Author Archives: Lew

About Lew

I call myself a sensible moderate, but not in the same way Peter Dunne does.

Media Link: on the second tranche of gun control reforms, and the registry

I’ve written another column for RNZ considering the second tranche of the government’s gun control reforms, and outlining some concerns about the thinking behind the gun registry.

The point is not to argue in favour of a gun registry, though I generally support one, nor to consider whether the same money might be better spent elsewhere (the evidence there is mixed at best) — these questions are beside the point since the government has already taken the decision to establish a registry, with what they (correctly) regard as a strong mandate of public support following the events of March 15. The column focuses on how the government can best make such a registry work, given that decision.

There have also been some rather opportunistic queries as to my political and ideological affiliations from readers — obviously I don’t resile from anything and my reckons are well known, but let’s make the disclosure completely plain in any event: if you want to assess my views for bias they are documented in tiresome detail in the archives here, and on Twitter.

Submission on the government’s firearms law reforms

What follows below the fold is my submission to the Parliament’s Finance & Expenditure Select Committee, which is currently considering the Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Bill giving legislative effect to the government’s previously-announced gun control measures.

TLDR: I think the process is tolerable but not ideal; and I think the bill is good, but lacks technical clarity in some specific and rather abstruse regards.

L

Continue reading

Gun reforms: my response to the government’s initial gun law changes

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, but given the ongoing interest in gun control measures following Christchurch, here is a link to a column I wrote for RNZ on the many beneficial qualities and general sanity of the government’s initial Order in Council banning most semi-auto firearms on 21 March 2019.

I can’t add much to Pablo’s excellent analysis of the extremism and national security aspects of the case, but for my sins, gun stuff is something I can write about.

Shortly I’ll also post a copy of my submission on the Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Bill currently before the house.

L

The beginning of the end of an error

There were no winners in Kim Hill’s interview with Don Brash this morning. Not Kim, and not Don, not Guyon Espiner’s unflinching use of te reo on Morning Report, and certainly not the people of Aotearoa. Pākehā liberals wanted the bloodsport spectacle of their champion vanquishing the doddering spectre of our reactionary past, and Pākehā right-wingers craved the sweet outrage of Hill’s rudeness and dismissive scorn towards people like them. Māori people mostly were just dismayed at Brash getting a platform to debate the value of their existence, again. Everyone except for Māori got what they wanted, but nobody got anything more.

In a way, this morning was a last gasp of credence for the notion that debate is possible with people who are oblivious to evidence. Kim got in her zingers, ably skewering Brash’s incoherence and inconsistency, but there’s nothing new there. All the evidence was as incidental as it was anecdotal. We were treated to discourses on the population density of Māori in proximity to kindergartens, based on nothing at all. Concerns about the use of te reo on RNZ cannibalising the audience of Māori language radio and TV stations, without any reference to what those flaxroots practitioners of te reo want. And discourses about actual cannibalism and the stone-age pre-settlement society, where listeners were asked to accept the claim that the deliverance of the Māori from their horrid existence was worth any price, up to and including their cultural erasure. Nobody who has given even modest consideration to these topics could have learned anything or changed their views this morning.

The discussion mocked the very rationality it sought to demonstrate, because it was all about feelings: Brash’s feelings of alienation from his country and his time, and Hill’s need to defend her employer and her worldview. Centred around Pākehā feelings, with no regard given to what Māori felt, or for their agency, it was merely the latest in two hundred years of discussions about Māori, without Māori.

It was a question of evidence that brought the interview to an end, though. Brash finally went one small step too far, with the claim that the Māori are not the indigenous people of Aotearoa, but merely its second-most-recent invaders. This notion has been debunked for almost a hundred years, since Skinner’s work on the Moriori in the 1920s, and there was enough scholarship done on it through the 20th Century that reliance on these claims in the 21st is a straightforward flag that whatever is going on here, it’s not an evidence-based discussion. There was nowhere left for Kim Hill to go. Nobody can debunk arguments advanced with such disregard for reality.

So she shut it down. But better than shutting it down would have been not entertaining it in the first place — which is, by and large, what Māori seem to have wanted. The error of this interview was not merely giving Brash a platform, but its objectification of Māori, the idea that their right to existence on their own terms was a matter for debate. It was an exercise in discursive theatre, a ritual sacrifice performed to appease the savage gods of fair-minded middlebrow liberalism, in the hope that rational discourse will deliver us into salvation. The sacrificers — yes, Kim Hill was one of them — were Pākehā, and inevitably, the sacrificees were Māori.

I was in the crowd for this sacrifice. Loath as I am to continue focusing on Pākehā feelings, I have to say: my only remaining feeling is the horror of being responsible for all this. Not only for today’s sacrifice, but the small sliver of the past that is my contribution to what got us here. We Pākehā need to take care of our own embarrassments, it should not fall to Māori to do that. So we need to stop treating the right to Māori existence on their own terms as conditional on our goodwill, and start treating it as a fact of life. Which, in the letter and spirit of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, is what it is. It’s not hard to do. When people want to debate the legitimacy of te reo Māori in public, here’s a simple response: “Like the right of Māori people’s physical existence, the right of Māori people to cultural existence is not a matter for debate.” We have, in polite society at least, stopped talking about “maoris”. We have stopped mocking haka, waiata, and karakia, and even people like Brash have stopped mocking te reo, making honest attempts at decent pronunciation and using what kupu they know in ordinary speech. We can stop treating the existence of Māori as debatable, too, and it’s about time we did.

L

Letters from America, take four: The spokes came off the wheel, then the fever broke.

Pablo is in the USA and having technical problems, so I am posting this on his behalf. -L

Donald Trump’s last two weeks could well be the turning point in his presidency. Given that I have been wrong about him before I am reluctant to call it terminal for him, but there are now unmistakable signs that his tenure in office is under threat. Allow me to explain why.

