Monday, February 13, 2017

"New Normal" Dangerous


It is amazing how quickly expectations of what is 'normal' can change.

Southland has experienced one of the windiest and miserable Summers I can remember. Our farmers market has only had one day outside all Summer and even then the canopies were blown around by the wind and some stall holders were forced to seek shelter. Every day I wake up resigned to another day of wind and cloudy skies. I have almost forgotten our usual habit of dining outdoors most evenings over the summer months and enjoying our long twilight hours. Northland has experienced the opposite situation. The region is experiencing its fifth drought in eight years. Despite the fact that all of this has been predicted by NIWA as a consequence of climate change the current Government is determined to continue with business as usual and a soft approach in dealing with our emissions. The RMA still does not address climate change and the Emissions Treading Scheme still excludes major emitters. Extreme weather is the new normal both here and overseas.

Ten years ago homelessness was not too visible in our major cities and certainly not at the levels visible today. It is now estimated that around 40,000 New Zealanders are homeless (one in very 100) and that we have a shortage of 60,000 houses. The Government is refusing to call this a crisis even though the shortage is currently increasing by around 40 houses a day. Much of our existing housing stock is also substandard with many rental properties lacking in insulation and basic maintenance. Rheumatic Fever is a third world disease that is related to poor housing and overcrowding and this is a growing problem because the causes are not being addressed. Homeless street people are common overseas and Bill English is treating homelessness as unavoidable and normal here too.

I can remember teaching at a small rural school that regularly took its children down to the local river for a swim during the Summer months. There was no concern about water quality and children never suffered from swallowing the odd mouthful. The water was clear, Didymo was absent and the rapid dairy expansion hadn't begun in Southland. Safe wading, rather than swimming, is now the new bottom line for quality and few would think it is safe for their children to swim in their local river. Dirty rivers are the new normal for this country.

The United States has recently elected its 45th president. While the previous 44 have had different levels of success and support, most have treated the office with dignity and have been measured and polite in their public engagement. The United States Constitution was adopted 230 years ago and for the first time the elected President, Donald Trump, is openly challenging the authority of the judiciary. Trump's ill-considered tweets, obvious lies and clear conflicts of interest have dramatically changed the previous expectations of what presidential behaviour constitutes. Petulance and ignorance define the new normal emanating from the Oval Office.

Normalising anything that is unacceptable is dangerous, it lowers expectations and severely reduces any sense of urgency to put things right. It worries the hell out of me that my children will suffer the climatic consequences of ignoring major polluters; are unlikely to afford a home of their own; will never enjoy swimming in a pristine local river; and will have to endure the global consequences of a tyrant leading the world's most powerful nation. We must not accept the unacceptable as normal!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Trump's Muslim ban exposes stupidity


Donald Trump won the Presidency because of his hardline approach to issues and simplistic messaging. In the business world, where he had operated previously, his success (largely exaggerated) was not achieved through diplomacy and managing complex and nuanced issues. It also appears that we have a man who is the emotional and intellectual equivalent of a bolshie, narcissistic, teenage boy leading the world's largest power.

President Trump exists because of the Post-Truth age. Not only was he elected because of the dominance of commercially and idealistically driven, popular media, his own knowledge and understanding of the world comes from the same sources. Research has revealed that watching Fox News is likely to make someone less informed about the world than watching no news at all. Lincoln's famous quote, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth" could be rewritten to reflect the reality: "Government of the ignorant, by the ignorant, for ignorant, shall destroy the earth."  Given that the US is one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and Trump is a climate denier, the world's environmental clock sped up when he took office.

The Executive Orders being signed with great enthusiasm are simplistic idealistic statements of intent that are not evidence based and will have far reaching consequences. His immigration and refugee ban is a classic example and the damage was instant.

The ignorance that lead to the immigration order is easy to understand. The fear of Islamic Terrorists came out of the horrific 9/11 (or 7/11 according to Trump) when United States citizens suddenly felt vulnerable to attack from outside. Bush's War on Terror was an attempt to allay those fears in a decisive way. An enemy had to be established and a show of strength in dealing to them was required. Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were identified as the enemy, but this was problematic as bin Laden was a Saudi and he led loose groups that existed in a number of countries. Iraq became a convenient excuse for concentrating military operations in a single state while a parallel, clandestine operation to capture and torture potential terrorists occurred across many states.

