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A tacit admission of decline.

datePosted on 16:57, June 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

In international relations theory, there is one standard that is commonly used to differentiate between superpowers and great powers. Superpowers intervene in the international system in order to advance systemic interests. That intervention can maintain or alter a balance of power or systemic status quo, but the point of  the move is to tinker with the system as a whole, something that is not done out of pure self-interest but in pursuit of something bigger or long-term in nature.

For their part, great powers intervene in the international system in order to pursue national interests. They do not have the capacity nor the desire to pursue systemic objectives outside of immediate national concerns.

Lesser powers can not make systemic changes but instead are subject to the actions of great powers and superpowers and the systemic effects of those actions.

I mention this as a prelude to a comment about the US position in the international system and Trump’s foreign policy actions to date. It has been clear for some time that the US is in decline. Once a pole in the bipolar balance of power that marked the Cold War, then the unipolar hegemon in the post-Cold War era when notions of the “American Century” and “Pax Americana” prevailed in US policy circles, the US has since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq been forced to deal with the rise of new and old powers when saddled with all of the hallmarks of domestic decline and yet remaining committed to a policy of perpetual war against non-state as well as state actors (although the form that conflict takes varies depending on the opponent and the nature of the battle space in which conflict occurs). Whereas once the US pushed liberal internationalism as a systemic virtue where international norms, regulations, law and institutions were seen as the foundations of a stable and peaceful world order, in the last decade or so the US has seen itself over-extended militarily in fruitless wars of convenience or opportunity that have eroded its international reputation and influence while its home front is rendered by decay and increased social division. Barack Obama tried to stem the adverse tide but a viciously disloyal political and media opposition undermined him at home and abroad.

No US politician can say, much less get elected or re-elected on the idea that the US is in decline and is no longer the first amongst equals in the international system. Barack Obama appeared to have understood the fact of US decline but could not admit it publicly. To this day US commentators, politicians and most of the general public believe or at least pay lip serve to the notion that the US remains an exceptional country, as the so-called “shining house on the hill” to which all other nations look for leadership as well as its role as the world policeman. They talk about defending freedom and American values as if those truly are the basis for US military interventions abroad and an increasingly coercive approach to ideological, ethnic, economic and cultural differences at home.

Enter Donald Trump, but with a twist. Trump also genuflects at the alter of American Exceptionalism. But his “America First” message, with its neo-islolationist, nationalist, monocultural and xenophobic undertones, is actually a tacit admission that the US is in decline. That is interesting because Trump was anything but tacit on the campaign trail when lamenting the state of the Union. Now, as president, he changed his tune and behaves as if the US as a nation-state is equivalent to himself in that it can buy, bully or negotiate its way to getting whatever it wants from others. That is where he is wrong, and his actions demonstrate otherwise.

By pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and Paris Climate Accords, refusing to endorse NATO’s notion of collective defense, demanding that other nations pay more for US “protection” (as if it was a Mafia racket), deriding international institutions and regional organisations, rejecting international law (such as those prohibiting the use of torture), threatening firms with retaliatory penalties if they do not invest more in the US and dismantling years of cross-border environmental and corporate regulatory frameworks in the supposed interest of creating US jobs, Trump has tacitly admitted that the US is no longer a super power that can manage the international system in its preferred image and in fact can no longer do anything more than what a great power in decline can do–pursue its interests at the expense of all others in order to try and arrest the slide.

It is too late for that. As one meme put it, “Trump is cancelling Netflix so that he can give more jobs to Blockbuster.” The decline of the US is not just a reversible economic phenomenon. It is ideological, political, moral and ethical in scope. It is institutional as well as material in nature. The very character of the US is in crisis, where a history of idealism and virtue has met its match in a culture of excess, greed and venality. Solidarity and an egalitarian ethos have given way to opportunism and survivalist alienation.

The US decline is also a product of advancing technologies in an age of globalised production, communications, consumption and exchange. It exists in a context where other nations no longer look to the US first for support on many fronts, and in which competitors have grasped the fact of American decline and moved to capitalise on it. It may not be exactly Rome before the Fall, but the US is in many ways starting to resemble the USSR in decline–all military muscle but with no heart, dead eyes and a silly orange comb over.

The good news for the US is that it can work well as a great power if it understands that is what it has become. The Bush 43 administration tried to reassert US supremacy with its foreign adventurism and only succeeded in accelerating its (albeit unrecognised) decline. Now that its diminution is in full sway, the US needs to address its internal contradictions, something that perhaps requires a (however temporary) retreat from systemic tinkering and intervention. This could be a good thing because international systems theory posits that unipolar systems are inherently unstable whereas multipolar systems with 3, 5 or 7 great powers balancing each other on specific strategic issues and geopolitical fronts are more stable over the long term. With the US backing away from international commitments and systemic engagement, it may be a moment for other great power aspirants to fully shine. Theoretically, that could work out for the better.

Practically speaking and whether it works out for the better or not, multipolarity is the where the international system is headed. The current moment is one of international systemic transition, and the fact is that conflict is the systems re-equilibrator under conditions of semi- or restricted anarchy (in which adherence to some international institutions and norms is paralleled by non-adhernce or respect for others). Absent uniform and effective enforcement authority, states decide which norms to follow and which to violate until such a time a new consensus is achieved on the contours and rules of the emerging international system. When universal norms are not uniformly followed, that is when conflicts occur. We are in such a moment.

Admit it or not, under Trump the US is at this transitional moment retreating into its shell and away from its superpower pretensions. For rising and resurgent powers, this is a window of opportunity that can lead to systemic realignment. And at least for the time being, for many around the world having the US out of their lives is not a bad thing.

One thing is certain: the decline of the US as a superpower may not be acknowledged but it is real.

