Archive for ‘Politics’ Category

Small feels Large, but only to the Small.

datePosted on 14:37, November 14th, 2010 by Pablo

From the rhetoric and doe-eyed looks emanating from the PM and Foreign Minister during the signing of the so-called “Wellington Declaration,” one would have thought that NZ had just been awarded most favoured nation status by the US and assumed a place akin to that of France or Germany in US foreign policy. This belief seems to have gone to the head of the PM, who has taken to lecturing larger states such as Japan on NZ expectations when it comes to trading agreements. The truth is a bit different.

The “strategic partnership” announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirms what has been apparent to the international security community since 2001: NZ quietly dropped its concerns about engaging in military-to-military relations with the US in exchange for the US routinely granting executive permission for these to occur. NZ military deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter reportedly involving more than just the one year rotation of combat engineers in Basra, something that the NZ government refuses to acknowledge), as well as NZ commitment of intelligence assets to both tactical and strategic intelligence gathering at home and abroad (such as the deployment of GCSB and SIS personnel to Afghanistan) all occurred without fanfare and in spite of the formal ban of military exchanges and exercises in effect since the dissolution of the ANZUS alliance. Not having US Navy surface ship port visits in NZ does not deter US submarines from entering NZ territorial waters with or without NZ government connivance, and any look at video of NZDF troops in action in foreign locales clearly shows that they work in close proximity to US troops and preferentially use US equipment during the conduct of their combat operations.

The Wellington Declaration just makes public this discreet relationship, which even as it deepens and becomes standardised over the long-term will not require signing of a formal alliance treaty. The latter is seen as an encumbrance for domestic political reasons on both sides (since both the US Congress and NZ Parliament would see opposition to the signing of a bilateral security treaty), so much as in the way the US conducts its foreign wars (which is to not seek Congressional ratification of a declaration of war for fear of opposition, but instead to use Executive authority as commander-in-chief to declare a state of national security emergency requiring military combat deployments abroad that presents Congress with a fait accompli), the Wellington Declaration circumvents legislative scrutiny at the same time that it reaffirms the obvious close security ties that exist between the two states.

What changed most clearly is that while Labour prefers to soft peddle the relationship due to its internal factional dynamics, National has always had issues with the “independent and autonomous” foreign policy stance that has characterised NZ diplomatic relations since the early 1990s. Although it cannot reverse the anti-nuclear policy due to domestic political factors, National has always worked to reaffirm its “traditional” security ties, to the point that it supported NZ joining the US-led “coalition of the willing” that invaded and occupied Iraq without UN authorisation. With the Wellington Declaration it has gotten its wish.

But sometimes getting what one wishes for brings with it unanticipated trouble. By formally committing to a strategic partnership with the US, overlapped on National’s commitment to engaging closer military ties with Australia, NZ has in effect become a posse member for the global sheriff and its Antipodean deputy. The closer the level of military engagement between NZ and its larger military partners (quaintly called “interoperability” in the jargon), the more dependent it becomes on them for strategic guidance, material support, operational readiness and deployed force security. This makes it more likely, in spite of National’s assurances that NZ always retains the option to refuse a request, that NZ will wind up becoming involved in conflicts not of its choice but that of its strategic partners. That in turn raises the specter of NZ developing, by way of military coat-tailing, hostile relations with countries and cultures with which it historically has had no quarrel, which will spell the end of its “independent and autonomous” diplomatic posture.

What Mr. Key and his company of advisors appear to not understand is that the US rapprochement with NZ is due to two basic strategic factors, one general and one specific, that have little to do with interest in NZ per se. The first general reason is that, after a delay in responding due to the obsession with counter-terrorism in the Middle East and Central Asia, the US has moved to counter Chinese advances in the Western Pacific basin, which it sees as the next big strategic conflict zone. Not only is it in the process of moving the bulk of its military assets into the Pacific, in a reversal of the century-old Atlantic and Euro-centric orientation that characterised its strategic outlook until recently. It has also reaffirmed its bilateral security ties to all of its Asian partners as well as India. This includes Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, NZ and even Viet Nam. This defensive arc covers countries deeply concerned about Chinese neo-imperialist ambitions, many of whom have diplomatic or territorial disputes with the Chinese, and along with its soft power projection in the Pacific Island Forum countries (including Fiji, where the US has just announced the resumption of US AID development work), the US is moving to counter Chinese influence in SE Asia and beyond (most often gained via so-called “chequebook diplomacy” whereby China promotes infrastructure development projects with no apparent strings attached but which all have potentially dual civilian and military applications). The Wellington Declaration just adds NZ to the roster of US security partners that constitute a collective hedge against the looming Chinese presence, which is particularly noteworthy because of NZ’s increased dependency on Chinese investment and trade for its economic fortunes.

With the Wellington Declaration Chinese influence and ambitions in NZ are potentially fence-ringed. That may have been National’s undeclared intent, and if so that is the hypothetical NZ gain from the deal. But all of that remains to be seen  (if nothing else because it would contravene National’s public assurances that it welcomes the Chinese investment and cultural presence on NZ shores–cue revelations about Pansy Wong and her long obviously dodgy failed businessman-husband, who just might have caught US negative interest given the Chinese penchant for placing intelligent assets in their diaspora).

