Saturday 13 December 2014

Wisdom's Mirror: Can Grant Robertson Slay The Neoliberal Gorgon?

Reflected Gory: The Greek hero, Perseus, used Athena's bright shield to defeat Medusa. If Grant Robertson means to slay the neoliberal Gorgon he should, like Perseus, be guided by what he sees in Wisdom's Mirror. Neoliberalism can only be slain by the thing it set out to negate: the political economy of solidarity and generosity.
HOW TO ELIMINATE one’s rival without getting one’s hands dirty? It’s a problem with a prodigious political pedigree. King David’s lust for Bathsheba drove him to order, Uriah, her unfortunate husband, placed in the front line of battle – where he was promptly and conveniently slain. King Henry II, thwarted in his ambition to dominate the English Church by his old friend, Thomas Becket (whom he’d foolishly made Archbishop of Canterbury) cried out: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” Whereupon four of his knights immediately took it upon themselves to terminate the Archbishop’s turbulence with extreme prejudice. In neither case, however, did matters end well for these errant kings. God was watching David, and Henry had a Pope to placate.
Then again, there’s the legend of Perseus. If they’d had opinion polls on the Greek island of Serifos back in the days of King Polydectes, then the hero, Perseus, would have been the people’s preferred monarch. To protect his throne (and get his lustful paws on Perseus’ beautiful mother, Danae) Polydectes tricked the hero into promising to bring him any gift he cared to name. Without missing a beat, the King ordered Perseus to bring him the head of Medusa – the monstrous Gorgon who had only to look upon a man and he was instantly turned to stone.
Now in the ordinary run of things, Perseus would have been a goner. But, of course, as Zeus’s son, he had friends in the highest of places. And so, with the help of the gods Hermes and Athena, he was able to cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone. Returning to Serifos, Perseus bore the monster’s head to Polydectes who was, predictably, petrified.
Now, it strikes me that Andrew Little was born too late to have been enthralled (as I was) by the Children’s World Record Club’s magnificent rendering of the legend of Perseus and Medusa. [It’s how middle-class Kiwi parents entertained their children in the years before television!] Nevertheless, there is more than a hint of Polydectes deadly errand in Mr Little’s decision to confer the Finance Spokesperson role upon his most formidable political rival, Grant Robertson.

"Slay what?" Labour's Finance Spokesperson, Grant Robertson. 
The confident predictions of right-wing political commentators notwithstanding, Mr Little is expecting a great deal more from his Finance Spokesperson than yet another recitation of the neoliberal catechism. Mr Robertson has been given twelve months to come up with something new in the way of economic policy. Something that moves the Labour Party on from its 30 year infatuation with neoliberal dogma and introduces it to a practical and progressive set of economic alternatives.
Polydectes would be proud. Because Mr Robertson’s quest is full of perils. If ever there was a menagerie of solid rock, it is that vast collection of economic ideas upon which the neoliberal Gorgon has cast her petrifying gaze. Mr Robertson would not be the first social democrat to have his career turned to stone for the capital crime of embracing heterodox political economy. Just consider the fates of the US Democratic Party’s Walter Mondale, or the German SPD’s Oskar Lafontaine.
But perhaps the very myth that exemplifies Mr Robertson’s predicament also points the way to its solution.
According to story, Perseus was gifted with several crucial items by Hermes and Athena. From the god he received winged sandals, upon which he could fly; Zeus’s sword, that cut through brass and iron; and Hades’ helmet, which made him invisible. From the goddess he received a mighty shield in whose polished surface he could safely view Medusa’s harmless reflection. It was Athena’s – the Goddess of Wisdom’s – gift that guided his sword-arm at the critical moment.
What, then, is the mirror image of neoliberalism? To learn the answer, Mr Robertson need look no further than this morning’s (12/12/14) NZ Herald editorial. Responding to the recent OECD report in which New Zealand is singled out for the size of the gulf separating its richest and poorest citizens, the leader writer wrote:
“In one sense this is not a surprise. New Zealand was a highly protected economy until the mid-1980s with a strongly unionised labour force, high taxation and universal benefits. It had removed these arrangements rapidly by the mid-1990s, conscious that it was opening itself to world markets later than most and with trade disadvantages of distance and scale.”
It would seem that Mr Robertson’s search for an alternative to the iniquitous neoliberal prescription should begin with the things that neoliberalism was intended to replace: policies that enable New Zealand-based businesses to grow and prosper; laws that ensure the rights of employees are protected and that their remuneration is both fair and adequate; and finally, the overarching determination that (as the OECD’s report itself recommends) the nation’s wealth be redistributed in ways that permit all of its citizens to aspire to full, productive and happy lives.
An economic policy elaborating these three themes would, indeed, be a mighty sword in the hands of a Labour Finance Minister – especially one who had taught himself to see, in Wisdom’s mirror, exactly where to strike.
Reviewing the tasks Mr Little has set Mr Robertson, it is possible that I have done him a disservice in comparing him to the evil King Polydectes. If the Labour leader’s true purpose had been to send his rival upon a quest he could not complete, would he have put him in charge of Labour’s broad-ranging inquiry into the future of work? Is it not more likely that, by giving Mr Robertson this responsibility, Mr Little has indicated the direction in which he wishes Labour and its finance spokesperson to march? To a New Zealand where the rights of citizens and their prosperity are inextricably bound together, and where the true purpose of political economy is to ensure the continuance of both.
Sometimes the best way to eliminate a rival is not to turn him to stone, but to allow him to blossom and bear fruit. The Gods, they say, help those who help themselves – and each other.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Saturday, 13 December 2014.


