Wednesday, May 24, 2017

This Is Your [Former] Police Minister On Drugs

Earlier this week, somebody asked Judith Collins what she thought of Gareth Morgan. Ever the diplomat, her curt response was that if she wound up having to deal with him ... she'd "probably take up drugs". No word, as yet, on whether she'd also find this necessary working with Winston.

But this got me thinking. What on earth WOULD our errant former Police Minister be like, as it were, on drugs? Some might say that the stiff-upper-foreheaded [eyebrow permanently, quizzically raised in an implicit expression of barely-contained lower-middle-class rage] terror of boy-racers and certain members of the Press Gallery alike would make for an exceedingly unlikely partaker of recreational pharmacology.


But in an age wherein David Cameron's previous drug-use turns out to be some of the *least* surprising of his antics, is it really so inconceivable?

More to the point, thinking about it, if Judith Collins WERE to suddenly take up that exceedingly broad ontological category "drugs" ... would anybody actually notice?

Consider the evidence.

Ecstasy, as we all know, is frequently prone to producing spontaneous smiles [even in the dowdiest of faces], and eruptions of an overwhelming compulsion to dance. To Move. To exercise this huge feeling that you're the center of the room and attention. And even, perhaps, to bring on a rare state of psychosis in which you start seeing things.

Does this sound like an adequate description of a beaming senior political figure rushing the stage at a concert for the purpose of dancing with reckless abandon before a captive audience, and even sighting Elvis?

Meth, meanwhile, can induce some rather potent feelings of dominance. Of power. A certain level of mania which can vastly inflate one's self-perceptions of strength, physical prowess or ability to exert control over others, Indeed, it can even lead to one feeling literally bulletproof; albeit often at the cost of any shred of empathy.

Now, I'm not necessarily saying that an overweaning obsession with crushing cars [presumably not with one's bare hands - but you never know with Collins] is the result of a clandestine pattern of crystal use. But it's pretty undeniable that a fairly broad swathe of Collins' political career has been indubitably characterized by an (eventually) unfounded self-perception of dang near invulnerability (as demonstrated, for instance, by her conduct during the Oravida Affair - which we'll touch on shortly); and the apparent air of feeling up to cleaning up the nation's streets singlehandedly.

Although speaking of stimulants, there's a certain sort of person who's commonly reputed as attempting to exercise undue influence upon border-control officials in order to get their seriously valuable white powder into a potentially lucrative market.

These people are known as cocaine smugglers.

Or, with a sliiiiiiightly different substance [and a very different set of consequences ... featuring, ironically, coming into contact with Police *less* thanks to losing the relevant portfolio], Judith Collins circa late 2013 doing exactly that in order to help out the Oravida company with its milk-powder exports.

Collins' subsequent presentations on this front went some ways towards evincing many of the other characteristic effects of long-term drug abuse - such as memory impairment, pronounced vindictiveness/venomosity of personal interaction, and seriously negative impacts upon one's career. But I digress.

One of the overwhelming impressions I came away with from watching how Collins handled the fiery tailspin of the Oravida scandal was just how much overt resemblance it bore to dealing with a harder-core opiate or heroin addict. Now, many of us have thankfully been spared the *particular* displeasures of such an experience, but in my past life as a rather more colourful individual I had the regrettable fortune to come into contact with a number of such individuals. Their behavior, succinctly summated, tended towards the hugely overtly self-entitled, seeming to think that the world at large owed them a living; always adamantly convinced that nothing was ever their fault; whiny, wheedly, and needling; and very much not above utilizing all manner of threats and cajolery of a decidedly underhanded nature [whether emotional or literal blackmail, or even more duplicitous techniques of either persuasion or vengeance].

A cursory examination of the timeline of Collins' conduct certainly seems rather overtly coterminous with much of the above. Particularly the whole 'threaten the Press Gallery with illicit disclosure of "all sorts of things"' episode. Everything was always somebody else's fault [whether Opposition politicians for uncovering her actions, and later bringing matters to a head; or Press Gallery folks for reporting on the goings-on of the day]; 'memory' was a mutable field to be manipulated rather than acknowledged; and so on and so forth.

So after all of this, I respectfully submit that it's not actually all that hard to imagine Your [Former] Police Minister On Drugs.

After all, simply looking at the way she's behaved for much of her time in office is pretty much the next best thing. And, as we can see from the above, incorporates the typologies of behavior for a pretty broad array of the pharmacological spectrum.

No mushrooms, though. For that, you'll just have to get a rough idea from this clip of a somewhat similar personality...

Also, no cannabis. Which is perhaps a shame - as if anybody could potentially use a little more "chill" in the present Government, it'd probably be Collins. Or possibly Alfred Ngaro - although in his case, he seems to be far enough away from reality /as-is/ without requiring any *further* impairment.

DISCLAIMER: I'm in no way actually endorsing anybody taking drugs. Whilst I would have thought that presenting them in the same context as the words "Judith Collins" and "Uses" would have enough provided admirable disincentive for anyone, ever, to wish to take up a recreational drug habit ... this is perhaps somewhat wishful thinking on my part. So just uh ... be careful out there - and avoid substance abuse lest you wind up with the crippling imperilment of personal circumstances represented by breaking out in handcuffs.

FURTHER DISCLAIMER: I'm not actually stating Judith Collins *is* on drugs. Instead, I'm simply observing that there appears to be quite an ongoing pattern of her previous political conduct which appears to accord rather strongly with the sort of pernicious parsimony of perspective, empathy, or principle which one would feasibly expect from a habitual hard-drug [problematic] user.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Radically Reasonable Proposal For Cigarettes And Dairy Owners

The ongoing travails of our nation's convenience store and dairy operators have grown to such a scale that even those perennial champions of Ostrich Economics in our Government are unable to ignore them.

It's only taken two or perhaps even three years of constant attacks upon the law-abiding proprietors of the country's small-business and petty bourgeoise, the foundation of an entire political party dedicated to combating the issue, and approximately five months' worth of highly focused commentary on the subject [including any number of pieces from yours truly] for the National Party to work out that there's a bit of a problem out there in the community when it comes to shopkeepers being stood-over, beaten up, and potentially left destitute as a DIRECT result of the black market created by the most recent round of excise tax increases on cigarettes.

I predicted this would happen (the crime-wave, that is - not the Government having to feign some modicum of concern for same. That remains steadfastly *unpredictable*). Any number of other writers, journalists, and even Government officials said likewise.

So it's not like the National Party have been caught flat-footed on this issue. They've had quite some months - years, even [considering how long ago the Maori Party's set of measures on this issue was passed into law] to prepare their response.

And what was that response? Why, it was one of their Ministers - Nicky Wagner, to be precise - claiming that if Dairy-owners were sick of being assaulted in their own places of business, their premises ransacked, that they should stop selling cigarettes.

Whatever you feel about the prospective ills of smoking, this is a absolutely amazingly abhorrent proposition. Cigarettes are, for the moment, a legal product to buy and sell. There are reasonably strong arguments that fewer cigarettes being bought and sold is better for our society overall ... but it's extraordinarily hard to comprehend how the Government genuinely seems to think that "it's your own fault for being in business, then" is a logical - still much less, ethical - response to dairies and other such smaller stores being raided in this manner.

Why, it's arguably tantamount to a family calling up the police upon coming home to find they've been burglarized ... only to be told that it's their own fault for owning [or renting] a home, rather than slumming it in Chateau d'Automobile along with a depressingly high proportion of the rest of this nation's underclass.

In fact, it is often said of our Government  that they have a 'Mafia' style way of operating. That you do what they say, or threats are made of things getting 'unpleasant'. A fellow National Party Associate Minister, Alfred Ngaro is the latter-day standard bearer for that sort of conduct, after all - getting all sorts of presumably unwelcome attention for threatening to pull funding from community organizations or service providers who dared to not back the Government 100% in this year's upcoming Election Campaign.

But when we look at Wagner's comments, it becomes plainly apparent that the National Party has precious little in common with Mafioso style 'organized crime'.

After all, the 'classical' model for the 'protection money' scenario goes like this: the organized crime practitioners create the problem [e.g. "there are some ruffians in this neighbourhood who're going around vandalizing respectable business premises [who just so happen to be us] ... it'd be a *shame* if that happened here"], but then *also* provide the 'solution' to said problem [often with the added benefits of protection against other gangs running the same scam] in exchange for a certain rather-more-than-nominal fee. [another reading of this circumstance would perhaps regard it more positively as the 'Feudal Example' - and that certainly seems to be the way more long-term or compassionate 'relationships' of this nature work in practice, but I digress]

Yet when we look at National's conduct in this area .. what they've effectively done is created the 'problem' [i.e. the spiraling black market in cigarettes due to the massively ramped up excise tax upon them], whilst actually-outright-refusing to do anything about it. They don't bother to PROVIDE the 'protection' that's supposed to come as the natural consequence of the 'protection money'. Because they'd much rather pour resources into tax cuts for the wealthy, or roads, or not bothering to chase up Apple's tax-bill, or TPPA negotiations, or just about anything other than properly resourcing our overworked Police to deal with all of this escalating 'petty' crime.

