Monday, October 31, 2005

It's All Over, Isn't It

As if there weren't enough to get depressed about. The Listener, NZ's only remotely half-hearted gesture at an occasionally serious magazine, continues its inexorable drive to morph into the Women's Weekly.

This week's feature story is a six-page infomercial titled "House of Gain: Best ways to renovate without breaking the bank". Delivered by--you guessed it--that doyen of incisive and analytic journalism, Joanne Black.

Some things we learn include:
-Gold window treatments give the impression of a sunny day
-Warm creams or soft, muted peach and coral walls are the most flattering to skin tones

So now you won't need to hire a colour consultant.

Plus, some good advice (thanks to "Claire Drake, managing director, Limited Editions"):
1. Be honest with yourself about how you like to live, and who you need to consider. Just you or a family plus several animals? Formal or informal? Uncluttered or busy?

The week's other top story is a fawning, three-page interview with Mike Hosking by Diana Wichtel. An excerpt:

"However Hosking votes, an image rethink of this magnitude, as lovingly captured in women's mag spreads, does have you wondering about the real Mike Hosking. 'Probably the reality is that everybody's complex', he muses ".

Within the next few months, The Listener will run a cover story featuring at least one of Brad, Jen, or Angelina. You heard it here first.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Green Folly or: Bash Kyoto

The Kyoto accord continues to be routinely bashed by all and sundry in the New Zealand mainstream media. It's described as a "billion-dollar bungle", presented as idealistic environmentalism and "big government" regulation, and opposed stoutly by grandstanding politicians. The Australian papers deride their flaky New Zealand cousins for signing up, and their articles are sheepishly reprinted here, with nary a dissenting voice.

The latest piece of scoffing comes from (who else) Roger Kerr. In a Business Roundtable press release on "Why the Greens Charm Offensive Failed", Kerr dismisses the Green Party's recent attempt to engage business leaders in constructive discussion. Among the policies he gives a once-over lightly critique is "another iconic Green policy, the Kyoto Protocol".

The Greens, says Kerr "seem unwilling to accept that Kyoto is not going to happen - one country after another looks set to ignore its commitments - and that the US approach to global warming, based on research and technology, is likely to carry the day".

Kerr goes on to accuse the Greens of not wanting to engage with "well-documented criticisms of doom-mongering, such as the work of Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg". If the Greens want improved dialogue with business, he recommends they put "more emphasis on market-based solutions to environmental problems instead of central planning and regulation".

So, was Kyoto drawn up by a bunch of Luddite, economically naiive, tree-hugging greenies? Actually no--it was negotiated by teams of international scientists and economists, and is exactly the kind of technology-favouring, "market-based solution" that Kerr claims to favour. Moreover, the compromises struck in its development are exactly the kinds that Lomborg argues for in his writings.

The Kyoto accord established a goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, to help hold global warming to the less drastic end of possible scenarios. But rather than set heavy handed, one-size-fits-all regulations, a market-based system was devised, which allowed the trading of emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions are acknowledged to produce a long-term cost for everybody. So the system was designed to make that cost be factored into economic decisions. This favours technology development, because if you can come up with smarter, cleaner technology to help reduce emissions, you won't have to pay the cost of the excess emissions.

If, however it won't be economic for you to hit the emissions targets just yet, you can buy credits off somebody else--essentially paying them to be more efficient or cleaner on your behalf.

However, most developing countries don't have the flexibility to make these kind of trade offs. As Lomborg points out, for most of them, worrying about global warming is less of a priority than food, clean water, sanitation, proper housing and medicine for their citizens. With much lower per capita emissions than rich countries, they simply need to be able to develop their economies and improve their overall standard of living. To quote National Party environment spokesperson Nick Smith: "if you want to be clean, first you've got to be rich".

So it was agreed that developing countries would be exempt from the Kyoto targets for the "first commitment period" up to 2012. Like most international agreements, the accord was imperfect, pragmatic and provisional. But in 1998 most everyone found it acceptable, including the USA and Australia.

Later, of course, Bush and Howard backed out. Despite the fact that as big, rich economies, the US and Australia are among the best-placed countries to make the necessary changes--such as fast-forwarding new technologies--they decided they couldn't possibly handle the short-term adjustment costs or, God forbid, lose competitive advantage to developing countries.

