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.