Headline of the day:

datePosted on 10:25, April 7th, 2009 by Lew

Axe bounces off ministers – Tracy Watkins, The Dominion Post

Nice and cynical, that’s what we like. Pity it’s attached to something so trivial.

L

Trotter: more on the h

datePosted on 00:03, April 7th, 2009 by Lew

This blog is almost becoming Kiwipoliticoh, since given my limited time at present I’m having to pick my battles.

I’m pleased Chris Trotter has come to terms with his inner racist. His characteristically torrid column is basically a rehash of the bogus arguments I discredited here, which Chris has apparently not bothered to read, much less answer the questions I pose in it. His latest column makes explicit what I wrote in the first post on the matter and discussed in more general terms in another post – that people pick an ideological side on matters like this and employ whatever post-hoc rationalisations they need to convince themselves of that position. I freely admit I’ve done the same in this h debate – to me, as to most, it just seems obvious which side is in the right, and that’s a sure sign of ideological knee-jerk. The difference is that my position has some weight of philosophical and legal precedent and linguistic and geographic fact behind it, not just settler ideology.

The column is not pure rehash, though – it’s got some new hash thrown in for good measure, and none of it any more useful than the first lot. It is the canard that by changing a European name back to a Māori name the former is somehow “obliterated” or “expunged” from history. The very examples Chris gives to support this absurd contention disproves it, and moreover it shows the naked settler racism of the position.

Names are important, and to his credit Chris does not succumb to the smug `haven’t those maaris got more important things to worry about’ rhetoric, hoever he over-eggs his pudding a bit here. If, on its own, changing a name genuinely did obliterate and expunge it from history and this was a necessarily bad thing, then Chris ought for consistency’s sake to form a club to protect Beaulieu, Bewley and Baldie Roads, in danger of being so obliterated and expunged by the nefarious newcomer Bowalley Road. The fact is that those names have not been lost – they have faded from common usage but remain a part of the fabric of local culture, to be remembered and celebrated, as they are. If the change goes ahead, nobody except the fearmongers such as Trotter and Laws are suggesting that all historical references to Wanganui be struck from the records, or that a great terminology purge be conducted. The name and the fact of its usage for a century and a half will stand in the documentary record, as it ought to. The generations currently living here will mostly go on using Wanganui, and even many businesses will not bother to change their stationery, out of a dogged loyalty to the identity or out of simple inertia.*

Instead of mourning the loss of Beaulieu, Bewley and Baldie, Chris lionises the upstart Bowalley Road in the very name of his blog. This reveals that Chris accepts that some names have more intrinsic value than others, and on this point I agree with him. Where we disagree is on the basis by which we determine which of an exclusive pair of names should take precedence over the other, a simple matter of logic which I covered in the first post.

Now for the racism: having accepted that some names have more value than others, and having chosen to privilege the colonial name over the traditional name, Chris and others like him essentially say “the settler tradition is more valuable and important than the Māori tradition”. If the case were a marginal one, or if there were two equal competing claims, this would be fair enough – I’m not suggesting that all or even most names ought to be Māori names by right – but in a case where there is a clearly and obviously correct name which isn’t being used in preference to a clearly and obviously incorrect name, the implied statement changes from “the settler tradition is more important than the Māori tradition” to become “settler mistakes are more important than the Māori tradition”, which is much more pejorative. It essentially says “our ignorance is worth more than your identity”, and that, right there, is colonialism in a nutshell.

The battle will be an fierce one, and the troops are massing. The NZGB has signalled that numerical advantage – `preponderance of community views’ – isn’t enough to prevent the change, but it also grants significant weight to those views. In a bald attempt to strengthen their crude majoritarian argument before the NZGB, the Wanganui District Council (which, oddly, will not have to change its name even if the city name changes) has decided to seek a legal opinion on the NZGB’s decision, and to hold another referendum on the spelling of the name. As if there is such a thing, they plan to “conduct a neutral information campaign” on the matter beforehand, though it isn’t clear how they plan on ensuring even a fig-leaf of neutrality – will the council (who voted against the change) argue the sans-h case while Te Runanga o Tupoho (who brought the petition to the NZGB) argues the h case? Will the council pretend it can be neutral on this matter? And what is the purpose of an information campaign anyway, when they, better than anyone else, know that this isn’t a matter of logical, dispassionate assessment of facts and history – it’s a matter of picking sides. I watch the carrion birds circling with interest.

