Monday, October 30, 2006

Credit Where It's Due

I have been known to beat up on New Zealand journalism from time to time. Truth is, about three quarters of the reporting and feature writing in New Zealand newspapers and magazines isn't very good or interesting, and about three quarters of what's good or interesting is reprinted from international publications (and the less said about most television reporting, the better).

It's not all bad. The Sunday Star Times, in particular, lurches from the gutter-dwelling abysmal to the occasionally quite good, with quality normally in inverse proportion to the trendiness of the topic. Michael Field, who writes mainly for the Dominion Post, does some sterling work, reporting on cultural, political and environmental issues from around the Pacific Islands. It's the sort of roving commission I'd love to have, only in Latin America (I have faith that The Guardian will eventually see the light and offer me the role).

On that note, I ought to offer plaudits to Ruth Laugesen (with some help from Ruth Hill) for the piece in yesterday's SST on female genital mutilation in the New Zealand Somali community. It's a difficult, loaded issue, but it was treated with some balance and sensitivity.

It was actually the kind of piece that lent itself to the "he said; she said" style of reporting (though in this case it was really "she said; she said"), as too much authorial input could easily have seemed heavy handed. But letting people tell their own story doesn't mean you have to demonstrate no opinion on a matter; by the selection and ordering of quotations you can still put a point of view across.

So overall it was reasonably well done, and I learnt something, which is certainly not the case with all feature articles. The pity was that no one managed to speak directly with any of the women who reported supporting the (FGM) practice. I couldn't help thinking that had it been a British journalist (i.e. in The Guardian or similar), she would have been brave enough to probe from her personal perspective a little more, winkle out such an interview subject, and ask her the awkward questions.

Mind you, British papers would probably be able to put someone onto the task who is actually Somali, or at least an East African Muslim.

I wonder what other people who read the article thought.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Supply and Demand

As I wandered down Lambton Quay for a spot of compulsory Labour Day shopping yesterday, I grabbed my compulsive coffee from the little bar at the end of the Old Bank building. While zapping my eftos card, the serving bloke informed me that there would be a 6 cents surchage, due to it being a public holiday. I later learned other places were charging up to 15 percent extra.

This is just the sort of thingI can imagine put-upon Joe or Josephine Middle New Zealander reacting to with outrage (extra charges? how dare they!), but to me it seemed a good example of market forces working properly.

Retail businesses, quite rightly, have to pay their staff time and a half for having to work on a public holiday, when most others are getting a break. Now, traditionally, penal wage issues have been considered a two-way struggle, with governments and unions pushing regulations, while business complains about the onerous costs these impose. Meanwhile, the consumer, the main driver for extended business hours, has generally been treated as an unquestionable force of nature.

But it makes sense for the extra costs to be moved to the source of the demand. Customers have collectively decided that, on their extra day off, they'd like all the normal services laid on. Someone has to provide those services, and the government regulation simply requires that these workers get a fair deal too. Spread out across all customers, paying for the privilege of shopping on Labour Day hardly hurts anyone's pocket too much.

On a related matter: I've always been a proponent of tipping, as practiced in North America and some European countries, and find it hard to fathom that many New Zealanders not only don't like it, but strongly oppose it in principle. There are two gripes as far as I can make out: 1) they resent being required to pay "extra" over and above the cost of the meal, and 2) they don't see why restaurant or bar owners can't just pay their staff a decent wage.

This misses the point that where tipping is in place, the base cost of a meal is usually significantly cheaper. And in the fickle hospitality industry, where business varies from day to day and hour to hour, it can be difficult for an employer to guarantee a truly "decent" wage. With a workforce that is normally young, transient, and unorganized, employers understandably tend to pay wages that will let them break even during a quiet time, rather than reward high productivity during a busy one. Nothing extra is paid for busting a boiler and dealing efficiently with rush hour.

In contrast, tipping provides both incentive and reward for working hard. In a sense, the staff member is sharing the risk and the return with the business owner, in that when the business does well, so do they. And if they are efficient and courteous, they are likely to get a still better tip. Without tipping, it's not surprising that New Zealand still doesn't have a "service" culture (what it has acquired is a culture of enforced sycophancy, which is not the same thing).

Tipping also allows the customer to pay money directly to the person who has been serving them. In a tipping country, this is one of life's minor pleasures . Instead of seeing your payment entirely soaked up by the wider business, you get to give a portion directly to the person who did the work, providing some recompense for what you can see is a pretty tiring and repetitive task. This transparent, person-to-person exchange of utility, stripped of transaction costs, is what markets are supposed to be all about - and it even allows in the human element (let's remember, Adam Smith's first book was called On Empathy).

It's surprising that New Zealanders don't take to this more, since we have a long tradition of bypassing more structured commerce and engaging in person-to-person exchanges. From 'I'll give you a crate of beer to fix my motorbike' to the popular and successful Buy, Sell and Exchange magazine, to its stellar internet successor TradeMe, New Zealanders have always sought to cut out the middle man and deal directly with each other.

But the constant feature of all these activities may be that they involve barter and bargain hunting. Where money is involved, Kiwis come over all coy. We don't even like to talk about it much, and we like to pretend it doesn't matter. One further criticism I've heard about tipping is that you shouldn't have to pay people to be nice to you; tipping is mercenary and takes away the "naturalness" from the interaction.

