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Friday, 14 September 2018

The Plutocrat

My title is misleading. My post time is misleading. My words are honest.

Here's plutocracy:
A plutocracy (Greek: πλοῦτος, ploutos, 'wealth' + κράτος, kratos, 'rule') or plutarchy is a society that is ruled or controlled by people of great wealth or income.
Here's plutocrat:
A person whose power derives from their wealth.
Interesting... perhaps my title is not that misleading after all because here's where my title comes from...
Towards the end of Captain America: Civil War there's the quote "The futurist, gentlemen! The futurist is here! He sees all! He knows what's best for you, whether your like it or not."
No, I'm not going to talk to you about Tony Stark. Not even now when it's kind of relevant (early August around when Infinity War made it to home release) let alone when this is being published (mid-September). What I want to talk about is the potential of the super-rich to take transformative actions in society today. So let's get into it...

David Koch by Gage Skidmore
If you're American or familiar with American politics, you've probably heard people talk about the Koch Brothers. These dudes have an estimated wealth of something like $50 billion (US!) each and they're not afraid to spread it around to groups that they favour. They're involved in research, campaign funding and charitable efforts. In fact, they've got their own Wikipedia page dedicated to their political existence.

I don't know too much about what the Koch brothers actually do. Their interest in libertarian and Republican causes does suggest that I wouldn't care for those activities. At least, not all of them. But this isn't why the Koch brothers aren't really what I mean by transformative impact. I'm sure they've used their wealth to achieve some stuff they find to be fairly meaningful. Some of it might even be pretty transformative. But, to me, the Koch brothers are just campaign donors. They do more than that, as you can read, but that's the archetype of plutocrat I want them to represent.

Donald Trump 
You probably recognise Trump from the hotel lobby in Home Alone 2. Or possibly from the Apprentice. If you're a serious follower of ultra high net worth individuals, you probably don't know him all that well. With an estimated worth of about $3 billion US, Trump's a lot richer than me but pretty much a pauper in terms of the sums I want to be talking about.

The archetype that Trump represents is not celebrity wealth (see below) but plutocrat as politician. Yes, Trump is undeniably a media personality. Referencing the cameo in Home Alone 2 (it's real) is fairly facetious but his role in the Apprentice is really the only reason I know who he is. Well, until he became a birther leader and, soon after that, a Republican politician. And... as you can probably guess from the vitriol I've thrown Andrew Little's way, I'm not a fan of Trump. But he's done something eminently respectable... he's gone out there and got involved in politics. More people need to do that.

But I'm not really talking about wealthy politicians.

Oprah Winfrey by Alan Light
For someone whose wealth comes entirely from working in entertainment as an entertainer first, Winfrey is extremely wealthy but, like Trump, she's a pauper in my context being worth about USD 2 billion. And as a public figure I think the best way to describe her is as a thought leader.

Celebrity Wealth is always an interesting question. In some ways the appropriate currency here isn't money but followers. And certainly in her heyday Winfrey had that. Given all the talk about her Trumping it up some years ago and gunning for US president, she's probably still got it. So if it's not money that matters with celebrities and I'm obviously pretty dismissive of philanthropy why have a celebrity wealth archetype of the plutocrat? And the answer is that it's precisely because I have to ask this question. People look at America's 2016 election and talk about celebrity as a feature of the Democratic campaign.

Money is just another currency. And when celebrities have money as well as fame, they can do more than just guide opinions or represent a target lifestyle. This is an important category of analysis.

Elon Musk by Steve Jurvetson
Some of you are probably think, "Not this dickhead?" But, yes, this dickhead. Musk is a quintessential example of the self-proclaimed transformer. And he's even wealthy in my context at around US 20 billion (dollars, duh). Although, obviously, he's not what I'm talking about either.

You see, the thing with Musk is that he's all show and no go. Most of what people know him for is just media spin... he was pretty lucky with PayPal and he's been riding that wave ever since. And most of the media spin, come to think of it, exists simply because of Musk-spin. But this kind of character is important because they trade on the ideas of "Great Man" historiography... the idea that the right person, at the right time with the right idea can change everything. The world doesn't work like this but because people think like this you can get a lot done.

Musk has put a lot of ideas out there and because it was him doing that, people listened. But unlike the celebrity plutocrat (which Musk has shades of) the self-proclaimed transformer has credibility in technical matters. And that credibility is hard to erode.

Musk is alternatively an example of the industrial messiah plutocrat. I didn't run with that because it's less spicy and I don't like Musk (obviously). The point here is that airtime can be given to people based on being very successful in business, at least when they are at the forefront of the age (it's hard to imagine, say, an Oil Baron doing the rounds in the way Musk, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates do today).

Bill Gates (left) and Andrew Carnegie (right) from GeekWire's Article
These are two insanely wealthy individuals. Or, rather, were. Bill Gates' fortune has been put in perspective a little lately and he's sort of become a forgotten billionaire. Andrew Carnegie has been dead for decades but depending how you look at it, his wealth exceeded the rest of this list combined. By other measures, more in Bill Gates' territory. Either way you've probably never heard of him. I've known about Andrew Carnegie for about as long as I've known who Bill Gates is, i.e. most of my life, but this is because of his association with Diplodocus. Both men, as I grew to understand, are or were philanthropic plutocrats. Basically, they do charity. I mean, so does everyone else on this list, but the scale and relative significance just doesn't compare.

If you're thinking it's odd to juxtapose what amounts to an insult (plutocrat) next to a compliment (philanthropist) remember that I wrote this, remember that opening Tony Stark appraisal  (also click on the philanthropist link) and read this from a GeekWire comparison of Gates and Carnegie:
But the field of philanthropy has gotten more sophisticated and more controversial over time, with critics calling out the tremendous wealth disparity that fuels the sector, allowing the rich to wield unaccountable, unchecked power through their donations.
“That’s clearly become something that a lot of critics are concerned about,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “When you have wealth that is as big as a small country’s economy, should you be allowed to influence things that much without democracy?”
Philanthropy is power. Never forget that.

At the same time, donating money is often basically just like throwing it into the void. It can help people in the moment out a lot but it doesn't lead to meaningful change. What you need to do, if you can donate at scale, is target some sort of system. But when you do that, well, that's when you get to this democracy point being raised here. Andrew Carnegie is the closest example I know of this... without getting into the difference between philanthropy and philanthropic imperialism and colonialism. Here's what I mean via another comparison article:
Carnegie and Rockefeller were pioneers in bricks-and-mortar philanthropy. After Carnegie sold his steel company to J. P. Morgan in 1901, he plowed his nine-figure fortune into limestone. He built the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institution in Washington and seeded the nation with more than 2,800 libraries. "His focus was to uplift humanity, and libraries for him were the best way to reach the broadest spectrum of the people," said Peter Krass, author of "Carnegie."
Carnegie's libraries weren't just built in the US either: there are a couple in NZ, for instance. And, in fact, they were what drew my attention to Carnegie as a philanthropist in the first place... as part of an economics internal I did some research on libraries. Actually, with the controversy about economists and libraries of late, that internal might make for relevant reading here. Hmm... would probably be best if I could remember why I only got Achieved for it, I'll think about it. Anyway, the second article's main thrust is the different, less material, approach taken by Gates:
"They're giving money to school systems and telling them to restructure, to reduce the size of their schools," Professor Frumkin said.
The Gates Foundation has given more than $100 million to New York City's public school system alone, to encourage the creation of smaller schools within existing school buildings. The foundation says its programs currently touch about 8 percent of the nation's public high schools.
This is more concerning, to my mind... as in it gets a lot closer to cutting across democratic processes. Think about it.

A Memorable Cartoon by Rod Emmerson
Yes, that's right. Money talks. And in the right environment, having ideas and the money to implement them can lead to actual implementations. Which might not be good. I mentioned philanthropic colonialism before. That probably sounds like another contradiction in terms but, I mean, have you read The White Man's Burden? Check it out:
Take up the White Man's burden —
The savage wars of peace —
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
I mean, if you think that doesn't sound anything at all like World Vision or Unicef or anyone like that, you need to scrub your ears out. Sure they don't dress up their appeals as a moral duty of "Whites" or colonial masters or use phrases like "half devil and half child" but they do propose a moral duty and they do want to address famine and sickness. If you're still not convinced, read Wikipedia's article on the poem. Notice, particularly, that philanthropic, strategic and financial imperialism are not mutually exclusive or even contradictory. It might be said, in fact, that back in the days of Empire, people believed the only way you could address things like famine and sickness was imposing an entire structure on an area... and that they were okay with all that entailed. 