The second, specific strategic purpose that the Wellington Declaration serves is US nuclear counter-proliferation efforts. Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration has a basic, and apparently sincere interest in reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond those that currently possess them. Having a small “neutral” non-nuclear state as a partner in such efforts provides a convenient and effective cover (some might say fig leaf), particularly with regards to “rogue” states such as North Korea and Iran. NZ has already participated in the Six Party negotiations on the North Korean nuclear programme, helping to gain a delay in Pyongyang’s efforts to achieve full weapons capability. In Iran’s case, NZ’s strong economic ties to the mullah’s regime is seen as providing a source of indirect diplomatic access and backdoor entry into the Iranian mindset with regards to nukes (via diplomatic and intelligence service information sharing). In other words, working with and through NZ on matters of nuclear proliferation, the US gains diplomatic cover for its own self-interested reasons to oppose the spread of the universally recognised deterrent.

What NZ does not get out of this strategic partnership, and which the National government continues to wax deluded about, is improved negotiating status with the US with regard to bilateral trade. The US is content to allow the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations to take their course with respect to trade with NZ and other small Pacific partners, and domestic political considerations accentuated by the recent midterm elections make it nigh impossible for NZ’s leading export sector, dairy, to make inroads into the subsidised US market. Truth be told, for the US there is no “issue-linkage” between security and trade when it comes to NZ even if its rhetoric continues to hold out the promise of such being the case sometime in the future. Yet the current (and to be fair, the past) NZ government continues to insist that, “difficulties” notwithstanding, bilateral trade with the US in forthcoming if not imminent because of NZ efforts across a range of issues of mutual interest without qualification or constraint.

This is where Mr. Key and Mr. McCully fail the foreign policy leadership test. Given the US strategic interests at play, and its absolute need to secure partnership agreements that catered to these interests given the evolving world balance of power, NZ was in a position to bargain hard and leverage its credentials (mostly Labour-made) as an honest broker and reliable international interlocutor into some form of tangible, immediate benefit in exchange for accepting the role of US strategic partner. That did not happen. Instead, what NZ got was platitudes, promises and bilateral yearly meetings between foreign policy counterparts, something that is par for the course for any number of nations, in what essentially amounted to a stop-over on Secretary Clinton’s trip to more important meetings with the US proxy that is Australia. As a result of that brief rendezvous,  NZ is now saddled with the burden of being internationally perceived to be (if not in fact)  more closely tied to the US without the full benefits of being so. It is a junior partner of the US in security only, and that is bound to be noticed by the international community.

In effect, NZ is just a small cog in a larger US strategic plan that is influenced by factors that have nothing to do with NZ interests and all to do with how the US sees and proposes to shape the strategic environment currently evolving in the Western Pacific and with regard to nuclear proliferation. National believes that it has made NZ a “player” by signing a strategic partnership agreement with the US, but the truth is that it has committed the country to a relationship that has always been one sided and which just got more so. To put it bluntly: the Tories may feel big as a result of the “Wellington Declaration” but they still are small and myopic when it comes to perceiving, much less comprehending the bigger picture, to say nothing of  the realities at stake down the road.

PS: The farce only gets better. NZ announced that it is in FTA negotiations with authoritarian, crime mob-dominated klepto-oligarchic Russia even though it admits that Foreign Affairs and Trade have very limited Russian language comprehension skills and the deal will involve Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (Russia negotiating for them, presumably), two states that NZ has admitted to having”limited” knowledge about (to include comprehension of Tajik or Uzbek dialects). In other words, National has staked its claim to being at the forefront of free trade agreements without understanding the business and political culture, much less language or human rights conditions, of potential partners just after it committed to a long-term security partnership with a country that has a troublesome relationship with all three.  This is amateurism taken to art-level heights.

The Problem with Trading Down.

datePosted on 10:13, November 9th, 2010 by Pablo

Jane Kelsey’s latest  book on trade, an edited collection titled No Ordinary Deal, was launched last night in Auckland. Other launches will follow in Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch this week before the road show heads to Australia. As a contributor to the book I attended the launch and enjoyed the speech given by another contributor, Lori Wallach, a trade specialist at the US research institute Public Citizen (founded by Ralph Nader in 1971). Lori, who wrote the chapter on the US domestic agenda and approach to the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, noted that the model for the TPP is not the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade (GATT) but instead the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which essentially is an investor’s guarantee agreement rather than one about free trade per se.

In her chapter and her speech, Lori noted that among many other downsides to the TPP, it would exempt foreign investors from domestic regulations in NZ, and should the investor be made to comply with those regulations by court order, the costs of compliance would be borne by the NZ taxpayers in the form of mandatory compensation. She went on to note how local pharmaceutical regulations and control boards would be circumvented in favour of US drug company standards, and explicated the dumping and market monopolisation efforts of US agri-businesses under this type of trade regime. As a sidebar she noted how NZ dairy exports would not appreciably increase to the US under the agreement, as well as the fact that the recent midterm elections have ridden on a backlash against trade because of presumed US job losses tied to it, which means that the possibility of the US ratifying the TPP in the next two years under the new congressional leadership (even if negotiations are concluded, which itself is unlikely) are improbable at best. Her basic premise was that she would not object to the TPP if it were about free trading of goods and services as per the Ricardian ideal. What she objects to is the use of free market rhetoric to cloak cross-border commercial arrangements that are less than free or fair and which contain pernicious costs for smaller national partners and wage labour-dependent consumers in general.

