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 CastaƱeda 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]: 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.  


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.