Monthly Archives: September 2009

Conservatives speak a different language

… and often I don’t understand it.

Pretty much every time I see the term ‘Social Engineering’ used I think the writer has got it backwards.

Mark Krikorian writes in a short post at NRO’s corner blog:

As John O’Sullivan wrote years ago in NR, if different groups of Americans had children at different rates, resulting in changes in the ethnic (or religious or whatever) composition of the nation, that’s nobody’s business one way or the other. But mass immigration, especially in the context of the low fertility levels that are inherent to modernity, represents social engineering in its purest form, the elite’s decision to dissolve the people and elect a new one. Instead, how about we leave social engineering to the ChiComs and just let today’s American moms and dads decide what tomorrow’s America will be like.

(emphasis mine).

Leaving aside the merits of the US immigration debate and other aspects of Krikorian’s post*, I find the use of ‘social engineering’ here to be fascinating. I understand his point well enough, (and I’d rather not dwell on it), but what grabs me is that social engineering here can only mean the actions of his opponents, it could never be applied to his own policy. It’s a code of some sort, it no longer means just what the words say.

Obviously much of what governments do is social engineering of one sort or another. The criminal justice system is in place largely to deter and punish behaviours. Taxes are used to encourage some activities over others and so on. These sorts of things are never termed social engineering though. SE is almost always a bad thing. This much I can understand and be quite comfortable with. Whatever ‘social engineering’ is, it’s something that goes against freedom, and we are all liberals now pretty much, with the arguments being about how best to maximise (and define) liberty.

What I don’t understand is that whenever the term is actually used nowadays, it seems to be aimed at policies that remove some aspect of State control over the shape of society. In the example above, Krikorian seems to be saying that open borders would be an extreme example of social engineering. To me that is precisely wrong. A strict immigration policy, aimed at keeping a nations demographics in some sort of racial or cultural stasis would be a far better fit for the label ‘social engineering’. Given what the words mean.

If the US government was forcibly dragging non-white immigrants to the US in order to deliberately alter the demograhic mix, or refusing white applicants entry, then he’d have a point. That would meet the natural definition for SE. But they aren’t doing anything like that.

The same applies to arguments around gay marriage and state recognition of de-facto relationships. Surely when the state is recognising the relationships that people have, and not discriminating between them, then that is the opposite of what the words ‘social engineering’ actually mean.

And on the contrary, when the state did discriminate on those grounds and deliberately favoured some relationships over others, (and even made some relationships illegal), in order to foster a particular style of domestic arrangement that was felt to be most beneficial for society, then that is, quite precisely, ‘social engineering’.

So is all this just projection on the part of conservatives, or are they adding (or subtracting) some meaning to the term that I’m not seeing?

* I’ll just say that his links are interesting, as are the uses he puts them to.

When the odious get onerous.

After a short week overseas I came back to find myself involved over the weekend in another argument about blog etiquette. It started out when I read Not PC’s post on  a troll. The issue basically boils down to the fact that one particularly nasty right wing frother (think Jesse Helms channeling Joe McCarthy and Glen Beck, but without the charm of either; to wit: racist, homophobic, foul-mouthed and pig ignorant)–who in the spirit of things we shall call “ratbuggered–” did enough to get himself banned and named by the blog owner. I weighed in on the side of the owner in the comments section, even while noting that here at KP we have put ratbuggered on auto-moderation so as to see if he has anything reasonable to say (so far he has not), and that as practice we do not “out” people who we have had trouble with (even though we have the ability to identify them). I noted that there are no universal laws or code of ethics preventing the outing of individuals using pseudonyms on blogs, for whatever reasons the blog owners may choose. There was much to and fro in the comments section, including from ratbuggered himself (who apparently lives in Tauranga. I shall leave you to draw conclusions).

