Archive for ‘October, 2010’

Squandering Political Opportunity.

datePosted on 12:51, October 31st, 2010 by Pablo

The dramatic reversal in the Democrat’s fortunes since November 2008 and their impending defeat in Tuesday’s mid-term elections raises the question of how things went so wrong for them in such as short time. Needless to say, the situation they inherited did not help: a major recession with near record unemployment, bankruptcies and home foreclosures, two wars of occupation, immigration concerns and a deeply polarised electorate. Even so, President Obama had a wave of popular support, the Democrats gained control of Congress, there was a mood for change in the country and the world was sympathetic to the incoming administration. Inherited obstacles notwithstanding, the scene was set for a major shift in direction under consolidated Democratic leadership for years to come.

Instead,  the Democrats have foundered while the GOP-Conservative opposition has rebounded and mounted a formidable challenge that threatens to undermine any hope for significant alterations in US policy direction. The immediate reasons for this Republican resurgence and the pallorous state of the Democratic Party (and the President) in the run-up to the midterms has more to do with the latter’s strategic and tactical errors rather than the former’s platform for governance. The Democrat errors can be enumerated, and will be summarised here.

The first strategic error was to believe that playing a centrist game was going to work. That may have succeeded in years gone by, but with an Republican opposition operating off a script of obstructionism, fear-mongering, personal denigration, xenophobia and cultivation of populist ignorance, it was never going to prosper in today’s political climate. Appeasing a disloyal opposition simply encourages it to become more vicious in its attacks, particularly when it has a partisan media working on its side. Thus the “Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist” and “Pelosi-Reid deficit spender” memes that have reverberated from the moment the Obama administration took office and the Democrats gained control of Congress.

What the President and his party should have done is staked out an explicitly Liberal-Left policy agenda that starkly differentiated their (relatively, given that it is in the US) progressive and pro-active  approaches to the nation’s woes. They were going to be vilified anyway, so the stark differentiation of their platform from the reactionary and failed GOP approach would have clarified the lines of debate in ways that the public could clearly understand, both in terms of where the fault lay with regards to the economic woes of the country as well as in the solution set being offered as an alternative. After all, the US has not had anything remotely close to a “progressive ” policy agenda (and I say this phrase advisedly simply because what passes for progressive in the US is centrist is most other liberal democracies) since the early days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and the inherited economic and political conditions were ripe for a bold move away from the failed policies of the Bush 43 administration. That would have been a real agenda for change.

Since the Democrats did not do so, they failed on a second strategic level: they failed to impose the terms of the policy debate and ceded that space to the Fox and talkback-led conservative opposition. Since the latter had little to offer other than invective, this allowed them to turn to the usual diversionary wedge issues in order to gain political traction: ethnic conflict, cultural mores, “socialism,” and taxation. Whatever the administration’s accomplishments (and there have been a number, including nuclear arms reductions with the Russians and the gradual military exit from Iraq), these have been lost amid the din of conservative outrage about sins more imaginary than real.

Thus the Democrats found themselves on the defensive even as they tabled their policy agenda. Since those who dictate the terms of debate are those who win the debate, that meant that they were fighting a losing battle from the get-go.

They compounded these strategic errors at a tactical level. President Obama granted leadership of the legislative agenda to his Congressional counterparts. That was a mistake. The November 2008 elections were about him, not the Congressional leadership. The Democratic take-over of both Congressional majorities was more a result of coat-tailing on the President’s popularity than on the intrinsic merits of Democratic candidates themselves. Obama had a mandate, and he had the political capital surplus to spend; Congress did not, and in fact remained one of the country’s most detested institutions even after his election. Thus, by delegating leadership on the legislative agenda to the likes of Pelosi and Reid (which he likely did in deference to his former senior colleagues), President Obama ceded his bully pulpit to the circus on the Hill. That gave the impression that he was weak and insecure, which in turn gave the Republicans space to go on the attack against “entrenched interests” and all the other failures of the DC-based “liberal elite.”

The tactical error was compounded by the choice of battles to commence with. Instead of focusing on mortgage relief and rescue for desperate homeowners, serious financial market reform, education opportunity enhancement, immigration policy adjustment and re-orientation of US military commitments abroad (among any number of policy areas), the President and Congress chose to address health care first. Although it is obviously needed given the deficiencies of the US private health care system, it was simply too contentious and big a problem to tackle at the onset given the image of Presidential lack of experience and his conciliatory nature. Democratic strategists may have believed that they had to spend the President’s political capital early so as to ensure its passage, but in fact taking that policy issue as the first order of business under Congressional leadership direction hamstrung the Democrats even if they succeeded in passing a watered-down version of health care reform that provides some level of universal benefit to all citizens.

