Crosby|Textor are at it again

datePosted on 08:22, June 26th, 2009 by Anita

They appear to only have one tactic, and they’re using it again. Last night’s Media 7 had a segment on Lynton Crosby’s recently aborted defamation action against Nicky Hager. Media 7, being responsible journalists, asked Lynton Crosby if he would like to come on the show, his response was a nasty gram through his lawyers threatening yet more legal action and heavying TVNZ into not discussing the case.

  • Media 7 is here (second segment), complete with nastygram and a good discussion of how the wealthy use our archaic and overcomplicted defamation laws to stifle dissent
  • Nicky Hager’s brief explanation of the case is here
  • The full detail is here

It’s nice to know the kind of people John Key chooses to take advice from

Identity is more than class

datePosted on 17:49, June 24th, 2009 by Lew

Marty mars, commenting at The Standard, nails down the problem with Eddie’s and IrishBill’s latest bit of anti-māori party propaganda in one brief sentence:

You cannot fix any class issue until the race issue is sorted and that won’t be sorted while you are still working everything from the class angle.

Until the Marxist left realises that Māori have their own political identity and generally don’t (won’t and shouldn’t) identify en bloc with non-Māori political movements which require their Māori identity to be subsumed by a transnational class identity, it can’t reliably count on Māori support, and can’t really consider itself an inclusive movement.

Substitute ‘Māori’ for other political minorities if you like – the internationalist movement will only be successful when it learns to accommodate diversity and turn it to political advantage, rather than trying to squash it.

The Clark Labour government’s fundamental inability to realise this (by passing the Foreshore and Seabed Act, most notably) is why the māori party is trying other options. They and their people have had seventeen decades worth of out-of-touch honkeys telling them how to achieve the sort of political and economic progress they want, and at the same time largely denying them the resources with which to achieve such progress. Time for a new strategy, and creating a bidding war between the two main ideological blocs doesn’t look like a bad one, to me.

Hone is right, though – the party is going to have to get a lot more than they have if they want to retain their people’s loyalty and not be seen, come 2011, as the Brown Tories.

L

The problem with stupid questions

datePosted on 22:02, June 23rd, 2009 by Lew

… is that they tend to beget stupid answers. Or at least unexpected answers.

Via James at Editing Teh Herald, it seems the UK’s Daily Mail (whose egregious abuses of truth and decency are legend) has gotten bit by this simple truth, with an online poll receiving a response 96% in the affirmative to the question “Should the NHS allow gipsies to jump the queue?” The Daily Mail, bless ’em, wouldn’t stand for this and it now shows 100% in the negative.

Now, I’m not saying that the s59 poll is that insultingly loaded, and obviously we can’t use twitter to vote in referenda, but groups like The Yes Vote are counting on people being similarly insulted by the dishonest and misleading question that they’ll consider how the framers clearly want people to vote and vote the reverse in order to demonstrate that they don’t appreciate being treated like democratic cattle to be herded in the direction the lobby wants.

So here’s another meaningless poll: have the AAS lobby over-egged their question?

L

Coddington makes sense on smacking

datePosted on 21:55, June 21st, 2009 by Lew

Words I never thought I’d write, but good grief, The Yes Vote has linked me to proof-positive that despite her previous crimes against logic and argumentation, not to mention evidence, Deborah Coddington can write wisdom from time to time. Her HoS column today makes a strong liberal* case against the S59 referendum by killing** the sacred cow that cries of “nanny state!” are pure and unassailable positions of principle, and arguing that when it comes to discipline there’s a gap between principle and implementation into which society must not permit children to fall.

Act’s John Boscawen has a bill to amend Section 59 – again – so it will be “no longer a crime to use reasonable force” if parents discipline a child.
Here we go, loop de loop. Boscawen says he’s sick of nine years of Labour’s nanny state telling parents what to do, but isn’t this more of the same? You can use a light smack, but not a hard smack? Why not a good, old-fashioned razor-stropping like my father used to give me, followed by Mum with the wooden spoon, and while you’re at it John, bring back six of the best in schools for bad girls like me – never did us any harm, did it?
Truth is, no matter how hard politicians try to flannel, they’re always telling us what to do. Paula Bennett said she didn’t think a smack as part of good parental correction should be a criminal offence and she didn’t want to go into homes and tell people how to parent.
Oh really? Not even when they’re disciplining with the jug cord or vacuum cleaner pipe?