The argument got picked up at No Minister, and things got pretty heated in the comments section. I weighed in some more, in further depth, arguing that market logics should determine blog traffic and that the blogosphere was ( come to think of it, like the Hobbesian “state of nature” that realists see to be the basic structure  of international relations) a self-enforcing society with no universal values or ethics (even if some may share implicit ethical constraints and some others may develop mutually binding rules of conduct)). For that I got robustly vilified by ratbuggered and his ideological soulmates (including the No Minister contributor aptly calling himself “Adolf”). I lot of it was name-calling rather than counter-argument.

What did surface as a counter-argument was amusing. Apparently these champions of free speech, liberty, freedom and individualism–the same ones who delighted in the outing of the two beneficiaries by Paula Bennett a few weeks back–believe that it is “unethical” to name an unwanted and repeatedly intrusive troll once all other appeals for him to desist have failed. PC weighed in as well and the entire argument turned into a circus. Rather than try to repeat myself and capture what others said, I urge you to read the entire thread as it is quite entertaining.

What it confirms in my mind, besides the fact that ratbuggered lives in a parallel Strangelovian universe that can only cause one to pity anyone sharing his household (should that even be feasible), is how hypocritical some of the rightwingers are. They love the free market when it suits them, but step on any of their self-righteous beliefs with market arguments and their closet social authoritarian viscerally jumps out. Ratbuggered is clearly an armchair bully and coward of no consequence (and is, indeed, a troll of the first order), but it sure is wild to see  some of the blogging right turn against markets, choice and individual responsibility when these run counter to their preferred view of the world.

All in all it was glimpse into a netherworld of unreason and hatred that, like plane crashes and train wrecks, is morbidly fascinating if intellectually terminal. Although I do not agree with most of Not PC’s political views, at least his is a reasoned discourse, which is precisely why ratbuggered found no haven on his blog. May the same occur here, regardless of the ideological persuasion of the commentariat.

Democratising democracy

Speaking of headlines, that’s a good one from And an interesting article, too, by British Labour MP James Purnell, which touches on a few things I’ve been thinking about recently.

Purnell identifies three initial steps toward fulfilling Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, for the people” ideal of democracy in British politics, and to a large extent these also apply in NZ.

First, embracing a more open politics. We need a much wider range of people becoming MPs.

Measures to ensure that the political process is not the sole domain of political elites.

Second, deepening our representative democracy.

Constitutional and electoral reform to abolish the vestiges of aristocratic privilege and making elections more proportional and representative.

Third, broadening our democratic society to make people powerful and enable people to achieve more together than we do alone.

Decentralising the political process and civic institutions and decoupling politics from financial elites.

There’s much more than that, and a lot of concrete suggestions around how these lofty goals might be achieved, why they ought to be. Although I don’t agree with all of it (it equates ‘democracy’ with ‘anti-elitism’ which is problematic) and think some is a bit glib (it’s an MP flattering the electorate, after all), it’s certainly worth a read.


Headline battle!

LingLingBattleWithin a half-hour, the two leading trumpet-blowers of the blogosphere have favoured us with their interpretations of the latest developments in the Bill English accomodation saga, and their headlines are marvellous. Both are factual; neither contain any misleading or false information, and yet they convey such different things.

First (chronologically), in the red corner: The Standard:

English admits he’s been rorting us

  • “English”, formal, invoking his role and status as a public personage and the head of a noted family (who also benefit from the ‘rort’).
  • “admits”, an implied concession of wrongdoing (even though English’s statement — not linked or substantively quoted in the post– makes quite clear that he’s conceding nothing of the sort).
  • “he” and “us”, an active phrasing emphasising the power dynamic in play, in which “we” are being exploited by “him”.
  • “rorted”, a hugely fashionable term in these parts nowadays (a fact on which someone recently wrote an interesting article; can anyone remember who?). It’s a strong, colourful term redolent of the back-slapping corruptness of entitlement, viewed as harmless and trivial by those privileged few who, by dint of social station, connections or wealth are able to perpetrate it, and as an insufferable reminder of greedy injustice by those not so able. This is the word it all hangs on: it provokes the visceral reaction of disgust, and divides the “him” from the “us”.
  • “[has] been” and the past tense throughout, focusing on what has happened. In some ways represents a softening: he has been, but he isn’t any more. But in the wider context this emphasises the ongoing nature of the campaign against English, an unspoken “see, we were right all along, and we have forced this admission” — again, despite the fact that English claims there’s no such admission. Being backward-looking, it focuses on the matter of principle, not of practice; it doesn’t matter that he paid the proceeds of his rort back, what matters is that he rorted it in the first place.

