Tagged: sociological imagination

On worshipping money and thanking the rich for being rich

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Just when I was thinking corporate media was starting to say some good things about inequality, I saw this infuriating defense of inequality from Damien Grant.

Grant writes off Max Rashbooke’s book, and indeed all concern about inequality, as “the zero-sum fallacy; the idea that there is a set amount of cash in the economy.”

This is one of the worst straw man attacks I’ve seen in a while.

In fact, Rashbrooke et al understand better than our government that money is a relative measure, only meaningful insofar as it represents access to wealth/resources. It doesn’t matter how much total cash there is in the economy… what matters is:

a) how much resources/wealth there are in the economy, because that’s what determines how big the pie is.
b) how much cash you have in relation to others, because that’s what determines how big or small your slice of the pie is.

Total cash doesn’t affect the pie at all (if it did, Zimbabwe would be the richest country in the world).

Total cash and total resources are not ‘zero-sum’ phenomena. But percentage of access to cash and resources is (that’s the whole point of a percentage – it always sums to 100).

Rashbrooke (and, like, actual evidence and stuff) are concerned with inequality because when one person’s percentage of cash goes up, someone else’s ability to access available resources necessarily decreases. And when that’s too unequal (even when the pie’s huge) it causes numerous health and social problems across the whole society.

Grant is the one guilty of a fallacy: the idea that money is an absolute, not just a relative measure; so if there’s more total money in an economy, that automatically means there’s more wealth/resources available to people. This is more than just a fallacy, it’s a properly religious phenomenon – idolisation of money.

Post-script – extra responses to a few of Grant’s stupidest comments

“There’s no evidence that rising social and health problems are a result of income disparities.”

I’m actually astonished to see this much wilful blindness, even in corporate media. Huge amounts of research – very widely available – offer compelling evidence that inequality causes many social/health problems – from murder to community breakdown to high teen pregnancy rates. A journalist doing their job would acknowledge this evidence even if they disagree with its analysis. Grant doesn’t indicate whether he disagrees, whether he’s ignoring it, or whether he doesn’t know it exists … he simply says there’s “no evidence.”

The fact that the next sentence peddles an evidence-free stereotype (“Poor people get diabetes because they eat junk food, not because Sir Peter Jackson is rich.”) is the icing on the bullshit cake.

“Key to the inequality fantasy is that New Zealand is a neo-liberal rich-man’s paradise but the facts do not support this. Bill English said… [bla bla bla] Half the population are net beneficiaries.”

He goes on to uncritically parrot Bill English’s dishonest press release that I addressed a couple of blogs ago. If Grant was doing his job as a journalist and applying some critical thinking, he’d realise English’s figures show the opposite of what he claims.

Grant thinks workers should be grateful for being “net beneficiaries” of state assistance… grateful for a situation where their subhuman wages mean they don’t contribute much to the tax coffers, let alone to their own families, and Working for Families subsidises their employers to keep paying these sub-human wages. How much more grateful should the rich be for being “net beneficiaries” of a system that facilitates and supports such grossly unequal wealth?

“Economic growth is driven by innovative entrepreneurs adding to the total economy. They sometimes become rich by retaining some of the extra wealth they created.”

I don’t even know where to start with this statement, except to note that it’s pure ideology. He equates economic growth with ‘wealth,’ ignoring the fact that economic (GDP) growth doesn’t just include productive, wealth-producing activities, but destructive ones like crime, pollution and credit card debt. And he simplistically suggests ‘wealth’ is created by “innovative entrepreneurs,” rather than by the contributions of all workers; those who’re given the opportunity to utilise their creative/innovative skills, and those who aren’t.

The next sentence, where he uses a doctor as his archetypical example of a rich wealth-creating entrepreneur, reveals his ideological assumption that the rich become rich by doing good for the world. A better example of the very highest income earners would be a currency trader who makes much more than a doctor by producing nothing, just manipulating pieces of paper and numbers on computer screens.