Despite ending the war in Iraq and killing bin Laden (a trial would have brought too much attention to the actual realities and illegalities of the US operations), the situation in the Middle East has actually got worse. The War on Terror is an impossible one to win because the US is largely attempting to aggressively manage the discontent of millions of Muslim people suffering from poor foreign policy and military decisions. The fundamentalism and extreme views that have developed in the Middle East have been mainly created by the volatile environments that many Muslims are being forced to endure. This is not a religious conflict but, as in many wars, religion is used to provide justification.

Under President Obama there had been a continuation of operations that flout international law as US drones operate and kill suspected terrorists, without trial, across multiple borders. Thousands of deaths have been officially recognised but many more are disputed, including the combatant/civilian status of many who have been killed. The countries where US drones have operated are: Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, LibyaPakistan, Philippines, Somalia, Yemen and possibly Mali.

There is no logic to Trumps executive order to protect US citizens from terrorism. None of the terrorists who have killed people on US soil come from the seven Muslim countries singled out by the ban (15 of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia). Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority nation, is a notable omission and it appears that no Muslim countries where Trump has business interests have been included either. Yemen, one of the named states, is one of the poorest and most disadvantaged countries in the world. Its citizens are suffering hugely from a civil war where the US supported Saudi forces have an active involvement and are linked to possible war crimes. These Muslim nations have more to fear from the US than visa versa.

The threat posed by Islamic terrorists is extremely overstated. Around 16,000 people are murdered in the US every year (over 40 a day) and that compares with the average of 6 deaths a year as a result of a terrorist act since 9/11. Having tighter gun controls would make a far bigger difference to reducing violent deaths than tighter border controls. All Trump has done is increase the suffering of innocent Muslim families, caused chaos at airports and border controls and provided further proof that he is totally unfit for the role of President.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

John Key's Real Legacy


The defining element of John Key's reign as New Zealand's 38th Prime Minister will be his ability to maintain a high level of popularity while dogged by scandal and having few lasting achievements. He should be recognised for his political instincts and ability to steadily push through National's agenda while avoiding blame for numerous failures. The title "Telfon John" was one of the few things that stuck. Key's major effort to achieve a legacy for himself was to push for a new national flag and it failed dismally. His resignation may indeed be for genuine reasons, like spending time with his family, but the timing is also clever because the underfunding of Government sectors is going to be seriously exposed and the housing bubble is close to bursting. Key's money trader instincts are highly tuned and I'm sure he smells disaster ahead.

Under Key's watch our public debt has increased from $10 billion in 2008 under Labour to almost %70 billion now. Cutting income taxes for the already wealthy, not implementing a capital gains tax and refusing to effectively deal with corporate tax avoidance limited spending across Government sectors to achieve a surplus. Conservation has suffered badly after successive cuts and both health and education have experienced funding shortfalls over the past 8 years and many social services have been cut altogether.

John Key has been a prominent international leader because of his easy manner and willingness to pander to big business and big Governments. One of the most popular speeches online regarding the Prime Minister was one by Green MP Gareth Hughes where he listed Key's many failings.

Under Key we have seen...
  • inequality grow
  • a housing shortage reach epic proportions.
  • almost 30% of children living in poverty. 
  • a steady increase in GHG emissions and a weakening of the ETS
  • NZ plummet in global education rankings and a growing tail of achievement and education inequity.
  • the collapse off Solid Energy and a failure of Key's push to grow our coal and oil industries as an early flawed goal.
  • Novopay.
  • growing pay inequity between men and woman.
  • our waterways become more polluted through the encouraged intensification of the dairy industry.
  • an increase in human rights violations
  • growing corruption including the blatant support of tax avoiding foreign trusts.
  • increasing numbers of native fauna and flora nearing extinction.
  • numerous embarrassing reports of Key's peculiar behaviour from pulling pony tails to off colour statements.
  • 100s of thousands of New Zealanders having their health seriously compromised because of a lack of resourcing.
  • the use of facilitation payments (bribes) to enable trade deals. 
  • multi-billion dollar motorway projects supported, despite many failing cost/benefit analysis.
  • an increase in crimes of violence (especially domestic) and a growth in prisoner numbers to over 10,000.
  • a number of Government Ministers involved with conflicts of interest and dodgy dealings who are allowed to continue in cabinet.
  • serious flaws in the Christchurch recovery
  • numerous lies and deliberate misinformation. 
  • a massive investment in PR over policy analysis.
Some positive things have occurred under a John Key led Government including the change in legislation to allow same sex marriage and over 300,000 houses insulated. However neither were instigated nor championed by National.