Where to draw the line?

datePosted on 12:02, February 19th, 2017 by Pablo

Here are some thoughts for readers.

It is reported that former US Sen Scott Brown (R-MA) has been nominated by the Trump administration to be US ambassador to New Zealand. Besides a record that includes being a centrefold model, party to a sexual harassment lawsuit, and an undistinguished US Senator after a career in local politics in his home state, Mr. Brown is on record as saying that he supports the use of water boarding and other forms of torture. This is of particular note because Mr. Brown is a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts National Guard as a Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) officer, that is, as part of the Army legal system. He should therefore presumably be familiar with Jus in Bello, Jus ad Bellum and other international conventions that, among other things, prohibit the use of torture in war and peacetime.

NZ is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture (as a war crime). It also supports the International Court of Justice, which prosecutes war crimes and crimes against humanity (which include torture).

Every country has the right to refuse to accept the credentials of foreign ambassador-designates.

So the question is: as a responsible member of the international community and a strong supporter of the rule of international law, should NZ refuse to accept Scott Brown as the incoming US ambassador? Or should it adopt a policy of diplomatic necessity and cast a blind eye on Mr. Brown’s support for state-sanctioned criminal acts in order to curry favour with the Trump administration?

And, as a sidebar: Inspector General of Security and Intelligence Cheryl Gwyn is currently undertaking a lengthy investigation into whether NZ, via the SIS and/or NZDF, was involved in the extraordinary rendition and black site programs run by the US under the Bush 43 administration (which involved the extrajudicial kidnapping and secret detention without charge of suspected Islamicists, several of whom wound up dead as a result of their treatment while in captivity). These  programs included the use of water boarding and other forms of torture as supposed interrogation techniques at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay (Camp Xray) as well as a network of black sites around the world (not all of whom have been identified yet and which it is possible Ms. Gwyn’s investigation might shed light on). Given this background, will the decision on Mr. Brown’s acceptability as the US ambassador be indicative of what we can expect from the government when it comes to her findings?

I would love to hear your opinions.

Darkness at heart.

datePosted on 17:22, January 5th, 2017 by Pablo

Lets consider a hypothetical scenario.

A group of women appear to be well on their way to intoxication at a polite venue on an island known to cater to the affluent. They are not caucasian. A well-heeled older white male patron observes them and decides, perhaps after a few tipples of his own, to take it upon himself to caution them about the perils of drinking and driving in an area that has a heavy police presence over the holidays. He assumes that they are not locals.

His unsolicited advice is not welcome and he is told by one of the women, a 23 year old, that as local born and indigenous to boot, she “can do what she pleases” (according to his account).

His response, according to her, is to say that she needs to acknowledge that it “is also a white people’s island.” He says that it was just joking banter.

My questions at this point are this: even if she was being drunk and dismissive, of all the things he could have said, why that particular line? Could he not have replied in a myriad other ways, such as by telling her that her behaviour was drawing unwanted attention? Was he trying to say that the rule of law applies to everyone regardless of origin, but that the law is made by white folk? Even more to the point, why did he feel the need to go over and caution them? Is he in the habit of approaching strange women in public venues and giving them the benefit of his unsolicited advice? If so, why?

In any event, in the real world the young woman hits social media with her displeasure and the incident becomes a media frenzy. Various celebrities weigh in to defend the old guy, leaning on his good deeds for sport and various charitable contributions. Others are not so charitable.

The scenario gets stickier because he uses as a PR spokesperson a well-known reactionary woman who, in response to the furore over this remarks, at first says that the 23 year old is too fair skinned to have been the subject of racism and then says that she has never heard of the term “casual racism” until today.

The Race Relations Commissioner, herself of disputed background when it comes to issues of racial awareness, at first says that the old white gent is not a racist but then backtracks and introduces the term casual racism that the PR spokeswoman had previously never heard of. The term is certainly not new but it seems that the PR woman travels in insulated circles.

The questions that arise at this point are: seriously, the old white guy uses an even more clueless old white woman with a rightwing track record to defend him against charges of “casual” racism? And she then decides to use the 23 year old’s skin tone as a defense against the charge of racism (because the young woman is light skinned)? And in 2017 she claims to not know what “casual” racism is (perhaps because she casually is one)?

As for the Race Relations Commissioner–was she conflating her personal and official views when she made either or both of her statements?

Anyway, like I said, this is just a hypothetical scenario about race, gender and generational difference referencing current events in a post-truth age.

in a weird way, it reminds me of another (not so) old guy getting into some strife because of his penchant for serial hair-pulling of (sometimes very) young women in public venues or at events. He too claimed that his actions were just playful, joking physical banter that was misconstrued by one recipient of his attentions (and to be fair, none of his other instances of hair pulling were even noted, much less protested until a waitress complained). According to his many defenders, he was not a sexist or a fetishistic creep.

I guess offence is taken in the eye of the beholder, but in both cases the offence was taken after an older white male in a position of power decided to unilaterally approach and engage younger women in ways that were unwanted. In each case the older male felt entitled, or privileged, to initiate contact with a younger woman without first ascertaining whether that contact was welcome, and continued the contact after it became apparent that it was not. That others defended their actions as, at worst “misunderstandings,” speaks to a number of things.

What could they be and why, in 2017, should they be?

When I started posting on this blog it was not my intent to do a party by party round up of NZ Politics (I originally wanted to focus on my areas of specialty in Asia, The Middle East and military matters) but once I started I found myself compelled to continue. I do want to look at the media and the body public a bit later but this post is the last in this vein until something interesting arises in the NZ political sandpit*.

