Tuesday, August 23, 2016

There's An Easy Solution To The Present Kiwisaver Cluster Munitions Debacle - Kiwifund

Last week, retirement-savers from around the country were shocked to discover that their hard-earned investment funds were potentially going towards funding the invention, sale and distribution of land mines, cluster munitions, and other nefarious products. Nuclear weapons are also apparently on the portfolio-books.

This is, predictably, quite shocking for many of us (particularly given all other Government long-term investment vehicles such as ACC and the Cullen Fund have stringent policies against pouring public money in these insalubrious directions); but sadly, what wasn't shocking at all was the Government's completely lackluster non-response to this pressing issue.

As in so many instances surrounding Kiwisaver's ongoing fate under National - ranging from the official slashing of Employer Contributions, through to tens of millions of dollars effectively being STOLEN from employees thanks to bosses not passing money on to the fund, and on into the occasionally ruinously high fees charged by some fund-operators - the Government's silence when it comes to proposing serious solutions has been deafening.

In stark contrast to this, there's one party which has long believed in the advancement of citizen-based national savings (often in the format of state-directed sovereign wealth funds) ... and it should therefore come as no surprise that New Zealand First has an elegant answer for pretty much all of the above issues:

We provide a #Nationalized option for employees' retirement savings, called Kiwifund.

This policy was first put forward by NZF in reaction to news that private Kiwisaver providers had managed to cream off somewhere upwards of a BILLION DOLLARS worth of fees and assorted other charges thanks to lax oversight of the scheme by the state. (By comparison, the administration costs for the Government's own superannuation vehicle - which is roughly the same size in dollar terms as the combined totals of Kiwisaver funds - comes in at a paltry 1.5% of that.)

But the reasoning for putting this idea back on the table now is a little different. The other chief advantage we have by farming our retirement savings out to the state rather than private fund managers is that there's therefore a greater degree of ethical behavior and morality which we can thus expect from the scheme's investment decisions. As already noted, this wouldn't have happened at either ACC or the Cullen Fund - the Government's other long-term investment vehicles - due to exactly the sort of legislative prohibitions which would also prevent Kiwifund from doing likewise.

What last week's shocking developments have roundly evinced is that when it comes to managing our money, the private sector regularly engages in shonky practices. We've already known for quite some time that this includes rampant profiteering at our collective expense. However it is altogether disquieting to find out that their recklessness is not limited to the level of profit extracted from us, but also the specific sources and mechanisms used to generate same.

It is increasingly clear, now, that the only way to truly remedy and rectify this woeful situation is to bring a large portion of the scheme under the aegis of a public-managed and -overseen fund.

Thank goodness that one political party had the foresight and the vision some years ago to propose a policy which would do exactly that.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Key Is Being Disingenuous On Dope Decriminalization

Earlier this week, a poll came out indicating that a majority - almost two thirds - of New Zealanders are allegedly in support of either decriminalizing or legalizing cannabis. This is hardly significant, as it is merely a reification of what many of us have either known or strongly suspected for some time.

But what IS interesting is how the conversation around its results appears to be progressing amidst our political class.

Labour, as you may recall, went inside 72 hours from signalling cautious support for a cannabis referendum on student radio ... through to Andrew Little backing away by claiming such a thing "wouldn't be a priority" for his party in government. He's been more recently quoted as suggesting that decriminalization likely wouldn't work in practice, and stating Labour's outright opposition to legalization.

Meanwhile, New Zealand First and The Greens reiterated support for our traditional positions: letting the people decide through a referendum, and pushing for top-down legislative change respectively. In my opinion, while both are desirable, one of these approaches is perhaps rather more likely to force improvements upon the issue in the near future - no prizes for guessing which.

The fear which our National decision-makers have for putting such a policy to a plebiscite can be easily adjudged by the speed and velocity with which Key has started counter-factually spinning upon the issue.

Consider his remarks in response to news of the poll: that first, communities would oppose any likely law changed based around not being able to control whether or not they'd wind up with drug stores or "tinnie houses" on their local street corners ... and then invoking the scary specter of the Legal Highs debacle in order to intimate that 'we've been down this road before'. Which we haven't.

Obviously, this wild scaremongering is intended to attempt to defuse popular momentum and support for a law change. And the manifestly fact-free nature of Key's rhetorical stabs are revealed by the logical contradictions between them.

First, decriminalization DOES NOT MEAN legal cannabis-sales. In just about every jurisdiction which has pursued drug decriminalization, drug-dealing remains steadfastly illegal. The only thing that changes is that individual users who are caught with a relatively small quantity intended for their own personal use ... don't have to take their changes in the criminal justice system upon apprehension - instead getting a small fine, or other civic penalties (Portugal often insists upon repeat offenders being required to attend mandatory drug rehabilitation and counselling). The idea here is to help people with problematic use, rather than harm them with potentially needless criminal convictions. As I have often argued, the manifest ridicularity of enforcing criminal sanction for minor drug offending effectively turns on the implicit logic that drugs *may* ruin the user's life ... so just to make sure, the state will demonstrate this principle in action by ruining it *for* you - often far more irreparably than the drugs themselves.

So right away, we can see that Key is being disingenuous in insisting that the expressed and avowed opinion of ordinary New Zealanders would create something manifestly different to what's actually on the table here.

Now it is true that if we DID intend to pursue full-legalization, that the growing up (or, potentially more accurately, the de-criminalization of an already-extant industry) of 'legitimate' cannabis cultivation, sale and distribution would most likely happen. But Key's own cited example of the public furor over the thankfully now extinct 'Legal Highs' industry reveals exactly why the invoked specter of 'tinnie houses on every street corner' is substantially fallacious.