In other words, the National Party's extant approach to date appears to bear much more in common with the marauding cliques of street-hoodlums who appear responsible for a vast swathe of the attacks on dairy owners of late, rather than anything substantively resembling 'proper' organized crime.

Now it's not to say that EVERY party to Governance is running in this particular manner. My own electorate's perennial answer to the question nobody earning under about 60k a year asked [unless it's "why can't we have nice things"], David Seymour, has proposed using the supermassive revenues collected from the tax on selling cigarettes ... and giving this money back to proprietors so that they may use it to fund security improvements for their own ships.

He's uh ... he's half right. At best.

Because whilst there is much merit to using the excise tax money to pay for better security [as I'll discuss in a moment], it's patently ridiculous to put it into some of the measures he's suggesting. 'One-at-a-time' dispenser vending machines for cigarettes are still going to be ram-raidable out of a shop, for instance. And I'm yet to hear anything else even vaguely sensible from him on this score.

BUT ... consider this.

At the moment, the tax raised on cigarettes is perhaps as much as $1.7 BILLION dollars a year, with the most recent round of tax-hikes raising $425 million by themselves.

People think that this goes into compensating for the additional costs to the healthcare sector imposed by people getting sick thanks to smoking. Except THAT figure - for the extra costs for additional health services etc. - are $350 million a year.

Now, my maths is not exactly the best in the world [there's a funny story about my .. unenviable results to a 5th form exam in this area which I'll go into at some future time should I ever wish to REALLY scare a Reserve Bank Governor], but that would appear to be a difference of $1.35 billion dollars.

So where's that additional $1.35 billion going at the moment?

Well, the present groaning state of our healthcare services in any number of areas [but most especially mental health - almost coincidentally underfunded by $1.7 billion itself] would appear to suggest it's unlikely that it's all being spent on hospitals and doctors.

To bring it back to smoking and security (and, in a roundabout way, a far more sensible proposal than Seymour's), there are two reasons why our nation's shopkeepers are presently living in fear.

One, obviously, is the much-aforementioned black market in cigarettes motivating crime against vendors. That's bad enough, and ought to be addressed by any future Government who even PRETENDS to care about Law & Order issues for its constituents.

But the other is the ongoing underresourcing of our nation's police. Winston Peters pointed out last year that in per capita terms the number of police here has gone severely backwards since National got into power; and further added as one of his first 'coalition bottom-lines' for this year's Election season that NZ First would be reversing this forthwith. [as a point of additional context, those numbers received their largest increase in quite some time thanks to NZ First securing an extra thousand front-line police plus three hundred support staff the last time NZF was 'proximate to' Government with Labour from 2005-2008]

[source on the above graph

I'm not aware if NZ First has released detailed costings for the proposal to increase policing numbers by an additional 1800 [plus support staff]; although looking at Labour's similar [and subsequent] proposal to increase policing numbers over time by a full ten thousand, the costing for that august figure appears to be an additional $180 million per year. Which is less than half the amount of additional excise taxes raised by this year's cigarette tax hike. And a little more than a tenth of the overall tax-take per year from smoking.

As further context, the entire policing budget last year was about $1.64 billion.

So phrased another way, the shopkeepers of New Zealand are ALREADY paying the 'protection money' for their ongoing security in their places of work. And then some. In fact, with the amount of revenue we raise annually from these people, we are LITERALLY able to finance the extant level of 'law and order' [which, admittedly, is not necessarily something to be proud about considering how many more crimes go unresolved these days] for every man, woman and child in this country.

This is why I'm so incredibly furious with what Nicky Wagner said on behalf of the National Government earlier this month about shopkeepers not having a right to expect law and order if they sell a perfectly legal commodity.

Because it's the sale of that self-same perfectly legal commodity which funds not just all of the (additional healthcare) costs associated with said commodity ... but which appears able to entirely adequately provide literally THOUSANDS of police to keep those cigarette vendors - and the rest of the community at large - safe as we go about our daily (and lawful) business.

Which means that National is QUITE HAPPY to take the extra cash raised by the above, without providing anything additional in return.

We have a word for those who take money for a service without providing anything in return. In fact, it's the same word we have for those who take goods [like cigarettes, as it happens] without paying for them.

"Criminals". "Thieves". "Reprobates".


I have this dark suspicion deep in the depths of my mind that the National Party has quite deliberately engineered this particular woeful situation. That they're more than happy to use smokers and dairies as escalating cash-cows to fund whatever discretionary spending they please [without raising taxes on the wealthy to do so], and use the resultant 'crime-wave' situation to keep us ordinary people 'living in fear' that we'll encounter a cigarette-bandit gang of hooligans whilst nipping down to the local dairy for a pint of milk.

Whilst it's true that the Opposition parties have been able to make SOME headway on the Government by pointing to almost-nightly footage of dairy owners recovering in hospital or elsewise severely affected by these standovers, and using these as tangible evidence that National has a weakspot on 'law and order' ... the plain fact of the matter is that ordinary voters overwhemingly associate 'law and order' with the National Party [perhaps it's the subconscious symbolism of the colour blue....; or maybe it's the unresolved cognitive dissonance of thinking of Judith Collins as the "crusher" rather than the "crushed by Oravida and caught out pressuring the police to manipulate crime statistics"].

So in a situation wherein there's clearly a pretty negative lack-of-prevalence for 'law and order' up and down the country, perhaps they're more likely to keep supporting National rather than 'taking a chance' on the Opposition.

This is, of course, an unsubstantiated 4 a.m theory. But it's difficult to conjure any other even broadly feasible rational explanation for why National just doesn't seem to care. Other than the plainly obvious emotive reality that they appear to be a bunch of heartless bastards in the extreme.

In any case, the purpose of this piece was to lay out a 'radically reasonable proposal' for helping to sort this woefully egregious situation.

Namely, that instead of pretending that escalating crime is somehow 'not their problem', the Government actually put its [in reality 'our'] money where its mouth is [thankfully, not the 'fat lip' of a recently assaulted shopkeeper], and actually PROVIDE the public services like proper policing for which these shopkeepers are, after all, helping the Government to raise in revenue - and for which they've already paid anyway via their income taxes etc..

Anything else - any other shirking, or cancerious sleight-of-hand in rhetoric - is just outright Criminal Conduct on the National Party's behalf.

It's that simple.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Why Our Government Really Has No Interest In "Solving" The Kiwi Mental Health Crisis

Mental health has, over the last few years, become something of a hot-button issue in the minds of many. It's gone from being the sort of issue on the outer for which advocates have had to desperately raise awareness [think John Kirwan appearing on our screens to attempt to tell us that yes, depression and anxiety are actual things], through to one that is increasingly hard to ignore. Seemingly every citizen - and every political party - knows someone who's had a serious crisis, required hospitalization or a CAT team, or who would quite possibly still be here today if only our country did mental health treatment & support in a better, and better funded, way than is presently the case.

In train with this, this being an Election Year, there are no shortage of party-political broadcasts and press releases talking about how our elected leaders and their aspiring replacements would endeavour to seek to improve the situation. Or, in the case of the National Party, how folk demanding the proper resourcing of our mental health services sector are safely disregardable as "left-wing anti-government protesters". (which, as a matter of interest, marks something of a quantum difference from their stance in the early 2000s. Then, they held that 'talk and wait' was a totally inadequate response from the government of the day [Labour] to the country's worsening mental health situation. What a difference being in power makes.)

And, to be honest, if you've had much in the way of dealings with our mental health services over the past few years - and seen first-hand, with your own eyes the tangible effects of a $1.7 billion dollar funding-cut to these services and facilities, in a time of seemingly-exponentially increasing necessity & demand for them ... well, if you AREN'T feeling at least a little bit anti-government on the strength of that, then I really would be asking "where's your head at".

But having thought long and hard about it, it occurs to me that if we are to get serious about attempting to understand and go some ways towards ameliorating our eve-escalating mental health crisis, simply throwing more money at the problem can really only ever be a 'part' of the solution. The ambulance, or the hospital-bed at the bottom of the cliff, as it were.

