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What we are expected to believe

datePosted on 07:48, May 24th, 2016 by Lew

In recent months I have become increasingly concerned at the state of bullshit in this country. Bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt famously wrote, is distinguished not by its intentionally negative truth value (those are lies) but its absence of intentional truth value, or as Frankfurt terms it, “indifference to how things really are”. In the democratic context, this is the generally low-level governmental pabulum that we are expected to believe because the full truth is unavailable to those from whom we demand it (more on that later), or because there are more or less legitimate reasons why it cannot be conveyed.

Bullshit and its proliferation

I am concerned because the standard of bullshit that we are expected to believe from the government has declined. Bullshit is eternal — it existed before Key and will persist after him — but I am convinced that it wasn’t generally this bad under Clark. I may be biased in this regard, but I accept we were invited to believe some articles of truly egregious bullshit, such as that Taito Phillip Field was merely helping out a friend, or the 21st Century’s most magnificent local example of bipartisan bullshit, that the Ngāti Apa verdict would result in Māori owning all the beaches. But in general the bullshit we were offered was at least plausible. That is, we generally did not have to stretch too far to believe that those in charge did in fact believe what they were telling us to be something approximating how things really are.

That an official government source should believe this is a pretty low bar. But in the past few weeks, the Key government has invited us to believe a number of articles of bullshit that they themselves cannot possibly believe, including but not limited to the following:

  • That the Prime Minister, the former head of global foreign exchange for Merrill Lynch who in 2005 said that New Zealand should become “the Jersey of the South Pacific”, does not know how overseas trusts in places like the Cayman Islands, Panama and New Zealand work.
  • That the Minister of Health, a former GP and health sector business consultant, does not think the quality of hospital food has declined as a result of cost-cutting he has forced upon the Southern DHB.
  • That the head of the Ministry of Primary Industries says there is no problem with fish being illegally dumped at sea, when internal documents from within his own department contain proof that such dumping is “widespread”, and further, that the contradiction between these two positions is “absolutely not a cover-up”.
  • That the Prime Minister thinks homeless people should see WINZ, when WINZ routinely refuse to deal with anyone who doesn’t have an address.
  • That putting those homeless people in $1300pw rental accomodation, the cost of which they must repay at a rate of $10-$20 per week for decades to come, is the best solution that the Ministry of Social Development can come up with, notwithstanding its annual budget of $24 billion and hundreds of qualified staff whose job it is to work out solutions to problems like this.

Surely nobody is credulous enough to believe even the first of these. But that is what we are expected to do: to march along with the pretence that the government is not simply making things up to keep people from becoming angry about matters we have a right to be angry about. While it is not clear that all these are pure, canonical examples (some probably contain actual lies, others possibly honest obliviousness), it is clear that these cases were articulated without due regard to how things really are. They are bullshit.

What’s more, this is purposeless bullshit, deployed for trivial tactical reasons by a government which, it appears, is indifferent to the link between what we are expected to believe and how things really are.

How we know it is bullshit

In the most obvious cases, the bullshit needs no proof. A senior Merrill Lynch banker knows what overseas trusts are for, and the Prime Minister’s wide-eyed protestations of innocence are manifest bullshit. In other cases the bullshit comes from the pretence that things are not as bad as they seem, such as in the case of the food at Dunedin hospital, which Jonathan Coleman pronounced “standard kiwi fare” while patients refused to eat it, instead bringing their own food or going hungry, and while the DHB’s doctors are considering legal action to force a change. In yet other cases the bullshit fills the gap between the endeavours which have been claimed and those that have actually been made to improve a situation — such as for emergency housing, which was termed “incoherent, unfair and unaccountable” in an internal MSD review last winter, but which has not been fixed. Whatever the cause of emergency accommodation problem, the claim that the government is doing all it can to resolve it is clearly bullshit. In yet other cases, bullshit begets bullshit, such as when the head of MPI’s bullshit is revealed by the leak of an internal report, prompting the Minister to aver that there is no cover-up.

At first glance it seems that these are straightforward cases of lying — that is, that the heads of MSD and MPI are perfectly aware that they have misled the public as to these matters. But it is likely that those doing the bullshitting are themselves being bullshitted, or they could, if they chose, learn how things really are but have not done so, the lack of which knowledge means they unavoidably produce bullshit when called to speak.

To explain this, we must consider organisational dynamics. In 2008 computer scientist Bruce F Webster wrote a brief treatise on The Thermocline of Truth, “a line drawn across the organizational chart that represents a barrier to accurate information”. (Webster’s context is large IT projects, but the corporatisation of government means the same dynamics are to some extent useful to this context too.) He identified four factors:

  1. Lack of automated, objective and repeatable metrics that can measure progress.
  2. IT engineers tend to be optimists. (In government, we might substitute policy analysts.)
  3. Managers like to look good and to give good news, because
  4. Upper management tends to reward good news and punish bad news, regardless of the actual truth content. Honesty in reporting problems or lack of progress is seldom rewarded; usually it is discouraged, subtly or at times quite bluntly.

So while the Social Housing Minister may well have been told of the review last year, this does not mean she read it in full or was substantively briefed on the implications of the policy, much less that she comprehended it all. The government’s relentless Pollyanna routine and commitment to achieving a surplus, and the concomitant constraints on new spending and general disdain for the wellbeing of the poorest New Zealanders shown across the government means that the Social Housing Minister is incentivised to not bring the matter to wider attention, which a real solution would require. That being so, she is incentivised to know as little about it as possible, so that if questioned she can simply bullshit, rather than having to admit that she was aware of the problem but did nothing. Frankfurt cites this maxim in On Bullshit: “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.”

[Update: At least, this is what the Social Housing Minister tried to do in this case. But she failed, and ended up correcting herself before Question Time today. As Alex Coleman said, she tried to bullshit but ended up lying and corrected the error (with more bullshit). So it goes.]

This sort of thing is sometimes framed as the government or the minister having “other priorities” which, refreshingly, is not bullshit.

Bullshit is the enemy of democracy

But the truth will out. Even if we do not agree that policy analysts are optimists (I accept that this is pretty dubious), it only takes one or two who are willing to risk their position to bring an end to the bullshit. In two of the cases I cited above, we are only able to plumb the bullshit’s depth because internal documents revealing how things really are have been leaked, enabling a comparison to be made between that and what we are expected to believe. It turns out that where something greater than the survival of an IT project is at stake, some people will take action to blow the whistle on departmental or ministerial intransigence. This may emerge from a commitment to a certain political or policy agenda, intra-governmental power games, or honest, decent professional frustration. But whistleblowing recognises that democratic systems thrive on openness, truth and accountability, of which excessive bullshit is the eternal foe.

Whistleblowing, which Danah Boyd calls the new civil disobedience, and other anti-bullshit measures have become profoundly important to both global and New Zealand politics. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Rawshark, the Panama Papers leaker, and the unheralded sources within MSD and MPI all provide a check to governmental systems whose connection to how things really are is increasingly incidental. Boyd concludes:

If the rule of law is undermined and secrecy becomes the status quo, it becomes necessary for new civil disobedience tactics to emerge. And, more than the content of the leaks, this is what I think that we’re watching unfold.

The stakes are lower in New Zealand, but the principles remain. There is a long tradition of protecting and celebrating whistleblowers and other civil disobedients for exercising their consciences, and this tradition must be preserved. Incompetence, intransigence, and the cynical use of bullshit such as identified here are considerably more damaging to democracy than principled, non-bullshitty ideological initiatives, because at least with those we can see clearly what we are getting. If the government were to baldly state that, yes, New Zealand is an international tax haven and these are the benefits of being so; or that homeless people are not really a priority; or that fish being dumped overboard is simply a regrettable cost of production, then at least we would be well-placed to decide whether those were policies which we could support. It does not do so, because the political costs would be too great, and seeks to avoid those costs by way of bullshit. Whistleblowers and leakers require them to pay at least some of the costs of their intransigence. This is just.

The electoral risks of taking the piss

Finally, the problem with bullshit on this scale is that people in a democracy may come to rely on what they are expected to believe as a substitute for how things really are. People can usually tell when the two do not accord, but only with regard to factors that directly effect them. The poor will recognise bullshit regarding poverty, and generalise from that. Environmentalists will recognise bullshit regarding, say, the health of the oceans, and generalise from that. But in the absence of non-bullshit information, people’s rationalisations are often scarcely more useful than the half-recognised bullshit from which they emerge. As a consequence people tend to factionalise around the most compelling purveyors of bullshit-alternatives, which promotes epistemic closure and contributes to radicalisation and polarisation such as is evident in the US Presidential nomination race currently underway.

At least one state has weaponised bullshit in service of its ruling regime, and because of this Putin’s Russia is probably the most prodigious emitter of bullshit in the world today (though the other superpowers are not so far behind as they might think). Putin’s command of bullshit is so great that there now exists no democratic threat to his rule.

That is not true in New Zealand. Aside from the fact that we are not nearly so far gone, the long-term success of more or less bullshit-reliant governments led by both Clark and Key suggests that bullshit persists in government by the consent of the bullshitted. We tolerate a certain amount of bullshit, and we can often forgive its emitters, subject to one condition: that they do not take the piss.