When the Psychoactive Substances Act came into force (which, let's remember, was National-supported legislation), it was very clear about establishing public and community control over the location of retail outlets. In other words, it was made deliberately legally impossible for people selling mind-altering chemicals to operate in a number of areas as determined by their local community, such as residential areas, near schools etc. So there's a clear precedent for being able to control this sort of thing - just as, in many cases, we do with liquor licensing (see, for example, the liquor licensing trust scheme operating in West Auckland).

The other point to be made here is that at present there is NO legislative control on where or where not that cannabis-dealing can occur. There is probably an intrepid black-market businessman operating in your neighborhood right now as we speak. So bringing the marketplace 'above ground' may perhaps make it easier to control where the sale and distribution of cannabis takes place.

In any case, comparisons between potential cannabis decriminalization or legalization and our previous abortive experience with the synthetic highs industry are patently fallacious. The synthetic cannabinoids which wound up being sold particularly in the later phases of their thankfully brief period of legal availability were pretty much fundamentally different drugs to even the much-mythologized modern high-potency marijuana which some errant baby-boomers will invoke in an attempt to distinguish the relative harms between their own youthful drug use and the cannabis-smoking of today.

I'm quite serious about this. Even though the various classes of somewhat ill-understood Research Chemicals were supposed to broadly mimic the effects of real cannabis, the distinction between what was on sale legally versus that which has always been available illicitly ... often seemed to be about as different from each other as Kahlua and coffee.

There are long and involved neuropsychopharmacological explanations as to why synthetic highs were so qualitatively different to actual cannabis; but rather than bore you with the details, let's just say that pretty much everyone in a position to know agrees that the classes of synthetic cannabinoids on sale here in New Zealand had substantially different effects, response-profiles, and addictive potentiality as compared to the genuine article. As in, they were ACTUALLY addictive, and very really capable of causing serious and long-term physiological/psychological damage in ways that cannabis simply wasn't.

So will the decriminalization or legalization of cannabis in New Zealand lead to burgeoning hordes of young dope-fiends queuing out round the corner on residential streets in their reckless bids to score a wrap of tinfoil from your friendly neighbourhood legal-tinnie-house?

No. This is simply untrue.

As previous experiments with different substances ranging from alcohol to esoteric addictive chemicals have proven, it's perfectly possible to control the legal distribution of psychoactive substances and keep them out of residential areas. The sad specter of burnt out, zombie-eyed addicts desperately fiending for their next fix as a result of this law change is also simply another piece of National scaremongering. We all know cannabis users - some of them even heavy users or arguable dependents. Even the worst of them often appear far better and more functional than middling-grade alcoholics - and infinitely healthier than those who were addicted to potentially lethal synthetic cannabinoids.

In any case, concerns that cannabis law reform will meaningfully increase the number of weed-users in our communities appear to be highly questionable on the basis of fact. There's no evidence from the multiplicity of U.S. polities which have improved their drug laws that this will axiomatically happen - and, indeed, some evidence that the legal availability of cannabis actually *decreases* the uptake and usage of cannabis by teenagers.

This is without even getting into the $150 million in taxation revenues which Treasury estimates legalization could bring us - or the nearly $200 million which would be saved from Police and judicial system budgets as the results of no longer having to arrest and prosecute cannabis users.

So in conclusion, there is a legitimate debate to be had about the merits (or otherwise) of marijuana law reform here in the Land of the Long White Cloud. There is also room for discussion about differences of approach in securing that (for example the relative advantages of the pursuit of #reeferendum, or the more perilous (and thus far repeatedly defeated in Parliament) pure-legislative-push).

But any way you choose to roll it, the key and important thing which must MUST underpin a public debate about this issue is accurate information and fair, even-handed arguments.

We've had several decades of semi-irrational scaremongering. It's lead us to all sorts of unwholesome and deleterious places. Let's hope that - going forward - it's reality rather than risible fear-inducing rhetoric which carries the day.

It doesn't take more than half an ounce of sense to see which side the facts seem to stack up on. No wonder the opponents of the future, then, find themselves having to resort to fact-free spinfotainment in order to attempt to get their prejudicial points of view across.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Free Scott Watson

The last few years have seen some remarkable steps forward for efforts to rectify historic abrogations of justice. Teina Pora was acquitted. He was even belatedly (and pettily-parsimoniously) compensated for his time behind bars. David Bain's conviction was also vacated, on grounds that regardless of whether he did it or not, the Crown's case was simply not good enough to remove all reasonable doubt. He, too, has been 'compensated' after a fashion - although to a much lesser figure, and merely in recompense of his legal costs rather than actual, tangible renumeration for his extended time behind bars.

The Pora case in particular represents one of the great acknowledgements of judicial wrongdoing in this country; while the Bain morass adequately demonstrates that with the power of a passionate, committed advocate - even seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be overcome in pursuit of a man's freedom.

A third instance, that of Arthur Allan Thomas, is also instructive. There, thanks in no small part to the courageous efforts of one Rob Muldoon - then Prime Minister - Thomas's conviction (which had been upheld through both trial and retrial) was first investigated, and then eventually overturned. Allegations of police malfeasance were seriously looked into, Thomas Pardoned, and also given a decent payout of official compensation.

It's amazing what can happen when you are able to convince people in high places to take an active interest in the fostering of justice. Even the Police directly planting evidence against someone can be challenged and overpowered in such a situation.

But sadly, not all strongly arguable miscarriages of justice turn out that way. For whatever reason, some cases go through the works of procedure, come out with seemingly wrong or unsafe and unsound outcomes; and probably innocent men find themselves subjected to all the harshness and cruelty of the wrong end of the justice system despite most likely having committed no crime other than being a semi-convenient scape-goat.