And that's because the hugely increased salience of mental health issues out there in our community isn't something that's caused only by chronic underfunding of treatment services. Although obviously, this doesn't help.

Instead, the reasons why we now have more mental health issues than we did fifty or a hundred years ago are threefold.

First up, we now know a great deal more about mental health than we once did; and so are therefore better equipped to recognize it. Entire sets of conditions which were completely unknown [or, at the very least, not recognized as being mental health issues] in previous decades are now standardized and diagnosable thanks to innovations like the DSM [which I have my own issues with, for a number of reasons, but I digress]. Whereas once upon a time we regarded returned servicemen or combat veterans as simply suffering from 'cowardice', we now recognize PTSD as a serious and enduring condition, for instance. And many other examples besides.

Alongside this, increased awareness around mental health issues - both on the part of the general public, and by practitioners - has lead to reduced (although importantly, not eliminated) stigma, and therefore a greater number of people annually come forward to seek treatment for their conditions. Thanks to outreach efforts like the aforementioned John Kirwan campaign, tens of thousands of ordinary New Zealanders are now better appraised that things they've had to grapple with on a daily basis and which may have seriously disrupted the courses of their lives, are *not* simply 'the way things are' - and are instead, to varying extents, treatable or manageable with corresponding increases in quality of life.

That's something to be celebrated.

Although again, it is not the full story.

The main reason, I believe, why we are presently facing a 'mental health crisis' has rather little to do with either of these things. Although they certainly make it a little easier to gauge the scale of the harms too many of our population are currently grappling with.

Instead, what has caused such a powerful increase in people being afflicted with mental health disorders is our economic system. I am not kidding.

We already know that in cases where illnesses are not congenital or otherwise intrinsic to the individual sufferer's neurology, that particular conditions of life can cause or at the very least considerably exacerbate health conditions. Working down a coal-mine for sixteen hours a day will, almost inevitably lead to an array of negative health impacts in the lungs, and with things like Vitamin D deficiency, for instance; and lacking the money or the time to invest in proper nutrition is similarly correlated with reduced wellbeing. Labouring in constant fear of economic ruination due to parlous job-security or being unable to afford to keep your house thanks to the way the speculative market in property works ... also cannot be particularly healthy.

My contention is that the way we run our economic system - and thus, by extension, so very much of our society as a whole - is the metaphorical equivalent of consigning an almost impossibly vast segment of our population to working down that ideological coal-mine.

And therefore, that if we are seriously expecting much of our adult population to spend considerable proportions of their working week away from their families, in the absence of community, and subsisting in chasing seemingly ever-decreasing real wages lest they wind up condemned to the latter-day propertarian purgatory of finding themselves and their family forced to live in a car ... then this is quite plainly not the template for a healthy society.

If you want to find pretty much bona-fide causatory factors for the onset of mental illness, then significant stress, social isolation/atomization, and uncertainty are the de rigeur go-tos. They are also the aspects of the 'inhuman condition' living in our present economic environment. I would further add that the abrogation of an overarching sense of 'purpose' in societies which for some inexplicable reason still believe they're living after the 'end of history' have only worsened these things. We are, after all, capable of tolerating quite some suffering and discomfort in pursuit of grander and higher purpose - yet the only one of *those* which seems to be in the offing with the way things get 'done' today, is minuscule improvements in the company bottom line "curiously" never seem to 'trickle down' to the ordinary worker. Life, in other words, has no 'point'. Other than, of course, a somewhat frantic scrabble to 'survive', carried out in some of the most unnatural ways possible.

Fight Club (a fascinating exploration of mental health under late capitalism) probably puts this far more eloquently - in part at least - than I'll ever be able to, so take a brief moment to enjoy a seminal quote.

The expert evidence agrees with me. We are not living anything close to 'naturally', and therefore people are falling (mentally) sick as a result. We're simply not built nor evolved to spend so much of our time cubicle-bound and not cultivating healthy bonds with others. And the 'attempted solutions' proffered to us by the marketplace are fundamentally iniquitous in the extreme. Conspicuous consumption doesn't fix these issues (even if one could afford to do so in the first instance); squalid living conditions because that's all you can afford, and a toxic working environment because that's all you could find simply make things worse.

So as welcome as it is that we're FINALLY having a more strident conversation about beginning to more properly resource our mental health sector ... it is unlikely to ever be enough. Even presuming National somehow miraculously grew a conscience at some point between now and their next Budgetary announcement and put the full $1.85 billion being asked for into this part of our healthcare system, we'd STILL find ourselves with ever more New Zealanders winding up having to make use of those services. Because it wouldn't address the underlying causes behind the mental health crisis.

The economic ones derived from the choices which successive governments - whether Labour or National - have chosen to make over the last thirty years.

Ted Kaczynski - better known as The Unabomber - covered this topic in his Manifesto document. I do not endorse his eventual actions, and an array of elements in his published analysis are potentially somewhat askew; but in light of the notion advanced above, the following quote represents an interesting perspective:

" Imagine a society that subjects people to conditions that make them terribly unhappy, then gives them drugs to take away their unhappiness. Science fiction? It is already happening to some extent in our own society. It is well known that the rate of clinical depression has been greatly increasing in recent decades. We believe that this is due to disruption of the power process, as explained in paragraphs 59-76. But even if we are wrong, the increasing rate of depression is certainly the result of SOME conditions that exist in today's society. Instead of removing the conditions that make people depressed, modern society gives them antidepressant drugs. In effect, antidepressants are a means of modifying an individual's internal state in such a way as to enable him to tolerate social conditions that he would otherwise find intolerable. (Yes, we know that depression is often of purely genetic origin. We are referring here to those cases in which environment plays the predominant role.)"

Now, I have my own thoughts about anti-depressants. One of which is that for some people they can be pretty invaluable - quite literally life-saving, even. But the core kernel of the above is in accord with what I am saying. Namely, that our Government has very little interest in actually addressing what's behind many people's increasing experience of mental illness; and instead, is now talking seriously about investing SOME modicum of money in ameliorating some of the worse manifestations of these natural human consequences of neoliberalism, because it's easier to have a 'conversation' phrased in impenetrable bureaucratese [which, according to noted mental health campaigner Mike King, is pretty much what our Government seems intent on doing] than it is to engage in serious dialogue as to why they're not more open to reforming our economic system.

It's as simple as that.

Once again: I have absolutely ZERO issue with National, Labour, or any other party putting more money into our already-overburdened mental health services. This is vital, and it is to be welcomed and applauded as and when it actually turns up. [subject to whether further neoliberal idiocy is forcibly injected alongside it, of course...; and, for that matter, the seemingly-inevitable gap between the pittance which politicians are often keen to put in, and how much is actually required to deal with the present case-load let alone increases]

But unless we go past the issue of underfunding of our treatment services - start to have the serious conversation about what ACTUALLY constitutes prevention [which, as the old adage enjoins us to remember, is almost invariably better [particularly in these situations of mental health illness] than 'cure'], then we are only going to wind up having this exact same conversation once more in a few years' time, when the NEXT round of folk needing to use mental health services turn out to be so much vaster in scope and numbers than those whomst we've budgeted for.

Jiddu Krishnamurti once wrote that it was "no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society". At this stage, folk aren't even managing to do that, and so we've really started to lose sight of the important conversation of how to live /healthily/. Part of this is, arguably, by design. Because the path to 'health' - whether physical or more especially, mental/emotional/psychological - inevitably entails turning away from the trajectory down which our political-economy seems hell-bound to move as if in the grips of a teleological rapture. And therefore, if people are beset & riddled by health issues, and enervated from overwork or stress, with the organic bonds of community and solidarity riven asunder by the 'natural' pressures ... then they are considerably less likely to bother thinking about 'overturning the apple-cart'. Because they're quite understandably far more interested in seeking to scrape together the pittance required to purchase even a cast-off core from same.

I suppose all of this calls to mind - appropriately enough - a quotation from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

"Have you ever speculated, Mr Harding, that perhaps your are impatient with your wife because she doesn't meet your mental requirements?"
"Perhaps, but you see the only thing I can really speculate on, Nurse Ratched, is the very existence of my life - with or without my wife - in terms of the human relationships, the juxtaposition of one person to another: the form, the content."
"Harding, why don't you knock off the bullshit and get to the point?"
"This is the point. This IS the point, Taber. It's not bullshit. I'm not just talking about my wife; I'm talking about my LIFE!
I can't seem to get that through to you!
I'm not just talking about one person - I'm talking about everybody!
I'm talking about form! I'm talking about content!
I'm talking about interrelationships!
I'm talking about God, the Devil; Hell, Heaven!
Do you understand?! Finally?!!"

