The Tea Party makes a case for MMP

Republican Party (United States)

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I’ve watched, fascinated, as the fringe wing of US Republican Party, the Tea Partiers, have played chicken with a $17 trillion debt crisis.

Astonishingly they seem to have won the stare-down at the cost of not just the president, USA’s global reputation and any attempts at collaborative decision-making, but also at the cost of their own Republican Party which has taken a significant hit to its public standing.

The interesting bit for me is that way this mirrors politics in New Zealand.  We also have a dominant right-wing party that treasures its public good will, and a crazed extreme right-wing party.  The major difference though is that we have proportional representation (MMP). So while in the USA the Tea Party is embedded in the heart of the more moderate Republican Party, causing all sorts of damage, in New Zealand our crazed right-wingers have peeled off into their own party where they can espouse their own ideas, pull their own crazy stunts, and attract their own corresponding level of public support.

Before MMP we still had those fringe ideologues, but as with the USA, they were embedded and hidden in larger parties. In our case both of them: Labour from 1984 to 1990 as well as National from 1990 to 1996.

I feel sympathy for Republican voters in the States. Many of them get offered a voting choice of a Democrat or a Tea Partier.  And they probably don’t know if they have a Tea Partier or just an ordinary Republican who was bullied into signing up to the Tea Party programme for the votes and funding.

The nice thing about MMP is you get exactly what you voted for. It’s very easy to find the ideologues because normally they are not hiding in other people’s parties.

Broadcasting in Godzone: it’s Beached as, Bro.

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting at a conference on the future of public broadcasting. My presentation was tilted Beached as, Bro: The current state of New Zealand’s Broadcasting Industry.

The “beached as” reference was not to a popular YouTube video, but to Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach.

The novel is set in Melbourne, in the months after a nuclear war has wiped out human civilisation in the northern hemisphere. The characters portrayed in the novel face up to the reality, with greater or lesser degrees of dignity and compassion, that they too will die as the radiation moves relentlessly south.

In the closing chapter, the rock-steady Australian Navy captain is comforting his distraught wife and slightly dazed wife.

If can forgive the 1950’s sexism, their poignant final conversation went like this;

“Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?” she asked.

“I don’t know…(he replied) some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop… the only possible hope would be to educate them out of their silliness.”

“But how could they have done that, Peter?”

“Newspapers” he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we were wise enough.’

She did not fully comprehend his reasoning. “I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,’ she said. “It’s been much nicer without them.”

On the same PowerPoint slide I showed the following graphic, which is not a map of nuclear radiation creeping south from the northern hemisphere. It is the global temperature anomaly for 2010; the average temperature from January to December 2010 , compared to the average annual temperatures for the 30 years from 1951 to 1980.

Source: Goddard Institute of Space Science, NASA
New Zealand’s broadcasting policy framework is based on the idea that a competitive market of broadcasters will provide socially optimal outcomes, and if not, then:
“If the government or community groups considered that the composition or level of outputs of the broadcasting industry was not socially optimal, then the most effective and efficient intervention would be to directly contract with broadcasters to alter outputs in the desired direction be it wider coverage, more cultural programming, no advertising or more local content.”

That quote is  from the Treasury submission to the Royal Commission on Broadcasting and Related Telecommunications in 1986, which became the basis for our current broadcasting policy framework (in 1999 I completed a fairly lengthy Master of Public Policy thesis on the subject).

In New Zealand, currently, public broadcasting is officially thought to be a “nice to have”, provided to meet interest group whims and and political fancies, and funded by New Zealand on Air. The underlying assumption is that a competitive commercial broadcasting market will provide what people want, and therefore what they need.

My view is that some broadcasting outputs are a Public Good in economic terms. That is, their presence on-air serves to benefit the whole of society, just as the presence of a national defence force does, or the judicial system, or a parliament of elected representatives.

But I take that a step further and say that, in a parliamentary democracy, the existence of “public good” broadcasting is essential to the creation and maintenance of an effective democracy. In particular, a living democracy requires the presence on-air of high-quality and in-depth news, current affairs and investigative journalism. And that needs to be present at every level of government; national, regional and local.

So why do I think the broadcasting system is not providing this public good?

Because if it were, there would be neither debate nor uncertainty in the public mind about the need to urgently reduce carbon emissions in order to combat global warming.  The key political issue in this election year would be the need to decide which of the political parties has the most effective policy platform for dealing with that issue.  The best metaphorical equivalent would be if New Zealand were at war, and we had to choose a government to most effectively defend us. Climate change is, in fact, that important.