This post has taken a while to write, mostly because there was not much to actually write about without straying into territory that was a lot deeper than I wished to go (something Chris Trotter noted recently in the media) but also because the subject in question, the Maori Party, has not been around as long as most of the other political parties and as such does not have as much of a history that people might want to read about in a blog post such as this.

But things have taken a turn recently and there has been a spate of activity within the party and the subsequent media focus, so suddenly there has been a lot more material to work with which means that a post I was putting off can now be completed.

To begin the recent outburst of media activity seems to relate to the party gearing up for the election in 2017 with the olive branch being extended to Hone Harawira and Mana, the Maori King saying he would not vote Labour and the party refusing to support Helen Clark’s bid for UN secretary general.

Whose behind all this seems to be Tukoroirangi (Tuku) Morgan, through his election as the president of the party. Morgan was previously an adviser to the Maori King (which goes a long way to explaining why the King might suddenly bag Labour in his speech) and his recent comments in the media about rebuilding the party and winning back all seven Maori electorate seats from Labour fit in nicely with the current tone of the messages the party is sending.
All of this is a clear signal that Labour won’t be able to count on the support of the Maori Party come the next election (something which John Key has welcomed) and that the party wishes to re-build the bridges with Harawira (something which Key has not welcomed) and that that the losses of Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia in leadership have not been made good with the addition of Tu Ururoa Flavell or Marama Fox.

And part of the problem with the party is leadership. Flavell and Fox have not really filled the shoes left by Sharples and Turia (at least not yet) and it looks like the task has fallen on Morgan’s shoulders to do the strategic thinking for them. It’s not that Fox and Flavell are doing a bad job steering the party’s ship but for a party becalmed in the polls and electorate there has to be more than a steady as she goes approach on the tiller**.

Currently the party has two MPs in parliament by virtue of Flavell winning the Maori electorate seat of Waiariki and bringing Fox in with him as a list MP. All of the six remaining Maori electorate seats are currently in Labour hands.

In the polls, the party has languished around the 1% mark for so long that they are now in the same position as Peter Dunne and United Future; reliant on a single seat in marginal circumstances for access to parliament.

Policy wise the party can claim to have had some successes with Whanau Ora programme and related funding aspects and while there have been some minor successes in respect to their other policy planks (health especially but also in housing, employment and family violence) these have yet to translate into either the general or Maori electorates, as increases in their polling.

Another problem is that there have been nearly a dozen different vehicles for Maori politics in the last 45 years. From Labour in the 80s (until the fallout over the economic reforms), to NZ First in 96 (when the scooped all Maori electorate seats), to the various splinter parties that formed out of the Tight Five when they left NZ First to a range of others (including representation in ACT and National (although how genuine these were is questionable)) which makes the Maori Party just the current vehicle in a long list of vehicles for representing Maori in Parliament.

So at this time Morgan’s actions to beef the party up are definitely needed but have yet to show any fruit.

Nothing seems to have come out of their overtures to Mana (and given Hone Harawira’s dislike of National and the Maori party’s alliance with them as well as the internal squabbles which lead to him leaving and forming Mana (now dead in the polls after its bizarre alliance with Kim Dotcom) it seems that the band will not be getting back together soon.

The attacks on Labour also may yet backfire given that the majority of the Maori electorate seems to prefer Labour to the Maori Party at this time and how much influence the Maori King has is not currently clear. Perhaps in time his words will have an effect but the issue may be less the message and more the medium (the King) as in other countries, royalty usually tries to appear neutral or apolitical for good reason (that being that once you choose sides its somewhat hard to reverse position and if your horse does not win, then you no longer have friends in the big house).

So 10 out of 10 to Morgan for taking action but minus several million*** for not thinking things through because the real issue, which seems to have dogged the Maori party is somewhat the same as the situation into which they have put the King; that being a partisan one.

The formation of the Maori Party was in direct relation to Labour’s Foreshore and Seabed Legislation in the mid 2000’s and the party remained in opposition until National took power where it decided to throw in its lot with them. This lead to the party getting into government (a definite success) and the previously mentioned policy successes but at the cost of playing the partisan card.

In the case of the other political parties such partisan antics are normal and can be suspended when there is general common ground (the recent security and intelligence legislation is a good example) but since the Maori party is formed around a defined racial and not political core this has issues.

As the parties own goals/kuapapa state, the project of the party is to represent all Maori and to respect all parties but in these circumstances, by coming out swinging at Labour, they have done just the opposite. This is not likely to resonate well with any Maori who have voted Labour (or Green or even NZ First) in either the Maori or general electorates.

And with 16% of the population identifying as Maori and the party’s own 1% polling this means that there are more people this message will drive away than appeal to.

The party’s siding with National has never sat well with many people and Sharples and Turia have defended it in the past by pointing to the successes they achieved only by being in parliament, something which I agree with, but by playing such a partisan position now and signalling no future co-operation with Labour they have (whether they believe it or not) just shifted the party out of the middle and well towards the right.

Now there is no valid argument for saying that National is anti-Maori but it would be hard to defend the range of National government policies which have had negative outcomes for Maori in both the current and previous National Governments.

Conversely there is no real argument to say that Labour is pro-Maori but the biggest bone of contention between Labour and Maori seems to be the previously mentioned foreshore and seabed issue and the biggest reservoir of angst over that seems to be the Maori party itself rather than the Maori electorate.

In short Tuku “underpants” Morgan may have just cut the Maori Party’s throat in a well-meaning but ultimately suicidal plan to bring the party back to life. The party currently lives on Flavells single seat alone and I would bet my bottom dollar that Labour will be campaigning hard in that electorate in 2017 to remove it from him seeing that there is no room for compromise in the other camp.

