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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the US realises that the geopolitical and strategic environment in which that policy was adopted is long gone and has been replaced by another in which continuing to adhere to it is a matter of hubris that is both churlish and counterproductive.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.

Lets Get Statistical!

datePosted on 12:32, July 22nd, 2016 by E.A.

I had half of this in the works when the latest results came out so it was a simple case of plugging them into what I was already working on. Apologies for the wonky layout on the stats, I tried, I really did.

Is anyone else slightly amazed at the astounding 10% in Nationals polling from 43% to 53% in one month via Roy Morgan?

Personally I am calling BS on this one right now.

I admit that I might be slightly bias in my opinion of National (see my previous posts where I have referred to them as criminal scumbags et al) but I don’t think even my bias would blind me to the fact that in our current clime of political ineptitude (housing crisis, diary failure, immigration concerns, housing crisis, possible trade wars, water concerns, housing crisis and the repellent and nauseating image of either Clinton or Trump in the Whitehouse) the mood of the nation would suddenly shift 250,000 people to the political right in the space of one month!

And the idea that 10% of the electorate just suddenly jumping to the right seems even more dubious when you look at these numbers:

NAT              53%             (+10%)

LAB              25%             (-2.5%)

GRN              11.5%            (-3.0%)

NZF              7.0%             (-2.0%)

MAR              0.5%              (1.5%)

UNF              0.0%             (Nc)

  ACT              1.0%              (+0.5%)

MAN              0.5%              (-0.5%)

CON              0.5%              (-0.5%)

What stands out is not just the stupendous surge in popularity with National but the large losses to the Greens, Labour and New Zealand First. I could imagine that some NZ First voters might jump ship (being relative neighbors on the political spectrum) but -3% from the Greens?

But Roy Morgan is just one of the three main thermometers (the other two being Colmar Brunton (TV1) and Reid Research (TV3)) taking the rectal temperature of our nation (sorry Fairfax and Digipol you don’t count).

So let’s compare the polling figures for all three from the last month before quarter of a million kiwis decided that National is the way to go (thanks to Curia Market Research for their handy blog which provides and updated blog on all three).

 

Colmar(TV1)         Roy                     Reid(TV3)

NAT       48% (-2%)            43% (-2.5)           47% (+0.3%)

LAB        29% (+1%)           28% (-1.5%)       31.3% (-1.0%)

GRN       12% (+2%)           14.5% (+2.5%)    11.1% (+0.9%)

NZF        9% (nc)                9.0% (+1%)          7.8% (+0.3%)

MAR        0.7% (-0.4%)        1.0% (+1%)          1% (-0.3%)

UNF        0.0% (nc)              0.0% (nc)              0.0 (nc)

ACT         0.3% (-0.4%)        0.5% (+0.5%)       0.4% (-0.4%)

MAN       0.0% (nc)              1% (+1%)               0.0% (nc)

CON        0.7% (+0.4%)        1.0 (+0.5%)           0.0% (-0.7%)

 

METHOD            Rnd Phone      Rnd Phone     Rnd Phone

SAMPLE              1509/1245     868/820        1000

UNDECIDED       15%           5.5%           Unknown

SUBSCRIBE         Yes           No             Yes

MARGIN              +/- 2.5%      n/a            +/- 1.9%

 

What one gets from last month’s polling is that while National was polling higher for the Colmar Brunton and Reid polls (%48 and 47% respectively) the Roy Morgan poll was down at 43% just 30 days ago the movement of National from previous months was down on two out of the three and the third (+0.3%) was well within the margin of error.

Further the average for National from all three polls was just 45%.

And Roy Morgan’s own data from previous months shows National in gentle decline from its previous high of 50% in April last year

This shows that National was either holding steady or declining under the ongoing pressure of current events and its own limp reactions.

David Farrer, who runs Curia, posts about this on KiwiBlog where he breaks the numbers down a bit more and concludes that while probably not a 10% jump the rise, is probably genuine.

