Friday, December 16, 2011

Birds of a Feather

Since I've been living in the Northland/Kelburn area of Wellington over the past three years or so, it's been my privilege to see native bird life return and flourish. The Karori Sanctuary (now renamed "Zealandia") is nearby, and, as the birds have established themselves there and reproduced, they've naturally decided to extend their habitat to wherever they please.

When I first moved here I used to get quite excited about seeing the occasional tui. Despite being very vocal, they could be slightly shy. Now they practically own the place, chirping regally on bushes and power lines alike.

When trekking along the Karori ridgeline a couple of years ago with some friends, we spotted a kereru, or native pigeon, as we descended through some bush above Khandallah. It was the first time I had seen one in the wild: my knowledge of it mainly derived from the Department of Conservation "Kereru in Crisis" poster that graced my bedroom wall (Unless steps are taken to halt its decline, this magnificent bird will disappear from most forests on the mainland...).

Now, there are a couple of kereru that have found a niche about half way up Garden Rd, occasionally flapping their plump bodies between clumps of vegetation. The other day, one alighted on a branch of a bush barely two metres to my left as I was walking up the road. I quickly froze and was able to stand quietly watch it pecking away at some berries for several minutes. 

Best of all, there are now at least two kaka that have colonised the area around the Thorndon cemetery. The kaka is a native parrot, a little smaller and slimmer than the kea, which lives in the lowlands and at medium altitudes. The only time I had seen kaka previously was on a trip to Kapiti Island, and I never thought that I would find them in my own neighbourhood. The kaka seems to be an incorrigible extrovert and a show off. On Kapiti Island there was one that happily landed on and climbed all over the visiting tourists. While the ones inhabiting the cemtery aren't that tame, they are happy to make themselves visible. They seem to particularly like the big old pine and macrocapa trees, sitting in the highest branches and squawking or trilling before setting off on another strafing run across the cricket fields.

The presence of this native bird life is a source of joy for reasons I can't quite articulate. Part of is that they are just more interesting and beautiful than the blackbirds and sparrows. But part of it is also something more complicated to do with renaissance and reclamation.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It All Fits Together, Somehow

Jorge Castañeda warns that with its slide into ever greater inequality, the United States risks falling into the trap Latin American countries have found it so hard to scramble out of. It is different here, but you could also plausibly substitute "New Zealand" into that sentence.

Jeffrey Frankel summarizes the characteristics of the "resource curse" well known to development studies students and suggests both existing and untried strategies for escaping its worst effects.

Red Logix at The Standard, channelling Ross Taylor, has an excellent post on innovation, small business and interdependence in provincial New Zealand.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Coalition Negotiations, Imagined

Scene: the interior of a cafe. John Key and John Banks sit on opposite sides of a small table, drinking coffee.

KEY [winking]: Well, you've really got us over a barrel here, John. Can't govern without you. Holding the balance of power and all that ...

BANKS: I wouldn't worry, Prime Minister. I'll be doing my utmost to ensure a stable, John Key-led government.

KEY: Yes, of course...but, technically, you are in a pretty powerful position. I'm guessing there's probably a few concessions you want to extract from us.

BANKS: Concessions?

KEY: Yes, something you want, in return for letting us govern.

BANKS [strokes tie, looks down at table]: Well, since you put it like that...there is something I do rather want...only thing I've ever wanted, really...

KEY [sighs]: Look, I thought we'd gone over this. I can't make you Mayor of Auckland.

BANKS [pouts a little]: How about Minister of Auckland. Or Minister for Auckland, isn't that what they call it these days?

KEY [shakes head sadly]: Sorry John, no can do...not in this term at least. Anyway, what I really meant was that you, I mean the ACT party, probably have some policies that you want to implement, and you can make some demands about those...

BANKS: Policies?

KEY [looks slightly exasperated]: Yes. Hasn't Don been getting you up to speed?

BANKS: Strange chap. Wants to have us all smoking weed. Over my dead body, I say.

KEY: Yes, quite. But there's all the core ACT policies, like...shall I get you started? Low and flattened tax rates. Reducing burdensome regulations. Reforming the RMA. Individualised unemployment insurance. Education vouchers.

BANKS: Education! That sounds like me. Can we give more money to Auckland Grammar?

KEY: Hmm, I suppose...[picks up some papers and shuffles through them]. How about we just let anyone, say a successful business, set up a school to see what they can do with it. They get public funding, but don't have to put up with all the red tape and regulations. To hell with the teachers' unions and all that...[looks at the papers]...charter schools.

BANKS [grins]: Busting the teacher unions? Heh. Count me in.

KEY: Ok, charter schools it is then. Something else?

BANKS [adamant]: We've got to stop giving so much money to the Maoris.

KEY [shuffles some more papers]: Okayyy...how about just a cap on all government spending?

BANKS: I'll trust your judgement, Prime Minister.

KEY: Excellent. Charter schools and a government spending cap. I'll get Stephen to work on the details. Cheers.

They clink coffee cups.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Inequality in New Zealand

It's interesting to see that this report from the OECD on New Zealand's rising inequality has been getting some local media attention -- although it had disappeared off the Stuff website by the end of yesterday. I've recently had conversations with several people -- some foreign, some from here -- in which I've claimed that "in the last thirty years Zealand has gone from being one of the most equal countries in the world to one of the most unequal developed countries".

They've tended to raise their eyebrows dsay that they're not sure that can be right. In fact, New Zealand is now the eight most unequal country out of 22 listed in the OECD report -- 6th out of 20 if you exclude middle-income Mexico and Turkey. But it has seen the most rapid rise in inequality of any OECD country over the past twenty years, with the Gini coefficient going from 27 to 33. Sure, we're not at Latin American levels yet (Mexico is at the relatively equitable end in a continent where the Gini coefficient ranges from the low 40s to around 60) butwe're heading in the right direction.

It should come as no surprise that most of New Zealand's rapid increase in inequality happened from 1985-95, during the time of radical reforms. The Gini coefficient peaked in 2000 and actually dropped by 1 point during the Helen Clark years of 2000--08.

It would be interesting to see some more detailed analysis of the changes in income distribution in New Zealand, perhaps with a nice graphical display like this. To what extent is increasing inequality about the educated upper middle class surging ahead, and to what extent the top few capturing most of the gains? To what extent is it related to upwards distribution of pre-tax incomes and to what extent a more regressive tax and transfer system?

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Just Follow Orders

 Here's something that's worthy of support for a number of reasons: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organisation of US law enforcement empoyees opposed to the war on drugs.

The opening section of the article tells the story of Bryan Gonzalez, a Border Control agent who lost his job after expressing opinions in favour of decriminalisation to a fellow official. His termination letter said he held “personal views that were contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps.”

Translation: "What we expect from you is blind loyalty, measured by the extent that you support obvious stupidity"

In My Naiivety About these Things

The way I understand Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage, it goes something like this:

Consider two countries, England and Portugal. England produces wool and wine. Annually, England can make 400 bales of wool and 200 barrels of wine. Portugal is also in the wool and wine business, but the Portuguese are less efficient. They can only produce 100 bales of wool and 100 barrels of wine per annum. Nevertheless, England should concentrate on producing wool and Portugal on making wine.  Even though England is more efficient at everything, it should concentrate on what it is most efficient at, while Portugal should devote itself to its area of greatest relative efficiency (i.e. the thing it is least inefficient at compared to England).

We know this because some maths shows that such a strategy will lead to the greatest total combined output of both products. The two countries can then trade and, assuming the price system works well, they will both be better off than before*.

This is supposedly the closest that economics gets to a physical law, what economists cite when they're asked to name something in their discipline that's definitely true. It's what smart people explain, speaking slowly and occasionally rolling their eyes, when naiive interlocutors wonder about the benefits of free trade.

But let's look at how freer trade and increased specialisation could play out. Imagine that wool production in Portugal is undertaken by smallholders while wine is grown on estates owned by a landed oligarchy. After the Portuguese government enthustiastically embraces its new FTA with England, the sheep farming land is put into wine production and the former wool producers work on the estates.  However, despite the overall gains from trade, the estate owners see no reason to pay more to either the new or the existing workers. In fact, maybe they can pay them less, since now there's little chance they'll run off and become a small-scale wool producer.

Later, some technological advances in wine production allows the Portuguese estate owners to increase production while laying off some of their workers. Fearful for their jobs, the remaining workers daren't ask for any pay increases.

This looks like it could lead to things getting worse for the majority of Portuguese who aren't wine estate owners. But never fear, an elightened Portuguese government ensures that the benefits of a growing economy are widely distributed. Having "grown the cake", the government receives increased tax revenues, which it uses to provide generous welfare payments to unemployed workers and increase funding for education.