Put another way: the last thing the American public wanted to hear at a time of deep recession and after the financial bail-outs of the banking and automobile industries was that more public money would be spent of health care and that future taxes would reflect that increased level of deficit spending. Compared to the billion dollar figures being bandied about with regard to health care reform, Obama’s “middle class tax cut” (for those earning US$250,000 or less) and tax rebate (amounting to $500 per household) were seen as negligible drops in the bucket and meaningless political sop thrown for opportunistic purposes. For those who had spent a lifetime of paying for private insurance, it also seemed be a case of the indolent, irresponsible and unmotivated being gifted, at taxpayer expense, benefits that they did not deserve. Once the Republican-conservative spin machine got a hold of the issue, the spectre of “socialised” medicine replete with “death panels,” lack of individual choice, limits on care, endless delays and assorted other deficiencies soon dominated public discourse regardless of Democrat attempts to clarify the issue.

The combination of these four factors–failure to head to the Left and carve out a distinct position, ceding the terms of political debate to the opposition, allowing Congress to set the legislative agenda and choosing to reform health care as the first priority–set the stage for the political train wreck that is the Democrat’s midterm election campaign. To that can be added a failure to realise early that Republican operatives are using the Tea Party movement as a Trojan Horse with which to re-gain political momentum and a return to power. Similarly, the White House chose to ignore rather than frontally confront the “Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist”  allegations until they were well entrenched in the public consciousness–a full twenty percent of the US electorate now believe that the President is one, the other, or all three. It is too late to bolt the door against such attacks.

Some argue that the Democrats are playing to lose because the inevitable gridlock that will follow from Tuesday’s vote will allow the President to paint the Republicans as do-nothing obstructionists without a real agenda for solving national problems. That could be true if the Republicans do not win the Senate as well as the House, but if they win both branches then they will have the ability to impose a legislative agenda that among other things will repeal the health care reforms and other aspects of the Democrat’s agenda that have been accomplished so far. That puts the ball in the President’s court because it forces him to exercise his veto in order to salvage his original program, which in turn casts him as the obstructionist during the two years leading into the 2012 presidential election.

The bottom line is that although the Republican-conservative opposition play extremely dirty, the Democrats have no one but themselves to blame for this impending election fiasco. If Clausewitz is correct in his assertion that war is politics by other means, than the reverse is equally true: politics is war by other means. The goal is to win, pure and simple, and that means that if the opponent is going to play dirty then the governing party must understand what it is up against and counter it decisively without equivocating about the niceties involved. Rather than understand this very simple logic, the Democrats returned to form, tried to play nicely to the center, tried to respect the separation of powers mythos that is ingrained in US political folklore, tried to be civil in the face of a disloyal opposition and tried to embark on big policy reforms before the the President and his new Congressional counterparts had fully moved into their offices. For their efforts they are going to get hammered on Tuesday.

Enemies like these

datePosted on 22:04, October 28th, 2010 by Lew

I’m getting used to being vilified by the orthodox Marxist left, such as in the latest round of debate with Chris Trotter and some of his commenters, and to an extent in the response by Scott Hamilton. I don’t mind all that much, but it’s rather aimless. The critique that I’m not orthodox enough, not a proper red; that my sense class consciousness is atrophied — it all misses the point somewhat. I’m not a socialist; never have been. I’m a liberal social democrat, with strong emphasis on the “democrat”.

I’m a trade unionist because of this commitment to democracy. Unions, properly run, are strongly democratic — and their democracy enhances the more usual parliamentary and representative forms which govern our society. The question in the AE case, the matter over which I disagree with Chris and Scott and the orthodox Marxists is: from what does a trade union derive its moral authority? From the democratic mandate granted it by the workers it represents and the extent to which its actions serve their interests, or from its ideological rectitude and adherence to Marxist doctrine? I’d argue that both are necessary; the movement’s activities must be informed by a class analysis, but fundamentally the union exists to enact the wishes of its membership. The job of union organisers and so on is to educate and motivate that membership to commit to class struggle. The argument Chris and Scott are making, as if it’s an irreducible truth of trade unionism, is that the ideological rectitude on its own is enough. The quality or value of a union’s actions must not be assessed or tested against their workers’ stated needs, they say; if whatever a self-declared union and its handful of activist representatives decides to do passes the Marxist sniff-test, then anyone who fails to fall into lockstep behind it is a scab, and mandate be damned. (I’m not sure they even believe this, really; I think there would be some things even the most die-hard socialists would balk at — which would mean we’re simply disagreeing over the merits of AE’s case, which I think is a much more useful argument to have. I posed a hypothetical question to this effect on Bowalley Road this morning, but have received no responses at the time of writing this.)

But falling automatically into lockstep behind a union’s actions without consideration of whether they’re any good, or whether they serve their industry’s stated needs is bad for society, and it’s dangerous for the unions.