That's pretty much where we're at here. I'm not just talking about an overhaul of the mental health system here - still much less simply twiddling around the edges a bit.

I'm talking about the very nature of our society. Its "form", its "content", and most ESPECIALLY its "interrelationships".

I will be genuinely surprised [and inestimably pleased] if any of our political class dare - as part of what's set to become this year's election debates - to name the specter whose rapacious possessionary antics have fed so perniciously into the mental health crisis of today.

But it is called "Neoliberalism".

And until we banish it utterly; it remains highly, regrettably unlikely that our peoples' conditions will seriously improve.

The Government, therefore, has absolutely no interest in "solving" [as opposed to "managing", I guess] the Mental Health Crisis for one very simple reason.

Because to do so - to really, truly, meaningfully do so - would be tantamount to abolishing themselves and all they stand for as part and parcel of the process.

It's as simple - and as complexly insidious - as that.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Viva La What Exactly...?

Well, the dust has already started to clear; and the inevitable, inordinate triumphalism appears to have begun in earnest. No sooner had news of Macron's 65-35 victory over 'the dreaded' Le Pen become public, than the caterwauling chorus of 'usual suspects' had come out of the woodwork to proclaim this some combination of the Midway and the D-Day in the ongoing fight of once-dominant neoliberal globalism back against the newly resurgent 'specter' of more economically left nationalism.

But was it really?

Either the sort of triumph to be celebrated; or some sort of implicit death-blow to the wave of popular nationalism [widely, and wrongfully derided by frightened elites - and their lackeys - as "Naziism"] presently sweeping the globe, I mean?

Of course not.

Take a look at this chart, sourced from the popular Political Compass website.

[Political Compass concept & graphic sourced from Political Compass]

Now, obviously Political Compass is not necessarily always entirely accurate; but it is a point agreed upon by quite a raft of commentators that Macron is well to the right of Le Pen in an economic sense.

What this means in practice, then, is that any number of so-called "left-wing" activists chalking up Macron beating Le Pen by a closer-than-expected margin ... really ought to take a moment to consider what they're actually celebrating.

It would, to put it both in New Zealand terms and rather bluntly, be basically akin to getting wildly excited about David Seymour beating a slightly more extreme Labour-New Zealand First coalition.

Because apparently, a certain skerrick of social liberalism beats something much closer to an actual left-wing economic position every time.

Indeed, about the nicest characterization I've yet found of why so many nominal lefties are queuing up to sing the praises of Macron goes something like this:

"Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of boring men
He's a shady neoliberal
But at least he's not Le Pen!"

Phrased in absolute terms, then, it is exceptionally difficult to conceive of Macron's win as being a victory for the forces of leftism and progressivism.

Further, if looked at in relative terms, then everybody championing Macron as some sort of Le Pen-ender has just taken an inordinately large gamble on what's quite likely a very questionable horse.

There is a very real risk that Macron's new party will fail to make meaningful headway in the upcoming French legislative elections. This will leave him in a precarious position as applies his ability to propose and implement policy. Or, worse, he might find himself actually able [whether in co-operation with the French economic right, or off his party's own bat] to advance strongly neoliberal policy.

What does this mean in practice? Well, in either situation it seems fairly plausible that the National Front will be the likely beneficiary. Thirty five percent of the Presidential vote is certainly not a winning number. But such a strong performance does indeed give some credence to Le Pen's claims that the Front National is now the leading opposition party of France.

Situations of chaos and/or iniquity from ruling parties [with the apparent, and unfortunate exception of New Zealand] rarely fail to benefit their main opposition counterparts.

This is particularly the case if we consider the very likely phenomenon of ongoing falling turnout in French electoral contests, heralded by disenchantment with what Macron represents. There is an argument that falling turnout often benefits 'incumbent-establishment' parties [as has been seen here in New Zealand in recent years, wherein the 'missing million' NZ voters helps inordinately to keep the National Party in power - on grounds that if these people DID vote, they'd disproportionately do so for parties to the left of National]; however, as can be seen from the below infographic, it also appears to be the case that the adherents of certain sorts of parties - with very 'committed' supporters - are less likely to 'drop off' in situations of overall declining turnout than more mainstream voters.

[Infographic sourced from the Financial Times]

Or, in other words, even if apathy and antipathy toward Macron DOESN'T lead to more voters switching over to Le Pen ... a sufficient number of Macron voters simply choosing not to vote for anybody at all at the next Election can also help to significantly boost the main anti-Macron opposition candidate by comparison.

As a demonstration of this phenomenon in practice, one only has to look at last November's US Presidential contest - wherein Clinton lost not so much because Trump managed to beat her in a few battleground states ... but because she failed fairly comprehensively to get many of the people who'd had no problem voting for Obama to turn-out on her behalf. Some of them, it is true, wound up switching over to Trump on the motivation that he'd be a better President for the ordinary American Worker than Clinton had positioned herself as ... but many more just simply didn't vote.

[image sourced from the Washington Post]

Further, if we consider the historical evidence ... if there's one surefire way to generate popular support for fascism, it seems to be out-and-out hard-neoliberal economic policy. Casting our minds back to Greece once the Troika started to feel able to exercise its untrammeled will shows exactly this trend in action. Every successive round of EU-inflicted economic pain was tumultuously accompanied by a Golden Dawn surge in the polls and in the polis.

Even though 'Neoliberalism' as such didn't exist in the 1920s, the broadly analogous conditions in Germany and an array of other European countries certainly seemed to produce a 'particular' set of political outcomes within them. Ones with flashy uniforms, and striking insignia, if you get my drift...

So really, if people think that supporting a strongly neoliberal Presidential candidate is the best way to 'head off fascism' ... then the Story Thus Far of Europe At Large would appear to suggest that - if anything - the CONVERSE is true.

Time will tell whether this perception turns out to be accurate; but it's additionally worth considering how this result will most likely be read by the Doyens of the Eurozone. Namely, as a tacit endorsement for whatever they've got planned next, after the potential 'danger-flashing signals red' [REVERSE COURSE!] 'suggestion' represented by #Brexit.

It's probably not accurate to state - as some breathless pundits already appear wont to do - that the defeat for Le Pen represents some sort of turning [back] point in the ongoing struggle of globalism/neoliberalism versus nationalism and nativism. It is certainly a prima-facie setback for one 'side'; but by no means a potentially fatal body blow.

But about the only thing even relatively 'certain' at this point in time, is that having already openly endorsed Clinton, and then moved further to the right with Macron ... the next figure picked for hagiographizing by a certain sort of 'left-wing' activist will almost undoubtedly be further to the right again.

How long, I wonder, before we're at "ALL HAIL ANGELA MERKEL! DEFENDER OF SANITY!" [and never mind her own seriously questionable legacy - from a left-wing perspective - in Greece].

Because that is SURELY where this path leads.

Oh, and remember always - oppose the status quo and become a genuine threat to the neoliberal agenda? You may very well find yourself labelled a Nazi.

[image-credit for header: Eric S.J]
[image-credit for footer: some of the  finer minds/memes of Facebook]

Thursday, April 13, 2017

What To Do About Window-Washers

Yesterday, National MP Jami-Lee Ross's bill to fine car window washers passed its first reading in Parliament. This got me thinking. Intersection window-washers are an annoying - yet constant - feature of urban life here in Auckland [and, no doubt, in other parts of the country]. It's seemingly impossible to come to a major traffic-light interchange in some parts of the city at rush-hour without finding two or three of them, armed with their trusty pump-bottles and squeegee-wipers and hoping for a pittance of pennies or a cig.

Some regard them as a pest; and certainly, seemingly every friend-circle has an account of a window-washer getting quite intimidating in their errant pursuit of your precious portions of carefully hoarded spare change. But does this mean that fining them between $150 and $1000 is necessarily the right way to counteract this issue?

A reality check is plainly needed here.

The people engaging in window-washing are, for the most part, unemployed and to a certain extent possibly unemployable. They may be subsisting on a benefit [which, let's remember, even the Minister of Social Development herself implicitly stated one couldn't survive on without engaging in criminal behavior]; and one has to wonder - if prevented from attempting to earn a bit of extra cash window-washing, where else might they go in order to try and make ends meet.

If these people are literally only taking in two hundred dollars per week from official and legitimate income sources (assuming they're even able to get a benefit in the first place) out of which family, living costs and utilities must be paid, then what does imposing a fine that might be as much as five weeks' income do? It either forces them further into poverty [thus providing an additional impetus for other extra-legal conduct - potentially of a more harmful and anti-social nature], or WINZ takes pity on the level of hardship which such a crippling financial obligation would inflict and allows them to come up with a payment-plan of a few dollars a week, whilst putting up their benefits by an amount slightly less than that in order to pay for it. Either way, at best the problems involved are simply shifted around - and at worst, magnified in scope.