However, this government is voted out, as the opposition rails against the the "irresponsible bribes" to "unproductive parasites".  Why should the wealth producers give up their hard-earned income to support those who aren't contributing to the economy? Both the weathy wine estate owners and many of the embattled workers buy in to this argument.

This scenario is obviously simplified but may also sound rather familiar. You'd think that smart economists would factor in such changes to the political economy and would have done some serious thinking about how they could be addressed in the real world. You'd also think that in a democracy such changes would have to be thoroughly considered and negotiated before being accepted. But then, maybe I'm being naiive.

*If I'm working it out right, England could potentially end up with 450 bales of wool and 200 barrels of wine, while Portugal would have 150 bales of wool and 100 barrels of wine.

Aconcagua Gear by Category #2 Head and Hands

Here's part 2 of my summary of different categories of gear I used on Aconcagua. Part 1 is here.  

Head

For the trek in, you definitely need good sun protection, and a broad brimmed hat is preferable. I wore my trusty baseball cap with a buf arranged in Foreign Legion style to protect my neck. It wasn't quite enough. Two members of the group had the integrated floppy hat and neck flap made by Outdoor Research. These hats are far from stylish, inspiring both good natured ribbing and self-deprecation from their wearers, but seemed to work well. Recommended if you don't mind looking like an eccentric scientist catching bugs.

A warm hat is another essential. As I've described elsewhere, I took two. The North Face beanie later became a beloved item and was almost permanently attached to my head during this past winter in Wellington. However, on the mountain itself, my alpaca super-chullo, hand-produced in the village of Callalli in Peru, was unbeatable for warmth and comfort.  

Hands A lot of attention needs to be paid to getting the right mix of hand protection. As I found out on Nevado Ampato, if you can't keep your hands both warm and usable, you become helpless pretty quickly. The gear list recommended two pairs of liner gloves, fleece gloves, mountaineering gloves, and expedition mittens.

As my basic liner gloves I took Outdoor Research PL 100 fleece gloves. I can't say enough good things about these gloves. They are warmer than you'd think, and are snug and stretchy, allowing good dexterity. After lots of scrabbling around with sharp rocks trying to anchor the tent I eventually destroyed the fingertips, but I made sure I bought another pair as soon as I got back to NZ.

I also took some Outdoor Research PL400 gloves, which are quite a lot thicker. These weren't particularly useful, as they didn't seem much warmer than the PL100s and weren't water or wind proof, but still prevented me from doing much with my hands -- I couldn't even get my fly undone while wearing them. If I had my time over, I would take another pair of PL100s, some windstopper gloves, and/or a thinner pair of fleece or wool liner gloves.

For my mountaineering gloves, I had a pair of Outdoor Research Arete gloves. Mine were an older version than the ones shown in the link and didn't have any insulation. I dispensed with the fairly useless factory liners and wore the outers over the PL100s. These provided adequate protection on the lower mountain when it was snowing, and they have a good idiot cord system. Starting over, I would prefer some gloves with insulation, which would work allow the option ofwearing them with thinner liners.

Finally, for the uber-warm mittens needed on summit day, I took the Black Diamond Mercury mitts. These were plenty warm enough and have an austere yet cuddly feel which makes it a little disappointing that another high-altitude expedition or camping in Siberia would be the only other occasions I can imagine wearing them.

As noted elsewhere, I would also highly recommend having some chemical hand warmers, as no matter how warm your mittens are, there'll be times you'll need to take them off, and they may need some help to warm your hands back up.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Election Reflections

In the end it was about half way between the worst-case and best-case scenarios. Probably towards the disappointing end overall, but once the special votes are counted there's even a slim possibility that the Maori Party may end up holding the balance of power.

The Guardian's sports pages have taken to running a post format called "five things we learned from..." after a round of matches. In that spirit, here's some thoughts on the elections in New Zealand.

People cared less this time (but why?)

After special votes are included, participation of registered voters will be something like 72 percent, compared to 80 percent in 2005 and 79 percent in 2008. That's apparently the lowest turnout since the 1880s. There is plenty of speculation about the reasons for this relative apathy. Hopefully, some of the questions will be answered by some basic research. Some of it could be done fairly easily with summary data from the Census and Electoral Roll. Were the non-voters and the non-registered mainly young people, first time voters, those in particular geographical locations or socioeconomic strata? Or were they spread fairly evenly through demographic groups and classes?

Other questions would require more detailed research with a sample group. Were those who stayed away complacent National supporters? Left-leaning voters who felt it was a foregone conclusion? People generally happy with the state of things? Or the marginalised who felt that no party or politican spoke for them?

The polls were wrong (or were they...?) 

A series of polls in the last week of the campaign gave National an average 52 percent of the vote. That was at least 4 points too high, and nobody picked the surge of support to NZ First (except perhaps the last Roy Morgan poll). On the other hand, the polls average was pretty close to the share gained by Labour, the Greens, ACT and the Maori Party. How badly wrong you think the polls were kind of depends onyour interpretation of the result. How much of the shift to NZ First was from strategic voting by Labour and Greens supporters wanting to get another opposition party over the threshold (worse for the polls); and how much was from soft National supporters having last-minute qualms about an absolute majority (which would suggest the polls were closer to being accurate).

Someone needs to make the Winston Peters movie

This would be an epic Godfather-esque tale of vengeance. Returning from three years in the wilderness after being hounded out by a broad coalition of media and politicians, Peters has once again outmanouvered his enemies. I'd love to be a fly on the wall to see the respective expressions if Peters and Rodney Hide pass in a corridor somewhere.

The liberal right continues to flirt with oxymoron status

The long journey of ACT from a right-libertarian vehicle to a party for angry white men reached tis concluson with the vesting of its electoral hopes in noted social conservative John Banks, who during the campaign smacked down his nominal leader's musings on cannabis law reform. In the aftermath of an election in which the party vote shrank to around 1 percent, Banks has been openly musing about merging ACT with the paleoconservative New Zealand Conservative Party.
My political education has advanced considerably since then, but what I wrote in a post six years ago still holds:

...across-the-board libertarian principles only seem to survive in universities, pubs and other theoretical settings...there's a mysterious process by which those who have to actually make policy see their social liberalism...rapidly eroded. 

I have a partial theory on why right liberalism tends to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. The profound inequalities created or exacerbated by right-wing economics in the real world ultimately have to be explained by blaming their victims. This leads inexorably back to tough-on-crime social conservatism, until this overshadows everything else.

Some people really don't want to let FPP go

I have been astounded by the range of people, from Guyon Espiner on election night to John Key afterwards, who expressed puzzlement and dismay that after such a "resounding victory" by National, they only had a narrow majority. Either these people don't understand MMP, or, more likely, they prefer not to. Forty-eight percent is indeed a high number for any individual party, but nearly all of the remaining votes went to parties that broadly oppose National's programme (including, in theory, one of their likely coalition partners, the Maori party). Under a proportional system (news flash: we had a referndum on this and decided to keep it), the biggest player doesn't get to wield absolute power.

 Some of this attitude is also coming from people on the left worried about Labor's position. Some sites have shown maps of New Zealand by electorate with only a few red dots in a "sea of blue". This does not refer to the electorate results (Labour actually won 21 electorates, with a couple of others still in play), but to the party vote in each electorate. There have been laments that even in strongholds in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, Labour "lost" the party vote to National. However, in most of those places, the Labour and Green party votes together easily exceeded National's. Granted the current high-tide position of National, the results need to be interpreted in the context of two strong parties on the left, one on the right.

More on that in another post.

Friday, November 25, 2011

What's At Stake in the New Zealand Election

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I'd prefer to see some kind of left-liberal governmment in New Zealand. In an ideal world, it would:

1) Pursue energy, transport, and environmental policies that not only make New Zealand a more pleasant place to live in, but also help prepare for the inexorable increase in the price of oil over the coming years

2) Make a serious and constant commitment to reducing inequalities, as far as necessary through taxation and social services, but as much as possible through employment and wages

3) Wrestle with how best to manage New Zealand's place in the international economy, exploring different options but maintaining 2) as a constant point of reference

4) Explain its policies in a way that respects the public's intelligence. Be prepared to change its mind and admit it was wrong. Respect the various democratic processes and make more information publicly available.*

But that's not going to happen. Instead, tomorrow's elections offer only best and worst-case scenarios among a generally unappetising range of possible outcomes.

Best case scenario

National fails to win an outright majority. ACT and United Future lose their respective electorate seats. National forms a minority government and is forced to rely on the Maori Party plus perhaps some kind of abstension from the Greens in return for a few policy wins. Individual items of legislation require support from one or more of the other parties. Any asset sales are greatly scaled down and/or delayed. Welfare policy gets a little more emphasis on Whanau Ora and a little less on bashing beneficiaries..