But for the last sentence, this could pass for the usual sort of faux-outraged don’t-tread-on-me doggerel. But what’s remarkable about the last sentence is that it rejects the typical anti-statist line that all intrusions into private affairs are equal and equally meritless – it recognises that the state has a role to play in protecting children from the (however well-meaning) depredations of their parents and that there is a strong public good in the appropriate exercise of that role.

This is based on a deeper argument about the rights of the individual – and the assertion that children are individuals with rights of their own, not their parents’ belongings to be treated according to parents’ sovereign wishes.

It’s no wonder children are not valued as individuals in this country, but instead as some sort of chattel belonging to adults until they reach some magic age – 16 or 18 or 20. We do not own our children, a fact that has yet to be driven home to those selfish individuals who fight their way through the Family Court over who has the offspring, ensuring any remaining family happiness is destroyed forever.
Sadly, I don’t ever see a future in this country where all children are treasured, despite all the good work done by many organisations and individuals.
It’s not just about eliminating the beatings, it includes respecting young people’s presence. I hate it when parents don’t introduce their children to me, as if they don’t exist.

Because, in truth, nobody believes that parents have an unassailable right to treat their children as they please*** – it’s just that people of various political stripes like to be seen to support parental sovereignty without also being on the hook for the hard decisions such a position requires.

Policy is about value judgements, and if the AAS lobby were honest they’d be arguing the value of corporal punishment in parenting: arguing that it will strengthen families, grow good children and create a better society; and how it will do so. To an extent Larry Baldock has tried (33 minute audio), but only to an extent, because even those at the heart of the AAS lobby recognise the weakness of their position in strict analytical terms. So they fall back on symbolic arguments they don’t really believe in, but which are malleable enough to be twisted around to support their misguided cause.

People who claim pure and unassailable statements of principle in terms of policy implementation is usually selling you a bill of goods, but it’s nice for someone so strongly (shall we say) ideological to be pointing it out. More power to your typing fingers, Deborah.

L

* The classical kind, not the latte-sipping kind.
** Or at least beating it with a jug-cord.
*** Ok, some people seem to.

Putting the referendum in context

datePosted on 13:15, June 21st, 2009 by Anita
Firstly, a couple of facts:
  • This is Sheryl Savill’s petition not Larry Baldock’s. Savill, a staff member at Focus on the Family‘s New Zealand organisation put this forward before Baldock jumped on the referendum bandwagon.
  • MPs from a other parties, including National (Bob Simcock) and NZ First (Brian Donnelly and Barbara Stewart), had placed bills to either repeal or amend s59 in the ballot in the past, they were just less lucky than Sue Bradford.
  • The bill received support from both sides of the house throughout the debate.
  • The bill was eventually passed 113 to 8 – it was supported by a massive majority of MPs
  • The actual text of the new s59 can be found here – it does not actually ban smacking

Secondly, in case any of you are interested in a much more wordy context I have attached, below the fold, a slightly updated piece I wrote for a different purpose earlier this year. It was written to follow on from a summary of the international context, if anyone’s really keen I can post that too :)

Read the rest of this entry »

I know there’s a complex in-government/not-in-government thing, and a David Garrett is only a junior backbencher and appears to be one of the more out of control ones, but …

I’m not sure it’s a good look when Garrett publicly supports the private prosecution of two Chief Executives of government departments. His party is currently providing confidence and supply to the government which employs the CEs, and he’s on the select committee which oversees their departments.

Stealth march

datePosted on 10:50, June 19th, 2009 by Lew

A few thousand primary school kids, dressed mostly in high-visibility gear and carrying (or wearing) makeshift traffic cones, lollipop signs and banners, have just marched through Wellington CBD escorted by police motorcyclists, ambulances and led by a highland band (bagpipes and all).

