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.


"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


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.


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.


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 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.