Tuesday, May 30, 2017

"And Not A Reason To Be Missed - If You're On Their Little List" : Thoughts on the Green Party's 2017 List

One of the things which seemingly sets the Green Party apart from other large-scale electoral vehicles in this country, is the way they do their list ranking process. Most political parties will delegate this incredibly important responsibility to a single committee, or other tightly controlled schema; with a view to ensuring the "right" outcomes, amenable to the Party Leadership, are resultingly delivered.

Occasionally, there'll be some brief outbreak of flirtatious indulgence with democracy [and, indeed, Labour's shift in how it selects its Leader is arguably an instance of this]; but in the main, a certain degree of abject terror about what 'the masses' of the Party Faithful might do if they ACTUALLY got a serious say in the list-ranking process keeps many of our multi-coloured electoral tribes from going TOO terribly far down this particular road.

But not so The Greens. Say what you like about the eventual results of their listing process .. it's hard to disagree that the mechanisms by which these are produced are pretty much the most democratic in the land [subject to occasional 'correction' from on-high, as we have previously seen with a view to ensuring a more optimal balance of North Island and South Island representation].

Although just because it's broadly democratic, doesn't necessarily mean it's optimal. And given the huge variety of perceptions people have about what the makeup of Parliament 'should' be [recall, for instance, the old debate about a 'House of Representatives', wherein we place emphasis upon selecting those with aptitudes that will strengthen the legislative/political process; versus the 'Representative House', which strives to have a Parliament that mirrors New Zealand more or less exactly in terms of race, gender, sexuality etc. etc. etc.], it's entirely unsurprising that reasonable people can seriously, strenuously disagree as to whether a given Party's List is a great one.

The 2017 Green Party List looks set to be no exception.

The 'draft' iteration released some weeks ago has already inspired considerable debate [and/or jeering]; and it is interesting to note that the finalized version put out yesterday appears to 'double down' on some of the things which rendered the previous List such a lightning-rod for commentariat controversy.

Namely, the way youthful - and more especially youthful female - candidates appear to have been elevated at the direct expense of several other axes of diversity.

There are a number of potential reasons for this. The three candidates I'm thinking of in particular are rather high-profile [Ghahraman, Swarbrick, and Holt], with two arguably qualifying for a sort of minor quasi-celebrity status [Swarbrick & Holt], whilst the third [Ghahraman] has an impressive resume and record of service of exactly the sort one would expect from a quality Member of Parliament.

When it comes to the votes of ordinary Green Party members, therefore [which is what plays a strong role in determining the shape of the second-phase list], it's presumably to be somewhat expected that democracy will wind up prioritizing those who are well known over more quiet achievers. Particularly, as in the case of Holt [who's gained an impressive 12 places in the second set of rankings], where there's been much murmurings of surprise as to a perceived 'too-low' placing.

But given the strong concern many Green Party membership-folk seem to have for concepts like "diversity", I believe something else has also been at play here.

Namely, something which I call the 'diversity olympics'. This is the notion that as the processes of Parliamentary List rankings represent the competition between various perspectives as to what's 'important' to have in a candidate, a Caucus, and so on and so forth ... and as all 'diversities' can't be equally represented unless the Greens somehow manage to poll well enough to effectively become a 'one party state', list-ranking in the minds of a goodly number of Greens members able to vote on the eventual list [and also the Executive when it chooses to intervene in same] is therefore about establishing a hierarchy of which 'diversities' they MOST want to see in Parliament.

Understood in these terms, then, it becomes rather interesting indeed that the Greens' latest List appears to have such a pronounced pattern of demoting [or otherwise placing in perilously low positions] its Maori MPs and candidates [with, to be fair, the notable exception of Marama Davidson - who was placed deservedly highly in the initial list, and gained on this by one spot in the re-work].

[In specia, for those of you playing at home ... it's somewhat sad to see long-time Green activist and principled chap Jack McDonald lose four placings, winding up in the mid-teens; presently-sitting MP Denise Roche also find herself wending downwards toward number 15; fellow presently-sitting MP David Clendon relegated to number 16; and Teanau Tuiono also dropping to number 19]

And further, the demotion of sitting MP Mojo Mathers (by three places) and candidate John Hart (to number 14) would appear to suggest, at best, that a reasonable swathe of the Greens' membership effectively prioritizes the shininess of some of its newfound youth/female candidates over the 'diversity' represented by Disability [Mathers is, as far as I am aware, our nation's only present MP who has the visceral personal experience of living day-to-day with a serious and seriously intrusive disability, in the form of deafness]; and by, I suppose, some combination of not being an 'urban-liberal' [like much of the rest of the Greens' top-twenty listings], and being able to reach out to farmers by virtue of being one.

Also rather disappointing to see new MP Barry Coates drop two placings, but I guess his strong record of NGO service isn't quite the sort of diversity they're looking for.

Now, to be fair to The Greens, Golriz Ghahraman's impressive jump to top-ten status [an increase of five placings on her previous, perhaps undeservedly relatively low standing] does serve to counterbalance this trend somewhat. Mention has already been made of Ghahraman's legal competency [something of undeniable importance for a legislator], record of and proclivity for helping others and serving nation [the sine qua non requirement for an MP, in my view]; but it's probably worth noting that her personal background also provides an important aspect of diversity to the Greens' final list - namely, that of being able to convincingly represent the non-white/anglosphere migrant communities demographic which the Greens have historically struggled quite significantly to reach [as a point of interest, in 2011 and possibly again in 2014, the NZ First Party's list - for all the commentary about "xenophobia" in said organization - actually worked out being more diverse in these regards than the Green Party's].