As a prime example of this sad phenomenon in action, the case of Scott Watson springs instantly to mind.

If you're over a certain age in New Zealand, you probably know the rough outline of the details. In the early hours of New Years 1998, a handsome young pair disappeared from the Marlborough Sounds. The last known witness to see them alive, water-taxi operator Guy Wallace, deposited them on a two-masted ketch in the company of an as-yet unidentified 'Mystery Man'. According to the Crown, the vessel in question was the (one masted) Blade and the mystery man none other than Scott Watson.

It didn't appear to matter that the only, best eye-witness to the identity of the suspect had stated categorically that Watson was not the man whose yacht Hope and Smart had disembarked at. Nor that there was an obvious visual discrepancy between the vessel Watson owned, and the one on which the murders presumably took place. The Police had their man, and as has later become apparent, seem to have had little issue with 'fudging' the evidence in certain places in order to ensure that a conviction stuck.

Admittedly, there is nothing so obvious and egregious to the Watson case that has yet come out as the planted bullet which did in Arthur Allan Thomas - but even taking a cursory run-through of the case and judgements against Watson, it would be exceedingly hard to argue that his conviction is in any way "safe".

For starters, there's the fact that the only real piece of forensic evidence linking Watson to the crime - hair follicles found on a blanket in Watson's yacht which belonged to Hope - quite probably got there through sample contamination during the process of analysis. The two strands in question were not found on the blanket when it was initially submitted to the ESR labs for review, but instead mysteriously turned up only after hair from a brush belonging to Hope was also turned over to ESR for sampling.

In the absence of hard proof of this nature, pinning the double-murder upon Watson becomes principally an exercise in conjecture and weaving together witness testimony to attempt to manufacture a cohesive whole.

And that's where things start to get especially sticky.

In order to get a jury to convict Watson in the absence of seriously water-tight evidence linking him to the crime, the Prosecution needed to establish a supremely plausible narrative which could be buttressed by the limited evidence (chiefly eyewitness) available to them.

One part of this narrative concerned an alleged journey made by Watson aboard Blade to dump the bodies of Hope and Smart in an undersea canyon off the Sounds themselves. Both Police and Prosecution put a great deal of effort into attempting to establish that such a journey could have been made by Watson in a manner which lined up time-wise with a bevvy of eyewitness reports of a yacht moving through the area.

Unfortunately for their case, it has since been proven (somewhere in the vicinity of a decade after the fact) that the Blade could not have made the journey that the Crown insisted it did. It was simply too slow in the water to possibly have been able to traverse the numerous kilometers of distance between start-point and alleged end-point inside the time allowed for same by the Prosecution.

However of potentially greater interest are the shifts in witness testimony surrounding this part of the case. Initial statements by some witnesses as to when they saw the yacht in question in the area of their eyesight shifted by as much as eight hours over the course of repeated police questioning - potentially so their observations would better fit into the emerging official police narrative. It has been noted that the lead witness in the above episode received a remarkably light sentence for his large-scale cannabis cultivation operation after co-operating with the police during the Watson case and changing his testimony.

But the problems with witnesses which have bedeviled this case don't seem to end there.

The lead Crown witness, Guy Wallace, initially maintained that the 'Mystery Man' Hope and Smart departed with did not match Scott Watson's description. For several months when Police presented him with photos of Watson, he refused to identify Watson as the suspect. It was only after the Police deployed a different tactic - a photo-montage technique which has subsequently been criticized, and which caught Watson mid-blink in a way that substantially changed his appearance - that Wallace changed tac and picked Watson out of the lineup. It is an identification which Wallace has since recanted and comprehensively ruled out. Particularly as the physical description given of the 'Mystery Man' as having stubble and long, wavy hair could not be applied to the clean-shaven and short-haired Watson. It has been suggested by Wallace that he was "tricked" into fingering Watson by the Police.

Another witness who also claims to have been "tricked" by the Police into mis-identifying Watson is Rozlyn McNeilly - who was working at the Furneaux Lodge where events began on the thirty first of December 1997. Interestingly, the Independent Police Conduct Authority also found fault with the way she'd been cajoled into making the identification.

In addition to this, we have a veritable rogue's gallery of imprisoned Secret Witnesses recanting testimony or otherwise being found unreliable post-factoother witnesses from the boat moored next to Blade who fairly directly contradict the Crown's version of eventsa litany of statements by any number of people that they saw a two-masted ketch matching the description of the yacht Wallace said he dropped the pair off to in the Sounds area (despite Police apparently functionally believing such a boat did not exist); and, perhaps rather importantly, an apparent mutual identification by Watson and a man named John Mullen as the client and water-taxi operator respectively who made a journey back to the Blade, along with the statement from another water-taxi operator by the name of Donald Anderson that Watson went back to his yacht some hours before Wallace's water taxi is supposed to have picked up Smart, Hope and the 'Mystery Man' from shore.

All of this together makes it pretty unlikely if not outright impossible that Watson was the 'Mystery Man' that night, with the Crown only able to riposte to the last two points by insidiously insisting that Watson somehow managed in a manner that has never been satisfactorily explained to get back from his yacht to the shoreline in time to be taken out once again to the Blade, without any additional witnesses or water-taxis being involved. This itself became a point of contention (and grounds for Appeal) later on in proceedings when it was alleged by the Defence that the Crown's 'two trip' theory was only introduced into the official narrative far too late to be effectively challenged in Court.