While bullshit is ubiquitous, its current standard is, I think, too egregious for people to put up with. The government’s continuing reliance on bullshit could come off as disdain for the intelligence of the electorate, as Clark and Cullen’s did in their final term, when they told us that the Auditor-General was wrong about Labour’s misuse of taxpayer funds for its 2005 pledge card. One of Key’s great strengths is his ability to present mid-level bullshit as being pretty plausible, but the sort of disdain for the electorate noted above seems new. If people begin to reflect that the government is taking the piss, and ask themselves “what kind of fools do they take us for?” the results could be more politically damaging than any amount of ordinary incompetence or policy failure.

Not Quite But Getting There

datePosted on 15:11, May 23rd, 2016 by E.A.

It seems that Labour might have finally gotten the memo about getting it’s A into G but perhaps not quite digested the content. Still it’s a start. The last month has seen a steady stream of both Labour and Little in the media, highlighting issues in the electorate and proposing solutions (Panama papers, housing, hotel deals, house prices, fishing quotas etc)

National continues to say that is nothing but “slogans” which is rich coming from them but let’s put the bitterness aside for the moment and have a bit more of a look at the situation.

On my first post about Labour I referred to them needing to come up with something new and that trying the same old policy routine was not going to win them the election from an entrenched National. A few weeks ago I noted that Andrew Little needed to be on the attack if he and the party was actually going make traction in the media and with the electorate.

The rationale behind these two points is simple and my “scouring” of both the mainstream media in NZ and the blogsphere has turned up similar sentiments, the key points of which are that Labour needs to get back to its real roots to atone for the heinous betrayal of 1984 and that a dug in National wont be giving up points easy so Labour needs to take the initiative and hone its policy and pre-election stance through trial by fire rather than more party retreats.

In effect its fat camp, a makeover and a whole new wardrobe for Labour and the effects may have already started to show but I have heard and read several people slag the whole thing off as pointless and a waste of time.

There is some truth to the assertion that it’s too early yet to really see a change in Labour, so far its policy platforms/ideas are still just not hitting the nerve with the electorate but the party seems to be putting out more press releases about the state of affairs in NZ and linking the government to it and that’s a start.

The idea is less about scoring points against National, although a few would be nice, but rather get the party name back in the media and start positioning itself again as the true party of the opposition.

But here is where I would be earning my money if I was a party spin doctor. So far the prescriptions are standard and predictable (ie get the name out more, provide alternatives etc) but the real reason for getting out and about in the media is that it starves National of air and either forces it to burrow deeper into its bunker or come out and fight on core issues or risk having Labour take over the narrative.

And it’s here where a well-planned and prepared policy and media ambushes would work wonders. The current state of New Zealand is full of low hanging fruit just begging for a solution to the problem of the day. National has had eight years in power and it’s clear that nothing is getting better. It’s also clear that Labour has started to think like that and started to gear its message along those lines. But it’s not enough.

The race to November 2017 is not a short sprint and National has banked on the long haul, saving its shots for a John Key led media blitz in the actual campaigning phase. This makes sound sense if Labour wallows in apathy and can’t get out of its own funk as National just has to play it safe and compare itself to Labour to win the prize.

This won’t work if Little and Labour go and stay on the offensive from here until December 2017 but to make this work requires more than just a slew of media releases and trotting out the same old arguments (and MPs) as before.

The key factor in this is Labour shedding all its 1984 to 2016 baggage and emerging anew from the cocoon of policy it has woven itself into and to do this means that the party has to re-cross the Rubicon of sorts and return to ideological roots, albeit with a 21st century spin.

And to return to my original point it looks like Labour has started a charm offensive by running a range of media attacks on National but without the bigger ideological transformation National can continue to say that it’s just slogans because that’s all it will be.

Little does look to be getting some stones with his standing by his comments about hotel deals in Niue (although if you read through his statements you can see the lawyer in him inserting the escape clause at the end) and various senior MPs appearing in the media attacking this and that of govt policy.

It’s an encouraging start but it’s just a start and this race to November next year will require something special to keep the momentum going and to begin wresting back those wayward Labour voters and that is the monumental policy/ideology shift required to sustain the party for the long haul. In short a swift step away from the center and back to the Left.

It’s easy to see why the party has balked at this suggestion in the past but the 1984 to 2016 period has been poison to the party and ammunition for National every time Labour opens its mouth to point out how bad things are under the current government.

The vital point in this whole plan is to differentiate itself from National in every way shape and form, no more squabbling over the scraps of the middle voter demographic, which is now beginning to wither and die anyway under National Policy, but instead a return to easily identifiable core values which come pre-packed with a message and a meaning that is in opposition to everything National stands for.

And the messages have, for most part, avoided Key and gone for Nationals weakness, its bloody awful polices and record across the board with its stewardship of NZ which is key (no pun intended) to defeating National.

This is clever as if they dont fight Key head on, but make National wheel out its golden boy to defend on all and any issues it will take the shine off his royal behind between now and polling day and prep the ground for the whole new message that Labour should be unveiling in the next few months as there have been indications here and there and Labours new general secretary, Andrew Kirton, dropped some tantalising words in the Listener a while back which sounded like there were bigger plans afoot.

This strategy has some other benefits as its will not only starve National of air but it will also do the same to both the Greens and NZ First. If there is any chance of Labour/Winston coalition Labour will have to be the biggest dog in the yard come polling day, not after, and that only comes from being the big dog, picking fights and scrapping it out in public, the the media and not just the benches with all and any challengers.

It’s a risk, I admit, but the issues that bedevil Labour will remain, if not get worse, if they lose this election and by the time the 2020 election comes round could be way too late to salvage the party. It’s the same dilemma National face once John Key decouples from the party

So if Labour has its eyes set on getting the gold in November next year it’s going to have to take things to the next level. My concern is that just as it’s getting its mojo back the party will hold there and try and run a half-baked policy platform through the election and get beaten with predictable results.

 

Bernie the spoiler.

datePosted on 13:39, May 19th, 2016 by Pablo

Things are getting interesting on the Democratic side of the US presidential primaries. Although Hillary Clinton is on pace to win the nomination, Bernie Sanders continues to dog her steps with wins that keep him, if not within striking distance of securing the nomination himself, close enough in delegate count and popular support to narrow the gap between them to the point that she cannot claim a decisive mandate as the nominee. That is important because if the trend continues, and especially if he can stay close or win in California in early June, he can arrive at the convention armed with demands that will have to be met if he is to throw his support behind her in the general election. There is already talk of him running as an independent (which is what he was until he entered the Democratic primary). That would prove disastrous for the Clinton campaign and could turn the presidential race into a mirror image of two divided major parties having candidates from within their ranks running as spoilers against their convention nominees.

Let us be very clear on one thing: Bernie is right when he says that the Democratic nomination process is stacked against him. Between interest group super delegates whose loyalty is pledged to Clinton regardless of primary results to the closed primary process itself, there has been concerted effort by Democratic party bosses to keep his numbers down by denying independents the right to vote and counter-balancing the popular vote with super delegate selections. He has, quite frankly, been cheated on more than one occasion and that does not even take into account the more underhanded tactics used against him by the Democratic National Committee.

This spilled over recently in the Nevada Democratic convention, where a pro-Clinton state party chairperson overruled Sanders supporter’s motions and sat Clinton delegates rather than those pledged to Bernie. The convention descended into chaos and the chairperson, a woman, was inundated with vicious misogynistic physical threats mainly from the so-called “Bernie Bros,” presumably angry young men. Although Sanders issued a one line sentence condemning violence in a three paragraph statement about that convention, the bulk of it was dedicated to highlighting the underhanded moves made by the chairperson and her minions. He followed that with a victory speech after the Oregon primary (which he won handily) in which he remained defiant, belligerent and determined to take his campaign to the convention. He does not appear to be in the mood for reconciliation with Ms. Clinton.

Needless to say, Democratic Party leaders, Clinton supporters and many liberals are freaking out over this. They see Sanders as a sore loser given that he knew what he was getting into when he joined the party last year in order to run for the nomination. They see his candidacy as interfering with the streamlined selection process that was supposed to result in a unified consensus backing Clinton. More importantly, they see his intransigence and talk of a third party run as handing the keys to the Oval Office to Donald Trump, especially given that some Republican Party luminaries are lining up behind the Orange Crush as a matter of partisan duty regardless of what the consequences may be should he become president. In fact, however reluctantly, the Clinton haters within the GOP and their media surrogates appear to be coalescing behind Trump at the same time that the fractures within the Democratic Party are getting more pronounced. No wonder Democrats are freaking.

I am less concerned than my liberal US friends about this because I think that Sanders is playing his cards correctly. The reason is because I think that what he is playing is a variant of the “moderate-militant” strategy. A moderate-militant strategy is one where a militant objective is announced as a first negotiating point and pursued until an opposing actor makes moderate concessions to the militant. Rather than the militant goals, the real intent is to secure moderate gains. The militant starting point is just a negotiating ploy designed to force the opposing side to move towards it in the hope of securing an agreement.