pat said...

not only does our modern day Perseus have achieve this feat of developing this grand plan he will simultaneously have to enamour the MSM and fight the certain onslaught from the corporate legions and their political minions.....perhaps the ancient version had it easy?

Jamie said...

I'm not a labour man but Stuart Nash is Labours man in my opinion.

Did ya see him at the pollies breakfast???

Bloke's got dash!!!

Brendan McNeill said...

Chris I read the Herald Editorial you refer to. Its main point was not the need for greater redistribution as your post implies, but the need to deliver improved educational outcomes, especially for the bottom 40% of New Zealand’s children.

The Left would have us believe that inequality is as a result of our economic system. It apparently oppresses the poor and keeps them down.

Others like myself ask how we can escape inequality if more than 20% of the nation’s children are being raised in single parent homes, often dependent upon welfare?

Inequality is an inevitable outcome of wide spread welfare dependence, and a good deal welfare dependence is unrelated to the job market, or the state of the economy, or how neo-liberal, socialist or otherwise it may be.

I keep coming back to the three basic steps to avoid poverty.

- Stay at school until you get a qualification.
- Get a job and keep it.
- Defer child bearing until after marriage.

The first is directly related to education, and the second is dependent upon the first.

Unknown said...

Onward and upward. Grant has a huge task, but if the Party is behind him he can be the equivalent to the First Labour government's Walter Nash to its legendary and beloved leader Michael Joseph Savage. I would also limit The Prime Minister to just two terms, like the US president. Stuart Nash will become deputy if Labour is elected in 2017, or leader if it doesn't.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Complete lack of logic there Brendan as usual. If poverty is caused by welfare dependence, then suddenly since 1984 the bottom 40 percent or so of New Zealanders have become utterly feckless and irresponsible? Because we were a damned sight more equal before 1984, and the only thing it seems to me that's changed is the economic system as human nature doesn't really change. Similar with other countries. They've all shifted over to an uncaring neoliberal economic system and they have all suffered a growth in inequality. Your prescription for a prosperous life is great – if the economy is working properly. Stay at school and get a qualification – yes as long as there are jobs that your qualification will get you – otherwise you might as well qualify and hamburgerology.
Get a job and keep it? Yes as long as you are not laid off just before Christmas so some firm can get a percentage point on its bottom line. Defer childbearing till after marriage? I don't think that has a great deal to do with prosperity. More with imposing Christian morality on other people.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Here's my basic steps to avoiding poverty.
1. Make sure you are born into well off middle-class white family that have enough money to buy you books and computers and so on. Hopefully they'll have a nice warm house, and you can have a bedroom to yourself.
2. Make sure they send you to a private school where even if you are dumb, you can make friends that will help you in your later working life.
3. Make sure your parents have lots of friends in business so they can give you a job, even if you are not necessarily very good at anything.
4. Make sure you marry someone from a similar middle-class well off background – rinse and repeat.

pat said...