Adding fuel to the fire are further claims by others to have identified the mystery ketch, or to have convincingly connected the disappearance of Hope and Smart to a drug syndicate allegedly operating in the area. Some of the substance to these claims can seem fanciful, but the points made by these individuals as to the difficulty of confusing the comparatively smaller one-masted Blade with the much larger two-masted ketch identified by Wallace nevertheless remain valid and important contributions to the debate as to Watson's guilt or innocence.

In any case, you don't have to necessarily think that Watson is innocent to start to see the problems with the way that this case has been conducted. There are sufficient and sufficiently obvious problems of both procedure and evidence to rather strongly suggest that Watson's conviction is strongly unsound.

Interestingly, even Olivia Hope's father now agrees that there is potential room for significant doubt as to the accuracy of the conviction - seeking a meeting with Watson in order to "look him in the eyes" and attempt to assay his guilt or otherwiseGerald Hope even previously offered to help fight to free Watson if he came away believing him to be innocent.

Importantly, this is a sentiment shared by a growing number of Kiwis. There has long been a public campaign to attempt to lobby the Government or Governor-General to successfully intervene in Watson's circumstances. They're presently circulating a petition and will be holding a vigil on Saturday down in Christchurch to both highlight and protest the ongoing injustice which has been meted out to Mr Watson.

It would be great to have your support.

Perhaps, with enough public pressure and scrutiny, Watson might one day get his very own Muldoon Moment and be delivered from prison via political intervention or retrial.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

With E.U. Trade At Stake, Will Key Finally Start To Take Our Tax Haven Status Seriously?

Remember when John Key boldly declared that New Zealand was not a tax haven?

Well, the European Union disagrees. And while it might seem rather academic what a transnational institution literally half a world away thinks about our taxation regimen ... the slight issue is that this now means the planet's largest economy is gearing up to put us over in the international naughty corner unless and until we sort our situation out.

Maybe the threat of trade sanctions or even travel bans upon New Zealand produce and citizens by the E.U. will force National to finally take this issue with the gravitas and seriousness that this demands.

Then again, there is a potential other side to this debate. Whenever some great and seismic movement (from our lilliputian perspective, at least) is about to take place in international political economy, it makes sense to ponder the inordinately yet understatedly important question: Cui Bono? Who Benefits?

And the answer to that, in this case, is quite simple. There are any number of French farmers and other European agriculturalists who have lobbied for years to keep Kiwi primary produce as far out of the Eurozone as possible. They represent perhaps the single biggest reason why we're arguably highly unlikely to ever have a proper free trade deal with the Europeans - present and current events with our tax-haven status notwithstanding.

The question ought to be asked: if the Europeans are looking at excluding or downsizing Kiwi trade flows in response to our tax laws ... will they be doing the same for countries like Switzerland? Or is there one rule for some, and another ruleset entirely for those countries who happen to have an enormous comparative advantage in a particular economic sector.

Because at the moment, there seems to be a very real possibility that efforts to put the screws on our exports into the Eurozone are perhaps less motivated by an intergovernmental desire for taxation transparency than they are by frank, rank economic self-interest on the part of the Europeans.

In that case, and if that is the situation, then it is presumably to our advantage that Britain is leaving the Eurozone. At least in that instance, we shall be shortly able to have a productive and blossoming trade-relationship with what's presently the 5th largest world economy.

Still, regardless of the alleged motivation for the E.U.'s actions in this matter - there is a silver lining.

With the kind of serious threat against the New Zealand economy which E.U. trade sanctions (or even the potential for their future imposition) unquestionably represent, the Prime Minister and his cronies surely have no choice but to act and act decisively in order to get our affairs - and our international reputation - back in order.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Clintonistas' Allegation That Trump Is Putin Finger Puppet Is Classic Dead Cat McCarthyist Dirty Politics

In politics these days, everything is professionalized. Messages are crafted by hired-gun spindoctors rather than party true-believer apparatchiks at bar-room brainstorming sessions. Internal offices of some standing are increasingly filled by folks remunerated for their services instead of pure unprofessional volunteers. In fact, in these tumultuous times even the absolute donkey-mule grunt-work of responding to and engaging with people on social media can be farmed out to bought-and-paid-for staffers.

This last point has been a particularly big (and understandably contentious) part of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, and is worth mentioning in light of the recent deluge of comments appearing on articles covering the 20,000 DNC internal emails recently published by Wikileaks.

The basic gist of these comments runs along the lines of demanding to know why people aren't questioning the source of the hacked emails, and then sketching out some cockamamie conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is a foreign finger-puppet of the great Vladimir Putin.

This line has also been picked up by a number of mainstream media outlets, and the Clinton campaign's evident fall-back line that its present challenges are largely the result of offshore interference would appear to be swiftly gaining ground.

Now on the face of it, the question as to precisely who hacked the DNC and decided to make the Democrats' own anti-democratic internal machinations public is decidedly secondary to the fact that the material thusly exposed appears to be factual. Nobody but the most ardent Clintonista appears to be arguing that the DNC has behaved with full propriety when it came to overseeing the Democrats' presidential primary contest; and the official apology from key DNC personnel as well as the Head On A Platter of former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz go a certain distance towards establishing a transparent 'mea culpa' for the organization.

But this attempted re-direct of attention by Clinton supporters from what has actually happened (the DNC being caught out attempting to rig internal processes to favour the Establishment-Insider candidate) through to some cursory elements as to why it might have happened and completely hyperbolic speculation as to the wider geopolitical implications of the event (Russian intelligence service involvement, and Trump apparently being a Manchurian Candidate by way of Moscow, respectively) ... is simply breathtaking.

