Sunday, January 30, 2011

Aconcagua Bound

Once again, there's no continuity to this blog. Since last time I wrote about my plans for tackling the non-technical but daunting peak of Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina, there have been almost no updates. None of the intermediate posts about gear and training that I had planned. The Master's thesis (maybe more in another post) simply expanded to occupy all available time. I simply have to announce that I'm sitting here in Mendoza, amidst a 34 degrees kept comfortable by the abundant leafy trees, just two days away from starting on what will be an approximately 20-day expedition.

The way things have turned out, perhaps the less talk about the upcoming trip, the better. The amazing expanding thesis also cut into a lot of training time so I'm definitely short of a gallop there. Plus in the last few weeks I've had some kind of mysterious illness with very mild but nevertheless energy-reducing symptoms. All in all I don't feel that confident. The worst case scenario is that at basecamp they'll decide my oxygen levels are below par and send me back to Mendoza.

Still, I need to honour my big talk in previous posts by at least acknowledging that I'm about to start the attempt. This morning when I checked into the hotel where everyone is meeting I talked to a guy who is making a second attempt: last year he lost feeling in his toes just a couple of hundred metres from the summit and had to turn back. He said his boots had been on their last legs and just failed him. Given that I've been pretty studious about getting all the right gear and equipment, that's at least one situation I should avoid. Anyone interested can get updates on progress with the expedition at the Adventure Consultants web site

Monday, January 24, 2011

Wouldn't Happen Here?

In reading about underdevelopment in Latin American countries, one is often informed that an obstacle to positive reforms is insufficient "institutionality" (in short, rules and processes that are applied transparently and with continuity) and the dominance of "clientilism" in politics.

What is meant by "clientilism"? Well, to give an idea, this seems like a pretty good example, from a poorly governed banana republic in, wait...

Philosophies, Summarised

Two of my favourite bloggers help render irrelevant long-postponed posts by providing pithy explanations of why I still, at times reluctantly and with distinct reservations, opt for social democracy as my general political / ideological orientation.

During the US election in 2008, Obama was harried by conservatives for supposedly telling a questioner that he wanted to "spread the wealth around". For the rest of the campaign, Obama responded to queries about this by immediately stressing how he wanted to give most Americans tax cuts. I was rather depressed: if the best hope of progressive politics couldn't at any stage mount a single defence of economic redistribution, what was the point?

I started to write a post that set out at least five moral, historical, and practical reasons why we should spread the wealth around. That never got very far advanced. However, in a recent post, Paul Krugman has a neat summary of one of the central, and perhaps most easily understood, points: the "equality of opportunity" that most people say they support would require rather more radically redistributive policies than we actually have:

So when you hear conservatives talk about how our goal should be equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes, your first response should be that if they really believe in equality of opportunity, they must be in favor of radical changes in American society. For our society does not, in fact, produce anything like equal opportunity (in part because it produces such unequal outcomes). Tell me how you’re going to produce a huge improvement in the quality of public schools, how you’re going to provide universal health care (for parents as well as children, because parents in bad health affect childrens’ prospects), and then come back to me about the equal chances at the starting line thing.

In another post, Krugman describes his philosophy as "basically Rawlsian" and that would capture my general position, too: you choose the kind of system to live under not knowing your place in it beforehand (unlike Rawls, I would see this basic principle applying internationally and not being limited to the nation state).

I also think there are conceptually even stronger, historical reasons for justifying spreading the wealth around, but that's for another post.

Then, at Waylaid Dialectic, Terence Wood goes some way to summing up why I'm not an anarchist or even really a thoroughgoing left-libertarian:

... once the unit of governance gets large (i.e. a state as opposed to a tribe or what have you) the potential for violent coercion of minority groups increases. On the other hand, larger units of governance bring with them dramatic benefits, if they behave, they facilitate trade, labour mobility, and social insurance. They also benefit from economies of scale in providing public goods and services.

Which means that development depends to a degree on forming reasonably large units of governments. Ones large enough to tyrannise minorities. What’s the solution? Surely not returning to anarcho-tribal collectivism? Rather, I’d say that the best, or at least, least worst, solution is the one we’ve already got: governance systems with checks and balances — democracies and constitutional protections.

At different levels of social grouping, humans have always formed "governments" that set obligatory rules and mediate conflicts. I'm with the libertarians in worrying that the bigger the scale of government, the more capacity for evil -- so we should be very careful about making sure there are checks and balances. But I don't think that government at a larger scale is necessarily more likely to be evil. In fact it might be argued that in "community" or "local" forms of governance regular human despotism has a greater chance to run amok. In short, I think it's probably an empirical question which things should be decided at which levels, and, as Terence says, we should concentrate on building good institutions.

Open to having my mind changed, though.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Harping On the SOEs Again

An excellent critique by Marty G in the Standard of what he terms a "stalking horse article" in the Herald promoting part-privatisation of State Owned Enterprises. The article itself reads like a mash up or three or four hundred similar ones over the past thirty years.

Something I've always wondered as I've digested the neoliberal talking points that are on such high rotate in New Zealand discourse: if the Atlases of the business world are such incredible wealth creators that they must not be constrained by taxes or regulation, why aren't they out madly creating new industries and markets instead of constantly obsessing about government services and getting their hands on public assets?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

NZ's Poor Unemployment Performance in Recession

The Sunday Star Times picks up on a report by the International Labour Organisation that New Zealand, along with Spain, had the worst drop in employment compared to GDP during the worldwide recession.

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly notes the relationship to New Zealand's "flexible" labour laws and is summarised as pointing out that:

... there's a growing recognition of the long-term erosion in "human capital" rapid rises in unemployment can bring.

Younger generations are shut out of work for longer, careers are interrupted, ethnic minorities are hit hard, and, it is increasingly often being argued, there seems to be a direct link between innovation and tougher labour market regulation.

I think we've been here before -- and it was called the 1990s.

Of course, the 'he said, she said' style of reporting aways requires comment from a dinosaur neoliberal:

Roger Kerr of the Business Roundtable said there was no reason why the country could not function on near full employment, but it should be achieved by "reforming" the welfare system to make it even less attractive not to work, while at the same time lowering the minimum wage and bringing back permanent "youth rates".

Yes, because forcing people to work at below subsistence levels is proven to produce a happy, well-functioning society.

The last paragaph of the article is fankly bizarre:

Although many lost jobs in the Great Recession, not all Kiwi workers lost out. In contributing to an International Monetary Fund review of employment experiences during the crisis, data and opinion supplied by New Zealand officials show a belief employers got rid of less productive workers, the result being that the country's productivity figures could well tick up.

It's well-known that the increase in average productivity tends to slow down during times of full employment because those with the least skills are getting jobs (normally seen as a good thing). The same people tend to be the first to lose jobs when a downturn arrives, so productivity (essentially, just average production per worker) does indeed "tick up". But how this statistical artefact is an objectively good thing, let alone proves that "not all Kiwi workers lost out" is beyond me.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Greenwald's One Way Mirror

It seems that although my original thoughts on the philosophical significance of Wiki Leaks were a bit garbled, the basic point is in line with smarter people who write more coherently. I highly recommend reading this piece by Glenn Greenwald on the "one-way mirror" of government surveillance.