There is a stereotype of some long-term beneficiaries that they're lazy and would prefer to loaf around on a run-down couch rather than getting out into the world and attempting to scrape a living. I would respectfully contend that the ongoing existence of window-washers on our streets goes some ways to proving that this perception is definitely not always accurate. It's not exactly the most comfortable way to earn money - standing around an intersection all day in the hot sun or the driving rain, at the mercy of both the elements and the relative kindness (or occasional insults) of car-mobile strangers.

I do not say this to romanticize the window-washer or what he does; but instead to suggest that there must be SOME form of driving work-ethic in there somewhere if they're genuinely up for putting themselves through such a daily experience in pursuit of a few coins. At least street-busking is often a sit-down job.

And to those for whom the solution is inevitably and always "na-na why don't you get a job?" ... well, like I said above, a goodly number of these folks are quite possibly unemployable [we do, after all, live in an age wherein having a criminal record appears to make it very difficult to even find work as a supermarket trolley-boy]; and in any case, with the way our economy is fairly deliberately set up to maintain a constant level of unemployment high enough to keep a lid on inflation, there just simply aren't enough jobs (particularly *accessible* jobs) to go round.

I'd be very interested to know, if you asked them, how many of these window-washer folk would be pretty keen on actual employment if given the chance. Certainly, it's hard to imagine how putting in several hours of work a day in occasionally somewhat arduous conditions for literal pocket-change could be preferable to even a minimum-wage or part-time job.

But to return to our general analysis of the situation - what we can adduce from all of the above is that we have a group of people large enough to necessitate making a law about, living in poverty (or pretty close to it), possibly drawing a benefit, and who have the evident wherewithal to work in some capacity - yet who're obviously not participating in the labour-market for some reason.

Passing a law to penalize these people financially for getting out and about and attempting to be low-key entrepreneurial, then, doesn't actually solve any of the above list of problems. Indeed, as previously argued, it might well wind up making some of them worse. I'd also question whether our already wildly overstretched Police [for which you can, once again thank National] would actually be in a position to effectively enforce the law - what're they going to do, divert cops who could be (not-) responding to assaults on dairy owners or other crimes to stand vigilant watch at intersections every rush-hour? Even if that WAS the plan (and honestly, knowing this Government, I have a depressing feeling that's exactly as much thought as has gone into enforcement of this potential new law), window-washers would simply keep a lookout, observe patterns in policing deployment, and set up shop at non-covered intersections on a rotating basis. But I digress.

If we are serious about addressing the issue of intersection window-washers, whilst also improving our communities and helping out the people driven to window-washing in the first place ... this punitive non-solution is NOT what is needed. Not least because it's simplistic annoyance masquerading as serious policy, which won't even address the surface manifestation of the issue - let alone the root cause.

Instead, as soon as I thought about all of this, and properly construed the issue as more than just something for motorists to get annoyed about ... it became abundantly clear that a very different approach would be needed.

In specia, something like the "New Kiwi Deal" policy-set which New Zealand First announced back in 2015.

A more detailed write-up can be found in my earlier article linked above; but for the sake of ease, I'll run through the basics again here.

New Zealand has a serious problem with long-term, endemic unemployment. Obviously, this doesn't affect ALL beneficiaries - but for a substantial number, once they're out of work for awhile they tend to *stay* out of work for quite a lengthy period. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the difficulty of finding a job in some areas of New Zealand [and people not being in a position to uproot their lives and move to another part of the country in pursuit of work], through to the cumulative effect of long absences from the workforce causing an employer to be less likely to hire you, or the acquisition of a criminal record which functions as a serious barrier to employment.

However it happens, it's a reality for thousands if not tens of thousands of New Zealanders. And it represents a serious waste of New Zealand's human potential and labour force. Because at the moment, these long-term unemployed are effectively paid a pittance to jump through endless regimens of WINZ-provided quasi-bureaucratic hoops under the guise of nominally searching for often straight-up nonexistent (for them, anyway) work.

What New Zealand First's 'New Kiwi Deal' policy package proposes to do is seriously reduce this waste and improve our communities in the process, by instead employing these beneficiaries on a fair wage to engage in community works projects. This makes use of the surplus labour which these people represent, whilst also providing a sense of purpose to the workers thus employed far in excess of anything a WINZ seminar would be able to manage, and turns a swathe of our social welfare from its present situation of effectively subsidizing poverty and iniquity through to a new purpose of funding much-needed public works and community development.

There's even quite some precedent for such a scheme both in New Zealand - in the form of the Ministry of Works, and the Works Progress Administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal" in America. (You can probably tell rightaway where Winston got the name from).

Now, the reason why I'm citing this in connection with our present postulated "plague" of window-washers is simple. These people are in poverty, have the wherewithal to engage in at least some form of labour (even if what they're doing at present is not especially socially beneficial nor productive), and are doing so in a form we *don't* like in order to supplement whatever (presumably welfare-based) income they DO have.

If we actually want to help these people and solve this situation - whilst generating a positive result for the taxpayer - then it seems patently obvious that instead of leaving them to languish at lamp-posts with squirt-bottles in pursuit of narry enough coinage to procure a loaf of bread ... we should be employing these folks for fair renumeration to actually do something *productive* with their time for all of us.

This idea will, sadly, never have occurred to Jami-Lee Ross, the National MP behind this present bill - because in his rich person's world, the problem of "poor people" [and, more especially, *visible* poor people] is one which can simply be swept back under the neoliberal rug through the imposition of ruinous fines upon them should they DARE disturb the car-owning class's daily commute to and from their labours.

But if we're interested in solving this issue - GENUINELY solving it rather than simply beating it back and covering it up - then something like what I'm proposing is probably the best way forward.

Anything else which you might happen to hear from the National Party on this issue ... is nought but simple Window Washing.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

WTF: Why Trump Fired - The Tomahawks Of April

Back in the first weeks after Trump was elected, some more ... alarmist minds insisted on comparing the period we're living in now to the early 1930s. In Germany. Saying things like "if you've ever sat bored in History class and wondered how it felt - wondered what you'd have done ... well, wonder no longer. What you do now is what you would have done then. How it feels now is how it felt back then." And other similar wild oversimplifications.

It's an interesting exercise in historical synthesis, to be sure; but for a number of folks, the comparison was to decidedly the wrong War With Germany warm-up period.

Instead, for some weeks now I've been watching some of the brighter minds of my sphere insist instead upon the idea that we're actually living in a historical re-rub of 1914. That rather than simply watching an autocratic individual begin an arc of ascent into the political supernal ... we're witnessing the squaring off of two Great Powers and their attendant allies in a complex, hypersensitive arrangement which might very well presage a serious and significant armed conflict - a shooting war - between these twinned armed camps. Provided, of course, that the right spark arrived with which to set the entire powderkeg ablaze. A "Proud Tower", if you will.

At first, I thought this was dismissable as the same sort of alarmist rhetoric which saw endless invocations of "TRUMP IS LITERALLY HITLER" [or, more superciliously, because some millennials apparently insist upon political comparison being phrased in terms of pop-cultural references ... "TRUMP IS LITERALLY VOLDEMORT"].

And then, at a little after 13:00 Friday, we received news that the Trump Administration had fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at an airbase in Syria. Or, in other words, that America had attacked a Russian ally, by bombarding a military installation which also harboured Russian personnel. About the only consolation thus far is that a pre-warning to the Russians means it's unlikely that any actual Russian casualties have been sustained. And, for that matter, that the choice of cruise missiles rather than bombers, meant a lack of overt American casualties. This latter point matters not so much due to any concern on my part for the lives of American servicemen - but more because had there been American deaths as part of this retaliatory operation, then further escalation on the US's part would have been made vastly more likely. An exceptionally scarier prospect indeed.

The world now waits and watches with amply baited breath to see what Putin and Russia will say or do in response. Not for the first time, the hopes for continued (broad) peace in our time rest upon burly Russian shoulders and pragmatic Slavic restraint.

To be sure, it is not the first time we've all - collectively - found ourselves in this situation. Probably the best example from the later 20th century is, obviously, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But then, despite the speculation that his medicinal use of methamphetamine might have altered his judgement [leading to a vastly more confrontational outcome at the Vienna Summit in 1961], the West had a seriously perspicacious and competent leader - a statesman, even - in the form of President Kennedy. To echo Senator Lloyd Bentsen's ringing words to Dan Quayle in 1988 after the latter had compared himself to Kennedy ... of Trump, it is easily possible to say of him "You're no Jack Kennedy!"