And in the blue corner, Kiwiblog:

Bill pays back allowance

  • Parsimonious, omitting a part of speech which in this case would bear important information, leaving the question open: “his” allowance? “the” allowance? We don’t know if the author thinks he has a right to it or not. It’s just “allowance”.
  • “Bill”, informal, emphasising his individuality and personal characteristics rather than social roles or position. Familiarity suggests reliability, trustworthiness.
  • “pays back”, active phrasing indicating Bill’s volition — he was not forced into anything, he did it of his own accord. Also echoes the Nats’ favoured cat-call of the past half-decade: “pay it back!”, first directed at Helen Clark, then at Winston Peters, a clear delineation drawn because Bill is paying it back and they didn’t.
  • “allowance”, something one is allowed. As in the other headline, this is the word it all hangs on. Its use implicitly disclaims any wrongdoing; because it’s impossible to ‘rort’ an ‘allowance’ by definition, this begs the question of whether Bill is, in fact, allowed it.
  • “pays” and use of present tense throughout, focusing on the future rather than the past, practicalities rather than principles, actions and consequences rather than character or trustworthiness. No harm, no foul, right?

With headlines like this, why would you even need to read the article — or the actual statement?


Sue Bradford: hampered by her own effectiveness

I haven’t had a chance to read much of the matter written about Sue Bradford’s resignation today, so I apologise if I duplicate things other, wiser, faster people have said.

Sue will probably not appreciate the comparison, but she is like Roger Douglas in a way — too effective at driving a radical agenda for an orthodox political establishment to fully tolerate. Even the Greens, who for all their activist trimmings are essentially integral to the orthodox political establishment, and looking likely to become more so under the leadership of Russel Norman and Metiria Turei. As with Rogernomics, the s59 repeal was a powerfully controversial agenda against which popular opinion is strongly united. Unlike Rogernomics, though, it’s not so much because of the policy’s specific impacts (which are minimal) as the rhetoric around it which have proven poisonous. Sue made the bill her own and took a staunch position on it, and with a few exceptions (notably including Helen Clark, who also made the bill her own by adopting it as a government bill [turns out it remained a member’s bill throughout, thanks Graeme]) she was allowed to stand alone on the issue, one person drawing the sort of fire which would ordinarily be directed at a party or coalition of parties. She drew it, took it, and saw the bill through to its conclusion.

And that’s the problem; people don’t like the policy — or rather, they don’t like the idea of the policy — and as far as they’re concerned Sue Bradford is the policy.

Sue Bradford is an extremely effective advocate and a powerful organiser, but she is not the person to lead a party whose central policy plank — climate change and environmental sustainability — is ascending ever more rapidly into political orthodoxy. She is the sort of person any party would want as a #3; someone who works like a demon, is ethically above reproach, has phenomenal networks, whose credentials and commitment can be relied upon, and who has the gumption to see things through to their conclusions. She will go far; we will see and hear as much of her in the coming years as we have of people like Laila Harre and Geoffrey Palmer. But because of her forthrightness and personal investment in the s59 repeal, to elect her to the co-leadership would have struck a critical blow to the Greens’ political credibility and branded them as an activist party without a cause. They have a cause: environmentalism. Other aspects of their policy agenda are important adjuncts to that, but they are just that, adjuncts. The Greens have a great opportunity to make themselves indispensable to future governments who need to be environmentally credible, but they need to focus on doing that.