However, that is not the case – either metaphorically or in fact.  We like our television with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no government is wise enough to stop us having them that way.

The absence of meaningful debate about climate change on our radio and television services is sufficient evidence to state with certainty that New Zealand’s broadcasting system is  suffering from market failure on a scale, and to an extent, matched only by the market failure of global warming itself. QED; the broadcast media’s systematic ignorance of, and silence about, the threat of global warming means it is “beached as, bro”, while the people of New Zealand are On the Beach.


Overseas development funding

Murray McCully said on Morning Report this morning  that he wants to scrap the KOHA-PICD scheme and establish an alternative fund controlled by Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials (and the Minister). This new scheme would also have a different criteria because the KOHA-PICD scheme has “too much emphasis on union rights”.

I’ve got a particular interest in this because on of the charities that I donate to, UnionAID, is probably the one he has in mind when he disparagingly talks about “union rights projects in obscure parts of the world”.

I’m not sure that reducing domestic violence against Dalit women in Tamil Nadu by 15-25%, or ensuring that cremation workers from the lowest caste in India are paid a small monthly wage so they can afford to send their children to school are projects that should be abandoned just becasue they happen to be organised by union members.

Hopefully he will make his decision based on the value of the project rather than ill-considered judgements and stereotypes about the people who are running, fundraising or donating to that project?

It’s time to dump the ETS

The current public debate over the relative merits of Labour’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) and National’s scheme is not getting us anywhere. We’re arguing about the difference between quite useless and rather useless.

Because the fact is, as a means to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the ETS approach is wholly ineffective. And not only is it ineffective, it is unjust as well.

The climate crisis we face is of such a scale that we can’t afford to wait years for empirical data to show us that ETSs are fatally flawed. We have to break out of the ETS mindset right now. So, what I’ve done here is describe some of the problems with ETSs in the hope that it clears the space for another debate to begin – what approach will actually make real and just progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a lot of analysis of the weaknesses of ETSs around the web and some of the best comes from Larry Lohmann (here).

Some of his observations are as follows:

1. Emissions markets do not encourage the development of low or zero emission technology. The market focus on economic efficiency dictates that the purchase of permits will be preferred to expenditure on research and development, structural shifts in public investment, redirection of subsidies away from fossil fuels, and other measures.

2. The science, technology and enforcement required for an extensive emissions trading scheme is not available, even in industrialized countries. That opens the way for Enron-level scams.

Underlining the potential for scams, Rachel Morris in June 2009’s Mother Jones magazine (here) describes the consequences of the US getting into carbon trading: within 5 years a $2 trillion derivatives market in which carbon credits will be “securitized, derivatized, and speculated by Wall Street like the mortgage-backed securities market.”

These incentives for profiteering will exacerbate the worst aspects of ETSs that are already visible in so-called offset projects.

In such projects, developing nations are becoming a ‘carbon dump’ for the industrialised world, as communal land is enclosed and converted to exotic forestry or occupied by windmills, and as rivers that have been used sustainably by local communities for generations are dammed for hydro schemes. See, for example, Tamra Gilbertson’s devastating photo essay here.

In May 2008, in response to the worsening injustices, 39 climate justice groups published a statement indicting carbon trading and offset schemes as the “false solutions” of “a new 21st century phase of colonialism” (here).

The conclusion is plain enough: we must stand in solidarity with the climate justice movement and oppose false solutions. It’s time to reject the ETS approach and lead the debate toward the real and just answers to climate change.

Goodbye recession

It might have seemed in the last couple of days that the big issue over in this small corner of the world has been the Toad vs Whale Oil feud.  Yawn.

But, there is other news that has caught our attention here at; the recession seems to be over, at least for wealthy Goldman Sachs bankers who needed to be bailed out by the US government less than a year ago.  They paid back their US$10 billion bail out and also posted a US$3.44 billion dollars in quarterly profit. This from the New York Times:

Even on Wall Street, the land of six- and seven-figure incomes, jaws dropped at the news Tuesday: After all that federal aid, a resurgent Goldman Sachs is on course to distribute bonuses that could rival the record paydays of the heady bull-market years.Goldman posted the richest quarterly profit in its 140-year history and, to the envy of its rivals, announced it had earmarked $11.4 billion so far this year to compensate its workers.

At that rate, Goldman workers could, on average, earn roughly $770,000 each this year — or nearly what they did at the height of the boom.