In our liberal democratic society, the right for workers to join a trade union and bargain collectively derives from the democratic nature of union movements; the fact that they enact workers’ wishes. This is the basis of the strong and very legitimate democratic Marxist critique of corporatism; that businesses in a democratic society ought to be democratic. It is also one of the chief arguments deployed in unions’ defence, and it is a very good one in a social and political context where the idea of democracy occupies such a powerful symbolic position. Unions do not enjoy any legitimacy by virtue of their ideological rectitude; in fact, their commitment to Marxist ideological doctrine is a considerable disadvantage in terms of their survival. Because of this, the trade union which relinquishes its commitment to democracy also risks relinquishing its claim to legitimacy, and if trade unions as a whole start to cut corners on democracy, then the movement as a whole risks granting anti-union governments a pretext to weaken and outlaw unions on the basis that they don’t actually represent workers’ interests. This is quite apart from the points I made in my last post on this topic, to the effect that non-democratic institutions tend to make bad decisions because they lack robust internal processes for developing and enacting their agendas.

So my overarching problem with Actor’s Equity acting without a mandate is that they risk the legitimacy of the trade union movement at large. (I initially predicted, in comments at the Dim Post, that the fallout would be contained by the wider movement — how wrong I was.) I try never to give my allies a pass for incompetence. Doing so breeds more incompetence. I didn’t give Labour a pass for the Foreshore & Seabed Act and I’m not giving a pass to the māori party as they look to be supporting a similarly expropriative replacement bill. So there’s no way I’m going to overlook the real and serious damage caused to the trade union movement and the cause of workers’ rights by this upstart union who took excessive action without a mandate. They’ve done real and genuine harm to the trade union movement and they’ve made industrial relations — which should have been a Labour’s trump suit — an easy source of tricks for the government. And this at the very time the union movement was beginning to gather strength again! There was an anti-union protest on Labour Day — how much worse do things have to get? Sure, blame the Tory government, or the ‘right-wing media’ or the falsely-conscious running-dogs; and to an extent this is justified. The government must bear sole responsibility for the legislation they’re passing, for instance; the details of that bill cannot be blamed on AE. But AE provided them the cover to pass it without much controversy; and indeed, none of these agencies enjoyed the political and symbolic freedom to unleash the sort of anti-worker tirades they have in recent weeks until AE’s egregious overreach — all with the full blessing of Trotter and Hamilton, almost everyone writing and commenting at The Standard and all those orthodox Marxists who claim to be champions of the worker. With enemies like these, Key and his government — and their ideological fellow-travelers — have no need of friends.

L

Bananazelandia.

datePosted on 09:48, October 28th, 2010 by Pablo

There is a small island country in which, in spite of their avowedly private market-oriented ideology, government leaders have directly involved themselves in negotiations with foreign film makers in order to keep production of a film series on the islands. The foreign studio bosses threaten to take their production elsewhere; the famous director–a local boy made good– fumes and blames union organisers for raising production costs (in a film that is mostly based on computer animation and special effects rather than humans acting, in a country where the local currency is less than 80 cents of the US dollar). Although the film production is no long-term investment and will not bring employment stability or trickle down benefits beyond those connected to its production and its purported positive impact on tourism (supposedly because foreign tourists will come to the islands to see a movie set called “Hobbitown” in which gnomes abound), the government agrees to offer the foreign studio bosses NZ$100 million in tax and marketing breaks and to change local employment law so that actors are classified as contractors rather than employees while working on feature films (should the law apply to all actors this could well extend to TV, stage and radio actors working on local productions as well).

Although the film industry is currently an significant source of revenue for the country and has spawned a considerable technological base associated with it, it does not add to the long-term national development growth of the island state. Compared to core national industry, it is much like a diamond in a coal mine–a source of pride and joy but not a basis for long-term prosperity.

All of which is to say: foreign corporate masters involved in an industry that does not add long-term value to a nation’s economy have managed to get the island country’s leaders to bow before them in order to secure short term economic gain for a small local industry with limited direct ancilliary impact and a more hypothetical than concete follow-on revenue generation effect. To do so, not only was money offered to appease the foreign masters. The basic law of the land was changed at their behest as well.

Since the country has been engaged in a long-term debate about changing its national flag and its status relative to its colonial master, perhaps it is time to also consider changing its name.

Bananazelandia. Say it with a Spanish, French or Portuguese accent and it just rolls off the tongue.

The US as the new Greece.

datePosted on 12:33, October 23rd, 2010 by Pablo

Watching the lead up to what will be a major Republican and Tea Party comeback in the upcoming US midterm elections, and having spent an earlier part of the year in Greece, I cannot but help but be struck by the parallels between the two countries. This may seem crazy, but sometimes what is obvious is not necessarily apparent.

The US and Greece are saddled with immense debt, most of it public. Both have extremely large state bureacracies that consume an inordinate amount of the tax base. Both have lived, in their personal and public consumption, way beyond their means over the last two decades, riding the wave of financial sector excess and lving off real estate and other speculative bubbles that did not, in fact, significantly contribute to national productive rates.