As Otago University would say, Get Real. Come on, the only reason the waitperson is there is because of money. That doesn't mean you can't be friends with them too. But the best way of showing your appreciation for their warmth and cheerfulness is in cash (in their place, what would you prefer?).

I have a sneaking suspicion that the real reason for being anti-tipping is that, alongside the admirable Kiwi virtue of being independent and informal buyers, is the not so admirable trait of being a bit mean.

That might have been fine, useful even, when we were a small, isolated frontier economy having to scrounge pirated parts for the tractor. But these days we're fully paid-up members of Con$umers United, and the Japanese banks fall over themselves to lend us dosh. As we enjoy the shopfest, we could probably afford to extend some of our profligacy to our fellow workers.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Anna Politkovskaya

Before the news that she'd been openly assasinated as she stepped out of her Moscow apartment, I'd only ever read a couple of things by Anna Politkovskaya: some excerpts selected as part of John Pilger's compendium of investigative journalism, Tell Me No Lies.

But even in that collection of examples of improbable bravery, hardheadedness and persistence, her pieces - about what she called the "dirty war" in Chechnya - stood out.

Chechnya is not a popular or romantic war zone. There's no clear right or wrong, no obvious geopolitical narrative. Just mutual and meaningless brutality with ordinary people caught in the middle.

In this grim setting, Anna Politkovskaya saw her role as simply to document the experiences of innocent victims "for the future". Though she was particularly dogged in uncovering the atrocities of the Russian Army, her only real agenda was to insist on the intrinsic value of each human life. For that, she was killed.

Though even world leaders felt compelled to comment on her murder, it barely gained a mention in the New Zealand media. On a night when Dan Carter's modelling of Jockey singlets featured highly on the late evening news, there was nothing on the death of Politkovskaya.

That's a great pity. Because if her murder will likely have the effect of further cowing dissent in Russia, her life ought to be an inspiration. She carried on doing what was right (not "what she thought was right") despite ongoing threats to her life. Few people will achieve that level of extreme heroism. But everyone should be able to draw some courage from it.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Have You Ever Seen the Rain?

Can we please put an end, once and for all, to the pernicious idea that New Zealand is in the grip of a “man drought”, with scores of frustrated women casting about for that rare and precious commodity – a nice, educated man.

I've posted on this previously. The journalistic beat-up of the original story was dumb and credulous. There's some doubt about the raw demographic statistics, and a good deal more about what they actually mean. There's also reasons – though I won't go into them here – why an equal number of men and women wouldn't necessarily produce the supposedly desirable system of one-to-one coupling.

But let's leave aside all that pointy-headed analysis and focus on the incontrovertible anecdotal evidence: in the most urbanised, highly-educated, feminised part of the country – central Wellington – there's not very many single women to be found. And certainly not in any semi-public setting where members of the opposite sex might actually see them.

As one guy interviewed last year said, when the meme spread from the print media to TV: “maybe they're all at home lighting candles and bathing themselves in lavender oil”.

This situation was established firmly the other Friday night, when four single young men found ourselves sitting outside a bar around 8:30, pondering on how hard it was to meet any girls. One of the two female members of the party had left ten minutes previously to join her husband. The other [engaged] woman had just departed rather hurriedly after establishing that, despite our articulate conversation and reasonable dress sense, none of us were actually gay.

All four of the males in attendance that night earn above the average wage. All four are in possession of that rare, and, according to the economist wonks, desirable quality – a postgraduate degree. None of us, on a good day, would be described as truly ugly. Two of us are even more than six foot tall (though I regret to say that I am not one of them). All four are capable of maintaining an interesting conversation on a variety if subjects (which, according to our female interlocutor, was probably part of our problem).

But we all agreed that, although some of us might have done alright in international settings (nudge nudge, wink wink), in New Zealand it was damnedly difficult.

A clue to the real state of affairs was to be found in yet another story on how hard it is to be a single Kiwi gal, which appeared a couple of months ago in that pillar of serious journalism, The Listener. Reading that article, I found it hard to get past the fact that the key “interviewee” was actually (I was privileged to know) the pictures editor of...The Listener. However, buried amidst the blather was an interesting nugget. An academic survey (at Massey? I think...) of single New Zealand men and women found that 50 percent of men cited “the person I like isn't available or is not interested” as the reason for their singledom. Just 20 percent of women gave the same reason.

This rings true to experience. My single female friends and acquaintances all tell the same “Bridget Jones”-style tale of woe: despite considerable male attention, and numerous encounters, liaisons, and semi-formed relationships, they can't find the right man. My single male friends and acquaintances also share a similar story: they pretty much can't get a date (or replace with a cruder expression, if you will).

So for one group it's like being in a clothes shop where there's some quite nice things on the racks, but you just can't find exactly the one you want. For the other, it's like being in the same shop and being told that the currency you have isn't accepted there.

The reasons for this are complicated, and I won't even begin to theorise on them at this point in time. What anyone can do about it, if anything, is even less clear. At an individual level, I have a strategy which I know others share: leave the country as soon as is practicable. I don't believe there's a “man drought” in New Zealand now. But if current trends continue, there eventually will be.