But we were talking about Bill Gates. And it turns out that we can use Gates as another example of philanthropy gone wrong, from the GeekWire piece:
The Gates Foundation itself has faced criticism over the years. That includes programs delivering dramatic and sometimes unsuccessful changes to public schools and initiatives supporting charter schools. Critics have pushed back on agricultural funding in developing countries that relies on technology-based solutions with less attention to bolstering traditional approaches.
I've often wondered why people are so keen to see dramatic changes in education policy. Well, okay, I don't wonder. Most of the people who say such things are in the minority who had bad experiences at school or who have no contact whatsoever with state education (being home or privately schooled... often to the nth generation). What these people don't understand is that if you screw up your policies, you screw over people for their entire lives and their families' lives (often, again, to the nth generation).

From another Blog.
You might think I'm scaremongering but here's my truth: education policy should be terrifying.

So, to recap, what have we covered:

  • Philanthropy is power.
  • It's got the potential to be highly plutocratic.
  • There are lots of different kinds of plutocrat, not just those who rule in a plutocracy.
Which is pretty much the reverse order to how I covered them. And there's a reason for this and that's because what I really wanted to write about is what I'd do if I had the sort of money that Bill Gates or the Koch Brothers do. Hell, Musk is rich enough. So, what would I do with $50 Billion (NZ)?


Greater Auckland's (transportblog) Congestion Free Network
If you paused reading my meandering post to read those articles you might remember this bit:
THE networked approach to philanthropy recognises that it's hard to make a huge impact on your own, no matter how much money you have. The Gates Foundation gave out $1.3 billion in 2005. With Mr. Buffett's pledges, it will be able to double its philanthropic output, to about $3 billion a year.
That sure sounds like a lot. But it represents only about 1 percent of annual charitable giving in the United States — which was $260.3 billion in 2005, according to Richard T. Jolly, chairman of Giving USA, based in Glenview, Ill. The Gates Foundation has $30 billion in total assets; the National Institutes of Health has an annual budget of $28.6 billion.
I told you Trump was a pauper. But I also disagree here. It's just as easy as it ever was to spend your insane wealth in ways that could make a huge impact basically on your own. You've just got to spend it on the right sort of thing. And infrastructure? Infrastructure is forever.

Early Underground Stations (1860s), Roman Aqueduct (ca. 100; by Bernard Gagnon) and the Golden Gate Bridge (1937; by Rich Niewiroski Jr.) 
Well, okay, infrastructure isn't really forever but it does have a very long life cycle and when properly maintained can manage hundreds of years of use, no problem. But it's often difficult to get the funds to do it right and it's almost always subject to some kind of extreme market failure. Which is why it'd be a good area for philanthropic donations.

However, infrastructure spending is far from being free of value judgements: just look at all the hissy fits over the City Rail Link or Light Rail in Auckland. But what I'm suggesting is that these super wealthy individuals look at public transport projects which local and national governments want to build and fund those. It's what I'd do. Or, at least, what I hope I'd do. I could really transform Auckland if I could fund, say, the Light Rail L. Which, strictly speaking, isn't a project democracy is just trying to find the funds for, but I wouldn't pretend to be apolitical about it. I'd make people know that I reached out to AT, NZTA, Auckland Council and the Government specifically in order to implement a particular vision of choice, equity and development.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Your Economic School

Introduction

How often have you entered a political discussion online and seen the conversation swing towards "schools of economics"? Perhaps that was the entire point of the discussion in the first place. Did it make you feel like an idiot? Did you feel like a god because you knew yours?

Here are some quizzes with my results:

Which economic school do you belong to?


Which School Of Economic Thought Do You Side With Most?

I was actually expecting to be able to find some more quizzes like this but I didn't really. I did find the usual "mixed economy" type ones though. Or, at least one, but these aren't really the same thing.

This difference between reality and expectation is important. The argument that I was going present was very stridently opposed to economic schools partially because I see them in political contexts being linked to the sort of ideas and questions that aren't out of place in things like the Political Context. The bent of, particularly the latter quiz, is much more what I'd term introspective. It might be said that its interest is more microeconomic than macroeconomic. Just like me. Even the former has some epistemological questions:
Relating to the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion.
I maintain that the political economy (in a naive sense*) is the usage of the question "What's your economic school?" when I've seen it deployed in politics contexts. Mind you, I just dismiss the question as a subject of relevance so I don't pay too much attention. It doesn't take much to articulate the problem with this point so we'll deal with that first (even if it does turn out to be a strawman). Once that's done I'll turn my attention to the epistemological critique.

The Politician's School of Economic Thought

As you might recall, I have a degree in economics. I also have three levels of NCEA in economics. I don't have a particularly good mathematical treatment of economics. I'm not very good at maths, you might recall. I have two econometrics papers and a bunch of stats ones, but the specific maths used in microeconomic theories? It gets away from me even what I've encountered. And I never did get 311 done so I'm missing a big perspective on macroeconomics. However, this is a vastly better education in economics than the vast majority of people out there. Including most politicians and most business leaders.

The schools of thought that people present just don't appear in an educational context. They're not relevant. Except when you're bothering to look at the history of economic thought.

In the real world, economists teach a particular approach to economics (we have not yet dismissed the epistemological critique so we mustn't use its falseness as an argument yet), which does not vary based on the economist, the university or the country. How can I tell? Because economists all try and write the same economics textbook. And they all try and put everything in it. And the reason for this is because economics is sufficiently complex and sufficiently new that we don't really know much about it. Not in the same way we do with, say, physics. At one point physics was thought to be solved/completed... since then the field has exploded... no-one has ever thought we've been remotely close to that with economics (and may I remind you that Wittgenstein once thought he'd solved philosophy. Philosophy!).

That economics is a field in expansion is really obvious when you're half in and half out of it (as the thinking undergraduate student or recent graduate of economics is). It's not really so obvious to the layman who doesn't know that economists teach themselves the same truth. They don't understand that economists don't worry about Mercantilism or Keynes or Marx or Friedman or the Austrian School. That's for business majors. (Who steal all the funding from Economics departments.) It's for dweebs. These are developments which have been synthesised. And they might influence the particular take a lecturer has on why we should laugh at the assumptions of perfect competition (Economists, but not business majors, understand what models are) or approaches to "open questions". And that's because this is how academic subjects work. All of them. Economics is not special.

So that's the problem with the Politician's view of Schools of Economics. To them the fact that Economics is taught as a coherent subject is completely mind-boggling. They have never encountered that. Many of them come from much less self aware backgrounds (law, chemistry, geography or business). And they're interested in using old ideas which are convenient to political stances they exogenously prefer to gain votes. So, yes, politicians & voters have a distinct interest in getting people to believe there is such a thing as a different school of economics (to whatever someone else is saying). It gives them credibility. So they go trawling through the history of economic thought to find whatever ideas they want. And they can find them. And they can find them packaged up into non-mathematical statements of theory.

The Epistemological Critique of a "Single" Economics

You might not find my argument above particularly compelling. I've basically just said: "There aren't Schools of Economics because it's not taught like that." The only reason I didn't say that was because I wanted to say it here. You might have found that I touched on some ideas which rather undercut my point. You might have been thinking, "Woah, hold on, that's just what they say is the case, which isn't the same as what is the case". If that last person is you, you might have even been  trying to find that quote from the start of The Big Short:

Source
Man... that's a good film. I just now realise it was what I wanted to watch before. When I decided that I didn't feel like watching Harry Potter. Anyway, I digress... here's a quote from someone who stridently argues for different schools:
These schools are not irreconcilable enemies, however; the boundaries between schools are actually fuzzy. But it is important to recognise that there are distinctive ways of conceptualising and explaining the economy, or ‘doing’ economics, if you like. And none of these schools can claim superiority over others and still less a monopoly over truth.
The moment he (who has a much greater education in Economics than me) says the first thing, you know what's happening, don't you? You know that whatever else he's got to say he's ultimately able to see that it is still all one thing. Or, possibly, it's not.