In each case immediate past centre-right governments contributed to the false sense of security by allowing the financial sector to operate with considerable degrees of autonomy and lack of oversight, reduced taxes for the wealthiest sectors of the population and corporations, and spent money well in excess of state revenues. In Greece state expenditures went into a bloated welfare system that was designed to prop up living standards that are seen as a birthright of all Greeks; in the US, the excess state spending went into war. In both instances the center-right governments increased state spending and the public deficits that accompanied them. In both cases they were turned out at the polls in the past two years.

Center-left governments replaced the discredited right. They inherited unsustainable deficits that will take years to redress and embarked on economic reform programs that were designed to cut the public deficit and increase economic efficiency over the long term. In Greece this meant slashing the public workforce, decreasing public salaries and welfare benefits while offering a package of tax incentives to small and medium business so that they could innovate, expand and thereby take up the slack produced by reductions in the public workforce.

In the US the economic stimulus program was designed to prop up and revitalise at-risk major industries (the automobile and financial sectors in particular) while providing tax relief for 95 percent of the working population. A national health program was instituted that, even though watered down and more pro-business than pro-consumer and nowhere close to socialised medicine,  provides for minimum health coverage for the majority of the population. Selective regulation on the financial sector was legislated, although this worked more on the margins of the system rather than at its core. Military spending was cut at the corners, and in a number of cases companies that received financial bail-out packages have begun to re-pay their debts.  In effect, although in the US public spending increased over the short term with the stimulus and health care packages, the design is oriented towards lowering the overall public spending bill within five to ten years while maintaining a  disproportionate emphasis on “defense.” That is the American way.

In both instances some or most of the center-right opposition in the legislature supported the economic reform packages of the government, but backtracked when confronted by public reaction. In both cases that backtracking led them to move towards the zealot wing of their popular base. That has consequences.

The reason? In each case there was an immediate, reflexive and largely unthinking  public backlash against the reform measures. Following Greek protest tradition, often violent strikes and demonstrations have engulfed the country from the moment austerity measures were announced. Although the protests are led by unions and other elements of the agitational Left, the real beneficiaries of the crisis are the hard Right, who have seen an opportunity to engage in nationalist-populist demagogery in which “foreign interests,’ illegal migrants, “Communists” and a host of other suspected culprits are blamed for the country’s woes.

In the US attempts at reform have been met by a wave of right wing backlash among the mostly white middle classes, who also blame illegal migrants, “Socialists” and other purported “progressives” as well as atheistic liberal homosexual-enabling secular humanists for the decline of Empire. At public forums many vented their anger by calling for a “revolution” or at least the ovethrow of the Washington elite. Some of them turned up armed to make their point.  They have a movement not unlike the Greek ultra-nationalists. It is called the Tea Party.

What is striking about both hard right wing resurgences is that they stand to gain the most from upcoming elections simply by blaming the governing center left administrations without offering a plausible solution to the problems of the day and near future. Both want to return to something long gone. Both want lower, not more taxes, apparently not understanding that in the case of Greece that national pasttimes of tax avoidance, island vacation homes and reliance on the state for pensions, social security and universal health care are contradictory and incompatible. In the US the pejoratively labeled “Tea Baggers” apparently have not connected the dots between maintaining a massive military apparatus that consumes 6 percent of GDP, is fighting two wars of occupation and at least a dozen small irregular conflicts simultaneously, has a presence in 150 countries and deploys three carrier task forces comprised of 7 ships and 75 aircraft at sea at any one time (no other country can deploy even one), and the need for a substantial tax base. Nor can they see that the party that they support is the one that has the most extensive ties to the Wall Street giants that played loose with their money in the game of financial roulette known as the sub-prime lending market that has now come a cropper. Instead they rail against welfare queens and “illegals” stealing the jobs most Americans disdain.

In both countries the conscious anti-intellectualism of the Right is manifest.  They want simple solutions to complex problems, they want the solutions to benefit them without requiring any sacrifice, and they want it all to happen yesterday. Reflexively ignorant political champions lead the charge and rally the masses in each case.

Most of all, it is historical myopia, an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, the lack of acceptance of responsibility and the shifting of blame that ties the US and Greek public together in their rightwards march. Both cultures prefer to forget the immediate past that led to these tough times and instead focus on a mythical past in which the Nation was strong, proud and united in its demographic homogeneity and cultural mores. Both cultures believe that they are special and especially deserving because fortuitous circumstance determined that they were born Greek or American. Neither culture embraces the notion of individual and collective responsibility as a majority ethos anymore. Instead, the common approach is to blame others for individual failure and collective misfortune.  Both right wing movements have little to offer than hatred for central government elites, current reform policy, bankers of “dubious” persuasion and all the “others” who instigated the entire mess. Mutatis mutandis, there are faint echoes of interwar Europe in all of this.

That may be a basis for victory in any contemporary elections given the circumstances, but it is certainly no blueprint for national regeneration. History has repeatedly shown that national-populist lurches to the right produce more anomie and retrogression than progress. For the latter to occur, people will have to first take individual and collective responsibility about their role in the process of decline. Then they will have to accept the costs of redressing that decline which means that they will need to assume the burden of altered lifestyles no longer easily bought on the back of cheap credit, deficit spending and overinflated notions of national grandeur. They will then have to grin and bear it during the tough times so that their children and grandchildren will prosper under different conditions.