L

* Incidentally, the Wanganui Chronicle had a good laugh at itself and its readership on April 1 with a front-page story announcing that the name would be changed to the Whanganui Chronicle. Good on them! A few days later the editorial apologised to all those who had been taken in, saying that they’d thought the story too absurd to be believable.

Another American Century, or an Empire in Decline?

datePosted on 22:11, April 3rd, 2009 by Pablo

In my professional life  I read as a matter of course the debates about so-called US “hegemony” and whether or its “liberal” view of its role in international affairs will continue for the forseeable future (in this context “liberal” refers to the American idealist tradition of trying to re-make the world in its preferred image, whatever that may be. It is an overarching view that supercedes neo-conservative, neo-realist, constructivist or institutionalist approaches to the international engineering project). I think that the issue is worth consideration by a broader audience.

Some believe that, as the sole military superpower and core economic cog in the global system of finance, production and exchange, the US, albeit over-extended by the military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and beset by its financial market melt-down, remains unassailable in its position of dominance in world affairs and will continue to be so for at least the next 30-50 years. If anything, the debacles of the W. Bush administration are seen to have taught US political elites the need for a more sophisticated, broad based approach to both foreign policy and state regulation of  markets as well as domestic political representation, all of which have their crystalisation in the presidency of Barack Obama. For this view, the American capacity for self-renewal in the face of adversity is boundless, which is why it will continue to dominate world affairs in the 21st century.

Others think that the US century has past, and that the emergence of China, in particular, spells the end of its hegemonic position in the world. There is still a decade or more to run before it is eclipsed by the PRC, but in this contrary view the US’s days as the pre-eminent international actor are numbered, particularly given the emergence of other powers (India, Brazil, Russia, the EU, perhaps Australia, Iran and Turkey) and US inability to curb its consumption, dependence on fossil fuels and adherence to nationalist-conservative ideologies as the bulwark against the “socialist” tendencies of Obama and his purported ilk. Mired in arguments about gay marriage and abortion, viscerally fearful of (dark-skinned) immigration, beset by domestic “culture wars,” the US is seen as a self-absorbed, narcissistic giant about to be toppled by a global community sick and tired of its arrogance, ignorance, bullying and meddling.

I am of two minds on this. For all its military misadventures the US can still do what no other country or combination of countries can do when it comes to projecting force. Guerrilla wars may bog it down but will never threaten its core interests. Likewise, although its economy is stagnating, it still dwarfs any other regional, much less national market and still has a dramatic repercussive effect on all other markets in the global commodity chain. It may be somewhat bowed, but it is as of yet unbroken.

On the other hand, its cultural vacuousness, its myopia, its clear signs of decline on all fronts relative to a decade ago suggest that the US is, in fact, slipping from the position of superpower to that of just another major power amongst others, and that it can do nothing to prevent the international system moving from the the unipolar configuration of the immediate post-Cold War era to something that although as of yet unclear, will certainly be multi-polar in a decade or so.

Which leads me to ask three questions: 1) at the point that the US feels itself being eclipsed (should that occur), will it wage a last ditch war (or wars) to prevent that from happening, and if so, will these conflicts go nuclear (which is where the US arguably has its most decided military advantage in terms of delivery platforms as well as array of warheads)? 2) will the world be a better place in the event that it does cede its preeminent role to rising powers? 3) what is the “proper” class, environmental or otherwise “progressive” line to take on this?

Shame on who?

datePosted on 15:07, April 2nd, 2009 by Lew

This image is attached to the Stuff story on the death of a protester during the G20 protests in London:

shame-crop

(Screenshot)

I know I’m not alone in noticing that since Stuff remodeled itself on the SMH that they’ve cranked up the alarm-o-meter somewhat, and this is an excellent example. A few facts are clear from the linked story, and a rudimentary bit of reading around reflects some others, to wit:

  1. The person who died during the protest was a man, not a pretty woman who happened to pose for the camera at the time. The shot was chosen purely because it’s a good image.
  2. The man apparently died of natural causes, not a bleeding head wound.
  3. The unstated `you’ in the headline of this image is the riot police. However the man who died was not killed by police or as any consequence of violence in the protest; in fact, protesters pelted police with bottles as they tried to resuscitate him.

This should serve as one more bit of evidence that the media are not intrinsically biased for or against anyone in particular – they follow the story, and in some cases they lead it, for their own purposes rather than those of their masters in transnational capital.

