Sunday 28 February 2016

Hey, Bomber! Inter-generational War Is Not the Answer To Auckland’s Problems.

Open Season On Baby Boomers: The highly topical second episode of the multi-media talk-show Waatea Fifth Estate covered the controversy surrounding housing intensification and the Auckland Unitary Plan. The otherwise excellent show was marred only by the casting of the Baby Boom Generation as the guilty party. Ageism can no more supply a progressive answer to Auckland's housing problems than racism or sexism.
NO, NO, NO, BOMBER!* This ageism has got to stop – now. You wouldn’t permit anyone writing for The Daily Blog to discriminate against people on the grounds of race, gender or sexuality. So what, in the name of Progressive Politics, are you hoping to achieve by blaming everyone born between 1946 and 1965 for Auckland’s housing crisis?
The Baby Boom generation didn’t choose their parents, Comrade! Any more than a black man chooses his ethnicity, or a woman chooses to be born female. Scapegoating people on the basis of their date-of-birth makes no more sense than scapegoating them because of their genetic make-up, or because their sex chromosomes are XX and not XY.
I’m genuinely affronted by all this Baby-Boomer-bashing, old friend. And if you want to know why, then I’d invite you to sit down and watch Episode 2 of Waatea Fifth Estate, and every time the word “Baby-Boomer” or “Boomer” is used, to mentally over-dub the word “Jew”.
Can you imagine the firestorm of criticism that would erupt if Jews were accused of preventing young Kiwis getting into their first home? Or if Jews were accused of taking all the good things that were on offer in the 1960s and 70s, and then denying them deliberately to succeeding generations?
Any broadcaster disseminating such ideas would immediately fall foul of both the Race Relations Act and the Human Rights Act. Because it is a criminal offence to incite racial hatred, and/or, to discriminate against one’s fellow citizens on the basis of their ethnicity or religious belief.
And while we’re on the subject of the Human Rights Act (1993) perhaps it would be helpful to point out that Section 21 of the legislation includes, among a long list of “prohibited grounds of discrimination”, the ground of “age”.
Also worth considering is the prohibition contained in the Fourth Geneva Convention against the imposition of collective punishment. Article 33 clearly states that: “No persons may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.”
Progressive people are rightly outraged when the Israeli authorities inflict massive material and human damage on Palestinian communities in retaliation for the hostile actions of a few Hamas fighters. I would, therefore, like to hear the explanation for why we shouldn’t be just a teeny-wee bit upset when an entire generation of human-beings is blamed for societal ills they did not create and which a great many of them – myself included – wholeheartedly deplore.
Because, to be honest, Bomber, your eagerness, in Episode 2 of W5E, to see the planting of Generation X and Y settlements in the Baby Boomer occupied territories of Auckland’s leafy suburbs would have done the average West Bank Israeli settler-developer, and his IDF-protected construction teams, proud.
Forgive me, Comrade, but fomenting inter-generational warfare (which, ultimately, entails turning children against their parents or grandparents) is not, and can never be, a progressive cause. Indeed, it strikes at the most primal forms of human solidarity, and at the most essential drivers of human co-operation. Worst of all, Bomber, it misdirects the legitimate rage of those denied the social goods their parents were able to enjoy away from the social class which bears the actual responsibility for their destruction.
Just ask yourself, Bomber: Was it the Maori New Zealanders born between 1946 and 1965 who deliberately destroyed their own employment opportunities? Are they the ones responsible for gutting their rural communities? Did they set out to create urban breeding grounds for crime, domestic violence and drug abuse? And was it the Pasifika Baby Boomers who deliberately ran down their local schools and health services? Are they the ones responsible for the decay of social housing in New Zealand? Did Pakeha Boomers demand the destruction of their own unions? Must they be held responsible for the political marginalisation of the entire working class? And did all of these groups really conspire to thwart the aspirations of their own children and grandchildren?
Those responsible for the hollowed-out shell that is 21st Century New Zealand society are Baby Boomers only in the sense that they are also human-beings. They changed this country for the worse, not out of some mysterious generational impulse precipitated by listening to the Beatles or eating Eskimo Pies, but because it was in their interests to destroy the social-democratic beliefs and institutions that had so successfully limited their ability to enrich themselves, and which, if left in place, would have further undermined their political and cultural power.
The truly outrageous aspect of Auckland’s housing crisis is how effectively Auckland’s citizens have been excluded from playing any role in fixing it. The Auckland Super City is democratic in name only. It’s true purpose is to create opportunities for property developers (and all of the other businesses their activities sustain) to go on making profits. The power of Auckland’s ruling class will not be broken by setting one short-changed generation against another, but by creating a movement in which old and young join forces to determine what needs to be done, and out of whose pockets the money to pay for it should be taken.
* “Bomber” is the nom de guerre of Martyn Bradbury, Editor of The Daily Blog. Martyn and the author, Chris Trotter, have been friends and comrades since the mid-1990s.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 27 February 2016.

Friday 26 February 2016

On Government Ground: The TPPA Struggle Shifts To Parliament.