The bottom line is that the TPP is fraught and the public need to be aware of the very large downside to it. It is not a genuine “free trade” agreement in the proper sense  of the term. Instead, it is a US-centric investor’s agreement skewed in favour of large (mostly foreign) corporate interests rather than consumers and local producers. Among other topics, chapters (there are 19 in all) explore the impact of the TPP on indigenous rights, climate change, intellectual property, cultural exchange and, in my contribution, security. They are well worth reading, and often eye-opening.

The book is designed to promote informed debate on the matter by offering a critical counter-point to the received wisdom of the policy elites who attempt to sell it as as “win-win” universal good for all involved. As I have noted previously when writing about asymmetric trade, this is a far cry from the truth and carries with it not only the potential for a loss of economic freedom and sovereign control of strategic assets, but also the very real danger of increasing both physical and emotional insecurity in the smaller partners involved in such agreements. Since insecurity breeds fear (be it fear of job loss, fear of environmental harm, fear of forced dislocation from one’s land or cultural roots, to say nothing of fear of physical harm by direct or indirect means), and freedom from fear is considered to be an inalienable human right, the downside of the TPP needs to contrasted againt the supposed upsides championed by those who stand the most to benefit from the deal, and who constitute an elite and often unaccountable minority among the constituencies involved.

More publisher information on the book and the launches can be found at www.bwb.co.nz.  An information sheet on the book is here:

No Ordinary Deal
Unmasking the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement
Jane Kelsey
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is no ordinary free trade deal. Billed as an agreement fit for the twenty-first century, no one is sure what that means. For its champions in New Zealand a free trade agreement with the US is a magic bullet – opening closed doors for Fonterra into the US dairy market. President Obama sells it as the key to jobs and economic recovery, while protecting home markets. Australia hails it as a foundation stone for an APEC-wide free trade agreement.

None of these arguments stacks up. All nine participant countries except Vietnam are heavily liberalised, deregulated and privatised.* They already have many free trade deals between them. Who really believes that US dairy markets will be thrown open to New Zealand, or that China, India and Japan will sign onto a treaty they had no role in designing?

No Ordinary Deal
Experts from Australia, New Zealand, the US and Chile examine the geopolitical and security context of the negotiations and set out some of the costs for New Zealand and Australia of making trade-offs to the US simply to achieve a deal. ‘Trade’ agreement is a misnomer. The TPPA is not primarily about imports and exports. Its obligations will intrude into core areas of government policy and Parliamentary responsibilities. If the US lobby has its way, the rules will restrict how drug-buying agencies Pharmac (in New Zealand) and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (in Australia) can operate, and the kind of food standards and intellectual property laws we can have. Foreign investors will be able to sue the government for measures that erode their investment. The TPPA will govern how we regulate the finance industry or other services, along with our capacity to create jobs at home.

Above all, No Ordinary Deal unmasks the fallacies of the TPPA and exposes the contradictions of locking our countries even deeper into a neoliberal model of global free markets – when even political leaders admit that this has failed.

*The US, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Malaysia joined in October 2010.

  • RRP: $39.99
  • 288 pages
  • 270 x 140 mm
  • ISBN 9781877242502
  • Publication November 2010

Distributor: HarperCollins, PO Box 1, Shortland Street, Auckland
Contact: customerservices@harpercollins.co.nz
Sales Manager: Tony Moores, tony.moores@harpercollins.co.nz
PO Box 12474, Wellington 6144
Phone: 04 473 8128
Email: info@bwb.co.nz
www.bwb.co.nz

The Contributors: Jane Kelsey, Bryan Gould, Patricia Ranald, Lori Wallach, Todd Tucker, José Aylwin, Paul Buchanan, John Quiggin, Warwick Murray, Edward Challies, David Adamson, Geoff Bertram, Tom Faunce, Ruth Townsend, Susy Frankel, Jock Given, Ted Murphy, Bill Rosenberg, Nan Seuffert.

The US as the new Greece.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of that is going to happen anytime soon.

Drawing Blood from a Stone.

datePosted on 19:59, October 8th, 2010 by Pablo

The government’s decision to file a civil suit against the “Waihopai 3” is vindictive and a gross waste of taxpayer dollars. Much like the Zaoui case, which could have been concluded years before it actually did at far less cost than the amount on the final bill, this is a classic example of a vexatious state litigation. Vexatious state litigation, to coin a phrase, is an instance when the state (exemplified here by the Crown) continues prosecutions, appeals or defenses long after legal defeat is obvious and, as in the case here, judicially administered. Even so, there are a few aspects of the case worth reviewing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post titled “Political Idealism Trumps the Law,” the Waihopai 3 expertly exploited the claim of right defense to defend their direct action against the eavesdropping station. Contrary to most direct action proponents, they did not admit their crimes and accept their due punishment, but instead used the claim of right defense to argue their innocence based on moral grounds. Among other things that defense states that even if mistaken in their motives, people who honestly believe that their acts will prevent a greater harm are exonerated of responsibility for the consequences of those acts. Thus, although I (and presumably the government) believe that they are mistaken in claiming that the Echelon station at Waihopai facilitates torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations, the important point is that Peter Murnane, Adrian Leason and Sam Land were found by a jury of their peers to be innocent because they sincerely believed that their actions were helping to prevent a greater harm. So long as the claim of right defense exists in the law and juries are willing to accept that defense as legitimate, then the verdict should stand and, in the absence of irregularities in the administration of the case, no appeals or civil lawsuits filed. In other words, that should be the end of the story.

