Category Archives: Current Affairs

Capital Ideas

I walked completely around the Christchurch central cordon a few weeks ago, and over the handful of hours it took I started to wake up to some realities I’ve really been trying to ignore. My city, the country it lives in, and indeed the world, is in the grip of a deep crisis. We are led by a National government that not only underfunds our recovery, but actually wants to cut back further. They are captives of an ideology of government that is opposed to governing.

I needed to get out of the city. Driving out south, mazing through closed turnoffs and bumping over rippled roads, I caught the end of a National Radio broadcast about the World Economics Association. This international organisation, launched in May, aims to break the neoliberal lock American economics has on the discipline. The coverage is illuminating.

Ideas on Sunday interviewed Robert wade, who talks about the lack of change in macroeconomics, and the way that its outdated, ‘respectable’ ideas favour big financial institutions over productive businesses and people. He notes how large international financial organisations have avoided the initial post-crash moves towards regulation, and how the theory economists promote looks after economists, and their classmates (hah! a pun) who went on into finance. Deregulation is founded on the faith that the market best takes care of society – a fantasy that nobody should believe anymore.

Ideas also spoke to Ha-Joon Chang, author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, who exposes the illusion that the market pays people what they’re worth, and explains how individual productivity is dependent on social setting. Society, he concludes, therefore has the right to intervene. Individual rewards are collectively determined; pretending otherwise merely privileges those individuals who manage to secure a disproportionate slice.

The final third of the hour is spent with Steve Keen, author of Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences who explains the logical flaws in neoliberalism, well-known for over 50 years, and says that economics has rebuilt the world in its own image – a pseudoscientific, flawed and unfair image, if his critique is to be believed. Neoclassical economists, he says, don’t understand neoclassical economics. Naive, they are like Ptolemaic astronomers post-Copernicus, unaware or unwilling to accept that they are not at the centre of the universe. Unlike astronomers, unfortunately, these economists dominate global education and decision-making, and their provably false beliefs (Keen cites their belief that the level of debt does not matter) create crisis after crisis, which the rest of us have to bear while financiers reap gigantic bailout packages (government intervention in the economy… what?).

I have just started economics at university. In the first week, they introduced and then glossed over the major flaw in market capitalism: markets, it is claimed, are allocatively efficient, that is, they portion out goods and services to those who want them most (and will therefore pay the highest price). In the words of my lecturer Steve Agnew, the problem with this is people have different amounts of money to spend. In other words, markets are only efficient when everyone has the same ability to indicate their preferences. In a world where CEOs make over 500 times the average wage (ignoring the income gap between nations), the idea of allocative efficiency is simply a fallacy. Markets are systematically inefficient, ignoring the needs of the poor and the many, and massively overvaluing the demands of the rich and powerful. Who knew? This is a major problem in economics and apparently solving it will give one instant celebrity among economists worldwide. Well, we’ll see.

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Filed under economics, Government policy, media

Turtles are cute, and it is freezing.

Just you try to deny it. To start with the turtles, the NZIFF* is currently on in Christchurch, so if you feel like getting the warm fuzzies, go see Turtle: The incredible journey. It looks like a feel good film, just in case anyone tries to accuse me of constantly posting depressing news. If you’ve miss(ed) the screenings and need to acquire it through, er…other means, then you can donate to the Save Our Seas Foundation that appears to have commissioned it. You don’t even need a credit card. Yay. Unfortunately I can’t find info about a DVD release date. Anyway, the trailer really did warm the cockles of my heart.

Speaking of warmness (which the living room is currently not), the Greens are currently campaigning for a “Warm Healthy Rentals” bill that calls for minimum energy performance standards for houses. I’ve emailed Gareth and asked him what the Greens would support in terms of specifics, but the basic idea is to legislate basic housing requirements for rental properties. This is not to vilify all landlords, but it is meant to address the HUGE number of unacceptably insulated houses. It’s a real problem in the South Island, where temperatures get below zero quite often over winter. If you’re a fan, send the e-card and join the facebook page to show your support and join in the discussion.