So come the 2017 election we may see the Maori Party waka run aground on rocks that were on the chart but ignored due to hubris or bad captaining. The problem being that in and of itself the party was one of the better vehicles for bringing Maori issues into parliament than many of the others. The star to which they all steer is always the same but the vehicles do not seem to be able to complete the voyage.

*-knowing my luck probably sooner rather than later.

**-Yes I was trying to pack in as many nautical metaphors as possible.

***-Zaphod Beeblebrox in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

 

 

No Hard Feelings?

datePosted on 15:47, August 2nd, 2016 by Pablo

Sources in the US Navy have revealed that it will send an Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer to the RNZN 75th anniversary celebrations in November. The details of the participating ship have been sent to the New Zealand government but have not yet been released. However, I have it on good information that the ship will likely be the USS William P. Lawrence (DDG110). It is part of Pacific based Destroyer Squadron 21 and home ported at Naval Station San Diego. It is a relatively new ship, having been launched in 2009, christened in 2010 and entered into service in 2013.

Arleigh Burke class destroyers are gas turbine propelled and under peacetime conditions carry no nuclear munitions. So whether it is the USS Lawrence or a sister ship, the requirement that the visiting US grey hull be neither nuclear propelled or armed will have been met.

If indeed it is the ship being sent, the USS Lawrence has an interesting recent history. In May 2016 it participated in the freedom of navigation exercises the US Navy conducted in and around the Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed territories of the South China Sea that China has been building a reclaimed island upon. It has also conducted anti-poaching patrols and fisheries inspections in the Western Pacific in conjunction with local and regional fisheries agencies as well as the US Coast Guard, and undertook a recent port of call in Suva, Fiji. It most recently participated in the 30-nation Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises off of Hawai’i. In its present deployment it serves as something akin to a regional USN “guard ship” for the Southwestern Pacific. It even has its own Facebook page.

Readers will know that I publicly suggested that the US send the USS Mercy, a hospital ship home ported at Pearl Harbour. My reasoning was that the hospital ship could symbolise the humanitarian side of US naval operations (something that is a core mission of the RNZN) and could even do stop-overs in island states on the way to and from Auckland in order to offer check ups and exams, vaccinations and other medical assistance to disadvantaged Pacifika populations. Sending a hospital ship would be good PR for the US Navy and would also help defuse some of the opposition to the visit because it would look pretty silly for an activist flotilla to try and block an unarmed humanitarian vessel when other nation’s gunships received no such hostile welcome.

But no. That would be too much to ask of the US Navy. Instead, what they are sending is a ship of the destroyer class that succeeded the class of which the USS Buchanan (DDG-14) was part. In 1985 the USS Buchanan had pretty much the same role that the USS Lawrence does today. So after all of these years of acrimony, the US Navy has decided to send NZ the same, updated version of the boat that it tried to send in 1985.

Symbolism, much?

Yes I am flogging this dead horse again except that its an all new flog, we are flogging a different part of the horse and the horse might just not be dead yet!

Well it had to happen and last week it did, the first difference of opinion between Labour and the Greens happened since their cosy little MOU in May. And what was the disagreement over? Not surprisingly it was housing!

But we are not calling it a housing crisis anymore, that term is too controversial, too running down the road with your head on fire, so instead we are now calling it the Housing Hernia.

I had a hernia once. I got it after five hours shaking my behind on a sweaty dance floor and then walking, dripping in sweat, out into the chill of a Singaporean pre-dawn. It was not a smart move. First I got a hacking cough, then it got worse, finally it got nasty. The cough became painful, very painful every time I sneezed, which was a lot. I had contracted tropical pneumonia.

Overnight I was transformed into a low budget Michael Jackson impersonator by the fact that every time I sneezed I grabbed my crotch and screamed. This entertained my friends and co-workers no end at first but since I couldn’t do the dance moves or sing Billie Jean it soon became tiresome.

Sensing a serious problem I made haste to my local Singaporean doctor, a hardworking gentleman who served the massive HDB (Housing Development Board) block next to where I lived. He was quick, he was efficient and after hearing my plight and testing for himself by pressing the affected area (eliciting a strangled scream from me) he pronounced me the proud father of a hernia.

“A hernia, you mean like what rugby players get?” I asked (forgetting that Singaporeans don’t play rugby and my own experiences of who might get a hernia was severely limited). “Yes” he said in that voice doctors have for patients who ask stupid questions. “So what do I do?” I asked. The doctor looked at me and said “you can have surgery to treat it or leave it as it is and risk a rupture” in the same way a waiter might give the options for desert (lemon tart or chocolate cake? The correct answer is cake!). Needless to say I chose surgery!

So off I went to see the specialist, who has two plastic gold lions outside his office (a common sight outside offices in Singapore) which denoted the wealth and taste of the occupant inside. Thankfully he was a skilled doctor and thanks to the magic of health insurance (the only expats in Singapore without it are the stupid ones) I was booked in and ready to have the little bugger removed.

I won’t bore you with the gory details but suffice it to say the operating room looked like an extremely clean, white tiled, mechanics bay (complete with a rack of shiny, stainless steel tools which looked like they could pull the wheel nuts off a F1 racer in 2.6 seconds) AND that the anesthetist was late because, and I swear I am not making this up, he was playing golf!

So I lay on the wheeled stretcher, listening to the heart monitor, attached to my thumb, beeping and made a game of trying to slow my heart rate down, which correspondingly made the beeping decrease but every time I looked at the “tool rack” on the wall the beeping suddenly shot back up.

Finally all and sundry were present, I was given a shot in the arm, and asked to count to 10. I made it to five.

When I woke up I was on a stretcher in the hall and there was a pain where the hernia had been residing along with a big bandage. I hobbled out of the hospital, helped by my wife, into a taxi and home to recover.