If the government does not like the claim of right clause in the law, it can work to change it. But suing for civil damages to the tune of 1.2 million dollars, including the cost of pies, beer and savories for repair workers, smacks of imperial hubris. Moreover, the claim is unrecoverable even if the Crown were to win the lawsuit. Father Peter has no tangible assets, and since neither the Dominican Order or the Catholic Church were party to his actions, they cannot be made parties to the suit. As for Land and Leason, what is the Crown going to do–confiscate Land’s organic farm and repossess Leason’s house while garnishing his salary, thereby throwing their families onto the street (and dole)? Even if it did so, the amount recovered from the sale of the assets of all three men would not come close to paying the full bill. So what is the point if the full costs are not anywhere close to recoverable?

The Crown also has not thought through the consequences of its lawsuit. The GCSB refused to front up at the original trial in order to refute the defendant’s allegations. That pretty much left their claims uncontested, which was instrumental in the jury’s verdict. Is the GCSB now going to show up at a civil trial and be prepared to re-litigate the original claims under the claim of right defense? If not, then there is no case for damages because a verdict of innocence under the right of defense absolves defendants of financial liability stemming from their acts. To put it bluntly: a verdict of innocence under the claim of right defense means full absolution from liability. That is why the right of defense is such a dramatic line to take and so difficult to argue successfully, which is why most direct action militants do not even bother with it and opt to plead guilty and ask for judicial mercy citing mitigating factors. But in this case the right of defense was made and it prevailed. Unless the GCSB wants to testify as to the merits of the claim of right defense as well as to the extent of the damages incurred (which I believe have been exaggerated) then there is no case to be made. If there is no case to be made, the pursuing the lawsuit is a waste of time and public money.

If the government allows this civil suit to continue it will be another example of politicians and state bureaucrats playing loose with taxpayer money in order to prove a vengeful point regardless of the merits of the case. The suit is clearly designed to be a warning to others who would dare to use the claim of right defense for direct actions, and therefore not only a form of vexatious state litigation but also an act of official intimidation against those who would dare speak (their) truth to power. For a supposed liberal democracy, that is a bad look.

When kindness is retold unkindly

datePosted on 22:14, September 19th, 2010 by Anita

A few years ago I had a staff member who was working long hours and many days away from home. His job required a lot of travel, and a lot of time away from his partner, friends and family. At one point his partner’s son was undergoing treatment for cancer and he was working away and couldn’t be there to support his partner. One of the staff in the office arranged for flowers to be sent to his partner – a small token of caring at a hard time.

Looks fine to me, I’ve authorised flowers, movie tickets, and more for family members whose lives have been disrupted by work I’ve given my staff. I was once given plane tickets to spend time with my family after work kept me tied up through Christmas and New Year.

But time passed, and my staff member made some enemies, and that purchase of flowers was used to humiliate him and damage his career.

This makes me wonder a couple of things:

1) Was the decision to buy flowers a bad one?

2) Was the use of the purchase of flowers by his enemies, repeatedly retold by the media, fair?

3) Is my gut feeling right that this particular purchase was used by his enemies to remind us all that this partner is male, and imply that there is something distasteful about that fact?

I’m not for a moment suggesting that spending on and by employees should be uncontrolled, unmanaged or concealed; just wondering where to draw the line between transparency and self-serving malicious prurience.

Sometimes the duty of the free press is to not report.

datePosted on 01:55, September 12th, 2010 by Pablo

The on again, off again Koran burning planned by a small time evangelical preacher in Gainsville Florida has received world wide coverage and raised serious concern among the US military and foreign policy elite that it will cause a murderous reaction against US citizens living and fighting in the Muslim world. The issues has dominated the news in the US for days (I am currently located about 120 miles southeast of Gainsville), played out in a perverse media tag team with the so-called 9-11 mosque controversy. Official concern is so great that President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and ISAF commander General David Petreus have denounced the planned pyrotechnics, while Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a personal call to the preacher to ask him to cease and desist.

So far, the preacher has said that he will stop the burnings only if the 9-11 mosque supporters agree to move it someplace else. Which means that on top of the provocation and outrage he intends, he has now added blackmail.

Fueled by right wing media led by Fox News TV and Radio outlets, the issue has been debated on a free speech grounds. It is generally accepted that the wacked out preacher has a right to burn Korans, but division is over whether he has a responsibility to not do so given the larger consequences of his actions. Some officials have tried to find a way to stop him using hate speech legislation, saying that his obvious intent is to spread hatred towards all Muslims and the faith itself, something that is not protected by the first amendment. Others have responded that he should be allowed to do as he please and that the US should not kow-tow to “terrorists” just because Muslims react hysterically to the desecration of the holy book or images of the prophet.