Edit: My mum points out that the composition evokes Brian Brake’s famous Monsoon Girl.

Edit 20090408: Commenter Rich has linked to footage of police attacking Ian Tomlinson just before he died, here. If it’s real and legitimate, and there’s no reason to assume it isn’t, then it more or less invalidates my objections 2 and 3 above. Objection 1 stands, for what little that’s worth.

L

NZGB to settlers:

datePosted on 14:28, March 31st, 2009 by Lew

Matters of linguistic and geographic fact are determined by meritorious debate, not majoritarian opinion.

Yesterday the New Zealand Geographic Board announced that there is a valid case for the name of the city of Wanganui to be spelt in its correct rendition of Whanganui. (I posted on this issue twice recently.)

The NZGB explicitly rejected the majoritarian argument, stating that the debate was important, not just the show of hands:

The Board noted the results of a referendum held in 2006, when a considerable number of Wanganui residents indicated their preference to retain the current spelling. However, the Board was conscious that declining the proposal at this point would not allow views both for and against to be expressed

Michael Laws has predictably come out calling this an attack on democracy. Unfortunately for demagogues like Laws (fortunately for the rest of us) facts are not democratically determined. Facts are defined by their relationship to reality, not by their relationship to majority opinion. Democracy is good for a very large number of things, but it’s very poor indeed for determining matters of actual factual observable and demonstrable reality.

But the really important aspect of the NZGB’s release are the implications of the following two statements:

“Wanganui, the name given to the town to reflect its position near the mouth of the Whanganui River, was spelt incorrectly and has never been formally gazetted by this Board or its predecessors. It is therefore not currently an official New Zealand place name.”

[...]

“While the Board acknowledges the historical transcription was based on the local pronunciation, the mechanics of standardising a previous unwritten language, together with its full meaning/translation, signal that the name was intended to be ‘Whanganui’. This is about correcting a mistake made more than 150 years ago.”

In these statements Dr Don Grant suggests that a local council may not by simple fiat enshrine an error as a norm – the origin of that error matters, and if its correctness is disputed then the intention of those who originated it becomes relevant. This implies a burden of proof on those wanting to retain the current no-h spelling to demonstrate that those who originally spelt the name that way intended to do so – thereby coining a new word. That is an untenable position held only by those with no genuine arguments of merit, whose leader Laws stated that people who didn’t like the current spelling could go to `Fuckatanay’ (as he pronounced it), neatly highlighting the crass idiocy of the position.

It is also an important matter of precedence. My arguments have been based on the idea that the current spelling of `Wanganui’ is the correct spelling in law, while Dr Grant made quite clear that it has no legitimacy, having never been formally recognised by the body properly constituted to do so, which is not the Wanganui District Council. Because of this, the decision the NZGB needs to make is not whether to confirm the de jure status quo spelling as the settlers suggest, but whether to give the de facto spelling precedence over the de jure status quo, which (since no alternative spelling has been approved by the properly-constituted body) can only be Whanganui. The core of the settler position is this claim to the status quo, that possession is nine tenths of the law and that since the name is currently in settler possession it is theirs to define and use as they wish without consideration to others or to the historical, linguistic and geographic facts of the matter. The status quo in this case is clearly on the side of the h: if the settlers cannot convince the board of their claim it will not remain as Wanganui but will revert to the correct spelling. That’s a huge difference.

Submissions open in mid-May. If you have an argument you want heard on this, make a submission. The debate matters.

L

Rethinking market socialism.

