Archive for September, 2015

Random Rants 11

September 30, 2015 Leave a comment

There’s just so much crap going on in the world at the moment that I think a “random rants” post is called for. I know that’s hard to believe (because as you know I’m not really predisposed to excessive ranting), but this is the 11th in the series so far!

So let’s get started with a local issue, New Zealand’s biggest company, Fonterra, and its inept management…

What has been the most high visibility business/economic disaster of the year here in New Zealand? Probably Fonterra’s mis-handling of milk exports. So what is the natural response of “the system” to this? To pay the CEO an extra $750,000 dollars, bringing his total salary to almost $5 million.

Yeah it’s a great system, isn’t it. The company makes one mistake after another, pays an excessive number of managers huge salaries for unspecified results, fails to manage exports in a reasonable way, lays off 750 employees, pays farmers at a rate they can barely survive on, and the CEO gets a nice, big, fat bonus. Welcome to the wonderful corporate world. Remind me why we want to be involved with this nonsense again?

It seems to me that the people at the top can do whatever they like and rarely suffer the consequences of failure. All of Theo Spierings’ assets should be confiscated and he should be sent back to wherever he came from (yeah, I’m not really serious about that, because I know that’s an excessive and unrealistic response but there needs to be some consequences for these people – also, I know where he came from).

On to a completely different subject now, the death of hundreds of pilgrims recently in Saudi Arabia during the Hajj…

I’m not going to try to tell people that they shouldn’t be participating in traditional rituals, celebrations, and events, because, whether they make any sense or not, these are intriguing cultural practices and make the world more interesting. But it can be a problem when people take these things too seriously and unnecessary problems result.

It’s also very interesting from a symbolic perspective when hundreds of people die (both at the devil stoning ritual itself and prior to the Hajj when a construction crane collapsed) at a pilgrimage. Does this mean that god isn’t looking after them? Maybe the devil didn’t like them symbolically stoning him and fought back?

I’ve never heard anyone offer a theological discussion of this sort of disaster, regarding whether god could be expected to intervene in these circumstances, or whether it is potentially some sort of divine punishment. It has happened with every major religion of course so this shouldn’t be seen as simply a cheap shot at Islam.

So on to rant number 3, the CYF fiasco…

New Zealand’s government agency responsible for the care of children is so dysfunctional that even Fonterra looks good in comparison. After years of continuous reviews and restructurings it is now almost completely useless and in many ways we would be better off if it didn’t exist at all.

This is not the fault of the social workers at CYF, nor of the basic idea of having a government social agency. It is simply grossly incompetent management and totally inept political bungling time after time turning the place into a bureaucratic nightmare.

I have heard various figures about the ratio of actual work done in comparison to filling in forms, reports, and other administrivia. One figure was that only 25% of social workers actually deal with kids, and another was that only 15% of their time at work is spent doing their primary task of helping those most at risk.

These numbers seem ludicrous, even for the most bureaucratic organisation, but they have come from several sources and no one has denied them. There’s really only one solution here: fire all the managers and completely reorganise the place based on the recommendations of the actual workers who know what needs to happen.

Finally rant number 4, politicians messing with science…

I’m not so nerdy that I think science is perfect, or that it is the only thing that matters, or anything else like that. But I do think science is important and that we should be very careful about how we treat it. Science isn’t just another business and scientists are motivated quite differently from business people. Also what they do can’t be forced into a traditional commercial model.

So what does the current government think it’s doing? Why does Stephen Joyce – a person with an educational background in science (he has a BSc in zoology) – not understand what is happening in the country is just wrong? The fact that his portfolio is “Science and Innovation” should be a warning sign in itself. Innovation sounds great in principle but in reality innovators are rarely innovative.

Innovation in business generally involves exploiting science and technology breakthroughs for short term gain. It’s never genuinely innovative because real innovation requires long term study, often with no commercial objective in sight, and with no short term funding pressures.

