Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Did Gareth Morgan At Ratana Just Demonstrate Political Nous?

Having witnessed yesterday's excitement at Ratana, I am starting to wonder whether Gareth Morgan may actually be a surprisingly good political strategist.

Consider this: year in and year out, New Zealand First manages to cobble together an impressively diverse coalition of opinion ranging from rednecks to Rangatiratanga enthusiasts. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that the Party's strongest performing electorate seats are in fact the Maori Seats [seriously - look it up], while simultaneously the Hobson's Pledge organization offers us money.

It's not always easy keeping these two sectors of voter opinion on-side and moving in the same direction - particularly when the rhetoric required to wrangle them can wind up being fairly diametrically opposed [consider, for instance, Winston Peters angrily pointing to his personal record fighting against what he called the largest government confiscation of Maori land in history ... and then juxtapose that against his customary advocacy for going back to the legislative situation of the 2004 Foreshore & Seabed legislation - which, perhaps ironically, has *also* been called the largest Crown confiscation of Maori land in history, thanks to a legislative provision written by Winston himself].

I believe that Morgan has realized that there is an 'exploitable' fault-line here. Hence his references in his Ratana speech today to Winston and NZF's previous record.

The objective he must have in mind by drawing attention to NZF's "Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi Deletion Bill" effort from yesteryear - particularly at one of the highest political pilgrimage sites in Maoridom - must surely be to attempt to back Winston into a corner. Forcing Winston to either choose to double down upon his previous rhetoric and stances in opposition to Maori politics (with the consequent risk of alienating Maori support from NZF) - or to ameliorate his anti-'Separatism' (or "Apartheid" to use Winston's own somewhat hyperbolic wording) positioning in order to keep Maoridom on-side.

It will be interesting to see whether Morgan continues along this present line of attack for the rest of the Treaty Politics summer season. And, for that matter, in what direction (if any) this bears fruit - certainly with MANA looking to be back in contention this year, there is a possibility of NZF losing votes in other directions.

Although one could argue that Morgan's attack may represent a fundamental misreading of what we're about here in NZ First - and, for that matter, why we've continued to prove so undeniably popular to so many Maori voters and communities regardless of some of our previous actions and rhetoric.

New Zealand First stands for a unitary nationalism. Its very Caucus and membership embodies this concept (with the former being about 50% Maori, and the latter representing possibly the greatest concentration of Maori parliamentary-political activism in the recent MMP era outside of the Maori Party at its founding - seriously, attending an NZ First Convention is an exercise in applied biculturalism in more ways than one). And, as Morgan pointed out today, one in five NZ First voters are Maori. This would appear to suggest that there is a rather significant current out there in Maoridom who empathize quite strongly with what we're about.

With this in mind, it is possible that Morgan's efforts will have perhaps less impact upon NZF and our actual support base than he might anticipate - instead reprsenting something of a pantomime performance to project values to other parts of the electorate.

Besides, if the sympathetic media coverage (gosh, there's an odd phrase to be associating with Winston) from today is anything to go by - Winston may be "too big to fail" as he continues to snowball towards the Election; with intriguing points of scrutiny being as molotovs against Poseidon.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Arguments In Favour Of Raising Cigarette Prices Are A Costly Smokescreen

Another year, another hike in the price of cigarettes.

This time, the first in a series of ten-percent increases that are going to hit once a year, every year, until 2020. The nominal goal for this exercise in extortion is to make New Zealand "smokefree" by 2025. Hidden in the small print is the caveat that "smokefree" in fact means less than 5% of the population smoking on a daily basis. And, slightly further into the 'small print', the revelation that simply throwing more taxation at the problem is unlikely to actually reduce consumption to the desired levels.

Meanwhile, ongoing price-increases in tobacco have already been fueling a crime-wave which targets the nation's corner dairies, liquor stores and service stations; while the burgeoning black market in tobacco sourced from both theft and illicit importing (which, incidentally, allows punters to avoid the high price of taxation completely) shows no sign of abating.