What of the other parties? Despite her strength as a champion, I don’t think the other parties on the right will be thrilled with Sue’s departure. The Greens’ credibility (and the inability to howl about nanny state lesbians for distraction purposes) is their loss, not their gain. The other parties on the left, likewise, although this change is important in that it enables Labour and the Greens to more clearly delineate themselves from one another. This opens the way to a model of left politics such as I have described; Labour as the core, with the Greens as an independent but allied environmentalist party, with very little crossover. It has potential, although it relies on Labour desisting from the current notion that it can be all things to all people, and the Greens’ former notions of activism as an end, rather than a means.


Bleg: what do people want in an electoral system?

I wrote most of this before DPF’s post on the threshold, including his link to Chris Bishop’s handy paper on representation and stability went up, so read that first. In fact, you’d also do very well to look over BK Drinkwater’s series comparing electoral systems: noise, wastage, proportionality, and a critique of some critiques of SM, although note that the SM numbers assume a 70-50 electorate-list split as per our MMP system at present. This is good from an apples-apples perspective, even if it’s not an option that’s actually on the table. I also wrote it before my more-recent post on the topic, for which some people have begun offering their preferred electoral modifications. Wonderful!

Much like the subtext to the s59 referendum question was ‘do you like the anti-smacking bill?’, the question above lurks behind the forthcoming debate on MMP, for which the troops are currently massing.

The likeliest contender, in my view, is the retention of MMP as we have it now, with a 5% threshold and a 70-50 split. Other less-likely contenders, again in my view, are as follows:

  • STV, as employed in some local body elections and for the Australian Senate.
  • SM, as apparently favoured by National and employed in the Republic of Korea.

Note that FPP isn’t in this list. I don’t think NZ would go back. Modified MMP also isn’t in the list; not that I think it isn’t a credible contender, just that the way the process is structured (referendum: MMP yes/no; if no, referendum on alternate systems) doesn’t seem likely to permit it. There are lots of other peripheral options, such as open list; run-off or instant run-off; or any number of other possibilities. Feel free to argue your corner.

But what sort of system do people actually want? As I see it, within a centralised democratic structure such as we have, relevant factors include the following:

  • Transparency. Results in transparent electoral systems are clear and obvious; how a particular candidate, party or government was elected is reasonably self-evident. FPP is very transparent. STV is very opaque.
  • Simplicity. Simple systems are easy for people whose political engagement stretches to ticking a box or two every three years to understand. Again; FPP is very simple, STV is not at all.
  • Proportionality. Proportional systems elect candidates from parties according to the party’s share of the vote. FPP is not proportional at all. STV is often claimed to be proportional, but it’s really fauxportional, often producing results which seem proportional but were arrived at by non-proportional means. Open list is (in principle) perfectly proportional. Thresholds in proportional systems and the number of electorates in mixed systems are also relevant to this question.
  • Representativeness. Similar but orthogonal to proportionality, a representative system contains mechanisms to guarantee certain segments of the electorate representation. This is a complex notion; geographical electorates are such a representative measure, ensuring that people from the geographical margins are represented, when a non-geographically-determined system (such as purely proportional open list) might marginalise them. Reserve seats for tangata whenua or other groups are another such form of representativeness.
  • Low wastage/regret. Conventional wisdom is that the prospect of a wasted vote depresses turnout (or changes behaviour) among voters who believe their vote might be wasted, which is a self-perpetuating cycle. This is most evident in FPP, but is also present in proportional systems to an extent, due to the effects of a threshold.
  • Decisiveness. Decisive systems produce strong, stable executive governments with few constraints on their power. FPP, except in the rare case of a hung parliament being elected, is decisive, while proportional systems which elect a number of parties and rely on coalitions are less decisive.
  • Small size. Self-explanatory. Any system can be made large or small, but this frequently has huge impacts on other factors.
  • Durability. Durable systems are not prone to future governments tinkering with, amending or replacing them. FPP was extremely durable. MMP has proven fairly durable. This is a meta-factor, in a sense; it seems like anyone valuing this factor highly should lobby for one of the less-extreme systems; a second-best choice, rather than a perfectly proportional system or a highly decisive system, since ‘pretty good’ is less likely to be overturned.