Not least because when it came to Kennedy's parlous position in 1963 with the Missile Crisis, Kennedy at least had a clear and compelling sense of his place in history. In fact, he'd just read a book - The Guns of August - about the situation which lead to World War One; and was therefore very much acutely aware of how even small flash-points, when not treated with utmost calm and restraint, could easily boil over into giant and almighty continent (or even world) engulfing conflagrations.

The policy pursued towards Russia as the result of that particular WMD-related encounter, therefore, was one of avoiding rather inflaming conflict - lest the unthinkable happen. Phrased another way, I suspect I've just implicitly said that a man with a well-documented meth habit may actually have had better perspicacity and impulse-control than the present President of the United States.

And having said that, as bad as President Trump's subsonic outburst has been ... it could always have been worse. Hillary Clinton suggested in an interview conducted the same day as the missile striek that had SHE been Commander-in-Chief, that the United States would have gone further - MUCH further - in its bellicose actions against Syria. Instead of simply temporarily shutting down one airfield and damaging a few planes [for that's pretty much what this attack has done], she would have had the collective might of the US Military attempt to destroy pretty much the lot. And, given her comments about Russia aired in the same interview, one can only wonder how much more overtly aggressive towards the Russians she might have been in the process.

Although it is interesting to invoke the specter of "Clintonian" foreign policy in the context of what happened Friday. Not just because of the natural questions as to what the alternative to Trump would have done; but because there are several precedents drawn from her husband's tenure as President which are pretty overtly similar to what we've just witnessed.

The first and most obvious of these is the narrowly-averted *actual shooting engagement* between Russia and NATO which took place during the Serbian intervention in 1999. Then, as with today, Russian forces were again deployed at an airbase which the US and its allies wished rendered inoperable by adversarial hands. Troops from the UK were sent in - and were ordered straight-up by the American General acting as NATO Supreme Commander Europe to engage the Russians with force. Needless to say ... this would almost certainly have lead to a patently undesirable escalation of (literal) conflict between NATO and Russia, with the very real risk of World War Three ensuing as a result. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed (including a young, pre-stardom James Blunt - yes, *that* James Blunt), and the American order to British forces was countermanded by the UK's General Mike Jackson.

The second concerns the cruise missile strike which Bill Clinton ordered against a pharmaceutical factory located in Sudan, which was alleged to have been manufacturing a nerve gas that might have been put to use by Al Qaeda. Now, as it happens, the "evidence" which underpinned this decision was later thrown into some rather strong doubt by even the Americans themselves. And, in concert with the now demonstrably spurious assertions of Iraq allegedly possessing vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (other than, presumably, the ones America sold them in the first place), just goes to show that the American track-record of alleging that Middle Eastern countries are in possession of nerve agents is not exactly one hundred per cent.

My point is that the comparable actions from recent American history to what occurred Friday do not necessarily suggest that Trump's course here is the particularly wise one. Hitting wrong targets on the basis of faulty intelligence; and engaging in a dangerous dance of death by 'prodding the Great Bear' ... are not what many would call fine examples of Presidential prudence. It is a dangerous form of international engagement indeed which only avoids serious escalation through the patience and valued restraint of the Russians.

But leaving aside the precedents and the potential Great Power entanglement ... what of the attack itself which prompted Trump's missile strike? Has it been proven that the Syrian Government ordered it and carried it out? I am not aware of actual evidence that this is the case. The best we have is conjecture, awaiting verification. (And assertions on the part of Turkey which some might view as rather sketchy and questionably motivated) Russia has stated - quite validly, might I add - that if the United States is in possession of evidence as "incontrovertible" as has been claimed of Syrian culpability, that this should be made public as promptly as possible. They have also floated a counter-narrative of Syrian warplanes hitting a chemical munitions depot controlled by rebels; whilst others have suggested the potential for some form of deliberate 'atrocity propaganda' by those opposed to Assad.

Certainly, there are a regrettably lengthy span of instances which prove either narrative may have validity. In the case of the former, the UN's Carla Del Ponte has already made the case for anti-Assad forces carrying out at least one chemical weapons attack in Syria alreadyWhilst others have scratched their heads asking what on earth Assad could POSSIBLY have to gain from carrying out this kind of attack mere days after the stunning reversal of US position on his government.

And in the case of the latter, it has become regrettably customary for Western military interventions to be prefaced with all manner of exaggerations and outright lies in order to create a moral imperative for NATO ordnance to begin raining down in earnest. Consider, for starters, the breathless allegations by a girl called Nayirah of Iraqi forces deliberately killing Kuwaiti infants which preceded the First Gulf War. At the time, nobody thought to mention that the person making the accusations was the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States; and it was only after the intervention against Iraq had already taken place that it was shown just how willfully counterfactual her story had been.

Another instance is the much-maligned "people shredder" which Saddam Hussein was reputed to possess. Countries across the West were sold on the Iraq War (the Second one, I mean) on the basis that a man who allegedly fed his own people into a woodchipper as a form of torturous execution absolutely had to go. The claim about such an apparatus and its moral turgidity justifying invasion was continually repeated by MPs and even Prime Ministers in a number of polities. It turned up as the direct subject of any number of Jingoistic headlines and articles. And you know what the funny thing is? As far as we can tell, this plastic people eater never seems to have existed in the first place. A 'convenient fiction' which, in its own way, wound up giving garb-of-right to any number of subsequent civilian killings.

Or, more recently, we had the statements by US diplomats that Gaddafi was issuing his troops with massive quantities of Viagra for the purposes of facilitating atrocity-scale mass-rapes as part of his bid to shore up domestic control. By this point, it should probably come as absolutely no surprise that investigations by a number of organizations (including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders) have failed fairly comprehensively to find any actual evidence that this took place.

But, you know, what does it matter. The US got its NATO-backed Air War in Libya, 'officially justified' in no small measure by striking claims that Gaddafi was some sort of monstrously evil man regularly carrying out acts of CARTOONISH SUPERVILLAINY against his own people. (Rather than, you know, the tangible acts of every-day regular and more low-key despotism which the US habitually tolerates - or even outright encourages - from its allies and vassals).

So with all of the above in mind, it is certainly possible to view the "official narrative" being bandied about (without substantiation nor serious detail, might I add) by the Americans with a certain healthy degree of skepticism.

I am not saying that an exposure of a civilian population to a chemical warfare agent did not happen earlier this week. After all, unlike at least one of the other sources I've cited in this piece, I am no expert in this area. All I am doing is noting that there are so many unanswered questions - and previous instances of a dubious nature - that it is difficult to take the American justification for shooting first and waiting for actual verification of facts to come later as being the 'right' course of action.

Particularly given the manifestly high-stakes nature of this situation. And, further, the fact that some of the loudest supporters and direct beneficiaries of America embarking on a campaign of destruction in Syria appear to be ISIS themselves.

Serious questions need to be asked, to my mind, whenever the most vocal supporters of your course of action are Republicans who seem to deliberately wish to provoke a war with Russia, Neocons of all stripes, and the very abhorrent black-clad militants whom pretty much all factions and actors involved in Syria's ongoing horror agree are the local apogee of evil.

Whatever the ins and outs of American domestic politics which gave rise to this rather stunning reversal of position on Trump's behalf - from consciously eschewing the prospect of US involvement in Syria on the campaign trail and repudiating America's previously held position of demanding Assad's ouster, through to what may very well turn into an escalating campaign of military action ... I think we have justifiable cause to be worried.

What makes this even worse is that many of the theories as to why Trump has suddenly changed position are not built around what you might call notions of Trump as a rational strategic actor. The lead narrative doing the rounds at present is that his daughter, Ivanka, had an emotional reaction to photographs of the aftermath of the chemical incident and thusly brought to bear influence on her father to engage in an aggressive response. It doesn't take more than a moment's consideration to see why that is fairly immediately concerning; although it is potentially an open question as to whether the First Daughter attempting to shape policy in reaction to photos shared on Twitter is more or less worrying than, say, Nancy Reagan doing much the same thing on the basis of consulting an astrologer.

Besides, even if we accept that a certain 'humanitarian' impulse lies behind Trump's decision to bombard an airbase with missiles, this does not necessarily improve the situation. Not least because we're still not entirely sure where somewhere more than half of the missiles used on Friday actually landed. They may even have erroneously hit civilian targets. "Humanitarian Interventions" rarely stop with a single action; and the evidence thus far from Syria is that US-led airpower is actually more lethal to civilians than ISIS. We should therefore be very cautious about this motivation - and its related impetii from "interventionist left" voices calling for a stepping up of Western bombing campaigns against Syria.