Later in the article he again waxes lyrical about how much wealth the rich create, and how grateful we should be for their work. He also mentions how hard-working they are – predictably failing to provide any statistics linking hard work to high income. In fact, income and wealth distributions are way out of proportion to how hard people work… (unless the richest 1% percent work 10-16 times as hard as the average NZer).

“Poverty has many causes, welfare dependency amongst them, but blaming the hard-working for the failings of the indigent is not a solution.”

Grant is doing even worse – blaming the hard-working poor (like people working two jobs cleaning toilets on minimum wage to feed their families) for their own poverty. Despicable.

Wheat, chaff, sheep, goats (resources, votes)

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Though political scientist Bryce Edwards suggests maybe we shouldn’t vote in this year’s local body elections, I’ve never missed an opportunity to vote in any local or national election (anarchist sympathies notwithstanding).

This year’s elections in Chch are more important than most… we get to vote for a new mayor, mostly-new city councillors, community board representatives, district health board representatives and Environment Canterbury councillors.

Here’s how I’m voting this time, and – more likely to be useful for you – the resources I used to make my decisions.

I won’t fill out my form and post it until the last minute (Wednesday), so I’m open to changing my mind, and I’m keen to hear about any other useful resources you know about.
 

Resources

My votes

Mayor (pick one or none)
Lianne Dalziel

Councillors – Fendalton-Waimari ward (pick up to 2)
Raf Manji
Faimeh Burke

Community Board members – Fendalton-Waimari ward (pick up to 5)
Faimeh Burke
Sally Buck
Ahi Allen

Canterbury District Health Board members (rank as many/few as you like, up to 26) (Updated 9/10/2013)
7 are elected but your votes are almost guaranteed to be transferred further down your list, so it’s worth ranking at least 12 if you can bring yourself to do so. I’ve ranked 25 to give my votes the maximum chance of contributing to anyone but Keown (see below).

  1. Paul McMahon (preventive health, mentions health inequalities, highlights wider causes of (un)health, community development/youth health experience, supports living wage for all, supports free public dental care in theory, part of the Anabaptist network, People’s Choice)
  2. Heather Symes (health practitioner, focus on vulnerable people, sympathetic to public dental care, supports living wage for all health workers and lower CEO salaries, signed Nurses Organisation pledge, People’s Choice)
  3. Oscar Alpers (focus on vulnerable people, public health not health insurance, People’s Choice)
  4. Adrian Te Patu (health practitioner, community/public health experience)
  5. George Abraham (health scientist, campaigning on free public dental care, wants to look after ‘less privileged’)
  6. Jo Kane
  7. David Morrell
  8. Anna Crighton
  9. Chris Mene
  10. Sally Buck
  11. Steve Wakefield
  12. Alison Franklin
  13. Drucilla Kingi-Patterson
  14. Andrew McCombie
  15. Wendy Gilchrist
  16. Tim Howe
  17. John Noordanus
  18. Margaret McGowan
  19. Andrew Dickerson
  20. Beth Kempen
  21. Murray Clarke
  22. Keith Nelson
  23. David Rowland
  24. Robin Kilworth
  25. Tubby Hansen