So why are we doing it then? What motivates us year in, year out to place a highly regressive tax upon some of the New Zealanders who may be least in a position to afford it? (smoking, after all, being overwhelmingly a 'pleasure of the working class')

Personally, I think we went down this road because some of our politicians - specifically those in the Maori Party - felt an overweaning need to be seen to be Doing Something about an issue. To be fair, this is an issue which DOES disproportionately affect Maori - hence presumably the supposed 'solution' of disproportionately taxing them, instead.

But irascible, 'gut-response' policy-making is rarely either perspicacious about impacts, or particularly concerned with whether a given law-change will actually stand up to close scrutiny.

That presumably explains why the latest round of tax-hikes have had such unintended consequences while seemingly being ill-fit for purpose when it came to their stated objectives.

Let's review the arguments behind the price-rises one by one.

The main argument people make in favour of placing exorbitant taxes upon smoking is that it's necessary to do so in order to raise funds to cover the extra costs to the healthcare system which a smoking population imposes upon it. This is, from where I'm sitting, a pretty good argument - and one which smacks of both justice and forward-thinking. Except that we're now in a situation wherein the average tax-take from cigarettes every year is more than three times as high as the estimated additional cost to our healthcare system of smokers. ($350 million relative to between $1.3 and $1.7 billion dollars - with this year's increase alone looking set to provide $425 million) So we've long since passed the point wherein this is a well-supported motivation for any further tax-increases. That's not to say it's necessarily a bad thing that smokers are now subsidizing quite heavily the non-smoking population's healthcare - if only because the next time somebody shoots you a dirty look, or starts fake-coughing in your presence as you're lighting up ... you'll be fully within your rights to beam at them and proudly tell them they don't have to thank you for your generosity.

But it's nevertheless somewhat disquieting that an essential state service (in the form of healthcare) has to be funded off ever-increasing levies upon a small segment of the population in lieu of properly sorting out taxes elsewhere - and we shall return to this point later.

The next argument often made for price-increases on cigs is that it's supposed to help people quit smoking. And maybe the first three or so rounds of price-increase actually did. But if you're still smoking at this point, despite the fact that a twenty-pack of cigarettes now costs about as much as an entire *bag* of roll-your-own tobacco did when this set of price-rises started [incidentally, about the time I quit smoking because I decided I'd rather spend my money on cannabis] ... then the chances are that a series of ten percent price-increases *probably* aren't going to cause you to seriously reconsider your habit. (And if you don't believe me saying it - this is actually the official position of the Heart Foundation advanced last year at Budget time when the ten percent tax-hike was last brought up)

Instead, as an addict, you're probably in a situation of regarding your cigs as what economists call a "reputed necessity" - and, as a result, the relative "inelasticity" of your consumption-pattern just means you wind up spending more of your income on the same or slightly smaller numbers of cigs.

Which is a bit of a problem for lower-income earners - as if you're using a greater proportion of your heard-earned cash on your nicotine habit (in some workplaces a virtual de-rigeur sanity-preservation tool in order to enable you to actually work the insufferable no-overtime shifts in the first place), then you've presumably got less money to spend on feeding yourself, or other items of what many now consider to be 'discretionary spending' such as visits to the doctor. (It is, of course, quite an irony that heavily subsidizing the healthcare of others might cause you to be able to access less of it yourself)

This is without mentioning the potential bugbear of low-income families having less to spend on their children - and that's something which I include in a spirit of completeness, because somebody WILL be thinking it. Not because of any belief that working class parents habitually place their own small pleasures ahead of the needs of their children - instead, it quite often seems to be diametrically the opposite.

And before the predictable retort of "well, they should just give up then" is advanced in response to the above ... that's not how reality works, unfortunately - and if we're interested in making a policy that's actually fit-for-purpose, empty moralistic platitudes in place of sound reasoning or evidence just simply won't do.