The New Battleground: As the struggle over the TPPA shifts from the streets to Parliament the political rules-of-engagement will change. If Jane Kelsey and her followers are to avoid the fate of Queen Boudicca and hers, then she must never accept a battle fought on her enemies' terms. That means reigniting the extra-parliamentary struggle. If the Anti-TPPA movement attempts to fight John Key on his own turf - it will lose.
AND SO IT BEGINS. The Government’s counter-offensive against the opponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) is slowly, but surely, gathering pace. It’s weight and relentless aggression will test the TPPA’s opponents’ fighting skills to the limit. Already, they have been found wanting. The massive protest demonstration of 4 February may have caught the TPPA’s protagonists off-guard, but it has not been followed-up. The pressure on the Government has eased. It is now John Key’s turn to demonstrate his power.
The best historical analogy I can think of is the Boudican Revolt of AD 60-61. Like Boudicca, the warrior queen of the Iceni tribe, Professor Jane Kelsey has been highly successful at rousing and mobilising her followers against the TPPA. Also like Boudicca, she has taken full advantage of the strategic opportunity her distracted opponents were foolish enough to give her.
The Roman Governor of Britain, Suetonius, having called in the Empire’s loans to the Iceni royal family and annexed their kingdom, added insult to injury by allowing his legionaries to first flog the loudly protesting Boudicca, and then rape her daughters. Convinced that the subjugation of the Iceni was now an accomplished fact, he carelessly led his legions West, to the island of Anglesey, where he exterminated what remained of the Druids.
Bad move.
While he was busy putting Druids to the sword and cutting down their sacred oaks, Boudicca was laying waste to the key Roman cities of Camulodunum and Londonium, and slaughtering upwards of 70,000 Romans and Romano-Britons.
Not good.
The Emperor Nero momentarily considered abandoning his new province to its murderous inhabitants. But then, at the Battle of Watling Street, his loyal Governor, Suetonius, reminded the Mediterranean World why Rome was its master.
Because, truthfully, it’s not that hard to get a lot of people all rarked-up about their beloved homeland being turned into a colony of the unbelievably powerful masters of the world. The same is true of slaughtering people by the thousand. That’s not hard, either. Especially when the legions normally dedicated to their protection are on the other side of the country putting an entire religious tradition to the sword.
It’s important to face facts. While Jane Kelsey’s crusade, like Boudicca’s rebellion, has tasted victories, these have all been won on battlefields of her own choosing. What happens when her rebels are forced to fight on their enemies’ chosen ground?
Fighting On Rome's Terms: Rigorously trained and highly disciplined, Suetonius's legionaries made short work of Boudicca's wild warriors.
In Boudicca’s case the answer was a bloody massacre. Suetonius’s two legions (roughly 10,000 men) may have been faced by upwards of 100,000 Britons, but they were undaunted. Roman legionaries were professional soldiers, highly trained and superbly disciplined. Against Rome’s well-oiled war-machine, Boudicca’s ill-disciplined warriors didn’t stand a chance. They were butchered with parade-ground precision.
John Key’s MFAT officials are no less professional than those Roman legionaries. Supported by the National Party’s most seasoned MPs, they know well how to exploit the rules of engagement of committee room and parliamentary chamber, where the TPPA conflict is now being played out.
If Professor Kelsey and the anti-TPPA “It’s Our Future” movement were able to pack the galleries and corridors of Parliament Buildings in the same way they packed Queen Street on 4 February, then they might have some hope of winning this battle. Instead, like Boudicca’s outmanoeuvred warriors, they are being driven into the saw-toothed shield-wall of the Government’s legions, where, their bravery and brilliance notwithstanding, the bureaucrats and politicians will stab them to death.
Their defeat will not be made any easier to watch by the sight of Phil Goff (and possibly David Shearer) striding across the parliamentary aisle to join National, Act and United Future in voting for the TPPA.
With the legislation giving effect to the content of the TPPA enacted in New Zealand, the hopes of its opponents will shift to the United States Congress. If President Trump, or  President Sanders, takes office on 20 January 2017, then the agreement will be a dead duck. Why, then, would President Obama not put the deal in front of his lame duck Congress for ratification? And why would those congressmen and women not, for once, oblige him?
Fighting Rome was easy. Beating Rome was not – as Boudicca discovered. Victory came only to those who fought Rome on their terms – not hers. If the anti-TPPA struggle is waged in Parliament, it will lose.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 26 February 2016.

Thursday 25 February 2016

Kissing The Whip: Electoral Politics And The Authoritarian Personality.

Sure To Rise? The rather alarming conclusion of a recent Politico article by Matthew MacWilliams is that Trump’s support among American voters has yet to peak, and may be much larger than the political pundits have so far been willing to admit. His research indicated that “a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump—and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism.”
JUST OVER A MONTH AGO, the American website, Politico, ran a fascinating article about the supporters of Donald Trump. Matthew MacWilliams, a political communications specialist working his way toward a PhD in Political Science, noted a curious fact about Trump supporters. His research indicated that “a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump—and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism.”
The “Authoritarian Personality” has been the subject of scholarly interest since the 1930s. The German sociologist, Wilhelm Reich, led the way with his ground-breaking book The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). Reich’s study examined the role of sexual repression in the development of authoritarianism – linking the rigid moral system of the German family with the German people’s dangerous affinity for the Nazi Party worldview.
In the United States, academic refugees from Nazi Germany contributed to a highly influential book, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). At the heart of the book was a psychological profiling tool which its creator, Theodore Adorno, called the “F-Scale” (the “F” stood for “Fascist”).
The F-Scale reflected the experiences that contributed most to the development of an authoritarian personality. The authors took a Freudian view of character formation, arguing that:  “Excessively harsh and punitive parenting was posited to cause children to feel immense anger towards their parents; yet fear of parental disapproval or punishment caused people to not directly confront their parents, but rather to identify with and idolize authority figures” (Source: Wikipedia entry on The Authoritarian Personality)
MacWilliams’ article reveals that the voters most likely to support Donald Trump for President  are the people who pick the first option in the following four propositions pertaining to child-rearing: “whether it is more important for the voter to have a child who is respectful or independent; obedient or self-reliant; well-behaved or considerate; and well-mannered or curious. Respondents who pick the first option in each of these questions are strongly authoritarian.”
The rather alarming conclusion of MacWilliam’s article is that Trump’s support among American voters has yet to peak, and may be much larger than the political pundits have so far been willing to admit:
“So, those who say a Trump presidency ‘can’t happen here’ should check their conventional wisdom at the door. The candidate has confounded conventional expectations this primary season because those expectations are based on an oversimplified caricature of the electorate in general and his supporters in particular. Conditions are ripe for an authoritarian leader to emerge. Trump is seizing the opportunity. And the institutions – from the Republican Party to the press – that are supposed to guard against what James Madison called “the infection of violent passions” among the people have either been cowed by Trump’s bluster or are asleep on the job.”
The Politico article raises some interesting questions about the psychological drivers of voter behaviour in New Zealand. How pervasive is the authoritarian personality in New Zealand society? Might its prevalence in any way be inferred from the extraordinary reaction of so many New Zealanders to the so-called “anti-smacking” legislation? Was the extent and vehemence of that reaction an indication – both of the incidence of authoritarian attitudes within the New Zealand population, and their ultimate cause? Are parental violence and repression the defining characteristics of a majority of Kiwi childhoods? And, if they are, does that suggest that a worryingly large number of New Zealanders are likely to score highly on the F-Scale?
We might also ask ourselves whether the following three “attitudinal and behavioural clusters” are readily recognisable in right-wing New Zealand voters?
Authoritarian submission – a high degree of submissiveness to the authorities who are perceived to be established and legitimate in the society in which one lives.
Authoritarian aggression – a general aggressiveness directed against deviants, outgroups, and other people that are perceived to be targets according to established authorities.
Conventionalism – a high degree of adherence to the traditions and social norms that are perceived to be endorsed by society and its established authorities, and a belief that others in one’s society should also be required to adhere to these norms.
The important point to note about authoritarian character traits is that they occur on both sides of the traditional political divide. American sociologists found that, in the United States, authoritarians were among the most vociferous supporters of the prevailing capitalist system. In the Soviet Union, by way of contrast, the authoritarian personality manifested itself in unwavering support for the communist regime. For authoritarians, what the people in charge believe matters much less than the enduring reality of their control.
Donald Trump’s (or, for that matter, John Key’s) bluster and bullying is thus a critical factor in his political success. By signalling that he is in control: that he is bigger and stronger and smarter and more powerful than his political rivals; he convinces his authoritarian followers that he is the only legitimate leader on offer. He will never compromise with, or apologise to, his opponents; nor will be kowtow to the news media; because he knows that the slightest sign of equivocation will immediately call into question his claim to the allegiance of his authoritarian followers.
And if the trajectory of the Trump campaign (and the enduring popularity of John Key’s National-led Government) is anything to go by – it’s those authoritarian followers who win elections.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 24 February 2016.

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Green Vote Down! Is History Repeating Itself?