In the Sanders version, the strategy is to run his campaign on “socialist” principles all the way to the convention. By playing hardball and not wavering before it, he forces the Clinton camp to accept the fact that without him they cannot win and with his supporters opposed they will certainly lose the general election. If Sanders arrives at the convention armed with a strong contingent of delegates in spite of all the manoeuvres against him, he can threaten to tell his supporters to either not vote or cast their ballots against her in the general election. In that case it is very likely that Clinton will concede on important issues and incorporate them into her policy platform before she is declared the nominee. This decision will be made easier by the GOP partisan consolidation around Trump, which brings closer to reality the heretofore unimaginable prospect of his presidency. Given her own negatives, she can no longer rely on loathing of Trump as a guarantee of a defensive vote turnout against him. She needs Bernie more than he needs her, and his playing tough all the way to the convention is a way of underscoring that point.

The worst thing that Sanders can do is concede or pull out of the race before the convention. Were he to do so he would lose any bargaining position he might have had at the convention because for the militant-moderate strategy to work it must be held steadfast until the other side makes a conciliatory move. Given their differences, including opposing views on whether to embrace corporate reform and accept special interest political financing among many other things (such as the US position on Israel-Palestine), it would be a waste of all the time, resources and effort he and his supporters have put into his campaign to abandon it before they have a chance to make their case at the common gathering. Instead, the best bet for his voice being heard strongly at the convention is to press on all the way to it, and then some.

Under no circumstances should Sanders accept Clinton’s assurances on key policy issues in return for his quitting the race and throwing his support to her. I would not trust the DNC and Clinton camp as far as I could throw them. Instead, he must make a condition of his support that the party write in the concessions to his policy demands into the presidential campaign platform adopted at the convention. It may not make for an airtight guarantee once she is elected but it will be much better than relying on her good faith that what was promised will be delivered come January 2017.

If the Clinton camp is smart they will realise that Sanders has brought something new into the party, which given the polarisation of the country and who they are running against, can be a key to their success in November. They must understand how he is playing the game and why he is doing so. They must understand that offering him a position in a Clinton administration is not what he is after and would not suffice to mollify his supporters in any event. They must study their positions in advance and see where they can concede readily and where negotiations on substantive issues will be harder. But what they must understand most is that the chances of a Clinton victory in November rest as much on gaining his support as they do on her own qualifications and experience.

If that is understood, the remaining primaries can be contested vigorously (if not honestly) with a mind towards clearly demonstrating the policy-based platforms of the Democratic candidates versus the empty rhetoric, simple-minded prescriptions and opportunistic bombast coming from the other side. Once that is done, the convention can become not only an arena of contestation between contending ideas about how to take the country forward, but also an opportunity to exchange concessions in order to present a unified front to the voting public. Therein lies the recipe for success in November.

“Culture wars” as election year bait trapping.

datePosted on 12:31, May 16th, 2016 by Pablo

One proven strategy for campaigns that have little substantive by the way of policy to offer and which are trailing in the polls is to drop any pretence of having a grounded policy platform and instead turn to populist demagoguery while casting slings and arrows at opponents. The most common is the “sky is falling” approach, whereby the social and political backdrop to the campaign is cast as one of doom and gloom, with armageddon-like results if the opposition wins. Those undertaking this strategy depict the struggle as a fight between good and evil, as a last chance to roll back the hounds of hell bent on devouring what is left of the good ole days and the traditional way of doing things. The key to the strategy is to divert public attention from core policy issues and towards incidental yet highly emotive areas of social exchange where purchase can be made of difference, uncertainty and fear.

In the current US election campaign, that is precisely what the GOP candidates, Donald Trump in particular, have been doing. They frame the contest as if the US was staring at the abyss as a result of the Obama administration, with Hillary Clinton as the lead horsewoman of the apocalypse. This is designed to tap into American’s deep sense of insecurity and pessimism even if the reality of the US condition suggests that many of these concerns–which are held mostly but not exclusively by conservatives–are both exaggerated and unfounded.

The GOP version of the sky is falling approach has twist in that it invokes so-called “culture wars.” The notion that the US is in the midst of “culture wars” started out as an anti-political correctness theme among conservative politicians and media commentators. It has now morphed into an all-encompassing attack on so-called progressive and “secular humanist” socio-economic reform and social changes that may or may not have been pushed by political actors. It is resurrected by the media and political Right every election year. For example, conservatives today rail against the outsourcing of US jobs done supposedly in order to curry favour with foreign trading partners even though in the past they have no issue with the dynamics of globalized production. And yet it is has been advances in robotic technologies rather than politicians that have displaced blue collar shop floor jobs in the US, and the US is not the only place where this has happened. For this crowd abortion is not an individual choice but state-sanctioned murder, and scientific research that uses fetal tissue is part of a vast death machine targeted mainly at (potential) white christians. The so-called “War on Christmas” is really an attack on Christianity and the Judeo-Christian foundations of the Republic. In this appeal, the siren call is that it is time to make a stand and confront the usurpers of the traditional faith, however illusory they may be.

The same folk have reacted viscerally to the Black Lives Matter movement, reviving some unhappy ghosts of the past in doing so, by seeing it as a group of self-entitled freeloaders, enablers, opportunists (yes, Al Sharpton is there), plus assorted and occasionally organised thugs who seek to divert responsibility from their collective lack of values as well as the actions of people of colour who have brought lethal police attention upon themselves (in spite of the compelling evidence of epidemic-level police shootings of unarmed black men). They see in Muslims an insidious fifth column bent on imposing Sharia law and usurping the American dream from within. They consider gay marriage as an assault on the sanctity of straight marriage (in a country with a divorce rate of over 50 percent of straight marriages) and the incorporation of openly gay members in the military as a sign of its deliberate weakening. They see universal health care as the imposition of “socialism” and yet another assault on individual freedom of choice. The see attempts at tighter gun control as the antecedent to federal imposition of martial law. The see feminism as the beginning of the end for the traditional family. They take refuge in xenophobia and bigotry as bulwarks against “progressivism” and the inevitable national decline that they believe that it entails.

And, to put it mildly, many of these people see the current US president as representative of all of these maladies. His upcoming trip to Hiroshima encapsulates the view: despite the White House issuing a public statement saying that the president will not apologise for the nuclear attack on the city and will lay a wreath to pay his respects for the innocent civilian dead, conservatives are using this as further evidence of his plan to destroy America while invoking Pearl Harbour as a reason his apology is treasonous (ignoring the fact that senior Japanese government officials have laid wreaths at the Pearl Harbor memorial in the past).

These commentators see progressive brainwashing everywhere, from the “liberal” (yet somehow corporate) media to every level of the educational system. They see indolence and disrespect amongst their youth and expressions of non-Caucasian ethnic pride as the divisive product of political correctness. They basically see the US going to hell in a hand basket.

The entire premise of the sky is falling/cultural wars strategy is defensive. It is designed to prey on people’s fears of losing what they have and their insecurities about keeping or improving on what they have in an uncertain future marked by rapid demographic and social change in an age of global flux. It makes a dark possibility seem like an imminent reality. It is a push-back reaction rather than a forward-looking progression. It plays, ultimately, on ignorance, and in the US there is plenty of ignorance to go around.

The resort to such a strategy would be laughable except for one thing: it works. It diverts people’s attention away from difficult matters of national policy and on to things that have deeply personal resonance and which touch on primitive instincts and desires. Its appeal is unthinking and visceral rather than cerebral and critical. The more raw and emotional the appeal, the more likely the target audience will react spasmodically to it. In doing so, those who invoke that response are able to counter the policy prescriptions of their opponents without really engaging with them.

That is why I am puzzled by the Obama’s decision to push legal action to facilitate transgender use of toilet facilities based on self-identity, not physical traits. Actually, it is not the legal recognition of transgender rights that bothers me but the timing of the push for them. Why could this not have waited until the next presidential term, especially since Hillary looks to win and even Trump is not opposed to the move?  Or is that why the initiative is being made now, as it can be seen as further dividing the GOP base from its presumptive presidential candidate?

If so, I think that it is an unnecessary and counterproductive ploy. By pushing for transgender rights at the particular time the White House has thrown a lifeline to the troglodyte Right, who in turn can pressure the GOP elite and Trump to wage war on such a cultural abomination. Already we hear the clamour about perverts lurking in little girl’s toilets, and The Donald’s penchant for flip flopping on issues is well known, so why on earth start up this particular culture war when a year from now passage of transgender rights legislation would have less electoral impact?

If I was a Democratic strategist I would urge the Party and its candidates to not be baited into culture war debates. That will only trap them in a no-win circular shouting match about science and daily practice grounded in “common” versus “good” sense based on different ideas about ethics and morality–but not intellectually honest or informed  people but with aggregations of the mental equivalent of Trump’s Mexican built Wall.