I shall leave aside the obvious greater harm argument that clearly demonstrates why the Koran burning is a bad idea. I shall also avoid addressing the fact that Islam is not the only religion where its adherents respond violently to perceived insults to their faith. I will leave aside the argued to death free speech aspects of the case. Instead, I will address two aspects of this affair that appear to be underplayed.

The first issue is a matter of perception of the event in the Muslim world. Like it or not, most people living in Muslim nations cannot fathom the concept of a separation of church and state, or that the US government and local authorities do not have the power to just physically stop the preacher from holding the event. That is because most live in authoritarian states where religion and politics are deeply intertwined and governments regularly intervene in matters of religion (to include prohibitions on certain types of religious activity, regulations on marriage, etc.).  As a result, most citizens in the Muslim world cannot conceive of  such an event being carried out without government approval, so see it as an officially sanctioned statement of how the US views Islam. That may be ignorant or confused on the facts, but it is the reality of the context in which the Koran burning is perceived in the Muslim world. (Note to those who may take offense: this is a comment about the deeply ingrained authoritarian nature of power structures in the Muslim world rather than about the content of its faith, and refers not to the educated classes but to the broader mass of people who do not have access to the facilities and vehicles that would allow them to make discerning judgements on international issues. The same can be said about other political cultures as well).

The second issue is the reckless role of the US press. The preacher in question leads a 50 person fringe fundamentalist congregation that has in the past protested against gays and threatened to torch a copy of the Torah (since he believes that Judaism is also a “dirty” religion). He clearly has delusions of grandeur, if not being a few cans short of a six pack. The national press paid no mind to his previous antics, so why is it doing so now? Why not just ignore him? Why is this event considered front page news when his other antics were not?  In sum: why give this nutbar oxygen?

Given the sensitivities at play, the national press could have buried the story in the “odd news” section or not covered it at all given its marginal nature. To their credit, outlets like the NYT and WP have limited their coverage to the reactions and not played the story on the front pages of their respective publications. But, led by Fox and a network of Christian radio and TV outlets, the US press has covered the Gainsville Goober as if he were Sarah Palin’s running mate.

That is where they fail their obligations to the public. As with any democratic entity, the press has responsibilities along with rights. Those responsibilities include not inflaming or otherwise causing small events to bocome international incidents that have the potential to cause great harm to US interests and its citizens. It has an obligation not to stoke the fires of religious and ethnic hatred. And yet the right-wing media in the US has done exactly that, aided and abetted by conservative politicians like Newt Gingrich who see political gain being made off of the scapegoating of Muslims and (with regards to immigration and future demographics) Hispanics.

This helps explain why the tone of public debate in the US has become so vulgarised and debased. There is a large element of the press that has become “Murdochised,” (sic), that is, it will report on anything that can cause scandal, outrage and division in the interest of profit and political advantage. It has eschewed its responsibilites to the larger public interest in the pursuit of partisan gain. It is, in other words, unworthy of the constitutional guarantees under which it cloaks its behaviour.

All of which is to say that if there is a nasty fallout from this stunt, whatever blood is spilled is not only on the hands of the religious provocateur and his small band of intolerant followers, but also on the hands of their media and political facilitators who turned a backwoods hoe down into an international incident.

In the US, a return to primordialism.

datePosted on 09:03, August 21st, 2010 by Pablo

In retrospect, it seems obvious. Given the venomous attacks on Barack Obama in the 2008 election campaign, the move towards a “post-racial” society was never going to happen.  Instead the reverse transpired, with race, religion and ethnicity now dominating US political debates in a measure not seen in years. Fuelled in part by the president’s overt identification with African-American culture and causes in spite of his mixed race heritage, the real instigators of the return to American primordialism are the conservative media outlets, Tea Party agitators and opportunistic Republican politicians who see political advantage in harping negatively about race, religion and ethnicity. Be it arguments about reverse racism, immigration, “socialist” health policy, religious freedom (in the case of the proposed Islamic cultural centre located 2 blocks from ground zero in New York City), the hot button issues in the lead-up to the November 2010 midterm elections are rooted in conservative white fear of cultural diversity and ethnic equality. That garrison mentality resonates in the great American echo chamber of conservative blogs, radio and television, and it has set the tone for the political debates of the moment.

The conservative view is that to be Judeo-Christian white is to be right, and the issue is whether to stand or fight. This view holds to the belief that White Christians are the carriers of superior values tied to the Protestant Ethos of hard work and entrepreneurship,  and that these values are now under siege from a variety of forces, both domestic and foreign (often working in concert). Fear of the “other” is the subtext of the day. With the nightmare of a black Kenyan Muslim in the oval office now realised (at least in the minds of some), the culturalist Right have chosen to fight. Their method for doing so is to fill the public space with racially charged interrogatives that speak to white grievances against affirmative action, poverty reduction, undocumented immigration (including so-called “anchor babies”), minority religions (especially Islam), linguistic diversity, and any other cultural characteristic that is seen as threatening to WASP values.  Cultural scape-goating is phrased as a defense of traditional values in order to cloud the message and make it difficult to refute. The Democrats and progressive elements in the electorate have been slow to stand up to the cultural bullying, and even slower to recast the terms of the political debate. Since those who set the terms of political debate are the ones who usually win the argument, this augers poorly not only for the president and his party in November, but for the future of American social diversity in general.