None of that is going to happen anytime soon.

Lessons from The Hobbit: more unionisation, not less

datePosted on 17:59, October 22nd, 2010 by Lew

The Hobbit saga has been an ugly but edifying lesson in the realities of how industrial action interacts with political posturing and national identity. My own view is that Actor’s Equity did their industry and their country — I would say ‘their membership’, but when they set this ball rolling they didn’t have one — an enormous disservice. Lacking a mandate and any legal standing, they undertook almost the worst possible course of action of calling an international SAG boycott. They attempted to hold a national icon and his nationally-iconic production to ransom at the apparent behest of an Australian union (the MEAA) with a history of this sort of aggressive mismanagement and who stands to gain from any reputational damage suffered by the New Zealand film industry. Their cause is worthy, but they picked the wrong fight with the wrong person at the wrong time, on the wrong basis, employing the wrong tactics, and did so without the support of their industry. Almost everything they could do to lose this battle, they did.

But too much has already been written on that topic, and I won’t add to it any further. The point I’d rather make is that the incompetence shown by AE in this dispute would never have thrived in a more robust industrial relations culture: that is to say, one in which union membership and participation was the norm rather than the exception, in which more workers had an understanding of what their union was there for and the union in question understood their industry’s needs and agenda better.

Fundamentally, the entire problem here is AE’s lack of a mandate: even leaving aside the fact that they had no legal standing as a NZ union until this time last week, the trouble is that they represent a tiny fraction of the actors who form a tiny fraction of those responsible for the production of any film, and yet they have the apparent ability to blacklist that entire industry (whom they don’t represent). Even the most ardent trade unionist can surely see the moral hazard here. All those who we’ve seen fronting AE have been the best-respected and most-established actors; actors whose careers aren’t in material danger regardless of the outcome of The Hobbit. But what of those actors who are genuinely struggling, whose faces don’t appear in tens of thousands of living rooms every Tuesday night, and who don’t top “best-of” lists? And what of the silent legions of drivers, designers, artists, labourers, riggers, electricians, carpenters and caterers who are the real motive engine behind the film industry? Are their needs well-served by the actions of a few prima donnas who represent them without their consent? Apparently not, which is why a thousand of them turned out to protest the actions of that unelected few. Orcs, Chris Trotter called them; useful idiots said Idiot/Savant.

To an extent it’s their fault for not being adequately organised to mount a counter-insurgency against AE’s hijack of their industry. And that’s why my suggestion is for film industry workers to arm themselves and prepare to fight for their needs. Whether it’s in separate unions by sector or a single, unified screen workers’ union doesn’t much matter, as long as there is strong and robust organisation behind it which elects leaders who hold a genuine mandate to speak for the real needs of their industry. Nature abhors a vaccuum, and the only way that a handful of pretty faces and household names with little or no industrial relations experience and an Australian carpetbagger with a reputation for mischief-making get to speak for an entire industry is when the alternative is nothing. Conventional wisdom — particularly from the government — is to de-unionise, and already the veiled threats about the consequences of a general strike during the 2011 Rugby World Cup are beginning. But de-unionisation at a time like this simply cedes the field. Efforts must be redoubled — not only to negotiate the sorts of concessions gained by Irish actors for collective bargaining among independent contractors, but to ensure that whoever claims to have a union mandate in future has the crowd with the torches and pitchforks following them, rather than chasing them.

L

Headed home, looking to contribute.

datePosted on 15:04, October 20th, 2010 by Pablo

Tomorrow evening I fly back to Auckland for the beginning of a phased return to NZ. I have some pending obligations and personal commitments in SE Asia so  after two months in NZ will be doing a long distance commute between NZ and SG until the middle of next year. But I have made the decision that it is time to permanently return to NZ and find a way to contribute in a non-academic capacity. To that end I am registering a NZ-based political risk, market intelligence and strategic analysis consultancy under the name Buchanan Strategic Advisors, Ltd.  As far as I can tell it is the first of its kind in NZ: a consultancy solely dedicated to international and comparative industry and market analysis, political context assessment and security threat evaluation. I will also focus on labour market characteristics, industry-political relations, futures forecasting (both strategic and sector-specific) and ethical and sustainable investment. The firm will have a public outreach component that will provide expert commentary to general and professional audiences as well as the media on matters of contemporary international import. As readers may know, I have long been concerned about the lack of strategic vision, both in its long-term and in-depth dimensions, exhibited by NZ public and private entities when it comes to foreign affairs. This is my way of helping to fill that analytic and policy gap.