Instead, I would urge them to laugh at sky is falling arguments and refute them with the facts. The country is getting more colour in its demographic, has become more tolerant of non-traditional lifestyles, has robust religious diversity, has innovative production and entrepreneurship and remains, regardless of what the GOP doomsayers claim, economically strong and relatively secure in spite (rather than because) of its foreign military adventures. It may not be utopia or even the mythological house on the hill, but it sure ain’t a bloated carcass of decadence floating towards oblivion (unless you are referring to the GOP itself, in which case the analogy applies).

The Democrats should focus on what Gramsci referred to as “touching the essential,” that is, the real state of the economy and national affairs, addressing the real problems of average people in proper perspective (and there are plenty to consider), and offer practical (and practicable) solutions to specific policy issues. That will leave the GOP to bark into the wind about girly men, safe spaces and serial adulterers. Because when the dust has settled on November 8, the sky will still be there and the cultural wars of the Right will have been lost yet again.

Cloudy With a Chance of Winston

datePosted on 15:42, May 7th, 2016 by E.A.

I normally stay well away from media on the weekend because anything that cant wait until Monday I will find out about anyway but this weekend with my chores done and some time free I got online and surfed teh inetrwebs.

It was on Stuff.co.nz that I came across Tracy Watkins review of the week in Politics (Political week: Labour looking for a game changer). In many ways it was similar to my own (and many others) analyses of the situation in NZ politics at this time but, like many political journalists in NZ, lacking that more in depth bite that can often be found over on less mainstream places where NZ politics is discussed (hint hint).

Its not that I disagreed with most of what she says but I will use her article here as an example of why mainstream media coverage just doesn’t do it and is in fact as much of a problem as an often apathetic public is. So first my apologies to Tracy for bagging her here but if our roles were reversed I would expect the same.

And I might add that I normally would not comment on the commentators. Not out of any professional courtesy as she is an actual paid journo who is widely read and I am just a some nutter with a keyboard and an internet connection but because when you get down to commentating on the commentators you have officially run out of things to say and should shut up shop and find a new trade or hobby.

And I get that her article came out under the label “opinion” but when what you are saying is likely to be forming the fodder for mainstream political discussion around the country its not really opinion but opinion forming/shaping.

Maybe she (and the rest of her profession) work under tight editorial restrictions and lets face it when you have to file on a regular basis for a living you probably have to pad some of what you do on occasion. But thats just the point, mainstream NZ political coverage is padding out its work almost all the time when there are plenty of angles that could be explored rather than the factual but rather bland reportage that she (and others) submit for print.

Its like watching the weather report, a statement of what has recently happened with a few predictions about the immediate future which will probably be right but which degrade over time the further out things get.

And when politics is reduced to something akin to weather reports you know things are wrong. Her article was, as I stated, not misrepresenting the truth or leading people astray but her analysis of Labours predicament was not exactly a revelation to even the the most apolitical kiwi and when she effectively stated that trusts will be come an issue when they become an issue I realized that there was going to be no wisdom dispensed. It was a very neutral assessment which like daily weather reports play it out in the manner of something which could be good or bad but which you have no actual say in, so just like it or lump it and make sure you bring your coat or umbrella.

But back to the article, I will have to disagree with her on the fact that trusts will not be an issue outside the beltway in NZ and I could be wrong but what really got me was her analysis of Labour and the Greens needing to have a more positive aspect and stop just trying to sling mud lest they be accused of crying wolf once to often.

If National keeps doing the dirty then its mud that shall kept be slung. Yes Labour need a new bag but right now with Key and National in bunker mode the attack is the only means to land a hit and Little needs to rally his troops round this and take them into the breach. Yes there will be casualties but the man needs to find his mojo and with the current issue of the Panama papers, trusts, tax havens, the ultra rich and Keys ex-lawyer there is no better thing on which he could sharpen it. As they say in Jazz you gotta fake it till you make it and the current situation is the biggest chink in the armor that Key has ever shown, he is directly linked and just because its not Phillip Field level scandal does not mean its not worth having a go at it.

And if he doesn’t then someone else will. Watkins believes that Little has only the choice of snuggle up to Winston or go up against him. On that I fundamentally disagree. Little will get no respect from the member for Northland if he goes with cap in hand but nor does that mean he should then just wail against him. There is a middle ground and if Winston makes up his mind on National then so be it, no manner of inducements would be worth the price if it was purely his votes that they needed and Winnie was asking for the “Big Payoff”, history has shown that.

If Little is to make points its with what the situation has handed him and when you get lemons you make lemonade, if you get mud you sling it, not gift wrap it and try to make friends.

Little and Labour have over a year to the next election so there is infinite time to get the ship in order but right now battle drills should be the order of the day when there are live targets to practice on.

Watkins analysis plays out the angle of a powerless electorate, weather deliberate or not, and gives the impression that we had all just hope that Winston makes the right choice come November 2017.

What seems to be missing is the idea that all three main opposition parties can get in on this one together, be it friendly or not. Maybe she has never seen the Royal Rumble (if so, poor woman) and so doesn’t know how quickly alliances can form and shift in the race towards the ultimate prize.

And I don’t make my pro wrestling analogy lightly as politics both here and elsewhere have become very close to Wrestling with its good guys and heels, scripted drama, shock plot twists and occasional  genuine upsets as like wrestling the plot can be determined by the sudden audience appeal of a heel or an underdog and their efforts to wow the crowd. Yes it is at its core a powerless spectacle with no real interaction but I would rather than than the grim narrative of “Cloudy with a chance of Winston”.

Back to the weekend.

Defensive voting and split tickets.

datePosted on 14:31, May 3rd, 2016 by Pablo

As part of the ongoing effort to clarify some aspects of the US elections this year, this post focuses on two tactics: defensive voting and ticket splitting. Some readers may already be familiar with both concepts, but for those who are not, here is brief outline of what they involve.

Defensive Voting.

Defensive voting is the act of voting against someone by casting a ballot for their opponent not out of loyalty or agreement with the position of the opponent, but out of fear of the possibility of the disliked candidate winning. This may be due to a number of reasons but is usually based on a lesser evil approach: In order to prevent a greater evil from occurring in the form of a detestable candidate being elected, voters choose whatever alternative candidate is available who stands a chance of preventing the “bad guy” from prevailing. The idea is simply to prevent an unpalatable candidate from electoral victory even if the alternative is not entirely palatable either. There may be variations on this approach, such as voting for a clearly marginal candidate in order to help sideline a legitimate opponent, but the basic premise for such tactical voting is prevention, blocking or denial, not support, affirmation or promotion.

This is another reason why the US presidential race is so interesting. Polls show that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the most detested front-running candidates in US presidential history. Ted Cruz is equally loathed across the political spectrum. That means that more than the vote of their supporters, what will decide the outcome in November is who has the largest defensive voter turnout against them. A micro version of this scenario will play out at both major party conventions, since the “anyone but Trump” Republican factions and the Bernie Sanders supporters in the Democratic Party will, at least initially, vote against the front runners as much because of their dislike of them as out of support for their own candidates.

Depending on what happens at the conventions, in November it is entirely possible that some if not many Republican voters will vote for Clinton (should she win the nomination) or an independent candidate rather than Trump. Likewise, Sander’s supporters, if he does not win the nomination and receives no policy concessions in the Clinton platform, could well turn to a third party candidate such as that of the US Green Party. That could seriously tighten the race and perhaps even lead to a Trump victory, which from the standpoint of many progressives would simply help sharpen the contradictions in the US political system and lay the foundations for more significant change down the road (I refuse to use the term “revolutionary” because unlike Sanders and his supporters I have a full understanding of what social revolutions entail, and that does not include participating in deeply institutionalised electoral processes).

If the presidential race comes down to Clinton versus Trump or Cruz, then the deciding factor will be who has the most votes cast against them rather than for them. Given the intensity of negative feelings towards all of this motley crew, it could lead to a record turnout on both sides of the political divide and give previously non-committed Independent voters, particularly those who were not able to vote in closed primaries, a decisive role in the election.

Ticket splitting.

Those familiar with MMP understand this concept well. The  “split ticks” versus “two ticks” phenomenon is simple to grasp: you can either vote for a party and a candidate from that party in a general election (giving “two ticks” to the party vote and that party’s candidate from your electoral district), or you can split your party vote from your member vote (say, by voting for Labour in the party vote and a Green candidate in the member vote).

This type of voting is unusual in the US. Political parties tend to discourage so-called vote splitting because in most elections whole slates are presented as a ticket by the party to voters, for offices ranging from president to the local dog catcher. Even though voters, in practice, do split their votes among national, state and local offices, at the national level the US electoral system largely operates in binary, either/or fashion. That makes it a rare day when parties urge their supporters to split their national-level votes.

This year that day has come. Some in the GOP leadership are floating the idea that, should Trump win the party nomination, people should split their votes in the presidential race from their votes “down ticket,” that is, for other elective offices. The GOP has very real reason to be concerned that a Trump defeat could trickle down through the Senate, House of Representatives, Governorships and even important mayoral races. With that in mind, they are asking their supporters to vote Republican down ticket even if they do not vote for Trump (and in fact many in the GOP are urging voters to vote for anyone but Trump). As mentioned in my previous post, a shift in six Senate seats restores a Democratic majority to it. In the House the shift will have to be much larger but even one that decreases the Republican majority close to or below the 2/3 mark needed for passage of legislation can be devastating for GOP prospects during the next congressional term. With several prominent Republican politicians tainted by their endorsement of Trump (such as New Jersey governor Chris Christie), the chances of his dragging the entire party down with him are considered to be very possible. Thus the open calls for vote splitting on the part of some in the Republican leadership.