Senior Goldman executives and bankers would be paid considerably more. Only three years ago, Goldman paid more than 50 employees above $20 million each. In 2007, CEO Lloyd Blankfein collected one of the biggest bonuses in corporate history.

Meanwhile the reession that these bankers helped create has left over 6.5 million people jobless since December 2008.  Nearly half a million Americans lost their job in June alone and the unemployment rate, currently 9.5 percent, is still climbing.  That doesn’t include the tens of millions of workers who have lost and are about to lose their jobs in the rest of the world, New Zealand included.

So it seems it’s back onto the financial roundabout for everyone except all those who lost their job or are about to lose it.  Is anyone worried that collectively we may not have learnt the lesson embedded in all of this?

A fallen childhood hero

Michael Jones was my boyhood hero (one of many).  I probably should have known back then that the ‘no rugby on Sunday’ thing was an early sign of political toryism, but I was blinded by his football skills and humble kiwi blokeishness. Still it’s funny how the idoliser and the idol go their different ways.

I’m an outsider to the many pacific island cultures but my sense, from the little I have seen, is that it is not, as Jones implies, an excessive focus on poverty elimination rather than economic development that is holding countries like Samoa back from ‘asserting their dreams and aspirations’.

I’d hope that John Key’s dreams and aspirations for pacific islands people include the many pacific islands people here in New Zealand who are feeling the force of his budgetary choices far more harshly than most.  I’d also hope that he is cognisant that for pacific islands people, both here and on the islands, poverty elimination and economic development are both now intrinsically linked to the choice countries like New Zealand make about carbon emission reduction targets.  If Key can look at the evidence and quietly change his mind on hip hop tours surely he can do the same on climate change.

Fonterra’s spot of luck

In today’s Dominion Post:

The melamine in the milk scandal has had a silver lining for Fonterra in the form of a big jump in revenue from Asia.

In its half-year result, revenue from Asia, Africa and the Middle East was up 53 per cent to $1.2 billion. Chief executive Andrew Ferrier said increased ingredients sales to China was a major factor.

After the crisis became public in September, Chinese dairy companies started buying milk from overseas rather than sourcing it locally, he said.

That was the largest of three drivers of the increase in Asian revenues.

SanLu the Chinese dairy company that was 43 per cent owned by Fonterra was at the centre of the scandal, in which six babies died and more than 200,000 became ill.

The melamine crisis was also partly responsible for a switch to more expensive foreign dairy products by consumers in Asia, which enabled Fonterra to drive higher revenues, Mr Ferrier said.

Gains from the falling kiwi dollar was the third factor.

How can anyone report without a hint of outrage? So Fonterra’s sloppy, or possibly negligent, business practices in China kill or threaten the lives of many babies and the happy result is improved revenue for Fonterra.  That’s the invisible hand of the market handing out morality lessons for us all again I guess.

The tempering qualities of humility and restraint

Like many people I woke this morning to the sound of USA president Obama’s inauguration speech. I’m not a big follower of US politics. I hardly ever watch the West Wing. So, I guess I don’t really have anything new or insightful to add.  But one thing stood out to me that I’m going to note.

While Obama’s speech soared across the crowd of two million people and drew loud cheers as he talked about peace, opportunity, justice and, yes, hope, there was one message that appeared from this side of the radio, to leave his audience quiet – pondering maybe.

I felt that Obama’s speech carried an implicit attack on the culture of excessive consumption, celebrity and shallow easy lifestyles, that many in the rest of the world associate primarily with America.

He consistently told Americans that they would need to work hard.  The easy times had come to an end:

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

He implied that America’s culture of consumption would have to end:

And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

And most directly he invoked a set of values that stands in absolute contrast to the neo-capitalist values of consumption, celebrity and excess:

But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

Normally I’m not a big fan of politicians telling other people that the solution is a change of lifestyle.  But there is something compelling about Obama’s call for a shift of culture.  Obama canot meet the expectations surrounding him with legislation and social programmes alone.  He needs to lead his people, and probably people from many other nations as well, to see the world in a different light if he is to succeed. Incredibly in this day and age, to succeed he must rely on people choosing sacrifice and hard work over consumption and short cuts.

And more incredibly, I think people do want to make that choice.  They/we have been waiting for a leader to show them/us ‘the tempering qualities of humility and restraint’. I, who specialise in cycnicism about US Democrats, am hoping that maybe Obama can lead the way and open the door for those of us who want to create a new culture of old values.