Worst case scenario**

National wins an outright majority, either alone or in tandem with ACT. Midway through the term they take a more ideological turn, perhaps associated with John Key stepping down, with cover provided by a second global recession triggered by chaos in Europe There are deeper and more rapid cuts in, or privatisation of, public services, with little mercy for anything that can be portrayed as involving minority interests or bureaucrats. Various labour and environmental protections are discarded as "unaffordable". Scapegoating of the marginalised intensifies.

I guess by aroound 9:00 pm tomorrow night we should have an idea which way it's likely to go.

* And it should give everyone a pony.

** In the event of a global meltdown, the best case scenario could easily turn into the worst case scenario, especially if the Government calls a snap election, arguing that being forced to relie on minor parties prevents it from "taking the necessary actions".

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Paradoxes of Neoliberalism, New Zealand Style, No. 2

With No. 1 possibly being this one. 

So, apparently the State can do little right because, apart from it being hobbled by self-interest, central planning is always inferior to the distributed intelligence of the market. Lots of individuals taking small, local decisions will allocate resources more efficiently than bureaucrats.

If this is true, then why do the likes of the Business Roundtable and their political spokespersons insist on the need for an electoral system that will provide "strong government" that can "take the necessary decisions"?

Electoral Propaganda Grammar Fail

Today I received a National Party flyer in my mailbox which claimed that "Labour =  Less Jobs".

Because "jobs" is a nebulous, non-discrete thing that really depends on how you look at it, kind of like "security", "growth" or "ultra-fast broadband".

Friday, November 18, 2011

Beyond a Joke

It's good that Danyl Mclaughlan is still finding new absurdist takes on New Zealand politics, because recent events seem to have spiralled well beyond the bounds of satire.

When politicans organise a media circus to document their deliberate manipulation of electoral voting, and a recording is (apparently inadvertently) made of their conversation, you'd think there'd be at least a prima facie case that the contents of the recording are in the public interest.

As many have noted, outraged claims of personal privacy are extremely ironic coming from the leader of a government that urgently pushed through legislation to retroactively legalise covert videotaping on private property. Comparisons to News of the World phone hacking victims and parents of suicidal teenager journey further into the bizarre.

Then, when the police are involved (because they have "spare time") and start seeking to search the premises of news organisations, it truly gets surreal. When Hugo Chavez decided not to renew the licence of a TV channel that had repeatedly called for his overthrow, international watchdogs worried about " freedom of the press". Our supposedy transparent demoncracy merits at least some of the same scrutiny.

Manufacturing and Meaning

A really interesting article from Aditya Chakrabortty on the decline of manufacturing in the UK, and the long-term impacts that are not just economic but also social and cultural. He argues that, in addition to jobs and income, "making things" brought a sense of purpose and social cohesion, and the "service economy" that has filled the void has been distinctly underwhelming:
 
And yet many of the arguments that preoccupy the British are haunted by the spectre of manufacturing. Angry at the overweening power of banks? Then you want a more mixed economy. Distressed at the gap between the rich and the rest of society? In the end, that will require jobs with decent wages and skill-levels, like the old manufacturing jobs. This applies to non-economic debates, too. Politicians go on about localism, without discussing what de-industrialisation has done to local economies. Pundits bemoan the loss of community spirit without considering the wrecking ball that has been put through many communities.

It's worth noting that the social history was summed up at the time by a certain Anglo-Scottish rock band.

A theoretical discussion of the same theme is offered by Dani Rodrik (a slightly more wonkish version here):

...the manufacturing sector is also where the world’s middle classes take shape and grow. Without a vibrant manufacturing base, societies tend to divide between rich and poor – those who have access to steady, well-paying jobs, and those whose jobs are less secure and lives more precarious. Manufacturing may ultimately be central to the vigor of a nation’s democracy....
 
...the service industries that have absorbed the labor released from manufacturing are a mixed bag. At the high end, finance, insurance, and business services, taken together, have productivity levels that are similar to manufacturing. These industries have created some new jobs, but not many – and that was before the financial crisis erupted in 2008. The bulk of new employment has come in “personal and social services,” which is where the economy’s least productive jobs are found. This migration of jobs down the productivity ladder has shaved 0.3 percentage points off US productivity growth every year since 1990 – roughly one-sixth of the actual gain over this period. The growing proportion of low-productivity labor has also contributed to rising inequality in American society.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Demographics, Shmemographics

I don't quite get it.From time to time you occasionally see articles like this one and this one on the world's changing demographics. Birth rates are dropping, not just in the developed world, but also in middle and even low-income countries. At current rates, the world population is likely to stop replacing itself by 2020 and will eventually peak (thanks to increasing life expectancies) around mid-century.

You'd think that might be a good thing, as it might help avoid the Malthusian crisis where the population overshoots the environment's carrying capacity. An end to population growth should reduce some of the drivers for climate change and the "peaking" of various natural resources.

However, articles such as these raise alarms about the prospect of population stabilization because it will reduce the number of "workers" as a proportion of the population:  

The consequences of rapid aging are manifold: a shrinking workforce and a narrower pool for entrepreneurship, which undermines prospects for economic growth; a looming threat to the sustainability of “pay-as you go” public pensions systems; and increased health-care and other costs associated with an elderly population.

This doesn't seem to fit the story we constantly hear (in reports such as this one)  that widespread unemployment and stagnant wages are due to technological change and globalization. In short, workers are being replaced by machines and increasingly forced to compete with one another on a global level.  If this story is broadly true*, then a relative decrease in the supply of workers should be a good thing. Increased competition for human labour should both increase wages and incentivise further innovation.

If productivity has increased because of technological change, and presumably will continue to do so, then why do we need the same ratio of "young workers" to "dependent older people" as in the past? People increasingly remain healthy and active into later in life.  And as the articles note, the kinds of work demanded in a technologically and demographically different society -- such as health care -- might be appropriately carried out by older people**.

That's not to overlook the specific issues with the projected demographic transition. The societies that age earliest -- such as Europe -- are going to have to adjust better to immigration if they're going to maintain some sort of balance. The serious gender imbalance predicted for China and India (a shortage of females) could have explosive consequences. And experience suggests that demographically younger places tend to be brighter and more hopeful, whatever their material circumstances: the obverse being the kind of malaise that some attribute to contemporary Japan.

Nevertheless, the "hump" of older people will enventually pass and the demography will correct itself. Meanwhile, if humanity is to remain anything like a sustainable venture, the predicted trend is surely the preferable one.

*If this is all a fiction and all the value really is produced by the young workers, then they're being roundly exploited, in which case shouldn't we have a revolution or something?

**The "narrower pool for entrepreneurship" also seems like a misguided concern: there were plenty of new ideas and inventions in the 19th century when the absolute numbers of potential entrepreneurs was much lower than it will be in thirty years.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Raining on Our Parade

(Which it did, last Wednesday in Wellington, as the crowds gathered to ticker-tape the All Blacks).

First, let's be clear that I was as wound up and emotionally invested in the Rugby World Cup as any Kiwi. I gritted my teeth during the first part of the quarter-final against Argentina; silently shook and bit my nails until around the 79th minute of the semi-final versus Australia; and sat ashen-faced through most of the final. Somehow despite all the intellectual defences, I couldn't escape the shared cultural yearning (there must be some German expression for that) that the All Blacks should win the damned World Cup.

And, I should own this, becuse I've criticised other people for it: at the end I was just relieved rather than joyous. We won on the scoreboard, but it wasn't convincing. Had we been lucky? Did we really deserve it? I know we couldn't really expect a Brazil 1970 or New Zealand 1987 moment, but the way we won just seemed a little anticlimactic. Maybe in another post I'll unpick that disappointment from a sporting angle.

Having made my own confession, and now that I've woken from my fevered dream and am once again conversant with concepts such as fairness and dignity, let me make the following little quibbles.

1.It's really a pity that no one associated with the All Blacks saw fit to congratulate or acknowledge the French for their performance. They silenced anyone who had written them off and were probably the better team on the night. Yes, they might have committed some skulduggery in the rucks, but we're not entirely innocent of that either. And even if you don't feel like being civil to them directly, offering an acknowledgement is a sign of dignity. Sean Fitzpatrick used to offer "full credit to the opposition", even after a 50-point shellacking.