The return to race baiting and xenophobia is due not only to white Christian conservative fear of what the future US demographic may look like, but also to their inability to offer a policy agenda that is anything other than opposition to whatever the Democrats propose. Capitalising on anti-“big government” sentiment that conveniently overlooks the fact that the expansion of the federal government deficit was fuelled by a massive military build-up in pursuit of two wars undertaken by a conservative Republican president aided and abetted during his first 6 years in office by a GOP-dominated Congress in a context of corporate deregulation and lower taxation of firms and wealthy individuals, the white conservative backlash against Obama is visceral, vicious and anything but virtuous in intent. For some on the US Right the turn to primordialism is a return to their darker ideological roots.

The irony is that the Right’s politics of primordialism is not necessary. In spite of victories in health care and finance industry regulation, the successful rescue of General Motors and its ahead of schedule withdrawal of combat troops  from Iraq, the Obama administration has shown itself to be vacillatory and reactive across a broad range of policy issues. Rather that set a firm agenda it appears to bounce from crisis to crisis, blaming its predecessor for problems that are not of its making (such as regulatory failures that led to the Gulf oil spill, inherited federal deficits and the 2008 financial crisis). All this does is convey the image of an whinging Administration out of its depth or indecisive at the point of engagement, aided by a venal Congress disconnected from the realities of common voters.  Coupled with the usual anti-incumbent and anti-Washington sentiment and an unusual amount of hatred for the federal government, this leaves the Democrats in a perilous position in the lead up to the November midterm elections. 

Hence, in the current context of an impending “double dip” recession and mounting fiscal deficits, ongoing high unemployment and continued foreclosures and mortgagee sales as involvement in foreign conflicts drags on, the Democrats can be defeated in November on issues of policy alone, even if the alternative is incoherent on specific points of remedy. The diversion into the so-called “culture wars” consequently is not a political necessity for the GOP, but a choice.  The choice is to engage a raw backlash at everything Obama represents as a social construct.

Not surprisingly the focus on primordialism obscures and mystifies the increasing gap between the US corporate elite and investment rich, on the one hand, and the salaried middle and working  classes on the other. Cloaked in the language of individual “responsibility,” “free enterprise” and “freedom,” this is a return to the late 19th century-early 20th century era of ethnic divide- and-conquer anti-unionisation efforts played by the robber barons and their Pinkerton thugs, and which finds resonance in the anti-union, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic militia-style rhetoric of the present day. It also is wrapped in a strict constitutionalist interpretation that sees anything not explicitly mentioned in the US Constitution, such as universal health care, as insidious attempts to undermine the White Christian foundations of the nation.

There is an irony here. The descent into primordialism could spell trouble for the GOP at a time when it should be easily crafting an alternative agenda for a return to political dominance. The libertarian and moderate wings of the Republican Party are being made to choose between the xenophobic Right and disaffiliation. The plight of Florida governor Charlie Crist is instructive.  A popular moderate Republican who is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and reformist on immigration in a state with large Hispanic  and Black populations and a heterogeneous mix of Whites, Crist was losing badly in the polls for the Republican Party Senate candidacy in favour of a more conservative, less experienced candidate. Faced with a primary loss next week, Crist is now running as an Independent in what will be a three-way Senate race in November that looks increasingly hard for the GOP to win given the vote-splitting caused by Crist’s presence.

Similar centrifugal tendencies can be seen in the Tea Party movement, which has found its “small government” origins hijacked by a reactionary culturalist agenda that harks to the Anglo supremacist views of the 1920s, 1930s, 1950s and early 1960s. That leaves Tea Party economic liberals and fiscal conservatives at the mercy of the new segregationists and isolationists, thereby dividing the movement at a time it should be uniting around a common agenda for change. That opens space for conservative Democrats to make common cause with the economic, as opposed to socially conservative Tea Party adherents.

The Democrats are not immune from the primordialist temptation. The controversy over the proposed Islamic Cultural Centre in NYC has seen a number of prominent Democrats, including Nevada Senator Harry Reid and former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, come out against it. Spurred by electoral considerations and like the Republican primordialists, they have abandoned support for the supposedly sacrosanct freedom of religion in favour of arguments that constructing a “mosque” close to Ground Zero is a “provocation.” Turning the debate on its head, some such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have likened the “provocation” to having Nazis build a monument at Auschwitz or the Japanese building a shrine at Pearl Harbour, conveniently ignoring that the fact that the former was a political movement with genocidal pretensions and the latter was a state declaring war, whereas Islam is the religion of 11 extremists who committed an atrocity (much as Christianity was the religion of the Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh).  In fact, the more appropriate analogy might be to propose to build a Christian church on the site where a murdered abortionist practiced, something that has in fact happened at the place where Dr. George Tiller had his Women’s Health Care Clinic in Wichita, Kansas. Although unsuccessful, this deliberate insult to Tiller’s memory and work on behalf of the pro-choice movement met with little outcry and more than a passing wave of approval on the part of the same people who now most avidly decry the Ground Zero “mosque” (I put the word mosque in quotation marks because the proposal is for a multi-use facility that includes prayer rooms for men and women).