Think of the Trump presidency as a wheel with five spokes. The wheel is his administration. The spokes are his bases of support: corporate America, the congressional Republican caucus, the military-security complex, the Right-wing media and the alt-Right/Tea Party electoral support base. With his actions since the clashes in Charlottesville between Klansmen and neo-Nazis versus counter-protesters, he has broken or weakened the spokes that hold his administration together.

When he failed to denounce the Klansmen and neo-Nazis in unequivocal terms and instead drew false moral equivalence between them (“there was violence on both sides,” “there are fine people on both sides”), corporate America took leave of him. Members of his business advisory council began to quit, and when the number of them became too significant to dismiss, he abolished the council entirely. In doing so he also took Twitter pot-shots at the sole black member of the council who resigned while saying nothing about the whites who did likewise.

Corporate America supported Trump because of two things. He promised tax reform and de-regulation, particularly of the financial and energy markets. But his behaviour has become so erratic, his bluster and threats so disconnected from reality (such as saying that he would rather shut down the government if Congress does not approve his billion dollars plus taxpayer funded Mexican Wall project, a project that he repeatedly promised that Mexico would pay for), corporate leaders fear that not only will he not deliver on his promises but his actions will plunge the US back into recession. So quietly but steadily they are abandoning public support for him in favour of political hedging strategies focused on Congress and his likely successor. Mike Pence, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush are all being courted as more rational and responsible pro-market conservatives with presidential qualifications, to the point that all three have had to do the usual disclaimers about not being interested in the job. When that happens, you know that they are. And that means that the corporate spoke supporting the Trump presidential wheel has fractured.

Corporate America’s distancing from Trump is paralleled by that of his second support spoke: Republicans in Congress. Republicans control both houses of Congress but have been unable to pass any significant legislation because of internal divisions within their ranks and Trump’s brutish interventions in their affairs. The latter includes personally attacking both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in extraordinarily personal terms, to say nothing of the torrent of vitriol he spews at those like Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake who have defied his orders to do as he commands on contentious policy issues. His attacks on Democrats are equally ferocious but are water off a duck’s back as far as the latter are concerned. After all, the Democrats are focused on winning back one or both congressional chambers in 2018 thanks to hatred for Trump and the paralysis of congressional Republicans when it comes to confronting him on even the most obvious of his mistakes. Since they only need a shift of three seats in the Senate and 35 in the House to reclaim control of Congress, Democrats wear his insults and threats as a badge of honour and in fact are using his nasty soundbites and tweets as part of their political advertising campaigns.

For Republicans, however, his slings and arrows do sting. That is because campaigning for the November 2018 midterms begins in November 2017, and they must choose whether to fish or cut bait on their support for Trump in order to save their own political careers as well as the future of the Republican Party. Trump’s attacks on the Republican congressional leadership have deepened the fractures within the party itself, to the point that some wonder if what he is doing is trying to promote an internal coup against the GOP leadership.

The Republican calculus is stark. Do they continue to ride Trump’s coattails on the way to the midterm elections or do they campaign against, or at least disavow support for him once campaign season begins? If he is doing well in the polls (which translates into a national approval average of 35 percent or more), then they will remain loyal to him. If his polling numbers continue to dip as they have been for the last few months, then they will cut bait.

The practical effect is to accentuate the alienation of the Republican congressional leadership from Trump. Although many never liked him and most understand that he is not a dye-in-the-wool conservative, the situation after his election was not supposed to be like this. Instead of a united front passing conservative legislation and rolling back Obama’s policy agenda, the Republican Party is in disarray and taking heat from its constituents. Something must give, and what has given is the support spoke that congressional Republicans provided Trump at the beginning of his reign.

Trump’s equivocating on racism and his continuing support for symbols of the Confederacy have produced a remarkable response from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense (and former Marine General) Jim Mattis. Without mentioning Trump by name, these senior military leaders have repudiated his remarks on the events in Charlottesville and instead stressed that the US military operates on principles of equality and non-discrimination (to include transgender people, who Trump and Pence have targeted). This is an extraordinary moment in US civil-military relations, where public questioning, much less criticism of the president by the uniformed corps is anathema. When we add into the mix the strained relations between Trump and the US intelligence community—who he continues to blame for leaks and who he ignores when it comes to its assessment of Russia—what results is a serious strain in the support spoke of the Trump presidency that is the US security community.

Evidence of his concern with maintaining their contingent support (since allegiance is given to the Constitution, not him) is seen in Trump’s agreeing to the military request for a troop increase in Afghanistan after he campaigned on withdrawing the US from that country and repeatedly claimed that he “knew more” than the generals when it comes to warfare (which is a bit rich for a draft-dodging playboy, but there you go). He may have had to choke on his ego to do so, but he and his advisors know that fracturing the support spoke provided by the security community could well be his political Waterloo. Hence the acquiescence on the Afghan troop surge. As a result, the security spoke may be strained to the point of cracking, but it is not yet fractured.

All of this has been watched with interest by the Right-wing media. Most of this media has been supportive of Trump, but here too cracks have appeared because of the racism row and his firing of Steve Bannon, the nationalist-populist strategist and former Brietbart publisher who commanded his ear for the first six months of his presidency. It was Bannon who urged the president to embrace the Alt-Right, and who crafted the anti-trade, anti-Muslim, anti-Chinese and false moral equivalence memes that found their way onto Trump’s twitter feed. But when Bannon’s pretence exceeded his grasp of political realities, the new presidential Chief of Staff, Jim Kelley (another retired Marine general and former Secretary of Homeland Security), gave Trump a “he or me” ultimatum. And like that, Bannon was gone from the West Wing.