Red Pressure: Is it possible that the same reckoning that caused Values supporters to return to the Labour fold in 1978 is at work again? Even in the era of Mixed Member Proportional Representation, have the supposedly redundant arguments of FPP reasserted themselves? Have centre-left voters come to the realisation that, if they want to get rid of John Key’s National-led Government, then they are going to have to push Andrew Little’s Labour into a credible second place?
THE GREENS’ DRAMATIC FALL in the latest Colmar-Brunton should be a matter of considerable concern to the whole party. If it continues, then we may see the Greens fall victim to the same political phenomenon that led to the demise of the Values Party.
Voting for Values peaked at the General Election of 1975 when it attracted 5.19 percent support. Not surprisingly, its members were ecstatic. Anticipating an even bigger surge of support in 1978, they began the process of firming-up and paring-down the policies contained in their extremely popular 1975 Manifesto, Beyond Tomorrow.
This turned out to be an unexpectedly fraught process. A large and well-organised fraction of the Values Party argued strongly that the system-changing objectives set forth in Beyond Tomorrow would never be acceptable to New Zealand’s ruling-class, whose power would have to be substantially diminished if the party’s core environmental policies were ever to be implemented.
This eco-socialist position did not sit altogether comfortably with the party’s pure ecologists, who believed that once people understood the scientific rationale for radically reorienting Western values, then radical change would follow naturally – and without the class conflict predicted by Values’ eco-socialist wing.
Better organised and superior in debate, the eco-socialists gained the upper hand, leading Values into the 1978 General Election with one of the most radical manifestos ever presented to the New Zealand electorate. The votes they hoped to plunder with this document were those of Labour’s more left-wing supporters. On paper, it seemed like a winning strategy.
What the eco-socialists hadn’t counted on, however, was just how fed-up the non-National-Party-voting half of the New Zealand electorate had become with Prime Minister Rob Muldoon. Under the First-Past-The-Post electoral system, the sort of oppositional vote-splitting which Values was advocating almost always ended up advantaging the incumbent government.
Recognising this, the left-wing idealists who had flocked to Values banner in 1975 underwent a decisive change of heart. In the name of getting rid of “Piggy” Muldoon, they were willing to abandon the idealistic dreams of Beyond Tomorrow. Accordingly, in 1978, the Values Vote almost exactly halved: falling from 83,241 to 41,220 – just 2.41 percent of the votes cast.
The eco-socialists’ strategy of taking on Labour had failed dismally. The pure ecologists rallied their supporters and drove the eco-socialists out of the party. But, if they were hoping that a Red purge would recover their fortunes, they were wrong. In the General Election of 1981, Values was more-or-less wiped out. From 41,220 their vote fell to a risible 3,460. In 1984, the party attracted just 0.20 percent of the popular vote. Game Over.
Values’ rebirth, as the Green Party, in 1990, saw it win an impressive 6.85 percent of the popular vote. The old FPP realities remained, however, and they were forced to join forces with the left-wing NewLabour Party in 1991 under the rubric of Jim Anderton’s “Alliance”. With the introduction of proportional representation in 1996, however, all the old FPP rationales against vote-splitting became redundant. In 1999, the Greens stood under their own banner and received 5.16 percent of the Party Vote – just enough to secure them 7 seats in Parliament.
Between 1999 and 2008 the Greens’ Party Vote fluctuated between 5.16 percent and 7.0 percent. With the defeat of Helen Clark’s Labour-led centre-left government, however, and the onset of what would be six years of internal conflict and lacklustre politics from Labour, the Green vote soared: from 157,613 Party Votes (6.72 percent) in 2008 to 257,356 Party Votes (10.70 percent) in 2014. It looked as though the old eco-socialist strategy of luring away Labour’s left-wing voters was on the point of being vindicated.
And then, in February 2016, Colmar Brunton’s pollsters registered a drop of 4 percentage points in the Greens’ numbers. The party had shed one third of its support: falling from 12 to 8 percent.
Is it possible that the same reckoning that caused Values supporters to return to the Labour fold in 1978 is at work again? Even in the era of Mixed Member Proportional Representation, have the supposedly redundant arguments of FPP reasserted themselves? Have centre-left voters come to the realisation that, if they want to get rid of John Key’s National-led Government, then they are going to have to push Andrew Little’s Labour into a credible second place – i.e. somewhere closer to 40 percent of the Party Vote than 30 percent?
If the answer to all these questions is “Yes”, then the Greens had better brace themselves. They have a lot further to fall.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog on Monday, 22 February 2016.

Sops To Cerberus *

Red Meat: Judith Collins' return to Cabinet as Police and Corrections Minister is intended to appease National's rural and provincial base. Her hard-line approach plays well with those National voters who feel that the Prime Minister, John Key, has pandered too much to the sentiments of metropolitan voters.
WAS JOHN KEY’S DECISION to stand down his Justice Minister, Judith Collins, critical to his 2014 election victory? The National Party was haemorrhaging votes as a result of the extraordinary revelations contained in Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics. Collins featured prominently in the book, making her, in the eyes of many, a symbol of all that was wrong with the National-led Government.
The bleeding ended abruptly when, pending the outcome of an investigation into yet another spate of allegations, the Prime Minister decided to stand Collins down. (The investigation subsequently cleared Collins of any wrongdoing.) Had she remained in Key’s ministry, National’s numbers may well have fallen to the point where voters began writing the Government off. If Key’s plurality on election night been 43 percent rather than 48 percent, then his ability to continue as prime minister would have been seriously – perhaps fatally – compromised.
But, if the standing down of Judith Collins played an important part in securing Key his third term – why bring her back into his Cabinet? In her new role as Minister of Police and Minister of Corrections, Collins is once again displaying all the headstrong and abrasive qualities that made her so unpopular during her first, controversial, stint in Key’s cabinet.
Many political scientists would dismiss this question as naïve. They would argue that Key brought Collins in from the cold in order to appease National’s “base”. Collins has become the poster girl for a great many of the deeply conservative National Party voters living in rural and provincial New Zealand. Many of them also belong to the Sensible Sentencing Trust, a powerful lobby group committed to securing harsher penalties for criminal offending and a more Spartan regime for prison inmates.
Presumably, National’s conservative base are as much in awe of their leader’s ability to win elections as the rest of the country, but they are less enthused about the price he has to pay for that success. By their reckoning, Key has flung much too sweet a sop to the socially liberal Cerberus who guards the gateway to the crucial metropolitan vote.
The persistence of Working For Families (which Key memorably described as “communism by stealth”) and interest-free student loan, rankles with these voters. Similarly, they cannot understand why their government hasn’t “dealt to the unions” after the fashion of Bill Birch in 1991. Nor can they comprehend why the Resource Management Act hasn’t been erased from the statute books. The accusation that Key has adopted a “Labour Lite” strategy for remaining in power strikes a very resonant chord with the party’s conservative base.
They are also aware that had it not been for the intervention of Collins and her fellow backbench exile, Maurice Williamson, there is every chance that farmers would have found themselves taking health and safety orders from their own employees, or, even worse, from their unions.
Indeed, it was almost certainly that back-bench intervention which persuaded Key to bring Collins back under the protective umbrella of collective cabinet responsibility. As President Lyndon Baines Johnson crudely explained his decision to keep the intimidating FBI Chief, J Edgar Hoover, in his job: “Better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”
Of course, the unfortunate corollary of LBJ’s metaphor is that, in the situation described, it’s always the long-suffering public who get wet!
But what kind of politics are we encouraging when policies unsupported by evidence, and rejected by the wider public, are accepted by the conventionally wise as the price governments must pay to keep their party’s base onside?
To hear the Minister for Corrections blithely bat away concerns about overcrowding in our prisons, with glib references to “double bunking”, is chilling. Are there really people out there so bereft of empathy and compassion that they cannot imagine the acute psychological stress (and physical danger) of confining two human-beings in a tiny cell for hours on end? Even in the best relationships there are times when people must have time and space to themselves. Denying individual prisoners all hope of coping privately with the many besetting stresses of incarceration is not only cruel and inhuman, it also reduces significantly the odds of the prisoner’s rehabilitation.
National’s base doesn’t care. For rural and provincial conservatives, the tougher the prison regime, and the longer the prison sentence, the better they like it. There is deeply punitive streak running through these voters that is apparent not only in relation to crime and punishment, but also in their expectations of welfare and housing policy.
John Key, raised by a cosmopolitan Jewish mother in New Zealand’s second-largest city, and with years of residence in Singapore, London and New York, has little genuine affinity with National’s traditionalist base. Judith Collins is his sour sop to the snarling Cerberus of social conservatism.
* sop to Cerberus, give a - an allusion to the story in the Aeneid of the descent of Aeneas into the underworld; he was able to pass safely by the monstrous watchdog Cerberus by drugging him with a specially prepared cake.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 February 2016.