It might seem unfair to some people that science isn’t subject to the same “market pressures” as business but if you want the benefits of science (and everyone does whether they are prepared to admit it or not) then that’s just the price that you have to pay.

I say that the latest attack on science: the loss of 90 skilled scientists and technicians from AgResearch, is just unacceptable whatever the circumstances. All of these people were doing useful research and the fact that funding for their work can’t be forced into the new commercial model is completely irrelevant. We need to continue the funding of basic science even when the “industry” funders aren’t interested. In fact that is exactly the type of research we need more of.

So those are my rants. The theme in 3 out of 4 is a common one: that inept management and corrupt commercial models are making a mess of our society. We have to rid ourselves of this parasitic management class we are encumbered with. They are the cause of most of the problems and their efforts at fixing those obvious problems just make things worse. As far as the third issue – disasters at religious rituals – is concerned, I just find that theologically interesting. That is all.

Most Hated Man

September 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Turing Pharmaceuticals founder Martin Shkreli has recently been named the most hated man on the internet. That is quite an “honour” because there is a lot of very worthy competition. The previous holder of the title was generally thought to be Walter Palmer, the American dentist who killed Cecil the lion. It certainly seems that anyone bad enough to take the title from him must be a real bastard! And yes, this guy clearly is.

Note that in both of these cases nothing illegal was involved, so it seems that doing something immoral is actually worse than doing something illegal, at least according to the extremely thoughtful commentators on ethics from internet forums (extreme sarcasm there, but a certain amount of truth as well according to wisdom of crowds and that sort of thing).

This fits with my own thoughts. While most laws are based on reasonable and fair ideas (don’t kill other people, don’t steal from them, etc) in the details they are essentially arbitrary. In fact they are worse than that because there is a clear bias in many laws favouring the rich and powerful even though in many cases they have the lowest moral standards and need the least legal protection.

So yes, doing something wrong should always be seen as worse than doing something merely illegal. But getting back to this particular example of immorality. What did this scumbag actually do?

Well, Martin Shkreli is described as “an American hedge fund manager and entrepreneur”. The word “entrepreneur” can mean anything, from someone who genuinely creates new products or services which benefit society to someone who has just through native cunning found a way to manipulate the system for his own benefit. Guess which this guy is! As far as “hedge fund manager” is concerned, well I don’t think any comment is necessary, except these people represent pretty much the worst part of modern capitalism (and yes, I realise hedge funds can be put to good uses, but are generally not).

Shkreli bought the rights for a drug called “Daraprim” and increased the price by over 50 times, from $13.50 to $750 per tablet. He might have seen it as just a business deal but the reality is this drug is relied on by people with a rather nasty disease called toxoplasmosis (try a Google image search on this one) caused by a parasite and can severely affect those with compromised immune systems.

The increased price (which he has been forced to decrease) would have surely lead to a lot of suffering amongst people with the disease. But did he care? I very much doubt it.

But this is capitalism working the way it is supposed to. Many people would pay the new price just because they have to. So you could say the market would support almost any price the seller wanted to impose. The drug is out of patent but (as far as I am aware) no other company makes it so there is not even the rather doubtful protection of normal competitive forces working here. Other companies might start making it for less but their setup costs would be high and Shkreli’s company could then drop their price and quite likely destroy the new competitor.

But it’s not really Shkreli’s fault, so what is the problem here? Simply that capitalism doesn’t work. It never has and never will. I mean it’s OK for things that don’t matter like selling Coke, but it can’t be trusted for healthcare and other stuff which is actually important.

The problem is not that he broke the law or didn’t follow the rules, it is that he followed the rules too well. What he did is exactly what pure capitalism demands: to see an opportunity and use your entrepreneurial skills to use that opportunity to maximise your profit. He might be hated, but over-achievers often are. The problem is that he is an over-achiever in a corrupt system.

There is one final point I should make. This is the sort of phenomenon we are allowing to take control if we sign up for the TPP. Corporations will be able to use the rules of commerce to make more money while inflicting massive suffering on the population as a whole. They probably won’t do anything as obvious and crass as what Shkreli did, but the underlying motives will be exactly the same.

