Posted 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.
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.
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.)
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:
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.
The government’s plan to build a cycle way the length of New Zealand encapsulates two key themes of this National administration.
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.
Juan Linz wrote that political time was like cloud time—it moved at a different pace than chronological time, yet had a discernable rhythm of its own. I would like to reverse the metaphor to note that when it comes to political and economic cycles in liberal democracies, it is political time that is more chronological, whereas economic time is more akin to cloud time.
Under conditions of liberal democracy, political time is codified, demarcated and predictable. Elections are held at regular intervals, parliaments sit for a given amount of days in a calendar year; government departments issue annual reports and respond to inquiries in prescribed (if not timely) fashion, bills are introduced in specified ways within specific timeframes, etc. Even political debates take on a predictable rhythm, with arguments over finances occurring around the time of government budget announcements (in New Zealand that is usually in May), and partisan and personal attacks occurring during periods of relative policy stability. Come summer, most things political more or less stop for the holidays, then resume in the Fall.
Economic time, however, is another matter. Capitalist economies are obviously cyclical, but the cycles are twofold and not coincident with political time. First, there is the “boom and bust” cycle in which markets expand and contract in pursuit of (re) equilibrated growth. This is the cumulus cloud time of economic cycles. That is, the short cycle dimension of capitalist economics, marked by sudden shifts in direction driven by the warming or cooling of market preferences. In parallel, there is a long cycle in which capitalist economies shift between market-driven or state-managed forms. This is the cirrus cloud dimension of economic time. The sclerosis, stagnation or failure of one economic form, such as the market failures now evident, leads to the shift to the other. Thus, the Great Depression spelled the end of laissez faire market economics and the advent of welfare statism, which after the resolution of World War 2 led to nearly forty years of prosperity in the liberal democratic world. In turn, by the 1980s the era of state-centered economics had come to an end, saddled as it was by rent-seeking behaviours, clientalism and systemic inefficiencies produced by bureaucratic distortions of the productive process. What emerged in response was neoliberal market economics. This era was driven by deregulation, trade opening and monetarist macroeconomic prescriptions that were premised on the belief—subsequently proven to be unfounded—that finance capital would be the most accurate determiner of global productive investment.
Two decades later, the era of neoliberal economics has concluded in ignoble fashion. Note that this market-oriented cycle lasted half as long as the previous state-centered cycle, which in turn was shorter than the original period of laissez faire. This shortened lifespan is due to the combination of market-driven globalization of production coupled with exponential advances in telecommunications and transportation. Phrased differently, it would seem that the economic cirrus clouds have sped up at a time when the negative cumulus layer has deepened, all while political time remains constant. Therein lies the rub.
It is generally held that market failures lead political shifts to the Left so as to facilitate the move to state-centered macroeconomic policy. Conversely, state-centered failures are said to lead to shifts to the political Right so as to facilitate the adoption of market-oriented strategies. In the 1930s and 1980s this rule generally held true for advanced democracies. But since economic and political time are not coincident, it is by no means a universal truth that such will occur at every moment of cyclical transition. The current moment is a case in point.
In the US the rule seems to have been upheld, as is true for several European countries. But in France, New Zealand, Japan and Italy, among others, Right-oriented governments are confronted with market failure and the need to provide political space for an economic transition. The political cycle in these countries does not allow for their immediate replacement with Left-oriented governments. There is a lack of synchronicity between political clock and economic cloud time in these countries. This places the ideological beliefs and policy prescriptions of such Right governments under pressure, since in principle they are averse to increasing the role of the state in macroeconomic affairs. Yet the magnitude of the current market failure is such that the role of the State, at least as a macroeconomic regulator, needs to be considered. This consideration needs to happen quickly, since the temporal horizons on finding solutions is near immediate given the speed at which the global recessionary pressure wave is advancing. Put another way, the cumulus and cirrus aspects of economic time have come together in a perfect storm of economic necessity that Right governments find particularly difficult to address, much less resolve without betraying their foundational principles. To do so is to tacitly admit that there are inherent flaws in market logics that require State intervention in order to be overcome (in the reverse of the betrayal of foundational principles and tacit admission of State-capitalist failures by so-called “Third Way” Labour parties).