Saturday 20 February 2016

Black Brothers And Good Ole Boys: Bernie Sanders' Winning Margin?

Rooting For The Wrong Team: Dumb, racist, Bible-thumping, gun-loving, working-class white males living in the American South began voting for the Republican Party when the Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson, signed the Civil Rights Bill into law in 1965. The Republican Right has been playing them like a fiddle ever since. If he's to become President, Bernie Sanders is going to have to persuade these good ole boys to vote the same way as their black brothers.
IF BERNIE SANDERS is to win the US Presidential Election he’ll have to win the support of two crucial demographics. The first group to win over are working-class blacks. The second, and arguably the more important, are working-class whites. Because, right now, the Sanders campaign is a paradox: it offers America a left-wing programme, but the voters who have , so far, responded most enthusiastically are not the black, white and Latino working-class Americans who would benefit most from its content, but the young, well-educated children of America’s white professional middle-class – and some of their parents.
As the primaries head South and South-West into South Carolina and Nevada the Sanders campaign must find a way to counter Hillary Clinton’s popularity among African-American voters and Latinos. If he does not find some way of detaching a significant number of black support from the Clinton juggernaut in South Carolina, he risks getting what Barack Obama calls a “shellacking”. Being beaten by 40-50 percentage points in the Palmetto State would damage the Sander’s campaign very seriously. A narrow loss (10-15 points) on the other hand, would indicate that he just might come out the other side of “Super Tuesday” with enough delegates to keep on fighting.
[The phrase “Super Tuesday” refers to the Tuesday in February or March of a presidential election year when the greatest number of states hold primary elections to select delegates to national conventions at which each party’s presidential candidates are officially nominated. More delegates can be won on Super Tuesday than on any other single day of the primary calendar; accordingly, candidates seeking the presidency traditionally must do well on this day to secure their party’s nomination. States participating in this year’s “Super Tuesday” (1 March 2016) are: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming. – Wikipedia]
Sander’s position in Nevada is of less concern than his situation in South Carolina. The Nevada polls put him within striking distance of Clinton, which suggests that, whoever wins there, the margin will be relatively narrow. If it’s not, and Clinton racks up a big Nevada win, then the Sanders campaign will find itself holed below the waterline.
In Sander’s favour, however, is the endorsement he has received from the “Black Lives Matter” movement. This mostly young activist group has broken ranks with the ageing veterans of the 1950s and 60s civil rights leadership – nearly all of whom have come out strongly for Clinton. Black youth, who have grown up in the post-civil rights activism era, are drawn to Sander’s unequivocal condemnation of Police racism, and are as enthusiastic as white youth about his promises of free tertiary education and universal, publicly funded and provided health care.  If Sanders attracts the support of young black working-class voters across the South (where most of the Super Tuesday primaries will be taking place) then Clinton campaign’s progress will be severely impeded.
But, even if he heads off Hillary to claim the Democratic Party’s nomination, Sanders cannot become President of the United States without re-claiming for the Democratic Party a significant chunk of the white working-class’s current support for the Republicans.
In the states of the old Confederacy, and especially among voters with only a high-school education, the formerly rock-solid grip of the Democratic Party was broken as long ago as the late 1960s. The poor, ill-educated, deeply religious working-class white males of the Old South never forgave President Johnson (a Texan goddammit!) for passing the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It made them easy meat for the Alabama Governor, George Wallace, in 1968; Richard Nixon, in 1972; and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
By skilfully practising the dark art of “wedge politics” the Republicans have by-and-large held on to these angry and alienated “good ole boys”. Culturally impoverished, Fox News watching, minimum wage workers comprise the core of evangelical Christianity in America; hold deeply conservative views on most social issues; love their guns, their families and their flag; and have precious little that’s good to say about Blacks (welfare scroungers!) Latinos (illegal immigrants!) Muslims (terrorists!) or “Big Government”.
Can Sanders – a socialist Jewish-American – win back these good ole boys? That depends upon how forthright and uncompromising he is willing to be in sheeting home the blame for working-class America’s woes to where it properly belongs. Deep down these voters know that they’ve been suckered by the country-club set, and that, as Sanders declares over and over again, the game in America is rigged against the ordinary working stiff – no matter what colour or creed he may be.
Only if he is able to convince both the black and the white working-class that a vote for the Democratic candidate is a vote to break through to the surface and once again breathe free American air, can Bernie Sanders hope to become the 45th President of the United States.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road  of Saturday, 20 February 2016.

Friday 19 February 2016

Flagging Our Opposition.