Insulting Sir Pita

September 21, 2015 Leave a comment

Political commentator Rodney Hide used to be a New Zealand politician and was leader of our libertarian party, Act. Like most libertarians he had some great ideas and I agreed with a lot of what he said, except, in most cases, when it came to economics where I find libertarianism is hopelessly simplistic and unrealistic.

But this blog post isn’t about economics, it’s about political correctness, something that most libertarians are very good at criticising, rejecting, and generally ridiculing. And of course, I enjoy ridiculing PC too, so let’s look at the issue Hide was offering his opinion on this time.

Most people (even those not in rugby-playing nations) are aware that the Rugby World Cup is currently being played in England and Wales. Like all good sport there is a significant psychological factor involved and one effort by an English rugby team was to ridicule the All Black haka (a Maori war dance traditionally performed by the ABs before every game) with their spoof, called the “hakarena”.

The first thing I thought when I saw this is that someone will get offended and suggest it is racist, disrespectful, or inappropriate in some other way, and I wasn’t disappointed!

Another ex-politician (this time from the Maori Party), Pita Sharples, said “The haka is very meaningful to us. To actually mimic it and deliberately bring it into ridicule is, to me, insulting.”

OK, so he’s insulted. Well I’m insulted that he’s insulted over something so trivial. So what? Who cares if he’s insulted or not? I think many minority groups take what they perceive to be there culture away too seriously. Sharples should be pleased that the haka is being given so much publicity because that’s one way that his culture can get more recognition.

But I do have to wonder about what his culture really is, because his full title is “Sir Pita Sharples”. Yes, the Maori activist and the person who felt the need to constantly defend his people against the perceived and real threats from the “crown” has accepted a knighthood from the very entity he spent most of his life fighting against. What a hypocrite!

And like many of the PC thought police, Sharples thinks we should all be offended and take action. He said “The Maori and New Zealanders in London could react to that big time.” I’m not quite sure what he has in mind but considering the whole idea of the hakarena was to stir up trouble and possibly put the All Blacks off their game (as well as being just a bit of fun) I would have thought just ignoring the whole thing would be the best possible response.

According to some sources the All Blacks are also “incensed” and “unimpressed” and are contemplating escalating the “psychological warfare”. That’s cool, but I hope the ABs are not genuinely upset and in reality find it mildly amusing. I don’t think the ABs have made any official response but anything they do say would need to conform to PC rules, of course.

In general, being too precious about your culture is just counter-productive. By insisting that Maori words should be pronounced “correctly” you just discourage people from using the language at all, by insisting that any humorous imitation of customs is insulting you just make it harder to have those customs presented at all, and by taking your culture too seriously you just create resentment and invite further ridicule.

Oh, and one other thing, I have ten times as much respect for (All Black captain) Richie McCaw who rejected being given a knighthood that I have for one self-serving politician who accepted one in apparent conflict with his pro-Maori, anti-establishment views from the past.

Something Worth Defending

September 13, 2015 Leave a comment

As I get older I get more tolerant of people with views contrary to mine. Yes, it’s true, despite what some of my rants in this blog might tend to indicate. For example, when I heard about the recent controversy involving Kim Davis – the Kentucky clerk who refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples and was sent to prison – I initially admired her commitment to her own moral standards no matter how misinformed they might be.

But I’m afraid I have changed my mind a bit after thinking about it some more and also after a case here in New Zealand where a conservative Christian group called “Family First” caused a young adult book to be banned (the ban is temporary and that was not their direct intention but they were still responsible).

Here’s my point in summary: if a nutty fundamentalist group or individual wants to believe in their absurd religion that is OK, but I really object when they start inflicting their sick pseudo-morality on the rest of us.

So it’s not sufficient to be dedicated to what you view as what is right, or to be committed to your cause, or to be willing to make sacrifices to support your beliefs. No, you also have to be standing up for the right thing. You have to be in touch with reality. And you have to consider other people’s rights and opinions even when they are different from yours.