You might remember that I was also a statistics student. In statistics, as I have mentioned before, one of the key things you have to learn to do is see nothing. We don't want to see anything in a residual plot (usually). But, as humans, all we do is see patterns. I'm bad at describing them. But I see them. So, you've got to learn when no signal is really no signal. It's not incredibly hard, but it's not easy either. And the relevant lesson here is that maybe I'm looking at a plot and saying it's nothing and he's looking at a plot and saying it's something. That the clustering of points is a cluster of schools. The tree has just enough branches.

And maybe one of us is right.

Or, maybe, we can be both right.

Or wrong.

What is for sure is that he's got a table... I'll quote the spiel attached to where I found the table after this paragraph because I think it contrasts. I don't think the sentiment is quite equivalent. Which might make you wonder if maybe I just exist to say things aren't so. And maybe you'd be right. I've never managed to understand why an insignificant p-value isn't worth publishing. But that's probably a digression too...
Despite what the experts want you to believe, there is more than one way of 'doing' economics
People have been led to believe that, like physics or chemistry, economics is a 'science', in which there is only one correct answer to everything; thus non-experts should simply accept the 'professional consensus' and stop thinking about it.
Contrary to what most economists would have you believe, there isn't just one kind of economics - Neoclassical economics. In fact there are no less than nine different kinds, or schools, as they are often known. And none of these schools can claim superiority over others and still less monopoly over truth.
I accept that being suddenly asked to taste nine different flavours of ice cream when you had thought that there was only one plain vanilla can be quite overwhelming. In order to help, the simple table below should help you overcome your initial fear.
I will show you the table very soon. But I'd like to just articulate what you should have learnt so far... the basic logic of different approaches doesn't validate the idea that there isn't one way of doing Economics, doesn't validate the idea that there are several competing schools of Economics. It is possible for similarities to exist without being real. In practice we don't rely on ourselves to detect things in statistics (we apply mathematical theories via models) but in lieu of running some kind of genetic study on the taxonomy of the social sciences, I'll stop short at having demonstrated the naivety of the apparent logic.


It should be obvious that I don't believe Chang's arguments rest on what I have quoted. The idea that I might actually offends me. But I know that people like to quote mine. And even though I have no readers, I protect myself just in case. Which I mention because if you are looking at this table you might be looking at this table and thinking, "Well, Harry, this looks pretty bloody divergent to me". And because my response to that is to look at this other bit of Chang's first quote. Namely the idea of a monopoly on truth. In other words, I'm not going to move much further from what I've already shown you. I am certainly not going to move away from the Changian conception of what I am calling the epistemological critique.

Chang attempts to pull the veil from his reader's eyes. Well, let me pull the veil he left behind from your eyes. If Chang is correct, then there are no disciplines. Not as we think about them. No physics. No chemistry. Even science itself. Not a Thing, Chang leaves only a bunch of essentially disjoint, rivalrous and insufficient abstractions. The Changian belief that there are schools of economics is to take evidence that in any other subject would be used to infer methodological debate or the existence of an unanswered question (like the Poincare Conjecture** or the Riemann Hypothesis in maths) and conclude that the whole affair is bunk. Economics is not special.
Moreover, unlike the natural sciences, economics involves value judgements, even though many Neoclassical economists would tell you that what they do is value-free science. As I will show in the following chapters, behind technical concepts and dry numbers lie all sorts of value judgements: what is the good life; how minority views should be treated; how social improvements should be defined; and what are morally acceptable ways of achieving the ‘greater good’, however it is defined. Even if one theory is more ‘correct’ from some political or ethical points of view, it may not be so from another
The Truth is that we're always having to make decisions about the world. What Chang calls value judgements in this paragraph is typically definitional. Define the parameters. Judge the outcome. Formulate hypotheses. Draw predictions. Compare with outcomes. That's the scientific method. Which, by the way, is a very rough and ready abstraction of how science advances.

I'm not a physicist or even well read about it. I do, however, know enough about it to say that James Clerk Maxwell was more important than Einstein and not be completely laughed out of the room. And I know enough about it to say that Einstein's work is more far-reaching than I once appreciated. But are any physicists actually worth name-dropping when all we care about is knowing what physics as a discipline thinks? Not really. Even mentioning a big problem with Einstein is that he never really grasped the implications of all the big ideas of his time is usually irrelevant. But when we're talking about Chang it's important to note that Einstein, today, would be called heterodox for disagreeing with the quantum revolution.

Source.
Does that quote remind you of anything? If it doesn't, you probably need to read Chang's table. Economics can get very probabilistic. But, apparently, it's an important distinguishing feature.  There are many examples, from many disciplines, which possess similar properties. The co-existence of divergent or opposing viewpoints is how the field of knowledge expands... until such a time it collapses into one outcome. And then it all begins again.

My economics is a very simple discipline. It begins with the issue of scarcity. That's where I started and it's where I believe the discipline starts. And it ends with a final understanding of the implications of scarcity for the human condition. Will we ever get there? I don't know.

Economics is highly dependent on advances in mathematics, ethics, statistics and psychology in its personal quest to understand the world. I could convince myself into believing we have reached the end of our knowledge in maths. I have convinced myself that just because we know we don't know if the Riemann Hypothesis is True that doesn't mean we'll ever be able to know either way. But disagreement over these points doesn't change what we're doing in any particular way. Either we're still investigating what economics is, or we're investigating within economics. And if we're within economics, then we can't be doing it differently... because whether we're using experiments, maths or shower thoughts we're still buying into the same purpose.

Let's recap. I see the epistemological critique as saying:
  • There are different ways of doing economics.
  • Therefore, there different schools of economics.
I just don't accept that the first line is enough to justify discerning different schools. Knowledge is an ever advancing wave. It can't go backwards: unknowing is not possible. It can't go in one particular direction: knowledge is everywhere. It doesn't have any destination: it's merely observed when it runs into a beach, as it were. What it can do is collapse. And when that happens new waves form from the same water. If we'd put it in one wave, then it is one wave only that exists.

Which begs two questions:
  • Under what circumstances would I accept the idea of different schools of thought?
  • What if Chang and I have different conceptions of what economics actually is, then what?
To a certain extent, the first question is answered by the second. A different school of thought exists when people have different ideas about the same thing. Not in the sense that they have a difference of opinion about how to find out information about an agreed thing or in the sense that they disagree about what something means or how it works, but strictly in the sense that they disagree about what it actually is. And you'd be right to say that Chang's schools disagree about what the economy is... whether it's individuals or classes, two take the simplest ones to type. But you'd also be right to say that I'm taking a higher level position, that I've zoomed too far out for this to matter. And that's why the second question doesn't answer the first one.

Source
The idea that everything I've been talking about is irrelevant concerns me. I accept the idea of schools of thought as being relevant in historical discussion. I mean, the disagreement of Einstein and his contemporaries helped move physics along. But we're able to see what happened to that wave: we know how it collapsed. To have a school of thought, we must know what it is... and if you've been paying attention, you'll notice that I take a "what it is, is what it does" approach to definitions. And these things? Well, we can't know what they do until it's been done... we rely on the distance of time to discern schools in an Eastian sense. To the Changian sensibility it is enough that they disagree. To the Eastian it only matters if the disagreement mattered. And that's a much stronger test.

Notice that choice of language there... Eastian and Changian... am I not setting up two schools of thought on what schools of thought are? But I need these kinds of terms because I need these kinds of referents... in trying to have a discussion about the way people think about something, I need people to have ways of thinking (and it is easier still if they can be grouped). In other words, the world is what we thought we'd see.

The second begged question is irrelevant. If Chang and I disagree about what economics is then, well, maybe we need to wonder if Economics as a subject even makes sense. But that question is never what is being talked about by "economic schools" so it can't be what I set out to disagree with (remember that previous paragraph?!).