Brendan, I fear your grasp of basic economics (or lack of) is exactly what those who trot out this simplistic example of an isolated component of the whole equation. It is really very simple...if certain occupations pay substantially less than is enough to meet the necessities of a dignified life then you will have poverty,irrespective of your educational level ...then you can compound the problem by that proportion of society that have no work available or are unable to work at any given point in time.
How ,pray tell does better education solve these issues?We could have 100% of our population holding PhDs and somebody still has to serve at the Maccas drive through.....unless of course you employ robots, which sadly is occurring more and more to move an increasing proportion of the wealth in one direction....and it aint trickle down.

JanM said...

That is a very superficial analysis,Brendan

Davo Stevens said...

Very mataphoric Chris but true!

Brendan, take a look at Gordon Campbell's post:

Describes it very well.

Loz said...

Franklin Roosevelt as Governor of New York could have been described as a social liberal, prior to becoming responsible for developing economic policy to alleviate the wide spread poverty of the Great Depression. He was forced to realise that the idea of deregulated economies, low taxes and free trade simply didn't work.

His "experimentalism" was a recognition that the role of government was to guarantee human rights and a universal provision for human needs... something that the profit motive of big business worked against.

Labour's economic policy framework, like National, has been based for nearly 30 years on the narrative that prosperity is the result of unregulated markets and entrepreneurial go-getters being freed from the burden of tax… the same narrative that was demonstrated to be an utter failure in the 1930’s and the 1890’s prior to that. Labour once understood that money is essentially a promissory note for the exchange of goods and services (i.e. labour) … it’s not a mediaeval representation of a usable metal that can be buried in the ground for moulding into something useful.

Shifting the tax burden from the top to the bottom of society only allows the most privileged to hoard their gained “notes of exchange” into amassing goods instead of commissioning labour based services, which in turn, creates bubbles of speculation and wide scale unemployment. This is the reality of our current economy.

Grant Robertson, like the young and financially conservative FDR, is a social liberal and also an exceptionally capable politician with a good brain. He certainly has the ability to recognise that deregulated markets have always created monopolies of power and monopolies of need. Until now, he has never had to focus on the economic narrative of free market ideas but his elevation to finance spokesperson puts him “front and centre” with that herculean task of tackling inequality without tipping over the entire apple cart.

The problem remains the old-guard of caucus who are likely to undermine a rejection of the narrative they have been instrumental in enacting. We can guarantee that a 5th column will be working hard to encourage division against a return to Labour principles which will include suggestions of re-running leadership challenge. For Mr Robertson to be promoted to the most critical role of a shadow cabinet shows great courage from Mr Little, and represents a magnanimous compliment in the faith he has his adversary’s abilities.

It is difficult to not be impressed with the primacy of team building that’s been demonstrated (so far) by the new Labour Leader. It represents the greatest ray of light that Labour has shown for a very long time.

Victor said...

Pedants' Corner:

I think it was just four knights who rid Henry FitzEmpress of his turbulent priest.

But who's counting?

Chris Trotter said...

Thanks, Victor, error now corrected. (Although four knights seems a somewhat disrespectful number for such an elevated personage!)

Anonymous said...

If you watched more Blackadder, you'd know more about these things.

BTW - I was born into a middle class family, went (for a while) to a private school, but when I went to look for a job (late '80s) with a Chemistry degree, there wasn't much about. I managed to get into a career, but got laid off, and now keep getting told I'm 'over qualified' or 'too senior'.

And my son was born after I got married.

At the moment I'm four weeks into a job that could be five weeks, could be longer if they get more orders, and I'm apparently worth about a quarter of a annual pay rise for a top civil servant.

Roll on the revolution. I'll be in demand - I mentioned my chemistry degree?

Davo Stevens said...

Good points Surgeon and I can relate to them.

What so many people today in all the developed nations want is an end to a one-party state. The US is a classic example. The Republicans and the Democrats are one and the same now. We have similar in the recent past. We had Gnatlab and Labnat.

