Category: society

Hone and Johnny

Harawira and Key

John Campbell has started a series of interviews with party leaders and their partners in their homes. The first two were with John and Bronagh Key and Hone Harawira and Hilda Halkyard-Harawira.

Both couples feed John a meal and talk about their lives and their political involvements – that’s about where the similarities end. Hone has photos on his wall from the Springbok tour protests. John famously can’t remember his stance on that issue, but he vividly remembers when he first wanted to be Prime Minister a few years earlier.

This is a good illustration of the main difference between Key’s and Harawira’s interviews, and indeed their overall political personas: Harawira’s interview is far more about politics and real issues, while Key’s is far more about superficiality, personality and content-free generalities like “making a difference” and “economic management” (Ha!).

Key does talk about “vulnerable people” and kids in poverty after Campbell observes the extreme wealth of their context. But for him these “vulnerable people” are an abstraction – they’re completely absent from his life.

Harawira’s concern for the marginalised is far more real. His biggest achievements are sacrifices he’s made for real live vulnerable people – be it Māori, the poor, South Africans suffering under apartheid, or his grumpy father-in-law. Mana’s policies are primarily motivated by real justice for those who most need it.

Moreover, Key’s claimed concern for kids growing up on welfare belies the fact that his government has kept benefit rates at 1991 levels. 1991, you may recall, was the year National deliberately set benefits to only cover 80% of minimum nutritional needs. This was an attempt to incentivise people into accepting the new low-wage jobs – or at least, those lucky enough to find jobs. They also encouraged a certain level of unemployment to drive wages down and again incentivise these poverty-wage jobs. This shows individual incentivisation may fill low-wage jobs, but it can’t cure unemployment: that requires broader socio-economic changes. These policies were and are sacrifices of the poor to support rich poverty-wage employers.

Two things have changed since then: One, poverty dropped slightly among working families (see p.47 here) since the last Labour government’s third-way policy, Working for Families. Key called WFF “communism by stealth” at the time, but he’s kept it, and praises it in the video for how it subsidises low wages. Two, National’s rhetoric is all anti-unemployment these days.

But three things still speak volumes: One, Key’s more willing to use taxpayer money to subsidise poverty-wage employers than make them pay living wages. Two, he sees no problem with WFF’s exclusion of beneficiary children from assistance, even though he notes they’re the majority of kids in poverty. Three, Key looks no further than individual solutions to the societal issue of unemployment.

Meanwhile, the real-life vulnerable people who miss out on the limited number of subsidised jobs offered by this “economic management” suffer now more than ever. Key thinks leftover Labour policies and welfare scapegoating is enough to help them. Harawira does not. I know which one I’d rather vote for.

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For services to prejudice, ignorance and easy listening music

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Paul Holmes, this country’s most prominent representative of mainstream racism, respectable prejudice and populist ignorance, has been knighted for “services to broadcasting and the community”.

Holmes is most famous for his 7pm current affairs show which ran throughout my childhood… it was like a dumber version of Campbell Live, but to its credit it did set the blueprint.  Despite some hiccups, Holmes was a powerful force in the NZ media for sixteen years.  Accepting a better offer on Prime TV in 2005 was a poor career move, but he’s refused to disappear since then.

The last significant thing Holmes did was write this nasty column for the New Zealand Herald.  The New Zealand Press Council upheld seven complaints against the column and the Herald’s defence of it, ruling that it made racist and inaccurate attacks against Māori as a people.  Hone Harawira’s response is worth a read.

The timing of Holmes’ knighthood is no doubt inspired by his recent health problems.  But knighting him, now or any time, is yet another blow to the credibility of knighthoods and other such honours, of John Key, and of the assumption that we’ve moved past racism as a society.

The ideology of middle class struggle

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I thought this Sunday Star-Times article was quite interesting.

Three economists (from Infometrics, the NZ Institute of Economic Research and the University of Auckland) all agree that although the middle classes in the United States have been hit hard since the global financial crisis, it’s not accurate to say that the same is true here.

Despite the myth of the “middle class squeeze” and politicians’ attempts to appeal to the embattled middle classes, in New Zealand it’s the poor who have been hit hardest by the recession (and by government responses to it).  The middle classes, on the other hand, have “never had it so good”.  While the economists disagree about whether the rich are doing better or worse, all agree about “the growing level of inequality in New Zealand – it’s this chasm between our poorest and richest that’s probably the real issue“.

The article also provides eight stories from middle-class people about how they’ve been coping financially in recent years.  Karol at The Standard points out that this undercuts the above points somewhat, because they don’t give any stories of the people actually struggling.  Also, the stories are foreshadowed by this rather peculiar statement:

“Of course, this is about statistics – the average. This isn’t you, living from pay cheque to pay cheque, scraping together the school donation, the football subs, the car repayment, the Sky bill, the rent for the bach this Christmas.”