Conclusion

What I've said might be enormously unsatisfying. It basically boils down to four points:

  • People assert that there are different, valid approaches to thinking economically, which is wrong.
  • There is one way that economics' knowledge is actually taught and that's because who came up with an idea is never as relevant as what the idea is.
  • It's not enough to notice that people disagree about stuff because these disagreements are how knowledge works.
  • Economics is not special: disagreements in this one particular discipline are treated uniquely (typically because of political expediency).
Which is basically saying that I am comfortable saying economic schools don't exist mostly because there is a synthesised body of work that is taught... and that I am still okay with saying that despite epistemological criticisms. And it's leaving implied the idea that I have some ego-defensive motive here.

Look, I guess the best way of putting it is this. I know I disagree with what I see. There are not schools of economics in the same way that you're a Republican, he's a National voter, they're a Conservative and she's an Australian Liberal. There aren't even schools of economics in the way that Jacinda Ardern is Labour (populist, xenophobic leftism), David Seymour ACT (liberalism) and Winston Peters NZ First (big government conservatism). As much as I disagree with all these mentioned philosophies, they are all equally valid lines of argument in politics. Economics is different.

You don't get to say that the so-called Keynesian school is just as valid as the Classical School or the Neo-Classical school (which is really a synthesis of both). You don't get to say that because in the academic world, when you want to take a different angle or even the orthodox one, you sign up apply transparently, fairly, carefully and honestly apply the world to brainpower. In politics it is the other way around. Furthermore, when you sign up to be an economist, what you're saying you're going to do is that you'll look out the window using this filter, not sociology's, not physics', not history's, not political science's, not whatever's. In embracing this "filter" you accept all sorts of premises about how the world ought to interact with brainpower, including what those interactions look like, the shape they take.

I am perfectly comfortable saying that the so-called schools of economics are epistemologically consistent. I am even perfectly comfortable saying that the competing conclusions floating around don't justify different schools. This is because they all share the same ambitions, because they can't be pigeonholed and because rival ideas are necessary and expected. But this way of thinking about the schools economics isn't what I thought I was signing up to write about. And I want to make my strong views about what I set out to talk about public. And this matters.

The day economists start doing different things, for different reasons and stop agreeing about what the properties serious analysis should possess (if not the specific methods to be included), then I'll start thinking there are different schools that matter. But, we're not there yet. And I doubt we ever will. All that there is are patterns in the gradual process of synthesis.



*Meaning not the article (let alone the subject) but rather just this opening sentence: "Political economy is the study of production and trade and their relations with law, custom and government; and with the distribution of national income and wealth." Or, in other words, the literal meanings of the two words.

**This is actually solved. Like, they figured it out. A lot of similar problems (such as the Riemann Hypothesis, and by similar what I mean is "things people think might be true or right") are not. They may, in fact, be intractable. Or they might not be. But right now? We don't know.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

The Rule of Law

It's been said that there are as many definitions of the rule of law as there are lawyers, or, at least, constitutional lawyers. But everyone agrees it is a really important thing to have.

As I understand it, the principle of the rule of law is that everyone and anyone is subject to the same framework of justice and expected to live up to the same set of rules. That framework and those rules, obviously, are the Law. And because everyone and anyone is subject to the Law, we can say it rules.

So what about some other definitions of the rule of law? Being a layman, I shall compare my idea with Wikipedia:
The rule of law is the "authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behaviour; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes".[2]
That seems... pretty much the same. It's got a very important bit in it about "publicly disclosed" (which I take to mean no secret courts and secret laws) and that's what I mean by "same," but it's probably important to explicitly state that transparency is part of the rule of law.

How about the misinterpretation of Magna Carta? The Rule of Law is often traced back to Magna Carta you see..
XXIX. NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.[228]
The problem with taking this to mean a rule of law was established by Magna Carta is that "freeman" had a very specific meaning in the 13th Century and the meaning was quite different to that we have now where it basically just refers to anyone. This is a generally important point, though. The way the Law works is that it is written and produced by a legislative body, it is followed by agents and the executive (part of government) and it is enforced by a judiciary. The process of enforcement generally means having to decide what a law means... and there is a fair amount of scope there. In New Zealand these interpretations are meant to follow what is termed the purposive approach:
5 Ascertaining meaning of legislation
  • (1) The meaning of an enactment must be ascertained from its text and in the light of its purpose.
  • (2) The matters that may be considered in ascertaining the meaning of an enactment include the indications provided in the enactment.
  • (3) Examples of those indications are preambles, the analysis, a table of contents, headings to Parts and sections, marginal notes, diagrams, graphics, examples and explanatory material, and the organisation and format of the enactment.
I say meant but I really have absolutely no reason to imagine that statutory interpretation doesn't follow this process in practice. Except, I was never really able to figure out how a person could be said to get off on a technicality. If you're reading with the purposive approach, the plain meaning of the text above is saying that the Spirit of the law is, in fact, the Law. Hence, no such thing as a technicality. But I'm probably confused on this point because I did just the one Comlaw paper and this seems rather more appropriate to the questions surely treated in an actual Law education. The real problem (with laws having to be read/interpreted to exist), therefore, is this bit (handy dandy quote from a PDF I've read basically none of that I found literally five minutes ago):
The constitutional importance of individuals being able to understand the law, and order their affairs accordingly, is a key tenet of any legitimate legal system. Lord Bingham relates it to the rule of law which he says requires, among other things, that the law be accessible and so far as possible, intelligible, clear and predictable.8
Unlike a lot of people I really don't think footnotes are optional, so I'll quote that too:
Thomas Bingham “The Rule of Law” (2007) 66 CLJ 67. Professor Lon Fuller, an American jurist, went so far to say that “law” would not be law if it was so unclear that it was impossible to understand: Lon Fuller Morality of Law (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1969). There is an extended discussion of Fuller’s eight criteria of law at 46–91.
Only lawyers could actually say these sorts of things. I think I'm a pretty smart dude but I really couldn't make head nor tail out of British citizenship law. And, similarly, the whole reason why lawyers exist is because the Law requires its own education. And that happens because the Law is its own (very narrow, if you ask me) way of thinking. That's been obvious for hundreds of years. I suppose, charitably speaking, what they mean is that you've got to be able to get a sense of what it says... which is certainly the case with our quote from Magna Carta (which, to be clear, is to a Medievalist a contract not a constitution, to a lawyer  a constitution and to the historians of Early Modern England it's something in between). But it must be said that the purposive approach ought to make the plain meaning of our quote from Magna Carta mean something actually opposed to the legal meaning. Do we have, therefore, the Rule of Law when we've got old laws sitting around?

This is where I think I will move from a half-arsed attempt at legal theorising to making an equally half-arsed attempt at legal-political theorising.

In New Zealand we have a government (the executive) which is part of parliament (the legislature) that we hold to be sovereign. That is to say that there is nothing one parliament can do to permanently bind another parliament and there is nothing the courts can do strike down legislation, at least laws that have been enacted correctly.

To my mind, if parliamentary proceedings have not been followed it is a nonsense to say that parliament exists and hence anything that such a "parliament" did isn't really a law (because it wasn't a parliament at all). Beyond this, though, I am completely comfortable with parliamentary supremacy. Indeed, I would argue that the alternative is forcing the highest judicial bodies to confront political questions. As an example, Brown v Board of Education over in the States was not a legal matter, but a political confrontation framed in "legalese." That's a gross violation of the principles of democracy (although, technically speaking, in the US their supreme court justices don't have to be judges/lawyers, but since they always are they don't get a pass).

Why do I mention this? Well, because I make the political argument that if a parliament has not repealed a piece of legislation that this is a tacit endorsement* of that legislation and, hence, the judiciary must continually understand legislation as it makes sense now. If parliaments are truly to be sovereign and the rule of law is truly to exist, every parliament accepts laws or gets rid of them... and if they accept laws they have a purpose to doing so.

The astute reader is probably thinking that the "sense" of a statute which has already been used in a court case is going to be affected by the way it was interpreted in that court case. Such a reader might also wonder if this means that the judiciary always has some kind of legislative (as in, law making) role... even without the common law. I agree (thus why I call such a reader astute).

