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).
Thinking about Guy Fawkes a.k.a. Parihaka Day yesterday, I started wondering what’s actually represented by the debate over what to commemorate on November 5th.
The shallowest way of looking at it is to say that it’s a debate between sparkly explosive things and politics/history/thinking. But it takes only a little imagination to realise that we could set up a fireworks tradition on any night of the year we wanted; Matariki for example. So really this is just saying lazy status quo versus politics/history/thinking.
A deeper way of looking at it is as a debate between NZ historical awareness and imported British history and culture. Which is true enough. (This seems to be how this Stuff poll interprets it; in which case it’s darkly funny that 63% of people say “No, we already have Waitangi Day”).
But the best way I can think of to understand it is to see Guy Fawkes Night vs. Parihaka Day as a debate between two images of violence, two ways of dealing with terrorism and two myths of how to achieve peace.
Guy Fawkes Night embodies the dominant story, the myth of redemptive violence, Thomas Hobbes’ theory of the state, the plot of kids’ cartoons and CSI/NCIS/SVU/etc… It’s the idea that there are violent chaotic baddies everywhere, threatening our stability and our way of life… but, never fear, there are also good strong people and institutions, and the way to get peace and safety is for these good strong people to violently suppress the baddies and maintain order from the top down.
Guy Fawkes himself had this kind of vision for society, which is why he wanted to blow up the king and Parliament; but the king and Parliament’s vision was almost as bad, and theirs is the one that prevailed and the one that’s celebrated. As much as it’s lost its meaning now, traditionally Guy Fawkes Night has been the central festival of British patriotism, whipping up a frenzy of love and gratitude for the Crown which represents all that is good and safe, and an equally unthinking and passionate hatred for its enemies, who represent chaos and danger.
Parihaka Day embodies a very different story. In this story there are also dangerous forces of chaos, but the solution isn’t as easy as calling in the Crown to subdue them. In this story, the Crown aren’t the protectors from terrorism and the enforcers of order; like in Shelley’s classic poem The Masque of Anarchy, they themselves are the terrorists threatening peaceful people’s ways of life. In this story, the way to deal with violence and chaos and danger is for little people to have the wisdom to identify it at the centres of power instead of just on the margins, and the courage to oppose it with stubborn love. Unlike Guy Fawkes or the cartoons, there are no easy happy endings in this story… a grassroots, unenforced peace doesn’t always ‘win’, as it didn’t for Te Whiti and Tohu, but if we all came to the party, including the conscripts on the other side, it couldn’t lose.
So I think it’s what Parihaka Day represents, more than the public’s love of pretty explosions, that’s holding us back from from establishing an official Parihaka Day on November 5th. Peace is just too dangerous for the powerful when it’s not a peace imposed by them.
Crackdown on Golden Mile (Blair Ensor and Jody O’Callaghan, 23/08/2012)
A third of Wellington’s crime takes place along the “Golden Mile” [between Parliament and Courtenay Place] … Last year 5753 reported offences were in the Golden Mile hot spot, out of 16,627 across the city.
Police revealed the figures yesterday as they announced a multi-agency crime-fighting strategy … [of] police taking control of Wellington City Council’s network of CCTV cameras, more officers on the beat, a focus on the “science of crime”, and working with other city agencies.
The initiative is part of the police’s new Prevention First model, which aims to reduce crime by 13 per cent by 2015.
Like their Christchurch counterparts a week ago, the Wellington police and media have been talking about something of which they’re profoundly ignorant – criminology.
The police officers who walk up the hill from the Golden Mile to the university to study their optional police criminology courses should* be learning on the first day that “reported crime” and police crime statistics are a wildly unreliable measure of real criminal activity. When the vast majority of crime is never reported, investigated or prosecuted, police crime figures will inevitably say far more about where police target than about where crime happens.
(* I say “should”. Actually, I know a guy who used to tutor the police students, and a disappointingly high proportion would argue in their essays that police statistics are in fact a reliable measure of crime, even though all research says the opposite.)