On the Democratic side there is less interest in vote splitting although Sander’s supporters are urging him to run as an independent if he loses the Democratic nomination for president. Should he do so, then his supporters will engage in vote splitting as well, voting for him rather than Clinton but voting for Democratic candidates down ticket. That will be what tightens the presidential race, as barring unforeseen circumstances Sanders can only act as a spoiler in the campaign for the White House. This is the most likely reason why the Clinton camp will be inclined to offer him significant policy concessions at the convention, which not only will mollify his supporters but also could help increase their defensive vote against Trump.

The Outlook.

Of course, in no small part because she is a female in a country that still has issues when it comes to gender and higher office, Clinton may have more defensive votes cast against her than those cast against Trump or Cruz. In that case the stage will be set for the mother of all federal government meltdowns once either Republican candidate assumes office, since whoever it is will very possibly be fighting Congressional Republicans as well as the Democrats from his perch in the Oval Office, to say nothing of many state an local authorities. But given those who have been scapegoated by Trump and Cruz’s neo-medieval social outlook, framed against the demographics of the country, the more likely scenario is that defensive minded voters turn out in droves, many of them splitting their tickets on the conservative side,  and Clinton rides to victory, perhaps in a landslide.

In the meantime, let’s get back to our popcorn and beverages and watch the circus/trainwreaks primaries continue to unfold.

I Wanna Be Dirty: James Shaw and Greens

datePosted on 10:50, April 29th, 2016 by E.A.

I write this only partially tongue in cheek and my original title was going to be a reference to a Kermit the Frog song*

A final piece of the puzzle fell into place this week with the announcement in the paper that Andrew Campbell, the Green party chief of staff, was leaving to allow “some fresh ideas and new legs” to take over in his role.

The funny thing was that he had been in the job less than a year after replacing Ken Spagnolo, the previous chief of staff for over eight years, in a direct move by co-leader James Shaw, to bring in new blood and ideas in preparation for the expected 2017 election (and probably clear the decks of any not down with Shaw’s new business friendly approach to the environment).

But that comment flies in the face of co-leader Metiria Turei’s statement about Andrew wanting to leave after the 2014 election but agreeing to stay on to help Shaw settle into the role. Has James settled in yet? If so why is Campbell the third senior party staffer to leave in short order? Coms and Policy Director David Cormack (a person some believe to be the actual brains behind the Greens) and Chief Press Secretary Leah Haines both immediately preceded him.

Personality conflicts in politics are not new and party staff generally know not to contradict the leader but when key staff are either removed (as in the case of Spagnolo) or leaving in droves (as with the other three) it takes more than claims of “coincidence” to assuage the growing feeling that something is not right in the good ship Green.

The obvious cause is new male co-leader James Shaw himself, who with his corporate background with HSBC (the money launderers bank of choice) and PriceWaterhouseCoopers (an organisation with so many scandals attached to its name I will not relate them here but encourage any who are interested to have a dig themselves) seems an extremely unusual choice for a party whose charter explicitly states “unlimited material growth is impossible” in two of its four articles.

Shaw won the co-leadership showdown in mid-2015 when Russell Norman moved off to greener pastures (pun intended) to work for Greenpeace NZ. An impressive feat for a first term MP and one, at least in my mind, had shades of the Brash Coup run on National in the 2000’s about it.

Shaw himself is pro-market and believes that it can be reformed to be sustainable, which is a laudable sentiment for a member of the young Nats but not in a party like the Greens. These kind of ideas, Shaw’s background and the recent statements from the party about doing and end run around Labour to work with National on some issues show that the Greens of the past may soon be replaced by the “Greens” of the future.

But perhaps it’s just my paranoia that I see all of these things as being connected, perhaps it’s just me, but somehow I don’t think so as various other in the blog sphere have also noted these changes and the fact that it warranted mention in the mainstream media leads me to think that we are on the cusp of a major change in the Greens.

In my previous “analyses” of Labour, National and NZ First I focused mostly on the failings of the past to illustrate the potential/possible issues in the future but in the case of the Greens I can’t do that.

The Greens currently stand alone in NZ politics as being an actual party of virtue in a parliament full of corruption, incompetence, nepotism and just plain criminality. They are a party which has a genuine political agenda which it has been willing to stand up for, which is why almost every other party in parliament hates them and why several sections of government keep their eye on them.

If any political party has ever been under watch by the SIS; monitored by the GCSB, infiltrated by the SIG, loathed by the Police and hated by Labour it’s the Greens. It’s a party which grew from the Values party in 1972, lived through the tumultuous years of the Alliance in the 90s before going it alone in the 2000s. This is a party that has explicitly argued for the removal of the Security Services as they currently are and our exit from the Five Eyes agreement as well as being an active and persistent thorn in the side of any government which doesn’t prioritize the environment or fails the social contract (Gareth Hughes blistering rebuttal to John Key’s recent parliament commencement speech is a fine example of this).

The Greens are a party which has taken the moral high ground from Labour in the wake of the leadership squabbles after Helen Clark departed (although some say Labour just gave it up when they started the reforms of 1984) and has wielded it ever since, using it like a magic cloak to deflect any criticisms.

And there have been criticisms aplenty over the years from the usual pat dismissals by politicians of their policy or position (often with no actual substance to back up why they don’t agree with them) to the all but outright taunts of being “governmental virgins” to the “bloody hippie tree hugger” comments which spew forth from many regular Kiwis when asked about the Green party or their policies. And that’s not even discussing the hate Labour has for the Greens.

If John Key could have all dissenting views in parliament rounded up and shipped off to a re-education “resort” the Greens would certainly be on that list but it would be “just business, nothing personal” to him. And, with only a small sprinkling of fantasy dust could one imagine members of the Greens and National meeting for a beer in Pickwicks after a “hard day” in the debating chamber. One could not imagine such a picture between the Greens and Labour no matter how much magic dust was going round.

If Labour could have all Greens rounded up it would not be “re-education” that they would receive but low altitude skydiving lessons from Air Force helicopters sans parachute out over Cook Straight at night, if it is business with National its personal with Labour.

The Greens owe a large part of their vote base to disgruntled Labour voters and Labour knows it. Labour has treated the Greens like vassals from the earliest days and given their position on the political spectrum expected them to back Labour no matter what (which is why the Greens extension of the hand of friendship to National, even on minor issues has further enraged Labour and provided a pragmatic, but also very dangerous, way to cut through the Gordian knot of being to the left of looser Labour on the political spectrum.

Worse still, the Greens are almost certainly going to gain at the polls as the 2017 election approaches (current polls have them riding high along with NZ First while Labour sags to 26% and National slips closer to 40%) and have proven to have no concern about exposing Labours (and specifically Helen Clark’s) hypocrisy (as its widely believed that they were responsible for the leaks that led to Seeds of Distrust; Nicky Hagar’s expose of Labours cover up of GE contamination in NZ) to get votes.

So in dissecting the Green party at this current time it’s not the past to which I am concerned but the future and to put it simply it looks like the Greens are about to (take a deep breath and say it with me) compromise. In daily use compromise is not a bad term but in politics it almost always means abandoning your principles to reach a short term expediency at the cost of both your long term supporters and policy goals.

For parties like National and Labour compromise (also known as sitting on the fence, seeing which way the wind blows and “flip flopping”) is easy as both have no morals and long since abandoned their core principles in pursuit of power for individual party members and rabid accommodation of whatever orthodoxy is being touted at the time but for the Greens this will not be so easy.

To begin with the Greens capture of the moral high ground is a strategic part of their appeal. They can take positions and advocate issues which would get other parties in hot water; lambaste the government of the day and catch the wind of popular but politically problematic issues (like the TPPA) only because they have this high ground, without it they would be another fringe party which would get whipped senseless with their own past faults and misdeeds if they dared to speak out. Truly they are the hand which can cast the first stone.

Another is that while Shaw himself may be a champagne environmentalist (the 21st century equivalent of Labours champagne socialists) many of the core rank and file are not. Every new voter to the Greens that is merely running from the nitwit antics in Labour will run straight back if either Labour shapes up and flies right (geddit?) or the “sustainable” future Shaw is presenting doesn’t allow people to continue to live their lives under the economic and social model they are accustomed to (for example if rising sea levels did actually require we give up driving cars and banning dairy farms). The core supporters of the greens will likely support the policy measures which reflect the party’s charter but angry voters seeking revenge on Labour or National by voting Green will not.

So the Greens are now at a crucial juncture and with the 2017 election approaching its clear that the Green brain trust has decided get into the game and dispense of the one thing that holds them back which is (pardon my French) governmental virginity. By taking the sandals off, combing the dreadlocks out and with a nice suit or sweater/skinny jeans combo from Hallensteins the Greens will be ready to go to the 2017 Ball and get their cherry popped by that nice Jewish boy from Christchurch or any other potential suitor (perhaps even giving a second chance to that boy next door after his previous sweaty fumbling’s and cloddish behavior).