It may seem counter-intuitive but I believe that basing the firm in NZ enhances its “brand” because of NZ’s reputation and image as a fair, transparent, honest and autonomous country, We may know that in fact NZ does not quite live up to its image in many respects, but having lived in nine countries I believe that it comes the closest to doing so. Since we operate in an age of telecommunications and rapid transport, I do not see NZ’s size and location as a major disadvantage to providing the intellectual value added services embodied in the firm. To the contrary, I see the firm as an ideal interface between NZ and foreign partners, complementing and reinforcing existing diplomatic and business networks.

I have been fortunate to have a number of Kiwis encourage me in this venture and have some leads on business opportunities. The real test is to see if public and private entities in NZ will pay for such services. I believe that it fills a niche for actors that do not have in-house expertise on specific subjects or whom do not wish to pay the full costs of maintaining a full-time, in-house political risk capability. But I also have offered this type of service for free to several NZ entities, only to have them baulk at continuing receiving my analysis and opinion on a fee-paying basis (this includes some specialised security agencies that clearly lack in-house capabilities in the areas that I am competent to discuss). Thus the real make-or-break issue is whether private firms and public agencies are willing to pay for this type of specialised advice. The next year or so will tell.

In any event, I am thrilled to be heading back home. I get to reclaim my house in the Waitakeres and breathe clean air (the Indonesian smoke haze in SG at the moment is at dangerous levels), feel the nighttime silence of the bush, and reacquaint myself with friends. That will make the pressures of setting up the firm all the more bearable. It may be a challenge after so many years of doing full-time academic work and part-time consulting, but if there is an ideal place in which to undertake a new venture like this, Aotearoa is my choice.

A press release on the establishment of the firm can be found here.

Coming this Fall: the Battle for America’s Soul

datePosted on 09:17, October 20th, 2010 by Lew

Imagine that title in scary-movie-narrator-voice. Via Pascal’s Bookie, a simply magnificent piece of propaganda from Personhood USA.

This two-minute ad is superbly done. It frames Colorado’s 1967 abortion law as the beginning of the end, and Amendment 62 in Colorado, which aims to declare that personhood begins at the moment of fertilisation, as the beginning of the battle to save America. Amendment 62 is up for the vote at the mid-term elections in November.

What we have here is clearly not the work of amateurs, nor of itinerant cranks in trailer parks, as many (including myself) have mocked the Tea Party movement. It draws together all the conventional Tea Party wisdom about what’s wrong with America into powerfully truthy narrative: start with a misappropriated Jefferson quote; follow up with Semitic “men in black robes” who hate truth, justice and the freedom and “legislate from the bench”; portray the fringe radical rump of conservative white folk as a valiant oppressed minority group; intolerant millennial-cult hypervigilance as the American Way; Obamacare as morality and human life being bought and sold as a commodity (oh, the irony!); and most crucially, Obama himself as the Grim Reaper, the lynchpin of it all, with the caption “Then the Angel of Death arrived, and Hell followed with him”. The whole thing is capped with fireworks and the Statue of Liberty, a Daisy-esque girl fading to black and a fist-pumping don’t-tread-on-me baby. And the soundtrack really just speaks for itself.

The whole thing is absolutely barking. In the cold light of day it’s nothing more than a Dan Brown plot. It’s fevered stuff, wound up to eleven to inflame passion and suppress reason. But that’s the whole point: this ad is basically the movie trailer for the upcoming battle for America’s soul, coming soon to a screen near you. Just sit back, let it wash over you, and marvel at what that country has become.

L

The Perils of the Dark Side

datePosted on 21:29, October 19th, 2010 by Lew

Via 3 News journalist Patrick Gower on Twitter, the news that Pita Sharples is the keynote speaker at the Destiny Church annual conference this Labour weekend. Concerning news.

Except I’m not sure it’s completely accurate. According to the Destiny press release, Sharples is the keynote speaker at the Friday night Awards & Recognition event which kicks the conference off, while (who else) Bishop Brian Tamaki is the “keynote preacher” for the weekend-long event. I think this is an important distinction: it’s appropriate for Sharples, with a lifetime of support for Māori excellence, to be present for an event which celebrates achievements in “business, management, the health and social services sectors, Pacific arts, family breakthrough and contribution to at-risk youth” for a large and largely Māori organisation, featuring pasifika and kapa haka performances to boot.

But that’s quite a different thing to lending the imprimatur of his status as the co-leader of a government party and Minister of Māori Affairs to the shady cultishness of Destiny’s main event. This is not to say that Sharples should shun Destiny outright: after all, as a kaupapa Māori politician he does represent some of the group’s members, and many non-members who share some of their values. Such ‘Dark sides’ of support exist for almost every party; the Greens have their crazed dark-green environmentalists; Labour has the blue-collar rednecks about whom I’ve written previously; ACT has mostly sucked away the white-collar rednecks (and doesn’t mind admitting it) from National, but the Nats still have the worst offenders among the farming lobby and many of the least-savoury Christian sects (much of Destiny undoubtedly included). For all that they might be abhorrent to some, these are all legitimate interest groups and — within reasonable bounds — they must be tolerated and their needs entertained in a free society. Their members have as much right to democracy as anyone else, but (as with any fringe group) politicians must be extremely circumspect about the type and quantity of support that they grant.