People want a real choice.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

There you go anonymous, you missed out on rule 3. You should realise that most of the marketable skills in the upper echelons these days are things like business administration and law. Although currency trading would probably be okay :-). Chemistry – not so much. If your parents had been properly middle-class there would have explained to you that science is not a good choice for a career. Unless you want to go teaching? And even then you'd be better off with physics. In fact you could practically guarantee yourself a teaching job if you had a physics degree. Not that there's huge numbers of people doing physics at schools, but there are very few people with a physics degree in teaching.

Brendan McNeill said...

I accept that my analysis was simplistic in so far as you cannot layout a broad framework in a few comments, but the underlying thesis is sound. If you outsource your economic wellbeing to others, or rely upon Government welfare you will be poor. If you give up on the notion that you are primarily responsible for your own economic wellbeing, you will be poor, often bitter and filled with blame.

GS – I have never seen a cynic rise above the mediocre.

Pat – yes some occupations pay more than others because there is greater demand for those skills, and/or the opportunity cost to obtain them is higher. We face hard choices. We live in a globally competitive market. A good education alone is not a panacea, but on average if you have one, you will perform better economically than those who don’t.

Davo – I read the article. He still appears to be consumed with grief over the Lange / Douglas Government. We cannot redistribute our way to prosperity. It’s undeniable that all New Zealanders enjoy a higher standard of living than our parents did fifty years ago. Innovation, and technology all fueled by market economics has delivered this to us.

Anon – I’m sorry to hear of your circumstances. There will always be exceptions, and each of us experiences adversity of one kind or another in our lives. You sound disappointed rather than cynical which means there is hope.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Again you just toss off little platitudes Brendan. I'm not cynical so much as realistic. The main indicator of the accrual of wealth is - surprise, surprise - wealthy parents. There is no level playing field, there probably never will be in a neoliberal world, and yes, redistribution does work.

Guerilla Surgeon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guerilla Surgeon said...

Oh, and I would dispute the idea that we all have a better standard of living than our parents. Maybe this applies if your parents grew up in the 1930s as mine did, but apart from the superficial – which you seem to set great store by – there are fewer people with decent jobs, there are fewer people that can afford houses, there is less decent medical care – I could go on. I mean that's just typical of people like Prebble who once said it's better because it used to take 3 months to get a phone, or railways didn't know where all their rolling stock was. As if this wouldn't be solved without neoliberalism. More superficiality. But then I was at university with Prebble and I wouldn't expect a great deal more from him.

Davo Stevens said...

It's strange how we did very well from WW II to Little Rogie in 1984. After that things went downhill. That period included the Recession of 1969 (a crunch as bad as this one!) where the un-employment shot up to a terrible 2800!!

The Solo parents were given a benefit so that women did not have to sty in a dangerous and abusive relationship.

As for the wealth Surgeon has covered that eloquently.

Private Enterprise will never cure un-employment as much as you dream it will Brendan. It's in the best interests of Employers to keep 10% of the able work force out of work and actively seeking a job continuously to keep wages down.

You need to understand that "Trickle Down" never has worked and was never meant to. "Flow Up" is a better description. Which explains that in the early 1980's a CEO got paid 30 times the wages of their workers and today they are being paid an obscene 350 times!

Victor said...


I seriously doubt that we are better off than people were in, say, the 1960s.

In my own case, any rise in my paper wealth has been due to getting (much) older and accumulating a small amount of property along the way.

This would also probably have happened by this stage in my life if I'd been 30 or 40 years older. But I'd probably have achieved it with a mite more security and a little less "Sturm und Drang".

In any event, this path forward for young people is not as open today as it used to be.

As to my real day-to-day standard of living, that's more or less on a par with where it's been throughout the last half century (viz. comfortable but not as comfortable as I'd like it to be).

You and Naomi Klein make strange bedfellows. But your view that we're all so much better off materially is not very different to hers.

Ms Klein differs, of course, from your good self in thinking that we should be content with 1960s or 1970s living standards. Yet, for me, this would mean living exactly as I live now minus a few largely unwanted electronic gizmos, designed to keep me permanently "connected".

May I contrast this with the very real alteration in people's circumstances that occurred in just about every western country during the three decades following World War Two.

The best we can say of today's global economy is that prosperity is somewhat better distributed between countries. And the price we have paid for this seems to be a less equitable distribution within countries.

It seems not unreasonable to place responsibility for these shifts at the doors of neo-liberalism and other, related forms of right-wing ideological necrophilia.

