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?

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.


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.


* 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.

The mythical “centrist” John Key government

datePosted on 07:33, March 17th, 2009 by Anita

When you look at the current government’s first four-and-a-bit months you see a right wing government implementing a swing to the right at high speed. Fair enough, they won the election, they reckon they’ve got the mandate. Even Key has stopped describing himself as “centrist” and now says “centre-right”.

Yet when you read the mainstream media the word “centrist” is still firmly attached to Key’s government. Well the New Zealand media anyhow, overseas they recognise a good old fashioned right wing market economics agenda.

So, what will it take for the media to stop believing it’s own commentary on last year’s election (carefully prepared for it by the National campaign team) and recognise that we elected, and now have, a right wing government? They’re making right wing choices: tax cuts for the rich instead of tax cuts for the poor; business own profits over staff wages and jobs; and an authoritarian state over human rights. We can argue about whether they’re the correct choices but they are the choices of the right.

We have a right wing government, that’s all.

What David Garrett really thinks

datePosted on 11:30, March 16th, 2009 by Lew

ass_in_jailI’m guessing most of the country has moved on from this issue, but last week I suggested that vto post his email reply from Garrett on the `creature comforts’ issue. He didn’t want to, which is fair enough, but I was interested in my own personalised bit of invective, so I emailed him myself.

I didn’t get invective, I got an explanation of what (and how) he really thinks on this matter, which is most excellent. For all that I disagree with his policies and his ideas, David appears to be entirely lacking in guile, which can only be a good thing inasmuch as it enables the electorate to take him at face value. (Ok, not entirely without guile – he was complaining on Focus On Politics (audio) on Friday that the media take his jocular utterances too seriously.)

The email thread is reproduced verbatim below the fold. I had delayed posting this over the weekend in order to give David time to reply to my last message, but as of this morning he hasn’t done so.


Read the rest of this entry »

Accepting torture

datePosted on 17:02, March 15th, 2009 by Anita

Between even more travelling for work than usual and a cold I’ve been a bit beyond writing, although my list of half written posts has grown :)  Of everything that’s gone on recently it’s the issue of prison rape that’s been closest to a coherent thought. More precisely, why do we accept prison rape?

Since David Garrett’s offensive comments plenty of people have talked about the idea of rape-as-a-part-of-your-punishment and I’ve particularly liked:

  • Idiot/Savant’s “Creature Comforts” which neatly ties the issue back to ACT’s anti human rights agenda.
  • Maia’s Reasonable Opinions which points out that comments like Garrett’s make it clear that some people are rapeable. The comments thread, while heated, is worth a read too!

All of the MSM commentary, and most of the on-line discussion, has taken for granted that prison rape occurs. Where is the analysis of how much prison rape occurs and what is, or could be, done to to eradicate it?

When did prison rape gain acceptance as a normal and inevitable part of our society? What would it take to change that?

Blog Link–Reigning in the Spies

datePosted on 15:23, March 13th, 2009 by Pablo

The new Parliamentary Intelligence and Oversight Committee has been announced, and it has the potential to be a milestone for intelligence oversight in NZ. Tariana Turia and Rodney Hide were appointed by John Key (who chairs the committee), and Russell Norman was chosen by Phil Goff (who also serves on the committee). Turia and Norman lead parties that have had their members spied on by the SIS or Police, and Hide has opposed on libertarian grounds the expansion of security based constraints on civil liberties (he opposed passing of the Terrorism Suppression Act, among other things). Thus three out of the five new members have been critical of the intelligence services, which is in stark contrast to previous members during the Fifth Labour government. Although the possibility of their being coopted cannot  be discounted, there is an equal if not greater possibility that their appointment signals a shared belief by Mr. Key and Mr. Goff that the time has come for a review of the way intelligence operations are conducted in NZ. Lets hope so. There are already signs that moves in that direction are afoot–Mr. Key’s request of the SIS Inspector General to report to him on the domestic spying programme and SIS Director-General Warren Tucker’s apparent commitment to more transparency being two examples–but what is needed is for the committee to undertake a thorough review of the NZ intelligence apparatus, including its legal charter, operational conduct and organizational focus, and its accountability to parliament as well as to the government of the day. In short, rather than the ineffectual government and SIS lapdog that it was during the Fifth Labour government, the committee needs to grow some teeth and bite hard into the meat of the matter–the lack of transparency and accountability traditionally exhibited by important elements of the intelligence community. That requires a re-write of its charter, since it is not a select committee and therefore does not have the independence or authority to demand classified briefs (or any other information) from the agencies it supposedly oversees. A more detailed review of the potential for reform embodied in the new committee is offered in this month’s “Word from Afar” column at Scoop (http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0903/S00147.htm). For the moment, the new committee should be applauded, yet more importantly, encouraged to undertake its responsibilities in pursuit of a new culture of democratic accountability and transparency in the NZ intelligence services.

Greatest good versus least harm, and the money proxy

datePosted on 23:12, March 11th, 2009 by Lew

It seems to me that the main difference in principle between Labour and National-based governments in NZ is an old question of utilitarianism – whether one should work toward achieving the greatest good or toward ensuring the least harm. The two philosophical positions are sketched out reasonably well in the wikipedia article on utilitarianism.

In principle, the difference boils down to a strategy of positive ambition versus negative mitigation. The former sees achievement as the highest goal, and failure as a necessary collateral effect of attempted achievement. They grade a society by its upper bound, by how much success its leading members achieve. In this regard, the ideology emphasises ambition, celebrating that qualities as the most beneficial to society while disregarding the worst consequences of its failure – destitution, disease, starvation, etc. The caricature of an ambitionist, if I may coin the term, sees the world as humanity’s oyster, and humanity in positive terms – as potentially successful and satisfied and healthy and secure, and considers that anyone who does not achieve these things has simply not tried hard enough, or for long enough, or lacks the innate characteristics needed to achieve those things and is therefore not entitled to them. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their success. In symbolic terms, the way to appeal to these people is in terms of opportunity, advantage, individuality, and the idea of just desserts for effort rendered.

