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.

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