But he did not go far. Instead, he resumed his leadership of Brietbart and immediately began attacking Trump for caving in to the Washington establishment on Afghanistan and other issues. The Alt-Right responded accordingly, and now Trump cannot be assured that he has its undivided support. Meanwhile, other Right media figures criticized, however reluctantly, Trump’s comments on Charlottesville and the historical record regarding the civil war, thereby driving a wedge into what until recently was monolithic Right-wing media support spoke for him. With Right-wing media now splintered between those who attack him for not fulfilling his campaign promises and those criticizing his more egregious rhetorical and practical excesses, his media support spoke is becoming increasingly wobbly.

Which leaves his base. Those that flock to his campaign rallies remain unwavering in their support for him (and yes, he is still holding rallies six months into his presidency and three years before his run for re-election, using insignificant “official” appearances as an excuse to use taxpayer funded transportation and lodging for what otherwise should be private campaign expenses). But however solid their support, their numbers are dwindling. Rallies that used to bring in tens of thousands now barely reach 10,000. His national poll numbers are hovering below 35 percent, and most importantly, in some die-hard Red states that he won overwhelmingly, his approval ratings are starting to slide below the 75 percent incumbent party support threshold common for presidents this early in their first term. Thus, while the base support spoke remains solid it is also smaller than it used to be, thereby increasing the rickety strength of the presidential wheel.

The sum effect is an exercise in political unsustainability. The presidential wheel cannot continue to sustain its increasingly wobbly roll unless drastic repairs are made to its support infrastructure. That does not appear likely to happen.

All of this occurs against the backdrop of a collective fever breaking. From the moment Trump came on the political scene, the response of the political class has been akin to a feverish dream. First, they believed that he could not win the Republican primaries. Then they believed that he could not win the general election. Then they believed that he would “grow” into the presidential role. Then they hoped that he would be forced to wear the institutional straight jacket of the presidency whether he wanted to or not. Then they expected that he would moderate his language and behaviour once he saw the effect they had on markets and diplomatic relations. Then they believed that his staff or family would reign him in and save him from his own impulses. Then they looked to Congress and the Judiciary to restrain him, and that is when the fever broke.

The US political class now realizes that there is no changing Trump and that he is a danger to the nation. His recklessness is now openly acknowledged and his mental stability repeatedly questioned by politicians, businesspeople and media commentators alike. Courts have challenged his executive orders and Congress has by veto-proof majorities imposed over his objections sanctions on Russia and prevented him from making recess appointments or dismissals. He may not want like it, but now that the feverish delusion that he would somehow exhibit the restraint, reason, decorum and willingness to compromise that are considered essential traits of presidential leadership has been once and for all dispelled, the institutional straight jacket is being forced onto him. And with the spokes coming off his presidential wheel, he may not be wearing it for very long.

Or so we can hope.

Careful with that eugene, ACT

Beth Houlbrooke

Eugenics

ACT’s brand new deputy leader, Beth Houlbrooke, is into eugenics.

That’s what’s behind her emergence from the dusty old crypt of “if you can’t afford children, don’t breed” this week. I called it eugenics because when you use welfare to restrict fertility you’re targeting people who are overrepresented among welfare recipients, which in Aotearoa means you’re targeting Māori and Pasifika people. I was not alone.

And what happens when these benefit cuts produce increased rates of hunger, homelessness, sickness, neglect, and abuse among those families? Well, the government’s brand-new Ministry for Vulnerable Children will take them away from their parents. Welcome to your first glimpse of Aotearoa’s next stolen generation, just days after the government refused to consider redress for the last generation of children abused in state care.

Does this all seem a bit of a stretch? Well, we know what government-mandated child welfare agencies do when they decide parents are not doing well enough: they “manage” those parents. This is explicit in the ACT policy:

ACT WILL:

  • Push for a life-time limit of five years for support under the Sole Parent Support programme, and a life-time limit of three years for support under the Jobseekers Benefit, with “income management” being applied to beneficiaries when those limits are reached.
  • Extend income management to any parent who has additional children while on a benefit.

We know what happens when governments micromanage welfare: people find it a bit harder to buy smokes and booze, sure, but they also are forced to shop at a limited range of expensive outlets, they can’t buy cheap healthy produce at markets, they can’t barter or pay cash, and they are incentivised to game the system rather than working within it. The ACT Party hates perverse incentives, but not this one. And in Australia, it costs a fortune to administer. It would literally be cheaper to give each NT recipient an extra $100 per week than to give them a Basics Card. And we know what the ultimate government sanction is for “bad” parents: the removal of children from their custody. Draw your own conclusions.

As to eugenics. ACT leader David Seymour’s press secretary helpfully confirmed this aspect when he compared the ACT policy to abortion, which has the distinction of being the leading eugenic technique currently in use worldwide (largely for sex-selection). I gave him several opportunities to walk it back but he bravely refused them.

Read the whole thread, and draw your own conclusions. (And yes. Louis Houlbrooke appears to be Beth’s son. Rumination on the political wisdom of appointing the leader’s press sec’s mum as deputy leader are left as an exercise for the reader.)

This is not just ACT’s bag. That nice man John Key — himself raised on welfare — spoke in 2002 of women “breeding for a business” under Labour’s DPB rules. Current PM Bill English, while he would surely disavow the abortion analogy, was happy to compare welfare recipients to drug addicts. This kind of thinking goes all the way to the top.

Class eugenics

My response to the policy was the sort of fury that educated white dudes don’t usually get in welfare discussions: that’s me they’re talking about! After my father died my mother brought three young kids up on the benefit, and we will never forget that. Attacks on welfare, and especially on welfare mothers, are attacks on us. I had a wee rant about it that you can read if you can stand the swearing.