Now I know better than to argue stats with anyone interested in stats, as being a stat freak myself (military stats rather than the more usual Kiwi field of sports stats), but they are only as good as their method of collection and the method of processing, and with all due respect to David (and his statistical probabilities of the data being correct), I am just not convinced that National has increased at all.

As David himself notes on Kiwiblog, it’s been a month of “relentless negativity” for the government after previous months of doom and gloom also. So where is the positive direction coming from? Where is the love for Key and his scaly minions hailing? It can’t be the media, the Reserve Bank or the general public.

And what statements or announcements from the Lizard King himself or any announced policy (Nationals weak willed attempt at dealing with the housing crisis?) could be driving this? Where is the momentum for 10% of those being polled to shift to National at the expense of all other parties?

Farrer again has his own take on this calling Roy Morgan a “yo-yo poll” which sounds like a polite way for statisticians to put each other’s work down.

But before we dive into that lets have a bit more of a look at political polling in Godzone.

Firstly two of the big three polls have to confirm to the New Zealand Political Polling Code by being members of the Research Association of New Zealand (RANZ). Guess which poll is not a member? Hint it’s not Colmar or Reid. This is probably because Roy Morgan is based in Australia.

The code is reasonably robust with prescriptions for conducting, reporting and publishing the data covering the sampling, the collection method, the weighting, the margin of error and results. It does have a few grey areas like excluding unlikely voters from the sample but in general is sound and if followed should lead to consistent and accurate results and transparent reporting.

Second have a look at the sample size, Morgans is by far the smallest at 820. Now I know that for polling you don’t need to poll all people to get a representative sample (usually above 1000 is considered acceptable) but I do know that polling at such small levels can magnify small shifts in the data (my own undergrad study in Pol Sci was relentlessly American in technique, which as anyone taught under that system knows is very heavy on data collection and analysis over theory or analysis).

Then there is the margin of error (MOE) and the undecided portion of the polling. Roy Morgan does not have a margin of error that I could find but did have a 5.5% rate of undecided voters. This is not as high as Colmar’s 15% for +/-2.5% margin from a sample of over 1500 people but in a poll of just over 860 people a nearly 50 person hole in the data is problematic to say the least. Also Reids data does not even include the number of people undecided so we only know that it was less than 1000 listed.

Now I’m not linking these two inextricably but in such polls the MOE and percentage of those undecided are key measures for how reliable your data is and not being bound by the Polling Code or having a MOE leaves me concerned at this result, yo-yo poll or not.

Of course Colmar’s 15% hole in the data and Reid’s undeclared undecided are also problems but at least there is a margin of error to give some guarantee and I will be surprised if their new data shows such shifts.

With all three polls there are deeper issues with the data, one of which is the method of polling (calls to households with landlines).  Current data from Stats NZ has landlines in NZ at 85% which means that any house without a landline is automatically excluded.

The standard “wisdom” for this is that any household without a landline would be extremely low income and not likely to vote anyway. The issue is that I myself have a cell phone and an internet connection in my house but not a landline and many people I know don’t have one either being that mobile and internet can cover all the bases in modern life better than a landline can AND we are all politically active (ie we vote!). But that does not appear to register for the pollsters.

So the assumption that no landline equals no political participation is dubious at best and flawed at worst. I do acknowledge that the high rate of non participation in politics in NZ, which is reflected in only 76% of eligible voters voting in the last election, may have some correlation with economic well being and possibly not having a landline but as far as I know there is nothing to show exactly what those numbers are. Buts that’s an issue for another day.

So back to the question, where is National supposedly getting this 10% surge in votes from? Probably, as Farrer noted, there is likely some statistical error or readjustment (ie they were too low so the previous results were out of whack so this month’s result is more a readjustment than a surge in votes. That theory I can accept but I remain dubious of any increase in popularity for National at all given the current pressure they are under.