datePosted on 20:15, March 28th, 2009 by Pablo

The crisis of the latest incarnation of market -driven economics, particularly in its financial sector, has raised the possibility of political-economic alternatives not so much as remedies but as significantly different approaches to the structuring of national economies in a global system of production and exchange. One of these is a revamped–as opposed to resurrected–market socialism. For those who are not familiar with the concept, a quick synopsis is found here. Although current conditions are different from those that led to the original formulation, some basic tenets can be discerned and elaborated upon. Basically, within a market system of supply and demand, the state operates as a macroeconomic manager (not just a toothless regulator) by obtaining majority stakes in strategic assets (be they primary good or value added). In parallel, at a mircroeconomic level it moves to promote significant (be it as a majority or as part of a tripartite arrangement with the state and capitalists) worker ownership in strategic industries (such as through employee stock option programmes  (ESOPs) or by encouraging the formation of cooperatives) in exchange for wage restraint and greater productivity. The logic is that with workers as co-owners of the industries in which they are employed, they will understand managerial rationales as well as the conditions on the production line, thereby promoting what could be called “equitable efficiency” in production.  Non-strategic components of the economy can be encouraged to follow suit but will not be forced to engage in such “socialising” programmes, but will be taxed at a higher rate if worker participation schemes are not incorporated. All sectors will follow the laws of economic efficiency followed by private firms–that is, the market logics of supply, demand and prices. Hence, the object is to prevent rent seeking behaviours usually associated with state ownership of the means of production–to wit, no “make work” or ghost worker schemes, no padding of employee roles, no patronage or clientalistic networks etc. Needless to say, unions may see a threat in this, but their self-interest as agents should not detract from the potential benefits of ownership accrued by workers as a class as well as principals of unions (where they are organised). Union shareholding schemes might be one way to reconcile the interests of agents and principals in such an event.

Under such a market socialist approach a restrained individual taxation rate that increases the amount of discretionary income to wage-owners as well as as capitalists can be complemented by a differential corporate rate that rewards worker ownership with lower rates while maintaining a higher rate for “traditional” firms–i.e. those that appropriate the surplus generated by workers in the form of profits that are in the majority distributed to non-workers (be they shareholders or managers).

With a greater State macroeconomic presence as a stakeholder in strategic industries and manager of microfoundational (the orientation of specific  industry) policy, coupled with active promotion of worker participation in ownership of the industries in which they are employed, backed by a taxation policy that rewards those who see the wisdom of making workers co-owners and understand that the State, as representative of all sectoral interests, is better suited for macroeconomic management than individual capitalists or their associations, a new market socialist project can be advanced that will filter global market dynamics into a more nuanced, and fairer, distribution of wealth and income in society. In a small island trade-dependent state, socio-economic stability depends on this.

There is actually a model for such a system, although it has yet to incorporate worker ownership schemes as part of its developmental project. That model is Singapore and the only reason it does not incorporate policies of worker ownership  into what is otherwise a state-dominated export-oriented economy that is successful is that it is a)authoritarian and thus can impose its will without worrying about the filter of mass consent;  b) foreign investors resist worker participation as a condition for investment; and c) as a result of the previous two factors, foreign workers on temporary visas unprotected by labor laws reserved for Singaporean citizens are used to structurally undermine any moves in that direction.

As a liberal democracy NZ can not emulate everything that Singapore does, but what it can do is note the commanding position of the State in its macroeconomic affairs, to include its use of  State holding companies as channels for public investment in a range of “private” industries as well as its use of taxation as an incentive for corporate investment and production, on the one hand, and household consumption on the other. Admittedly, the argument presented here is just a simplified sketch of the possibilities of market socialism in the present conjuncture, but the intention is to raise the point rather than fully elaborate upon it. The latter task is left to the readers.

A Green Neo-Realist Foreign Policy Manifesto

datePosted on 23:28, March 24th, 2009 by Pablo

Now that the Green Party has matured into the third most important political party in NZ, it is time that it develop an equally robust foreign policy stance that moves beyond its visceral commitment to pacifism, human rights and civil liberties, international ecological defence and anti-imperialism. Although laudable goals that still have a place on the Green foreign policy agenda, these foundational pillars need to be supplemented by a more nuanced and less ideologically rigid, but no less idealist in principle, approach to New Zealand’s foreign affairs.

Lets start with defence and intelligence. The Green Party should maintain their absolute commitment to conventional and unconventional weapons non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament, prohibitions of chemical and biological weapons and bans on the manufacture and sale of land mines and other indiscriminate munitions. It should maintain its commitment to seeing the NZDF externally focused on peace-keeping and nation building as its major priority. It should resist efforts to turn the NZDF in to a mini Australian armed forces, and resist the calls for the NZDF to follow Australia, the US and the UK into battle no matter the context or justification. But it also has to realise that NZ’s own defence is premised on its being a good international security partner, and that it cannot abrogate its responsibilities in that field. To that end, the Greens should support efforts to restore a close air/ground support wing to the NZAF in order to provide NZ peace-keeping troops with independent air cover in foreign conflict zones. Even when under multinational military control such as the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, military protocols allow services of each country to protect their fellow troops as a priority. If NZ is going to continue its level of international troop deployments in conflict zones like Afghanistan, East Timor, the Solomons and elsewhere, the ability to provide protective air cover to its troops on the ground is surely a worthy cause. And, as it turns, out, be they rotary or fixed wing, surplus close air support platforms in the inventories of several NATO and other countries come relatively cheap when compared to the aborted F-16 purchase of a decade ago.