Dozens of others on twitter did likewise. Some are a bit famous. One is a Member of Parliament. A list put together by The Spinoff of notable children of welfare recipients includes millionaires, war heroes, All Black legends, and no fewer than three Prime Ministers. I was amazed by how many people had grown up on welfare and yet, somehow, had managed to become productive, decent human beings. I shouldn’t be, but there you go: that’s how deep anti-welfare stigma goes. Few of us in Aotearoa are many generations from being dirt poor, and it would pay us to remember that and not be ashamed of it.

The fact that so many people not only benefited from welfare, but understand its continuing importance in the age of busted unions, stagnant wage growth, casualisation, and the “gig economy” represents a threat to parties like ACT and National. The social purpose of the welfare is to support people out of poverty and into work and prosperity. It is a system that creates and nourishes the working class, and prevents the worst excesses of capitalism from destroying workers. And it works.

So of course the right-wing want rid of it. They can’t erase welfare kids from my generation, but in terms of long-term strategy, preventing today’s generation of poor people from having kids like us probably seems a pretty sound way to destroy class consciousness.

The way this breaks down illustrates how class politics is not distinct from but a necessary adjunct to identity politics in leftwing praxis. On paper I am pretty middle class, but this is temporary. Few of us welfare kids ever forget how little it takes to fall into economic uncertainty, so culturally, I will always be working class. Purists might bridle at this as just another identity, and some will continue to deride me as a bourgeois liberal managerialist, but I know where I came from.

This is how identity politics intersects with class politics. The same factors which make ACT’s intended victims — young, poor, brown women — vulnerable to this policy means they also stand to benefit most from Labour’s Families Package and Best Start policies, which provoked Houlbrooke’s statement in the first place. So bringing class and identity politics together, even if it was inadvertent, is good: it is brave policy, directly targeting people who already suffer from a lack of equitable access to the political and economic system. And those of us who remember what it was like to be brought up on the benefit, who now enjoy the privileges of a middle-class life and access to the political system, can show solidarity. We must show solidarity. Doing otherwise would be a betrayal of our ancestors.

The lack of a robust response to ACT’s latest attack on poor people from Labour is disappointing. It has largely been left to people on social media to fight the fight, and to my knowledge nobody in the party has used the e word. This is perhaps understandable in light of the party’s own history of man-on-the-roof welfare-bashing, and, you know, I grew up on that benefit under Rogernomics. They’re not blameless on this stuff. But let’s not be churlish. While Labour in 2017 might not be ideal, at least they’re not trying to breed poor people out of existence.

What we are expected to believe

In recent months I have become increasingly concerned at the state of bullshit in this country. Bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt famously wrote, is distinguished not by its intentionally negative truth value (those are lies) but its absence of intentional truth value, or as Frankfurt terms it, “indifference to how things really are”. In the democratic context, this is the generally low-level governmental pabulum that we are expected to believe because the full truth is unavailable to those from whom we demand it (more on that later), or because there are more or less legitimate reasons why it cannot be conveyed.

Bullshit and its proliferation

I am concerned because the standard of bullshit that we are expected to believe from the government has declined. Bullshit is eternal — it existed before Key and will persist after him — but I am convinced that it wasn’t generally this bad under Clark. I may be biased in this regard, but I accept we were invited to believe some articles of truly egregious bullshit, such as that Taito Phillip Field was merely helping out a friend, or the 21st Century’s most magnificent local example of bipartisan bullshit, that the Ngāti Apa verdict would result in Māori owning all the beaches. But in general the bullshit we were offered was at least plausible. That is, we generally did not have to stretch too far to believe that those in charge did in fact believe what they were telling us to be something approximating how things really are.

That an official government source should believe this is a pretty low bar. But in the past few weeks, the Key government has invited us to believe a number of articles of bullshit that they themselves cannot possibly believe, including but not limited to the following:

  • That the Prime Minister, the former head of global foreign exchange for Merrill Lynch who in 2005 said that New Zealand should become “the Jersey of the South Pacific”, does not know how overseas trusts in places like the Cayman Islands, Panama and New Zealand work.
  • That the Minister of Health, a former GP and health sector business consultant, does not think the quality of hospital food has declined as a result of cost-cutting he has forced upon the Southern DHB.
  • That the head of the Ministry of Primary Industries says there is no problem with fish being illegally dumped at sea, when internal documents from within his own department contain proof that such dumping is “widespread”, and further, that the contradiction between these two positions is “absolutely not a cover-up”.
  • That the Prime Minister thinks homeless people should see WINZ, when WINZ routinely refuse to deal with anyone who doesn’t have an address.
  • That putting those homeless people in $1300pw rental accomodation, the cost of which they must repay at a rate of $10-$20 per week for decades to come, is the best solution that the Ministry of Social Development can come up with, notwithstanding its annual budget of $24 billion and hundreds of qualified staff whose job it is to work out solutions to problems like this.

Surely nobody is credulous enough to believe even the first of these. But that is what we are expected to do: to march along with the pretence that the government is not simply making things up to keep people from becoming angry about matters we have a right to be angry about. While it is not clear that all these are pure, canonical examples (some probably contain actual lies, others possibly honest obliviousness), it is clear that these cases were articulated without due regard to how things really are. They are bullshit.

What’s more, this is purposeless bullshit, deployed for trivial tactical reasons by a government which, it appears, is indifferent to the link between what we are expected to believe and how things really are.