The simple fact of one person having decided and stated a meaning of a text colours all subsequent thinking about the same text. From the strongest of disagreements to the most forceful affirmations. Every. Subsequent. Thought. The important bit is that parliament's interpretation is the interpretation (regarding purpose). And because parliament is the people and the people are the parliament old laws are thus not a barrier to the rule of law. So what if it is affected by the judicial interpretations of the past? This is simply the mechanism by which consistent meaning is achieved. No more. No less.

All this swings on that bit about predictability. I have some quite sharp criticisms of the Law and Justice systems, including its opaqueness, so the readability of the footnote is not something I want to bring on board. We cannot predict meaning and hence laws/legalness when we're meant to be reading from some quite alien experiences (i.e. those of the past): meaning is socially constituted (i.e. it's a product of the present moment and continually updating at that). This is simply how reading and understanding work.

When I was younger I was quite sympathetic to the flag change cause and also to the other view... to my understanding, I have presented a "living" statute/constitution argument so the other view would be originalism. These days, obviously, I disagree with both; holding them to be immature and childish... the former motivated by that childish concern with what others think and originalism the classic "but teacher said" immaturity. Hopefully it should be clear that I have implicitly suggested that a problem with originalism is that it is inconsistent with the rule of law, creating caprice and unfairness instead of justice through the availability of unpredictable meanings. It might likewise be said to rely on naive ideas about reading (ignoring the every. subsequent. thought. point quite entirely).

The thing is that as far as I can tell Originalism is an American thing. Which is appropriate because what has motivated this post is the question of whether or not the rule of law can be said to exist in the United States at all. Not because Originalist interpretations occur there (that is, as it were, something I discovered in the course of developing the ideal segue) but because no-one is sure if a sitting US president can be charged with a crime and subjected to prosecution.
It is undisputed, according to legal experts, that litigation over obstruction of justice or defamation could proceed after Trump leaves office. But the question of whether the president can be sued or prosecuted while in office is murkier.
I'm afraid this is just incompatible with the rule of law. If the rule of law truly was a feature of American society it would not be a question but a known fact that the US president could be charged and prosecuted. This is what the rule of law means... and it is what I cam to talk about. The Rule of Law does not exist in United States of America... and they might appoint a dude to SCOTUS who actively argues against it). Mental.

The rule of law should exist. The idea that everyone is subject to the Law is immensely reassuring, it's what lets us know that if we managed to get the coin together we might be able to go to a court and get a just outcome. The rule of law is a fundamental assumption we make in predicting human behaviour, without confidence that it exists it's hard to see the Law as a tool.. a means of getting things done. The rule of law lets is a fundamental presumption about society, and an eminently defensible one. The USA's ambivalence to it is another nail in a coffin that, these days, is surely mostly metal.


* In the common law it is actually assumed that silence cannot mean anything other than silence (there was a case about a horse, I think). This is generally more sensible and you might have seen one of the issues that arises with using silence to infer meaning. Notice how I seemingly want it two ways. Laws can be invalid if they are made by invalid parliaments, but if they aren't subsequently repealed by later parliaments then these parliaments are saying that the laws are, in fact, real. The reconciliation is simply that these were never laws at all. The later parliaments might want to have these laws around but they can't without actually making the Law in the first place. I have started from the premise that a parliament is also the way it says it will make laws; never actually making a law is not one of the ways any parliament has ever said it will make laws. This gives room for a court to come along years later and say, "Woah, hold on guys, that's not a real law, you didn't have a parliament there".

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Feminism's Perspective

In certain discussions you'll often hear people say, "It's always the same with you isn't it? What about the men?" The point being made is that it should be possible to talk about inequalities toward women without considering men at the same time. That sounds reasonable, right?

Changing society is not a particularly easy thing to do. Sometimes you come along and people are just in the mood for change. There's something that's going which is so big and so unpopular that everyone's got a sense that the world's broken. All you have to do then is just show them how. But usually you've got to do more than have catchy slogans and the perfect pictures. Usually you've got to present the thinking and studying you've done to people (because, make no mistake, even when it's "easier" you've got this). And how can you do that if you're always getting distracted by other issues? "What about..."

There is another way of looking at things, though. And that's to say if you don't consider everything then you end up with bad outcomes. A lot of American centred discussions of gender inequality will bring up the CDC's definition of rape. That was changed some years ago to reflect feminist advocacy for change. Unfortunately, what happened is that most male rape victims don't count as rape victims under the new definition: the concept of raping is different when the victim is male or female. Even worse, because the definition was changed, there is far less impetus to change it again because a lot of people, metaphorically, went home, job done. (See pg. 13, column 2, bottom of page.)

I'm not sure how they arrived at their definitions, but you can imagine that their thinking was more marginal than it could have been. And by marginal, I use it in the statistical sense. We might have a joint distribution for two random variables M and F, but we can obtain marginal distributions from this by integrating M or F out. In other words, the marginal distribution describes the behaviour of a random variable when only considering that random variable. This is often sensible. It is also often not sensible.

This brings me to the following headline: "It’s 2018. Could we please stop sanctifying men for doing basic parenting." This is the kind of article that would probably not be published were it about women and written by a man. And if it was published it'd be couched quite differently. It's a thing, if you're confused, that women get to comment without question on men in ways that are now seen as downright odd if men do it. What particular insight into masculinity does a woman have over a man? Who knows, but lots of women write those. But to write about femininity as a man? Yeah... you don't really see this. (The fact is the rhetorical question I just posed is idiotic; the problem is not women writing about too many things but men writing about too few.) Anyway, my point is that a man probably wouldn't also forget that "Dads are babysitters" is a Thing. They'd never let such a headline be written.

(Hell, The Spinoff manages to write this headline a week removed from this headline: "Where are all the baby changing rooms for dads?" Notice also that this article was written by a woman... as I said, that rhetorical question is idiotic.)

Headlines are problematic. I've said before that they set the tone for what's going to be read... they're a vital piece of the contextual puzzle (and we know it is a puzzle). But they're also all that a lot of people will read. That's not a bad thing. It's a big world out there and a lot of stuff happens. Thus, bad headlines are a bad articles. And sometimes the bad headline is made even worse because it's not even accurate. In this case, it is, sadly, accurate.

It's an incredibly naive article. It ignores vital contextual information like the changing facilities infrastructure and wants to have it both ways with other contextual information. Take this point:
Articles like this, no matter how well-intentioned, do no favours for anyone.
The jumping off point always seems to be that a woman’s place is in the home, either as a full time stay-at-home mum or, at the very least, as the primary caregiver of the children.
There's a saying that no is statement can make an ought statement. That's not an entirely unproblematic idea but it's the inverse what's happening here. Cuming wants the ought (that these are non-notable) to be the is, but the reason why the jumping off point is that "a woman's place is in the home" is because that's the reality of what people think... it's why there's a cottage industry of sorts built against the "dads are baysitters" corollary. But you'd only look at this way by asking yourself "What about the women?"

The problem here is not women staying at home. It's not women being not seen as the breadwinner. It's nothing about women.

The problem is that fatherhood is not an attendant assumption about men, when it should be. It's this. And that's a pretty old film now. (Although, of course, it's more similar to babysitting, but ECE isn't babysitting either, and plays heavily into their unfamiliarity but even so.)