Another (not necessarily exclusive) narrative has the strike resulting from an increasingly fractious relationship between Trump and his formerly closest advisor Steve Bannon; in parallel with the rising influence of Ivanka's husband, Jared Kushner. Phrased in these terms, military action in Syria has come about due to the chief ideologue of 'America First' and noninterventionism being eclipsed by an entirely different sort of operator who's not nearly as concerned with maintaining the doctrinal purity - much less, promises to voters - of the Trump White House. This growing split between Trump and Bannon had been suggested earlier, when Bannon was removed from the National Security Council (although there are alternative explanations for that); but with media-pieces now appearing that seem to suggest Trump is considering getting rid of Bannon entirely, it certainly seems probable that this situation at the heart of American politics will be getting worse before it gets better.

A third set of explanations concern the ongoing struggle between what some have termed the US "Deep State" and the previously announced vision of the Trump Administration. This is the same strife-line arguably responsible for General Flynn's ouster as National Security Advisor (important, due to Flynn's advocacy for warmer - rather than more antagonistic - relations with Russia); and if true, it certainly wouldn't be the first time that the CIA et co have undertaken to duplicitously manipulate a President into doing their bidding against his better judgement.

It's also possible that Trump ordered this missile barrage out of a simple desire to be liked. Not just by his own daughter and son-in-law, or by the shadowy spooks who hang out in cigar-smoke-filled back rooms with videos of the Kennedy assassination shot from the Grassy Knoll. But by the American people at large. They've been saturated with images and evidence (whatever its provenance) that Assad's a bad guy; and recently, this has reached somewhat of a fever-pitch with the latest round of gassing allegations. Trump's occasionally somewhat paradoxical need for (popular) approval, therefore, may have lead him to choose to respond to the bellowing demands of a certain swathe of popular opinion ... whilst electing to disregard that segment of the body-politik whose votes he relied upon to get into office in the first place, and whom we might fairly describe as being broadly "anti-interventionist" as the result of their previous visceral experiences with the human consequences of ongoing Imperial OverReach.

Or, for that matter, whether appointing a guy with the nickname of "Mad Dog" to the lofty position of Secretary of Defence may have lead to a certain irascibility when it comes to the Administration's policy in Syria.

Oh, and it would be extraordinarily remiss of me to neglect to include the "explanation" proffered by those people for whom everything Trump does - up to and including attacking a Russian Ally, apparently - is the singular result of a Putin-authored conspiracy.

In any case, regardless of why Trump has done what he has done, we are now in rather perilous waters. A rational appraisal of the situation would suggest that Russia will be unlikely to retaliate - and that the US, having flexed its hugely expensive military muscles in a largely ineffective show of force, can go back to voicing vague distaste in diplomatic forae without doing anything substantive.

But for a number of reasons, it would now appear perhaps questionable that we are dealing with rational decision-makers operating within the constraints of rational assumptions about a rational environment.

And, as we know from decades of analysis on both game theory and brinksmanship in international relations ... it's the consciously /irrational/ actors who are the dangerous ones.

After all, as we saw in the immediate period before the outbreak of World War One - to a /rational/ actor, it would have been almost entirely inconceivable for a continent-spanning world war to break out given the nature of the international situation at the time - particularly over something as relatively small in scale as an intervention in a third-rate country which had long been something of a volatile hot-spot.

Yet the inexorable march of history oft-seems with alarming frequency to be hell-bent upon making avowed fools of the best-laid plans of mice and men.

Let us hope with avowed fervor that the continued course of the Trump Presidency does not give us cause to ponder Karl Marx's famous maxim upon the subject of Louis-Napoleon's seizure of power in France that events in history often occur twice - the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On NZ First's Anti-Smacking Referendum

Another Election Year, another desperate bid from Family First to attempt to get s59 of the Crimes Act revoked. Indeed, if it weren't for their recent slew of agitation against the reform of abortion laws, and side-campaign to attempt to ban pornography, you could well be forgiven for thinking they're something of a 'one-issue' (or should that be 'one trick') entity.

What's sparked this latest attempt at going back in legislative time by ten years was a speech NZ First Leader Winston Peters gave last Friday about getting serious on the recent wave of youth-crime. Winston's mention of the potential desirability of dropping s59 in its current form was then seized upon by McCoskrie on Sunday as evidence that the latter's longed-for Day of Reckoning and Repeal was shortly to be at hand; followed in short order by some malicious gremlin deciding to flagrantly misrepresent the Party's stance on Wikipedia by attempting to proclaim that s59 repeal was now an NZ First non-negotiable coalition bottom line, and Sue Bradford going on the attack on this issue against Winston through the media yesterday morning. Oh, and somewhere along the way Winston clarified New Zealand First's position on this issue as actually being to support a referendum about repealing s59 rather than just getting rid of it straight away.

So far, this is pretty much about normal for an Election Year. Some conservative group brings up an old gripe from the Clark era, gets quietly annoyed that their supposed 'friends' in the National Party have no actual plans to do anything about the issue, and then finds common cause with another electoral vehicle as a result. But what makes things different this time around is that with New Zealand First looking increasingly likely to be in a position of strong influence on whomever the next Government will be, there is now a rather heightened chance that something might happen.

It therefore behooves me to take a brief look at the 'anti-smacking law' and the history around this issue - not least because, as far as I can see, a number of voices on both sides of the resurgent debate on s59 are being openly disingenous and are therefore (perhaps ironically) in need of correction.

The first point about s59 that ABSOLUTELY must be made (because it's generally where EVERYBODY - both Pro and Anti its retention - starts to get things wrong), is that section 59 does not, in point of fact, make it illegal to smack your child. Take a look at subsection (1). There, you'll find a list of circumstances - which are, to be honest, pretty broad-ranging in their scope - wherein a parent is "justified in using force" in relation to their child. These include "tasks that are incidental to good care and parenting" [an exemption to a legislative 'ban' on smacking so broad one could feasibly drive the proverbial truck through it], as well as specific allowances in law for using force to prevent your child from injuring themselves [for instance, by touching a hot stove, perhaps], injuring another, engaging in criminal activity, or being offensive or disruptive. In other words, it's a pretty broad list; and I feel pretty sure that most reasonable use of reasonable force in child-raising probably fits in somewhere in the above.

Now where it gets complex is when we read subsection (1) in concert with subsections (2) and (3). Because here we find odd language about "force for the purposes of correction" not being legally justified - which flatly contradicts (and deliberately so) the allowable use of force as applies our children outlined in ss(1).

It arguably gets even worse when we add in subsection (4); which attempts to reconcile all of the above by setting out that the police have the "discretion" not to prosecute parents who smack [or use other force on] their children if there'd be no "public interest" in doing so due to the force involved being "inconsequential".

Why is this a bad thing? Because our laws ought guarantee at least a modicum of certainty to those who are supposed to be bound by them; and through a combination of confusing language - and more especially, the relegation of what *actually* constitutes an offence against the act to the judgement of an individual policeman ... this law fairly patently does not do that.

Now as it happens, I do think there's a reasonably strong argument that the old s59 which Bradford's bill sought to replace WAS in need of some reform. Under the previous legislation, parents had access to what was known as a "reasonable force" defence when it came to hitting their children. This might sound well and good, but in practice it allowed somewhat extreme disciplinary measures like whipping a child, even in such a manner as to leave disfigurement, to be protected actions under the law. I'd like to think that even committed pro-smacking parents would agree that that's too far. Particularly when it later turned out that the "reasonable force" defence apparently meant certain parents thought they were justified in dealing to their errant offspring with an array of implements ranging from a jug-cord up to a full-on assault with a tent pole.

But if we look at how the 'new' s59 is worded, it seems an extraordinarily convoluted way of removing (or, if you like, redefining in a more tightly constrained way) a defence to a charge of assault or parental mistreatment. And this is before we even begin to consider the potential issues inherent in making the enforcement of this law a matter for individual police discretion (some of which we've already seen when it comes to the police discretionary power for low-level cannabis offences).

I'm therefore going to break ranks somewhat with many of the other voices on the liberal left and respectfully suggest that maybe Winston IS on to something here, and that there is, in fact, a case to be made for getting rid of the present section 59.

Although I almost certainly differ from most of the 'conservative' voices calling for the legislation's repeal in also wanting something better - which does much the same thing - erected in its place.

Because even if we agree that there's an argument to be made for the use of force as a regular part of parenting, there remains a troubling proclivity for some Kiwi parents to take this way too far - and wind up doing serious (even fatal) damage to those weakest among us entrusted to their care. The very real risk, if s59 is indeed replaced with either nothing or a much too loose piece of legislation, is that we will wind up giving a sanctified 'claim of right' carte-blanche to outright abusers and repugnant acts.