It took a week of walking round painfully but after that the pain was gone, I had a scar to show where the doctor had cut me open and put in a plastic mesh over the hernia (which prevented it from popping out/rupturing) and its never bothered me since despite continuing to do martial arts and all manner of things which might have “ruptured” me, had I not done something about it.

Now the point of this story is to illustrate that “hernia” is a much better term to describe the housing situation in New Zealand (with its slow building (pun intended) series of issues which lead to said hernia); that the process of dealing with the wee beastie at no point required me to behave as if my head was on fire and that if left unchecked will most likely lead to a “rupture”.

In New Zealand the housing hernia is at what we might call the “Michael Jackson” stage of the process with sudden painful outbursts before all, temporarily, returns to “normal” and the growing realization that something is seriously wrong.

In deciding what to do with it appears that the Greens, or perhaps just Metiria Turei in an unscripted outburst, have opted for surgery in the form of cutting house prices to around $350, 000, while Labour, justifiably upset at being caught on the hoof by the statement but still in denial about the issue, have decided to continue with pretending that they might have a chance at appearing on Stars in Their Eyes (fat chance once you see this guy).

But as Jo Moir points out in the media, the split between the two parties clearly reflects each’s voter/generational differences with the Greens supported more by younger renters and Labour by older home owners. Of course such splits are not total but it does seem to reflect the basic demographics of the situation.

And she is not the only one to pick up on this, as media commentator Johnny Moore, found out recently when he wrote a piece attacking (at least partially in jest) the NZ Baby Boomers for making their own lives comfortable at the expense of future generations.

The response was predictable and somewhat correct in that he was eviscerated for creating a generational generalization which while overly broad in its sweep by blaming the Me Generation, also missed the fact that it’s not just boomers who are buying up houses in Godzone or that the problem is also due to political inaction by successive governments. None the less he got the parameters of the problem right.

But the best articulation of the hernia goes to Pencilsword with his masterful cartoon which is the most succinct articulation of the divide growing in NZ, I highly recommend his work.

And gap is what the issue is and if the numbers in Pencilsword’s cartoon are even remotely correct then we have the making of a generational split in NZ that may never be bridged unless something very drastic is done, like reducing house prices to an average of $350,000.

Because, as he so cleverly puts it, if you don’t own a home you have to rent and rents go up at the same market rates as house prices go up (so their owners can service their massive mortgages) yet wages ARE NOT going up or keeping pace with the rapid rise of house prices so if you rent your ability to pay rent is reduced until you either have to move to somewhere cheaper (say a garage, a car or Australia) or you get a nice large pay rise like MPs get (because we all get those don’t we?).

And this is why, despite the not adhering to the terms of the MOU by just letting fly to the media without warning Labour in advance, the Greens (or just Metiria Turei) have thrown the problem into sharp light by proposing a solution which while painful is probably necessary to prevent the likely rupture if NZ keeps on ignoring the problem and then shrieking and reeling in pain every time the housing market painfully shoots up another $3000.

For the homeowners in NZ (some of whom are Me Generation boomers) they just want this issue to go away, and the media for a long while has been compliant (possibly because they are also of said generation) by not bringing it up.

But for the renters (some of whom are Generation X (like myself) and Y’s) the problem is not going to go away, it’s getting more and more painful as rent gobbles more and more of ones pay packet at the expense of everything else and nary without a decent pay rise on the horizon (unless you move to Australia).

I note that in Christchurch where I live, rents have recently stabilized by new housing coming on stream but rents are still high and those that I know who own more than one home have reported grumbling by tenants at the high rents to the point of even asking for a reduction.

So the schizophrenic standoff continues with John Key and National, and now Andrew Little and Labour, in denial while bedazzling their white socks and glove while the upsetting, and painful solution is being discussed by the Greens (who knows what Winston thinks of this matter?).

And again the hernia analogy works here, yes getting the problem fixed before the rupture occurs, by correcting market prices, is going to hurt for some people, but there are ways to bring things down without setting ones hair on fire and the result if left is very very obvious because ALL bubbles burst/overheated markets correct in time and when house prices are jumping at $3000 a week I think we can all agree that the market is booming but it’s not going to last.

The beggar at this banquet of home ownership is anyone who can’t afford the massive sums, let alone the deposit, for a house in one of New Zealand’s major cities or towns and who is going to get continually squeezed by rising rents until something has to give.

And the rupture, if/when, it comes will be broadly along generational lines, as declining levels of home ownership do mostly align with the ages of people, resulting in a generational explosion of non-home ownership, frustration and rage at being denied a shot at the Kiwi Dream (the Quarter Acre Pavalova Paradise) and political behaviors which while not Trumpian in their levels could lead to something/someone in office for which they will be later blamed for (ironically) while the true guilty parties will have either passed on or be living comfortably retired in their mortgage free homes.

Of course the simple argument is that Labour (and the Greens) are just representing their respective electorates and that Andrew Little can’t afford to take any action which might leave the Labour faithful with a house worth less than their mortgage but if that’s the case then Andrew Little better get used to Labours current polling because they will have to squabble with the ever popular John Key and National for the declining share of voters who have their own home while the Greens and NZ First continue to gain as they speak for the increasing numbers of those who can’t make the mortgage nut.

So if this little split between Labour and the Greens is real then its more than just the Honeymoon being over, kiss goodbye the champagne and lingerie for good as this difference is unlikely to go away with just some whispered sweet nothings and a box of chocolates. To heal this divide is going to require one party or the other to give some serious ground and there is no indication that either side will be doing that. So as Moir notes someone will be “sleeping on the couch for the foreseeable future”.

But if this is politics, policy or pragmatism it’s rapidly becoming irrelevant and the housing hernia will continue to cause pain in New Zealand until the market “ruptures” or pigs need clearance to land at airports.