If they kept paying attention after that, they might learn that the most likely type of crime to never be apprehended is white collar crime, the crime of the rich and powerful, which by many accounts is a far, far bigger problem than blue collar crime. However, only a tiny fraction of law enforcement and penal attention is paid to it.
They might go on to learn that the most important factor determining whether we’ll have safer communities or anti-social behaviour isn’t what the police do or don’t do… far more important are wider socio-economic factors happening at the top of the cliff, regardless of what happens at the bottom. If they want to focus on “Prevention First”, they might realise that the best way for a society to reduce crime by 13% is to reduce economic inequality by the same amount.
All of which leads me to believe that if police really were taking the “science of crime” seriously, when they came back down the hill from the university, a lot more of them would stop at The Terrace and Parliament than at Courtenay Place.
[Edit: My friend who tutored the police students told me of a sad development that renders the premise of this blog obsolete, but its point unfortunately all the more relevant: “The VPEP contract was not renewed at the beginning of the year, so the police no longer get the opportunity to learn this stuff”]
Photo by Stephen Gardiner
Red zone private security costs $1000 a day (Charlie Gates, 6 August 2012)
Christchurch police credit the private security guards for averting a feared crime wave as residents abandoned red-zone suburbs …
Security guards patrol the red zone night and day, inspecting Cera-owned properties and reporting suspicious activity to the police. The private security is bolstered by community patrols and special policing …
”One of the things we were worried about after the quake was the potential for social unrest,” [Senior Sergeant Roy Appley] said. ”It would have been anticipated that there was a good chance that crime and other social issues would come to the fore. We would have thought that the chance of burglaries would be higher. It hasn’t seemed to in great numbers.”
Does anyone else find it a little spurious that the police are claiming credit for themselves and their untrained buddies for the fact that reality hasn’t matched their own uneducated guesses of a crime wave in the red zone?
Police were worried about a surge in crime after the earthquake, particularly burglaries. But where do these fears come from? They might as well be saying “I watch a lot of TV, and I read Lord of the Flies in high school, and I expected high crime”. Or even more accurately, “The unquestioned assumptions I’ve passively inherited from my culture line up closely with the thought of Thomas Hobbes, and I expected high crime”.
It may come as a surprise to some people, but police are not actually criminological researchers.
If our journalists were actually journalists, the natural response to this police PR would be “what reliable peer-reviewed research shows that crime will rise in post-natural-disaster areas, or that security guard patrols can reverse this?”
If that question had been raised, it would have become abundantly clear that research in fact shows nothing of the sort.
Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell compiles evidence from disaster sociology and disasters around the world to show that communities do not in fact descend into chaos after disasters, as predicted by our Hobbesian assumptions. In fact, while disasters certainly disrupt the normal operations of industrial capitalism, civil society often ends up being strengthened as people unite to respond and look after each other.
Solnit also shows that looting is so over-exaggerated that it can be called one of the biggest myths of natural disasters, and that the public panic feared by police is simply not an observable phenomenon – despite the much-publicised reports from the New Orleans Superdome, which were later quietly revealed to be total fabrications. Far more common is ‘elite panic’ where governments, police and military are so scared of public chaos that they impose martial law and instruct their underlings to shoot suspected looters on sight.
Fortunately, we haven’t observed anything like this in Christchurch, even with Gerry Brownlee’s draconian emergency powers. But we shouldn’t be surprised that we also haven’t observed the chaos and crime that the police assumed would eventuate.
And the reason we haven’t observed this is not because of the sterling efforts by police and security guards.
Yes, the security patrols have probably made some difference in keeping crime down. Similarly, the way red zone residents are informally keeping an eye on their neighbourhoods will have made some difference.
But criminological research tends to demonstrate that the level of policing/security enforcement is only ever a minor determinant of crime rates – far more important are broader socio-economic factors like inequality and disconnectedness. We have to look at factors like these if we want to know why crime has risen in New Zealand since the 80s, but hasn’t risen much in Christchurch since 2010.
So it’s dishonest, self-serving and most likely inaccurate for police to claim credit for the fact that red zone crime rates are lower than their own guesstimates.