But apart from my grumbles about Key and Co there is a lot of other interesting data that can be taken from all three polls.

The first is that United Future is 0.0% across the board and with no change from previous polls. Add to this that Dunne currently holds less than a 2% majority in his one and only electorate and it’s not hard to imagine what’s going on in both Peter Dunne’s and the other parties minds as they consider the coming election and any electorates which might be up for Grabs.

Another is that the Maori Party, United Future and ACT are all one seat parties and all living well within the margin of error. Loose that seat and its goodbye baby. In the case of Act and the Maori Party both hold comfortable majorities (12% and over 20% respectively) but as noted above United Future is the straggling calf in the herd of political Wildebeest and the predators are circling.

Another interesting statistic is that if you add Mana and The Conservatives to the above three then five out of the nine parties in the poll are functioning non entities politically (ie no real representation in NZ). All live within the margin of error and all are political equivalent of the living dead if not actually dead (Mana and the Conservatives). The fact that all these zombie political parties, barring Mana, are or would assemble under the banner of National cements John Keys status as the Necromancer king of New Zealand politics.

But the most telling statistics of them all is that no matter how much National is up or down in the polls no combination of Labour and the Greens has enough to beat National at this time. They come close, ironically, in the Roy Morgan poll of last month, but nowhere can they actually get enough in the numbers to beat any poll result national has.

And if you’re thinking like I am thinking then you already know what those results are really saying, which has been said before by myself and many others, which is that the balance of power in all of this remains the MP for Northland, Winston Peters!

But with the current Roy Morgan results not even Winston can help the Greens and Labour but as I have been saying I do not believe the results to be that high and such polling always gets closer come election time as minds are made up and campaigning has an effect.

And why did Labour go down in the polls after announcing its own policy on housing which is streets ahead of Nationals own tepid response? There had been cautious indicators that the Labour/Greens MOU had helped build both brands and raise both in the polls but the current stats would have us believe that both have suffered for it and for actually proposing a solution to the housing circus.

So what has happened here? Did National pay someone at Roy Morgan to fudge the results? I would not put it past them but let’s assume no for the moment.

But the message, if echoed by the other two polls results (soon to be out), could have a chilling effect on any momentum the two parties have been building up the last months as they keep the pressure on the government through an ongoing barrage of criticism AND alternate solutions.

Political polling is the barometer of modern politics with its desperate reliance on unstable voter bases and shiftless ideologies. But as I use the barometer in my kitchen to give me an idea of the what the next 24 hours weather will be I also take those results with a grain of salt as the local and immediate reality can and does differ.

Most of the time we take political polls as gospel and never question their results, they are the life giving air that inflates or deflates party fortunes in western democracies far more than anywhere else in the world but they are, at the end of the day, just statistics and while a useful tool and just measure of past performance are not, in the quantum storm that is politics, always a good indicator of things to come.

I remain dubious of the 10% jump in preference as well as National having any uptake in the current round of political polling but I will have to respect the data if they all come in with the same conclusion. The question I would then ask is why? This is something that the stats and statistical data can never really answer.

I’m a gambling man so I will happily take odds on this one. All bets payable next Monday morning.

I see that Andrew Little has announced Labour’s new policy on fixing the housing crisis but will drop the actual details on the weekend (link here).

Somehow I don’t think the fact that he announced it days after National wheeled out its own policy for solving the housing crisis was a coincidence.

For Little this is a big opportunity, National have dropped the ball in regards to housing time and again and, as many have said, “mucked around the edges” rather than do anything concrete to fix a situation that shows no sign of fixing itself.

If Labours new policy has some genuine fixes to the situation and is not just another policy gimmick then expect this to be a game changer in the coming election because if you don’t think housing will be an issue in voters’ minds in 2017 then you might as well click off this page, shut the computer down and take a walk round your ultra-palatial, multimillion dollar, property because you are probably the only person in New Zealand that thinks so.