Likewise, the Greens needs to support the reinforcement of the Navy’s long-range patrol and interdiction capability, if for no other reason than to protect the resources located in the NZ Exclusive Economic Zone and to deter illegal poaching of whale and endangered fish in the waters adjacent to it. Moreover, such a capability can also serve in anti-piracy roles in the sea lines of communication most vital to new Zealand’s trade, and to keep track of the increasing presence of foreign submarine and surface fleets in and around New Zealand waters. Passivity in the face of such probes will likely be interpreted as acquiescence or inability to counter them, which will encourage further encroachments into the EEC, if not the territorial limit itself. That is also why the Greens need to support the continuing emphasis placed on the NZSAS as the country’s special operations branch. What it can do differently is question the deployments they undertake on behalf of foreign powers, perhaps broadening the scope of their activities to areas outside of the usual SOLIC (special operations and low intensity conflict) scenarios.

 Thus, the Greens should support efforts to increase NZDF spending to  1.5 percent of GDP, in line with the lower threshold of OECD nations, but with a specific focus on the Green “line” of defense and security priorities. No more over priced and ill-suited LAVs, no more $1 million-a-copy anti-tank shoulder fired rockets–just the best weapons and platforms for the NZDF’s unique “niche” role in international security affairs. Even if coat-tailing on previous Labour initiatives, a neo-realist Green approach to defence can provide a human security orientation that extends beyond the traditional security concerns of the major parties.

With regard to intelligence, the Greens must continue their valiant opposition to the unaccountable and often rogue behaviour of  the NZSIS and Police intelligence. But it must couple its demands for more democratic accountability and transparency–something that may begin with the appointment of Russell Norman and Tariana Turia to the Parliamentary Security and Intelligence Committee–with a more reasoned demand that external intelligence collection be separated from domestic intelligence collection and delegated to different agencies. Counter-intelligence functions can be shared because foreign espionage often follows commercial and criminal avenues, but the business of spying in foreign places is very different than spying on one’s own citizens. Thus the Police should be responsible for the latter, with all of the attendant legal safeguards that purportedly govern their operations, whereas the NZSIS can limit itself, along with the GCSB, to external intelligence collection and analysis. No other political party has even mentioned this, much less understood the multiple rationales as to why decentralisation of intelligence functions is actually an important step towards removing the authoritarian culture so deeply imbedded in New Zealand’s intelligence apparatus. In line with these reforms, the Greens should demand that the PSIC be elevated to the status of select committee allowed to review classified material in closed session. Only then will real parliamentary oversight of the intelligence apparatus be possible.

In terms of trade, the Greens need to modify their generic opposition to trade. Instead of a seeming blanket opposition to open economies, the NZ Green Party needs to understand that for a vulnerable isolated and resource-scarce country like NZ, trade is a lifeline. It is here to stay as the mainstay of macroeconomic policy. Therefore, the issue should not whether to trade or not to trade, but how to trade? The answer, as I have mentioned in previous posts, is to trade fairly as well as (or as opposed to) freely. Trading fairly means to concentrate not just on tariff reduction and other bi-or multilateral entry conditions, but on after-entry conditions pertinent to labour rights, working conditions, gender and indigenous issues, wages, health, safety and environmental standards. The goal is to promote a level of regulatory symmetry n the trade relationship, thereby leveling the playing field or at least standardising the rules of investment and competition in the interest of productivity, growth AND human dignity in the labour process. This is as true for NZ investment abroad as well as foreign investment in Aotearoa. The basic thrust is to do onto other (foreign) laborers as what one would do onto oneself (or one’s co-nationals). Capitalists may not like the impact on their short-term profits of promoting such trade agreements, but it is in their longer-term interests, in terms of a guaranteed restrained rate of profit, that they play fair and symmetrically. Moreover, such a stance places NZ at the forefront of trade debates that emphasize a balance between profit, growth and larger communitarian considerations.