How we know it is bullshit

In the most obvious cases, the bullshit needs no proof. A senior Merrill Lynch banker knows what overseas trusts are for, and the Prime Minister’s wide-eyed protestations of innocence are manifest bullshit. In other cases the bullshit comes from the pretence that things are not as bad as they seem, such as in the case of the food at Dunedin hospital, which Jonathan Coleman pronounced “standard kiwi fare” while patients refused to eat it, instead bringing their own food or going hungry, and while the DHB’s doctors are considering legal action to force a change. In yet other cases the bullshit fills the gap between the endeavours which have been claimed and those that have actually been made to improve a situation — such as for emergency housing, which was termed “incoherent, unfair and unaccountable” in an internal MSD review last winter, but which has not been fixed. Whatever the cause of emergency accommodation problem, the claim that the government is doing all it can to resolve it is clearly bullshit. In yet other cases, bullshit begets bullshit, such as when the head of MPI’s bullshit is revealed by the leak of an internal report, prompting the Minister to aver that there is no cover-up.

At first glance it seems that these are straightforward cases of lying — that is, that the heads of MSD and MPI are perfectly aware that they have misled the public as to these matters. But it is likely that those doing the bullshitting are themselves being bullshitted, or they could, if they chose, learn how things really are but have not done so, the lack of which knowledge means they unavoidably produce bullshit when called to speak.

To explain this, we must consider organisational dynamics. In 2008 computer scientist Bruce F Webster wrote a brief treatise on The Thermocline of Truth, “a line drawn across the organizational chart that represents a barrier to accurate information”. (Webster’s context is large IT projects, but the corporatisation of government means the same dynamics are to some extent useful to this context too.) He identified four factors:

  1. Lack of automated, objective and repeatable metrics that can measure progress.
  2. IT engineers tend to be optimists. (In government, we might substitute policy analysts.)
  3. Managers like to look good and to give good news, because
  4. Upper management tends to reward good news and punish bad news, regardless of the actual truth content. Honesty in reporting problems or lack of progress is seldom rewarded; usually it is discouraged, subtly or at times quite bluntly.

So while the Social Housing Minister may well have been told of the review last year, this does not mean she read it in full or was substantively briefed on the implications of the policy, much less that she comprehended it all. The government’s relentless Pollyanna routine and commitment to achieving a surplus, and the concomitant constraints on new spending and general disdain for the wellbeing of the poorest New Zealanders shown across the government means that the Social Housing Minister is incentivised to not bring the matter to wider attention, which a real solution would require. That being so, she is incentivised to know as little about it as possible, so that if questioned she can simply bullshit, rather than having to admit that she was aware of the problem but did nothing. Frankfurt cites this maxim in On Bullshit: “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.”

[Update: At least, this is what the Social Housing Minister tried to do in this case. But she failed, and ended up correcting herself before Question Time today. As Alex Coleman said, she tried to bullshit but ended up lying and corrected the error (with more bullshit). So it goes.]

This sort of thing is sometimes framed as the government or the minister having “other priorities” which, refreshingly, is not bullshit.

Bullshit is the enemy of democracy

But the truth will out. Even if we do not agree that policy analysts are optimists (I accept that this is pretty dubious), it only takes one or two who are willing to risk their position to bring an end to the bullshit. In two of the cases I cited above, we are only able to plumb the bullshit’s depth because internal documents revealing how things really are have been leaked, enabling a comparison to be made between that and what we are expected to believe. It turns out that where something greater than the survival of an IT project is at stake, some people will take action to blow the whistle on departmental or ministerial intransigence. This may emerge from a commitment to a certain political or policy agenda, intra-governmental power games, or honest, decent professional frustration. But whistleblowing recognises that democratic systems thrive on openness, truth and accountability, of which excessive bullshit is the eternal foe.

Whistleblowing, which Danah Boyd calls the new civil disobedience, and other anti-bullshit measures have become profoundly important to both global and New Zealand politics. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Rawshark, the Panama Papers leaker, and the unheralded sources within MSD and MPI all provide a check to governmental systems whose connection to how things really are is increasingly incidental. Boyd concludes:

If the rule of law is undermined and secrecy becomes the status quo, it becomes necessary for new civil disobedience tactics to emerge. And, more than the content of the leaks, this is what I think that we’re watching unfold.

The stakes are lower in New Zealand, but the principles remain. There is a long tradition of protecting and celebrating whistleblowers and other civil disobedients for exercising their consciences, and this tradition must be preserved. Incompetence, intransigence, and the cynical use of bullshit such as identified here are considerably more damaging to democracy than principled, non-bullshitty ideological initiatives, because at least with those we can see clearly what we are getting. If the government were to baldly state that, yes, New Zealand is an international tax haven and these are the benefits of being so; or that homeless people are not really a priority; or that fish being dumped overboard is simply a regrettable cost of production, then at least we would be well-placed to decide whether those were policies which we could support. It does not do so, because the political costs would be too great, and seeks to avoid those costs by way of bullshit. Whistleblowers and leakers require them to pay at least some of the costs of their intransigence. This is just.

The electoral risks of taking the piss

Finally, the problem with bullshit on this scale is that people in a democracy may come to rely on what they are expected to believe as a substitute for how things really are. People can usually tell when the two do not accord, but only with regard to factors that directly effect them. The poor will recognise bullshit regarding poverty, and generalise from that. Environmentalists will recognise bullshit regarding, say, the health of the oceans, and generalise from that. But in the absence of non-bullshit information, people’s rationalisations are often scarcely more useful than the half-recognised bullshit from which they emerge. As a consequence people tend to factionalise around the most compelling purveyors of bullshit-alternatives, which promotes epistemic closure and contributes to radicalisation and polarisation such as is evident in the US Presidential nomination race currently underway.

At least one state has weaponised bullshit in service of its ruling regime, and because of this Putin’s Russia is probably the most prodigious emitter of bullshit in the world today (though the other superpowers are not so far behind as they might think). Putin’s command of bullshit is so great that there now exists no democratic threat to his rule.