Finally I add this little bit of piece of gossip as it came to me from two unrelated sources and while probably in the realm of speculative fiction is not beyond the pale of possibility.

Said rumor being that the reason why National is thinking about an early election next year (July 2017 instead of November 2017) is because they know the market is going to crash soon and want to be out of power so that Labour gets the blame much like Obama got blamed for GFC which was happily brewed up while GW was on watch (but who is going to let facts get in the way of a good ol session of political point scoring).

I am not quite sold on this, yet, as it requires National to have foreknowledge of the coming crash and be willing to give up all the perks of being in government for the minor political points accrued from Nyah Nyahing Labor while it struggles with the housing hernia blowing an O-ring and writhing around in pain like its head is on fire.

But what could change my mind about this is if our ever smiling PM was to be considering dropping out of politics for whatever reason as then Nationals chances of making a fourth term are slim to zero as none of the haggard, bloated visages in cabinet  is going to have the same mojo as Key when it comes to leading the party, winning over the populace or avoiding the deluge of knives aimed at their back.

In such a situation then I would fully expect National to cut their losses by running through as much of their political program as possible between now and polling day before taking the hit and leaving Labour with the inevitable mess and them free to play the blame game.

John Key made his money as a market speculator and the housing market has all the hallmarks of a speculators market (rising bubble prices, external third parties, owning more than one house etc) so if anyone in cabinet has an inkling of what’s coming it will be him and its clear he wants to leave a legacy (see the flag debacle) so all the more better to get out before the proverbial explodes all over the fan and leaves whoever is in government with a mess than won’t wash out. He can then at least claim it was Andrew Little’s fault and criticize government inaction from the opposition benches.

There is a reason why NZ got state housing in the 30s and it was due to similar circumstances like we are getting today (low home ownership and predatory landlords) so there is a historical precedent for dealing with this. If not State Houses then something for modern times which has the same effect of getting people into homes (I wont even get into why home ownership is important for a modern state/democracy today but there is a wealth of work on the death of the middle class and the goal of neo-liberal markets to sweep away any obstacles to all wealth being consolidated in the hands of a greedy few for anyone with time to read up on it).

So to end, back to my hernia story. It was clear that at some point I would have to make a decision and take action, leaving it off in the hope of it going away would only prolong the agony and the odds of it magically remaining in equilibrium and not rupturing were very low.

So the choice is really between action now under painful but controlled circumstances or emergency surgery later BUT with much more pain and a nasty generational scar that won’t heal over. The latest Labour/Greens spat may heal over until the election but the Michael Jackson impersonations won’t soon go away and Generation Rent might sound like a good musical story but I wouldn’t want to be in it.

A note on the US navy ship visit.

datePosted on 12:51, July 22nd, 2016 by Pablo

So the US has agreed to send a ship to the RNZN 75th anniversary celebrations in November. That means that it has accepted New Zealand’s non-nuclear policy and will send a ship that is neither nuclear armed or propelled. It may have taken 33 years for it to finally loosen up on its “neither confirm or deny” policy when it comes to nukes on board, but the US realises that the geopolitical and strategic environment in which that policy was adopted is long gone and has been replaced by another in which continuing to adhere to it is a matter of hubris that is both churlish and counterproductive. Given the pressing realities of Chinese strategic competition in the Western Pacific and elsewhere, the US needs to consolidate its alliance commitments in the region. If acknowledging New Zealand’s non-nuclear stance is one way of doing so, than any loss of face is well worth it.

Pundits on the NZ Left and Right have claimed that NZ has “won” in its dispute with the US and that it is a great “victory” for the anti-nuclear movement that took to the waters of the Waitemata Harbour three decades ago. Quite frankly, I find the crowing about victory to be infantile because there were many other factors at play and decisions such as this are not a simple matter of win or lose. Moreover, with the Wellington and Washington agreements and RNZN participation in the annual US-led RIMPAC naval exercises, the bilateral military relationship between New Zealand and the US is pretty much back to first-tier partner status regardless of the symbolic stand-off about nukes. Add to that the fact that US nuclear submarines regularly patrol around (and some suggest in) NZ territorial waters, and the reality is that NZ’s non-nuclear status does not impede US naval operations near its shores regardless of what is said in public.

The issue of the US “relenting” is all about context. First off, the strategic environment has changed considerably. It is well known that US surface ships, with the exception of carriers, are all diesel power and as of 1991 have not carried tactical nuclear munitions. Even if resurgent, Russia no longer poses the global nuclear threat to the US that it once did, and although China has emerged as the giant’s rival in the last two decades, it still has limited capacity to project blue water force deep into the Pacific in a measure that would constitute a direct challenge to US maritime interests. However, the Chinese are working hard to address that imbalance, evident in their land reclamation projects in the South China Sea and their overtures to South Pacific island states with regard to naval port visits and fishing rights, something that the US views with concern and which in part motivates Vice President Biden’s whirlwind tour of the region this week. Likewise, the re-establishment of the Russian Pacific Fleet also signals that the era of US maritime supremacy is now subject to contestation, so the US well understands that it needs all of its military allies working off of the same page when it comes to these new challenges. Recognizing the RNZN on its anniversary is one small way of doing so.

More importantly, from the moment President Obama stepped into the Oval Office he made de-nuclearization a cornerstone of his foreign policy. The Iran nuclear deal, the increased sanctions levied on North Korea, the slowing of advanced weapons sales to Pakistan, the repeated attempts to engage in bilateral strategic ballistic missile reductions with Russia–all of these efforts were undertaken as part of Obama’s vision of a safer world. It is therefore completely logical given his commitment to a world without (or at least with lesser amounts of) nuclear weapons, that under his administration the US would relent on the issue of NZ’s non-nuclear policy. In fact, it can be argued that the Obama administration wants to highlight its agreement with the principled commitment to a non-nuclear stance by authorising a US ship visit on a ceremonial occasion with symbolic significance given that several other nuclear powers will be among the 30 odd nations sending naval vessels to the celebrations–including its new competitors.