Nor has the “provocation” argument had to reconcile with the fact that two established mosques are located four and six blocks from Ground Zero, respectively, or that various porn shops and strip clubs are located across the street from the hallowed site itself. Even so, few mainstream politicians have spoken out against the inconsistencies of the “provocation” argument or the defamatory tarring of Islam with the genocidal Nazi-Japanese “sneak attack” brush, in no small part for fear of being seen as pro-Islamic. That is sadly telling of the current state of affairs.

In fact, that Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich can make common cause on an issue involving religious freedom demonstrates how debased the US political debate has become. Worst yet, after initially framing the controversy as a matter of religious freedom, President Obama backtracked in the face of conservative criticism and said that it is a matter of local opinion and religious sensitivity to broader public concerns, thereby ceding the argument to the primordialists while confirming the impression that he is indecisive and thin-skinned.

The impact of the return to primordialism has yet to be seen, but two logical inferences can be made if it continues. First, that it will have an atomizing effect on US politics and society, as conservative White and minority ethno-religious communities grow increasingly alienated and see their collective fortunes in zero-sum terms. Rolling back 50 years of improving race relations is a recipe for instability and conflict which cannot be solved over the long term by Whites stockpiling arms and joining civilian militias in a country that is dependent on migrant labour and which will have a majority non-White demographic in 25 years regardless of illegal immigration controls. Secondly, the return to primordialism will confirm in the minds of foreign adversaries that the US is, in fact, a Christian White supremacist imperialist state that seeks to impose its values on non-Whites and non-Christians at home and abroad.  That means that international conflict, in its “clash of civilisations’ mode, will continue unabated until such a time as the US abandons the politics of primordialism. Nothing indicates that will happen soon.

Then there is the final implication: united they will stand, or divided they will fall.

Blog Link: NZ and the R2P applied.

datePosted on 10:08, August 17th, 2010 by Pablo

This is going to be my last comment about the NZDF in Afghanistan for a while. It concerns an overlooked aspect of why it is there. One aspect of this is that the R2P commitment was made by the 5th Labour government and National seems disinclined to continue it. Given that R2P does not have domestic or international legal authority since it is just a public commitment rather than  a convention, law or binding agreement, it will be interesting to see how National deals with this particular aspect of its foreign policy, and how MFAT (which committed NZ to the R2P doctrine), will react to any reneging on that commitment.

The measure of military commitment is taken in blood.

datePosted on 19:05, August 4th, 2010 by Pablo

The death of Lt. Timothy O’Donnell in an ambush while on patrol in Bayiman province is a tragic but inevitable consequence of the NZDF participation in the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. His death, the first in ten years since the killing of Private Leonard Manning in an ambush by Indonesian militias in East Timor, is a sad reminder of the bottom line when soldiers are sent into conflict zones. But that is a cost worth paying when the soldiers are volunteers, understand their orders and the risks involved, deploy willingly and enjoy the support of politicians and public back home. The latter depends on how the public perceives the conflict in question, which usually reduces to perceptions of immediate or proximate threat weighed against the costs and benefits presumably involved.

The costs of the NZDF deployment to Afghanistan are now clear and are likely to mount in the months ahead as Taliban sharpen their attacks in the build-up to ISAF withdrawal as of July 2011. The question for NZ is now not so much military as it is diplomatic and political: will the NZ public continue to support the deployment if casualties continue to mount, and will the National government have the political will to continue in the fight in the event of growing public opposition and the intangible diplomatic benefits to be accrued from ongoing participation?

Although it is a bit dated, I have explained why I believe the mission is worth continuing here. I have also explained why I believe that the ISAF mission is bound to change once the July 2011 withdrawal commencement date begins. As a follow up, I have written a short piece that will appear in a mainstream media outlet tomorrow on Lt. O’Donnell’s death in the context of a Taliban resurgence and switch to a “balloon” guerrilla strategy in which the Taliban retreats from large kinetic confrontations in Halmand and Kandahar provinces and regroups in areas such as Bayiman where the ISAF presence on the ground is thinner (i.e. when they get squeezed they pop up elsewhere rather than fight a superior force at the point of massed contact).

All indications are that the security situation in Afghanistan will get worse rather than better, if it ever does. ISAF commander General David Petraeus and US Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Millan have said as much. John Key has committed the NZDF to the Bayiman PRT until September 2011 and is considering extending the NZSAS deployment past its schedule end date of March 2011. But now that the costs of the mission are etched in blood, does he have the nerve, resolve and most importantly public support to keep that promise should things get worse in the months to come? Given that 2011 is an election year, will polls rather than principle drive his decision? One thing I believe will be certain. More Kiwi blood will flow in that forsaken land.