As noted above, even the comparatively straightforward precepts of the old, pre-Bradford section 59 already allowed if not encouraged parental uses of force that are difficult in good conscience to justify.

Which is, perhaps, why the previous Parliament who passed the bill in question into law did so so resoundingly. One hundred and thirteen MPs supported the bill (a majority of New Zealand First MPs among them, as it happens), because they knew that it would be a fundamental injustice to leave the law as it was. That doesn't necessarily mean that they got it right when it came to putting forward a replacement enactment, of course; but it does mean we should think very carefully about what shall fill the void left by an abolished s59 before actually attempting to get rid of it.

This puts one in the mind of the noted conservative writer G.K. Chesterton's famous maxim about never tearing down a fence before one has first understood why it was put up. I've often had pause to wonder whether some of the anti-anti-smacking people have actually bothered to consider this, instead of simply working themselves up into a feel-good lather about the dire depredations of much-maligned "PC GONE MAD", which seemed to saturate the latter years of the dying Clarke regime without any necessity of facts.

In any case, I'm not entirely convinced that the repeal of section 59 will actually have a measurable effect upon the present wave of highly publicized assaults and robberies being committed by young people, which is what Winston appeared to be suggesting on Friday. If anything, this proposition might be regarded as being of considerably less importance for this matter than another policy of New Zealand First's - the earlier announced coalition bottom line demand for an extra 1800 front-line police officers - that is almost certain to have vastly more impact.

It's probably not surprising that the so-called 'anti-smacking' law remains inestimably controversial in certain circles. It's a complex piece of legislation, beset with a number of obvious shortcomings. As a frequent democracy, we ought be able to have a mature discussion about whether the s59 that we've got is actually 'fit for purpose' - and whether there are better ideas out there with which to replace it.

I'm not necessarily wild about the way Winston has chosen to bring s59 back into the national political conversation this year; but it seems pretty clear that there are issues here deserving of consideration, and which provide obvious potential grounds for legal reform.

We can but hope that further dialogue in this area means we eventually get the law right; rather than continuing to live with a questionable compromise.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Reflections On Trump's Failure With 'Ryancare'

Late last week, the abysmal healthcare 'reform' proposal of Paul Ryan's which Trump had inexplicably chosen to support ... failed fairly unequivocally. How badly did it flounder? It didn't even make it to First Reading, on grounds that even other Republicans could not bring themselves to vote for it. 

A full explication of the 'hows' and the 'whys' behind Ryan's seven-year political project imploding in such spectacular fashion is beyond the scope of this piece; but looking at this whole - seemingly Fawltian - situation, a number of insights presented themselves.

The first, unquestionably, is that this was a singularly ridiculous political area for Trump to decided to get directly involved any attempt to replace Obamacare - let alone with 'Ryancare' - as flagship policy. It has been said in response to the old adage about "Mussolini made the trains in Italy run on time" that "Even God Himself could not make the trains in Italy run on time." Looking at the benighted state of just about EVERY serious healthcare reform proposal at the national level over the last few decades of American political history (Remember what Hillary USED to be famous for?) ... I feel pretty confident in stating that "Even God Himself could not make healthcare workable and affordable in America for all". It's just a complete and total quagmire - where political capital goes to valiantly die in thousand-page reports and insurance industry tacit backhanders.

Opposition to "Obamacare" was, indeed, a Republican Party talking-point hot-button issue par-excellence for much of the last Presidency ... but it must have been patently obvious that both i) an improved healthcare affordability mechanism [within the idiotic insurance/market based paradigm which America for some reason continues to insist upon] was going to be incredibly difficult to deliver, let alone quickly; and ii) that the Paul Ryan MOAR MARKET LESS TAX approach was something vastly more amenable to the Republicans' elitist backers [well, some of them anyway] than it was to the millions of ordinary working class Americans who helped sweep Trump to Power.

In other words, the very decision to put all his Presidential weight and seemingly-mighty impetus behind RyanCare represents in the most tangible possible form evidence of a corruption and a co-option of what Trump's "I'll make the Republicans a Workers' Party" political project was supposed to be about.

Which leads me handily on to my SECOND point.

Namely, that there IS a better way of doing healthcare out there - one which a fairly vast swathe of the developed world [and, for that matter, the better parts of the developING world] have long been on board with, which tends to provide better care to more people for lower cost [to both individual, employer, and, at the rate things are going, in terms of actual service provision, it may even work out better for the taxpayer] - and that's the "Single Payer" model. Or, as we call it EVERYWHERE ELSE, the "Public Healthcare System". [the fact that Americans insist upon terming this "Single Payer" just shows how far-wedged and firmly wedded their conception of healthcare as a transactional service presumably bound up with some sort of profit-making private enterprise nonsense in the first place].

It would have taken some doing to get the American political system to actually look seriously at the proposal [and I note that Trump actually arguably started laying the groundwork for this by positively talking up 'Single Payer' in speeches and campaign appearances as much as seventeen years ago - during his previous Presidential run]; and it's frankly disheartening to see the number of people who self-identify as being on the 'left' of the American political spectrum that've been gearing up to apparently die in a ditch for a massive-scale Insurance Industry politically embedded profit-making rort [which is, effectively, what ObamaCare puts a delightful, smiling human face upon - of a reasonably popular, principled-seeming President, no less]. But given the fact that pretty much *everyone* other than a rather small slice of Republicans, and a broader swathe of Democrats [acting out of both party and ideological loyalty] seem to hate the Affordable Care Act ... surely it could have at least done with a shot? Trump had impressive political capital to pour into complete shakeups in other areas, why not with one of the areas he's passionately advocated for reform in for most of the time that I've been alive?

Of course, a cynic's answer to this is that it never would have worked. As we saw with the attempt to pass RyanCare, partisan folks would have come out of the woodwork [on both sides, for that matter] to try and torpedo what would no doubt have been derisively labelled "BernieCare". This is, again, partially due to the American political establishment's evient bewilderment that there can be any such thing as a public healthcare system which doesn't run through the insurance industry [seriously, this whole "unemployment insurance" thing they've got going even does social welfare that'd ordinarily be handled simply and directly by the state as an entitlement in an insurance-industry [if not always directly insurance firm] mold]; and also partially due to the fact, no doubt, that the absolutely HUGE insurance industry [truly, one of the last 'great' areas of economic activity within America not to have been completely hollowed out and downsized or shipped offshore] would have been lobbying so incredibly hard against any reform to their golden cash goose that the task of taking them OUT of the equation ought be described as less 'Sisyphean" [although given the way healthcare reform keeps rolling up and down the political slopes like the boulder from that story, perhaps it's not entirely inaccurate] and more 'Sommean'. As in, a huge expenditure of effort to achieve very little except pain for one's self


But out of all of this, there is perhaps one single bright lining. Namely, that there are escalating signs that the Trump era (and,in no small part the way his administration and allies do things) is beginning to Break the Republicans. After all, as we saw, RyanCare failed as a bill precisely because Republican hardliners couldn't agree on whether the proposal didn't go FAR ENOUGH on stripping away protections and cutting costs/taxes, or just right ... and, for that matter, the number of 'moderate' Republicans who saw the RyanCare legislation as being a worse option than today's Affordable Care Act.
There are, of course, other schism-points to be drawn out; and it's not hard to find areas - particularly in foreign policy - wherein the level of animosity internal to the leading lights of hte Republican Party is now even icier and more internecine than Clinton v Sanders was for the Democrats. But it is not so easy to think of an area of purely /domestic/ politics wherein the fault-lines of the GoP have been so readily on show, recently.

In any case - and this perhaps says more about my own mindset than it does Trump's - I cannot help but wonder whether the principled thing to do in such a situation would be to recognize that Republicans would never be united in support of ANY proposal to meaningfully (or, for thta matter, less meaningfully - incoherently, even) 'reform' Healthcare ... and just throw hands up in the air about doing things "the Washington way", and just push and drive incredibly hard for the actual institution of "Single Payer" healthcare.

As mentioned above, it might take a decent swathe of selling to both the American people, and I'd be genuinely surprised if such a proposal picked up serious legislative support [for reasons that are jus straight-out malefic given the evidence for such a policy-set's efficacy] ... but if anyone's demonstrated an inimitable ability to take the politics of 'consensus' and throw them out on their ear ... it's Trump.

It would have been inordinately good if he could have, on this occasion at least, used this power for Good rather than for ... well ... deeply held Republican talking points in lieu of gleaming principle.