This might be an odd expression of post-modern skepticism about attempts at pure objectivity, and/or it might be ordinary garden-variety dumb reporting. It seems to be saying: never mind the facts, we know that you’re struggling, and an evocative description of your hypothetical woes can substitute for an argument. But maybe they just meant that you may be struggling even though on average the middle class aren’t.

Some of the stories do represent these exceptions… Those who have lost or quit jobs in manufacturing and the public service, or lost houses in the earthquakes, have indeed found things getting tougher, as you might expect.  However, they’re all pretty philosophical about it, and even their complaints are about first-world, nice-side-of-the-tracks problems:

“An expensive holiday is shelved and Mr Barton is holding onto his ageing television and car.”

“We were lucky to have steak at all. Sky was going to get the chuck. Any slight luxuries were gone.”

“they hid their financial struggles from their son and refused to withdraw him from private school”

So what’s behind the myth of the “middle class squeeze”?  Is it just lazy importing of American complaints, or is there more to it than that?

I think the best way to understand it is to see it as an ideology, in a critical or Marxist sense: it’s a worldview that functions to justify and support the present economic system and current unequal power distributions.

People from all levels almost always feel like they’re struggling to make ends meet, because their expectations rise with their incomes (usually staying just ahead).  That’s how market capitalism works; dissatisfaction and desire is what keeps the wheels turning.  If people were content with what they have, capitalism wouldn’t work, or at least not the way we know it (maybe it could work in a nicer, more sustainable way).

This malaise is always there; we’re born into it, and too often we let ourselves remain in it.  And I guess when we’re constantly hearing about tough financial times and how our class is supposedly suffering, it’s more socially acceptable for middle class people to express it openly.

The ‘Returning Kiwi’, Emily Swan, gives voice to this plight:

Does Swan appreciate that with that income and a house, many Kiwis would see her as well-off?

“Yes! The average household income is what, $30,000? Crazy. But then a lot of people are sending their kids to school without breakfast. We are grateful for what we’ve got.”

And yet . . . “I look at my age and think, I’m nearly 40 and I’m still living from pay-cheque to pay-cheque. What do I pass on to the next generation? Will I ever pay my mortgage off? I do feel like I’ve f—ed up somewhere along the way.

If she’s “f—ed up somewhere”, it’s not in not having enough money; she and her partner earn $130,000 between them, but people earning twice as much probably feel the same way (and some people earning half as much have learned not to feel that way).

Perhaps situations like this can serve as a reminder not only that perceptions don’t also match reality, but also of just how mouldable our perceptions, desires and expectations are.  Hopefully we can learn to mould them ourselves to what we think they should be, rather than letting them be moulded by advertising, conformity and the pressures of a consumer capitalist society.

There’s a serious problem with prisons when probable abuse is a factor in sentencing

According to Section 5 of the Corrections Act 2004, the “purpose of the corrections system is to improve public safety and contribute to the maintenance of a just society” through “safe, secure, humane and effective” sentences, assistance with rehabilitation and reintegration, the best decisions by courts and the Parole Board, and corrections facilities that meet the UN Standard Minimum Rules of the Treatment of Prisoners and other sections of the Act.

The implication is that prison punishment consists of a simple lack of liberty; to meet the standards of public safety and justice, we are taking prisoners out of the community and punishing them by depriving them of a certain degree and amount of liberty, deemed proportional to their unlawful actions. We’re not punishing them with physical violence and psychological humiliation. We don’t do it that way anymore … in theory.

So we know that something is seriously wrong with prisons when sentencing judges have to take into account the high likelihood of physical, sexual and emotional abuse when determining jail terms:

Transgender prison decision ‘a breach of rights’“, Radio New Zealand News, 20/12/2012

A judge at Whangarei District Court on Wednesday sentenced Glen Cooper [a transgender criminal] to a reduced prison term, because the likelihood of harassment in a men’s jail.

The court heard Cooper had already been attacked in jail while awaiting sentence.

The Department of Corrections said Cooper has not had sex change surgery so must go to the men’s prison.

On National Radio this morning, Kim Workman from Rethinking Crime and Punishment talked about how our prisons have become very secure, but highly unsafe. This Wikipedia article is a good read, making the same points; we have very few escapes or positive drug tests, but troubling figures for prisoner assaults on staff and other prisoners, and for mental health and suicide.

Let’s not let our base, vindictive, foolishscapegoating punitive instincts get in the way of making prisons safer. When you take away people’s freedom and responsibility to look after themselves, it becomes entirely your responsibility to look after them and keep them safe.  Letting prisoners be exposed to abuse and violence can’t do any good, it goes against the legislated role of prisons, and in no way can it be considered just.