Although speaking of children ... one of the more refined forms of the above 'barrier-to-purchase' argument is that increasing the cost of cigarettes helps to keep them out of the hands of young people and children.

This is, again, a pretty nice-sounding argument. Nobody seriously thinks that children should have access to cigarettes (not that they do legally, anyway), and getting 18 year olds to defer the decision to start smoking til they're 'older and wiser' certainly doesn't seem an implicitly bad idea. Except again - there's a problem here with how the price-increases intersect with these (laudable) goals.

The expanding black market in tobacco - which has been created in no small part due to the tax-hikes - mean that it's now even easier for young people who wouldn't otherwise be legally able to buy cigarettes to come into contact with nicotine. At lower prices, too (because black-market cigarettes don't have the tax on them, inter alia, and vendors are also considerably less likely to check for ID).

So while in theory it sounds fine to make the case that a twenty five dollar packet of cigarettes is now further out of reach of a teenager who's scrabbled around to find enough pocket money to consider buying some smokes ... in practice, the reality may be very different.

Now that being said, there ARE some legislative interventions which may be of some use in reducing the rate of young people who decide to take up smoking. One of these could be instituting what's known as a raising age of purchase. The idea here would be to increase the age at which cigarettes can be legally bought by one year every year, til we reach 25 or some other arbitrary agreed-upon point at which people are mature enough to make bad decisions. (the policy could ALSO be run with no 'ceiling' to the continual increase - with a view to creating a situation in which it's pretty much impossible for subsequent generations to take up smoking, without restricting the ability of people who already are legally able to purchase from so doing).

But New Zealand, as far as I understand it, isn't looking into that - presumably because our lawmakers would much rather collect the extra taxation-revenue from an 18 year old smoking than they would actually attempt to ensure he's less able to purchase them.

Because ultimately - as I said earlier, and as I've argued in previous pieces - that's what this entire arrangement is about.

The Government, when instituting this long-running series of price-rises, had twin objectives.

First, to give their coalition partner a minor win which they could point to as evidence that shacking up with the National Party (with its attendant massive electoral cost) had actually been 'worth it'.

But second, they wished to tap a pretty sizable source of new taxation revenue. And one which, handily, isn't really allowed to complain when squeezed ever more tightly year-in and year out.

Having reviewed the evidence, it becomes fairly obviously apparent that this recent round of tax-hikes isn't really a serious stab at reducing or eliminating the prevalence of smoking in our society.

Instead, it's the hallmark of a government playing parsimony when it comes to establishing wafer-thin 'surpluses', desperately attempting to scrabble down the back of the fiscal couch in search of a few hundred million more to make the books add up.

How else to explain the fact that the state raises so many more times in revenue off cigarettes what it spends on extra healthcare for smokers. How else to interpret Customs reports which place the emphasis upon illicit tobacco imports depriving the state of revenue, rather than expressing concern about putting a potentially dangerous substance on our streets. And Regulatory Impact Statements which stress that tobacco-taxes are a "reliable" and "very efficient" means of raising revenue. Why else, in short, would the state continue to make tobacco readily available for a captive (tax-paying) market rather than simply illegalizing it if it's so genuinely worried about all our collective welfare.

It's not hard to see what's really going on here. You just have to follow the money, and look past the perfidious smokescreen.

If you want to.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

What The Hell Is Going ON With Donald Trump's #GoldenShower

The 2016 election season continues to be quite the wild ride. No matter whether one is following events through the regular media and traditional outlets, or braving the wilds of social media feeds, each new day brings some shocking "revelation"which would have seemed utterly inconceivable the day before ... yet there it is in print.

The latest of these is the airing of the contents of a report which alleges that not only has US President-Elect Donald Trump been fairly actively in-cahoots with the Russians this entire time (again); but that this remarkable degree of hypothetical co-operation has been achieved in part via the Russian state-security agency producing blackmail materials of a sexual nature designed to ensure Trump's co-operation.