That is not true in New Zealand. Aside from the fact that we are not nearly so far gone, the long-term success of more or less bullshit-reliant governments led by both Clark and Key suggests that bullshit persists in government by the consent of the bullshitted. We tolerate a certain amount of bullshit, and we can often forgive its emitters, subject to one condition: that they do not take the piss.

While bullshit is ubiquitous, its current standard is, I think, too egregious for people to put up with. The government’s continuing reliance on bullshit could come off as disdain for the intelligence of the electorate, as Clark and Cullen’s did in their final term, when they told us that the Auditor-General was wrong about Labour’s misuse of taxpayer funds for its 2005 pledge card. One of Key’s great strengths is his ability to present mid-level bullshit as being pretty plausible, but the sort of disdain for the electorate noted above seems new. If people begin to reflect that the government is taking the piss, and ask themselves “what kind of fools do they take us for?” the results could be more politically damaging than any amount of ordinary incompetence or policy failure.

On the importance of woke whiteys (to other whiteys)

New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd announced this week that he would not seek re-election, due to the abuse he has received after his campaign to introduce a Māori ward representative to the New Plymouth District Council. You can hear his interview with John Campbell here.

Nobody deserves to be spat at on the street. The tragedy is that the spitters, of insults and of phlegm, don’t realise what a favour Andrew Judd has done them.

Much has been made of the favour that Judd’s stand has done for Māori. But two Māori candidates for that council have said Judd needs to go further. They rejected his call for a Māori ward, but they believe he should stand by his convictions and keep fighting. Māori do not have the privilege of walking away when it all gets too uncomfortable.

Bill Simpson: “If Mr Judd was Māori, and he came up with the same issues, do you think this would be publicised as strong as it is now?”
John Campbell: “My honest answer is probably not.”

Simpson: “Maori have been saying what Mr Judd has been saying for a number of years but no-one has actually paid attention.”

This is typical of the Indigenous experience: their histories, their stories and their lived reality is disregarded until it can be corroborated by white folks, and often not even then. It all goes double for women and other power minorities.

It’s not new, or isolated. White society systematically disregards Indigenous views, and not just for contentious, contemporary stuff. In 2003 Australian university researchers led by Heather Builth demonstrated using geographical, chemical and computer analysis that the Guditjmara people of what is now called southwestern Victoria had, for about 8,000 years, constructed and maintained a vast system of weirs and canals to farm eels. Eel farming is something modern societies struggle to do effectively, and 8,000 years is a long time ago — roughly at the same time as humans first domesticated chickens. This was an achievement of incalculable value for hundreds of generations, not only the Guditjmara, but also their trade partners and the other mobs who adapted the technology for use in their own country. But its very existence needed to be anointed by the proper authorities before it would be recognised. Guditjmara man Ken Saunders:

We weren’t nomads. We didn’t wander all over the bloody place and gone walkabout. We had an existence here … Well you couldn’t have a blackfella telling that story. So to prove it we had to have a white person doing the scientific research to say this is real

The dynamic is insidious. In Aotearoa we have come a long way from the bad old days of being caned for speaking te reo Māori, changing names and trying to pass for Pākehā, and most of that progress has not been due to the efforts of woke honkeys, but by the dogged struggle of Māori swimming against a white tide. But little gets done in New Zealand without at least the acquiescence of the dominant White society, because white society only listens to itself. And so it often takes people like Andrew Judd and Heather Builth to usher these contraband discussions past the sentinels of public discourse.

I used to write a lot about this sort of thing, but I have no real standing to talk about this stuff, except that I am Pākehā, and therefore less easy to write off as another crazy radical. It’s easy for woke whiteys to pat ourselves on the back for and doing those poor brown folks a favour, bestowing our privileged advocacy on them, but the only way it works is if we talk to ourselves. Indigenous people are better at fighting their own battles than we are. But because little happens without our acquiescence, there is a role for woke whitey race-traitors working to change our own people.

So from my perspective, Judd’s stand is of greater benefit for other Pākehā than it is for Māori. As I wrote earnestly in 2011, honouring the Treaty is not simply about doing what is right for Māori, but about white New Zealanders honouring our own principles and standing upright on this ground that we occupy.

So it’s really very simple: as Tau Iwi, if we live here in Aotearoa, we have an obligation to do our bit in ensuring the Treaty gets honoured. Because to the extent it remains unhonoured, we’re in breach of the only thing which grants us any enduring legitimacy, the only agreement which gives us a right to be here. One of the basic, fundamental principles of the English civil society which Hobson represented, and which New Zealanders continue to hold dear today is the notion of adhering to one’s agreements; acting in good faith. In fact, Hobson’s instructions were to deal with the Māori in good faith as equals. … I’m Pākehā, and even if those other pricks won’t live up to their own declared standards, I want to honour my agreements, and those of my forefathers; and those made by people from whom I’m not descended but from which my 20th-Century immigrant grandparents benefited. This Pākehā, at least, pays his debts.

Andrew Judd is a good model for this. I am not. I had the fortune to be brought up by a mother who lived with Māori and grew biculturalism into our bones, and I have never been properly able to grok people who think the Treaty is a farce, that bygones should be bygones, or that Māori should just be more like “us”. Judd came to it as an adult with his eyes open to the monoculture that grudgingly permits biculturalism to exist, and he tried to change it in a meaningful way.

Another good model is Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy, who was roundly mocked (including by me) as a part-timer with no credibility for her role, but who has repeatedly proven her ability to learn and own the job. These are the people white New Zealand needs: people who know that insidious racism isn’t just a redneck thing, or a Tory thing, or a South Island thing, but something intrinsic to society that is, nevertheless, curable by honest engagement with the historical facts. The people who hold these views are, by and large, just ordinary decent folk afflicted by banal prejudice and ignorance about the realities of a divided society.