In the debates about the proposed labour law reforms there appears to be fundamental misunderstanding or ignorance by National and ACT of the purpose of unions in capitalism. The latter are seen by NACT as at best a source of inefficiency and profit loss; at worst parasitic wealth destroyers. They appear to misunderstand that capitalism left to its own devices, with no collective counter-weight provided to workers, is akin to a political regime without opposition parties. That is, it is inherently an authoritarian status quo in which owners rule and workers obey. Thus, if we hold it self-evident that democracy is a better form of regime than dictatorship precisely because it allows for the existence of a freely organised competitive political opposition that can contest power and times compete for it, then we must also recognise that capitalism needs unions in order to be representative and fair to the society at large. The trade off between democracy and capitalism is exactly that: a diminished rate of exploitation in direct proportion to the measure of voice exercised by workers in pursuit of a fair share for all.

That is why unions were organised in the first place: to bring a subordinate group vehicle of voice and redress to the economic system. Whatever their very evident flaws (Leninist organisation, iron law of oligarchy bureaucratic rationales), unions provide a democratic counter-weight to unfettered capitalist exploitation. Just as it is preferable not to have a closed, unaccountable (or at least vertically unaccountable) oligarchical elite run the affairs of state, so too is it undesirable, from a democratic perspective, to have a closed, vertically unaccountable economic elite determine the social relations of production. If one believes in democratic capitalism, one must believe in a central partnership role for unions within it.

This is true whether labour-based or capitalist-oriented parties are in power, since in capitalist societies the material welfare of all is dependent on the investment decisions of capitalists. But capitalists need workers to realise their investment, and workers need to be productive for profits to occur. There is consequently a structural bias in favour of providing the working conditions and larger social context in which profitable production can occur over the long term. For that to happen workers need to accept the system as given, which is a function of them perceiving a partnership stake in it. That means a modicum of voice and representation. Democratic capitalists consequently understand the need to exchange super-exploitation and authoritarian control of the workplace for increased working class representation in both politics and production. In turn workers (and their political representatives) accept the capitalist foundations of society and the dominant role of capitalists within it (in other words, they forego a move towards socialism). This exchange is at the heart of democratic capitalism. Although negotiating the margins of the democratic capitalist social contract can occur depending on the nature of the government in power, “touching the essential” aspects of it is not.

Authoritarian capitalism offers many short term advantages to business, but it does not guarantee long term gains. Unmitigated authoritarian exploitation, be it in the workplace, politics or both, breeds resentment. Born of a lack of consent to the dominant system, resentment can be manifest in everything from petty acts of social defiance to industrial sabotage to revolution. Short term acquiescence may be bought with material rewards, but the long-term picture remains clouded so long as workers do not buy in to the system as given and instead resent their subordinate status in it. Absent mass consent and given the inevitability of working class resentment, the resort to the “weapons of the weak” negatively impinges on profit, if for no other reason then that the costs of repression grow larger the longer authoritarian control is maintained. After all, you cannot repress the same amount of people in the same measure over time.  Since capitalists abhor uncertainty and seek stable rates of secure return, a peaceful, consent based socio-economic and political order is preferable to an imposed one. That gives economic utility to democratic capitalism.

In fact, where democratic capitalist systems work best (hegemonically, as it were), many if not most workers strive to become capitalists themselves (small businesspersons, at a minimum). They see themselves on a continuum of upward mobility based on workplace fair play and merit. Socialism is not their preferred option. The proof is in the mythos: is this not the Kiwi, Ozzie and American dream?

Here is where NACTs reforms and the demands of the employer class says much about their true orientation. They claim belief in freedom of choice and the benefits of market competition as the great levelers of social ambition. If that were true, then they would welcome workers to freely organise without legal constraint or negative repercussion because true market competition and workers freedom of choice would improve overall economic (labour) market efficiency. After all, according to their own logic, the market works best when all have equality of opportunity, and it clears best when all actors enter into the market exchange exercising their full potential as free agents involved in the mutual supply and demand of goods and services. So if workers exercising their free choice want unions, then more the better from a market perspective. Why put constraints on that freedom?

Yet in practice NACT seeks to place constraints on working class collective choice and voice so as to better exercise owner/manager prerogatives in the workplace. They are, in other words, hypocrites who do not really believe in the power of the free market or closet authoritarians out of ignorance (unlikely) or by design. Or both. No amount of political spinning can disguise that fact.

What is more, NACT does not appear to comprehend, from a cynical perspective, that allowing for unionisation, including union workplace access, while reducing limitations on the right to strike and collectively bargain across economic sectors can actually serve very usefully as an alienation device in which workers are led to believe that they are real partners in production in a system in which the fruits (surplus value) of their labour are appropriated by others (in a variant of Lenin’s “democracy as capitalism’s best possible political shell” argument). Although unfettered collective action has the potential to open the door to worker challenges to control of production, the reality is that in democratic capitalism private ownership is reified from birth to grave and most workers live with the dream of being bourgeois in culture and consumption if not employment. So whether cynically or sincerely committed to workplace democracy, enlightened capitalists understand the long-term political utility of union representation in democratic society. NACT and its business supporters appear to be anything but enlightened.

As I mentioned in my previous post on the matter (“The Blues Go Black”), the proposed reforms owe their inspiration to the Pinochet Labour Code. The question is whether NACT have the same view of unions as Pinochet and “Pepe” Pinera did, and if so, why do they make any pretense as to being democratic? Could it be that what we are seeing in NZ is the first attempts to turn the economic bases of the democratic social contract into something akin to unchecked elite imposition under manipulated electoral conditions?

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