I work in a media office. Most of us spend hours every day scouring the news as it comes in – on paper, over the airwaves and on the interwebs – as a matter of our daily work. Not one of us had the faintest inkling what the march beneath our window was about, who had organised it or what end it aimed to achieve. We guess from the (excellent) adornments worn by the wee nippers and their guardians that it’s to do with proposed speed limit reductions around schools. But that’s just a guess.

Whoever organised this has achieved a remarkable feat: coordinating thousands – ok, maybe it was hundreds – of kids (which is like herding cats), gaining approval from their parents, the police, the City Council and signing up a marching band, without anyone in our esteemed media establishment hearing a word about it. That person should probably be put in charge of corporate communications for a big company or government department with a lot of bad news – one of the power companies, perhaps, or a trading bank.

Incidentally, if school speed limits is the cause being protested, then I fully support it. There’s a school near where I live which is at the bottom of a 70k/h hill, and the thought of sending their precious dear things down that road each day must give local parents conniptions. I have it on good authority that the local AOS sergeant, who has a kid at the school, spends his off hours parked up there issuing tickets in addition to his ordinary policing workload. Not ideal.

L

Reading between the choices of spin

datePosted on 16:01, June 18th, 2009 by Anita

When National leaked and then announced the home insulation fund they had a choice about how to spin it. I can easily think of four options they had (I’m sure there are others):

  1. Environmental/climate-change: home insulation reduces energy consumption, thus reducing the amount of generation required, thus reducing the use of thermal generation (read thermal as burning stuff :) which in turn reduces CO2 emissions which in turn reduces the effects of climate change. 
  2. Environmental/sustainability/primary-production/innovation: NZ businesses are doing some really interesting work in sustainable home insulation using NZ’s primary products rather than imports. A nice photo op with a company making home insulation from wool and voilà, the story is about innovation, sustainability and government support for agriculture and primary production in a recession.
  3. Health/education/social-development: Insulated warm dry homes improve family health and child education outcomes by reducing sickness and deafness. Photo op: Minister visits family in recently insulated home, since insulation went in the kids are much more healthy and doing much better at school, little Moana might even trundle over to the Minister with a picture book and read it to him. PR gold – government cares for families and kiddies!
  4. Traditional-infrastructure/building sector: Insulating homes means the existing builders, insulators and contractors will have more work and will weather the recession.

National chose option 4 – why? It’s not the best PR option and it’s not the most on message, every other option had clear weathering the recession messages plus something forward looking and visionary. Instead they chose the staid dull message which appeals only to the traditional infrastructure industries.

The only explanation I could come up with is that traditional infrastructure is where National’s traditional funders and backers have come from, perhaps they wasted a golden opportunity for positive spin for a little old fashioned pay back?

This post was, in part, inspired by Zetetic’s post about National’s current lack of attention to the concerns of female voters. A couple of  their options would’ve been great options if they cared about women voters, instead they chose the spin best suited for the Fletcher Building board.

In Part 2 of this series I mentioned the notion of contingent consent. I noted that consent is not given once, forever, but instead is contingent on collective and individual expectations being met at the economic, social and political levels.  Today I begin by broadening that notion.

As Adam Przeworski pointed out some time ago, democracy is a contingent outcome of conflicts. No more and no less, at a political level “democracy” is a particular method for resolving conflicts between competing political and socio-economic groups. There are other methods of resolving such conflicts, but those involve degrees of coercion, intimidation and imposition rather than peaceful resolution of competing interests. Democracy is unique in that it is a political system (and society) that is based upon the contingent, amicable resolution of conflicts between collective (at the political level) and individual (at the societal level) interests. It is therefore unusual in the sense that it has an institutional bias (a story in and of itself) in favour of compromise rather than imposition. It is unique amongst social hierarchies because of its preference for the middlle view, rather than elite preference. Yet, the orientation towards peaceful or amicable conflict resolution in pursuit of mass consensus adds weight to the contingency of the resolution in question. Once again, we must unpack the term in order to understand its broader implications.