Sending The Prime Minister A Message: UMR Research asked people to respond to the following question: “The flag referendum has been a distraction and a waste of money. New Zealanders should send John Key a message by voting for the current flag.” Two-thirds of UMR’s respondents agreed with that statement.
STRANGE DAYS we’re living in, when New Zealand’s youngest voters are the most vociferous defenders of their county’s flag. It has become a commonplace of post-war political sociology that youth and radicalism go together like Ché Guevara’s image and T-Shirts.
Even before the youth rebellions of the 1950s and 60s, the close correlation between tender years and tender ideals had been apparent to no less a figure than Winston Churchill. “He who is not a socialist at twenty, hasn’t a heart”, the great man observed, before immediately alienating every twenty-year-old (and socialist!) by adding: “He who is still a socialist at forty, hasn’t a head.”
When it comes to the Flag Referendum, however, Churchill’s formula fails spectacularly. Instead of 18-29 year-olds favouring Kyle Lockwood’s Union Jack-less fern and stars design by an overwhelming margin, UMR Research reveals that nearly three-quarters of them (72 percent!) will be voting to keep the New Zealand flag exactly as it is.
Only the followers of another Winston are more determined to keep the Union Jack in its proper place. NZ First voters prefer the New Zealand Ensign to Kyle Lockwood’s silver fern by a whopping margin of 66 percentage points (83-17 percent). Are we to take from this that only about a fifth of Winston Peters’ supporters are serious about putting their country’s independent future ahead of its colonial past?
Or, is something else at work?
UMR Research clearly thinks so. Why else would they have asked people to respond to the following question: “The flag referendum has been a distraction and a waste of money. New Zealanders should send John Key a message by voting for the current flag.” Two-thirds of UMR’s respondents agreed with that statement. But, once again, it was the 18-29 year-olds who did so most vociferously. Fully 71 percent of them agreed that Mr Key should be sent a message.
Is this what the Flag Referendum has turned into? A referendum on John Key? People voting to humiliate the Prime Minister because they know they can do so without upsetting the entire political apple-cart? If so, then politics in New Zealand has reached a very interesting point. The electorate may be rapidly tiring of the National Party’s leader, but it has not yet grown weary of the National Party Government.
In other words, Mr Key may have got on a great many of the public’s nerves, but on its all-important hip-pocket nerve he has not got. The economy is still growing (albeit slowly) unemployment is falling, and inflation is as low as most people can remember. Wage rises may be low and infrequent – but, when they are given, they are real. And if you’re one of those voters lucky enough to have both feet on the property ladder, then the “wealth effect” of constantly rising house prices is unlikely to recommend any other party (except Act) for your serious electoral consideration.
The Flag Referendum thus permits people to lance the boil of their accumulated frustrations with the Prime Minister easily and inconsequentially. It’s a political diversion so very clever that one is sorely tempted to speculate that it’s exactly what Mr Key had planned all along.
And all those angry 18-29 year-olds? Are they going to be content with simply voting to retain the present flag? Will that really be sufficient to purge their twenty-something socialist hearts of resentful millennial rage? One suspects not.
And it is here that the political story takes a rather sad turning. Were our young voters living in the United States their hearts would be responding to the uncompromising summons of Senator Bernie Sanders: who, by remaining a socialist into his mid-seventies, has well-and-truly given the lie to Winston Churchill! Living in Britain, they would have Jeremy Corbyn (another superannuated socialist!) to whom they could give their hearts. But here, in New Zealand, there is a dearth of charismatic socialists on whose electoral altar they can lay down their youth and enthusiasm.
Guyon Espiner, writing in The Listener, likened Andrew Little to a rather dour Police inspector. Pitted against the grasshopper carelessness of John Key, Espiner argued, DCI Little might be just what the electorate is looking for. Or, at least, what forty year-old voters with a head might be looking for.
Those flagging a heart-felt vote, will just have to keep on looking.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 February 2016.

Thursday 18 February 2016

Dancing With The Devil: How China And India Made Their Elites Richer By Impoverishing Their People.

Diabolical Dealing: At its base, India remains the numberless mass of deeply impoverished and politically marginalised people it has always been. Like their Chinese brothers and sisters, the vast majority of Indians have little reason to thank their neoliberal “liberators”. Their masters – white, yellow or brown – have always danced with the Devil. It’s an entirely inadequate consolation for neoliberalism’s victims that their souls, if nothing else, remain their own.
ANYONE WHO HAS SEEN the wonders of modern Chinese architecture might easily be persuaded that “neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics” is a spectacular success. But the skylines of Shanghai and Beijing testify not to the emancipation of the Chinese masses, but to the burgeoning power of the Chinese elites. Like the futuristic skyline of Los Angeles in the sci-fi movie Bladerunner, they are symbols of a deeply dystopic state.
For close to forty years the Chinese Communist Party has presided over the economic modernisation of China. From its state of near collapse following the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the “capitalist roaders” so despised by Chairman Mao have steered their country to its present position as the world’s industrial powerhouse. Step-by-step they have mounted the staircase of economic growth and sophistication, freely borrowing techniques and ideas from the capitalist West, but never permitting modernisation to cross over into the development of a recognizably capitalist class. They called it “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and its extraordinary achievements are the reason why the Communist Party still rules China.
It could not have happened had China followed the example of Russia and instituted democratic reforms. The modernisation of China was a strictly top-down affair – albeit one in which the top takes action to head-off the threat of changes driven from below. The Party leaders did this by empowering their counterparts in the regions and municipalities: giving them just enough latitude to enrich themselves, but not enough to threaten the system as a whole.
Thus was established the unholy alliance between party apparatchiks, state owned enterprise bosses, free-wheeling entrepreneurs and organised criminal gangs that made the Chinese “miracle” possible. Driven by a combination of political ambition, personal greed, rampant corruption, extra-legal force and Chinese commercial acumen, the transformation of the Chinese economy and Chinese society proceeded at breakneck speed.
But the raw material for all this “progress” was – as it has ever been in human history – the bodies and brains of the great mass of the people. Those who found themselves excluded from the magic circles of power and personal enrichment.
Deng Xiaoping began the process by engineering the break-up of the agricultural communes and their associated systems of health, education and welfare. The millions of peasants displaced by these land and economic reforms were to become part of the greatest migration in human history. From China’s vast interior they made their way to the huge new joint-enterprise factories that were opening up along the Chinese coast. Many came with official permits, but many more came without. Living in a state of legal limbo, these “unofficial” migrants took what work they were offered and did as they were told. Like their Nineteenth Century counterparts, the millions of East-European immigrants who poured into the rapidly industrialising United States, they are essential to maintaining the low-cost labour upon which China’s Faustian economic bargain with the West is based.
You will not find these sons and daughters of modern China in the new air-conditioned office towers of Shanghai and Beijing. They live where the housing is cheapest, the pollution thickest, and health, education and welfare services non-existent. They are not dressed by Armani or Dior, and they do not holiday in Queenstown. Their workplaces do not put health and safety first, nor are they represented by unions. Attempts to better their conditions are more often than not ended by the bosses’ hired thugs. Complaining to the authorities only earns them a visit from the Police. (“Re-education Through Labour” camps are one of the few Maoist-era institutions that survived Deng’s reforms.) Few now remember, and none dare recall, the bright vision of Tiananmen Square. For them, the distinction between “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics” is difficult to discern.
INDIA RESEMBLES CHINA only inasmuch as neoliberals like to claim it as proof of their ideology’s benevolent impact on the peoples of the world. This is entirely delusional. All that India offers us is the same grim evidence of dystopian excess as the grossly unfree and unequal Peoples Republic. The investigative journalist, John Pilger, calls contemporary India: “extreme capitalism’s pact with feudalism”.
Mahatma Ghandi’s heroic attempt to construct a new India out of the British Raj: an India without castes and classes, in which all religions and all ideologies would be tolerated and enjoy equal rights; was foundering even before a member of a right-wing Hindu political movement shot him to death in January 1948. Jawaharlal Nehru’s attempt to make India a secular socialist republic fared no better. In the end, India’s ancient caste system outlived them all.
It is difficult to imagine a cultural template more suited to the imposition of neoliberalism that India’s rigid caste system. The latter has its origins in the political and economic needs of a society characterised by a grossly unequal distribution of wealth and power. As gross inequality backed by state power is a reasonably good description of the sort of world neoliberals are trying to create, it’s not hard to explain why India struck them as a nation it could do business with.
India’s “New Economic Policy” of 1991, like New Zealand’s Rogernomics “reforms” of 1984, was imposed on a nation in the midst of an economic crisis. That the crisis coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union (one of India’s strongest diplomatic, and economic, partners) only reinforced the message from the IMF that, in order to be bailed out of its difficulties, the country would have to embrace the new orthodoxy of open borders and open markets. India also followed the New Zealand model inasmuch as the Prime Minister who rammed through these changes, P V Narasimha Rao, was a member of the Indian National Congress – India’s democratic socialist party.
In the years since, India has become the destination for massive amounts of foreign investment, and its elites have taken advantage of their new open economy to enrich themselves beyond the dreams of even the wealthiest of feudal maharajahs.  High tech hubs, like the city of Mumbai, give the impression of a nation rapidly catching up with its Western competitors. But if the inequitably distributed wealth and high-tech industrial development is real, the notion that the Indian masses are being similarly enriched is illusory.
Since 1992, inequality in India has increased. With the removal of the protective barriers erected by the Congress Party in the 1950s and 60s, ordinary Indians have seen their economy taken over by all the usual transnational suspects. Coca-Cola, Pizza Hut, Microsoft, Monsanto and many, many more have brought with them the same sense of diminished influence and control that all the re-colonised peoples of the world have experienced.
At its base, India remains the numberless mass of deeply impoverished and politically marginalised people it has always been. Like their Chinese brothers and sisters, the vast majority of Indians have little reason to thank their neoliberal “liberators”. Their masters – white, yellow or brown – have always danced with the Devil. It’s an entirely inadequate consolation for neoliberalism’s victims that their souls, if nothing else, remain their own.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 17 February 2016.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