Perhaps it is an instance of Crosby-Textor's favoured electoral stratagem - the Dead Cat effect. A large and flagrant accusation like the circulating and percolating questions as to Trump's alleged international allegiances does certainly help to distract people from asking the serious question as to what extent the Clinton campaign was actively complicit with the DNC's evident conspiracy against Sanders.

It may also be an example of a sort of latter-day McCarthyism in American politics. Communism may have fallen more than two and a half decades ago, but Russia remains a big scary international boogeyman in the eyes and minds of many American voters. Presumably, particularly those in the Heartland and more overtly patriotic demographics to which Trump's message is otherwise especially appealing. How better to attempt to 'wedge politics' these people away from their putative political messiah than by insisting that he is naught but merely a bought-and-paid-for agent of America's prime international antagonist, the Great Russian Bear.

The broader import of the allegations against Trump is clear, then. Having concluded that they face an uphill battle to be sure of victory in November, the Clinton campaign (or some parts thereof) has decided it must fight dirty - and smear and besmirch Trump via association with an offshore undesirable rather than continuing to attempt to debate him on the issues.

There is also another limb to this. One of the clear areas upon which Clinton has a weakness to Trump is in the field of foreign policy. Nobody doubts Clinton's formidableness on the international stage - but her demonstrable record in this area on everything from voting for the Iraq War through to the more recent flurry of messy (attempted) regime overthrows (and, for that matter, the negotiation of the TPPA) as Secretary of State is that of an avowed Hawk. See, for example, her comments here about the desirability of the US working to fuel continual unrest, instability and armed conflict in Syria in order to advance Israeli interests. Or the earlier, much-cited lines about America going to war with Iran if she were President. And while it would be lovely to write all of this substantial weight of evidence off as prior mistakes which she's learned from and repudiated, it would sadly appear that this is not the case. Whether present, future or historic - Clinton is inarguably to the Interventionist, Neocon Right of even a large swathe of the Republican Party. No wonder godfathers of the Neocon movement like Bill Kristol are endorsing her.

Juxtaposed against this frightening background, the Trump campaign's emphasis of isolationism and non-interventionism sounds not just comparatively rational, but outright desirable. Particularly to the large numbers of war-weary Americans who are justifiably miffed that their country can apparently spend billions prosecuting imperialistic adventures overseas - yet can't seem to find the spare change to make meaningful improvements to infrastructure or educational and healthcare spending in their own country.

But one of the key arts of politics is to be able to master a technique fairly common in Judo - the 'throw', wherein an opponent's salience and momentum is turned against them via a skillful pivot which renders their previous strong-point a weakness.

The Clinton campaign's assertions that Trump is an avowed agent of the Russians are a masterful example of exactly that.

Suddenly, it casts Trump's position in a different light. Instead of being a principled and integral stance, it becomes a deliberate Russian ploy to give themselves undisputed and unchallenged mastery of the world stage.

Note that this is not what I believe Trump's foreign policy is actually motivated by - but it is difficult to deny the rhetorical and narrative logic which Conservative and Clintonite talking heads will be able to bring to bear in arguing exactly this in front of the electorate.

But knowledge of Clinton's woeful record is spreading, and it is questionable whether the spin line of posing Donald Trump as a Putin finger-puppet will be enough to offset the obvious and tumultuous detrimental impact upon Clinton's Campaign which the Wikileaks disclosure will almost certainly have.

In any case, the Clintonista assertion that Trump is unelectable due to this unproven Putin allegation seems laughable.

As one of my associates put it:

"How dare Putin think he can meddle in the internal politics of a foreign country! Who does he think he is?! Hillary Clinton?!"

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Why Trump's Vice Presidential Pick Is A Missed Opportunity - Hint: It's Not Just The Logo

The game of vice presidential candidate selection in American Politics is among the single most complex-yet-simple parts of the four yearly quasi-armed-madhouse they call their Presidential election cycle.

Simple, because in effect you're only picking one person who most likely won't actually have to do anything public except the occasional photo-op and feel-good journey if you win.

Unbearably complex because there are so many different considerations which have to go into that selection.

The traditional school of thought with regard to VP selections is that a Presidential candidate ought to go for someone who complements them by absolving their weaknesses somewhat in the eyes of the electorate. Urban(e) quasi-liberals go for more heart-land friendly folks with a more Conservative appeal (think FDR & Truman). Northerners go for Southerners (ala Kennedy and LBJ). Sane, rational people go for frothing at the mouth lunatics (remember John McCain & Sarah Palin?).

In all cases, the perceived shortcomings of one's Presidential standard-bearer are supposed to be abrogated by injecting into their side-car a figure who can energize the 'right' portion of a given electoral base whom the main candidate would otherwise have difficulty reaching.

At their best, such pairings represent a 'dynamic duo' - a confederation of individuals who are able to transmit and transport the same overarching message to diversely different groups and carry the day. Quality VP candidates also provide a strong degree of 'reassurance' about a ticket that not only will a respected voice for the marginalized group's concerns exist at the heart of the impending administration ... but that in the exceedingly unfortunate event of Presidential incompetence or incapacitation, there'll be someone competent to take over.

But unfortunately, such impressive combinations rarely wind up taking to the field. Whether due to the ineluctable combinations of interior party machinations or risk-aversion on the part of Candidates which leads to sloppy or inadequate options being pursued, the field of Presidential-Vice Presidential team-ups is littered with joint-ticket candidacies that were decidedly not all they could truly be.