Diplomatically, the Greens need to promote a strengthened constructivist-institutionalist approach to foreign policy. Constructivism in foreign policy is focused on normative value change in key policy areas (say, human rights and disarmament)  and institutionalism is focused on strengthening multilateral institutional approaches to conflict resolution and global peace and stability based on shared ideals.  Although Labour advocated such an approach, it too often has compromised its stance in order to curry favour with trade or defence partners. National has no commitment to idealism in foreign affairs. Thus it is left for the Greens to push hardest for an ongoing, if not increased commitment to finding multilateral institutionalised approaches to the sources of international disputes, and to push for progressive value change within international organisations and regional institutions. In doing so it will help continue New Zealand’s reputation as an honest international broker, mediator and arbitrator committed to supra-and transnational methods of grievance redress and resolution. After all, if the world is truly to move away from the anarchic” state of nature” that is the realist conception of international affairs, it needs to move beyond the nation-state as the ultimate adjudicator of international disputes. It is up to small countries to make the case. It is their self-interest to do so, and that is eminently realist in conception. It is, in other words, a bit of Green (neo) realism at play.

All of this is a big task and may run counter to the wishes of more militant elements in the “watermelon” constituency of the Green Party (which should be seen as a source of strength rather than as a weakness). Now is the time to move beyond the parochial environmentalism, classism and other foundational Green principles and towards an agenda that attracts more mainstream voters in pursuit of being a legitimate swing vote and therefore real power broker in the New Zealand political system. This foreign policy manifesto is a gesture in that direction. That does not mean abandonment of  the foundational principles, but the enhancing and expanding of them. This is important because only the Greens have the ability to contribute significantly to a shift in the status quo political discourse currently on display. No other party does.

 After all, with ACT having prostituted its libertarian principles to the crime and punishment authoritarians headed by Mr.Garrett (see Lew and Anita’s posts on the issue  below), the Greens are the only honest political party left in parliament–with them, what you see is what you get, full stop. Given that unique position of advantage, now is the time for the Green Party to develop more depth to their policy agenda, which is why this post is tabled.

Abortion – another right National will erode

datePosted on 22:14, March 22nd, 2009 by Anita

In 2007 14 members of the current National cabinet[1] voted to support an amendment by Gordon Copeland which would have put an anti-abortion doctor onto the Abortion Supervisory Committee in an attempt to restrict access to abortion. Since early this decade National has been building its relationships with conservative and evangelical churches, trading policies and promises for votes even bring a minister from a conservative evangelical church into caucus.

At the same time the anti-anti-smacking lobby is regrouping around an anti-abortion campaign – a lobby National owes a significant debt of gratitude. (Try about half way down this, search for “Andy Moore” if it’s quicker than scrolling)

Restricting our right to abortion is on the agenda for National’s first term.

 

[1] 14 of the 19 who were able to vote at the time.

BK Drinkwater replied several days ago to my post on the core philosophical difference between Labour and National. Unfortunately I’ve been too busy (with work and with caring for family members at either end of their lives) to give very much attention to this sort of thing, and this state will continue for the foreseeable future. His is a good post, and although it’s couched as a critique of mine, I mostly agree with it. It’s not so much arguing a different point than mine as looking at the issue more deeply. I especially like his restatement of the matter in formal terms:

The big question, and this is the one that will probably decide which camp of economic thought you pitch your tent in, is this: to what extent do the ill social products of income inequality compound as according to income inequality, and does this effect rival the benefits of economic growth to the point where you’re willing to see less of the latter?

A therefore B (therefore A)
I was in the initial post perhaps a bit vague about which parts of my argument were the hypothesis and which were the evidence to prove it (in truth, they’re both, which is itself problematic). This meant BK accepted the utilitarian dichotomy I raised (greatest good versus least harm), but didn’t follow it completely through. Once followed through, I think it illuminates the reasoning behind both sides’ policy preferences and ideological truisms. I pegged the core philosophical difference to a crude split of those who see the world as being bounteous with opportunity and potential, and those who see it as being fraught with danger and risk. For example:

Classical liberals in National are concerned almost solely with negative rights: the right not to have your stuff stolen, the right not to be raped, etc etc. Labour recognizes also positive rights: the right to a high standard of education and healthcare, the right to share equitably in the prosperity of the nation as a whole.

(Ignoring for a moment that the example isn’t accurate because both National and Labour believe in the things ascribed above to Labour). The notional ambitionist is concerned with negative rights because they see the world as basically beneficial, and consider that if people are just left the hell alone human beings will generally be sweet. The notional mitigationist ideologue, on the other hand, believes that the world is a harsh place, and that minimum entitlements of comfort and dignity should be guaranteed in positive rights. The two positions positions don’t explain the worldview as much as they are derived from the worldview. Other dichotomies map to this with a fair degree of accuracy: the abundance versus scarcity split of how full the glass is represents just one, you can probably think up others.