White Aotearoa is right, in its way: these divisions harm us. New Zealand would be a better country without racism, without the poverty and crime and dysfunction that results from racism and from the systematic exclusion of a small but growing proportion of our people from full access to education, healthcare, prosperity and influence. Quite apart from the value of basic justice, there are more measurable benefits: the greatest gains begin from a low base, and there is a vast opportunity for Aotearoa’s underprivileged and under-utilised Indigenous people to make enormous economic, cultural and intellectual contributions to the nation. Some already do, and what a difference it makes.

Judd’s bid to ensure Indigenous representation on the New Plymouth District Council failed, and it seems certain that even were he to stand for re-election he would be beaten, because what Mike Hosking said is basically true: he is out of touch with middle New Zealand, and thank goodness! Middle New Zealand is wrong, and it needs to be told so by people whose views it cannot dismiss out of hand. Judd has showed White Aotearoa a way forward. Not an easy way, but an honest way to be true to ourselves, and we owe him our thanks.

L

Don’t tase me bro

Police Commissioner Mike Bush on Friday announced that tasers will be deployed for the use of all front-line officers.

The reasoning behind tasers emphasises the taser’s potential for de-escalation — a “less-than-lethal” alternative to shooting someone — sometimes on the basis very limited operational data. In 2009 and early 2010, when the weapons were on limited deployment in Auckland and Wellington, 10 people were tased, prompting then-Commissioner Howard Broad to write: “It’s pretty clear that in several instances, the person could have been shot with a firearm if Taser hadn’t been available.” The wiggle room here is important: several, could.

Technical and cultural problems
In June, science writer Phillip Ball addressed (MP3) the Royal Society of New Zealand on the topic of invisibility, emphasising that while we tend to regard advantages of this sort as technical problems they are, in reality, moral problems: problems of money, power and sex, or all three at once. One might as well say “cultural problems”. The crucial questions are not about what it does, but about how it is used, by whom, for whose benefit, and governed by what norms. This is the same profound observation that underpins restrictions on weapons of mass destruction, landmines and poison gas, why signatories to the Geneva Conventions use full metal jacketed ammunition, and why no nuclear weapons have been used in war since 1945. So it is disappointing, but not surprising, that the discussion around the Police’s deployment of tasers is largely technical, not cultural.

The justification is clearly-articulated: tasers have, the Police say, proven a useful tactical option between OC spray and a firearm. But the evidence is more complex. It is clear from New Zealand Police operational reports that tasers are safe in aggregate — from 2010 to 2014, 87% of situations where a taser was presented were resolved without it being fired, and the injury rate from their use was 1.1%.

How they are used, by whom, against whom
Aggregates do not tell the whole story. More than half of those tasered are Māori or Pasifika, a figure that has remained reasonably consistent, and which matches the overseas experience in the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia — in Queensland from 2010 to 2012, Indigenous Australians were subject to 22.6% of taser use, despite comprising only 3.5% of the Queensland population. People with mental illness are also subject to much higher rates than others — the British Home Secretary says mentally ill people are about 30% of taser victims, and the Queensland Police Service data cited above says 24.2%. We know also that those at the margins of society, with the fewest options and the least access to legal systems and good medical support — including victims of domestic abuse, sex workers, trans people, drug users and homeless people — are also much more likely to be subject to profiling, greater suspicion, and greater threat of violence by Police. Members of these groups are also more likely to suffer from medical conditions such as heart disease and schizophrenia that can elevate the danger of being hit by a taser. Mental health risks are also particularly concerning, given how prevalent mental illness is in members of these groups, often with violence or abuse by people in power as a contributing factor.

Risks are not evenly distributed. Non-white people are overrepresented in crime statistics, and this must explain some of the increased rates of taser usage against them, but the fact that they are overrepresented is itself a function of the economic, systemic and cultural biases that infuse our society. All else being equal, wider deployment of weapons in the hands of the Police is escalation. It means those at the margins get a double-dose of systemic bias: they’re more likely to be selected as a potential criminal, and once selected, they’re more likely to be subject to violence. Those that are subject to violence then suffer greater harm and have fewer options for recovery or redress.

It is surely with this in mind that Emmy Rākete has requested the Police release whatever research they have conducted into the lethality of tasers, and their potential for abuse. Gina Rangi also asked, on Twitter, about Police training in institutional racism, and the monitoring of it in relation to taser usage. We deserve answers to these queries.

Even the presentation of a taser without it being fired is a strong tactical option, including “laser painting” and “arcing”; explicit threats of force. And although injury rates are low, the fact that tasers are regarded as “less-than-lethal” means they tend to be used more readily than “lethal” tactical options, and are apt to be used as a compliance tool, rather than to defend the safety of Police or the public. In New Zealand, about half the time tasers are used against people who are threatening, but not violent towards Police, and according to Amnesty International, 90% of those who died as a result of taser were unarmed and do not present a serious threat. The New South Wales Ombudsman found that one in seven taser presentations was “inappropriate”, including cases of tasers being used on fleeing suspects and people who had already been handcuffed. “Less-than-lethal” violence can still be a heavy punishment.

These risks are all cultural, not technical. No amount of “less-than-lethal” rhetoric or low recorded-injury rates can adequately address these concerns when the factors leading to the decision to use a taser are not subject to the same scrutiny as its final use. Given that context, and absent significant change in the cultural factors, the wider deployment of tasers is not de-escalation, it is escalation.