Just take John McCain in 2008, for instance. We've already mentioned the absolutely disastrous decision to go for Sarah Palin; and it's not hard to see why somebody both backed into a corner (remember, '08 was the heyday of the 'Tea Party' movement) and over-eager to 'soften' a perceived 'reasonable' image to right wing-nut voters who've come to increasingly form the Republican Party's electoral base could have made such a catastrophic miscalculation.

Instead of complimenting McCain's strengths and covering his weaknesses in order to broaden his appeal ... Palin seriously, seriously narrowed it. Her many and manifold incompetencies caused his campaign to take on the air of the clown act of a circus; while the media narrative about McCain-Palin shifted from being about a doughty old war hero with a pragmatic appeal and a genuinely compassionate-conservative conscience ... into a dramatic disaster movie of waiting for whatever next gaffe was almost honour-bound to fall, unbidden, out of Palin's parlously pachyglossal mouth.

In the end, slightly redder Democrats and undecided Independents wound up fearing that the electoral millstone about McCain's neck which would transform from dead albatross to live cockatiel (or, if you prefer, cockatrice - she certainly left McCain's campaign team petrified) in the event of, as the saying went, a few missed beats of a 71 year old man's heart, was just too much of a risk. Even if McCain himself seemed disturbingly sane by Republican presidential candidate standards (particularly in light of what we've been subjected to over the past electoral carnival season), placing Palin within the context of the White House with him would surely undercut that hard-won rationality.

So McCain lost - and in no small part due to his VP pick.

But it didn't have to be that way.

McCain's initial pick for Vice President was, in fact, Senator Joe Lieberman - a Democrat (at the time, anyway) ... and, perhaps more surprisingly, Al Gore's own Vice Presidential candidate during the 2000 Presidential Election.

In hindsight, the strengths which Lieberman would have brought to McCain's campaign seem obvious. Tea Partiers and their ilk could probably have been induced not to stay home on polling-day by the vague and nefarious threat of "Obama"; while Lieberman himself would have emphasized by his mere presence on the ballot McCain's ability to reach across the aisle and work with people outside his own party in the interests of progress. More importantly, a Lieberman-pick would have emphasized McCain's decent values and provided an ever-stronger beacon for Democrat and Independent voters with Democrat (or, perhaps more specifically, Hillary) inclinations to head on over in his direction.

In other words, by choosing a VP candidate who enhanced and focused McCain's appeal rather than undercutting and undermining it in a bid to reach out to a completely different demographic at the original candidate's expense, McCain could have potentially done significantly better than he did.

But McCain's aides felt that a more 'balanced' ticket was necessary and so veto'd Lieberman in favour of someone more overtly Capital-C Conservative.

Now it might seem a little strange to be spending so much time talking about a sputteringly failed Presidential campaign from almost a decade ago - and stranger still to make a strong comparison between John McCain and Donald Trump. But if we leave aside their polar-opposite views on immigration, foreign policy, and whether or not being captured by the North Vietnamese renders one a "loser" ... it has recently become disarmingly apparent that campaign efforts to Make America Great Again in 2016 bear an almost disconcerting resemblance to put Country First (McCain's slogan - and an interesting echo of Trump's own "America First") in 2008.

Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in the severely disappointing choice of Mike Pence to be Trump's running-mate - precisely because this bewildering selection replicates many of the shortcomings which Palin hamstrung McCain with during his own run.

About the only saving grace in this comparison is that Pence is a far sharper cookie than Palin. Although this is perhaps not saying much, as Sarah Palin's politico-intellectual persona bore all the comparative depth of the Windsor gene-pool.

So let's review the evidence. Why on earth would Donald Trump have compromised his own campaign messaging by picking Pence?

On the face of it, there are three possible reasons: first, that Pence's geographic background as a Midwesterner might play a strategic role in helping Trump to win badly needed votes in Rust Belt states. This, at least makes a modicum of sense.

Second, Pence is reasonably well-connected and liked within the Republican's own internal hive-mind of networks. If Trump wants to transform his campaign from "outsider hijacked my party" into a serious and concerted push from the great red elephant cascading across the political situation room, then he arguably needs exactly the kind of institutional buy-in which a figure like Pence can bring to the table. Considering Trump's own ground-campaign during the Primary season was virtually non-existent in many places (apparently because Trump hoped to use the Republican Party's own networks and infrastructure to campaign in the post-Primary run up to November), this could be a badly overlooked previous strategic weakness which desperately needed plugging.

The third angle is that Trump's ideological (or, if you prefer, ruthlessly pragmatic) push to the relative Left of the Republican Party on issues ranging from the TPPA through to transsexuals using the bathroom they believe best fits their gender, and on into advocating for a higher federal minimum wage than Clinton, was perceived as too much of a political risk to remain 'unadulterated'. For one thing, the Republican Party apparatus could have withheld campaign resources from somebody they considered a severely imperfect embodiment of 'their' values. For another, more overtly 'right-wing' Republican voters might have either stayed home on polling day - or instead gotten in behind a third party candidate such as Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson.

So from an 'orthodox' political and risk-management point of view, it's perhaps not hard to see why senior Republican aides pushed for a figure like Pence to be "balancing" the Trump ticket in exactly the same way Palin brought "balance" to the McCain one. For the most part, that's because these are exactly the same reasons informing the decision-making of both Campaigns.

But the risk is that this will lead to exactly the same result.

And that's because the danger is in both situations that adding too much "balance" adulterant to a campaign fundamentally dilutes its original - and insurgent - appeal with both middle and disenfranchised/ignored voters.

Consider the strengths of Trump's campaign going forward thus far.

He's been plainly and unapologetically Protectionist as part of his push to win over the Working Class. One of the biggest and best-known instances of this was his strong opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, on grounds that it would steal jobs from ordinary Americans and give far too much power to corporations.