A month ago, we were all talking about "Fake News" and how it had the power to 'unfairly' swing election results by causing serious - yet hard to refute - political damage. It would be wise to recall what was said then, because this latest round of unproven allegations - incredibly flimsy statements which The Guardian referred to as "unverified and potentially unverifiable" - seem to fit pretty exactly into that category of "reporting".

At best, we are dealing with a breathless media (and any number of now-feeling-incredibly-smug/vindicated social media unprofessional commentators) taking note of something from a report that's now in official hands, and broadcasting it at loudspeaker-levels of both volume and distortion.

Because who doesn't love something exciting and sexually weird when it features a politician. It's certainly fairly ideal muck-raking material if you're employed to run what's known as "opposition research" by a rival political campaign. Which, of course, the author of this report was. He was also apparently an ex-MI6 operative . Although while the latter qualification is bandied about by those seeking to convince us of the allegation's authenticity, I'd respectfully suggest that the former vocation - that of paid-political professional hack-job executor - may potentially be rather more relevant when it comes to assessing the claim's credibility.

So why is it that my newsfeed's seemingly gone nuts reposting exaggerated recounts (and some rather hilarious hashtags and memes) attempting to put the boot in to Trump over this?

Well, the story appears to have acquired such vehemence across the sphere of human political communication because there are any number of people out there presently enjoying a sense of 'the shoe' being on the other foot. That is to say, last year they were annoyed at how Trump-amenable "fake news" stories were thought to have made a dent in Clinton's "guaranteed to win" status ... and feel it's now "fair" to descend down to the same level when the target's The Big Orange Opponent as a result.

Although other possibilities for the story's spread have also been advanced.

One narrative has anti-Trumpists still within the Republican Party popularizing the report and handing it on to various official bodies for the express purpose of tarnishing Trump. Perhaps as some sort of last-ditch attempt to prevent his now-impending Inauguration through the shadowy specter of "blackmail-liability". John McCain certainly appears to be a rather big player in this particular rodeo; and it's an almost-perfect mashup of both NeoCon and Conservative talking points (in specia: "Reds under the Bed", and the aforementioned bed being urinated upon as some sort of arguable sexual deviancy).

Another theory has those lovable scamps over on 4chan somehow managing to pass "Donald Trump erotic fanfiction" [eeuugh] off as credible material to the report's authors, who've since carried out their unwitting role in the 'prank' by feeding it into the international news media and intelligence world. In these days of "Pepe the Frog" apparently 'memeing' Trump into the White House, and various Breitbart personalities now becoming part of the new Trumpist political establishment, such a theory would certainly be in-keeping with the spirit of recent events. And certainly, it's no less plausible in some ways than the actual allegation being discussed.

Good grief. What a mess.

But this was far from the only report into the alleged Trump-Putin-FSB/GRU Bromance to make headlines this week. And some of the others are perhaps worth a look. If only, at least, to reconfirm one's suspicions that this whole big beatup on alleged Russian influence over Trump is .. well .. exactly that. A part of a long-running game of pinata between elements of the US Deep State who're pretty lukewarm on an improvement in US-Russian Relations taking turns to attempt to pillory the one man who might just make such a 'thaw' happen.

So in conclusion ... if we are being honest, it is too early for conclusions. More material may yet emerge from CNN's fact-checking to vindicate some of the seemingly wild rumours which have sprung up in the wake of this story. I doubt it, but in these modern times of the Current Year, anything is seemingly possible.

More likely, nothing substantial will come out from the shadows. And we'll be left - much as we were last month - with two bitterly divided rhetorically-armed camps flinging falsehoods at one another in the hopes that eventually something sticks.

But in any case, what has happened over the past few days is rather instructive for how a political party still reeling from seemingly-inexplicable [to themselves, at least] defeat behaves.

As I've said elsewhere:

> Also Democrats: "I just read that Trump's being blackmailed by Moscow with piss-fetish proof - it's all over Buzzfeed!"