Thus the dilemma for Mr. Key’s government: how to reconcile clock and cloud time in a small island democracy at the outer edge of an economic storm front? From what has been seen so far, it appears that he has opted to shift to the Left, but as of yet without categorically stating that he is doing so. With ACT in the government coalition, that makes for interesting theater in the months ahead. Or to conclude with yet more metaphor abuse: could there also be internal storm clouds on NACTIONAL’s horizon?
Hard on the heels of my article about giving the overworked minions of the Corporate News Machine ready fodder to work with, The Dominion Post this morning proves my case by running ready-made racist propaganda soundbites from the fisheries industry.
The linked article makes it quite explicit that the fee levied by Ngāi Tahu is nothing to do with them being Māori and the fishermen being Pākehā – it’s to do with them being the owners of a resource which they (as owners) consider to be in need of investment. Their business model is to extract a rent from that resource, and they have decided to raise that rent by constraining commercial access to those who are prepared to support continued investment in the resource by paying a commercial use levy. This is no different in principle than the Transit Agency increasing road-user charges to increase investment in roads, or from a landowner charging higher fees for Fonterra producer-shareholders to graze his property because he wants to adhere to the Clean Streams Accord (and that costs money), or from a resort owner increasing his fees in order to improve the quality of the accommodation.
The fisherfolk and their lobby group the Seafood Industry Council are not trying to play on the economic issues, because they know they have no case. So they’re playing this on symbolic issues – the (coincidental) facts that the product of the lake (tuna) is a Ngāi Tahu tāonga, and the fact that Ngāi Tahu are Māori, they (the commercial fishermen) are (I assume) Pākehā, and the ownership of the lakebed is the result of a Treaty settlement. None of these facts are actually relevant to the case in point – there’s no evidence that there is any discrimination, and it doesn’t matter by what legitimate means the owners acquired control of the resource. Just because it’s the result of a Treaty settlement doesn’t mean they somehow have less right to extract rents from it. So Ngāi Tahu’s case seems invulnerable on material grounds, but it is vulnerable on symbolic grounds. The commercial interests here are cynically trying to leverage the undercurrent of anti-Māori-development racism, pushing the Iwi/Kiwi button in service of their legally invalid cause.
It’s not an `iwi tax’ – it’s a `conservation levy’, and only payable by commercial users. They can’t come out and declare themselves anti-conservation, but it seems that in NZ it’s just fine for them to come out and declare themselves anti-iwi.
DPF’s post mentioning MediaCom, which allows you to get/send press releases via NZPA feed, reminded me of this, which I’ve been meaning to post for awhile. The reason PR companies need to spam people with press releases is because at a basic level they’re so easy to write that almost any idiot can hack one out in half an hour, and so people do. If you’re someone who relies on them, by the time you’ve read the title and the first three paragraphs in order to figure out whether the press release has anything relevant for you, its writer has already won.
Not to say that writing good press releases is easy – far from it, writing genuinely good press releases is extremely hard; so hard that very few people actually can, and even for those people it can seem futile because nobody knows whether your press release is any better than all the rest of the guff which is clogging their intertubes until they’ve read the title and the first three paragraphs. If you’re a CommsTart,* this is a very important skill, however, because by writing good press releases you give the overworked, underpaid minions of the Corporate News Machine a labour-saving device, and if you can consistently write to spec they will gladly shortlist your releases for pre-publication, sight unseen, because they don’t have time to read the title and the first three paragraphs because … well …
That stuff in them there press releases ends up in your media. I don’t have it to hand (Kate, can I have it back?), but I seem to recall that very thorough Cardiff University research commissioned by Nick Davies’ for his excellent book Flat Earth News found that no more than 12% of articles published in major British papers were entirely free from material published by someone’s PR department or agency. In my work as a media analyst, if I actually want to find out about a major issue I go to Scoop and try to triangulate the facts from everyone’s press releases before I bother with the actual end-user media outlets. It’s rare they can tell me something the stakeholders’ CommsTarts haven’t already.