There is a danger that Pita Sharples will be seen to pander too much to Destiny; and indeed a danger that he does pander to them. The māori party paddles turbulent waters at present; having compromised very heavily on the Marine & Coastal Area/Takutai Moana legislation to replace the Foreshore & Seabed Act, and now finds that Faustian bargain under attack both from the ACT party without and from Hone Harawira within. Despite the former, and probably because of the latter, they have been very quiet lately. Although they — ironically — share some common ground with Labour on the Takutai Moana bill, there remains a very large gulf between them; not least because Labour’s own conference signals a much more classical materialist direction than that which has previously obtained. Sharples and Turia are no fools, and can see that remaining a client of Key’s pragmatic-instrumentalist National party is a hiding to nothing — even with the ACT party likely out of the picture after the next election, the likelihood that they can maintain common cause once the other has outlived its immediate use seems slender. So they feel like they need another support base, and it must be very tempting to team up with a charismatic leader such as Brian Tamaki at a time like this.

It would be ruinous to do so. Most obviously, this is because outside of his most loyal followers — his 700 Sons — Tamaki’s is an illusory sort of strength, based on the smoke and mirrors of a showman’s art rather than upon deep loyalty and conviction. This much was clearly shown in the 2005 and 2008 elections, where the Destiny Party (and later the Family Party with Destiny’s express endorsement) failed to come close to success, due largely to a lack of internal cohesion. Destiny has failed to demonstrate — even at the height of its profile five years ago, under a government largely hostile to it — that it could mobilise a meaningful number of votes.

The second, and by far the more important reason, is the abhorrent nature of the policies and principles Destiny stands for — crude Daddy State authoritarian Christian conservatism with a brownish tinge; illiberal, intolerant, homophobic and misogynistic, quite opposed to where Aotearoa is heading. And that’s to say nothing of the corruption and appalling social dysfunction endemic to the evangelical cults of which Destiny is an example. The sorts of scandals which currently rock the church of Tamaki’s own “spiritual father” Eddie Long in the USA must undoubtedly also exist within Destiny. This is essentially the same package of qualities which turned the Exclusive Brethren to political poison for Don Brash’s National party in 2005. Because of this deep and fundamental disconnect, and New Zealanders’ innate distrust of folk who think they’re ‘exclusive’ (especially if they’re brown, wealthy or religious), the reality is that an alliance between the māori party and Destiny would likewise be poison, and would probably circumscribe any future prospects of working with either of the two main parties, not to mention utterly ruling out the Green party — with whom the māori party shares the most policy in common.

So there is no easy course for the māori party in the long term; the swell is heavy and the winds both strong and changeable. But to extend the nautical metaphor, Destiny is a reef; not an island. Better that they paddle on by their own course and seek more solid ground.

L

Performance art

datePosted on 20:24, October 18th, 2010 by Lew

Listening to Tao Wells’ stone-cold crazy performance on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel this afternoon (audio, starts at about 19:30) it’s pretty clear that the whole thing is simply a continuation of The Beneficiary’s Office, his performance art project.

I’m not sure what the endgame is, beyond driving publicity for Wells and ‘The Wells Group’, the self-styled PR agency running The Beneficiary’s Office. But fundamentally this is the only explanation for the character who fronted The Panel. The studied eccentricity of his characterisation and rhetoric — the Leninesque styling and cheap, ill-fitting suit; the suggestion that he might replace Paul Henry on Breakfast, using the scandal du jour as a springboard for publicity; the incoherent, aggressive, entitled, self-indulgent indignant victimhood of his media presence — he is exploiting the fourth wall illusion, the audience’s naïve impression that they’re separate from the performance; that the show stops at the proscenium arch. To do so Wells is reading from the big book of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. His project is a little bit of inchoate Tea Party wingnuttery turned back on an issue so close to the wingnuts’ hearts that they can’t see the mockery in it. No matter that his actual argument doesn’t bear the slightest bit of rational scrutiny and is all but completely obscured by his outrageous delivery — this isn’t the point. The point is to suck people in and involve them in the performance by lighting the flame of their hatred. To make them attack the tar-baby. As Palin’s own idol Ann Coulter said, paraphrasing Joseph Göbbels and George Orwell in her diatribe Slander: “Any statement whatever, no matter how stupid, any ‘tall tale’ will be believed once it enters into the passionate current of hatred.”

So to everyone who’s found themselves incandescent with righteous fury, uttered slogans like “the world doesn’t owe you a living!” or called for the disestablishment of Creative NZ or defended Wells and his absurdist position — this includes the media who’ve covered it from the ‘benefit scandal’ angle; obviously WINZ, who’ve cut his benefit; and most notably David Farrar and the KBR, whose response has been nothing short of magnificent — you’re part of the show. You have been trolled.

So as far as that goes, well done, Tao Wells.