2. The relentless booing of Quade Cooper during the tournamentwas dumb, boring and boorish. OK, so there were the cheap shots on Richie McCaw. But as noted above, the All Blacks are hardly angels either. I used to be embarassed that I had to support a team with Richard Loe in it. I'm not sure whether there was really an ethnic dimension to the treatment of Cooper but it definitely went too far. I admit that during the tournament I was supporting anyone against Australia, but that was mainly because I thought they were our biggest threat. I'm still rather terrified by the prospect of a backline including Genia, Ioane, Beale and O'Connor along with Cooper for the forseeable future. God help us if they find themselves a tight five.

3. I guess it's true that ultimately winning by 1 point is as good as 20, it's not how you win but whether you win, etcetera. Recognising that much is itself a kind of humility, so that's progress.  But having embraced the Dark Side, let's be consistent. I never again want to hear from the New Zealand media about "boring" or "negative" sides from the Northern Hemisphere.  In the semi-final, we did to Australia what South Africa at their best occasionally  do to us: played a territorial game, put them under pressure, and kicked the penalties. In the final, we were like a particularly nervous version of England at their most conservative.

I also don't want to hear endless moaning about bad luck or poor referee's decisions. As we saw clearly during the World Cup, a number of sides had major grievances with how they were refereed, and Wales' whole tournament was derailed in a single moment. Let's acknowledge that there are swings and roundabouts and we probably got the rub of the greeen this time.

4. Could the media and people in general do any more to get things out of proportion and set everyone up for failure and disappointment? Endless repetitions of "24 years of hurt" (actually, from 1987-91 we were reigning champions, so strictly speaking any "hurt" has only been going for 20 years), and "how much it would mean" to the players, the coach, and the nation's collective psyche raised the stakes so much that collapsing under the pressure was almost the only possible response. Yes, everyone loves World Cups and given our track record it's about time New Zealand won the thing. But a tournament is by its nature fickle and no matter how good you are you can't legislate against a confluence of circumstances that can knock you out.Don't forget that football giants Germany haven't won anything for 16 years, and Argentina for 18 years.

On average the All Blacks win an excellent 3 out of 4 games against top opposition (Australia, France, England and South Africa) But that fourth game can occur at any time. And there's no guarantee of winning big games. New Zealand does well in general by having a good all round mix of skill and power. But player for player (especially without Dan Carter) you'd be hard pressed to claim that we are obviously superior to other teams. At present, Australia has a better back line, and France, South Africa and England would all slightly shade us in the tight forwards. So being the No 1 team and not winning the World Cup are perfectly compatible. Maybe we could have a little more celebration of the 10 Tri Nations titles and the unbeaten record in the Northern Hemisphere since 2002. That's what the Australians would do.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Progress, Inequality, Etc

You can't keep updating a single post, so I'm ending the previous one while continuing to be preoccupied with the same broad set of themes. These link-heavy posts are kind of like my public filing system.

I don't want to be all Crooked Timber all of the time, as the posters there would say, but a couple of the recent post-plus-comment debates there cover off, and make largely redundant, my personal musings.

There's this one on whether, stagnant median incomes aside, things have really got better in the last 30 years. To be brief, I'd say that the basics of life -- housing, food, education and health -- have become more costly and less secure, even for the upper middle; but once you get past that threshold it's easier to have and do a variety of things.

This one on the fraught questionof how to balance concerns about short-term economic stimulus, long-term environmental sustainability, global poverty, and developed-country inequality.

Elsewhere, the morphing of Occupy Wall Street into We Are the 99 Percent suggests that this might be one protest movement with a good enough marketing pitch to gather momentum.

Also, Arthur Goldhammer criticisizes a"Randian" depiction of Steve Jobs:  

To say this is to take nothing away from Steve Jobs, who was brilliant at what he did. But what he did was essentially to package the genius of tens of thousands of others, who worked not for extraordinary shares of immense profits or for rock-star celebrity but for love of the work itself. When the technologies are in place, it is inevitable that a Jobs will come along and find the key to commoditizing them, but creation of the technologies is a long, slow, and above all social process, which owes more to the actions of a far-sighted state and to basic research pursued in universities and private labs than to the genius of any entrepreneur.

For some light relief, ther's an interesting thread on Public Address discussing the implications of the Voluntary Student Membership bill likely to pass Parliament.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Tracking My Traffic

So, after I finally get myself organised with an integrated blog / website at Andean Observer and think about maybe retiring this one, Blogger has introduced a new default interface, with complementary statistical summaries of traffic to the site. Until now, this has been the sort of thing you need to install separate software for. For the first time, I can see where visitors to this blog are from (i.e. by country), how they find it, and what they're looking at. The history only goes back to mid-2009, but it's fascinating nevertheless. The measurement is "page views", which I assume get counted every time someone loads a separate page. Here are some facts about my traffic to date: 

About one third of all visits come from the United States. Around another 15 percent are from New Zealand. Russia (!), Germany, the Netherlands, France, Australia, Peru, the United Kingdom and Brazil round out the top 10. Although the US/NZ share seems to be pretty steady, the international traffice varies a bit. For example, this month I've been popular in Latvia, and China and Malaysia make it into the top 10.

Unsurprisingly, Google is the biggest referrer, led by the .com site and then the New Zealand, Peruvian, Canadian, British, French and Australian variants. Easily the most common search term was (and I find this rather endearing) chullo. Interestingly, the next most common was made up of various combinations of "South America" and "cave", most of whom would have ended up at the "Señor Mendoza and the Devil's Cave" page. "Nevado Ampato" was another prominent search term. A number of terms suggest people were specifically searching for this site, while there's also traffic for people searching for links to www.sudamericatour.com (that would be Hugo and his offsiders).

The most popular pages are rather an odd collection, although the stats do suggest the bulk of visitors go to the main blog page, so I shouldn't be too worried at the negligible page views for some of what I think are my best and most interesting posts. The post with easily the most page views is "Non-traditional Exports in the Andes", a rather nondescript development-related post from January 2010. This is followed by my post on Mario Vargas Llosa winning the Nobel Prize and then the aforementioned Señor Mendoza post. Posts on Ampato and Salkantay have also been relatively popular, but there are some other odd ones and most of what I consider my better pieces have been roundly ignored.

For the record, a little over 60 percent of site visitors are using Internet Explorer, with another 20 percent using Firefox. Approximately 90 percent of visitors have a Windows-based operating system.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Developed Country Political Economy Rolling Links Edition 5 September 2011

NB: This is a progressively updated post. I've added the date to the post title to dentify the current version.

Recently, I've been reading a lot of versions of a similar general narrative which ties together changes in the political economy of the developed countries (especially the English-speaking ones) over the past 30 years. This time period has seen the wealthiest few percent of society recieve the great majority of gains from increased productivity and economic growth; middle class incomes stagnate; inequality consequently increase; and historical social compacts fray and start to fall apart. The share of GDP going to wages and salaries has fallen, and the the finance sector has become more important and powerful.

A lot of the story is summed up, for the United States at least, by this graphic in the New York Times showing the relationship between productivity and wage increases, income gains for the different groups in society, share of income held by the top 1%, and household debt. These trends are divided up into two periods: the"Great Prosperity" from 1947-79, and the neoliberal era from 1980-2009.

There's a lot of debate about the causes of these changes, their significance, and what to do about them. Paul Krugman in particular has written a lot about the relationship between deregulated finance, economic instability and inequality, as well as the strange and changing social attitudes that accompany the reappearance of plutocracy. But there are lots of other angles too, including thoughts about the consequences this maldistribution will have as resource shortages start to bite. A personal interest is in how the rich countries are increasingly starting to suffer from afflictions historically associated with the Third World. In a way, we're all becoming banana republics. I've made this into a rolling update post, so I can gradually incorporate the best discussions.

Friday, September 02, 2011

US Mainstream Media Eeuurrgghh! Edition

I've previously praised The Good Wife as an intelligent, gripping drama series. Despite standing by that general evaluation, I almost had to boycott it as a result of an incredibly stupid and ultimately offensive plot element in the recent Season 2 episode 22, "Foreign Affairs".

In this episode, Lockhart & Gardner are representing a contractor to a large oil company who has not received payment for drilling work carried out in Venezuela. Negotiations are proceeding, when a celebrity lawyer played by Law & Order actor and former US presidential candidate Fred Thompson appears to announce that as the oil company's Venezuelan interests have just been nationalised and the Venezuelan government has hired his firm to represent it, he will be taking over the case.

At a court hearing the judge advises Lockhart & Gardner that they should merge their case with Thomspon's. "Great" says Will. "Now we have a dictator for a client".

Later, in a conference on the case, the supposed "President Chavez" participates personally. A video link shows a waist-down view of "Chavez" walking around, while a voice speaking obviously Mexican-accented Spanish interjects in proceedings. On several other occasions Chavez is referred to as a "dictator" and when Lockhart & Gardner's client is awarded over the odds damages Will says this is the “standard surcharge for dictators.”

