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".