*I forgot to blog about Inside Job, which was a pretty funny doco about the 2008 financial crisis that included interviews with some of the key players. Their faces are so funny when they realise the doco maker is not on their side. Its screenings have finished in Christchurch, but it should come out later in the year again (not as part of a festival probably). Interestingly it’s paid for by Sony, and that means the film is slick and looks totally professional. Cheers to the Dim Post for the heads up.

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Are the Greens trusted less than the average journalist?

Is it just me, or is there a general consensus in New Zealand that anything the Greens say, do, or publish is mere hippie propaganda? I pick on journalists in the title because they’re one of the least trusted people in the country. Anyway, I recently commented at the Dim Post on an entry referring to the Green’s study by Sue Kedgley that looked at supermarket mark ups on fresh fruit and vegetables. If you care to read my comment just go Ctrl+F and type in “Zo”. In response someone noted: “I can;t understand why the greens consider supermarkets are inherently evil for charging $X/kg for a product yet the local greengrocer who charges 10 – 50 cents less is virtuous(presumably because it is small and cuddly). What is this, 400% mark up good, 500% bad?”

I responded by saying that the greens never said anything about supermarkets being inherently evil, to which someone else replied that the following line in the study clearly showed the Greens thought supermarkets were inherently evil: “Massive supermarket mark-ups on fruit and vegetables are crippling growers and putting their industry at risk… while growers were often forced to sell their produce for less than it cost to produce.” Is it just me, or is that a relatively reasonable thing to write in a study that was a) focussed on supermarkets and their mark ups, b) understandably focussed on supermarkets because that’s where most people get their produce from, and c) didn’t mention other produce sellers because, well, it was a study on supermarkets, not other sellers?

Usually I would have responded, before I realised how pervasive the anti-Green agenda was (this is not the first time something like this has popped up). Don’t get me wrong, I have biases, like everyone else. The thing that really makes me want to throw my hands up in despair though is the fact that even modest, pretty agreeable things can get the seal of disapproval as long as they are issued forth by the Greens. Hey, I get the psychological need for consistency. I don’t like the National Party, for example, but I’ll accept that not everything they do is horrible, indeed, some of the things they do are fantastic and considerate. And I reaaallly don’t like National.

Maybe it’s not just the Green Party, though. The friends I know who vote National, drive without apology, or shrug at the plight of battery chickens roll their eyes at anything that sounds remotely planet friendly. I’m sure there are even those who consider things like vegetarianism some sort of cultish plague. Clearly, the environmental movement has not been able to shrug off the cloak of hippiedom, and many see environmentalism as a futile effort to keep the world at a primitive state through rigorous conservation at all costs (see this article from Capitalism magazine). Ok, so the writer of that article clearly hasn’t actually read the book, but like the commenters I mentioned, even if he had, I have a feeling he would have just put them in the green bin and ignored the points that effectively rendered his entire argument invalid. It’s analogous to racism, based not on the colour of one’s skin, but one’s ideology. Maybe a more pertinent question is this: why do so many people hate those who prioritise keeping our environment and ecological systems healthy?

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Civil servants will be required to be “apolitical”

“Politically neutral” is a hilarious term to me, except when it actually is put into a set of guidelines for the conduct of civil servants. So far the only mainstream source that has reported on this is the NZ Herald, although when I revisit this issue I’ll try to add more sources. Meanwhile the actual guidelines are available at the State Services Commission website.