The Green party refused to congratulate Donald Trump as President Elect because of his shocking and extreme stances during his campaign and I find it difficult to thank John Key for his service when majority of New Zealanders have seen a reduction in services and diminished quality of life, while an elite few prospered hugely. Under Key it has been the very rich in NZ who have really benefited, with many seeing their wealth increase annually by over 20%. While John Key claimed, after his victory in 2014, that he would govern for all New Zealanders, the evidence has been otherwise.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cuba vs USA, what Castro really achieved


Castro's death has revealed the power of US propaganda. Here are some embarrassing facts when comparing the United States with Cuba in key areas:

HEALTH

Life expectancy
Cuba: 79.16
USA: 78.88

Health system, physician density
Cuba: 6.72 physicians per 1,000 population
USA: 2.45 physicians per 1,000 population

Obesity levels
Cuba: 21.5%
USA: 33.9%

INCOME DISTRIBUTION

Poverty
Cuba: 1.5% below poverty line
USA: 14.8 % below poverty line

FINANCIAL HEALTH

Government debt
Cuba: 17.0% of debt to GDP
USA: 104.1% of debt to GDP

EDUCATION

Literacy rate, 15-14 year olds
Cuba: 100%
USA: 99% (this has been questioned when some sources claim 86% is more accurate)

Education expenditure
Cuba: 12.8% of GDP
USA: 5.2% of GDP

CRIME

Incarceration rate
Cuba: 510 prisoners per 100,000 population
USA: 693 prisoners per 100,000 population

FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Countries occupied or bombed since 1980
Cuba: Nil
USA: 14 (these are just the Muslim nations, there may be more)

To have achieved such high living standards while suffering severe financial constraints because of the US trade embargo (and including several assassination attempts) deserves some recognition. Castro was a dictator, but a largely benevolent one. Nelson Mandela admired Castro and credited him with doing more to end apartheid in South Africa than anything the US did. Cuba has also shamed the US for the level of aid it has provided for struggling neighbours like Haiti. I'm sure few realise that not only did Cuba lead the world with its medical aid but the Cuban National Ballet is internationally regarded.

To compare Castro with the likes of Stalin, Hitler or Bin Laden displays a high level of ignorance and blind acceptance of propaganda. For the New Zealand media to support the attacks on Trudeau for recognising Castro's real achievements is embarrassing. Castro was no saint but as a leader he probably achieved more that should be celebrated than many.

Treating news as entertainment has dangerous consequences...


The commercialisation of our news media and the ease with which unethical and egocentric politicians can cynically manipulate public opinion is now reaching extreme proportions. 

In the UK the political interests of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were advanced successfully because their bombastic personas and simplistic messaging were picked up so widely in media. It is a sad fact that news outlets with the largest readership maintain their dominance through sensationalism and gossip, rather than educated and informed journalism. This works well for those who have few scruples and are comfortable operating in that environment.

The circulation of printed newspapers have plummeted in the UK over the past six years and the dominant newspapers include the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. I used to read the Independent and the Guardian when I lived in the UK over twenty years ago and I was shocked to note that the Independent's circulation is now not much more than the population of Invercargill and the Guardian's has been halved since 2010 (now only 160,000). The Daily Mail dominates the online news space, with a monthly audience of 29 million, with little reporting of substance. Throughout the Brexit campaign it gave enthusiastic coverage of Johnson and UKIP's Farage with limited journalistic scrutiny.

In the US, against all predictions, Donald Trump won through a relatively modest campaign budget and the huge media exposure of his outrageous statements. Fox News is probably the US equivalent of the Daily Mail and its prominent news host, Sean Hannity, publicly endorsed Trump months before the election. The right wing conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, is an influential voice for many working class white Americans and he was also strong in his support of Donald Trump. Jones' radio show is syndicated across 130 stations and claims to have 80 million video views a month. Facts and balanced reporting are not usually associated with Hannity or Jones and yet their opinions had a huge influence on voters. 

Neoliberal, conservative governments have increasingly served the interests of multinationals and the banking and finance industries over the majority of citizens. To ensure their political success they have had to appeal to the very people who have been exploited through their policies. The working classes in developed countries have not fared well in a free market environment. Global competition has resulted in limiting wage increases, destroyed unions and reducing working conditions. Conservative governments can only be elected if they can shift attention from the real consequences of their policies, including increasing corporate welfare at the expense of spending on the welfare of ordinary citizens. The US Federal Reserve ended up spending $7.7 trillion to bail out financial institutions that had failed because of corrupt practices and greed. Fossil fuel companies continue to enjoy annual subsidies of around 6.5% of global GDP  (even New Zealand gifts $46 million to the oil and gas industry), despite the fact oil companies dominate the top twenty of the worlds richest.  