Housing has been a running theme for several years now but the magnitude of the problem is no longer able to be ignored or swept under the rug. If normally hands off National has been forced to wheel out some sort of “policy response” to address the growing concern then you know it’s a growing issue.

As Chris Trotter noted in today’s paper, National has nothing less than the removal of the state from the housing market in NZ as its stated goal and anything they do is not going to change that. Its new policy sounds less like a fix, as other commentators have already pointed out, and more like a desperate illusion of a government out of ideas and unwilling to upset its backers who profit from the current housing crisis.

And John Key knows this as his warning to party faithful at the recent party conference in Christchurch last weekend (just down the road from my house) was all about not being complacent and expecting to breeze into a fourth term.

Perhaps it was also an understanding that Brand Key has lost some of its gloss and simply relying on a series of public relations spin and plastering his face on billboards won’t fix things (unless someone is going to build houses out of those billboards).

So National has played its cards on the housing crisis and Andrew Little and Labour (scrappy rebels that they are) have seen an opening and decided to take it by announcing their own solution to the housing crisis.

This is the “stealing the narrative oxygen” strategy I noted a few weeks back and the potential to make big political capital off this is not to be sneezed at.

But as always the proof is in the pudding and we will have to wait until the weekend to find out.

The media has already done some speculation on what’s coming up (by linking it to Labours Kiwibuild policy) and Little himself has hinted some more by noting that whatever else the policy will do it will get houses prices to “a figure that’s affordable”.

But what is “affordable”? Is it around $500,000 as Little seems to think? And if we take his anti-speculator comments as real then these questions become even more pertinent as where is the line between owning a house and speculation? Is it when you own more than one house? Is it when the average property is around $500,000 (as opposed to the $1,000,000 it is now for a house in Auckland)? Where does it lie?

What policy prescriptions will be given that will do anything to stop a bubble housing market from getting bigger, or worse reducing the damage from when the bubble bursts? The answer to this looming bubble of doom and gloom is likely to be, say it with me, STATE INTERVENTION, as leaving the market to continue on as it has been will clearly do nothing and there is no alternate other than state intervention to address a clear market imbalance (if readers have any other suggestions please feel free to add them in the comments).

Don’t think Labour won’t go down this road? Afraid that the Labour of the past three decades will rear its ugly head and roll over for the market? Well you may be right but in the climate of New Zealand’s housing crisis as well as the international mood of growing dissatisfaction with the Status quo means Little and Labour would be mad to not a) propose a vote winning solution to New Zealand number one issue; and b) tap into the growing dissent around the same old same olds of politics in Aotearoa.

The alternates are not pretty, especially now that Labour in the UK has effectively decided that outright public squabbling is the way to go and the recent results at the ballot box in Oz show that voters can’t make up their minds either.

And Andrew Little will have been watching his counterparts in the UK and OZ and doing the math in his head. He knows, as do many many others, that his position is only as secure as the support he has in cabinet, public perception of him and the ability of the Party to counter the current government in policy prescription.

So wheeling out more of the same is not likely to gain support of the public or the party and this is not a crisis that will just go away especially when the Reserve Bank, fronted by Graeme Wheeler is warning of a “sharp correction” in the housing market.

So in my mind the die has been cast, Little and Labour are going to announce a new housing policy which will be in effect ‘State Houses part II’. It makes sense and it would address the problem. It also is a clear distinction with National which is going to be key to winning the next election.

The opportunity here is prime and for a limited time only. The effect on the situation if Labour announced a sure and dedicated expansion in affordable public housing would be immense and tap into so many strands of concern that exists today (increasing homelessness, price speculation, the housing shortage etc).

If Labour don’t have anything which is a real solution AND catches the public’s imagination then expect a long and painful 16 months until the next election. We have the next five days to speculate. Go!