On the other hand, the caricatured mitigationist (to coin the opposite term) grades society on its lower bound, by the extent to which the least successful members of the society are allowed to suffer by the more successful. They see the world as a dangerous, inhospitable place in which the default state is abject meanness, and humanity in negative terms of limiting those inhospitable forces, keeping out the cold and the hunger and the disease, while anything else is a bonus. Entitlement accrues to a person on the grounds of their humanity alone. The way to appeal to these people symbolically is in terms of compassion, brotherhood, sacrifice, cooperative achievement and that principle that none should suffer needlessly.

Although it may sometimes seem so, the world is not made up of caricatures, and this is my round of defence against complaints of false dichotomy. Both of these two broad positions hold some resonance for each of us, and it seems plausible that the balance of that resonance has a strong determinant effect on our political preferences. The problem, as always, comes with implementation, and the primary problem of implementation in the society we have is that money is used as the main measure of success and therefore as a proxy for a person’s innate value. This is perfectly acceptable to the ambitionists, whose ideological basis enables them to embrace money just as easily as they might embrace any other measure of human importance, but it’s not so attractive to mitigationists, who argue that entitlements accrue to a person on the grounds of their innate status as human beings and members of society, regardless of their achievements.

Push comes to shove at times like this, when things (in terms of that prevailing measure of success, money) are tight. When many people are deprived them, the human necessities of health, comfort and dignity can more readily be achieved by an idea of the common good than by the burning desire of ambition. However, when things get good again, it’s a terribly hard ideological position to peel back, and inasmuch as the common good can constrain the urgency of effort required for success it can be counter-productive, entrenching mediocrity. Indeed, without the incentive of individual reward for ambition, it could be argued that society would never pull out of any trough. But contrary to what the Randroids say, this isn’t an absolute constraint. In good times it’s easy to emphasise the greater good because a reasonable minimum standard can be expected to exist or be trivially provided for the few who need it. None need suffer except by a relative standard. In hard times, however, when raw success is less achievable, mitigating harm at the temporary expense of ambition becomes more valuable by its easy achievement.

The case in point is the Key government’s recession strategy, which gives a great deal of consideration to maintaining ambition but little to mitigating harm. It’s a tacit acceptance of a certain amount of harm in service of a longer-term good. If not from the policy itself, you can tell this from the terms used to talk about it. That’s a complicated philosophical and utilitarian question for a supposedly non-ideological government to be tackling.


`progress’ in Afghanistan

datePosted on 18:12, March 10th, 2009 by Lew


WikiLeaks has published four internal NATO briefing documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan – including the Master Narrative which sets out the operational and strategic and symbolic parameters which guide ISAF’s media posture.

This guidance document is designed to assist all those who play a part in explaining the situation in Afghanistan and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, but especially those who deal with the media.

You can get the documents here. Interesting and revealing stuff but possibly more mundane than you might expect. If I get time over the next few days I’ll post a few observations (and if anyone else wants to do so, be my guest). In an epic security fail, the documents were distributed using Microsoft SharePoint, and protected with the absurd password `progress’.

What significance the image of an ISAF sniper posing with the corpse of an Afghan, you ask? This is the amazingly political choice of image on the WikiLeaks editorial which announced this particular leak – saying it’s misleading doesn’t go far enough, it’s an outrageous association to make. But it’s also the polar opposite of the media agenda which these ISAF documents explicate, and in that regard it’s a crafty bit of work.

(Via Bruce Schneier.)


`Iwi tax’ propaganda fail

datePosted on 09:13, March 10th, 2009 by Lew

Despite Fairfax papers the Dominion Post and the Waikato Times cheerfully running their “iwi tax” racist propaganda line, eel fishermen working (or not working, presently) in Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora now claim in The Press it’s nothing to do with race:

“It’s not a Maori-Pakeha issue, but a bullying corporation treating some small people badly.”

That’s Clem Smith, the same person to whom the `iwi tax’ line was attributed a few days ago. What appears to have happened is that their `iwi tax’ line didn’t get as much traction as they expected – even the normally-rabid comments section on the original article was fairly split between the rednecks and the propertarians – and a Ngāi Tahu former Treaty negotiator came out in their defence, making their anti-Māori position somewhat untenable.

Still, it’s good that they’ve backed down. I still believe the levy is a legitimate means of raising revenue to clean up the waterway, but I also agree with Rik Tau’s argument in principle that Ngāi Tahu ought to act within the spirit of the agreement rather than exploiting it strictly to the letter. The fundamental problem in Māori-Pākehā relations isn’t a lack of agreements, it’s a lack of goodwill in their implementation. Including the first one – the Treaty.


Not a very practical cycle way

datePosted on 06:17, March 9th, 2009 by Anita

The government’s plan to build a cycle way the length of New Zealand encapsulates two key themes of this National administration.

  • It’s for wealthy tourists, not New Zealanders – it won’t get us to work or study, but it’ll allow wealthy western tourists the clean green NZ experience well insulated from the reality of our car dependency.
  • It’ll provide work for the construction industry – mostly men, mostly larger business, returning good profits to wealthy shareholders.

Of the two it’s the first that bothers me most (the second is just business as usual for National), building cycle ways to get people to work or study would make a real difference in our real lives. Whether you’re planning for peak oil, a recession, an ETS or carbon tax, or reducing obesity making it safe for people to cycle commute would have been a huge step forward.

Instead we’re green washing the exhaust fumes to look good to the rest of the world.

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