Recently it was annouced that the US, Australia, India, China, Japan and South Korea had signed a pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through technology development and sharing. This is what lies behind Kerr's reference to "the US approach to global warming, based on research and technology". For those who were consistently fed the idea that Kyoto=whacky green Ludditism, this looked like good old George and John goin' it alone and trumping 'em again. Research and technology beats woolly, anti-growth environmentalism.

Except that Kyoto already promotes and incentivises research and technology. And the US-driven pact does not make any commitments or set any targets. Critics say it is mostly an attempt to protect export markets and help the coal industry (pact signatories include the four biggest coal-producing nations). It looks rather like an attempt to gesture at doing something about what is now a univerally acknowledged problem, without playing by the same rules as everybody else.

This is in fact a far from universal attitude in the countries in question. A number of American states, counties and cities have set themselves emissions targets, and groups of businesses have even been lobbying the federal government to set clear regulations (no, really!). They figure there will be regulations at some stage (maybe when we get a Democractic administration), and they would like some certainty.

With respect to future outcomes, Kerr may well be right--if the US and Australia don't formally sign up, Kyoto may not fly. There are also some principled arguments about flaws in the emissions trading system, or the particular Kyoto-related measures the NZ government has tried to implement here--the doomed "fart tax" on animal methane, and the current carbon tax.
But it's utterly misleading and disingenuous to present Kyoto as idealistic green-ism, in opposition to technology and market-based approaches. And it's lamentable that the media lazily allowes this to become the received wisdom, so the likes of Peters and Dunne can can gain votes by their grandstanding.

Kerr could express qualified enthusiasm for the kind of law-governed market system of which Adam Smith would have approved, and suggest ways to make it work better. Instead, he and his ilk simply choose to bash and obsfucate. So, rather than being engaged in a genuine debate about our alternatives, the public is pushed back into the good old Kiwi attitude of "she'll be right". Which effectively translates as: "let somebody else deal with the problem; we'll freeload".

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Monday, October 17, 2005

Big Government Reprised

Well, there was quite a lot of constructive debate following my post about "big government". Apart from the comments on the post itself, I've had some interesting discussions with various work colleagues and acquaintances, and an excellent chat with some guys who I think were National Party strategists down at the pub the other Friday night.

Amidst all the debate, the original point got a little muddied--and perhaps I didn't articulate it particularly clearly in the first place. My contention was that talk of "big government" is propaganda jargon imported from US (along with other irritating tropes like "flip-flopping"), and tends to be deployed in a hypocritical way.

In the US, conservatives who decry labor or environmental regulation or generous social spending as "big government" are often the very same people who back big defense spending, trying to extradite a cannabis advocate from Canada, setting up an FBI obscenity unit to seek convictions for adult pornography, or imprisoning millions of people for nonviolent drug crimes.

In my view, the latter actions are bigger and uglier examples of government intervention. Yet somehow they don't tend to get acknowledged as "government".

It turned out that everyone to whom I put this agreed with me. "Oh yes, it's hypocritical--the government should back out of people's personal lives as well" said my work colleague. "Actually, I think all drugs should be legalised" said one of the National Party supporters at the pub.

Which is fine, except my other point was that these kind of cross-the-board libertarian principles only seem to survive in universities, pubs and other theoretical settings. As I argued in my original post, there's a mysterious process by which those who have to actually make policy see their social liberalism and internationalism rapidly eroded (see ACT's "zero tolerance" crime policy and their promise to double defense spending, for example).

But my interlocutors remained convinced that in New Zealand there really was a distinct creature called Big Government and that its indulgent master was the Labour-led left. It seemed to keep coming back to Working for Families. People got hot under the collar about "putting middle-class New Zealanders on welfare". They railed against the high effective marginal tax rates created by WFF, which are a "disincentive to working harder and earning more".

I have a certain amount of sympathy for this point of view, but don't think it's as clear cut as people make out. True, the base WFF package involves all kinds of forms that have to be filled out and chunks of personal information fired off to Work & Income and the tax department. I have to admit, it's welfare, and somewhat byzantine welfare at that.