So, what does this all mean? The definition of “State servant” according the the SSC, is “everyone who is the chief executive of, or an employee in, an agency in the State Services is a State servant (this excludes board members and members of a corporation sole.” As the guidelines state, it “enables State servants to provide consistent services (including policy development) for the government of the day.” At first glance one might be tempted to agree with such a sentiment, based along the lines of increased efficiency, “neutrality” and cooperation. However, on further inspection the guidelines are more troubling. First of all, it basically gives the employer of any state servant a clear set of guidelines they can point to if they see their employees as acting in a “political” manner (whatever that means). Effectively then, if, as a hypothetical state servant, I gave advice that was critical or challenging, there is now something my employer could point to to shut me up or get rid of me, either by not renewing my contract or just dismissing me. Secondly, what is “apolitical”? What is politically neutral? Apparently no one has a say in this, or is even able to define was this (practically) means. I certainly wouldn’t call the current government’s agenda “neutral,” but then they wouldn’t call mine “neutral” either. Whose view matters most? Thirdly, the guidelines state that personally, you’re allowed to hold whatever political opinions you want, but you can’t let these “affect” your professional life. This is as naive as the expectation of complete objectivity for journalists: it’s utopian, ignorant, and for the most part, practically impossible. Especially since we’re talking about the regulation of “advice”. I would argue that probably 99% of advice, even advice based on mathematical models or scientific consensus, is political. You can’t tear it away from its sponsors, its interests, its theoretical consequences, and its applications in the real world. Lastly, what disturbs me the most is the unabashed way they have tried to equate the policies of “the government of the day” and “political neutrality,” although I’m hoping no one is actually foolish enough to believe that. However, there is a definite attempt to feign neutrality on the part of our government, which is not only untrue, but reductive. There’s also the question of whether being politically neutral is even desirable in the first place.

Thanks to The Dim Post for bringing this to my attention.

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Facepalm-worthy

A few things from the Greens newsletter I received caught my eye, and made me want to move out of New Zealand even sooner than originally desired. When National was voted in, I don’t think most people voting for them realised how awful things could get. The recent protests against mining and the Ecan sackings are only a few examples of actions that not only enraged many sensible New Zealanders, but National voters at well (heheh…sorry, couldn’t resist). Then there was the idea to partly privatise prisons (now potentially in action), and now, ACC (you can also read the bill for arguments of the parties).  I don’t have time to fully give background on all these issues (doing an Honours year), but I think it’s important that people know what is happening in this country, and I don’t mean visits by some boyish teen sensation, but the disgusting and ugly side of the “clean green” image we purport to present to the rest of the world. Unfortunately for us, people the world over are catching on. Here are a few things that we, and the rest of the world, might want to know:

Secret and sorry animal experiments at GE trials, and the Q&A session with Minister of Research, Science, and Technology, on behalf of the Minster for Agriculture.

NZ Food Safety Authority finding illegal levels of lead and outlawed poisons in imported food, then doing nothing to alert the public or remove the toxic food from the shelves. Also, who eats Vietnamese catfish?! Well, I just did a little google, and apparently, the US does, but recently slapped a tariff increase on it because it was competing with the US fish market. The US accused the Vietnamese of “dumping” the fish at ridiculously low prices. Ah, the hypocrisy one can engage in when you’re the most powerful country in the world (If you don’t know what I’m referring to, it’s US corn and grain, except when the US does it, it’s “food aid” – and all this is being supported by the US taxpayer through subsidies to corn growers). Sorry, back to NZ…

The release of methyl bromide (bromomethane), a cancer-causing and ozone-depleting chemical used as a fumigant for exported logs, into the atmosphere, where workers are exposed to it without being properly informed of how toxic it is. The Wikipedia page notes the use of it in NZ and some of its properties, the health effects sections specifically mentions NZ. Read the Q&A with Environment Minister Nick Smith. He basically acknowledges that it is being released into the atmosphere, but seems to regard trading of the logs as less important than the health of the workers: “recapture technologies for methyl bromide are being trialled at my own port in Nelson. But if the use of methyl bromide was suddenly stopped, there would be a huge problem for New Zealand in terms of its exports of logs and timber products to key markets like Australia, China, and India, which require its use.” Ballsy, Nick, really ballsy.