In principle, the relative importance a person assigns to of each of these factors should point to that person’s ideal electoral system. Could be programmed into a handy poll in the leadup to the referendum; in fact, I bet it already has been, I just haven’t found it.

There are other relevant electoral changes, as well. Here are a few; please add your own:

  • Size of parliament and division of seats. Yeah, I listed it above – what I’m referring to here is the electorate-list split in mixed systems; the North/South island and rural/urban splits, that sort of thing. Also the vexed question: how many MPs overall?
  • Allocation of seats. Historically, the One True Way in NZ was for seats to be allocated along population-geographic lines. Nowadays it’s a mix of population-geographic and party allegiance. But what other means of allocating seats are there? What would happen if seats were allocated according to social class? Income? Level of education? Ethnicity? Religion? The history of democracy contains precedent for all these things in one way or another.
  • Decentralisation. Federation of micro-states? Balance of central and local government power? How does one dismantle centralised democracy using democratic mechanisms?
  • Electoral term and other constitutional institutions. Our three-year term is quite short, and there are few checks on the executive ability of governments – as long as they have a parliamentary majority, there’s little they can’t (and won’t) do. Do we need a second chamber? A longer term? Should one go along with the other?
  • Referenda and non-electoral plebiscites. What should their status be? Other representative mechanisms, such as citizens’ juries?
  • The big one. What difference would becoming a republic make anyhow? A better question: if people knew that NZ would become a republic in the near future, how might their electoral preferences change?

Please, answer the question. What do you actually want in an electoral system, and why? And more than that — what do you want, and what do you think is (even remotely) plausible?


Update: Scott Yorke has a few choice words on the topic, as well.

Wrong objection

David Farrar falsely equivocates when he asks the following:

Why do so many people who complain that ACT got five seats in Parliament on only 3.65% of the vote, never complain that the Maori Party got five seats in Parliament on 2.39% of the vote?

The issue isn’t so much that ACT didn’t deserve seats for their share as that, for proportional consistency’s sake, NZ First deserved seats for their share as well. From there, people work backward to ‘If NZF didn’t get them, why should ACT have gotten them?’

The overhang is a misdirection away from the fact that the 5% threshold is the main source of entropy in our proportional system (and its neighbour SM). The two types of electedness he suggests are the same — winning an electorate and coming in on the list — aren’t, as David well knows, and this is a capricious argument from him. To prevent an electorate member from sitting on proportional grounds directly disenfranchises the electorate who voted for her. The solution to a system which arbitrarily disenfranchises a large number of voters on the basis of other voters’ decisions surely isn’t more disenfranchisement — it’s less.

As I’ve argued before, removing or lowering the threshold would reduce voter regret among the supporters of marginal parties, and embolden those electors to vote for their chosen party, resulting in truer representation. The possible impact on an overhang party — one which has traditionally won more seats than its share of the vote would otherwise entitle it — is an interesting case, and would force people who now vote tactically to re-evaluate their decisions.

I have an upcoming post asking what factors people value in an electoral system, and issues like these are germane to the forthcoming discussion about MMP.


Jimmy Carter is Right.

A furore has erupted in the US because former president Jimmy Carter has publicly stated the obvious: many of the people in opposition to health care reform, as well as the so-called astroturf “tea party” and “birther” movements (the latter claiming that Barak Obama is not a natural born US citizen and thus constitutionally ineligible to be president), are less in opposition to Obama’s policies than they are to the color of his skin. Even though he is half-white, they are fixated on his blackness, and in posters, cartoons, internet videos and photomontages he is depicted as an ape, and Arab, a terrorist, a commie or a socialist, and–as Sarah Palin so eloquently expressed it–“not one of us.” The “us” in question is presumably white and conservative, but what they really are is racist.  As Carter said, some people cannot abide by the thought that a Negro is running the show.