It's kind of boring and annoying to have to state this: whatever his authoritarian "tendencies" or specific instances of executive overreach (and for examples of the latter, see Bush, G W, 2000-2008), Hugo Chavez is not a "dictator" but has been voted in through multiple free and fair elections. Incredibly, mainstream US media institutions that consider themselves serious have no problem in blithely repeating outright falsehoods.

Also completely misleading is the idea that the president can just change laws overnight without reference to Congress. Or that the president himself might be the client and take a direct role in a legal case against an international company. This is kind of like Obama involving himself in Government of the United States vs. Random defendant cases. Surely even virulently anti-Chavez Venezuelans would cringe at the depiction of their country as a tiny, tinpot banana republic which apparently has no institutions and makes no distinction between the State and the current occupant of the Executive?

As an aside, another plot point turned on a document titled "Exit Strategy" being mistranslated as Estrategia de Exito (Success Strategy). While hardly as lame as the Chavez depiction, this is not a mistake a translator would make.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Links Ahoy: Welfare, Obama, Italy, Chile and Travel

Danyl McLachlan's satire sums up the latest welfare reform proposals. It suggests not much has changed since I wrote this.

Timothy Egan tracks the downgrade of Obama's promise of "hope and audacity".

Gordon Campbell is doing regular background pieces on the politics and economy of all the different countries involved in the Rugby World Cup. This one on Italy is especially interesting for its coverage of a failed scheme to address youth unemployment.

Two local Chilean acquaintances recently described for me the current social movements driven by protests about education. In what they describe as "the most neoliberal country in the world", much of the education system is run on a for-profit basis, resulting in a two-tier system of enormous inequities. The Guardian adds more background and profiles the leader of the protests: 23, beautiful, terrifyingly articulate, and a communist (if she didn't exist Isabel Allende would have had to invent her).

On a lighter note, these are pretty accurate observations on travelling from Ben Groundwater. I liked this one:

10. No one cares what happened while you were overseas
This is a little surprise waiting for you when you come home. All those amazing experiences you had on the road? No one wants to hear about them. No one wants to look at your photos. No one wants to see your souvenirs.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Climbing Aconcagua: Argentina's Stone Sentinel

It's late afternoon at Camp 3 on Aconcagua, 6,000 metres above sea level. Huddled inside my sleeping bag, I listen intently for changes in the sound of wind and snow against the tent. Gradually, the wind drops to a whisper. Then, the yellow tent wall begins to brighten, filtering an unmistakeable warmth through the canvas. Sunlight! I unzip the tent door, spend a couple of minutes wrestling to get foam liners and feet into the plastic boots sitting outside, then haul myself out into the freezing air. Outside, a few flakes are still drifting, but the clouds have rolled away and the sun is glowing crimson on the western horizon. Below our eagle's eyrie of a camp site, the serried peaks of the Andes fade into the north. Above and behind is the flank of Aconcagua itself. I feel a thrill of elation. After nearly two weeks of struggle and uncertainty, tomorrow we will be making an attempt on the highest summit in the western hemisphere.

Towering above surrounding peaks near the border between Argentina and Chile, Aconcagua’s 6,962 metres make it not only the highest mountain in the Andes, but the highest anywhere outside Asia. Even more notable, the standard route to the summit is free of glaciers or crevasses and can be attempted by those without technical mountain-climbing skills. That doesn't mean it can be taken lightly. Aconcagua's altitude is literally breath taking, nearly twice that of New Zealand’s Mt Cook. And its weather is notoriously unpredictable, with -30 degree temperatures and fierce winds that sweep in from the Pacific. Every summer, the mountain claims some lives.

Our group of eleven climbers is on an expedition organised by Wanaka's Adventure Consultants. The journey starts in the leafy Argentinean city of Mendoza, where 35-degree afternoons and enormous juicy steaks make for pleasant preparation. Before we head to the start of the expedition we are briefed by our guides: leader Matias from Chile, and Mendoza locals Leo and Agustin. Between them, they have summited Aconcagua thirty-six times.

To even arrive at the foot of the mountain is a three-day, 50km trek in from the road up the Vacas Valley, over relatively gentle terrain but under a parching sun. Fifteen minutes before arriving at our second camp, we get our first glimpse of the mountain, glimmering blue-white and symmetrical through a gap in the hills.

The next morning comes the only river crossing of the expedition. It's just twenty seconds, but the numbing icy water leaves even the guides hopping and cursing on the opposite bank. From there we work our way up the Relinchos Valley to Plaza Argentina, our base camp at 4,200 metres. For two days we rest and acclimatise enjoying the relative luxury of permanent metal-framed cooking and dining tents, a water supply and long-drop toilets.

The gear carry to Camp 1 is the first real challenge of the expedition. With communal food and supplies as well as personal equipment, we'll need to carry as much as 25kg up steep and difficult terrain culminating in a brutal scree slope that crumbles and slips under our boots. For one expedition member, it’s too far beyond his previous experience on Africa’s Kilimanjaro, and he reluctantly abandons the expedition.

The “climb high, sleep low” policy sees us return to base camp before moving permanently to Camp 1, from where we do another five-hour gear carry to Camp 2 at 5,500 metres. After getting back from the carry, two more members of our group decide to pull out. A Brazilian team accompanying us up the mountain has also lost a third of its members. The afternoon weather closes in and it begins to snow heavily. The snow continues into the next day, preventing any further move.

The following morning a dazzling sun reflects off the snowed-in tents. We hurriedly pack up our gear and begin our move to Camp 2. But after only an hour the clouds roll in again. Snow falls, first gently, then horizontally, as wind howls into our faces. The weather worsens as we work our way around the mountain's northwestern flank, until visibility drops to twenty metres. Finally arriving at camp, we work desperately to pitch the tents and scramble into shelter.


The next morning there's grim news. A number of people have been reported missing, including climbers we had seen working their way up the Polish Glacier route the previous day. We'll later get confirmation that the storm has taken the lives of three people higher on the mountain and seen several others evacuated with frostbite.

As the storm continues, we huddle in the tents and try to conserve energy. Our guides melt snow for water and perform heroics to cook a nourishing dinner. Morale has dropped: with food and time running out, we wonder whether we’ll even get to make a summit attempt.

We're reluctant to believe in the still, clear skies the next morning. But the weather remains perfect as we carry gear to camp 3, taking turns with an American team to plough a trail through the thick snow. Another member has breathing problems and decides he’ll go no further. Seven out of eleven climbers remain.

Monday, 14 February, we complete the move from camp 2 to camp 3. Now at 6,000 metres, we’re poised for a summit attempt. But the afternoon clouds over and it begins to snow. Will we be frustrated at the final hurdle? Just before sunset, the weather clears. It looks like the mountain will grant us an opportunity after all.

After a long sleepless night, at 6am it’s finally time. By torch light we don balaclavas, down jackets and insulated pants, strap on crampons, and stuff energy gels into pockets. Dawn breaks as we trudge up through the snow. The arc of horizon evolves through an array of hues, unveiling a dizzying array of ridges and peaks below us. Daylight reveals a line of climbers on the slope above us. Some are already struggling, stopped, leaning forward on to their poles, breathing heavily. We inch our way up to the pass and into the shelter of a small hollow. This is Independencia, one third of the way.


Fifty metres up over a steep bank and we begin a long traverse across the mountainside where normally the wind screams in from the west. Incredibly, there’s hardly a breeze. After all the tribulations on the way up the mountain, today we’ve got very lucky.

At a rest stop, our guides take the tough decision that one of the group is struggling too much. With still five hours to the summit and three hours down, they judge he won’t have the energy to last, and he is escorted back to camp by Agustin. Two guides and six climbers remain, as we work our way up to a cleft in the mountainside known as the Cave.

Beyond the Cave, a steep route zig-zags upwards. This is the notorious Canaleta, which is usually dry scree. The snow cover makes progress slightly easier, but my calves burn with each step upwards. I later realize I've drifted into a meditative state: it’s hard to believe that three more hours pass as we ease uphill.

I can see two, three more bends before a jumble of boulders that mark the edge of the summit plateau. I feel a brief wave of emotion: after months of preparation and two weeks of climbing, I will make it to the highest point in the Americas. I think of all my friends and family that will be proud of me.

Nine hours after leaving camp, Leo stops by some large rounded boulders and waves me up. I scramble clumsily over them and lift myself on to the summit. Fellow expedition members join me and we share high-fives and hugs. We take photos next to Aconcagua’s famous cross, where climbers hang small trinkets to mark their ascent. Each year these are cleaned away by winter storms.