Cuming's approach also makes her ambitions worse. The idea she's putting about is that these new stories hurt everyone. Well, sure, they do make the mundane extraordinary. But when you put them in context what it also says is, "Look, men can do this stuff." And if we think about Daddy Day Care again, we're either meant to laugh at them for being so useless at the start... or if we're nodding along saying, "That's so true" we're meant to evolve with the characters in the film so that next time we watch it we're laughing at them at the start.
And finally, this type of sycophantic fetishism of dads just being parents needs to stop BECAUSE IT IS PISSING MUMS OFF. 
Not even hiding her motives... this article is a classic illustration of What Aboutism.
Unless it’s a story about Chris Hemsworth moving to a really hot climate and he has to walk his kids and his dog every morning along the beach with shirt off while making sandwiches for lunch and being spoon-fed muesli by his male nanny, Chris Evans. 
This is an article in need of some self-awareness in a bad way. You definitely can write an article about how "Mummy Bloggers" are a Thing and "Daddy Blogging" is a miracle, but this isn't the way to do it. We don't once see a consideration of the other perspective... it's framed entirely from this what aboutist point of view. I don't want to say that's too wrapped up in her own emotional reaction because, you know, this, but it's too wrapped up in her own emotional response. Let me quote the following line on "hot history":
Whenever contemporary historians go at each other's throats over differences of opinion on current history, their more serene colleagues often offer the following consoling reflection. To their minds, contemporary history is history in which many parties still have a stake because individuals and groups are generally attached  to the image presented of them. And where different interests are involved, conflicts of interest are never far removed. Consequently, a calm and detached approach to the past requires severing the direct link with it, which in turn only happens with the passage of
 time. Temporal distance is in this view a necessary condition of scholarly distance;' hot history must first 'cool off' in the archives for a generation or two before it can be warmed up on paper in an adequate way by historians. For Clio's owl, too, only flies at dusk. (Chris Lorenz, "Beyond Good and Evil? The German Empire of 1871 and Modern German Historiography", Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pg. 729)
Emphasis Mine.

Notice also that Lorenz doesn't appear to buy into this point of view... it's just something he's talking about. Indeed, the idea of Hot History above isn't non-problematic. But the hands off approach, mental distancing, is something that is good and useful... depending on your purpose. But even if your purpose is otherwise, writing out your emotional reaction isn't beyond question. Allow me to quote the following at you:
The Link-Up organisations, which work so closely with traumatised individuals, would perhaps respond to the issues raised by stating 'yes, these things are true, Peter, but why talk about them? Let's help our clients to achieve as much as it's possible both in terms of family relations and identity. It doesn't matter about the larger picture.' ( Peter Read (2002) "Clio or Janus? Historians and the stolen generations", Australian Historical Studies, 33:118, pg. 60)
Emphasis mine.

In other words, just because it's true and authentic you're not free from the responsibility of what your output does. And yes that's a terrifying statement to make. But that's a fear that should be held in mind every time anyone sits down to write. We cannot escape that we're not islands. We're not even island chains. (That's an About a Boy reference.)

To be honest, Cuming's article could probably be published safely with only one alteration... some sort of disclaimer or qualifying remark or opposing article being linked to. But, as is, why was it written? What does it do? Does it understand what its backdrop actually is? Because it's not Mummy Bloggers. It's that there is no such Thing as Daddy Blogging... although, let's be real, there is it just has no cultural capital, which is why the capital T.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

"People Don't Like Traffic Jams"

"What we need," he said, "is for the motorway to be some sort of travelator. That way, even when there's traffic, at least you're moving."

"But what about merging? And offramps?" said his friend. "There'd be crashes."

"Hmm..."

The truth is that we already have such a system. Except it doesn't involve cars at all. Cars just aren't efficient.

Truth be told it doesn't actually involve travellators either (geeze, how do you spell that?).

The only way the system that the two schoolboys vaguely quoted above entertained could work is if the entire network worked this way. And, broadly speaking, this is what trains do.

Now I use this conversation as an introduction to my brief treatment today for a simple reason: trains are efficient. If you want to get buckets of people somewhere specific quickly, the best way to do that is by train. This has never not been true. Nothing else even comes close.

Okay, actually a few things do come close. Except, well, they're basically trains themselves. Or, rather, they are trains... just not heavy rail.

The thing is, back in the day, that trains used to be more than just the efficient way of doing things. They used to be the absolutely fastest way of doing it.

It used to be that if you turned up at the station, missed the train and the next one wasn't until the following day, waiting the whole rest of the day was the fastest way of getting where you were going... for even fairly short distances. Basically, anywhere you couldn't walk to. Give or take.

Trains weren't about speed, though. It was freedom, liberation and modernity.

Which is how cars are sold these days.

Hmm.

It's true... cars can go places trains can't. Trains are always going to need rails... it is what makes them work (and by God do they work).

You're never going to be able to have an offroad holiday with a train or even drive out way beyond where anyone wants to go. No-one's ever going to build a railway out that far. The best you're going to get is, say, a train station out to some lake at the foot of a mountain. It'd be a great holiday spot: but the whole point is that everyone would go there... and, well, it is called Lonely Planet, isn't it?

Doesn't say much for cars if their selling point is holiday-making, right?

Oh, but Harry, they don't just sell cars like that, do they?

Well, no. But have you ever stopped to think about just how many car ads rely on messages from outside everyday life? It's a lot. Probably most of them. A lot of the rest don't even try and make you think about how you use the car, it's all about the technology... which is still what the car could do, not what it will do.

People don't like traffic jams.

As a cultural moment I think cars are done.

I look at the world these days and everything seems to be moving on from the car itself. Sure, the second biggest movie franchises in the world right now is about driving fast cars, but it's not. Wait, what? Yeah, the Fastchise actually demonstrates my point perfectly. Trust me... I've seen all of them.

In the first Fast and Furious movie, Dom tries to explain who he is. He lives life a quarter mile at a time. In the third film, the reason he comes to Tokyo is for a race. Both these concepts are out the window by... certainly the fifth and probably the fourth film (the transitional one). By the time Dom actually gets to Tokyo in the seventh film (catching up the parallel events of Tokyo Drift) he's got an entirely new motive and raison d'etre.

Don't get me wrong, if you like fast cars the Fastchise is probably going to be your kind of movie. Even in film 7, probably the most family-centric one, it's got a line about a car kept in a penthouse that goes, "Nothing's sadder than keeping a beast locked in a cage." It doesn't stay in its cage. Let me tell you that. But the point is that the context of the Fastchise has completely changed around this line. It was never just the cars, sure, but the way the movies used to try and connect the audience with the characters was. Not. Any. More.

Unconvinced? How about the hysterics about self-driving cars? People just can't wait until they're a thing. People are so hyped they've convinced themselves Elon Musk is the second coming of Christ... something else people are notoriously hysterical about.

The thing with self-driving cars is... well, look at what we were just talking about. The whole cultural moment of cars is that you are the driver, that you are in control and that you are free. You don't sell cars with traffic jams and it's even rare to sell them with avoiding traffic jams (even ads about driving in cities are about parkour but with cars; well, I'm sure such an ad exists but this Top Gear segment will have to do). You do, however, sell self-driving cars with traffic jams. It might even be their raison d'etre.

The entire point of self-driving cars is to be everything we spent years telling people cars weren't. They take the man out of the machine, and put the machine back in.

Look, cars aren't going to go anywhere. Despite Elon "Look at me I'm a Genius" Musk's proclamations, self-driving cars are a long way away. They can drive, sure, but only in very specific conditions... such as those featured in... car ads. Which, as I've mentioned, basically ignore real human usage of cars. Even a total flip on societal perceptions won't kill cars. Hate-driving will become a thing. And, let's be honest here, trains survived the car age. Not everywhere, to be sure, but they lived. And not just as luxuries.

What's probably more concerning is that motorway mania isn't likely to die with the car. It takes a long time for the human brain to catch up with the reality of its existence. We keep, for instance, asking ourselves about academic arms races or a tertiary education bubble, but what if we're living in an age which assumes a university education? Perhaps Americans too, now, look at Plankton's "college education" lines with the same puzzlement I used to (college is high school in NZ), "But isn't everyone?"

With motorways we have decades of planning, educational and institutional cultures to move beyond. Decades of contracts and business models. It's why we have roads of National Significance in NZ that no-one actually drives on. Roads where you can actually experience what life in a car ad is like.

The car is done. It's time is over. Trains are once more ascendant. Not because they mean anything, but because they work. Although, to be fair, I would say that societal concerns are more Victorian than they've been in a long time. Not in the sense of specific values (which are clearly very different) but in the sense that the markers of having made it now look a lot more like Victorian expectations. No longer do you have gadgets that help you do something, you have technology that does it for you.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Banal and Dangerous: Clarke Gayford versus the Journalists

New Zealand's journalists are complete rubbish. They're awful.

I remember this one time Heather du Plessis-Allan claimed to have found a loophole in the law. The police immediately launched an investigation. You know why? It wasn't at all a loophole.