Above, I used `the world’ deliberately, because I think a good case study for this sort of thing are the linked matters of climate change and peak oil. Ambitionists, by and large, see neither of these as a great problem, because at core they hold an unshakable confidence in humanity’s ability to overcome anything and will find ways to mitigate against both, given enough time and good reason to do so. This is the throughoing theme of Atlas Shrugged. Mitigationists, on the other hand, believe that there are forces greater than humanity and that these problems cannot be overcome – at least not by the ambitionist approach. This is the throughgoing theme of another great dystopic novel, The War of the Worlds, where humanity is saved through no fault of our own but through careful preservation of a lower bound.

These dichotomies are heavily propagandised, and are a significant matter of political identity. I reject much of the Marxist cui bono? approach to explaining political allegiance, and rather think that (warning, rash generalisations follow) the wealthy support National because National reflects their experience that the world is a sweet place where everyone has opportunities, they just have to take them; while the less-wealthy support Labour because Labour reflects their experience that it’s tough to scrape by without a decent base-line of public support. This leads me to my next point: what do people really believe?

Apology
Answer: what their ideological identity tells them to. The dirty little secret of my initial post is that I appealed to utilitarianism because it’s a useful framework, but I don’t actually buy it, and I don’t think very many other people do either. The unstated assumption was that people think rationally about matters like this, in terms of actual utility. I think people should, but I don’t think they do. When it comes to propagandised political identity markers such as these dichotomies, people assess policies or political positions in deontological terms, not in utilitarian terms – they identify themselves with an end and then rationalise the necessary means, inventing or adopting or appropriating arguments which allow them to sleep at night. The question is what does this policy advocate vis-a-vis what I believe to be right rather than what utility will this policy bring vis-a-vis the alternatives. So all this talk about opportunity and risk and discount rates and such is useful in theory, and useful in practice inasmuch as it might form the basis for ideologically resonant arguments which might lead to greater support for better policy outcomes, but I don’t think the question I raised was strictly one of utility – it’s one of identity. Sorry about that.

More on the money proxy
I want to expand on why I have problems with the money proxy, which I touched on in the last post. It’s pretty simple, and explains the reason why I’m not strictly an ambitionist: money is both the means by which we judge a person’s worth (in the human sense) and the resource needed to enjoy the comfort and dignity to which I (and most people) believe human beings are entitled by simple virtue of their being human beings. Because the same thing is used as both a means and an end, there is inevitable conflict: by denying people access to sufficient food, healthcare, accomodation, etc. on the grounds that they cannot afford to buy it for themselves, a society tacitly says: you are not worth it because you do not have enough money. This, to me, is not acceptable. If we cannot divorce the value of a person’s dignity, comfort and wellbeing from the monetary cost of sustaining it, what’s the purpose of society?

I suppose that’s my A.

L

Memo to SOEs:

datePosted on 10:53, March 19th, 2009 by Lew

Out-perform the private sector or join it.

This is the ultimatum I’m reading into Simon Power’s letter to SOE chairs.

I think it’s entirely right for the government to expect the most responsible and diligent business practice from SOEs – but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect them to outperform the private sector which is unconstrained by the same responsibilities borne by a state-owned business. The private sector is responsible only to the profit motive of its shareholders, without the constraints of the triple bottom line and exemplary standards of conduct, transparency and long-term commitment.* Inasmuch as these constraints represent economic profitability traded off against other types of value, they require a SOE to operate at a disadvantage compared to private concerns when performance is measured purely in terms of the raw numbers.

If the ultimatum is delivered (as I expect it will be) in more certain terms during the 9 April meeting, it will mean two things: first, it should drive substantial changes in culture and efficiency, which is a good thing, and is the stated purpose. Second, if the different constraints under which SOEs operate are not taken into consideration and the performance evaluation is undertaken on strict terms of profit (and given the Prime Minister’s decree that electricity prices won’t rise) then they will be set a task at which they cannot possibly succeed, and their expected failure to outperform the market will prepare the groundwork for them to be sold during a second term.

L

* You might think that these constraints are a load of old bollocks, but that’s a different argument, since the government’s stated position is that they’re just fine.

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