If commitment alone is worthy of admiration then the ultimate recipients of that admiration might be someone like suicide bombers who give their lives for their cause. I’m sure most people (especially the ones who admire Kim Davis) don’t really want to go there.

And yes, I do realise there is a significant difference between someone who refuses to issue a marriage license and someone who kills other people because of the teaching of their religion, but the principle is the same: making a sacrifice based on a deeply held, but fictitious belief.

So what is the correct approach when you think someone else is wrong and you want to correct them? Well how about my approach: reasoned (I hope) debate and presentation of the facts. Then if the person refuses to accept reality it is their problem.

In the case of Kim Davis I think a rant from her, in the workplace, relating to her personal interpretation of the Bible would probably still be seen as inappropriate however so I guess the discussion should happen in other fora, such as in public political debates. But that has already happened really and acceptance of same-sex marriage seems to be the outcome of that debate.

So it looks like Kim Davis’ options are limited. Her side has already lost the debate and there’s not a lot she can do about it. In that situation her choice of job is probably intrinsically incompatible with her religious beliefs and she probably has no choice but to resign.

Of course she could also either realise that her religion is just silly superstition or at least take a more progressive attitude towards it and look at the higher message of Christianity which is (at least according to some interpretations) acceptance, humility, and forgiveness. Yes, that’s the sort of religious message I can accept. The more hard-core stuff such as that espoused by Kim Davis and Westboro Baptist Church (who ironically hate Davis, and describe as a “delusional adulterous tyrant”) doesn’t work for me at all.

But then, I’m a person who bases my morals on doing the best thing for the majority and not unnecessarily restricting other people’s freedom, and they base theirs on personal and arbitrary interpretations of an old book. I would like to think that I would make sacrifices for standing up for what is right too, just like Kim Davis did, except I would be defending something which is worth defending.

Dealing with Refugees

September 8, 2015 Leave a comment

The big news this week is the Syrian refugee crisis. The New Zealand government has been under intense pressure to accept more refugees and has finally relented and will allow 750 into the country. Most of the opinions I have heard seem to think this is a good idea, but how good is it really?

Before I go any further, for those of you with short attention spans, here is the short version…

The Syrian refugee crisis is a difficult problem to solve and ideally it would be best to somehow end the war which is causing people to leave. But that can’t be done easily so maybe the best interim action is to allow those who are in immediate danger to settle in peaceful countries like New Zealand. But this will displace resources which could be used for New Zealanders who live in poverty, don’t have jobs, etc.

And refugees who have settled here in the past have not necessarily fitted in well and less than half have jobs after 5 years. Some have difficulty adopting to a different culture and interact mainly with other immigrants, possibly leading to slums and social unrest.

Helping refugees doesn’t necessarily mean less for New Zealanders because it’s possible to help both refugees and New Zealanders if the government really wanted to. We also need to be seen to be fulfilling our international responsibilities and New Zealand’s main ally (the US) is partly responsible for many of the problems in the Middle East today.

So… it’s complicated, but the best solution is probably to take a moderate approach by taking a fair number of refugees while working towards a solution for ending the war.

Here’s the long version…

The idea of taking more refugees has broad political support but I’m not sure it is quite so popular amongst the wider population of the country. Many people are deeply suspicious of other cultures, especially those from the Middle East, and the usual arguments about refugees not fitting in, taking jobs, and costing a lot of money to process abound. And quite rightly so, because all those arguments are valid.

But there are counter-arguments against the negatives. For example, greater diversity is usually a good thing because it encourages new ideas and different ways of looking at problems (and just makes life more interesting). Also, the population of New Zealand is often seen as low and increasing that through this process can make a small difference. And we do have responsibilities as a member of the international community to help with settling refugees and this helps improve our reputation.

But maybe most importantly, helping other people is just the right thing to do. Of course this idea does need to be balanced with some common sense, otherwise the positive effects of the help will be outweighed by the negatives of the side-effects (there’s an answer straight from utilitarianism!)