I remember this other time Enoch Powell wrote this piece on the disasters of immigration centred on an experience shopping for undies at Kmart. No, wait, it was Duncan Garner. Rivers of Blood. Weird snake metaphors. Or something. Easy mistake. (That crap was weeeirrd; at least Powell could competently articulate his point, you know?)

I remember a time when someone writing for the Herald compared pay cheque to pay cheque existence with keeping up with the Joneses. I didn't write it down to my deep regret but it did happen. I took the opportunity to try and rip a similarly dumb-thinking post to shreds later, though, in State Charity (read it, see if I succeeded).

And let's not get started on Ben Mack. (Actually, just so you know, they still have a career, so don't feel bad. I think they switched from the Herald prior to the WSJ affair,)

I know what you're thinking. I've managed a character assassination on NZ Journalism without once mentioning Mike Hosking. That's how bad the field is.

Actually, Hosking helps clarify that a lot of our journalists just do journalism... they're practising not disciplinary journalists. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it probably doesn't help.

It's actually really hard to think of any journalistic output that I'd recommend to people as think pieces. That shouldn't be the case. Look at all the movies that are made about real life journalism. Look at all the fictional characters who are journalists. Some of them get killed by the bad guys. Why? Because the Fourth Estate. We haven't got that here.

I guess I'd mention Tapu Misa's Long Brown Tail of Failure from 2009, but she doesn't seem to work as a journalist anymore. And I'm not even sure that was the name of the article (I read it for social studies, so I have a copy glued into a book somewhere... if I remember I'll look for it). There should be more than this! And it's not like I only remember that article because I read it for school or because I was young and naive. I read a lot of articles in those circumstances.

For instance, someone else I remember from my early years of reading the NZ Herald's website is Deborah Hill Cone. She's still around. And the cause of a hooha.

It's... not a good article.

Hill Cone has an opportunity here to engage with a really rather serious topic. She doesn't. She actually dismisses it. Literally. Dismisses.
  • 2.0 -- Treat as unworthy of serious consideration.
  • 2.1 -- Deliberately cease to think about.
Not sure which kind of dismissal is happening, but it's one of them:
No wonder Gayford seems to be enjoying the whole political circus so far. Possibly a little too much.
Political commentator Claire Trevett notes the past female spouses of our prime ministers did not get as involved in the Chogm spouse programme as Gayford has, and they very rarely did interviews. The women had a background support role, but Gayford seems to lap the attention up, like the political equivalent of manspreading.
But forget all that. Here is the real reason I find Gayford problematic.
This is a legitimate criticism. It's actually a really important one when you have people writing of Gayford in terms like:
  • Clarke Gayford writes for The Spinoff about his first days as first gent
  • There’s something about our First Bloke that keeps nagging me every time I see his cheerful face.
  • etc.
There are four layers to this problem.

The Sheer Idiocy of the Idea of a "First Spouse"

NZ's a monarchy. Actually, we have two different monarchs running around. There's the Queen of NZ who lives in the UK and then there's the Maori King. The point is that we're used to institutions which many people claim are anti-egalitarian.

In the US, they have a thing called the "First Lady". This is just bizarre.

The whole point of democracy is that there's no difference between Donald Trump, Brad Pitt, James Holmes, David Hogg or Lebron James. Politician, actor, murderer, survivor or basketballer... all of them have no greater claim to political relevancy than any other. I'd mention some random ordinary Americans but I don't know any.

Calling Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton or any other president's wife the First Lady cuts right across that. It promotes the idea that there is something other and above about being (a) the US president and (b) the US president's wife. That cuts totally across what that institution is about.

But the Americans actually take it further than this. To them, it's entirely normal for the First Lady to be a kind of political figure. Not just in the sense that you send wifey out to talk to charities but that they should have some sort of mission themselves. Hence, the much maligned cyberbullying thing.

This is very different to a peoples' princess or whatever. In NZ's system we're actually asked specifically to not listen to and prevent political involvement of non-political figures, i.e. the Queen. Watch To Play a King (series two of the superior House of Cards) to gain some insight into this. The charitable involvement of the wealth and leisure classes is, well, it's their thing, right? We're not holding them up as part of the democratic system. We say they're outside of it.

I include this as a layer because you have to understand the problem with the referent to be able to understand the problem with making the references to it.

Oh, and not one of us expects anyone else to care about the Royals. Except republicans. But they're not very bright.

Words Matter

This sounds pretty stupid, right? But it's actually quite profound.
“Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
Now, I don't want anyone thinking that Clarke Gayford's secretly Voldemort. That would be absurd. But his apparent refusal to stop people calling him "You Know What" is deeply problematic.

Let's mention Mike Hosking again. He's really fond of the saying "Middle New Zealand". Well, cool. Except, it's not. Middle New Zealand doesn't exist as a Thing. Hosking just uses it as a way to say "people who think like me" without drawing attention to the particularity of Hosking. It's very devious.

When you set up a concept and talk about it like it's a Real Thing, you force people to create the mental space for your concept. Whether that's Hosking and Middle New Zealand or NZ's journalists and the "First X" description of Clarke Gayford, it happens. And it happens in other realms as well. Think about "Reverse Racism"1 or "TERFism"2 .

One of the big ways that this happens is by normalisation. Every time you see Middle New Zealand, it becomes much more normal to you that this is an idea. You might start out thinking that it's not a real thing. And then one day you realise you're arguing that Middle NZ is real but isn't who Mike Hosking thinks it is. Even vehement disagreement can't save you from a paradigm shift. But ridiculing it can..

That being said, using the First Spouse Concept (FSC) in a playful matter isn't ridiculing the idea. A joke made at Trump's expense which relies on Melania Trump's being First Lady doesn't ridicule the FSC... it relies on people believing in the FSC. That kind of humour... say the endless parade of articles about how she won't touch Trump in public... says there's something meaningful here, that you should know and believe in the FSC. It's the FSC  itself that deserves ridicule.

This is one of the layers for very simple logic. Basically, "you're creating a bad idea". After all, we just established that the FSC is undemocratic above. And now we've established that all you have to do to bring it about is use the words.

Personalising Politics

Politics should be for people, not about people.

I think most people are against the personalising of politics. They see it as getting in the way of productive discourses and as obscuring what actually matters, i.e. the policies that actually get enacted.

On the other hand... John Key was widely condemned for being all about the personality and now that Jacinda Ardern does exactly the same things there are no more rebukes. Where is Planet Jacinda? (Always Jacinda, never Ardern... interesting, no?) How about the US Electoral College was wildly unpopular before 2016 and now Republicans will throw themselves in front of bullets for it? It's almost as if peoples' opinions generally relate to whatever is convenient for their other opinions.