Pence, by contrast, supports the TPPA - as do a certain vocal proportion of influential Republicans.

The whole pro-Free Trade thing was one of the key ways in which Republican Elites were felt to be out of touch with ordinary workers; and with the elevation of Pence to the pole position of Trump's proverbial right-hand man, it becomes ever more difficult to argue that the Trump campaign represents an independent creature unbeholden to the neoliberal agenda of those self-same elites. The authenticity and salience of the campaign's values in the eyes of those working class voters upon whom the success or failure of the campaign depends, in other words, is under threat.

Another area in which this is quite clearly demonstrable is Pence's own position on the War in Iraq.

Trump's made quite the campaign talking point out of what you might term to be an "isolationist" foreign policy. He's consciously eschewed talk of further large-scale American military deployments to the Middle East (indeed, it's a core part of his "America First" rhetoric to be able to argue that funding which would otherwise be going to 'nation-building' offshore ought instead be spent on building the American nation at home); and has regularly and routinely pilloried Clinton's foreign policy record as both Secretary of State and as a Senator.

The trouble with this is that even though Trump's own foreign policy is refreshingly anti-Neocon ... Pence's own historic stances decidedly aren't.

Watch this video to get a feel for why this is dangerous for the Trump campaign. In short, it becomes difficult to continue banging on about Hillary Clinton's vote in favour of the war in Iraq as a perpetual black mark against her when your own running mate did the exact same thing. Particularly when Trump's defense-line about this is basically that Pence made a mistake more than ten years ago which perhaps shouldn't be brought up today due to questionable relevancy.

Which wears a bit thin when the polemic-point in question is one of Trump's own main main attack-lines against Clinton in order to neutralize her own record of political and institutional experience.

This doesn't just cast the authenticity of some of the campaign's values into question. Watching Trump extend to his running-mate the rhetorical courtesies which in the same breath he so vituperatively denies to his opponent ... on exactly the same issue ... starts to put Trump's own personal credibility in a somewhat shady light.

But it's the third area of what Pence brings to (or takes away from) the campaign which may be more surprising. The social policy side of things.

Now, this might be a somewhat unpopular position, but I believe that one of the reasons Trump's campaign has been such a runaway success (especially and particularly when juxtaposed against his previous Primary Republican rivals), is because Trump decided to eschew the traditional G.o.P. posturing on things like gay issues or transsexual rights, to instead focus upon economics - and, in particular, economic prescriptions which would be rhetorically salable as directly benefiting the working class. This actually turned out to be exactly what many alienated-Republican voters who'd switched off the party in the wake of Teabilly Madness wanted to hear. More importantly, it would have provided a salient path into the center-voters any Presidential campaign so desperately needs in order to be assured of victory. They want bread, not communion-wafer-dipped anti-sexual-minority-posturing media circuses - as you can rarely eat (as opposed to dine out on) the latter.

Pence's appointment once again suggests that this particular stylistic affectation of the Trump campaign is subject to review and potential scrapping as we head into the chaos of the General Election. Again, presumably because identity-politik posturing plays a significant degree better with the withered, fractious Republican hard-base than it does with the workers and center voters whom Trump's been attempting to bring in. As proof of this, contrast Pence's previous record on gay rights as Governor and prior versus Trump's easy dismissal of the recent transsexual bathroom 'controversy' as being any form of issue - still much less a campaign one.

All in all, the picking of Pence represents a sort of a 'win' for the Republican Establishment against their insurgent and errant recently-crowned Champion. They have bridled, bent and broken the Trump Train to their collective will - and in the vain hopes that Trump either holds on to their base, or that they can exert some perceived greater measure of influence upon him should he find himself in the White House.

But in so doing, they have once again and once more rendered both harder and more delayed the long-prophecy'd and portended attempts at turning the Republican Party back from being the plaything of religious zealots or those with money into some semblance of a Working Man's Party - in symbolism and values if not necessarily in full aspiration.

A man like Ret. General Robert Flynn would have been an ideal Vice Presidential selection for Trump to make if the Republicans were serious about fueling that ambition and truly 'breaking out into the mainstream'. His previous statements on abortion and same-sex marriage seemed disturbingly sane for a man addressing the Republican National Convention; and his record of service at the highest levels of both the armed forces and the state intelligence apparatus would have given much needed heft and credibility to Trump's posturing on issues of state. Flynn's previous allegiances as a Democrat would also have further enhanced the Trump's campaign to 'reach across the aisle' to previously Democratic and Swing voters in much the same way that Lieberman's history as a Democrat would have availed John McCain in doing the same thing in '08.

But then as now, the Republican elites cannot bear to see a ticket which does not represent nor reflect them - and, it would appear, are quite readily prepared to sacrifice some modicum of electability for their man in order to ensure that they don't seem like strangers in their own party.

Pence will not be as catastrophic for Trump as Palin was for her running-mate; but all the same, I severely doubt whether history will judge the decision of behind-the-scenes influence-brokers to outsider men like Flynn in favour of value-concordant insider men such as Pence.

The Republican Party, it seems, does not want to be made great again just yet.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Economic Threats From China Expose Lie Of Free Trade

A little more than a decade ago, various parties boldly declared that the economic future of New Zealand lay in being some form of colossal, country-sized milking shed (and, to be fair, milk powder processing plant) for the People's Republic of China. To that end, we signed up to a rather lopsided Free Trade Deal with China which forced us to abandon any pretense of mercantilism or dirigisme for our own domestic economic interests - while at the same time giving the Chinese literally decades to slightly soften and ameliorate their own protectionist economic measures.

It was a great deal.