Serbia/Syria - The Parallels Are Frightening.

Two Shots Heard Round The World: Gavrilo Princip's assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, was the necessary provocation that allowed the Entente powers to set in motion the General European War that they - and Serbia - had been planning for more than a decade. In Syria, today, there are frighteningly strong parallels with the Great Power intrigues and transformative territorial ambitions that led to the outbreak of war in 1914.
SYRIA HAS BECOME the Serbia of the early Twenty-First Century. In the early years of the Twentieth Century, Serbia was Europe’s tinder-box. All the major powers understood the risk Serbia posed, but each of them had too much at stake in the Balkans to hazard bringing the criminal Belgrade regime to heel. The same can be said of Syria. The major powers all have a great deal to lose by ending the Syrian civil war and restoring peace to the Middle East.
What this means, however, is that the seething rivalries fuelling the Syrian civil war could, at any moment, draw the major powers into a military confrontation – with profound consequences for the whole world. Just as Britain, France and Russia knew that Serbia could very easily be made the pretext for a war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, the United States and its key Middle Eastern allies know that Syria could very easily be turned into a shooting war against the Russian Federation and Iran.
The fatal flaw in the great powers’ relationship with Serbia in the early Twentieth Century was that Serbia had geopolitical aspirations that could only be satisfied by a general European War. The Serbian dream was to become the leader of a new South Slav (Yugoslav) kingdom carved out of the Balkan provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That was never going to happen while Austria-Hungary endured. Serbia wanted – Serbia needed – a general European war.
In Syria, the raging fratricidal battles are being driven by two, mutually exclusive, geopolitical and religious visions of the region’s future.
For Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s beleaguered President, the best outcome of the civil war would be the creation of a Shia Islam alliance extending all the way from Syria’s Mediterranean coast, through Iraq, to Iran’s borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
For Syria’s Sunni majority, the ultimate goal is the creation of a Sunni Islam alliance embracing Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
The success of either of these arrangements would fundamentally derange the geopolitics of the Middle East. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the two leading nuclear powers, the USA and the Russian Federation, both have planes in the air and (some) boots on the ground in Syria.
Tipping The Scales: The intrusion of Russian air power in support of President Bashar al-Assad's government has dramatically upset military calculations across the Middle East.
President Vladimir Putin would dearly love to have a friendly Shia confederation stretching protectively along the Russian Federation’s southern flank. That the increasingly erratic regime of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would find itself squeezed between the two (and, quite possibly, a newly created independent Kurdish state) only adds to the attractiveness of this outcome.
For President Barack Obama, the situation is a great deal murkier. Washington’s unshakeable alliance with the State of Israel leaves it in something of a quandary. Jerusalem already lives in existential fear of an assertive (i.e. nuclear-capable) Iran. It’s reaction to an Iran-dominated Shia confederation stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean can only be imagined! But a vertical alliance of Takfiri-driven Sunni states, stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea, would, if anything, be worse! How long could it be before nuclear-armed Pakistan applied to join this incipient Caliphate?
Russia’s much clearer set of objectives is reflected in its much clearer foreign and military policies in the Middle East. It’s straightforward goal is to keep Bashar al-Assad in power and destroy the Turks’ and the Saudis’ Takfiri proxies – which include the Al Qaeda aligned al-Nusra Front as well as the murderous Islamic State. [The Takfiris are Muslims who claim the right to brand as apostate, and make war upon, every Muslim who, according to the Takfiris’ radically literal interpretation of the Quran, is guilty of deviating from the “true” path of the Prophet.]
So far, the Russians and their Syrian Government allies are doing pretty well. Thanks largely to Russia’s fighter-bombers, the strategic rebel stronghold of Aleppo is on the point of falling to Assad’s army.
To the Turks and the Saudis, the fall of Aleppo would be a disaster. Not only would the rebels’ crucial supply lines to Turkey be severed, but the road to the Islamic State’s Syrian “capital”, Raqqa, would lie open. But, as Ankara and Riyadh both know, the moment the “moderate” rebels and the Islamic State are defeated, the Syrian civil war is over. And if that happens, there will be nothing to prevent the extension of Iranian power all the way to the Syrian coast.
Hence the Saudi-Arabian Crown Prince’s excited talk about sending tens-of-thousands of ground troops to Syria via Turkey, ostensibly to destroy Islamic State, but actually to establish a “buffer zone” along Turkey’s southern border with Syria. Russia has warned that any such breach of international law will be answered with military force.
On Sunday, Turkish artillery began shelling Kurdish positions across the Syrian border.
The parallels with Serbia in 1914 are frightening.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 February 2016.

Capitalism’s Comforter: The Myth That The Free-Market Has Liberated Humanity.