But in terms of the 'other' high-profile youth/female candidate to be a 'winner' on the recently updated list, Chloe Swarbrick, leaving aside the aforementioned qualities of her youth and the level of 'hype' that has grown up around her in the last few months, I am genuinely unsure quite what she adds to the Greens' List and prospective Caucus to justify such a prominently high List ranking.

Obviously, I am not party to much of what goes on inside the Green Party, and it's eminently possible that there is a side of Swarbrick that I am not seeing. But based on her performance at an election year debate held earlier in the week at Auckland University, and on the opinions of some folk who've come into contact with her in a political capacity this year, it seems difficult to truly see what all the fuss is about.

Persons amenable to her keep saying things like "she's highly articulate and really good on policy". It's possible that she just had a bad night when I happened to catch her 'in action' earlier this week; but I didn't exactly see either trait in evidence. There's also a persistent parroting of the notion that she "really changed the conversation around the mayoralty/public transport/youth representation in politics".

My flat look of askance every time somebody says this is accompanied by asking *how*, and what we can actually point to which more strongly evinces that she's managed those things. Thus far, nobody's managed to provide me with a coherent answer which didn't basically boil down to that old Ralph-Wiggum-I'm-Helping trope of "Raising Awareness'.

Now, to be fair to Swarbrick, she's obviously got /something/ to her - after all, she's managed to go from complete relative unknown to about to become an MP inside the space of six to eight months. There is a certain level of respect as a political operator which that almost automatically requests.

But looking at the ongoing disconnect between how hugely Swarbrick the political Enfant Titanical has been built up in the minds of many, and the somewhat underwhelming experience of observing her actually campaign, I can only conclude that various agents of narrative construction [in the media and elsewhere] have consciously chosen to imbue Swarbrick with both overweaning hype and 'zeitgeistyness'; talking up her positive attributes, in a way that's now had a tangible effect upon the nation's political process.

And, might I add, in a way that coming third in a local body election with about as much of the vote as Penny Bright plus perennial ACT no-hoper Stephen Berry, amidst a Mayoral field which featured a split right-wing [two National candidates], and a 'foregone-conclusion-so-get-out-yer-protest-votes' nominal 'left-wing' easy-favourite candidate ... just simply didn't.

Perhaps I have become inordinately cynical and curmudgeonly in my [relative] old age; but the only feasible explanation I can see for Swarbrick's high placing is that Greens have decided that the large quotient of "SHINY" presently invested in Swarbrick might just rub off on their Party at large in the event that she's handed a shining path to becoming an MP.

Certainly, other than hype-value, it is a little difficult to see what she adds from a strategic point of view. I do not doubt that Swarbrick can resonate with a reasonable proportion of the stereotypical Green voter or party member. But given her primary audience appears to be found amidst the young [liberal] folk who do bother to vote, those older or middle aged and middle-income voters who get all giddy about the notion of supporting 'young people' because 'they're the future, and parts of the post-materialist values crowd all up ... as these people are most likely ALREADY voting Green, it is somewhat implausible that she'll help the Greens bring in *new* voters, rather than assisting most markedly in 'doubling down' on what they already have.

The very real risk, given the allocations of list rankings to other candidates and their 'diversity factors' this time around, is that she won't be "balanced" in this regard by further figures who WOULD be more able to bring more [and different] people to the Green Party's electoral tent.

There's also a subsidiary cautionary tale to be told about the perils of political parties putting substantial eggs in a 'celebrity candidate's basket, and then finding out much too late to do anything about it [usually post-Election once they hit the House] that they haven't just bought a lemon ... but a limonov [a sort of Soviet hand-grenade, fruitily named for its shape]. The best example for this [and probably the Ur-Example of modern times] is New Zealand First's 1996 Caucus - a reasonable chunk of whom wound up either defecting or simply being outright defective; perhaps as a result of their being chosen for their 'star power' and whom it was imagined they might be able to bring in due to their prominence elsewhere, rather than more traditionally appropriate considerations like quality and length of involvement in the Party, more-than-notional loyalty to its policy, members, and principles, and that sort of thing.

Now, I'm not saying that Swarbrick is going to do as former NZ First MP [and current Green Party Chief of Staff] Deborah Morris-Travers did [she was also a bright young thing at the time - being pretty much our youngest-ever Cabinet Minister in her mid-20s] and defect from her own party to wind up propping up a deeply unpopular and unprincipled last-term National Government ... but it will be decidedly interesting nonetheless to see what sort of fruit or dividends the Green Party's latter-day Listing strategy actually achieves.

In any case, lest I be misunderstood .. there are, indeed, a number of seriously impressive people on The Greens' 2017 List. Some of them are even [in my view, at least] well-placed relative to their merits.

But it is hard to look at reasonable swathes of the rest of their List without getting the distinct feeling that Fad and Fancy has beaten out Fastidious Factotumry as their governing rubric for promoting their prospective post-polling MPs.

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]