The key question facing New Zealand is whether continuance of this trend will provide us with a secure basis for future prosperity. Frankly, I don't think so.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Actually Brendan Napoleon was a cynic, the Duke of Wellington was a cynic, Julius Caesar was a cynic, Western Churchill was a cynic :-) do you want me to go on?

pat said...

Sorry Brendan, you may wish to read my comment is not that some occupations pay more than others as you state it is that some occupations (an increasing number) dont pay enough for the recipient to avoid poverty....Im sure youve heard of the working poor Brendan.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I wish I lived in your world Brendan. Everything is just so simple. You remind me of my first year economics textbook. People are made redundant – they are redistributed to other jobs. Factory closes in one city – people just moved to another and get another job. Unfortunately people aren't just "anovver brick ina wall." I can just imagine you at the end of slavery in the U.S. standing there addressing the newly freed slaves and saying "now make sure you go and get an education so you can get a decent job." There is a firm that produces a T-shirt that says "I think you'll find things are a little more complicated than that." Or similar. I think you should hang one on your wall.
Couple of questions though Brendan - about things which you seem to have forgotten or have no knowledge.
Firstly – what is the economy for?
This is important, because I think you have a different idea to most people.
Secondly – how do we measure a successful economy? Because I don't think you really know how to do that either to be honest, but it would be interesting to have your ideas on this.
Thirdly, what happens to countries – of which they seem to be quite a number these days – who have lots of highly qualified people, but no jobs for them? That's a bit less philosophical I guess, but it could be one of the results of your prescription for prosperity in New Zealand.

Davo Stevens said...

One only has to listen to the babbling of Billy 'Dipton Dipstick' English. In amongst it all is the rare glint of truth. He want's a LOW WAGE ECONOMY and has stated it many times.

The problem with a low wage economy is the the taxpayer has to subsidise workers wages, so they can at least, survive. That is an indirect subsidy to private enterprise, so our tax dollars are going straight into the pockets of the rich, "Flow Upwards"!

tauputa said...

Nz economy is growing fast relative to the OECD, and above its normal long run rate, unemployment is lowest in OECD, inflation is extremely low. Recent surveys showed 64% of respondents believed NZ was heading in the right direction. There will be no radical change from policies which are delivering to the voting majority.

The pragmatists in the Labour party (there are plenty of them since the list MP's have been purged by the recent election defeat) will be well aware of this and will create policies which tinker round the edges of the status quo - kind of like the current ones really.

Chris what I would like a list of Trotterian remedies/gimcracks - a bucket of hooey by an economic illiterate dreamer undoubtably - but lets have it - its christmas after all.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Taxpayer subsidy is even more common in the U.S. actually if I remember rightly Davo. Large firms are/were informing their workers how to get food stamps and various other means of assistance. Not to mention that workers are deliberately denied full-time work so that firms don't have to pay benefits, and no hours contracts seem to be spreading over some of the western world at least.

Chris Trotter said...

Tauputa, if I thought for one minute that you were either genuinely interested, or capable of grasping anything other than neoliberal platitudes, I'd happily oblige.

But, since neither appear to be the case, your Christmas stocking must remain empty.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

taputa - this relates very much to what I was asking Brendan. Is a growing economy good? Theoretically under neoliberal capitalism, all of the gains can be made by very few of the population. Taking that to its logical conclusion we have a nation of slaves – a number of overseers, and a few people at the top living off the fat. Economically of course this makes complete sense, companies would make much better profits if people worked for free. But socially, it leads to revolution. So in my opinion it matters less if the economy is growing, and more to whom that growth is going. After all, I don't give a stuff of the economy is growing if I'm not getting any of the gravy.

Davo Stevens said...

Yep Surgeon it is higher in the US but I was referring to NZ albeit not clearly so. It's high in the EU too.

The purpose of a Govt. is to maintain the infrastructure to expedite businesses but it's primary purpose is to look after the people. Maintain a good education system and a good health system. The country's biggest asset is a healthy and well-educated society. If people can't afford to eat properly they become a burden on the health system. Mick Savage's Govt. realised that and set up the Health Camps for the poor children. They paid a benefit for each child to assist parents in looking after them and so on.

There are so many ways that our gubbies are shifting money to private enterprise, charter schools is one - tax money going to a private company.