The Choice Fruits Of Capitalism: The Right delights in claiming that the dramatic improvements in the lot of ordinary people in the quarter-century since the fall of the Soviet Union, far from being the result of clean water, mass education and mounting political pressures from below, are to be attributed to the beneficence of free-market capitalism. And yet, wherever untrammelled FMC has been installed - as in the Russian Federation under Yeltsin, or in US-occupied Iraq - the results have been catastrophic.
IT’S THE RIGHT’S COMFORT BLANKET. Pressed to present a moral justification for their politics, it’s what they reach for. The unquestionable progress of humanity: out of poverty, ignorance and injustice, and towards prosperity, education and more equitable social arrangements; is held up as proof that their ideology works. They are particularly struck by the global improvements that have taken place in the quarter-century since the collapse of “actually existing socialism” in Russia and Eastern Europe. Capitalism, they insist, is not just good for capitalists – it’s good for everyone.
It’s nonsense, of course, but the weakness of the argument is not always apparent to those lacking a strong grasp of modern history. The Right’s trick is to conflate the dramatic expansion in human knowledge and technological prowess with the rise of the capitalist economic system. Only a fool would argue that the two occurrences were not closely related, but it would be much more foolish to claim that the latter caused the former.
Advances in agriculture, engineering and medicine have indisputably contributed the most to human welfare. The average human-being lives longer and in much greater health than his or her ancestors, not because they had capitalism imposed upon them, but because civil engineers made possible the supply of pure drinking water, and the safe disposal of dangerous waste. The discoveries of scientists and physicians similarly extended human life-expectancy and vastly increased the productivity of just about every aspect of agricultural activity.
The history of capitalism is by no means the story of how these scientific and technological advances were harmoniously integrated into its constant quest for increased profits. Improvements in the quality of life of ordinary people were often made in the teeth of fierce capitalist opposition. Even today, attempts by governments around the world to regulate the worst aspects of capitalist profit-seeking are resisted at every turn.
Nevertheless, the steady advancement of humanity has proceeded apace. Not because the big-hearted capitalists have been demanding that their workers be given the best of everything, but because workers and peasants around the world have insisted on translating advances in science and technology into measurable social progress for themselves and their children.
Almost always this has been achieved by mass political movements harnessing the power of the state to institute mass public education, health and welfare programmes. If the big capitalist corporations sometimes deigned to get out of their way it was only because they realised that the processes of globalisation proceeded more smoothly (and profitably) if the peasants they were enrolling in their vast new sweatshops knew how to read and write, and if the inevitable injuries they suffered could be patched-up at the host nation’s expense.
Nor should the impact of international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agricultural Organisation, the Save the Children Fund, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and the International Labour Organisation be underestimated. The humanitarian and social-democratic impulses which gave these global agencies of human progress birth, and which for more than 70 years have kept the flag of true internationalism flying, have been the targets of unrelenting right-wing hostility.
It was the capitalist triumphalism inspired by the fall of the Soviet Union, however, that stuck (and still sticks) in the throat of left-wingers the world around. To hear them talk, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had succumbed to a vast horde of right-wing ideologues brandishing copies of The Economist and The National Review. That the Berlin Wall was toppled by Baroness Thatcher – rather than a border guard who refused to open fire on his fellow citizens. Strange, too, how the Right has forgotten that it was Mikhail Gorbachev, not Ronald Reagan, who set the wheels of political and economic reform in motion, and Boris Yeltsin who turned back the coup-plotters’ tanks without a shot being fired.
What they have also forgotten, and what fundamentally undercuts all their boasts about the advances of the last quarter-century being driven by the forces of benevolent capitalist internationalism, is the fate of the Russian people after the fall of the Soviet Union. The United States was quick to offer the new Russian Federation all the advice it needed to apply what Washington insisted was absolutely necessary “shock therapy” to the moribund Russian economy. This was capitalism in its purest form: unpolluted by the slightest taint of socialism, or even social-democracy! And what was the result? What sort of society emerged from this capitalistic “Year Zero”?
The answer is that Russia was transformed into a vicious kleptocracy in which bribery, corruption and outright gangsterism rode roughshod over every economic principle Adam Smith ever enunciated. A system which had only just managed to work under the Communists, very quickly ceased to work at all. Unemployment, homelessness and alcoholism soared and even those fortunate enough to keep their jobs and their apartments were lucky to get paid once a month or keep the power on. Most tellingly, human life expectancy – that great reflector of the advances of the modern era – began to fall.
This is what happens to a country to which the principles of pure free-market capitalism are applied.
So, the next time a right-winger reaches for this spurious comfort blanket, remind him that while Capitalism may be correlated with the economic, social and political progress of humankind, any and all claims that it is the cause of our species’ advancement must be rejected as historically and morally unsustainable.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 15 February 2016.

Saturday 13 February 2016

Defending Free Tertiary Education: Chris Trotter Responds To Dr Oliver Hartwich’s Praise For The User-Pays University.

