Tagged: earthquake

Brownlee’s latest emission

brownlee

This blog is intended to be read whilst listening to the below song.  The above picture made sense in my head, if nowhere else.

Generally speaking, I think it’s a pretty good idea to internalise externalities, by taxing activities and products that impose a social or environmental cost on the rest of the world, and subsidising those that deliver a social or environmental benefit.  So I support petrol taxes, mostly as a way to off-set the environmental damages of burning oil (particularly if the tax income is used for that purpose), and as a way of bringing the price of petrol as close as possible to the real cost (personal, social, environmental; past, present, future).  This will hopefully reduce the use of petrol, as people who have to pay for the full consequences of their transport choices will be more likely to use public transport, cycle, carpool, etc.

So the latest petrol tax increase may have some accidental environmental benefits.  Emphasis on ‘accidental’, because Gerry Brownlee doesn’t mention it in his announcement.   He openly admits what Julie Anne Genter from the Greens exposed last month; that this tax rise is primarily about covering the $1.7 billion short-fall for the so-called “Roads of National Significance” plan.  This is why the Greens oppose this tax increase; it’s not about reducing petrol use, but encouraging petrol use by sinking $14 billion dollars into un-needed, uneconomical highways.

Brownlee probably knows better than to spin this as an environmental measure, because it would illustrate a stark double standard: it would be the opposite of their stance towards business and agriculture.  For these other major polluters (and National’s main backers), they’ve shown compassion in these tough economic times, and given them longer before they have to start paying for the social and environmental costs of their emissions.  The taxpayer can pick up the tab for a bit longer.

There’s another double-standard whereby this government, who “want to cut taxes, not raise taxes” according to the John Key quote in the above Home Brew song, are relatively trigger-happy when it comes to increasing GST and other sales taxes.  Some of these do off-set (or over-compensate for) external costs of harmful substances.  But if they’re just income-gathering measures like in this case, it’s worrying that they’d rather earn income this way than by putting income tax back up, or by introducing capital gains or financial transactions taxes.  Sales taxes tend to be regressive; disproportionately hitting the poor, while the latter are progressive; disproportionately hitting those with disproportionately high incomes and wealth.

IrishBill at The Standard points out another double standard, particularly pertinent to Brownlee; they’re happy to levy the ordinary motorist to pay for their idiotic motorway plans, but they’re not willing to implement a temporary, progressive levy for the Christchurch rebuild (because of the fragile economic climate, of course… not because of their priorities, choices and philosophies).

Actually, all of these double standards reveal a lot about the political philosophy underlying this government… Ordinary people are able to tighten their belts, while the rich need financial assistance.  We all have to make sacrifices, apparently, but on a religious level, these are sacrifices to the gods of the neo-liberal market capitalism, and on a material level, they’re sacrifices to the rich.  “Socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor” indeed.

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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.

Lower-than-expected crime rates should be expected, and so should police PR

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.

Rhetoric and reality

I’ve been noticing an unusual phenomenon over the past few weeks – National MPs drawing attention to the plight of the poor, the greed of corporates and the illusory nature of private property.  Are we living in an upside down world?

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It all started when I found myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Paula Bennett on the plight of poor beneficiaries.

Bennett drew attention to “absolutely sub-standard” yet “well over priced” housing, and landlords taking advantage of vulnerable people who couldn’t find housing elsewhere.  She asked such landlords to “have a good look at themselves”, provide housing they’d live in themselves, and show a good Kiwi “element of fairness”.  She even said she was looking at ways of “helping people towards home ownership”.

The funniest part about the whole thing is that she was responding to comments by Annette King on the accommodation supplement… so we have Labour criticising the welfare state and National pointing the finger at the propertied elite.

Of course, Bennett’s rhetoric falls flat when we remember that her party is entirely sold out to an economic system and worldview where the propertied are the good guys, individual self-interest is the universal incentive, and any fairness or concern for others is an optional extra.

So in criticising a few ‘bad apples’ among landlords, she’s actually endorsing the ideal of a ‘good landlord’, charging fair rates to their poor tenants even while getting filthy rich off them.

And any vague attempts to “help people towards home ownership” will be upstream rowing at best so long as they rule out ever taxing the proceeds of owning other people’s homes.

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A similar phenomenon happened the other day with Gerry Brownlee pointing the finger at private insurance companies for avoiding and delaying pay-outs in quake-hit Christchurch.  Although risk management/status quo protection is something that “the private sector claims it can do so particularly well”, Brownlee points out that it’s failing to do so – in fact, EQC, of all Kafkaesque government bureaucracies, is doing far better.

But is he really doubting the National party line that everything is better when owned and operated by private profit-maximisers?

When we look at another instance where the private sector is failing Christchurch, housing, his response was considerably different: Let the market sort it out.

So what’s the difference?  Well, firstly, as the minister in charge of EQC, Brownlee has a horse in the race.  But it’s also interesting that in an insurance crisis, it’s the property owners that suffer, and he’s taking umbrage.  But in the housing crisis, only the poor and ordinary people suffer, while the rental property owners prosper – and Brownlee can only see positives there.

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The worst example of this phenomenon, of course, has been John Key’s recent refrain that “nobody owns water”.

Key’s arrogance has reached new heights in this casual dismissal of traditional, Treaty-enshrined Māori rights.  Like a dog to its vomit, the Māori Party have returned to the fold after an assurance that National won’t legislate against Māori rights or claims – but you don’t need to legislate against something if you’re just going to use your legal prerogative to ignore it.

But Key’s use of the phrase “nobody owns water” to misrepresent Māori water claims is just as bad.

He’s portraying Māori as money-grabbing “opportunists” trying to take a vital natural resource away from ordinary New Zealanders, by referencing what we all instinctively know – that it’s wrong to be selfish and greedy, that nobody can really ‘own’ what belongs to everyone/nature/God, that property is ultimately theft because the world is everybody’s and nobody’s, etc etc.

But once again the reality belies the rhetoric when we see that he is using this line of thinking to dismiss Māori stewardship of public waterways, so that he can smoothly transfer hydro-electricity generation into the private hands of rich investors.

The fact is, the selfish opportunists are the very people National holds up as our role models, and the very people to whom they want to sell our power companies.  Key affecting an opposition to private property is a joke.  His party thinks everything should be private property – including water when it suits.

As Tim Selwyn put it, “Interesting how the Nats suddenly start espousing anarcho-socialism when Māori property rights are involved!”

In reality, as Tapu Misa eloquently explains, Māori rights surrounding water are far more in keeping with these anarcho-socialist ideals than the Pākehā/capitalist concept of private property.  Māori “ownership” means caretaking and free public use of everything that National wants to carve up, commodify and sell to the highest bidder.

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The consistent thread in all these stories is the way that National are co-opting quasi-socialist rhetoric to further their capitalist causes.

It’s hilarious, as well as worrying, that while the Labour leadership are still scared of sounding too much like a Labour party, even National can see the populist appeal in leftist language and the universals of fairness and co-operation it touches upon.

To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, the only proper reply to such shrewd ideological manipulation is: “if you really believe in social justice and sharing the world, then why are you doing what you are doing?