Tagged: myth

Let’s get one thing clear

NZ’s political parties at the 2011 election now updated for the 2014 election, according to PoliticalCompass.org

“It’s actually a very clear decision for New Zealanders. It’s sort of centre-right versus the far left.” – John Key today

Coming from the most right-wing prime minister in NZ’s history, this is the height of dishonesty and hypocrisy.

At most, Cunliffe et al will take NZ as far left as the Kirk government (1972-1975), which was the last government that didn’t make a total mockery of our claims to be an egalitarian country.

More likely, the next Labour government will be centrist or centre-left… still considerably to the right of traditional Labour values yet hopefully a genuine alternative to the neo-liberal inequality consensus of the last four Labour/National governments. Cunliffe has gone on record acknowledging that this neo-liberal inequality experiment has failed our economies and our people.

Meanwhile, Key, a long-time architect of this failure, is still drinking the neo-liberal Kool-Aid… dogmatically pushing National’s far-right, anti-democratic, economically idiotic, ultra-capitalist inequality ideology as far as we let him get away with.

Key, with his loyal servants in the corporate media, will attempt to claim the ‘centrist high ground’ and whip up McCarthy-esque hysteria about Cunliffe. For the second time in Cut Your Hair history, I’m advising: set your bullshit detectors to maximum.

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Pathetic justifications for pathetic wages

slavery minimum wageWell, they’ve passed the youth rate bill… Certain workers aged under 20 can now be paid at 80% of the minimum wage; a pathetic $10.80 per hour before tax. This comes a month and a half after a living wage was calculated to be about $18.40 per hour.

One thing I’ve noticed from the Facebook arguments I get myself embroiled in… Every time a debate comes up about the minimum wage, somebody makes the same tired point: if you raise the minimum wage too high, employers won’t be able to afford to provide jobs any more, or people with no skills will be priced out of the market, or workers will be costing employers more than they’re earning them, etc.

That’s of course true, but all it shows is that that the minimum wage CAN be too high, it doesn’t show that (or when) it IS too high.

You can’t just point out that sometimes a minimum wage can be too high and conclude that NZ’s minimum wage in March 2013 is too high (or as high as possible).  That’s not an argument, that’s just pure ideology without anything linking the theory to the present real life situation, therefore it can have no bearing on the present real life situation.  An argument would need to demonstrate that this theoretical danger is likely to happen at current wage levels, here and now… using research and evidence from here and now.

In fact, the evidence shows quite the opposite.  In the terse words of Treasury: the fear about minimum wage increasing unemployment “has not been true in the past. The balance of probabilities is that a higher minimum wage does not cost jobs”.  Increases in the minimum wage have not increased unemployment in recent history (if anything the relationship is the opposite, though it’s not a causal one: minimum wage has been kept low and unemployment pushed up by poor economic conditions and neo-liberal economic policy).

If we accept that it is desirable to have a minimum wage, we accept that it should be high enough to provide a decent living, without being so high that it reduces jobs.  The only matter for debate is where the balance is.  The Living Wage research indicates that our minimum wage is currently failing to achieve that balance, but the problem is not that it’s too high for employers to pay, it’s that it’s too low for workers to live on (and, by the way, John Key agrees).

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.

Guy Fawkes, Parihaka and the morals of the stories

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.