And, as my sister and her family have discovered, when it ends up involving ongoing negotiation with petty officials who don't seem to pick up their phone messages or communicate with each other, it can create more grief and hassle than it's worth.

But while there's some technical and semantic arguments1, the big extension to WFF proposed by Labour can plausibly be presented as a simple tax break. In fact, with a little rejigging and rebranding, the whole WFF package could be sold as "lower-to-middle income tax relief". Credit where it's due--Peter Dunne and United Future have done some thinking about how this might be achieved.

The real difference in the NZ election was that the neoliberal(ish) National party wanted to spread out its tax breaks across the population, while the more social democratic Labour approach was to direct all relief at lower to middle-income families.

Given that it's now de rigeur to commodify everything, you could argue that this is a "targeted incentive to encourage investment in offspring". What economic activity definitely needs to be encouraged in New Zealand, and subsidised if necessary? Given the aging population, declining birth rate, slumping net migration, and the need to have somebody to do work and pay taxes in the future, creating kids is a sine qua non.

And while people are known to breed while poor, there's good grounds for thinking that extra money available for education, a healthy diet, and a warm house might help produce higher-quality adults in the future--a good outcome for society as a whole.

Yes, as WFF abates, it does produce high effective marginal tax rates--but they are something you will get with any kind of targeting. It's worth mentioning that the community services card, a targeting tool introduced by a neoliberally-minded previous administration, didn't abate at all.

When you reached the threshold it simply cut off, meaning that people on very low incomes who had expenses subsidised by the card (such as health care) could be faced with marginal tax rates of over 100% when their income increased slightly. Much of the byzantine bits in WFF are actually intended to avoid this sort of thing happening as people move into work from being on a benefit.

And let's be realistic--is there really a linear relationship between working harder and earning more? It would be nice if this were true, but for many people wages depend on factors beyond their control, such as what their employer can afford, or is willing, to pay.

I'm not arguing that WFF is a panacea. The jury is out on which system of tax breaks would produce greater happiness and productivity. And beyond that, there's a philosophical debate about how society assigns burdens and rewards.

But what I don't believe we have is "big goverment vs. "less government". As in the US, both sides want government to do about the same amount, but have different priorities. These phrases should be acknowledged as loaded, and should not be passed off by op-ed writers as objective characterizations of party policies.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Greens May Really Be Flesh-Eating Aliens

As incumbent Prime Minister Helen Clark looks likely to enter some kind of post-election coalition arrangement with the Green Party , concerns are rising that the Greens may really be a race of flesh-eating aliens with diabolical plans to take over the planet.

Centre-right politicians and business leaders are warning that, despite attempts by the Greens to present themselves as harmless and mainstream, they could actually be lizard-like creatures from the Horsehead Nebula with the ability to appear in human form, bent on turning the population into their personal protein source.

United Future leader Peter Dunne is insistent about the threat posed by the Green Party. "On the surface they might look like harmless, woolly environmentalists" he said. Dig a little deeper and you find they're throwback communists bent on destroying the economy. Dig deeper still and it turns out they're foul, scaly monsters from outer space who will carry off our children and enslave the human race".

Dunne has vowed to fight the Green scourge, even if it means forming a lone band of warriors dedicated to protecting the Earth from the invading hordes. He said that if necessary he would become a shadowy fugitive heading the resistance to the alien imperium.

"The Greens will not prevail. It's my bottom line", he said

Business Roundtable director Roger Kerr cautioned that if the Greens are allowed to get even one talon on the controls of government, nothing will stop them. "Today, an associate ministerial position outside Cabinet in environment or food safety, tomorrow the planet", he warned.

"If the Greens gain any power at all, it will be disastrous for my rival star system--I mean, for the New Zealand economy", said Kerr.

Suspicions have been growing about the possible extraterrestrial nature and carnivorous intentions of the Greens after a series of strange and sinister incidents have recently begun to come to light.

ACT leader Rodney Hide claims he entered the Beehive toilets one night when working late and stumbled across a frightening sight. "Keith Locke was standing in front of the mirror and appeared to be putting on a fake human face " said Hide. "I caught a glimpse of a long, forked tongue and an evil, reptilian visage. At the time I thought I was seeing things and dismissed it, but on several occasions since then I've found a strange, glowing ooze around the edges of the handbasins. "

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has also come forward to report his misgivings about the Greens. He says that he surprised Green co-leader Rod Donald in a lonely part of the parliamentary corridors, hitching up his suspender belts and stuffing away what looked like a tail. It was around the same time, says Peters, that several of Parliament's cats mysteriously went missing.