So what is the best solution here?

Well, I have heard three broad approaches to solving the problem. First, accept as many people escaping from wars as possible and re-settle them in peaceful areas of the world; second, try to fix the problem which is causing the crisis in the first place; and third, just nuke any areas of the world which are causing problems (the “final solution” espoused – I hope not seriously – by some people).

I’ll look at these in reverse order…

The idea of nuking any country which is involved in a conflict which the West finds inconvenient is crazy, obviously. As I said, I don’t think anyone is really serious about this (sadly, I’m sure there is a certain type of right-wing crazy who is) so I will just ignore it and move on.

What about fixing the problem which is causing the refugee crisis in the first place? Well, of course this is what we should be aiming for but it’s not quite as easy as that. The American approach to solving the Middle East’s problems has been spectacularly unsuccessful. Of course, many people would say that the US is more interested in solving their own problems of securing access to oil, more than anything else, but that still doesn’t help with a solution.

So while solving the problems causing the crisis is clearly the best long-term solution it isn’t much help here and now. Until the war is ended there should be alternative action taken just to solve the immediate problems.

Can we just accept as many people as possible and allow them to settle here? Well that means what is meant by “as many as possible”. There are so many refugees (16 million by some counts) from this one conflict alone (and remember there are other areas of the world where similar problems exist) that is seems almost impossible to make a big difference. So maybe we have to settle for making a small difference. At least that is better than nothing, and even the modest increase announced by the PM will cost us over $50 million.

Finally, let’s have a look at some comments the people are making about this topic and see how I would respond to them…

First there is this: “their country, their war, their problem”. That is partly true, but only partly. If people were really prepared to stand up against ISIS they could probably be defeated from within. But for various reasons that doesn’t happen. Also, a lot of the problems in the Middle East today have been caused, or at least made worse, by meddling by Western powers, especially the US. But all Western nations need to take some responsibility, so it isn’t just “their problem”. It is ours too.

Here’s another: “we should do more for the people of NZ who struggle first” and many others with similar sentiments. Even the biggest struggle for a New Zealander is less than what people in Syria are facing. How many people in NZ daily face the possibility of being brutally murdered by a band of religious fanatics? Not many. Also, New Zealand can do both. There is enough money to help both the poor in New Zealand and Syrian refugees. All that is missing is the political will to do something about it.

What about this: “Keep strong Mr Key. There are 52 Middle Eastern countries for Moslems to go to that are not at war”. I guess this was made before the PM changed direction and allowed for a greater quota of refugees. It’s a good point though because many of the issue in the Middle East are caused by religion. Can’t countries with that same religion help to clean up the mess it causes?

Here’s the final solution espoused by someone: “Send in the clowns. Or 500,000 ground troops. Or several low yield bombs… make that several dozen!” It’s hard to say if this is serious or not, but military interventions just seems to make things worse anyway.

Then there are the emotional pleas for help, like this: “Just imagine the strain these poor people are feeling! Compassion not hate!” Agreed, but we need to be practical about just how much compassion we can offer.

Finally there is this. Maybe the most powerful statment there: “Thanks… from a Syrian in New Zealand”.

A Committee of Incompetents

September 5, 2015 Leave a comment

The world economy is a disaster, the refugee crisis in the Middle East is getting worse every day, and global warming is out of control. There are many major problems to worry about so what is our major source of concern here in New Zealand? Well, it’s whether we should have a new flag, of course!

It seems that our prime minister has decided he isn’t quite as invincible as he has been in the past and that perhaps his reign will soon be over, and that he isn’t going to have many great achievements to be remembered by, so why not be the PM who was responsible for a new flag?

So a process has been launched which might eventually lead to a new flag being chosen for the country. The current flag has two major deficiencies: first, it looks too much like Australia’s and that leads to a lot of confusion; and second, it is too representative of our colonial past when New Zealand was part of the British Empire and it doesn’t really represent our modern place in the world.