Democracy survives in the measure that it meets popular (not just majority) expectations. Expectations are a product of popular conceptions of entitlements and rights, often enshrined in law but always perpetuated in foklore and myth. The key for all governments is to manage expectations so that the political form can be reproduced. Authoritarian regimes reduce expectations (often to zero) in certain policy areas in order to satisfy those in others (if at all; in their most degenerate stage authoritarian regimes become mere kleptocracies, ideologically perverse fetishists or homicidal cliques, as the regimes led by Anastasio Somoza, Kim Jung-Il or Robert Mugabe attest). The difference is that democracies must satisify popular expectations in virtually all policy areas, or at least convince the public that a commonly-recognized hierachy of needs must be satisfied in order of priority, so as to reproduce mass contingent consent successfully. Everything political, in other words, is contigent in a democracy.

Democratic rule is contingent on popular expectations being met, and those expectations are raised or lowered by party promises while in government and opposition. In the measure that popular expectations of policy outcomes are broadly met, the government survives and the regime prospers. In the measure that popular expectations are not met governments fall and the regime is undermined. The reason for the latter is that, when confronted with repeated failures to meet expectations by ideologically different governments, popular confidence in the regime type  as a whole begins to fall. When successive governments fail to meet expectations or live up to their promises, popular confidence in the regime begins to suffer. If prolonged, such a loss of confidence can lead to withdrawl of mass contingent consent to the regime, as people do not differentiate between the inaction or failures of particular governments and the regime as a whole (this was seen in Latin America in the 1990s and led directly to the resurgence of indigenous socialism in that region in the 2000s).  Put another way: how many people, including those in the media, confuse the term “government” and “regime” when addressing issues of policy even during stable times? (another reason why conceptual precision should be a requirement in journalism as well as academic discourse). The result in any event is mass withdrawal of consent and a crisis of the regime. Hence, of all regime types, democracy is the most contingent on popular expectations being continuously met, which in turn forces political elites to frame policy debates in ways that allow them to do so. The more informed the public and the stronger the sense of entitlement and endowment of basic rights in society, the harder it is for elites to control the terms of that debate.

How then, can democratic governments continuously meet popular, or at least majority expectations with an eye towards peacefully resolving collective conflicts in order to secure ongoing contingent mass consent given any particular mix of perceived rights and entitlements? The answer lies at the heart of democratic society and is what distinguishes it from all non-democratic social hierarchies: self-restraint. Collective and individual self-restraint is the hallmark of “mature” democracies.

Contrary to economic logics that posit that the uncoordinated actions of self-interested maximizers of opportunities lead the market to clear in an equilibrated state, strategic interaction in democracies is predicated on the conscious adoption by collective actors (and individuals) of self-restraint when pursuing their interests. The use of self-restraint (or self-binding strategies) is done in order to pursue mutual second-best options rather than first choices, since the pursuit of the latter can lead to unbrindled conflict that, although individually optimal for the victors,  is collectively sub-optimal in terms of social peace and regime stability (as it is inherently unstable and prone to challenge by force).  Actors may use militant-moderate strategies to pursue their interests, in which they stake a militant position or demand in order to create space for the achievement of moderate compromises (as occurs in collective wage bargaining), but the objective is the moderate goal, not the militant one. In adopting the mutual second best approach to strategic interaction, collective actors and individuals take into account the interests and strategies of other actors. The democratic “game,” in other words, is coordinated, with actor coordination premised on mutual self-restraint.

Recall that capitalist democracy is itself a product of self-restraint and compromise on the part of capitalists and workers: capitalists consent to democracy and a reduced rate of exploitation, while workers consent to private ownership of the means of production and the universal logics of capitalist markets. Democracy is, in effect, a grand compromise born of collective self-restraint in pursuit of  mass contingent consent.