Despite his suspicions, Peters would not confirm whether he would oppose a coalition which involved the Greens, saying only that he would be "uncomfortable" working with an administration that included alien monsters.

Amidst the controversy, Helen Clark has refused to confirmwhether she intends to offer the Greens positions in Cabinet. However, there has been widespread speculation that she will strike a Faustian deal in which she and her party will preserve their own lives and collaborate as functionaries of a future alien administration.

Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimmons has rejected the allegations that she leads a party of bloodthirsty creatures from a distant part of the galaxy. "This is reprehensible scaremongering" she said. "These wild claims are simply intended to distract attention from the real issues and obscure other parties' own lack of ideas. The Greens simply want to promote policies which support peace, diversity, a sustainable economy, and a healthy environment. "

"Off the record--ahahahahahahahaha! Soon we shall devour your brains!"

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Monday, October 03, 2005

French Corruption, Envy Due to Cheese, Study Shows

[from January 2004--this one was inspired by endless scholarly "What's the matter with France" articles reprinted in Arts & Letters Daily]

A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides the strongest evidence yet that the corrupt, venal nature of the French is caused by the prevalence of cheese in the spineless cretins’ diet, researchers say.

The comprehensive analysis of French dietary patterns is described by head MIT researcher Professor Jim Twain as demonstrating a "compelling" link between the backward, decaying French culture and the high quantities of cheese consumed by the devious little slimeballs.

"Funnily enough, The Simpsons hit the nail on the head when they called them cheese-eating surrender monkeys" says Professor Twain. "Those surrender monkeys really do eat a lot of cheese".

The MIT team believe their study will set a new benchmark in the long-running academic debate on the causes of the envy, ingratitude and poor personal hygiene characteristic of the veto-happy Gallic race.

The researchers are confident they have "buried" rival theories, most notably propounded by Princeton-based Professor Ernest Rickman, that French duplicity and lack of moral fibre is linked to consumption of foie gras, a delicacy made from goose liver. Dr Janet Stevens, who headed the MIT investigation into historical dietary patterns, says Rickman’s theory is "dubious, to say the least".

She argues that foie gras could not possibly have a causal connection with the craven and arrogant French nature, since it is a regional delicacy traditionally available only in aristocratic circles. Its restricted consumption up until recent times would not explain how an entire society ended up with an overinflated sense of self-importance and a really gay-sounding language, she claims.

"It’s not like the slimy frogs have suddenly become cowardly and two-faced in the last forty years" says Dr Stevens. "Where, for example, was foie gras when French forces were routed by badly outnumbered Panzer divisions in 1940? Where was foie gras when Baudelaire and his communist buddies were writing their godawful so-called poetry and poisoning themselves with absinthe in the 1890s?".

"Yet we have historical records showing that rations for frontline infantry during the disastrous Franco-Prussian war included a daily chunk of ripe brie. As far back as medieval times we find manuscript mentions of the revolting French peasants having access to rudimentary cheeses."

"In fact, archeological excavations around the Lascaux area have uncovered evidence which suggests that neolithic Gallic tribes may have consumed a cheese-like paste made from goat’s milk".

While disagreeing about the exact culinary agent responsible for the intellectually bankrupt and stagnant French culture, most academics are at least in agreement that there is a dietary explanation for the freedom-hating Gallic nature. Few give credence to the radical theories propounded by University of California at Los Angeles professor J. Elton Gould, who has proposed a socio-cultural rationale for endemic French spitefulness and avarice.

Gould argues that the petty grandstanding and double-dealing of the Saddam-loving turds is a product of seething resentment at their failed dreams of imperial glory, while their bureaucratic complacency owes much to the ongoing dominance of Catholicism, and the lack of a Puritan work ethic to instill self-discipline.

In light of his groundbreaking new study, Professor Twain hardly considers the arguments coming out of UCLA worth rebutting. "Those Californians - always coming up with wacko theories" he laughs. "No, seriously. It’s the cheese".