Brexit Smecksxit

datePosted on 09:04, June 28th, 2016 by E.A.

Still cant finish writing about Peter Dunne, thankfully we live in interesting times.

So the UK is leaving the EU. I can’t say I was surprised with the outcome but I have been with the post vote situation.

Either way it was a doom and gloom scenario for some people. If the vote was Leave then the UK sinks beneath the waves in an orgy of chaos and anarchy. If it was Stay then the UK is flooded with refugees and all semblance of English culture is washed away.

What has been interesting is that, much like the US and other democracies around the world, the established political order is being split along lines which have little to do with the prevailing political orthodoxy and more to do with the economic realities of their respective countries.

But it was the post vote grumbling that first got my attention as it appears that many of those who did not (and in some cases did) vote in the referendum have now decided that they don’t like the outcome and want another referendum so they can vote (a petition has been circulating) or demanding a weighting system for voters based on their age (so that the younger voters get more weight to any vote over the older). Both of these are the political equivalents of science fiction.

While democracy is a complex and often flawed beast it works the best at expressing the will of the people and usually only needs a majority to get a decision or change enacted and in the UK it appears that the older voters got out more than the young in an referendum with approximately 75% of the able population casting a vote. So while a close result (51% to 49%) there is not likely to be any going back because imagine the precedent such an action would set.

Don’t like the first outcome of an election or referendum? Have another and keep on until you get the outcome you desire (if such a thing is possible) while allowing the rest of the population to get the outcome they want. No, not going to happen! No government (much less a democratic one) in its right mind is going to let such a plant take root and flower as the fruits are surely chaos and civil war.

Meanwhile David Cameron has decided to step down after staking his reputation on the country remaining in the EU, which seems like a good outcome for those which don’t like Cameron and what he represents but few have seemed to consider who, or what, will fill his shoes and already the talk has turned to things like snap elections and “reaffirming the mandate”.

Possibly it will be Boris Johnson, ex-mayor of London and Tory MP who at least appears to have a sense of humor if his quotes are to be believed* but appears to be too controversial a figure to the more conservative members of the party to get the top job, but in these volatile times strange things can happen.

And in “possibly related” circumstances Jeremy Corbyn is facing down mass insurrection in his shadow cabinet over his failure to mobilize the populace to vote no to leaving with 35 MPs walking and Labours London youth wing spitting the dummy.

It’s been interesting to watch the degrees of reporting in the various totally not partisan English media about this but for me Corbyn has had the last word, at least for now, by tweeting that he was “elected as the Labour Party’s leader to redistribute wealth and power” as he retains the support of the actual party and the unions and that should be enough (for now).

Which makes sense if the argument that the voting in the brexit was along financial (and class) lines with those who were doing well and living in London arguing to stay while those who were not so well off and/or not living in London voting to leave (including a fair selection of recent immigrants to the UK if reports are to be believed).

It seems that Labour UK has finally reached the point where the contradictions inherent in the party have brought the situation to the point of crisis. It had been simmering away for some time since Corbyns rise to become party leader but perhaps the Champagne socialists in party needed an excuse to revolt and this looks to be it.

And between pondering what (or how many) knives Corbyn will soon be picking out of his back or what shambling horror will replace Cameron my thoughts briefly turned to Andrew Little and John Key here in safe, clean and neat New Zealand and how their situations would turn out if there was a vote for NZ to amalgamate with OZ or the South Island to split from the North (say goodbye to hydro power north island!).

But the most mind blowing of the things to come out of this post vote dust storm is the fact that Nigel Farage and UKIP have in effect backed away from reneged on  the very promises  they made while campaigning for the UK to leave (money spent on the EU would be transferred to the NHS), the day after they got the desired outcome!

Farage played rather loose on TV by claiming that it was not him but “the party” which had made this decision and I was left wondering if the two halves of his brain were actually connected as rarely has a politician so blatantly, rapidly and publicly reneged on a campaign promise (and survived!).