But there are a few problems with this scenario and Shaw would do well to heed the lessons of history when it comes to playing with fire. The fate of the Lib Dems in the UK, the Maori Party and NZ First should serve as warnings to any minor party leader willing to put short term expediency ahead of long term progress.

Of the three the fate of the Lib Dems is probably the more pertinent. They spent 20 years building up a respectable position in UK politics, under a FPPs system no less, getting 20% of the vote and seats in the house only to piss it all away when in 2010 they supported the Tories in a hung parliament and began to abandon their core principles (as well as break a few key election promises). The voters, predictably, did not like this new direction and the party was slaughtered at the polls in 2015.

In retrospect it probably looked like a bad move to the Lib Dems, but only in retrospect. To everyone else it was clear from the get go that it was a bone headed move and a clear sell out.

Closer to home Winston Peters brainless stunt in 1996 (discussed in my earlier post) and the Maori Parties deal with the devil in 2008 saw both suffer for letting their leadership sell out the voters for a seat at the cabinet table.

It would be unfair though to pin all the blame on Shaw though. He was elected through the Greens relatively fair leadership selection process (one not as convoluted as Labours or as secretive as Nationals) so it appears that he is not the only Champagne environmentalist in the Greens and perhaps many in the party itself want to stop being the wallflower of NZ politics and run naked through the streets singing “Touch-A-Touch-A-Touch-A-Touch Me!”

If this is the case then James Shaw and Metiria Turei are the Brad and Janet of NZ politics while Key is Frank N Furter (with possibly Winston as Riff Raff, Andrew Little as Dr Scott and yours truly as the Narrator). I will leave you to fill in the rest of the cast roles as you see fit.

But the puzzle I referred to at the start of this post has not yet been solved but I think the picture is becoming clearer. If we discount the “coincidence” argument in favour of a more holistic approach we see that new leadership with new ideas, mass changes in key staff and indications of attempts to exit the political corner that the Greens have painted themselves into shows a party on the cusp of a major political shift, a party that is smelling the winds of change and planning to take full advantage of them.

The dangers of this course of action are not always clear and while I personally don’t subscribe to the following rumors (at least not yet) I feel they are worth mention here just to add some zest to an otherwise dull analysis and to indicate just how problematic the issue is.

They are: a) Shaw is a corporate Trojan horse (ala Don Brash in both the National and ACT coups); b) Shaw is an agent provocateur in the pay of the security services (not so astounding once you realize that it’s a known fact that the security services have had paid informants in environmental groups since the 90s; or  c) the Greens have a serious case of political blue balls and are now prepared to do anything (and I mean “anything”) to get into power (this one could be answered a lot easier if we knew who exactly is funding the Greens, not something I have had time to do yet but if anyone wants to let me know I would be grateful).

But at the end of the day the Greens are still a party which is currently fighting the good fight and with an entirely justified moral stance and matching policy prescriptions. When you match up any doubts about the party with the generally disgusting and loathsome behavior of the rest of the rabble in parliament a few potential worries about their direction pale into significance. Only time will tell if it stays that way.

* Its Not Easy Being Green/Bein’ Green.

Some details about the US election campaign.

datePosted on 14:45, April 22nd, 2016 by Pablo

Coverage of the US election in NZ is pretty bad. The local media pundits are shallow at best and take their lead from US cable news services. The best analyses are either reprints or canned footage from US media outlets or in local political blogs (save the rabid frothing on certain reactionary outlets).

Since I get to vote in the elections I follow them pretty closely. Also, having been  based in the US for the twenty years prior to my arrival in NZ, I have practical experience with them, to including voting in 6 states. Because the coverage in NZ is sketchy on certain key details and because it follows the crude narrative of the Yank media, I figured I would offer a short primer on some key details leading up to the Republican and Democratic conventions in a few months.

Open versus closed primaries. 

Primary elections are held in all 50 states and US territories during presidential election years in order to award delegates to candidates pursuing the presidential nomination of their respective parties. The amount of delegates is based upon the number of registered members of a party in a given state, divided among the number of congressional districts in that state. In some states the awarding of delegates is a winner take all affair, while in others it is proportional to the number of votes each candidate receives out of the total number of people voting in a party’s’ primary. In some states there are caucuses instead of primaries, which are more consultative and informal than elections and offer greater leeway in delegate selection and commitment to candidates. Of course, like so much else in US elections, there is a fair bit of gerrymandering and dubious exchanges involved in delegate apportionment, but the general principle is as outlined.

In “closed” primaries only registered supporters of a given party may vote in that party’s primary. That forces voters to declare a preference in advance of the primary. The time frame for registering a party preference in order to be eligible to vote varies from state to state. For example, in Florida, where I am registered to vote, a person must register at least 60 days before the primary election. In New York the registration deadline is six months before the primary election date.

In closed primaries independent voters must either declare a party preference by the official registration deadline or else they are excluded from voting in the primary. This is important because the majority (40 percent) of US voters declare themselves to be Independents (the Democrats and GOP get around 29 percent and 27 percent of all registered voters). The motive for holding closed primaries is twofold: to suppress the vote in order to eliminate uncertainties on election day (since most independents either do not or cannot vote in party primaries); and to thereby allow the most committed party supporters to determine who the winning candidate will be. Although much attention has been directed at Trump and Sander’s complaints about the delegate selection process and inability of independents to vote, respectively, the hard fact is that both the Democratic Party and GOP try to control the primary voting process via closed elections in most states. The Democratic and Republican National Committees co-ordinate (some would say conspire) with state and local party officials to add just enough opaqueness to the process so that electoral uncertainty is limited while the appearance of free and fair elections is maintained.

In “open” primaries voters do not have to register prior to the election date. They can simply declare a party preference on election day or shortly before the election, the walk into the voting station with the voting papers of the party they have chosen. The only requirement for voting is that they show proof of residence in a given state. This allows independent voters to often have a decisive impact on the outcome and leads to greater amounts of strategic voting. For instance, when I lived in Virginia and later in Arizona, which were open primary states during the times I lived there, I would often vote in the Republican primary in order to vote for the most troglodyte candidate on the ballot. My hope was that in doing so I would help said candidate win the nomination because he (it was always a he) was unelectable in the general election. Unfortunately that did not always happen, but you get the general idea.

“Open” primaries are often a better indication of general election outcomes because they are less dominated by internal party logics and less “controllable” by party bosses. Conversely, “closed” primaries tend to reflect better the desires of committed party voters, something that may or may not be translatable into general election victories.

Another important thing to remember is not so much the percentages of the vote won by each candidate but the total number of votes registered for each party in a given primary. For example, in the recent “closed” New York primary the total GOP vote was around 800,000 whereas the Democratic vote was close to 1.8 million (that is, more than double the Republican vote). In conservative rural states such as those of the Midwest and South (the so-called red states), the numbers for each party are reversed (and much lower in aggregate). So a candidate winning by huge margins in party primaries that have significantly fewer voters than the opposition is no sure bet to go on and win a general election.

It is useful to keep this statistic in mind when projecting out to the general election. For example, it does not matter if Trump wins 80 percent of the GOP vote in a primary in which the GOP receives less than half of the total number of votes than that received by the Democratic Party candidates because come general election day his numbers will have to bolstered by a huge amount of independent votes (who are allowed to vote in general elections for whomever they prefer). Since most Independents tend to vote Democratic in general elections, that means that not only will he have to have a historic turn out by Republican voters in his favour (again, at just 27 percent of the general electorate), but he will also have to overcome a deeply rooted historic Independent voting trend if he is to win. That is a big ask.

Brokered or Contested Conventions.

Most national party conventions in US presidential election years are more a coronation than a nomination. Usually the preferred candidate has the winning threshold of delegate numbers pretty much in hand by May or early June, so the conventions (which are always held in July or early August in order to be able to dedicate at least three months to the national campaign) are mere formalities that have become increasingly garish and circus-like in recent years. Long on style and short on substance, these uncontested conventions are designed to show party unity and promote patriotic appeal in the eyes of uncommitted voters.

“Brokered” or “contested” conventions are a whole other kettle of fish. In these type of conventions no candidate has the winning number of delegates on the day the convention opens. That leads to a series of ballots amongst delegates until one candidate emerges with a 50 percent plus one vote majority. The first ballot is a so-called “loyalty” ballot in which delegates vote for whom they are pledged to (the saying is that you vote for the person who brought you to the big dance). Since the first ballot only serves to confirm the lack of a delegate majority by any candidate, then a subsequent round of balloting occurs until a majority candidate is decided upon. That is where things get interesting because after the first loyalty ballot delegates are released from their pledges and can support whomever they think has the best chance of winning the general election (or at least presumably that is the logic at play. It is entirely possible that some delegates may play to lose by selecting an unelectable presidential candidate in order to eliminate him or her from party politics after the defeat).