So at great expense (we are talking tens of millions of dollars here) a multi-step process has been put in place: first, anybody could submit a design for a new flag; second, a committee narrows those hundreds of designs down to 10, then 4; third, a postal referendum gives everyone the chance to choose their favourite new flag from the four designs available; and finally, another referendum gives the chance to vote for either the most popular new flag or to keep the current one.

Now clearly there are numerous problems with this system which I will mention later, but maybe the most significant is that the process is so complicated and costs so much. My local hospital is in a dire financial position mainly due to it being underfunded, and $26 million could make a big difference there. Underfunding of the health system will lead to people not being treated and dying, that is certain. Yet we spend money on a convoluted process to choose a new flag instead. Really?

On many occasions I have pointed out that when our leaders (politicians, managers, etc) say that there is no money to do something they are simply lying. There is always money available and it just comes back to what they want to spend it on. There never seems to be a lack when it comes to hiring expensive but useless consultants, reorganising institutions which generally leads to them being worse than when they started, and paying for advertising campaigns to advance their social and political agenda.

But getting back to the flag… I do think we should have a new flag because I really don’t feel our current flag is distinctive or relevant enough to really represent the country. But as I have said in the past, I do think New Zealand should become a republic first, and that should trigger a change of flag. While we still maintain the Queen of England as our official head of state it seems quite logical to have the British flag in the corner of ours.

But let’s assume we do want a new one. How good are the designs which the current process has produced? Well, not very good actually. The consensus seems to be that they are fairly poor, that two of them are virtually unusable, and the other two (which are almost identical) are both just average. What went wrong?

Maybe there is just no design talent in New Zealand capable of creating a good flag. That seems unlikely because I do see good design (as well as terrible design) in many places around the country. Maybe all the good designers decided not to participate in this rather flawed exercise. I saw some quite good designs (which have been rejected) so that also seems unlikely. So maybe the whole process was flawed from the beginning? Well yes, as expected, that is the exact problem!

Maybe the biggest problem is that this is a bureaucratic process involving a committee of people who are basically incompetent. As far as I can see none (or very few) of the Flag Consideration Committee members have any skill in the area they are considering at all. We have a corporate CEO, a former mayor, a company director, a tech company CEO, an Olympian, a former chief of the NZ Defence Force, a youth councillor, a sports coach and administrator, an academic and flag historian, and a Maori academic.

I don’t see any experts on design there, and only one person with any skill in the area of flags at all. It’s not even a very good representation of the New Zealand population. There are far too many CEOs and other business bureaucrats, for example.

So the process was doomed from the beginning. Many people will say that this is deliberate and that it was set up to fail, but it really does seem to me that this process has been driven by the prime minister himself and he genuinely wants it to succeed. So yet again the problem is more attributable to incompetence rather than a conspiracy!

But it’s easy to be critical so how would I have run the process if I had been in charge? Well I could have done it at a fraction the cost and I would have got a good result too. Here’s how…

First, forget about the public meetings, advertising, expert advisors, and all the other expensive elements in the current process. This whole thing should happen on-line and the only advertising and discussion necessary can happen in social media and in general news bulletins – for free. Yes, I know that some people don’t use the internet much. Well tough luck. This new flag is about the future, and if people are still living in the past and can’t be bothered to make a small effort to get on-line then they will just have to opt out.

Second, let anyone make a submission but their design should only be a concept, not necessarily an exact and final design (see later for an explanation of this idea). The submissions would be made on-line and would be checked by the community in the same way as Wikipedia articles are reviewed. That way really poor, distasteful, and other unusable designs would be eliminated quickly.

Third, after a certain interval – say 6 months – a vote would occur on-line for the preferred final 10 designs. Registration would be necessary and this would be done using a standard email verification process similar to what is used for most current internet services. I know that it is possible to abuse this process to some extent, but until every person has an official unique identifier (the sooner this happens the better) there is no realistic alternative.

Fourth, the 10 best submissions would be improved by professional designers. These people might need to be paid or they might want to do it “pro bono” or for the inevitable fame they would garner from creating the winning design. This process would combine the good ideas the general population might have with the design skills of an expert.