So it would be probably fair to say that the UK is in a little bit of turmoil at the moment

 

*- “My chances of being PM are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive.”

“The dreadful truth is that when people come to see their MP they have run out of better ideas.”

 

What Price?

datePosted on 15:18, June 10th, 2016 by E.A.

This one bubbled up after a three week run of in depth work. I blame my subconscious.

One of the fun parts of being at university was attending lectures for subjects I was not actually enrolled in. One of these was economics. I was doing Political Economics in POLS but the un-enrolled course I was sitting in on was hard core, perfectly pure, Chicago School dogma being drummed into eager young acolytes all ready to get out there and be part of the machine.

It was interesting stuff and while I soon found it to 20% sound theory and 80% minute social mechanics and psychology BS packaged as truth but I continued to attend lectures for the rest of the year, sitting up the back, smugly standing out by my dress, hair length and general demeanour as not one of the true believers.

They knew I was an infiltrator because they didn’t see me at tutorials and I was not of the general mold of Economics students but since I could hold a conversation on general concepts, was up with market play and kept turning up no one ratted me out, to which I was thankful.

And one of the interesting things I learnt attending that course was the concept of externalities, which in general is when a business excludes a particular costs from a product or process from its cost calculations.

For example a factory using chemicals in its production process will not factor in the cost of the toxic waste it produces, that is dumped into the water, sky or environment, if it does not have to, thereby making the product cheaper and generating more profit for the business.

But the concept does not stop there and I remember being fascinated as the lecturer expounded further on whether the decision to exclude was deliberate or due to incomplete information and if it was deliberate how such deliberations played out in the cost/benefit calculations.

It was, as he calmly noted (like a Mongol warlord ordering a pile of heads to be built form the population of a conquered city), not something that any aspect of morality should have influence on and at the end of the day the decision was to be deliberately amoral, made on pure cost calculation alone (in the Mongol case a simple calculation that fear would weaken the enemy and make victory come easier). And when he presented within the frame work of the economic theory (which at the end of the day boils down to “how to make the most profit”) it made perfect sense.

Such theories are clear, clean and crystalline in their perfection and inside their own particular paradigm make perfect sense, all the part fit together and the machine functions smoothly (my favorite example of such a theory at the time was John Rawls Theory of Justice but I have mellowed in my age).

Of course unexpected or unwanted things do occur and no functional theory can simply exclude them if it wants to pass peer review but often the mechanism to enable this is to simply treat the rouge data as a black box effect (ie X goes in, we don’t know what goes on in there, and Y comes out) or to set it up as having minimal impact (an externality) and the results of such styles of thinking is to either run very quickly into dogma (as economics has done) when confronted with a more holistic situation than its mechanistic process can handle or fall before the new and more complete picture.

And the process goes something like this: Ignore, ridicule then accept but acceptance only occurs after the current adherents of a theory pass on or give up or when the truth is so absolute that it cannot be denied.

Of course logic itself can easily become as much of a dogma as any crack-pot theory or religion (I always laugh when I go to people’s houses and they have the oh so trendy “Thou shall not commit logical fallacies” wall chart in their toilet) and the purpose of this post is not to wade of into the realm of abstract philosophical concepts but to look at the idea (such as externalities) and examples of such in real life (something all good philosophies should be doing).

And it’s here where we start to swing this post back towards the title of this blog, Kiwi (ie New Zealand) politics. But before people turn off thinking I am on another one of my rogernomics rants I beg a moment to show that I am not and am in fact looking at something far more relevant and current, poverty in New Zealand.

There is a reason why social safety nets exist. There is a reason why NZ built state housing in the 30s. There is a reason why states have laws to regulate economic and other activities and those reasons are, while possibly not absolute, due to a clear and obvious acceptance of most if not all related costs (to the state as well as groups and individuals), or to put it in other terms, refusal to allow externalities.