Restricting public access to information, denigrating academic and scientific opinion and encouraging the development of personality based election campaigns has served conservative politicians well until a recently. While the working and middle classes have watched wealth distribution shift to an upward flow to a wealthy few, their growing frustration has seen the rise of two distinct politcal ideologies. In the US this saw the grassroots development of the Tea Party, supported by the less educated working class. The younger generation of the middle class supported the Occupy movement. While both movements lack leadership and sustainable organisation they represented a growing dissatisfaction with the political establishment.

The growth and freedom of commercial media was once used effectively by the conservative establishment to disperse its spin, however, the increasing sensationalism of news and erosion of journalistic ethics has seen more colourful politicians capture the limelight. To the less educated Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson provide simple messages that resonate and support their prejudices. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders encapsulated the idealism of the Occupy supporters with their principled stands and authenticity. Unfortunately the news media with the widest reach in both the US and UK have always attacked the left (note how Corbyn's Castro comments were framed) and so now we see Trump as the President Elect and Boris Johnson as Britain's Foreign Minister. 

In New Zealand our National Government has been supported by talk back radio and through commercialising public TV. John Campbell got shunted into the underfunded public radio and Mike Hosking's right-wing rants are promoted through prime time television. Apart from Winston Peters most of our populist and most bombastic politicians are found in the Government caucus. Key, Brownlee, Collins and Parata will be celebrating the latest polls

Now that news is being treated as entertainment, and populist personalities dominate politics, we must prepare for a future that will resemble a disaster movie. Nothing sells news better than disasters and we can depend on Boris, Donald and John to deliver. Human suffering and climate change will make great stories.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Prison numbers Government's fault


This Government refuses to take responsibility for our prison population approaching 10,000 and its failures have necessitated a proposed $1 billion expenditure on increasing capacity.

The Prime Minister is claiming that crime numbers are dropping and it is an increase in the severity of crime (especially domestic violence) and tougher sentencing that is causing the problem. John Key blames recreational drugs as a major factor in crime and child poverty, this is clearly disingenuous on his part and deliberate spin to shift responsibility away from his Government. We now have levels of incarceration that place us just below Mexico and make us the 7th worst in the OECD.

The last eight years under a National led Government has seen many lost opportunities and the underfunding of systems and services that could have easily broken the cycles of crime and reduced prison numbers:
When the Government is crowing about a $1.8 budget surplus and is willing to spend $1 billion on new prison beds, I do question their economic credibility and vision. It costs around $100,000 per annum to incarcerate each prisoner and spending a small fraction of that to keep them out of prison must be cost effective. Most prisoners are not a danger to society and many of those who need to be contained to protect others may not have ended up that way with timely interventions. 

Our focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation for offenders who have mental health and addiction issues means the causes of their criminal activities aren't being addressed. When we release prisoners back into the community with limited treatment and support we are not making communities safer. 

I do not believe that New Zealand has a higher percentage of criminals than most other countries and in many ways our systems are needlessly creating criminals and increasing risks to our communities. There are enough examples overseas to show that different models are effective in reducing prison numbers and ensuring that reoffending is less likely to occur. The Netherlands is closing prisons and serious crime is dropping there, the fact that the opposite is happening here is because of poor management not bad luck. 



Friday, October 14, 2016

The Real Cost of Bill's Surplus


The Government revealed a $1.8 billion surplus and hinted at possible tax cuts. The surplus is the product of increased income and limiting spending. Bill English explained how the surplus will "increase options" for the Government but the reality is that it has mostly been achieved by restricting options for too many and delaying important expenditure. Rather than saving money in a useful way the arbitrary limits on spending in crucial areas will result in increasing future costs and unnecessary suffering, the examples are numerous:
So Bill has delivered a budget surplus and future tax cuts are being held like a shining carrot in front of voters ahead of the 2017 elections. Any tax cuts will be paid for through reduced services and the increased suffering. According to Judith Collins the poor are to blame for their circumstances and the rich deserve their privileges (her candid thoughts reveal her government's lack of empathy for our struggling communities).