Balloting continues until a candidate is selected. That not only brings intra-party conflicts out into the open. It also is where the backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms, the backstabbing, horse trading and sausage-making all come into play. It is an ugly process that often leads the winning candidate battered and bruised rather than sanctified, which in turns leads to a weakened position heading into the general election–something the opposing party candidate will pounce on.

If I recall correctly, the last brokered convention was in 1979, when Ted Kennedy challenged sitting president Jimmy Carter at the Democratic convention. Carter won the party nomination, only to be trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election. As people noted at the time, if an incumbent president could be challenged at his own party convention, why should voters think that he was worth re-electing?

Brokered or contested elections are bad news for the parties in question. That is why both the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) are doing everything they can to derail the campaigns of the two “outsiders” in the race, Sanders and Trump. Remember that Bernie Sanders has never been a Democrat. From his days as mayor of Burlington, Vermont to his Senate career, he ran and served as an Independent until the time he entered the Democratic presidential nomination campaign. The DNC fears and loathes him, a sentiment made worse by the fact that he has derailed what was supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s inevitable and uncontested  march to the presidency. Now, the path to coronation is not so certain. Clinton needs to win 66 percent of the remaining delegates in order to secure the nomination. With states like California, Oregon, Maryland and Pennsylvania still in play, that task is not going to be easy. Even if she does win enough delegates to secure the nomination before the convention (and the selection of special interest group “super delegates” was designed to ensure that), she will have to make concessions to Sanders’ policy platform if she is to retain the support of his followers (who otherwise will not vote for her even if they fear a Trump or Cruz presidency). This complicates things for her as well as for her largest patrons, since Bernie has his sights firmly focused on Wall Street and other corporate lobbies like Big Phrama that have donated massively to her campaign. And if Clinton does not secure 66 percent of the remaining delegates, then a contested convention is in her future.

As for Trump, well, he is the fly in the RNC ointment. If he gets the necessary amount of delegates by the time of the convention, then the GOP will be forced by their own rules to award him the nomination. If that happens there is some talk of the GOP running an “independent” candidate against him so as to distance their brand from his name in an election that they expect to lose.

If Trump does not secure the necessary number of delegates before the convention, then a brokered convention is likely. The RNC both fears and wants that to happen. Fears, because it most likely will lead to defeat in November. Wants, because it could be the only way to prevent Trump from winning the nomination. If the convention is brokered or contested it is probable that Trump will be denied the nomination in favour of a “compromise” candidate even if he has the most delegate votes in the first round of balloting.  If so, it is likely that he will not go quietly and may mount his own “independent” campaign. Either way, the GOP is doomed in the general election because whoever runs an independent campaign on the Right will divide conservative voters and forfeit the chance of success against Hillary (with or without Bernie’s supporters).

Trump displays his lack of political understanding when he rails about delegate selection and how the person who gets the most GOP votes nation-wide should win the nomination. He fails to understand that, as with the Electoral College and the Senate, delegate selection is specifically designed to put the brakes on demagogic or populist appeals and mass influence over party politics. Moreover, he claims that even if he comes up short (say, by a hundred or less delegates out of the 1237 needed to win the nomination), as the leader in pledged delegates entering the convention he should be given the nomination much in the way a conceded putt is given in golf.

In doing so  he evidences exactly the disdain for institutional rules and procedures that the party elite is most concerned about. His rhetoric has already trashed many GOP sacred cows, so his push to circumvent or change its convention rules is seen as a major step towards the party’s demise (at least in its present form). Add to that his ignorance of even the most elementary notions of separation of powers and Executive Authority, and you have a GOP disaster-in-chief in the making. Heck, Trump as president (or Cruz for that matter) could well make Dubya Bush look positively Churchillian in comparison. Hence the RNC desire to snuff him out, and the only way to do so short of assassination is to force a brokered convention or run an “independent” candidate against him even if it ensures a loss in November.

 Campaign Financing.

I will not get into the intricacies of US campaign financing laws save for a couple of items. Individual contributions to candidates are limited but contributions to so-called Political Action Committees (PACs and Super PACs) are not. Under US electoral law corporations and lobbying groups are considered to be the same as individuals (i.e. there is no ceiling on contributions to PACs). PACs have been created as a way to circumvent the limitations on contributions to candidates and often serve as thinly disguised fronts for individual campaigns. Most of the money used to buy advertising, pay campaign staff and conduct the street level, grassroots get-out-the-vote work is channeled through PACs.

However, there is a twist. Before the national conventions, the DNC and RNC are prohibited from donating money to the campaigns of individual presidential candidates. Conversely, individual candidates can fund raise for themselves but not for others. This is an important detail because much fund-raising done by candidates like Hillary Clinton is done to channel money to so-called “coattail” candidates, that is, people in her party running for non-presidential offices who can benefit from the trickle down effect of her star power. Remember that in a presidential election year it is not just the presidency that is at stake. The entire House of Representatives (elected every two years) and one third of the Senate (elected every six years) are up for grabs as well, as are host of state and local offices.  This year 34 Senate seats are being contested and a shift in six seats would restore a Democratic majority, something that is almost as important to a Democratic presidency as is the person who holds it.

Therein lies the rub. None of the candidates are legally allowed to hold coattail fund-raisers and neither of the party national committees can help fund their candidacies until the nomination is secured. The Sanders campaign has cried foul after Hillary mentioned that her fund-raising was designed not just for herself but for other candidates, but the DNC has dismissed her slip of the tongue as inconsequential. In any event the practical solution to campaign financing is to channel all funds through PACs, which can then be instructed to finance campaigns for political offices up and down the ballot.

This is where, again, Bernie and The Donald have problems. The DNC and RNC are clearly channeling PAC money away from them and towards their rivals. Their own fund-raising efforts are focused on themselves without coattail-inducing support. Bernie has raised millions in small donations from individuals and some (mostly union) money, but is virtually devoid of serious PAC support. Trump is self-funded and it is debatable as to whether the RNC will reverse itself and direct money towards him in the event he secures the GOP nomination. If it does not, even his millions may not be enough to counter a well-financed, PAC-driven Democratic campaign with coattail effect, or even an “independent” GOP campaign focused more on securing the non-presidential positions on the ballot rather than the presidency.

In summation, once you strip away the dog and pony show aspects of the US election campaign, what you get is a contest run by two major parties that are authoritarian and hierarchical at their core, where both attempt to control voting outcomes from above rather than below, and which use electoral frameworks, convention rules and circuitous campaign financing to achieve that end. In that regard, the prospects for victory in November clearly lay on the Democratic side, whereas the prospects for an open party rupture is patently evident in the GOP.

Let the circuses conventions begin!

 

A culture of tax evasion.

datePosted on 11:25, April 15th, 2016 by Pablo

I do not understand what the fuss is all about when it comes to John Key and the revelations in the so-called “Panama Papers.” So what if he and other Kiwi high rollers shield their incomes and assets from the IRD in assorted trusts, funds, investments and even shell companies? Isn’t it an axiom of capitalism that, as Donald Trump has openly stated, you try to avoid as much tax payment as possible? Forget all this nonsense about “paying one’s fair share of taxes.” Only rubes and idealists do that. Everyone else tries to minimise their tax exposure and the rich pricks just do so on a grander and more elaborate scale.

I say this because the entire NZ economy is riddled with tax avoidance. One of the things that struck me after I moved to NZ is the amount of cash transactions that are done with the explicit intention of avoiding tax. Almost every single tradesperson I have dealt with in the course of my time here has proposed a cash transaction that avoids GST, but more importantly, avoids traceable electronic or paper (cheque) financial transfers. And the offers of non-GST cash transactions are done without shame or concern; it is just part of doing business for many people and everyone knows it and acts accordingly based on their own circumstances.

If what I have seen in the small business trade and service sector is any indication, then it is reasonable to expect that such attitudes percolate upwards into larger corporate structures and repositories of wealth. Since these are too big to hide in a cash-only parallel market, the next best thing is to engage in tax evasion and income-hiding schemes whose complexity is based upon the ability of the tax authorities to uncover them. The move to off-shore trusts and the like is simply a matter of keeping one or two steps ahead of the law and three steps ahead of enforcement mechanisms. If those in government choose to structure the financial regulatory regime in such a way that it keeps the holders of wealth five to ten steps ahead of the tax authorities then, well, you get what you vote for.

The difference between the approach of NZ high and low rollers when it comes to tax evasion is in scale, not kind.

This is one reason why I believe that the Transparency International rankings that have NZ listed among the top three least corrupt nations on earth are rubbish.  Add to that the nepotism, cronyism, shoulder-tapping, sinecure swapping and insider trading of everything from personal and professional favours to board directorships to stock shares, and the picture of NZ is far less rosy and far more, let us say, “pragmatic.”  I am particularly critical of the TI indexes because not only are they mostly based on reputational analysis (mostly offered by those who stand to gain from gaming the system), but because I participated in a TI survey of NZ’s intelligence and defense forces and saw my scores (and those of some others) pretty much discarded in favour of higher scores offered by insiders that led to an overall TI assessment that NZ has the highest standard of professional integrity amongst the defense and intelligence services in the Asia-Pacific.