Let them eat liver, or: It’s the inequality, stupid, or: A short note on poverty not existing

When I wrote my last blog on child poverty, I was planning to follow it up with a critique of ousted ACT leader Rodney Hide’s Herald column where he made the bold claim that there is no child poverty in New Zealand.

I was going to make all sorts of jolly yet incisive points about how I’m actually quite fond of Rodney (something I can’t say about more recent ACT leaders), but that he’s revealed an embarrassingly out-of-touch and simplistic understanding of poverty as a mere lack of money (“All kids are poor. Children typically don’t own much beyond a few toys”, “Poverty can’t be the cause … Liver … costs 70c a serve”).

I was going to point out that not everyone has grown up in the Protestant-work-ethic-Northern-European-stockpiling-rationalising-individualising tradition that he and I have, but that the economic system that’s been imposed here is set up to favour people with these values and shaft everyone (and everything) else.

I was even going to say that, despite all that, I’m considering trying out his suggestion of boiling up bones and getting a stew going for my lunches.  Anyway, I didn’t get around to writing this blog, and now Hide’s “let them eat liver” column is old news.

Still, I think it’s worthwhile to address the most important point – the idea that poverty in New Zealand is ‘only’ ‘relative’ poverty and therefore isn’t ‘real’ poverty.  Hide points to one common measure of poverty: living on less than 60% of the median wage.  In Hide’s mind, all child poverty statistics can be summarily ignored, because this measure doesn’t measure what (supposedly) really matters: how much money the country has overall.

I suppose this poo-pooing of statistics is what enables Hide to state with a straight face that it’s the welfare state’s fault that kids go hungry, despite the fact that the child poverty figures began to skyrocket precisely when his friend Roger Douglas began to roll back the welfare state in the 1980s.

But this idea isn’t just touted by extremists living in a libertarian fantasy world; deputy prime minister Bill English used this very notion as an excuse to dismiss the Child Poverty Expert Advisory Group’s recommendation to set child poverty reduction targets, claiming that “such a relative poverty measure made no sense as it did not show how rich or poor people were in absolute terms”.

But hold on a second.  Even if we go along with Hide and English and ignore the Advisory Group’s other poverty measures such as material deprivation or access to GDP growth, there’s something pretty fishy about such an easy dismissal of relative poverty, a.k.a. inequality.

This ignores a whole host of research showing that ‘relative’ inequality absolutely does matter.  The book The Spirit Level compiles some of this research to show that unequal societies with high ‘relative poverty’ like New Zealand have significantly worse statistics for life expectancy, literacy and numeracy, infant mortality, homicide, imprisonment, teenage births, obesity, mental illness and social mobility than more equal societies – across the whole society, not just for the ‘relatively’ poor.  Even though inequality or relative poverty is relative, it causes real, solid, objective, material, absolute damage.

The truth is that we’re relational beings, so it shouldn’t be surprising that how we’re doing relative to each other affects us – but neo-liberals indoctrinated into the “no such thing as society” philosophy seem to forget this.

Hide and English assume that what really matters is the ‘absolute’ matter of how much money people have.  But since when was money ‘absolute’?  Money only has meaning insofar as we give it meaning to represent the value of goods and services, and to say that this person can access this much goods and services, while that person can only access that much.  In other words, it’s only meaningful as a relative measure; relative to real stuff and real power in the real world, and relative to how much stuff and power others have.

So, when Rodney Hide licks his lips about a “windfall that doubled all incomes” but “wouldn’t budge the child “poverty” figure”, that’s exactly the point.  Doubling all incomes wouldn’t change what those incomes are relative to; it wouldn’t create any more resources.  Inflation would soon ensure that each dollar was only worth half as much, so nothing would have changed at all.  Poverty and affluence would be exactly the same as before.

Of course, if this ‘windfall’ was localised in New Zealand, it would give us relatively more access to resources than other countries; and that’s what National mouthpiece David Farrar, who endorsed Hide’s column, says we should be aiming for: “In these times of huge global economic uncertainty, the focus needs to be on economic growth, not [equality, which Farrar conflates with] increasing tax and welfare.”

But The Spirit Level shows that internal economic equality is far more important than economic growth for improving conditions in developed societies.  Perhaps it’s because we care more about how we’re doing relative to people around us than about being even more relatively rich on a global scale than we already are.

So the fatal flaw of this spurious neo-liberal argument is that it absolutises the relative; money, while relativising the absolute; inequality.

Bill English and his government are repeating this error with devastating consequences by calling the real suffering of real children ‘merely relative’ while treating economic growth as the absolute to which all else must be sacrificed (and it isn’t even working).