L

System re-equilibration on a global scale.

datePosted on 16:50, October 18th, 2010 by Pablo

I was fortunate to have been taught by the father of modern international systems theory (Morton Kaplan) while in graduate school. Although it has fallen out of theoretical fashion to neo-realist and constructivist arguments, from time to time events conspire to remind me of its utility as a broad interpretive framework for understanding international relations. Once such moment is now.

One of the axioms of international systems theory is that the international system will always seek equilibrium, and that this most often comes about by achieving a balance of power between rival state actors. That balance can be bi-polar, multi-polar or even unipolar, although the latter is inherently unstable if all other actors do not accept the moral authority of the so-called “hegemonic” power. In a modern world comprised of nearly 200 nation-states with a multitude of divergent ideological views, to which are added a host of non-state actors both armed and unarmed, unipolar systems are inevitably unstable and short-lived as states move to counter-balance the hegemon. 

One such moment is the post Cold War period. Although it initially brought to the fore the US as the world’s sole superpower, a situation of unipolar dominance that lasted almost twenty years, the current international context has seen a move towards a new multi-polar balance of power that is different than the US dominated status quo as well as the tight bipolar balance of power that characterised the Cold War. Much of the move has been precipitated by China’s emergence as a global power, but it is also fueled by the rise of the other members of the BRIC  collection: Brazil, India and Russia. Although these countries are leading the push for a new multi-polar world, other states have joined the bandwagon, most notably Turkey, Iran, Australia and South Africa. To this emergent geopolitical landscape  can be added the shifting alliance perspectives of countries like Japan, Indonesia, Venezuela and the arc of “Stans” made up of former Soviet Republics along Russia’s broad southern flank. Then there are the status quo powers, all of whom have to re-calibrate their foreign policies and strategic perspectives as a result of the shifts within and around them: the US, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Israel and Mexico, most notably.

The current international moment is therefore one of transition, with the transition marked by a rapid increase in new alliance formation and increased fluidity of international exchange across physical borders.

As an example, consider that both the US and Russia have moved to reaffirm military and diplomatic ties with India as a hedge against Chinese advances in Pakistan and Central Asia. Likewise, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have all rekindled defense ties with the US as a result of increasingly aggressive Chinese power projection in the East and South China Seas. China has worked hard to carve out a sphere of influence in Sub-Saharan Africa as both a source of raw materials and as a potential forward power projection location, something that it is also in the process of doing in Latin America and the Western Pacific basin. Brazil has opened up ties with Russia and Iran, as has Venezuela. Venezuela has worked for over a decade on creating a so-called “Bolivarian bloc” as a counter-weight to US influence. Iran has aggressively supported Hamas and Hezbollah as proxies in the anti-Israel fight, something that was made amply evident in Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon last week. It has also materially and financially supported Shiia dissident groups in the Sunni Arab world and exerted its influence in post-Saddam Iraq, positions it would not have been capable of or dared to do a decade ago. Germany has worked to reaffirm its position as the leader of Europe while moving to strengthen ties with Russia, leaving France and the UK working to counter Germany’s dominance by reaffirming ties with both old and new European partners. South Africa has worked to expand its circle of economic partners beyond its traditional colonial ties while asserting its position as Africa’s emerging giant. Wracked by financial crisis and declines in productivity, Southern Europe has increasingly looked to the East for developmental support. While continuing to retain close defense ties with the US, Turkey has asserted new found diplomatic independence by challenging Israel and improving ties with Iran while establishing new ones with Brazil.

The pattern of realignment is broad and deep and not confined to great and middle powers, new and old. Small states are also in the process of redefining their alliance commitments and diplomatic priorities, although not always in a coherent manner informed by a long-term strategic perspective (as is the case with NZ, which can be contrasted with Singapore or Chile when it comes to its lack of strategic vision). And then there are the non-state actors working the interstices of the nation-state system in ways that serve to both uphold and undermine it.

The sketch outlined above does not do justice to the full measure of the geopolitical shifts now underway. I have used it to illustrate the point that the international system is in flux in pursuit of a new multi-polar balance of power in which cross-cutting and overlapping alliance commitments, some new and some rooted in previous alliance structures, will generate a new power equilibrium within the global community. That may take another decade or  more to fully materialise, but in the interim it is worth noting one last axiom of international systems theory: it is the times in between equilibrating balances of power that are the most prone to conflict, and the intensity of those conflicts during period of international systems transition is directly related to their impact on core national interests of the actor’s involved. In a world with ascendant and descendant powers vying to influence the shape of the emerging international system at a time when irregular armed actors ply their trade on a global scale, it is safe to say that an era of world peace is still a ways off from becoming reality.  It therefore might behoove foreign policy elites in countries big and small to re-familiarise themselves with international systems theory as an analytic guide to the context in which they frame their diplomatic, military-strategic and economic decision-making. It should not be the only tool that they use, but it is part of the decision-maker’s conceptual workbox that although long neglected, appears to have particular utility at the present moment.

123Next