Now before someone accuses me of Keynesian leanings, that’s John Maynard Keynes not John Moneymarket Key for those not in the know, it’s worth pointing out that I am not advocating any solution which is can be simply boiled down to “make the state pay for it” any more than our PM is advocating “let the market take care of it” (although that is what he is doing).

Oh no it’s not that simple, but then again holistic theories never are. Reality is, often a messy beast that will not only track dirt into the house but also trail dirty paw/foot prints all over the rug, hide a nasty little surprise behind (or under the couch) and generally make you wish you never owned/spawned a cat/dog/children.

But back to poverty in NZ; right now, without going too far into media histrionics, the questions are: Do we have poverty in NZ, is it widespread, is it growing and (most importantly) what can we do about it?

Currently we have media reports of families sleeping in cars and garages, the government (mostly though ultra-hypocrite Paula Bennett, a previous receiver of state support and funding for education and living but also our beloved PM doing his best to put his “thinking serious face” on when confronted by the media) suggesting they live in motels or just go online and fill in some forms, beggars on the streets of the major cities and state housing stock (and the attendant social capital that it creates) being sold off to let the market take care of things but are these things sufficient to say we have a poverty problem in NZ?

For me the answer/bellwether of the answer to this question was not the media (because they rarely drive events or discussion they just respond to them) or looking out my window (I live in a resolutely blue collar neighborhood) but to the tone of those who support the current government and that tone is starting to change.

A good spike in the data to me was when erstwhile columnist now turned committed blatherer, Jane Bowron, used one of her columns to criticize John Key and the current government and it was poverty in NZ which was the switch she used to cut some strips on our kava swilling PMs backside (I’m hoping Pablo will be wading into the PMs Fiji Visit).

Now Mz Bowron may be a dyed in the wool Green voter in private for all I know but her column is resolutely mainstream and a rather noxious mix of folksy reminiscences, cut rate platitudes and dull day to day observations which are nothing if not well in touch with the main herd and its group consensus but also safely espousing/reinforcing the herds view.

And when one of the herd starts up on topics of such nature and unloads a double barrel of criticism on the current government you know a line has been crossed.

And it’s not just her, the fact that the mainstream media has finally picked up on what is not exactly a new problem (those families sleeping in cars were out where they were a long time before the TV news crews came a calling) and there seem to be subtle changes in the ongoing narrative around the poor, the unemployed and the homeless is enough to trigger a consciousness shift*.

John Key, National, Labour and much of the electorate have treated these issues as externalities for a long long time while not realising the grim flipside to dismantling the welfare state and its only now as that beloved kiwi dream, that of the quarter acre pavalova paradise, is now slipping out of reach of more than just a few poor buggers at the bottom that its beginning to register.

It’s not that home ownership is the main issue, because it’s not, but it’s that home ownership is a core plank in any welfare reform program from all budding peasant revolutionaries’ promises of land for the people to the sub-prime crisis in the US. Its integral to any welfare program and sits low down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

So when you have families living in cars, government departments housing homeless in motels (at a cost they have to pay back) increasing people on the streets AND general house and living costs racing out of reach of average pay packets and entering the realm of market speculation AND middle ground opinion starting to show a growing intolerance with the situation you have a slow but gradual rejection of political, social and economic externalities of poverty in NZ (and the attendant economic and political theories) and the beginning of a more holistic, more realistic view of NZ (complete with acknowledging the value of the market but also the worth of the people that actually compose it).

But if it’s not to plainly spelt out enough at this time let me take it one step further.

Somewhere in the 19th century when Europe created the model of the welfare state and began to address the problems of the growing underclass (and all its associated problems) that capitalism (then in its unadulterated rapacious stage) was creating the choices were clear: take steps to address the problems created by unleashing mercantile greed and labour saving technology on a feudal and mostly rural population or face the consequences and after the 1840s and several socialist near misses the consequences would be more likely to be a return to the savagery of the French revolution (then still a recent memory for many) than anything else.