These facts – it’s easy to do badly, hard to do well, indispensable and ubiquitous – are not lost upon the wags of the media world, who have taken delight in lampooning this most cherished aspect of their craft. There are lots of press release generators out there. Most are good for a black bit of fun – this by one of our few remaining satirists Lyndon Hood only deals with the the one topic of child abuse, but it has good bones.
For the 80th birthday of AdNews, the Sydney office of Clemenger BBDO made this handy visual self-congratulatory press release generator:
If you want industrial-strength, this one is made of much sterner stuff. Written by a computer programmer back in the Nineties and endlessly hacked on since, it and its variations will generate a dense blob of impressive verbiage – Bush-speak, web jargon, whatever you want. If fed the right source material, it would probably generate a halfway-competent press release.
It goes the other way, too – David Slack, in homage to George Orwell and Christopher Ketcham, created a DuckSpeak Translator which, if fed media-ready prose, would deliver you a lot of QUACKs and perhaps (if you were very fortunate or the author was very clever) a few actual words and even an idea. The DuckSpeak Translator is sadly no more, brought to its knees by the fact that David allowed any old idiot to add phrases to its vocabulary, so that by the time I got to using it sometime in 2006 it was so thoroughly clogged that you could put anything in and get nothing back but quacks – which may have been the intention after all. I think the project should be revived with a clean database, and phrases only admitted to its vocabulary if they have been taken cleanly from some rich source of such matter – such as the Hansard, or press releases. That’d be something worth quacking about.
* I use the term in gender-neutral reference to anyone whose work is tarting up their client’s self-interest so it can be mistaken for news.
Edit: Heh, the `or three’ on the end of the title was an afterthought added without reference to the previous post, which also contains it :)
Posted on 18:31, March 5th, 2009 by Anita
Earlier this week the restrictions on blood donors changed, and some people who previously couldn’t give blood are now allowed to donate. This includes some men who have had sex with men and some people who have worked as prostitutes.
So, if you have wanted to give blood but been on the restricted list, check again because you might be ok to donate now.
If you’ve thought about giving blood but never quite got around to it, get in touch with the Blood Service and donate!
If you’ve donated in the past but haven’t donated in the last 3 months, get in touch with the Blood Service and donate!
I don’t know about the rest of the country, but Wellington’s really short on donors right now (so short they rang me today, the first possible day I could donate) so I’m sure the blood service would love to hear from all of you
P.S. They have not changed the restrictions on residence in the UK, France and Ireland.
Tomorrow is the day – so get your fax template ready to go, or your email or letter written!
Over the next few years we’re going to watch National trying to give more to the most wealthy by taking away from the poorest – this is a chance to tell them they’re wrong.
The government has appointed three very eminent and well-respected persons to the panel which will review the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, has granted them broad terms of reference, and has imposed a short deadline of 30 June by which they must report back to the Attorney-General. The press release, FAQ and linked ToR document is here.
This seems very positive. The three appointees – Justice Eddie Durie, Professor Richard Boast and Hana O’Regan – are highly-regarded, and none are enemies of tino rangatiratanga or friends of blanket expropriation. The terms of reference give this panel the authority to cover a wide scope of issues, including the prejudicial nature of the FSA (which scotched due process via the courts), to take new submissions, to hold hui and meetings on the matter, and to reconsider historical submissions to the FSA, and `other public documents’ which must surely include the report of UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Dr Rodolfo Stavenhagen, which the Clark government dismissed with scorn.
I have two reservations: first, the short deadline, and second, the lack of commitment to following through on the recommendations of the panel. The short deadline is both a blessing and a curse – it will mean the issue doesn’t drag on, but this could be at the expense of full consultation. The second issue is more serious – there seems to be no indication that the government is under obligation to act on the recommendations, and that means we must take them on their word. The government response to the panel’s report will be a defining issue in NZ political history.