If you have any other resources, even ones that don’t agree with the views expressed in the articles I’ve linked, PLEASE post in the comments!

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Filed under Climate Change, Current Affairs, Government policy

Anti-mining & Ecan sacking protests

The recent protests against mining in protected areas and the protests against the sacking of Ecan and their replacement by nationally appointed commissioners were somewhat heartening to hear about after the announcements. A Greenpeace video shows the huge groups that turned out to the former and Radio NZ mentioned the latter protest briefly (I can’t seem to find an mainstream media article about it though) during the protest itself, which they estimated about 300 people turned up to. They also have an article (via signon) with plenty of photos of the event.

Regarding the mining issue, John Key and Gerry Brownlee have tried to give the impression that NZ is divided “50/50”, which seems an obtuse statement considering the size and sophistication of the protests, both on the street and as expressed through social networking sites (there’s a Facebook group if you haven’t joined already, or you can “like” the “ours not mine” thingee). Brownlee noted that mining already happens on conservation land, as if that were somehow justification for further exploitation. Mostly though there are calls that it will benefit the economy, although what “economy” means in this context has not been elaborated on. Any guesses why?

Sadly, it looks like there will be no more election with regards to Ecan until 2013.

Links

NZ Herald article on the mining protests

Greens articles on the mining issue + submission

or…send a submission via “Don’t undermine NZ” (Greenpeace)

A discussion about the debate “To Mine or not to Mine” that was televised on Back Benches

Our water, our vote

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Filed under Climate Change, Current Affairs, Government policy

Radio NZ

Every now and then, facebook beats me to news. Like the cow cubicle thing, and now, the fact that the National government is trying to “tighten belts” at Radio NZ, the last public radio station in New Zealand that provides independent journalism. Here’s a news report from TVNZ, which notes that despite already making savings of about $1m a year, several key figures at Radio NZ are being threatened with redundancy if they don’t start doing things like commercialising Concert FM. Thanks to Jake Quinn of Life and Politics, however, this issue is being publicised.

So what’s the big fuss? Most people will already know that an independent press that will hold government to account is vital for a well functioning democracy, because a free media will let the public know what’s going on in government. Now, some may think that a government funded news provider would be more likely to be positive about the government, but there are guidelines that can be put in place for this. Interestingly, there is plenty of evidence that the opposite is true – government funded news organisations are usually the most credible, upstanding sources we turn to – TV One (although that’s crumbling as it is being increasingly subjected to a profit-driven model of business), PBS in the US, and the BBC in the UK. Sure, there are examples of state funded media who are censored (think China, Iran…), but these got their bad wrap from being the only source of news, and thus had total control. When there is some sort of competition, generally, government funded stations are the bastions of credibility, because they have different goals than profit driven news organisations, and this is where the problem lies.

Just like health care and education, there are areas where there needs to be public option. Having an independent (ie, not subject to the pressures of being profitable, and thus the pressure of your sponsors, who are usually advertisers) press means that you are free to report on important issues without being limited by those that sponsor you. Commercial broadcasters generally don’t publish stories that hurt their advertisers, and there are examples abound of stories being gutted due to corporate displeasure. In other cases editors let companies know beforehand and they will withdraw their advertising, thus discouraging harmful stories in future, or companies churn out their own PR to rebutt claims in a particular story. Worst of all, journalists don’t even bother to consider writing damaging stories about their sponsors, even if the truth affects a large section of society. The Columbia Journalism Review published an article in 2000 that found that about 1/3 of journalists self censor stories that would conflict with the financial interests of their news organisation.

I’ve attached an essay written in my first year of university, in COMS102: The News Machine, which sort of addresses the issues discussed here, but the essay question asked how media proprietors control media content.

Will keep adding content as this develops. Meanwhile if you’re still not convinced about my points on media ownership there’s a great breakdown on globalissues.org relating to corporate influences on the media, and the importance of media in democracy.

…if you are convinced, then sign the petition.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Government policy, Independent Media