From there, we still have to make it down. It's several more hours, and two of the other group members are so exhausted they have to be roped to the guides. I have a little stumble on the way down to the Cave and a five-minute dizzy spell while resting there, but recover after half of litre water and an emergency One Square Meal. Ahead also is the next day's rapid descent, tired legs weighed down by overloaded packs and slipping on the icy slopes, to the Plaza de Mulas camp, with its almost unbelievable prizes of pizza and beer. Then the 30km trek out, along the dusty riverbeds of the Horcones Valley.

But the present moment is about the summit. It’s less joyful celebration than quiet reflection on the effort, team work and luck required to make it this far; and acknowledgement that we're here at Aconcagua’s grace. As the sign in the camp doctor’s office at Plaza Argentina says: “It’s not until you’re back at base camp that the mountain belongs to you. Until then, you belong to it”.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Return of the Welfare Working Group: This Time It's Personal

Is the National Party really planning to make beneficiary-bashing a prime election issue? And are New Zealanders going to make this popular? Are we so small-minded that we will happily be distracted from our many big problems by a proposal to micromanage the lives of a couple of thousand teenagers?

As usual Gordon Campbell has great coverage and arguments, but even conservative business columnist Fran O' Sullivan is fair-minded enough to point out what the problem is (a clue: it's to do with jobs). Danyl McLaughlan and Russell Brown have the centrist liberal angle.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

This Is the Kind of Thing That Makes Me Angry

Stuff reports that Restaurant Brands, which controls the Starbucks, KFC and Pizza Hut outlets in New Zealand, has no plans to pay Christchurch workers for their rostered hours for Monday 15 August when snow prevented business operation. Neither were they paid when a similar situation occurred on Monday 25 July. Instead, they will be expected to take a day of annual leave (assuming they are permanent employees and are eligible for it).

So, you're a fast-food worker, paid low wages even by the standards of our low-wage society. You work under difficult conditions and will often not know from week to week exactly when or how many hours you'll work. Most likely, you will occasionally have to perform miracles when faced with a rush period or short staffing. Then, through no fault of your own, you lose maybe 20 percent of your weekly wage because of the weather.

When an act of God like a snow storm makes economic activity stall, everyone is affected. Yet here we see the people with the least buffer against such events being expected to absorb all the consequences.

It's not as if we're talking about small independent businesses that have taken risks to provide employment. This is a large, powerful conglomerate that profits from economies of scale and an industrialised supply chain. Restaurant Brands is perfectly capable of telling all the respective owner-operators or franchise holders that it will absorb the costs of paying the rostered hours of snow-bound employees. In fact, you'd think that anyone with half a functioning public relations department would have done this already.

Such a situation is even more ironic in a community already beaten down by other natural disasters. In February, John Key said that getting Christchurch back on its feet wasn't Christchurch's struggle, it was New Zealand's struggle. I guess such theoretical solidarity didn't include large corporations.

Meanwhile, there's a lot of focus on the largely punitive measures aimed at young people as part of “welfare reform”. The message that is being delivered is clear: lots of responsibility for vulnerable young people; none at all for the rich and powerful.

UPDATE: Restaurant Brands has said it will pay snowed-bound staff after all. A small victory for decency and an indication that public shaming still has some power. Also, congratulations to the likes of Cookie Time who were doing this in the first place.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

But the Market Says

These are strange times for those who grew up ingesting the certainties of the 1980s and 1990s that it's impossible to argue with "the market".

First we see even the National and ACT parties agreeing to an enquiry into the price of milk. Then there's the furore over the price charged by Adidas for the All Blacks replica jersey.

I have no desire to buy an All Blacks jersey (despite enjoying rugby and supporting the All Blacks). However, I do think there's something wrong here. The dynamic is pretty close to what I think Naomi Klein was criticising in No Logo.

To begin with, we have a symbol that gains its value from popular culture, in this case New Zealanders' long history of dedication to playing and supporting rugby. The All Blacks are just the flagship for a culture which has its roots in provinces, clubs and schools and is based on the mostly unpaid commitment of ordinary people.

This cultural capital is then appropriated, commodified and privatized, in the form of the New Zealand Rugby Union giving exclusive rights to a multinational company to produce the "official" jersey. This is then sold back to the people who care about it. And precisely because its value is most salient here in New Zealand, the prices demanded are notably higher than overseas. New Zealand has been taken off allowable destinations of international websites that have the jersey much cheaper, seemingly at the request of Adidas.

Finally, it's worth noting that this whole process has its material basis elsewhere, since the jerseys are undoubtedly made in China and do not provide any local manufacturing employment.

This highly socially-constructed process is then presented as the market at work, a simple case of supply and demand, typified by the comment from Riche McCaw's [reported] girlfriend Nicola Grigg: "why the hell should Adidas change its prices". However, now we have Rebel Sports general manager talking about being "morally sensible" and Prime Minister John Key opining that "[Adidas] needs to determine whether their actions are in the best interest of the country". It's enough to make a time-traveller from the 1990s do a double take.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

It's the Politics, Stupid

The mainstream media infrequently acknowledges that the various economic and financial "crises" around the world relate to political choices rather than unstoppable economic forces of nature (category error intended) that no one can control.

No where is this more true than in the furore over the US debt ceiling. What has been presented as "partisan bickering" over an absolutely necessary reckoning with out-of-control debt and deficits was in reality a cynical act of blackmail by the Republican Party, which took advantage of what had always been a routine legislative process to advance their agendas (mainly cutting government programmes for the poor and middle class and ensuring rich people don't pay any more taxes). Obama has aided and abetted this by consistently acting as if the deficit is the biggest problem, while meanwhile, millions of people are unemployed.

The depiction of the United States as an economic basket case propped up by China is muddled and mostly wrong. There's a good piece pulling apart all the misinformation from Dean Baker and David Rosnick at the Centre for Economic and Policy Research: 7 Things You Need to Know About the National Debt, Deficits and the Dollar (see the press release for a potted version).

The only areas where the US has genuine sustainability issues are in the long-term with health care costs -- a massive issue for both the public and private sector. However, the sabotage by the Republicans may make short-term instability a self-fulfilling prophecy. (And these are some of the same people who decried as "unpatriotic" those who argued against invading Iraq!).

The downgrading of US debt by Standard & Poors also has political aspects. At least this is getting widespread push back. Numerous people have pointed out the ridiculousness of taking Standard & Poors seriously about anything, let alone sovereign debt. More here and, amusingly, here. Even a Reuters-circulated piece mercilessly mocks S&P. Note that in New Zealand, the Government defended their most recent Budget by boasting that "Phil Goff might not like it, but Standard and Poor's does". Hmm.

Krugman and others tear out their hair at the narrative that recent stock market panics are the result of fears about public debt. If so, why did the interest rates for 10-year US Treasury bonds go down following the downgrade? A more plausible story is that the markets are reacting rationally to the ongoing stupidity: the demand for austerity will hurt the economy, which in turn will fuel calls for more austerity, and so forth.

Why are these perverse and self-defeating choices being made? As always, an interesting question to ask is: cui bono? Krugman (again) analyses the terms of the interests of rentiers:

[The] only real beneficiaries of Pain Caucus policies...are the rentiers: bankers and wealthy individuals with lots of bonds in their portfolios.

And that explains why creditor interests bulk so large in policy; not only is this the class that makes big campaign contributions, it’s the class that has personal access to policy makers — many of whom go to work for these people when they exit government through the revolving door. The process of influence doesn’t have to involve raw corruption (although that happens, too). All it requires is the tendency to assume that what’s good for the people you hang out with, the people who seem so impressive in meetings — hey, they’re rich, they’re smart, and they have great tailors — must be good for the economy as a whole.

But the reality is just the opposite: creditor-friendly policies are crippling the economy. This is a negative-sum game, in which the attempt to protect the rentiers from any losses is inflicting much larger losses on everyone else.

There's more here and here, and some interesting debate from The Economist website here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Crime & Consumerism

Zoe Williams has kind of meta-analysis of reaction to the London (and now Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester) riots. She notes the ironies:

I think it's just about possible that you could see your actions refashioned into a noble cause if you were stealing the staples: bread, milk. But it can't be done while you're nicking trainers, let alone laptops.

She considers the authoritarian response that this is just "pure criminality" and the liberal view that it's just downtrodden people lashing out, but suggests a middle view: the riots arent directly political, but do need to be understand in the context of the prevailing political economy:

Between these poles is a more pragmatic reading: this is what happens when people don't have anything, when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can't afford, and they have no reason ever to believe that they will be able to afford it. Hiller takes up this idea: "Consumer society relies on your ability to participate in it. So what we recognise as a consumer now was born out of shorter hours, higher wages and the availability of credit. If you're dealing with a lot of people who don't have the last two, that contract doesn't work. They seem to be targeting the stores selling goods they would normally consume. So perhaps they're rebelling against the system that denies its bounty to them because they can't afford it."