Even so, I am one of those who are a bit idealistic when it comes to taxes. I understand the concept of public goods and therefore comprehend the rationale behind taxation. In NZ I pay tax more readily at a higher rate than I did in the US because, among other things, I am not paying to support a huge war machine that in turn serves the interests of a taxpayer subsidised military-industrial complex. As a small business owner I feel the burden of taxation more heavily and immediately than the corporate moguls that run the nation’s largest firms and whose bottom lines rest on minimising two things: their tax liabilities and their labour force wage bills. Yet I try to believe that I am contributing my small bit towards maintaining a high standard of public education, health and welfare that will lead to future generations of productive and happy citizens (although my experience with NZ academia suggests seriously diminishing returns in that sector, and I have serious doubts that overall heath, education and welfare outcomes are on the rise rather than in decline as a result of nearly a decade of National government public policies).

In spite of these misgivings, I remain a residual idealist and want to believe that my contributions, when taken collectively with those of others, matter for the present and future well-being of NZ. But I do not expect others to share the same hopelessly naive view of how the systems works, and I therefore do not begrudge them trying to dodge the taxman as much as possible. Because in a country where market-reifying ideologies reign supreme in virtually every facet of life, only a fool like me would think that paying taxes is anything but state-imposed theft levied on the productive in order to buy the acquiescence of the parasitical. I know this to be true because National, ACT and certain elements in Labour tell me so, and who am I to argue with those who dominate our economic, political and social narrative?

I should have realized that once I turned my jaundiced eye on Labour and National and started spouting my biased opinions about them I would have to “analyze” the rest of the denizens of the NZ political ecosystem. So here we go.

 

It’s been nearly 40 years since Winston Peters first entered parliament as an MP (1978) and over 40 since he entered politics (joining National in 1975).

In that time he has run the gamut of politics many times and held almost every position in government imaginable (MP, party leader, cabinet member, Minister, opposition MP, leader of party with no seats) as well as been investigated (and cleared) by the Serious Fraud Office, censured by parliaments privileges committee and been the recipient of secret donations from wealthy businessmen.

The man was also the instigator of Winebox Inquiry, fought and squabbled with more than one Prime Minister, been exiled from various cabinets, left one political party, formed one of his own and rumored to be the patron saint of one small special branch of a larger government department.

Winston Peters is the James Brown of New Zealand politics: a skilled and dynamic entertainer who always gives good show but is a dictatorial bandleader who overworked and under paid his backing bands (The Tight Five is to Winston as the Famous Flames are to James) all to enhance his own reputation.

To be sure he (Winston not James) is highly entertaining and rarely fails to provide an entertaining quote or attention grabbing headline but the substance of his actions have rarely lived up to his hype (unlike James) and his effect on politics or NZ as a whole (super gold card aside) is divisive at best and possibly toxic at its worst.

But like him or loath him he has survived many of his friends and critics and seen off more than one challenger to his rule of NZ First. At its simplest Winston Peters is a political survivor.

He survived the 2008 blowout of NZ First which saw many write him off only to come back in 2011 (with a respectable 8% in the polls) and then pull off one of the most astounding upsets in New Zealand Politics by not only breaching the walls of National stronghold Northland but taking it convincingly (over 50%) in his first ever time campaigning there.

But what Winston is really known for and what has made him such an enduring figure on the New Zealand political landscape (one littered with wanna-be greats, has-beens and also-rans along with many forgettable politicians and PMs) is the fact that he has been instrumental in maintaining not one, but two minority governments (National in 1996 and Labour in 2005) in their hour of need and in doing so set them up for their later defeat by allowing them to succumb to third term arrogance.

Few who lived through 1996 can forget how heated the election campaign got, the visible anger on Bolgers face during his and Peters famous shouting matches. Winston all but pledged on his mother’s grave that he would never go with National and that it was time for a change and then went with National after nearly two months of protracted negotiations haggling in New Zealand’s first ever MMP election; thereby denying Helen Clark the chance to be the first ever female PM and dooming New Zealand to three more years of the National Governments neo-liberal frenzy of privatization, deregulation and Business Round Table gibberish.

Still the glove was on the other foot when in 2005 Winston was back and this time doing what said he would do nine years earlier, supporting Labour in a collation government. But things had changed as it was now Labour that was struggling to maintain its lead and National under Brash managed to get 39% of the vote and would have been government had Winnie gone with his old alma mater like previously. Instead he backed a grateful Helen, got a swag full of political spoil and set Labour up for the very same fall National got when he supported them in 96.

It’s an interesting counterfactual to consider how things would have been like had Winston gone the other way (Labour in 1996 and National in 2005). Would things have been any different? The persistent and apocryphal myth around Wellington is that in the wake of Nationals disintegration in 99 and the early 2000’s Helen Clark was thankful that Winston had gone with National at the time, only forget the warning of history when she turned to him for support in 05 (and suffered the same fate as Shipley and Co).

You would almost think he had done it just for some sort of kinky thrill and with an election in 2017 looming and NZ First currently holding at 9% in the polls Winston may again be in the position to decide who is in power and who is PM. But the hand of support he offers has proven to be short term political expediency followed by long term electoral toxicity.*

But unlike 1996, 2017 will not see National desperately trying to get a third term or deeply unpopular in the polls (not unless John Key is found out to be an extremely skilled chatbot between now and then) and with no clear pretenders to the throne (Labour in disunity at 28% and Greens at 10% would not be enough to do it alone against National at their current polling of 50%) the key figure under current polling projections is the one, and only, Winston Peters.

But there are some complications in the script which Key and National are sure to try and exploit and one of those likely to get exploited if they are not careful will be Winston Peters.

To start, Winston is genuinely opposed to the Greens and has previously mooted going into coalition govt with them. That means that NZ First would not back a Labour government if the Greens were also part of the package. This leaves Labour with the near impossible task of making up the missing support (getting around 40% of the vote) to enable it to form a government with the Greens if NZ First will not support them.

So if Labour cannot get enough support to jettison the Greens (something they would love to do anyway) and Winston will not come to the party and this leaves him with only two options: stay independent or support National (either in coalition or tacitly) because if Labour cannot form a government then John Key will rule for a fourth term by default.

The only alternative to this scenario is that Winston swallows his pride and decides to go into coalition with Labour and the Greens. This is not an impossible scenario but it’s less likely than him rejecting anything to do with the Greens.

It would be an uneasy alliance at best and possibly way too volatile, given Winston’s track record of grandstanding and political belligerence, to survive for long. The net result of such a coalition collapsing would be an electoral bloodbath as Labour would have blown its golden opportunity to get back into power while National would swoop like rabid wolves on a straggling sheep.

Finally making this all the more toxic is the question of where he is cobbling his votes from. Conventional wisdom would say from National or the undecided middle (Winston is long past having any credible electoral draw on the Left after his betrayal in 96) but I suspect that the rising theme of electoral insurrection in the world today may end up seeing anyone who promises to “smash the pointy headed bastards in the capital” getting increased vote share based purely on their angry rhetoric, push button messaging and opposition stance. Which is a situation tailor made for Winston Peters.

Winston extracted maximum gain for himself in both 96 and 05 but failed to see out a single governmental term in the governments he kept alive (probably because his support was only a superficial fix for deeper structural problems). In 98, after Jenny Shipley ran her noisy coup on Jim Bolger in public (in direct opposition to National Party tradition of keeping the bloodletting behind closed doors), Winston was kicked from cabinet due to endless squabbling with her and promptly took his toys (read support for government) and went home.

In 2005 he was rather quicker in the courtship but wanted a lot more bling to walk down the aisle only to turn out to be a lethal political liability as he was engulfed in various dodgy scandals that left his legacy in tatters (except for the devout worship in the afore mentioned section of government and the horse racing industry which reaped a financial windfall from his tenure as Minister for Racing which continues to this day) and saw NZ First go below the five percent threshold and Winston get driven out of his long term seat of Tauranga.

In the wake of all this many said that it was the end of Winston but he said it was not and vowed to return. And surprise surprise he was right, after a comeback in 2011 he expanded that in 2014 and then stole Northland from National in 2015.

And if the 2017 election rolls around and current polling continues then the man who may decide the outcome will be the same man who previously keep alive two struggling and unpopular governments in the face of calls for change.

Out of such a situation Winston may walk like a phoenix from the fire; the comeback kid and kingmaker again squarely in the middle and ready to decide the fate of NZ. What his price may be and what costs will be borne by the country are yet not known but the man is no fool and he will have gauged the coming mood well (as his electoral Blitzkrieg in Northland showed) and be playing to get maximum gain for himself.

It would be incorrect to label Winston a simple populist (or demagogue) but neither is he a democrat or man of the people. Any benefits accrued by the electorate from his presence in government are mostly secondary to keeping him in politics. He is a one man political brand and when he does decide to get out of the game NZ First will on death watch but NZ politics will be a lot less colorful.

 

* – I’m not really blaming Winston for the political degradation of both Labour and National in modern times but it makes an interesting hypothesis.

 

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