I have publicly suggested that the US send the USS Mercy, a hospital ship home ported at Pearl Harbour. It would symbolise the humanitarian aspects of naval deployments that the RNZN claims as one of its core missions and would defuse the grounds for opposition of protesters who see US warships as imperialist death platforms. Surprisingly, this suggestion has been ridiculed by some (most on the Right) who say that a ship without guns is not “exciting” and is not a real naval vessel. Given that navies around the world have tenders, tankers, tugs, intelligence collection vessels and assorted other non-combat ships, it strikes me as strange that some people think that the US decision to send a navy ship is a victory for NZ and yet that victory must be confirmed with a warship visit as opposed to something with a non-combat purpose. Given that the NZDF spends much time publicising its non-combat, peacekeeping and humanitarian roles, I would have thought that a visit by a US naval vessel whose purpose was something other than kinetic operations would be perfectly suited for the occasion.

In the end the decision by the US to accept the invitation to send a ship to the RNZN anniversary celebrations was a triumph of good sense over bureaucratic intransigence within the US defense establishment, pushed as much by the president’s commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world as it is by the evolving strategic realities in the Western Pacific Rim that require the US to consolidate its military alliance commitments in the region. Some in NZ may think that it “won” and the US lost with its change of posture, but a simple glance at geopolitical realities suggests that it was not the NZ non-nuclear movement that forced the change so much as it is the influence of much broader factors in a context when haggling about nukes on board is about as relevant to modern naval warfare as is arguing about the relative merits of spinnakers and mainsails.

The Language of Violence

datePosted on 10:37, July 18th, 2016 by E.A.

There was an attempted coup in Turkey on the weekend. So far there are no real details on why and militaries can end up intervening in politics for a variety of reasons. Jets were scrambled, an attack helicopter was shot down and people massed in the streets and suddenly as it started it was over.

What is known is that while Erdogan is back in power I don’t think this is really a victory for democracy as he has become increasingly authoritarian over time and been connected to more than one scandal while in government.

Already the media has been talking about “purges” of both bad military personnel and anyone else who happens to oppose him so don’t expect the underlying issues which sparked the coup to go away anytime soon.

Add to this an ongoing bombing campaign in Turkey, often directed at military personnel and the “fun fun fun” next door in Syria and it’s not too difficult to see what may have been going through the minds of the plotters when they decided to have a coup.

The death toll from all of this is around 300 and it appears that those in the coup maker’s side decided to fire on civilians at least once, which while not the turning point, would not have been a recommended means to gather support when overthrowing a government.

Meanwhile in the US more police officers are dead in what is starting to appear to be tit for tat style killings in response to police killing various black American males.

While tragic I can’t help but feel somewhat concerned that in a nation full of guns and racial tensions (among other things) this is not going to be the last time this happens. An example has been set and if the police continue to use guns as a means to enforce the law then expect others to do so as well in response to issues of police behaving lawlessly.

And while somewhat peripheral to the situation, killings those tasked to enforce the law is a text book indicator of a brewing insurgency. Usually these acts happen to not only send a message and destabilize the current authority (allowing the insurgent to substitute its own authority) but to also acquire weapons to which further the struggle but in gun crazy USA there is no need to worry about getting your hands on high power weaponry (thanks NRA!) so consider this just a message sent.

Politicians and pundits wring their hands, the president says something reassuring but I can’t see any political means for the US to step away from this. The US looks more and more like an apartheid state every day and nothing I hear from friends and family living there gives me any indication that the horrible momentum of a dying super power will be arrested before the inevitable fall happens (for those who would like to get an indicator of how this goes I strongly recomend Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a text book read for how Empires fail).

And over in Asia the sabers are being rattled after the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) decided to enforce the UNCLOS (United Nations Law of the Sea) against Chinese actions in the South China Sea, deeming them illegal.

Will that actually stop China from building islands and military bases on coral reefs and atolls and behaving belligerently? Probably not as the immediate response out of Beijing was to declare it “rigged” in favor of the West which I would normally consider an appropriate response from China but in this instance just smacks of sour grapes.

In fact I expect immediate action form China in the wake of this as its already verbally blasted Australia for commenting unfavorably on this and I wonder if our current trade spat with China might be related to our not kowtowing to China on this issue.

What is clear that this one has been slow brewing for the past half-decade and even longer once you get into the history of it (one of my specialist areas of Masters study) and with natural resources like fishing, possible oil, and territorial sovereignty on the line among China, Taiwan, The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan (as something similar is brewing between Japan and China over disputed islands between them) no body is likely to be able, or willing to back down.

Add to this increased naval and related weapons sales to all parties and the US firmly opposed to China on this issue and you have all the makings of a cold war style thriller (which, if I remember correctly, was actually predicted by some Cold War style Tom Clancy type novelist in the 1980’s, whose names escapes me at this time).

And finally in NZ we have two individuals shot dead by the Police in one week. Both may have been in self-defense and both may have been justified (as details, while sketchy, seem to indicate that it was a means of last resort or in the face of imminent threat) but again the message is clear and unlike the US not (at least yet) a common occurrence in our society.

There is no common thread among these events except one which is, as the song* says, that “death is the silence” in the language of violence.

*-The Language of Violence by The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy

 

 

 

On the importance of woke whiteys (to other whiteys)

datePosted on 15:04, May 13th, 2016 by Lew

New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd announced this week that he would not seek re-election, due to the abuse he has received after his campaign to introduce a Māori ward representative to the New Plymouth District Council. You can hear his interview with John Campbell here.