Ungrateful Son: In spite of the German taxpayers funding his entire education - from primary school to university - Dr Oliver Hartwich chose to devote his life to fighting against the principle of universal social entitlement. Labour's re-commitment to that principle prompted an immediate response from the Chief Executive of the New Zealand Initiative - successor to the Business Roundtable.
WHEN DR OLIVER HARTWICH departed his native Germany for the Anglo-Saxon lands it was in high dudgeon. In spite of the fact that German taxpayers had paid for his entire education – from primary school to university – there wasn’t much evidence of gratitude. Meeting the cost of young Germans’ education out of the public purse was, in the newly-minted economist’s opinion, a dangerous policy relic of Germany’s social-democratic past. The British and the Americans had long since dispensed with the notion of  publicly-provided tertiary education. It was, therefore, to the English-speaking world that this eager young neoliberal foot-soldier took his publicly-funded doctorate.
New Zealand is, of course, very much a part of that world. Hartwich arrived here via England and Australia, where he was a major force at the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies (an extreme right-wing think tank). When the notorious Business Roundtable joined forces with the NZ Institute in 2012, Hartwich was the corporate bosses’ pick for Executive Director.
Moved to contribute an opinion piece to on Labour’s re-commitment to the principle of universal social entitlement in tertiary education, Hartwich has usefully rehearsed all the familiar neoliberal excuses for making young people pay for their education.
“The first thing I would say about free education is that it suffers from a basic flaw:” writes Hartwich, “If something does not cost anything, it is not valued much either.”
This observation, Hartwich tells us, is born of his “personal reflections of free tertiary education”, and is not to be confused with rigorous policy analysis.
That being the case, let me respond in kind by declaring that my own experience of free tertiary education threw up not one case of a recipient who did not value their opportunity to explore the life of the mind in their late teens and early twenties. Quite the reverse, actually.
University was a magical place, insulated from the charges of the workaday world, and collectively dedicated to the expansion, communication and acquisition of knowledge. If a vocation was one’s sole purpose for attending, then those skills were available. But of infinitely greater value to students than a mere “meal ticket” was the access that university afforded to the signal achievements of their culture. Young people emerged from tertiary study as both engaged and enlarged human beings.
Hartwich deplores this aspect of tertiary life:
“What it means in practice is that when university courses are free, students will think about them differently. Some students may begin their studies without much commitment because, well, it does not cost anything. They might also then take a more relaxed approach to studying since, again, it does not cost them anything (other than opportunity costs which are harder to notice). With this attitude, these students may not even bring their studies to a conclusion.”
It is clearly Hartwich’s view that the pieces of paper doled out at the end of its courses are the be-all and end-all of university life. This instrumental view of tertiary education lends itself to the notion that: “as the recipient of something free, you are not in the best position to demand better service. As a paying customer, suppliers need to treat you better if they do not want to lose you. If customers are not paying, they may well be regarded as a nuisance.”
It gets worse. “For a university to be run like any good service provider,” says Hartwich, “it should think about its students as clients. And for students to take their studies seriously, they should be paying for them. Of course, for students who cannot afford to pay the fees, there need to be financing options. But university education as such should not be free.”
Nothing here about the pernicious consequences for both academic rigor and student achievement of turning tertiary education into a commodity. Fully enmeshed in the market economy, university “providers” cannot afford to risk alienating their fee-paying “clients” by holding them to the sort of rigorous academic standards that characterised my tertiary education. If it comes to a choice between jettisoning standards or jettisoning students, the commercially-driven university will sacrifice its standards every time.
Of course no neoliberal paean to user-pays tertiary education would be complete without the ritual condemnation of publicly-provided tertiary education’s allegedly socially regressive character.
“Finally, as someone who has successfully completed a master’s and a doctorate, of course I have a much greater ability to generate income than someone without such qualifications. So the question is, why would I expect that other person to subsidise me? What right do I have to demand people with poor skills in low-wage jobs to pay for my university education that would yield me a much higher income than they would ever have? Isn’t this grossly unfair for them?”
I am always astounded at the neoliberal’s confidence that the above argument should be regarded as the clincher – against which no rational or ethical response is possible. It is only possible to make this case, however, if the concepts of citizenship and social reciprocity are first eliminated from the equation.
Access to tertiary education is every citizen’s right, and so it is also every citizen’s responsibility. The low-wage worker contributes to the cost of a wealthy person’s children’s university degrees because the wealthy person contributes to the cost of the worker’s kids’ post-school education. For the low-wage worker, this is a huge step forward, comparable in its life-enhancing effects to the provision of universal health care.
But the very notion of “middle-class welfare”, or, as Hartwich puts it, “the reverse of income redistribution” only makes sense in a neoliberal society which no longer subjects its wealthier citizens to the rigors of progressive taxation.
Of course the graduates of Law and Medical School will earn more than workers “with poor skills in a low-wage job”, but in a decent, social-democratic society, the lawyer and the doctor will also pay much higher taxes. It’s all about your fellow citizens paying you forward, and you then paying them back.
This was the socio-political environment from which Dr Oliver Hartwich fled and is ideologically committed to destroying. It is also the socio-political environment in which I was raised, and which allowed me to attend university without incurring massive debt. That Labour is pledged to restoring this environment is extremely heartening. Not only because it will make this a more just and equal country to live in, but also because any such restoration of social-democratic values in New Zealand will, almost certainly, see Dr Hartwich high-tail it for more congenial jurisdictions.
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Saturday, 13 February 2016.

Friday 12 February 2016

Labour's Choice: Free Trade, Or Free Nation?

Historically Incorrect: Labour's claim that it has always supported Free Trade simply isn't true. For two-thirds of its history, Labour regarded trade simply as a means to its end of transitioning New Zealand from economic colony to free and independent nation. The party's embrace of Free Trade actually dates from 1983, when Labour threw its support behind the CER agreement. Thirty-three years later, independence is as far away as ever - and the TPPA will not bring it any closer.
“LABOUR HAS ALWAYS BEEN a Free Trade party.” This is the bald assertion from a chorus of past and present Labour leaders desperate to escape John Key’s “anti-Free Trade” label. There is, however, a very large problem with Labour’s claim. It simply isn’t true.
Prior to 1984, Labour is much more accurately described as a party committed to ending New Zealand’s status as a cultural and economic colony of the United Kingdom. This mission necessitated a radical expansion of the range and sophistication of New Zealand’s exports. Obviously, such a policy also required that serious attention to be paid to the size and scope of protective instruments applied to imported goods by this country’s potential export markets.
By the same token, however, any broad expansion of New Zealand’s industrial base would require the development of its own array of protective instruments. For at least as long as it took new, export-oriented industrial concerns to become firmly established, the price of goods imported from their international competitors needed to be artificially boosted by tariffs.
Tariffs, and an import licencing system, were accordingly utilised by all pre-1984 Labour Governments. Not only was the system needed to protect infant industries, but it was also vital if New Zealand’s always vulnerable reserves of overseas funds were not to be frittered away on non-industrial imports.
To make the policy work, as the Second Labour Government made every effort to do between 1957 and 1960, a significant degree of state planning and co-ordination would be required. In June 1960, an Industrial Development Conference convened in Wellington to determine the way forward.
One of Labour’s “From Colony to Nation” mission’s strongest supporters, Industries & Commerce Secretary, Bill Sutch, recorded that:
“The conference recommended a Development Council, better regional distribution of industry, much more industrial research, an Industrial Finance Corporation, advisory aids to industry, the negotiation of bilateral trade agreements [and] various methods of promoting external trade.”
Not “Free Trade”, then, but trade as a means of advancing New Zealand’s economic independence: by expanding its industrial capability, diversifying its exports and making it less reliant on both foreign capital and the imported goods of New Zealand’s creditors.
Not surprisingly, Labour’s From Colony To Nation policies were met with fierce opposition from the National Party and its key backers. Farmers, importers, merchants and retailers had little to gain and great deal to lose by such a fundamental reordering of New Zealand’s economic and cultural priorities. It was from these groups, the most prominent beneficiaries of New Zealand’s colonial status, that the cry for Free Trade was most loudly voiced.
The commitment of Norman Kirk’s Third Labour Government to the From Colony To Nation mission was, if anything, stronger than the Second’s. Aware of the extent to which New Zealand’s limited industrial base remained overseas financed and foreign controlled, he was determined to establish a pool of domestic investment capital from which New Zealand could build its own future.
The precise nature of the vector which carried the Free Market/Free Trade virus into Labour’s ranks in the early 1980s is still not 100 percent clear. Part of the answer no doubt lies in the examples made of the governments of Chile’s Salvador Allende, Australia’s Gough Whitlam and the UK’s Harold Wilson, by the enemies of Democratic Socialism. The policies of the New Right governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had, similarly, made it plain to New Zealand’s Labour politicians that democratic economic planning and the preservation of national independence were well-and-truly off the “Free World’s” political agenda.
What should not be overlooked, however, is the impact of the decision of the Bill Rowling-led Labour Opposition to support “CER” – the Closer Economic Relationship with Australia sealed by Rob Muldoon’s National Government in 1983. Critics of CER like Wolfgang Rosenberg struggled to make Rowling (his former student!) understand the consequences for Labour’s From Colony To Nation mission of facilitating Australian capital’s gradual take-over of New Zealand’s economy. To no avail. As the British colonisers were departing for Europe via the front door, the Aussies were being smuggled in the back!
Historically-speaking, Labour’s pro-Free Trade stance has been around for just 33 of its 100-year existence. If its dream of transitioning New Zealand from colony to nation still endures, then Labour’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership is, indisputably, the more natural fit.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 February 2016.