The threat to democracy comes when collective actors and individuals abandon the practice of self-restraint and pursuit of mutual second best choices that are Nash equilibrated and often Pareto optimal in favour of egotistical first choice preferences. Often this is done because the actor in question believes in the superiority of its view on a given social construct or policy issue, but it can also be simply a matter of greed or ingrained authoritarianism. In New Zealand the political party that is the closest to this approach is ACT, which sees its market/libertarian/social authoritarian beliefs (yes, there is a contradiction there) as superior to all other political views and thus not worth compromising. Most other parties, to include the Greens, understand the give and take needed for the collective mutual second best to obtain over time, but ACT remains zealous, some might say extremist, in its approach to policy-making. In the measure that it continues to do so it is, consequently, a threat to democratic stability.

As with the other concepts examined in this series,there is more to the discussion of contingency and self-restraint in a democracy, particularly the macro-, meso- and micro-levels in which they are manifest and the tradeoffs that occur within and between each level. Suffice it to note here that the salient characteristics of democracies are their ability to inculcate in rulers and ruled the notion that self-restraint is an important ideal in and of itself, and that all political decisions and policy outputs must subject themselves to the contingency test that diminishes uncertainties, upholds universal rights, satisfies entitlements, improves accountability and reproduces mass consent over time. In the measure that they do so, we can say that such democracies are “hegemonic.”

This is the last of this series. My partner has joked that I have single-handedly driven down the blog readership with my long-winded ruminations amid the more topical posts of my blog colleagues. My apologies if that is so, but if nothing else the very act of writing has begun to clarify my thinking on the subject, and hopefully that of some readers as well.

S59 referendum: a game theory approach

datePosted on 22:25, June 17th, 2009 by Lew

How* to vote: Yes, [null] or !#gh$u%WfG?

What’s a body to do, who thinks the S59 referendum question is absurd and yet supports the rights of children to be free from violence, even that perpetrated by their well-meaning parents?

Russell Brown asks the question, and elaborates on the options, but doesn’t provide an answer. Essentially, the question is about principle against pragmatism. This approach is pretty elementary (game theory isn’t a speciality) but it does enough to demonstrate my views on the matter. (It looks to me like a weird sort of Stag Hunt with a third quarry thrown in). There are also a few assumptions and assessments as to how the results will play, which I’m happy to argue. I apologise if it all seems a bit bleedin’ obvious.

mehStarting with the worst response, the third quarry or null vote. An argument of principle, advocated by Denis Welch, it holds that people should treat the s59 referendum with utter contempt and dispose of their share of the $9m expense in the circular file. This is possibly best characterised as the Ostrich Strategy, viz. “ignore it and it’ll go away”. Unfortunately, no cause which attracts signatures from the 10% of the electorate required to trigger a CIR will ever just go away on its own. Given that there are a hard core of people who are strongly motivated to vote “no” in this referendum, the adoption of this strategy will send the (incorrect) message that the bulk of the electorate doesn’t care either way, ceding the field to the “no” voters (hereafter “anti-anti-smacking” or “AAS”). We can call this “Lose For Sure”, because no matter what happens, the strategy can’t win.

chadThe main argument of principle, made most forcefully in the PAS thread by Craig Ranapia and Tom Semmens, is that the question is so badly worded that reading meaning into it and voting on the basis of that interpretation accords the question too much respect, and devalues the CIR system which should insist on properly-formed questions. This argument holds that one should respond to a meaningless question with a meaningless answer by invalidating the ballot and submitting it anyway, which I have characterised above as “!#gh$u%WfG”; in other words, leaving the chad hanging or writing something to the effect of “This question is meaningless” on the ballot and returning it. This has some history in previous referenda, and in principle if enough informal ballots were returned, could serve to discredit the question and the questioning lobby group. Which is what we want. We can call this “Win Big”, because if enough people take this approach, the anti-anti-smackers will be roundly shamed in a more thorough manner than simply losing the referendum. On the other hand, if not enough people do this and the votes are split between “yes” and “informal” the AASers will claim victory. We’ll call this “Lose”.