Nobody deserves to be spat at on the street. The tragedy is that the spitters, of insults and of phlegm, don’t realise what a favour Andrew Judd has done them.

Much has been made of the favour that Judd’s stand has done for Māori. But two Māori candidates for that council have said Judd needs to go further. They rejected his call for a Māori ward, but they believe he should stand by his convictions and keep fighting. Māori do not have the privilege of walking away when it all gets too uncomfortable.

Bill Simpson: “If Mr Judd was Māori, and he came up with the same issues, do you think this would be publicised as strong as it is now?”
John Campbell: “My honest answer is probably not.”

Simpson: “Maori have been saying what Mr Judd has been saying for a number of years but no-one has actually paid attention.”

This is typical of the Indigenous experience: their histories, their stories and their lived reality is disregarded until it can be corroborated by white folks, and often not even then. It all goes double for women and other power minorities.

It’s not new, or isolated. White society systematically disregards Indigenous views, and not just for contentious, contemporary stuff. In 2003 Australian university researchers led by Heather Builth demonstrated using geographical, chemical and computer analysis that the Guditjmara people of what is now called southwestern Victoria had, for about 8,000 years, constructed and maintained a vast system of weirs and canals to farm eels. Eel farming is something modern societies struggle to do effectively, and 8,000 years is a long time ago — roughly at the same time as humans first domesticated chickens. This was an achievement of incalculable value for hundreds of generations, not only the Guditjmara, but also their trade partners and the other mobs who adapted the technology for use in their own country. But its very existence needed to be anointed by the proper authorities before it would be recognised. Guditjmara man Ken Saunders:

We weren’t nomads. We didn’t wander all over the bloody place and gone walkabout. We had an existence here … Well you couldn’t have a blackfella telling that story. So to prove it we had to have a white person doing the scientific research to say this is real

The dynamic is insidious. In Aotearoa we have come a long way from the bad old days of being caned for speaking te reo Māori, changing names and trying to pass for Pākehā, and most of that progress has not been due to the efforts of woke honkeys, but by the dogged struggle of Māori swimming against a white tide. But little gets done in New Zealand without at least the acquiescence of the dominant White society, because white society only listens to itself. And so it often takes people like Andrew Judd and Heather Builth to usher these contraband discussions past the sentinels of public discourse.

I used to write a lot about this sort of thing, but I have no real standing to talk about this stuff, except that I am Pākehā, and therefore less easy to write off as another crazy radical. It’s easy for woke whiteys to pat ourselves on the back for and doing those poor brown folks a favour, bestowing our privileged advocacy on them, but the only way it works is if we talk to ourselves. Indigenous people are better at fighting their own battles than we are. But because little happens without our acquiescence, there is a role for woke whitey race-traitors working to change our own people.

So from my perspective, Judd’s stand is of greater benefit for other Pākehā than it is for Māori. As I wrote earnestly in 2011, honouring the Treaty is not simply about doing what is right for Māori, but about white New Zealanders honouring our own principles and standing upright on this ground that we occupy.

So it’s really very simple: as Tau Iwi, if we live here in Aotearoa, we have an obligation to do our bit in ensuring the Treaty gets honoured. Because to the extent it remains unhonoured, we’re in breach of the only thing which grants us any enduring legitimacy, the only agreement which gives us a right to be here. One of the basic, fundamental principles of the English civil society which Hobson represented, and which New Zealanders continue to hold dear today is the notion of adhering to one’s agreements; acting in good faith. In fact, Hobson’s instructions were to deal with the Māori in good faith as equals. … I’m Pākehā, and even if those other pricks won’t live up to their own declared standards, I want to honour my agreements, and those of my forefathers; and those made by people from whom I’m not descended but from which my 20th-Century immigrant grandparents benefited. This Pākehā, at least, pays his debts.

Andrew Judd is a good model for this. I am not. I had the fortune to be brought up by a mother who lived with Māori and grew biculturalism into our bones, and I have never been properly able to grok people who think the Treaty is a farce, that bygones should be bygones, or that Māori should just be more like “us”. Judd came to it as an adult with his eyes open to the monoculture that grudgingly permits biculturalism to exist, and he tried to change it in a meaningful way.

Another good model is Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy, who was roundly mocked (including by me) as a part-timer with no credibility for her role, but who has repeatedly proven her ability to learn and own the job. These are the people white New Zealand needs: people who know that insidious racism isn’t just a redneck thing, or a Tory thing, or a South Island thing, but something intrinsic to society that is, nevertheless, curable by honest engagement with the historical facts. The people who hold these views are, by and large, just ordinary decent folk afflicted by banal prejudice and ignorance about the realities of a divided society.

White Aotearoa is right, in its way: these divisions harm us. New Zealand would be a better country without racism, without the poverty and crime and dysfunction that results from racism and from the systematic exclusion of a small but growing proportion of our people from full access to education, healthcare, prosperity and influence. Quite apart from the value of basic justice, there are more measurable benefits: the greatest gains begin from a low base, and there is a vast opportunity for Aotearoa’s underprivileged and under-utilised Indigenous people to make enormous economic, cultural and intellectual contributions to the nation. Some already do, and what a difference it makes.

Judd’s bid to ensure Indigenous representation on the New Plymouth District Council failed, and it seems certain that even were he to stand for re-election he would be beaten, because what Mike Hosking said is basically true: he is out of touch with middle New Zealand, and thank goodness! Middle New Zealand is wrong, and it needs to be told so by people whose views it cannot dismiss out of hand. Judd has showed White Aotearoa a way forward. Not an easy way, but an honest way to be true to ourselves, and we owe him our thanks.

L

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?

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