The tragic mindlessness of smashing up shops so you can get their stuff is best criticised by this woman in Hackney.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Big Picture

Dani Rodrik looks anew at the relationship between GDP per capita and democracy at the country level and finds interesting patterns and unanswered questions (clue: the latter involve China).

Meanwhile, at an even bigger scale, University of California physics professor Tom Murphy considers the possbilities for ongoing economic growth in the context of tapering energy growth. It's a neutral, Club of Rome-style analysis that nevertheless has some (intentionally?) amusing bits.

This would mean that an increasingly small fraction of economic activity would depend heavily on energy, so that food production, manufacturing, transportation, etc. would be relegated to economic insignificance. Activities like selling and buying existing houses, financial transactions, innovations (including new ways to move money around), fashion, and psychotherapy will be effectively all that’s left. Consequently, the price of food, energy, and manufacturing would drop to negligible levels relative to the fluffy stuff. And is this realistic—that a vital resource at its physical limit gets arbitrarily cheap? Bizarre.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Beat. Head. Wall.

For those of us watching in fascinated horror, the US debt ceiling drama has been a lesson in political science, and a teachable moment for those who urge collaboration and bipartisanship, no matter how unreasonable the opponent.

There's an interesting analysis from Bruce Bartlett, who argues that Obama lacks the experience of bargaining from the Cold War and labour disputes that hardened politicians in the past:

Now we are in the midst of a debt crisis that stems largely from Obama’s inability to accept the intransigence of his political opponents. Last December, he caved in to Republicans by supporting extension of the Bush tax cuts even though there is no evidence that they have done anything other than increase the deficit. There were those who told Obama that he ought to include an increase in the debt limit, but he rejected that idea, believing that Republicans would behave like responsible adults and raise the debt limit just as they did routinely when their party held the White House.

If you think that is a "partisan" analysis, note that Bartlett was an advisor to President Reagan.

Paul Krugman has been a regular, and increasingly vexed commenter on Obama's negotiation strategy:

It’s really hard to talk about this without getting into armchair psychoanalysis. I’ll try to refrain. But let’s just say that Obama’s continuing insistence on compromising, his continuing faith in bipartisanship despite two and a half years of evidence that these people don’t do compromise and will never make a deal, is looking obsessive and compulsive. It’s deeply frustrating.

And the most frustrating thing is that even when you start by moving more than half way to your opponent's position, the media will still report the ensuing efforts not to completely surrender as "partisan bickering".

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Kim Jong-Il's Law?

I propose a variation on Godwin's Law. This would apply to the first person, who in commenting on a discussion about the deleterious effects of rising inequality , mentions North Korea.

Example:

"Worried about how the top few percent hold such a large proportion of society's wealth? I suppose you'd prefer to go and live in North Korea"

Monday, July 18, 2011

Inconceivable

I don't know quite what to make of the fact that the Copa America semi-finals will feature Uruguay vs. Peru and Paraguay vs. Venezuela. There would have been long odds on favoured teams Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and Chile successively losing out to their opponents in the quarter-finals. The results came about in varying ways: from the epic Argentina-Uruguay match that neither team really deserved to lose, to the near-farce of the Brazil-Paraguay game where the Brazilians somehow failed to score in 120 minutes and then didn't convert any of their penalties.

All four of the winning sides were relatively pragmatic and unambitious, took their opportunities while their opponents squandered chances, and in the case of Uruguay and Paraguay, were helped through by the heroic goalkeeping performances.On the positive side, it's unpredictable, and means we avoid a third successive Brazil-Argentina final. On the negative side, it fuels arguments about the increasing mediocrity of international football. Negative tactics have been rewarded. None of the remaining sides (with the possible exception of Uruguay) have much charisma in footballing terms and most of the star players that were supposed to light up the tournament are gone, having failed to gel with their team mates and reproduce the form they show for their clubs.

In theory, Uruguay should win easily from here. But if we've learned anything so far, it's that the form book doesn't hold. For the record, I'm picking an easy 3-0 win for Uruguay over Peru, Paraguay to edge out Venezuela 1-0 with an ugly goal scrambled in from a free kick, then Uruguay and Paraguay to play out a dire 0-0 final. Who then wins on penalties? Well, I don't have a crystal ball.

For Their Own Benefit

If you take the Welfare Working Group at face value, their greatest concern is the well being of people on benefits, and their children. Its final report states:

Reducing the unacceptably high incidence of child poverty in New Zealand through a particular focus on risk jobless households and whanau must be a high priority of reform.

A lot is also made of the gains to self-esteem and dignity from being in paid work. Apart from the apparent futility of getting sole parents to organise and pay someone else to look after their children while they try to earn the same level of subsistence income, this is fair enough

But what it would take to help the majority of people struggling on benefits to get paid work? As the WWG acknowleges at different points, apart from child care, there's less punitive benefit abatement rates, education and skills training, more intensive individualised support for disabled people, drug rehabilitation, better public transport, help with the cost relocating to job-rich locations, and the list goes on.

The final report sums it up:

Reducing long-term benefit dependency requires an effective health system, an effective education system, adequate provision of affordable childcare, and the availability of suitable jobs. Social barriers to employment also need to be addressed, such as discrimination in the labour market and in the workplace against various groups including the long-term unemployed and disabled people. (p.54)

The problem is, all this doesn't square with the other stated concern of the WWG of reducing costs, nor with the assertion, backed by rather odd use of data in their Issues paper, that the current system is "unsustainable". If you were sincere about the doing the things required to support as many people as possible to get paid work, you'd need to consider that it might actually cost more.

Then there's the immense blind spot explained in passing by the fact that "our Terms of Reference precluded consideration of rates of payment in the welfare system". The WWG duly recognises that "children whose parents rely on income from the welfare system are at significantly higher risk of poverty" but assiduously avoids noting the obvious: you could address at least some of the problems suffered by the children of beneficiaries simply by making benefits less miserly.Link
Short of sending people to live under bridges, the current system, as flawed as it is, may actually be the cheapest option. If the idea is that we need to invest more to prevent people being left to rot, then I'm all for it. But given that the most specific WWG recommendations mainly involve things like making the higher payments for sickness and disability benefit discretionary, and inventing byzantine new "sanctions" regimes, one wonders if that is actually the plan.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Aconcagua Gear by Category #1

When I was preparing to climb Aconcagua, I had to make sure I had all the items on the Adventure Consultants gear list, and this meant getting quite a few things that I'd never had before. In doing the necessary research to find something that was right for me, I found the comments and reviews on various web sites to be very helpful. So here is where I return the favour. As promised, I'm going to go systematically through the categories of gear for Aconcagua to discuss what my experiences were and what I'd recommend. This post covers clothes. I make no apologies for mentioning brands and models, since in many cases their specific characteristics are important.

Trekking Clothes

For the trek in, I wore shorts-convertible synthetic trekking pants and a loose-fitting ultra-lightweight Icebreaker top. I regretted not having one of the trekking shirts recommended in the gear list, as despite my best efforts to wear my buff in the Foreign-Legion style and tie a spare t-shirt around my neck I struggled to keep the sun off my neck and upper sholders. I would highly recommend getting one of these.

Base Layers

The gear list recommended 2 thermal tops and 2 pairs of long underwear. There's a perennial debate about synthetic vs. merino: I come down firmly on the side of merino, but that's a whole other topic. Up the mountain, I took 150 and 200-weight Icebreaker Bodyfit tops and 150 and 260 Bodyfit long underwear. If you really wanted to be minimalist, you could probably get away with just one top and bottom. I shifted to the warmer pair after arriving at camp 1 and kept them on pretty much until we got off the mountain. But they don't weigh much and it's worth having a second pair as a backup.

Light fleece

The gear list recommended a light fleece as a second top layer. If you can get one, a Powerstretch type fleece is highly recommended, as this material fits easily with layers below and above it. Mine was an Arcteryx Rho AR. I put this on over the 200 Icebreaker at camp 1 and kept that combination on, day and night, until we got to Plaza de Mulas on the other side of the mountain some 9 or 10 days later.

Jackets

You need at least three and probably four jacket-type garments for warmth and weather protection.

You need a good Gore-Tex or equivalent jacket as the default outer layer for stopping all wind and precipitation. Mine was the Outdoor Research Furio, which worked out well. While some will prefer something nice and light, you want the jacket to be reasonably robust. It should be sized to fit comfortably over at least three layers (including the sleeves and the hood), and under pack straps. Some overlap with your pants is good, but the thigh-length jackets sometimes favoured by New Zealanders for the wet conditions here are not really appropriate for mountain climbing.