Normally one could ignore the crackers and their banjo-strumming Deliverance views. They are, after all, evidence of the death throes of white majority America, which in 25 years will see a non-white (mostly Hispanic) majority and more people of color in positions of national authority. But in this instance these retrograde views are instigated and supported by a disloyal elite who share their perspective, and who have significant clout in politics and the US media. Forget the mental midget that is Joe Wilson, Republican representative from South Carolina and apologist for the Confederacy, who last week shouted “you lie!” in the middle of the president’s speech on health reform to a joint session of Congress. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was correct in noting that the only thing missing from his outburst was the qualifier “boy” at the end.  No president before Obama was interrupted in such a fashion during a major address, to include George W. Bush when he bald-faced lied to Congress and the US public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was imminently disposed to use them (thereby setting into motion a chain of events that cost thousands of lives and trillions of squandered dollars in pursuit of what ultimately will wind up looking a lot like the Baath Party regime with a Shiia twist–if Iraq is so lucky). I will not even mention W’s defense of coercive interrogations during his last State of the Union address, but the point is that people who knew better still sat on their hands and shut their mouths. It may have been cowardly, but it was also a measure of Congressional protocol dating back 200 years.

So why the breach in this instance, over a remark that even if debatable was relatively innocuous? What is the single difference between Obama and all his predecessors that would embolden a small-town politician to openly question his integrity before Congress and the country at large (BTW–one of the things that is expressly prohibited under the rules of order in Congressional debates is calling people “liars.”) Why have so many right wing media types jumped to Rep. Wilson’s defense and why are people now sending him campaign contributions from all over the US?

Rep. Wilson is of no consequence and there is little danger in his simple breach of Congressional protocol (a Kanye moment of the political sort, if you will). The real danger is in the subtext of racial animus propagated by the likes of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Christian nutters such as the Phoenix-based Baptist minister who exhorts his congregation to pray for Obama’s assassination, and the other corporate and religious bigots who run the astroturf campaigns against the President’s agenda (“astroturf” refers to the fact that these supposedly grassroots movements are artificially created by  well-funded special interest lobbies using targeted advertising rather than originating from genuine popular discontent). It is these heavily bankrolled conspirators–and they are exactly that–who are the danger. That danger could well turn out to be mortal.

I have written before that the US Right is implicitly setting up a scenario for an attempt on the president’s life. They provide the ideological and rhetorical fuel via their media proxies, and with that stimulus some whacko pulls the trigger or detonates the bomb. It will not be a Muslim fanatic, but a white loser or group of losers holding a racial grudge. The US already has seen evidence of this in the Oklahoma City bombing and repeated white supremacist plots  and attacks (including an assassination plot against Obama during last year’s presidential campaign).  That is why Jimmy Carter needs to be listened to: not all opposition to the President is racist, but a significant portion of the minority that opposes his agenda are playing the man for his color, not the content of his policy. The trouble is that racism is also  the elephant in the room that no one wants to openly confront in this “post racial” era. Until that happens, the descent towards violence is almost inevitable, with implications that are unimaginably bad.

In fact, it can be argued that it will not be a foreign foe that will ultimately defeat the US and reduce it to a fallen empire: it could well be devoured from within, with racism the food for that self-consuming hunger.

A victory for common sense and democracy

… these are the sort of words Michael Laws would be using if the decision to spell Whanganui incorrectly had been endorsed by the NZ Geographic Board, so I feel justified in using similar language given that the decision has gone my way.

As I have argued at great length, this is a good decision. I’ll work through the details of the submissions when I get time, hopefully tonight.