More than now their eyes were open and ignoring the externalities was not an option. Funny how having a good proportion of the ruling class executed in front of a blood thirsty mob can bring about clarity (sometimes if only for a split second before the blade drops) in those that survive.

And today the focus of the battle is between the ideology of externalities (economics) and the grim meat hook realities waiting if we continue to ignore what we know is happening (a forceful and deliberate realignment of our social and economic priorities or at minimum a bloody attempt to do so buy those most affected by the purposeful and deliberate decline in our nation’s social and living standards by a cabal of ideologically lead criminals that we call politicians and their patrons).

Does that mean we will have revolution in NZ? Maybe, maybe not. The Kiwi psyche seems ill adjusted to sing the hymns of Viva Revolution or Liberty, Fraternity and Equality! But it does seem well suited for the kind of passive aggressive resistance common of general populations living in totalitarian regimes. None the less I would find it hard to see any real loss if such a thing did occur and a selection of MPs, lawyers and accountants were put up against the well in order to ensure that the rest toe the line.

It’s the reason democracies have elections (ritualized revolutions) rather than actual revolutions complete with real bloodshed and the ruling class being executed or imprisoned. Perhaps that’s why John Key is currently hobnobbing with the “duly elected” PM of Fiji; he is getting some advice on how to stave off an uprising.

And while some families living in cars seems like a far cry from and all-star cast singing and dancing their way through the French revolution it’s the fact that the traditional supporters of externalizing the costs of turning NZ into a free market bastion are starting to grumble that makes me wonder as one of the key tenents of counter revolutionary theory is that if you leave it until there are armed bands roaming the hills your chances of fixing it are almost nil.

It has to be caught before it gets to that point, when there are no obvious, flaming symbols of resistance and it often relies on more subtle readings of the situation than any crystalline theory can predict or is willing to acknowledge. And while it may not be the poor and miserable doing the leading, it will sure as be some motivated individual who is willing to say what the mob wants to hear that will be at the front.

In the US, the right has fallen prey to demagoguery while the left seeks to suppress through modulated pacification and assimilation of key themes while keeping the status quo in place.

In NZ the climate for 2017 is ripe for messages and possibly actions. At first it was dildos and mud but for how long?

 

*- The fact that Chris Trotter has been going on about this for ages is beside the point as he is an identified dyed in the wool socialist and the medias resident dispenser of left opinion.

Bernie the spoiler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Culture wars” as election year bait trapping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parliamentary Nursery Rhymes

datePosted on 09:08, May 13th, 2016 by E.A.

Apologies in advance for the terrible rhymes but after a week of absurdity in Parliament I had to comment.

 

Peter (Dunne), Peter (Dunne), Speed Repeater

Peter, Peter, Speed repeater

Knew the limit but couldn’t keep it

Broke the law twice in one day

Don’t do as he does, do as he says

 

Simple (David) Seymour

Simple Seymour saw a MP

Going up the stairs

Said Simple Seymour to the MP

“What bill do you have there?”

 

Said the MP unto Seymour

“Show me first your consistency”

Said Simple Seymour to the MP

“Indeed I have not any”

 

(Andrew) Little, Boy Red

Little boy red, come blow your horn

The Hotel is in Niue, the trust is offshore

Where is the boy who looks after the sheeple?

He’s away planning strategy at a weekend retreat.

 

Speaker, Speaker

Speaker, Speaker, go away

Come back to parliament another day

Little Johnny (Key) wants to play

Defensive voting and split tickets.

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

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

Defensive Voting.

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

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

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

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

Ticket splitting.

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

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

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

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

The Outlook.

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

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

Some details about the US election campaign.

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

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

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

Open versus closed primaries. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brokered or Contested Conventions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Campaign Financing.

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

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

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

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

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

Let the circuses conventions begin!

 

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