Finally a flag would be chosen from the 10 improved designs and the winner of that would be matched against the current flag. These two votes would also happen on-line although the final vote might need to be done by a conventional referendum simply because on-line voting just hasn’t really been set up properly yet. As I said above, until every person in the country gets a unique ID which they can use for this sort of purpose it’s hard to do on-line voting properly.

Finally, the new flag would replace the old one over time. Both flags would be acceptable for a certain time period but all new flags made should be the new design. That way there would be no major cost in doing all of the replacements at once.

So there it is: a process which is cheap and would get good results. And the real difference is that it doesn’t involve a committee of incompetents. Now if a similar process can be designed for all the other situations in life where committees do stupid things the world would be a far better place!

They Were Wrong

September 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Politics seems to drift backwards and forwards over time and during certain periods one political style is popular before it becomes less fashionable and another takes over. We are currently nearing the end (at least I hope we are) of a period where the right has been in control and neo-liberal dogma has ruled. Obvious proponents of this style were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher but the more significant point is that the idea was also taken up by those who were ostensibly on the left, such as Tony Blair.

Here in New Zealand an extreme form of neo-liberalism was introduced by the 1984 Labour government (theoretically center-left) and that was extended by National (our center-right party) when they came into power and has been continued in a less extreme form by all governments ever since. So we have had decades of privatisation, asset sales, foreign investment (AKA exploitation), lighter regulation, etc.

Now, even our government of the right has drifted significantly towards the center. Presumably this is because the people have seen that neo-liberalism doesn’t work as we have been told. Of course, any sensible person should have seen that from the beginning but, as I said at the start of this post, people tend to vote based on trends and fashions rather than logic and facts.

But if the zeitgeist is trending back to the left why have genuinely left-wing parties been so unsuccessful around the world? Here in New Zealand the Labour Party is a bit of a mess and many people think they are unelectable (I disagree but that’s not the point). In the UK the Labour Party failed spectacularly in the recent election. And the same applies elsewhere. So what’s going on?

Well there are a couple of factors to consider here (at least in my humble opinion). The first is that people may not be quite ready to head back to the genuine left after so long, so moderate right parties are still attractive. But more importantly (I think) the left have spoiled their credibility by, in the past, implementing the exact policies they are criticising right-oriented governments for now.

On so many occasions I hear New Zealand’s prime minister defending his actions by pointing out that a certain policy was actually initiated by Labour or that they had a similar policy when they were in power last. And he has a very good point. It must be very difficult for the opposition to attack National policies which are almost identical to what Labour had in the not too distant past.

I think the correct approach to this would be to just admit they were wrong but have seen the error of their ways and have now changed, unlike the current government who refuse to admit their errors. Or maybe, if they want to be a bit more disingenuous about it, say that the political and economic climate has changed and we should change our approach too.

But that’s not what the opposition have done. Instead they have embarked on a rather weak and unconvincing defence of their past and this is exactly what the PM wants: to shift the focus from his government’s poor performance and put the opposition on the defensive. As I have said many times before: the PM is a very smart politician (that isn’t necessarily a compliment).

I think there is a background of support by many people to return to more moderate politics: if not yet truly left, at least more centrist. The support for people like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US (about as close to the left as you can get there) shows this. But in many cases the fact that the left have often been responsible for the worst excesses of the politics of what would normally be seen as right-oriented has destroyed a lot of the appeal these people might have.

It does make the opinions that “they [political parties] are all the same” and “it doesn’t really matter who you vote for” harder to discredit. In the past these ideas were actually fairly true, although there has always been some difference in the enthusiasm the various parties had for their policies.

So it seems that in the short term the parties of the left were correct to shift to the right when that was fashionable because that made them more popular according to whatever was in favour at the time. But now that has come back to haunt them. Now they have to admit they were wrong. They need to show that they have changed and that there is a genuine alternative.

But will that happen? Probably not.