yesThe argument in pragmatic terms is most eloquently put by Judy Callingham: “I’m going to vote “yes” – as I see it if the bastards don’t lose we’ll never hear the end of them”. This illuminates a key aspect of the matter: the AAS lobby doesn’t have to win big, they just have to not lose in order to demonstrate that they represent the “average kiwi”. This means the primary goal of those opposed to the question or what it represents should be to win, regardless of the magnitude of the victory. Put like that it seems obvious, doesn’t it? This position is most strongly put by The Yes Vote, whose banners are currently up all around the progressive NZ blogosphere. Essentially, if enough people interpret the question in the way in which the AAS want people to interpret it and vote “yes” anyway, they will lose, and the outcome will be positive, viz. parents not being allowed to claim correction as a defence for beating their children. We’ll call this “Win”. Those so voting will have favoured the AAS with a formal answer to their ballot, thus granting them some sort of legitimacy, and if insufficient people vote this way such that it boosts turnout and the AAS still win, they will rightly be able to claim that they have a public mandate for their policy of allowing parents to assault children with legal protection. We’ll call this “Lose Big”.

So, how do things stack up? I’ve established five notional outcomes, as follows:

  • Lose For Sure: %No > %Yes > %Informal (low turnout). This would be caused by people who object to the question refusing to vote.
  • Win Big: %Informal > (%Yes or %No) > (%Yes or %No). This would be caused by enough people voting informally to outnumber those who vote any other way, rendering the referendum a public farce. This requires a great deal of work to convince those who would instinctively vote “yes” despite disagreeing with the question, out of native respect for the democratic process or for other reasons.
  • Lose: %No > (%Yes or % Informal) > (%Yes or % Informal). This would be caused by those objecting to the question being split between “yes” and “informal” such that “no” snuck through the gap, allowing the AAS to claim a plurality and thus victory. There would remain some defence in that the cumulative “yes” and “informal” votes might add up to a majority, but I don’t think this would be worth much.
  • Win: %Yes > (%No or %Informal) > (%No or %Informal). This would be caused by enough people voting “yes” to demonstrate that the AAS does not represent the “average Kiwi” as they claim. It seems likely that those who consider the question an affront to the democratic process and are inclined to vote informally or not vote at all would need to be convinced to vote “yes” instead.
  • Lose Big: %No > %Yes > %Informal (high turnout). This would be caused by enough people voting “yes” to demonstrate that those opposed to the AAS were taking them seriously, but were outnumbered by the AAS itself, thereby justifying the claim that they represent the “average kiwi” with the assertion having been properly tested. If some (but not enough) people are convinced that voting “yes” is the right idea, this will be the result. Thus there is danger in an incomplete adoption of the strategy.

So how should one vote? Well, it obviously rests on what other voters will do. Clearly the best outcome in the case of a split requires collusion – members of one group (either the “informal” voters or the “yes” voters) changing their vote. It looks to me like this:

  • Fail to vote: Many people will do this, but it won’t have any positive effect for anyone other than the AAS. P(Lose For Sure) > *
  • Vote informally: Some people will do this, but probably not enough to Win Big, and if the result isn’t Win Big, it’s more likely to be Lose. This rests on your judgement of whether the number of informal voters will be greater than the number of “no” voters. I don’t think they will. Thus in my assessment P(Lose) > P(Win Big) > *
  • Vote yes: If enough people do this, it will result in Win. If nearly enough people do this it will result in Lose Big. I think the natural tendency of voters is to vote according to what they think something means, rather than what it actually means in cold hard terms. In addition, I think voters are generally reluctant to vote informally out of respect for the institutions of democracy. In addition, I think The Yes Vote has been running a fairly good campaign – they’ve had a few mentions in the mainstream media, and their message is clear and forthright. Therefore in my assessment P(Win) > P(Lose Big) > *

So, essentially, my argument based on this is “vote yes, support campaigns to convince others to vote yes, and all those of you who are considering not voting or voting informally in protest – don’t, just vote yes, because the main danger of losing is in splitting the vote. And hope like hell the yes vote doesn’t fall short, because trying and failing will mean a worse loss than just plain old failing.”

L

* I have omitted the “no” vote. People who are going to vote thus have no need to consider the questions I raise in this post.

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