Unranked: Aaron Keown (Only attended one two full Health Board meetings in 2012 but still picked up a cool $26,000 for his troubles. Tries to go where the populist wind blows, but occasionally reveals his true colours as an ACT member and Marryattophile who called quake victims whiners.)

~~~

Disclaimer: Fine, I admit it. I linked to the Bryce Edwards post 78% for ego reasons. He mentions me!

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.

The central message of “welfare reform” – and why National needs to miss the point

(This is part two of a two-part series on the current “welfare reform” policy – part one is here)

I have a friend who says that Paula Bennett‘s welfare policy is fine, and it’s not beneficiary-bashing, because if you (only) look at the individual policies, they’re not really as bad as they first appear; some of them are quite reasonable and even potentially helpful.

I think this is quite generous.  There may be things that can be done on an individual level to help beneficiaries and reduce their reliance on welfare, but these aren’t constructive or intelligent measures; I take issue with how hypocritical, worryingly controllingcontrived and just plain stupid they are, the effects on children in poverty, and the fact that overall they add up to welfare cuts.

But these specific policy effects are only part of the picture of welfare reform. We need to look at the entirety of what is being communicated if we want to understand “welfare reform” and its relationship to the phenomenon of “benny-bashing”.

The essential message of “welfare reform” is: The problem is with beneficiaries themselves. If someone can’t get a job it’s because they don’t have the right skills or attributes, not because there aren’t enough jobs to go around; if they’re not in paid work on top of raising a family and running a home, they’re leeching off the system, not making a choice mothers with partners are allowed to make; and if they don’t want to do a certain job it’s because they don’t have the right attitude, not because that job is dehumanising or abusive.

Of course, this message is a lot more subtle than the populist sentiments simmering just beneath the surface of the rich, the working poor and anyone who hasn’t had to rely on welfare themselves. Rather than saying beneficiaries are lazy, incompetent, drug-addicted, child-abusive, over-breeding criminals who think the government owes them a living, Bennett talks of an “investment approach” to welfare and unveils special new rules for beneficiaries only, to make sure they’re not taking drugs, opting out of optional early childhood education, having any more children, or refusing any job offer whatsoever.

It is indeed true that the actual policies are slightly gentler than the shriekings of talkback radio and internet comments. But the policy announcements still have the effect of dog-whistling support for these populist sentiments. In fact, she’ll often back down from earlier extreme statements; a shrewd strategy that allows her to satisfy our benny-bashing instincts, but then also satisfy our more reasonable natures that the policy isn’t going to be quite so harsh as it seemed.

So it’s clever politics, in that it allows National to affirm its identity as smart and careful with money, and tough but fair when it comes to the dole-bludging strawmen who are the main target of New Zealand’s two minutes’ hate.

Either way, it’s still repeating the essential message that it’s the beneficiaries who have the problem. But this is simply insufficient to explain why four years ago unemployment was the lowest in decades, and now it’s rapidly approaching 80s and 90s highs.

Sociologist C. Wright Mills used high unemployment rates as an example of something that cannot be properly understood or solved on a purely individual level; instead a “sociological imagination” is needed to connect personal problems with public issues.

The most obvious “public issue” at play here is the global financial crisis and recession. Our worst periods of unemployment since at least the 80s have all followed periods of negative economic growth; compare this with this.

Paula Bennett actually admitted in April that there simply aren’t enough jobs in the current economic climate. Bill English certainly knows this, and is trying to get us back to economic growth by following the dubious neo-liberal formula.

Of course, this will only be a temporary solution until the next recession brings another wave of unemployment. A more long-term solution would be to address the economic system itself; to change the way the economy operates so that it doesn’t rely on periodic bouts of recession and unemployment. As Mills put it; “In so far as an economy is so arranged that slumps occur, the problem of unemployment becomes incapable of personal solution.”

Unfortunately, this government is not about to challenge the basic shape of the capitalist system, or even its recent neo-liberal form. In fact, the current National party are the ideological progeny of the neo-liberals who argued in the 80s and 90s that unemployment is good, because it keeps wages low, which is great for business.  They might not make such bold statements nowadays, but they still believe that an underpaid and desperate workforce is what we need to bring about the utopia of economic growth.