There are three key (closely related) problems with emphasising personality:
  • It makes it really hard to hold politicians to account.
    • Politicians who are about personality tend to be able to throw up another distraction. Smile and Wave Key is quite possibly the greatest political operator to have ever lived. This is a man who was nicknamed the Smiling Assassin in his pre-political life, who oversaw eight years of reasonably incompetent government and rode from scandal to scandal without a scratch! You shouldn't be able to do this. But being just goofy enough, just dad enough, just blokey enough, just friendly enough etc. etc. John Key became Teflon John.
    • The reason this works is also related to the old "style versus substance" argument. It's hard to challenge people on substance when they're not offering any. If your criticisms seem irrelevant, it's hard to make traction with them. And if, on top of that, you come across as being incapable of deviousness of the highest order, you're never going to face a scandal that sticks... people lack the mental space for that. You're not too good to be true, you're too fallible to disappoint.
    • Oh, and before I forget, tu quoque is a fallacy. People recognise that attacking the people themselves is wrong/it vibes ill with them... but that's all that style leaves to attack. Quite the fix, right?
  • It helps divorce the people from their rule/it's undemocratic.
    • The way elections work, in theory, is that political parties offer up a set of politics, a vote is held, and the combination of political parties whose platforms seem the most relevant to the electorate ends up in power.
    • When you hold elections which deal a lot with contests between personalities, where is "the common man" in the cut and thrust of the campaign? No where, right? Their concerns aren't what the election is fought over and hence they're not what the politicians have to care about. And if they care about other things it follows that what the politicians actually do reflects those other concerns. Hence, elections don't facilitate the rule of the people.
    • From a slightly different tack:
      • Look. We can spend all day quibbling about whether or not people actually make the kinds of choices in elections which we assume they do. We can complicate matters by wondering if, perhaps, sortition is the best articulation of democracy (which implies that random voting is desirable). We can argue until the cows come home about the credibility of political promises. We can do all this stuff. But the fact remains that it's really rather difficult to distinguish between functionally identical things. Indeed, the difficulty is discouraging.
      • One of the things to note about personality politics is that it works. Like, it really works. Get it right and you're John Key. Get it wrong and... you're Donald Trump (who still managed to win). So the point is that you either bring another personality to the table or you run vapid anti-personnel campaigns (remember when instead of attacking immigrants or threatening to sink boatloads of people3 Labour was the "not John Key" party? God, I hate that I miss that). Once the first person "cheats" and goes to personality, everyone has to. That's the Nash Equilibrium. And, as in most cases, it's not a social optimum.
  • It creates dissonance between institutional design and operation.
    • I'm not sure how obvious this is or not but institutions like laws, systems (e.g. transport or education) or organisations (the traditional kind of institution) are set up based on a set of assumptions. Sometimes these assumptions reflect idealisations... design an institution for the way things should work (perhaps to encourage that reality, perhaps out of idiocy, perhaps out of hope other programmes succeed, perhaps for whatever else). 
    • Likewise the actual operation of these institutions is based on behavioural assumptions, e.g. you design a court system that should work but in practice you operate it to streamline "waste of time cases" (e.g. divorce) which choke up more important things.
    • These assumptions can occur at all levels, both high (e.g. a government telling how (spitals to compete with each other) and le.g. a teacher bringing shareable breakfasts to their classroom in the morning).
    • When institutions aren't working properly they are usually being under-funded, deliberately shackled or burdened with wrong assumptions. Electoral systems are no different. 
    • Imagine that you set up something like MMP which lets you vote your heart. The idea is to work based on policies, right? Except it doesn't work that way. There's nothing in NZ's Electoral Act which stops the National Party from putting out advertising which says the idea of a particular coalition is bad. Not the outcomes thereof. Not even the vibe. They literally attack the very concept. (Note: Labour and NZ First are hardly more -democratic... and if the Greens actually let them go ahead with the anti-Waka Jumping legislation all the bad crap National did for democracy will be overshadowed.) 
    • Where personality politics comes into play is that it works with MMP. In fact, in many respects, MMP exacerbates it. In the old days a personality like John Key or Jacinda Ardern only had a direct effect on votes in Helensville or Mt. Albert, i.e. the seat being contested. The "hangers on" (er, the other party members) just reaped indirect benefits. But with the party vote, being smile and wave (or generating nothing personal life stories detached from present political scandals) helps you out with the entire electorate.
    • That is, in a nut-shell, we designed a political system which is meant to allow somewhat more niche political viewpoints a place at the table, but ended up creating a situation where competing based on personality (always a strong strategy) is optimised.
In a similar vein of thought God forbid we reach a point where a politician's relationship status is seen as relevant to what they do. And, unfortunately, this is exactly what the journalists' attitudes towards Clarke Gayford are doing. He's not relevant. He is irrelevant. He's not a politician and he has no real place in our newspapers outside of when they want to talk about fishing shows or brief biographies of his (much more successful and famous) partner. He's a WAG, and we all know that reporting about WAGs is a bad idea. But the truth is, if you're going to compete based on personality, who exactly you're living with is a natural way to play things... it's a facet, after all, of your personality. And if you're not living with anyone? Well now, what does that say?

The Americanisation of Political Discourse in New Zealand

New Zealand and the USA are different countries. That should be obvious. It is also probably obvious that in different countries things work a little differently. Or very differently. Quite often both at once. There are, after all, quite a few similarities between NZ and the USA. But they're very different countries... in NZ, "black" people are few and far between, Asians and Pasifika are different ethnicities and people have ethnicities not races. In the USA the reverse is true in all cases.

It should hopefully be equally obvious that analysing different things as though they are the same is problematic. As a quick example, you'd probably lose a game of draughts pretty quickly if you attempted to play it as a game of President. In fact, I'm not sure how you'd actually do that. Which just further demonstrates the point, right? Rules (abstractions) which are appropriate in one situation may or may not be appropriate in another. We might go as far to say that it's complete luck when concepts derived in one circumstance apply in another. That may not be true, but it's certainly more true than closing your eyes, sticking your head in the sand and pretending that you could just use [whatever] [wherever].

With respect of Clarke Gayford and the Journalists, the issue is that using terms like "First Bloke" just help normalise facets of American discourse. If it's appropriate to see the PM's spouse/partner as being like the US president's spouse then maybe it's appropriate to see the PM as being like the US president. It's not. They're extremely different positions. Similarly, given the politicised and semi-official part of the system of the US presidential spouse, the terminology introduces the idea that maybe America's system has some parallels with ours. It doesn't. They're not wholly different (we're representative democracies) but the American system is so screwed up and so backwards it might as well be... Iran or North Korea.

Already we have some problems introduced by Americanisation. I think this is the route cause of why John Key and Jacinda Ardern (these personalisers extraordinaire) were able to reap success... we can't just watch US elections without picking up some ideas about what elections are meant to be. Back in the day it was much easier in NZ to not receive coverage of American politics but the world has shrunk. Similarly, look at the way Labour and National behave... to them minor parties can just be excluded. That we have debates involving only two parties is disgusting. It would, in fact, be better to not have debates at all. And I blame Americanisation for this. Not necessarily that these started but for the absence of outrage over this.

Conclusion

Clarke Gayford needs to look in the mirror and realise that he's the one who's got to say no. He's got to come out and put the journalists in their place. They're not going to. Deborah Hill Cone literally wrote a column dismissing the relevance of the relationship of the journalists and Gayford is problematic (ironically, "the Fourth Estate's" blissful ignorance/rejection/denial of observer effects has been remarked upon with regards to the Comey letters). That Gayford doesn't do this is a black mark against him. And it's not something that's going to go away with some cutesy glib response of the like that Ardern, Key and, increasingly, Gayford have become famous for. Not because those won't work, but because it's the underlying truth. Believing fervently in A doesn't mean B isn't real. Unfortunately, truth isn't relevance. Let us not delude ourselves... no-one will ever read this and no-one is going to actually sit up and notice that between them the journalists, Gayford and Ardern are letting something really rather bad happen.

The truth is out there. All I can hope for is that someone else realises it and publicises it better than I can. I've tried. And I've failed. Which is more than can be said for Gayford and the journalists.




1 "One of the biggest barriers to understanding seems to be the ubiquitous presence of ‘reverse racism’. Trying to explain to outraged Pākehā people that racism and hurt feelings aren’t the same thing is… tiring" In other words, reverse racism's idea is real but it's not actually racism. The reality is that it is JUST RACISM. Reverse Racism is a totally pointless idea.

2 "I’m not defending TERFS and SWERFS; I’m asserting that the acronyms to describe them need to be rethought because feminists who exclude trans women and sex workers from the equality they’re allegedly fighting for aren’t radical at all. (I would go as far as to say they’re not feminists at all, but that’s another piece for another time.)" Same idea but it's harder to see due to the confounding influence of definitional debate. Here's the only definition of feminism worth a damn.

3The article I originally read was from the Herald and didn't include a line about making sure people were off the boats. To be honest, my contempt for Labour is such that I don't see how you Radio NZ manages to believe Ardern means the people were off the boat. Scuttling ships, sure. But when you say destroy you are doing something very deliberate, you're taking a hardline against the boat people (or "people smugglers" ... Ardern actually had the audacity to claim that capable ships are risking peoples' lives... is she also anti-cruise ships??). Notice how they also don't mention whether people are on or off the boats with the destroy line (and I missed it in the video? going crazy here, I think). If it sounds like murder, it's meant to sound like murder... even though Radio NZ is probably correct that it's not the intent. But politicians can't get credit like that. The action for them is putting the words out. They want it to sound like murder. And that is disgusting.