For the Chinese, at any rate.

But what about little old New Zealand?

Certainly, a large portion of our primary produce exports are bound for the Chinese market; although it has not escaped the attention of many that in that direction, too, go commanding stakes in the ownership of a certain swathe of Auckland's housing - and a not insignificant number of our best and most iconic farms.

Concerns about 'free trade' and associated legalistic ensnarements have been cited in both instances as justification by the Government to refrain from doing anything meaningful about either.

But where leaving serious matters of state up to the limp-wristed hand of the free market might do for the New Zealand National Party ... the same cannot be said for our supposed friends in Beijing.

In reaction and response to news that the New Zealand Government has gotten a bit uneasy about decidedly sub-standard Chinese steel being put into our own domestic infrastructure projects (and accompanied by fraudulent safety standard certification, no less), the PRC is apparently considering raising punitive "reprisal tariffs" on Kiwi primary produce exports in order to force our government to move to protect Chinese interests rather than our own.

As yourself. Just what kind of "Free Trade Deal" is this when one party can act to unilaterally put the economic screws upon the smaller, weaker party for expressly and avowedly political purposes.

What's the point of a bit of paper stating our commitment to abolish tariffs on Chinese imports if, when push comes to shove, our nominal trade "partner" sees fit on a whim to massively increase their own tariffs on our exports to there.

And worse, it now appears that the PRC was able to illicitly gain Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment information about New Zealand's prospective inquiry into this matter.

These tropes, all put together, are not the hallmarks of a healthy, bilateral and egalitarian trading relationship.

Instead, considered as part of a holistic plot, they put one in the mind of a noir Mafia film. Everything from the sub-standard product sold to us without regard for the potential human consequences through to the threats if we raise a fuss fits this rubric. ESPECIALLY the part of the story where going to law enforcement fails because the folk running this evident economic extortion racket appear to have a man or men on the inside passing them information, and pushing pointed punitive measures against those we care about in response.

And as the morally innocuous 'straight man' protagonist of a certain variety of Mafia movie, we now find ourselves having stepped into a murky world where the promises of power, influence and 'get rich quick' are underscored and bellied by that most uncomfortable fact - that we are now in a place and in an arrangement where we most decidedly do NOT make the rules, and find instead find ourselves the unwitting subjects of a seriously Faustian (at best) bargain.

Perhaps the only truly 'winning' move of this game would have been not to play.

But it's a bit late for that.

And given the extent to which our economies are presently entwined, the sage advice of the ancient German proverb that when one sups with the Devil, one ought remember to use a long-handled spoon is plainly no longer applicable.

There are no easy ways out of this situation, in the short term at least. We will likely not win a substantive trade war with China. They simply comprise too much of our market (and us, too little of theirs) for 'victory' (whatever that might look like) to even be contemplated. Throwing the combined powers of the WTO or something at them would also be a move of questionable efficacy, as the Obama Administration has previously discovered to its irritation when it sought to do similar over the issue of the PRC's artificially undervalued currency.

At best, there are longer term insights to be drawn from this in a potential bid to prevent a deleterious repeat from occurring.

First and foremost that export-lead growth as an enduring strategy is best pursued with a number of different 'large basket' trade partners simultaneously. Winston has already made the case for opening up greater trade relations with, for instance, the Russian Federation as a means and a mechanism to broaden our trade portfolio and remove some of the eggs of risk from the present, excessively overburdened Chinese basket of exchange.

Second, that we would do well and wisely to learn the lesson obliquely presented here about the sheer folly of hoping that the happy-clappy good-will of New Zealand to such countries as we may enter into world-first trade deals with are necessarily shared by our erstwhile 'partners'. International relations and especially transnational economic flows are a cut-throat, realpolitik driven business. States look out and after their own interests - nobody else views themselves as owing us a living, and we should perhaps come to expect this sort of slipshod perfidious conduct from those we do business with.

Third, the benefits and likely outcomes of trade deals are almost always oversold. And the political Cassandras who cast doubtful aspersions are mocked and derided for their foresight. Nobody generally wants to be straight-up and honest about the plain (if somewhat occluded) reality that the trade deal they've just negotiated contains nasty stings of this nature hidden in the tail.

And fourth, this whole mess eventuated princely and primarily because New Zealand entities made the curious decision to source cheap and sub-standard Chinese steel rather than buying from more local producers with a superior proven track-record of quality.

One obvious mechanism by which we might avoid similar situations from occurring in the future, then, is to mandate that where possible materials procured for domestic infrastructure projects ought, where possible, be sourced from local producers rather than offshore. Obviously, this will not be possible in every instance, and there will be clear occasions upon which materials from other nations will be both cheaper and better quality than that which we can produce here at home. But the net positive impacts upon domestic employment and industry from mandating that Kiwi government objectives be carried out primarily by Kiwi firms using Kiwi materials are palpable.

So palpable, in fact, that New Zealand First's Andrew Williams put a Private Member's Bill in the ballot about four years ago in order to accomplish exactly that.

In conclusion, then, it is perhaps possible to view what's eventuated as being something of an inevitable crisis. Given China's reputation for corrupt practices and shoddy, el-cheapo exports, it was arguably only a matter of time before something akin to the Melamine milk crisis would re-eventuate here on our own shores.

Fortunately, no lives have been lost here - and the deficiencies in some of the steel which was used to construct part of the Waikato Expressway were detected in sufficient time to alter designs for some bridges and source other replacement steel before the rest of it was used.

But this is not going to be the last time something like this happens.

We can but hope that future governments learn the appropriate lessons from this sad series of incidences.

To do otherwise would make a waste of decidedly more than just steel.