Displacing firearms or augmenting the existing arsenal
To the extent that tasers displace firearms from frontline Police use, their wide deployment is a good thing, because in spite of everything else, it is generally better to be tased than to be shot. Tasers are less lethal than firearms, they operate at shorter range without such risks to bystanders, and they are equipped with cameras that provide some context to aid inquiry in case of abuse. Firearms do not record the circumstances in which a trigger is pulled — though the technology exists, and its use may grow, along with with the advent of body-cameras. While the last year’s worth of fatal shootings of unarmed black American men by white Police illustrates that technical solutions do not themselves correct cultural problems, the prospect of being charged with murder may prove a deterrent to the worst abuses. To ensure this, New Zealand should provide for the release of taser-cam footage in case of alleged abuse. (The NSW Ombudsman released video of case studies showing abuse of the weapons in that context; some are taser-cam, and some are not. You can watch them here, but be warned; some of it is quite harrowing.)

However, the real trouble with the argument that tasers displace guns isn’t with the claim that tasers are less-lethal than guns, or that they provide better oversight — it’s that that the evidence for displacement is weak, or at best unclear. In New South Wales, firearm presentations by police remained steady at about 800 per year for the three years following the introduction of tasers — while taser usage nearly tripled from 407 presentations to 1,169 over the same period. Similar effects were noted in Canada, where Police have walked back the argument that a taser is a replacement for a firearm:

When the RCMP unveiled plans to equip its Alberta detachments with Tasers in 2002, Sgt. Steve Gleboff told reporters “what we’re trying to do is eliminate the necessity to shoot somebody.” […] That expectation was wrong, according to the man who trains Calgary police officers to use Tasers. “Use of force experts across Canada right now, we’re kind of shaking our heads going, ‘How did we give the impression to the lay public or the media that Tasers were ever supposed to be a replacement for lethal force?'” said Staff Sgt. Chris Butler. “They were another use-of-force tool in the same regard as the baton, the O.C. spray. Just another tool.”

Given this position — that the taser is not a replacement for a firearm, but an alternative to OC spray and batons — it is clear that wider deployment of a more effective weapon over and above those existing tools, where the ultimate tactical option of firearms does not already exist, means the escalation of violence, not its de-escalation, as a matter of policy.

The limited deployment of firearms is an important difference between New Zealand and the jurisdictions for which good data is available (in Australia and North America), that make these comparisons uncertain. (In the UK, which would be a better comparison, there are strong calls for similar policy.) Given this difference, we may have little to fear — it may be that the deployment of tasers forestalls the routine arming of frontline police for five or 10 or more years longer than it otherwise would have occurred. But as someone pointed out to me on Twitter, the avoidance of hypothetical violence by the application of actual violence also is not de-escalation: you can’t defend giving the Police machine guns on the basis that you have declined to give them tanks as well. The onus is on the Police to demonstrate that their decision to deploy tasers across the force will reduce the use of firearms, and will also be accompanied by more rigorous training and oversight to prevent abuse, and to limit excessive use on the groups who already bear the heaviest burden of Police violence.

L

This is not the discussion you are looking for

“They are so many, and our country is so small. Where will we find space to bury them all?”

— Finnish soldier during the Winter War, 1939

“We have won just about enough ground to bury our dead.”

— Red Army general during the Winter War, 1940

With their horrendous Chinese housing investment analysis Labour hoped to start a discussion. Well, they’ve done that. For 11 days until yesterday, the story led, or nearly led the news. The question is: are they happy with the discussion they’ve started?

They may really have wanted a discussion about race, dressed up as a discussion about housing, or they may have genuinely wanted a housing discussion with a slight racial frisson. Regardless of their hopes and ambitions, the party at this point has to have a long, hard look at their choices, for in reality, they’ve had neither of these two things. What they have had is an excruciating public discussion about one of the most boring and alienating topics it is possible to imagine: research ethics and methodology. For eleven straight days, during most of which time they had the agenda to themselves because the Prime Minister was out of the country, Labour has unsuccessfully defended its commitment to good social science practice.

Unsuccessfully, because yesterday, 11 days on, an increasingly frustrated Labour leader was still defending the data. “This is how the debate gets out of control,” said Andrew Little to Patrick Gower — and for once, he was right. “The Auckland housing market is not a morality play,” said housing spokesperson Phil Twyford, and he was right, too, but that’s all anyone has been talking about for 11 days.

Earlier in the day the party’s statistical guru Rob Salmond
half-arsedly apologised, on the fourth page of comments on a blog post, for misrepresenting three of his most rigorous methodological critics in a column published in the Sunday Star Times, which is read by somewhere north of 100,000 people. Three critics — Keith Ng, Tze Ming Mok, and Chuan-Zheng Lee, all of whom just happen to be Chinese, and who seem, horrifyingly, to have been misrepresented so as to give Labour the ability to say “look, we can’t be racist, here are these three Chinese people who agree with us!”

This is a horror show. Quite apart from giving unreconstructed racists an opportunity to pretend outrage, and appropriative neo-colonialists grounds to go around trumpeting about the coming race war, Labour has spent 11 days debating the definition of “is”, losing, and looking like mendacious buffoons into the bargain. Quite apart from the vileness of this exercise, it has been handled even more badly than I have come to expect.

They need to just stop. There is no ground to be won by these means, and further fighting will mean more dead to bury. The only poll since the announcement has them effectively stagnant, following a poll taken mostly before the announcement, which had them well up. Pretending nothing is wrong with their work, that their high-minded-if-admittedly-risky project has been hijacked by a mendacious media and the leftist-liberal fifth-column is no kind of strategy, even if it were true. The keys to the twitter accounts need to be taken away and, as much as possible, a dignified silence maintained. Go away and get some evidence, find a way to return the discussion to the issue of housing prices and non-resident investment, because those are serious issues about which we deserve a serious discussion which Labour’s delusional incompetence has rendered impossible.

L