The other absolute esential is a warm down jacket. This provides your bastion of warmth while at camp on the lower mountain, and usually for at least the morning on the summit ascent. The Mountain Hardwear Sub Zero SL Hooded Jacket is perfect for Aconcagua, with just the right balance of warmth, weather resistance and packability. I was one of at least four on our expedition that had this exact jacket. You want to get the jacket, rather than the longer and more unwieldy parka model. On summit day, the down jacket needs to be worn over your Gore-Tex jacket. For this reason, and because it is cut short, if you are between sizes you should opt for the larger size.

The third jacket recommendation from Adventure Consultants was a "mid-weight jacket", but the specific examples they gave were a bit confusing. The listed options were an insulated soft shell such as the Marmot Super Hero, a 200 or 300-weight fleece or an insulated jacket like the Mountain Hardwear Compressor. These options all have rather different qualities and purposes. Based on my experience, I would strongly recommend the Compressor. What you are looking for here is a default source of warmth when your big down jacket would be too much or is stashed away. This is a jacket that goes over your trekking clothes at camp or long rest stops, and goes under your Gore-Tex jacket as a mid-layer higher up the mountain. The Compressor is about as warm as a 300-weight fleece, but much lighter and less bulky (if not very stylish -- in my green version I have been dubbed "Kermit the Frog").

The fourth jacket recommended by Adventure Consultants was a "wind shirt", such as the Marmot DriClime. This is actually what I'd call the "soft shell" category and is where I'd put the soft shell option mentioned above. This is a light, breathable and comfortable jacket that can be the outer layer in non-extreme conditions and a mid layer under the Gore-Tex jacket when wind and precpitation get out of hand. It will often have some light insulation and may have a hood. Strictly speaking, this is not obligatory, but you will be glad if you have one. I took the Arcteryx Gamma MX Hoody, and I wore this for about 60 percent of the whole trip (as well as large parts of the rest of my life). The great advantage of this jacket is its excellent fit as well as amazing appetite for abuse.

Pants

You need Gore-Tex pants as your main outer layer, and they must have a full zide zip so you can get them on and off over boots. I got the Outdoor Research Furio pants, the sibling to my jacket. These worked out well as I was fortunate enough that they fit me perfectly in both length and width (at least in the shape I was in during the climb). Some may prefer a bib or salopette, since these work with a roomier waist and the greater torso coverage provides extra warmth. This is a good option if you do lots of sking or snowboarding or are planning on doing more alpine climbing.

On Aconcagua you usually need insulated (not down) pants for summit day only. The default option here is the Mountain Hardwear Compressor, again the sibling of the jacket. These worked just fine, pack down very small and are easy to get on and off. I wore them for about the first half of summit day until it got too warm.

The gear list recommended fleece or soft shell pants. I'm not sure that anyone on the trip had fleece pants. I took a pair of MacPac Nemesis soft shell pants. I find these to be useful in intermediate conditions like climbing in Arequipa, but didn't really use them on this trip as we went pretty quickly from baking heat to very cold and snowy, so I switched straight from trekking pants to Gore-Tex. I thought I might combine the soft shell with the Gore-Tex pants for additional warmth, short of wearing the insulated pants, but never did so. If you really wanted to save space and weight, this is an item you could consider leaving out.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Designer Facts

One of the variations on making shit up is rewriting history to suit your ideology; as Paul Krugman observes (with an appropriate nod to The Princess Bride):

I’ve often found that when things happen that aren’t supposed to happen according to the prevailing economic or political orthodoxy, reporting quite often describes what “should” have happened, not what actually happened.

New Zealand's economy and society is a common recipient of this treatment. Witness this article and interview with John Key in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Key is returning the country to a formula for prosperity that's worked in the past. As in Britain, the U.S. and Australia in the 1980s, New Zealand's government implemented a wide-ranging program of economic liberalization, including deep reductions in tariffs and subsidies, and privatization of state-run industries. The plan, nicknamed "Rogernomics" after then-Finance Minister (now Sir) Roger Douglas, was akin to Reaganomics, and the island nation grew smartly.

We often hear this story from those who argue for "further reforms". The only problem is that it happens to be false. New Zealand's premier economic historian Brian Easton identifes the 1986-1994 "Rogernomics recession" as one of the main places that New Zealand's economy fell behind Australia and the rest of the OECD (the others were the wool price crash of 1966, and he argues to a lesser exent the oil price shocks of the 1970s). Easton suggests that the culprits were high interest rates and a high exchange rate at the same time as much of New Zealand's productive sector was being dismantled. In any case, the 1986-94 dip is clearly visible on this chart.



The WSJ article continues:

But while the U.S. and Australia broadly continued their economic liberalization programs under both right- and left-wing governments, New Zealand didn't -- until now. Over the past nine years, Helen Clark's left-wing Labour government rode the global economic expansion and used the revenue surge to expand government welfare programs, renationalize industries, and embrace causes like global warming. As a result, the economy stagnated while Australia took off.

As you might have guessed, this also happens to be false. The chart above unfortunately ends in 2002, but you can see that New Zealand actually sees a slight uptick against both Australia and the OECD from 2000. Over the whole 1999-2008 period, New Zealand did a bit better than the OECD and was close to keeping pace with Australia, whose own economy boomed during this period. I can't lay my hands on the stats and charts I had bookmarked, but there's a nice presentation of the data in this post, from an Australian addressing some local scaremongering about MMP government.

That's before you get to the non-sequiturs in that paragraph from the WSJ. For example, I'm not clear what "used the revenue surge...to embrace causes like global warming" is supposed to mean. The renationalized "industries", which makes Helen Clark sound like Hugo Chavez, presumably refers to the reluctant rescue of Air NZ and the buy-back of Kiwi Rail. And it is something of a mystery how the Labour government could "use the revenue surge [while]...the economy stagnated".

It would be hilarious if wasn't so depressing.

Friday, July 01, 2011

The War on Welfare

As well as Gordon Campbell's piece that I linked to earlier on the continuing life of the Welfare Working Group, there was a well-researched piece from TimWatkin, and series of acerbic posts from Danyl McLaughlan, including an amusing suggestion for a reality TV show involving Paul Holmes

The take home point is that it's the economy, stupid. The Welfare Working Group sets an objective of getting 100,000 people off benefits. It's not hard to see how that might be achieved: just prior to the recession, in June 2008, there were 75,000 fewer people on benefits than there are now. At one point in 2008, the number on the unemployment benefit had dropped to 19,000. It's hard to square this, and the hundreds of people that line up for a chance at a few supermarket jobs, with the view that New Zealander's need more "incentive" to look for work.

Any perception of a recently developing crisis is inaccurate. As Watkin reports, the proportion of the working age population on benefits has been higher than it is today for most of the last twenty years. Yet in 1970 it was just four percent. What changed? Since the 1970s, the New Zealand economy has seen radical restructuring, notably through the liberalization of trade, downsizing of government and sale of many public assets. These changes significantly raised unemployment: for their advocates that was the price of economic efficiency. At the time, some pointed out that they wouldn't necessarily be socially efficient, but that quibble was lost in the winds of change.

The other major change in the 1970s was the introduction of the domestic purposes benefit. As Watkin says:

Given that it allowed women to get out of unhealthy, unhappy, even dangerous, relationships, I assume we think it's not a bad policy.

Again, the figures are hard to square with the certainty of talkback radio callers and Stuff website commenters that large numbers of [young] women are "breeding for a business". The Ministry of Social Development's helpful fact sheets report that just 10 percent of domestic purposes beneficiaries have been continuously on the benefit 10 years or more. Coincidentally, this is about the same as the percentage of domestic purposes beneficiaries who are male.

A number of critics have made the point that the miserly payment levels of the DPB hardly make for any sort of viable "business". Less well noted is the assmption (including by the WWG) that caring for children is not "work". Paid, no. Work, definitely. As somebody who now gets quite well paid for working, I never fail to appreciate that most days it ends at around 6pm.

The final third of benefit recipients are those on the sickness and disability benefits. Campbell points that out the percentage of working-age New Zealand receiving sickness and disability benefits is well below the OECD average, and the proportion of sick and disabled people in employment well above the OECD average.

In short, where work that offers subsistence level or above is available, New Zealanders generally take it. Most analyses conclude that there may be a hard core of recalcitrants, but if so, they consistute a small minority of beneficiaries. The question is not whether some proportion of welfare recipients are ripping off the system. but whether this is the most important issue facing the country at the moment. While the economy remains sluggish, and even high-skilled jobs continue to disappear on a weekly basis, forcing sole parents, the sick and the disabled to pound the pavements seems like the height of perversity.