, maybe because they do nothing so would never charge out any time! Is forcing a skilled professional into doing a lot of meaningless administrivia the sort of change which he should be happy about? I don’t think so.
When Fred started work at his organisation his professional skills were quite trusted. It was assumed (quite rightly) that he knew how to solve the problems he encountered and could consult with colleagues where necessary. But over they years his work has been forced into more of a “template”. Now he has to follow policies formulated by people who have no clues at all about the real issues he encounters. Is trusting a bureaucrats opinion instead of a professionals the sort of change he should be happy with? Who would be?
I’m sure Fred’s situation isn’t unique and, as I said earlier, I can identify with why he is frustrated with the types of changes that have been inflicted on him.
Finally, to emphasise my point, imagine the following imaginary situation…
Manager: Hello Fred, I’ve asked for this meeting so we can discuss the new corporate direction and policy framework the management has been working on.
Fred: (extremely worried about what nonsense is about to ensue) Err, OK, what are these changes?
Manager: Well we have decided the professional staff should be paid more and we are going to fund that by reducing the number of administrators in our organisation. Also, we trust your professional skills so you can use our policies as a guideline but bypass them where that will get a better outcome for the client. And we also are throwing out the cost recovery system, the inefficient user pays mechanism, and we will have an administrator to do any of the remaining paper work for you.
Fred: That sounds fair, I am happy to fully cooperate with the new direction.
Manager: Excellent, I had heard you don’t like change but clearly that’s not true.
Fred: Not like change? Where would you get that idea?
But that wouldn’t happen, would it. Because change is almost never positive. It’s always the opposite of what this manager was proposing. But Fred lives in the real world where change is (almost) always bad. It’s not the change which is the problem, it’s the type of change.