To really solve unemployment would require the government to re-think their entire philosophy that says that unbridled capitalism is our lord and saviour – not the cause of problems like unemployment.

So they do what dominant groups have done throughout history when they don’t want to address societal issues in a way that might challenge their way of running things… They scapegoat marginal individuals for the problems of the whole society, and consolidate power by uniting the majority against these scapegoats; in this case beneficiaries.

It makes perfect sense why they’d do this; it’s the best way for National to gain politically out of the situation, even if nobody else does. But with rising unemployment, record inequality and obscene child poverty, blaming and punishing the victims is not the kind of welfare “reform” we need right now.

Colin Craig does the research, proves self wrong

This poster is getting funnier and funnier.

Since I wrote my last blog about homosexuality, I noticed that Colin Craig has been debating in the Waikato Times. He claims to have found a lot of scientific research proving his contention that “adopting a gay lifestyle is a choice”.

What he says makes for an interesting follow-up to my blog. The interesting thing is that Craig’s research doesn’t really give any evidence whatsoever that homosexuality is a choice (apart from the title of one of the books).  The only way it could appear this way is if you’re viewing it through the reductive individualistic either/or lens that assumes if something isn’t completely predestined by your genes, it must be a free choice.

In fact, Craig’s research, even in his own words, does a remarkably good job of backing up what I said in my blog:
“[homosexuality is] far more complicated than either being a slave to some mysterious ‘gay gene’ or waking up one day and ‘deciding to be gay’ … While there may be some biological aspects and some choice aspects to sexuality … our sexuality is [also] to a large extent socially constructed”.

(Actually, and ironically, after reading Craig’s research I realised I was being overly generous to the choice aspects and not generous enough to the biological aspects.)

So here’s what Colin Craig has to say about sexual orientation research (grammatical errors and condescending tone quoted as written):

For a start I highly recommend looking at the work of the Human Genome Project.

Frankly these are some of the best minds when it comes to genetic makeup and it’s influences. They looked specifically at genetics and causality. Dr Collins the head of the project team summarises by saying ‘‘.. sexual orientation is genetically influenced but not hardwired by DNA and that whatever genes are involved represent predispositions, not predeterminations’’.

As well here are some authors/researchers that have written about this issue. Please note that I am only quoting authors who are either Gay or bisexual themselves (except perhaps for Greenberg who describes himself as a ‘‘social liberal”). It cannot therefore be claimed that they have any bias against gay people in what they have said. My best suggestion for those interested is to try and get these books through your local library.

Kirk and Madsen. (After the Ball [Book]) .. ‘‘..sexual orientation, for most humans, seems to be a product of a complex interaction between innate pre-dispositions and environmental factors during childhood and early adolescence.’’ Dr j de Cecco. If you seduce a straight person can you make then Gay? [Book]) ‘‘ ..scientific conclusion shows that life-long, exclusive homosexuality, as articulated by gay rhetoric, is more a statement about the culture in which it occurs than the essence of homosexuality.’’

Dr. V Williams (Queer by choice [Book]) ‘‘ my conclusions question some of the fundamental basis upon which the gay and lesbian rights movement has been built’’.

Jennie Ruby (Off our Backs [Book]) ‘‘.. I don’t think lesbians are born .. I think they are made’’.

Dr Golomok/Dr Tasker (Do parents influence the Sexual Orientation of their children?

Findings from a longitudinal study of Lesbian Families. [Research study: Developmental Pyschology 1999v.32] ) Outcomes: 15% of children in Lesbian families went on to have same sex relationships compared to 0% from heterosexual families.

Jan Clausen (Apples and Oranges [Book]) ‘‘ What has got to stop is the rigging of history to make the ‘‘either/or’’ look permanent and universal’’.

Dr D Greenberg (The construction of Homosexuality [Book/Research]). Comment by Chicago University: ‘‘The idea of static homosexual orientation or essence simply does not hold up against the huge variety of homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual patterns.’’

In any case, this response points out that Craig’s contribution is “not only wrong, but irrelevant”. Even if Craig is right about the science behind homosexuality, it’s still a completely separate matter to the “moral and ethical questions” of whether there is anything wrong with homosexuality, or whether gay marriage should be legalised.