Wednesday, 31 January 2018

US Cultural Imperialism or Cultural Appropriation?

The Spinoff is weird in some respects. It's definitely a magazine but it seems to write about anything under the sun. That's not a bad thing, don't get me wrong (look at that list of labels at the bottom), but it's just that it comes up with stuff that are from my point of view totally out the blue.

This article about "Baby Mama Drama" was one such thing.

Now, the truth is that I'm only caught in the spotlight by this headline because I only read beyond headlines if I think elaboration is needed. Jacinda Ardern's pregnant! Doesn't really require further attention. Except for the fact she's 37... which is why I did read one article early on. But once I found out that answer the only other one I read was this. So, you see, I had no idea that James Shaw had referred to Jacinda Ardern as "baby mama".

The above article talks a lot about African Americans. That's not a bad thing. The article is really rather interesting. In broad strokes, Lana Lopesi's article proceeds as follows:

  • James Shaw
  • the linguistic history of baby mama shows movement from AAVE to mainstream usage and a broader meaning (although, I feel that maybe a statement noting that Kanye West is African-American ought to have been attached to using him as an example)
  • eagerness to adopted American Black culture by New Zealanders (which is not just something we do to ourselves... Black America is a product exported by Americans whether or not we want it, same as everything else American) and associated contexts (why it's different when it's Friends or Spongebob and when it's, say, rap)
  • closing remarks
I first encountered the term "baby daddy" when we were coming up with our devised piece in 2012. Now devising is a process in drama where you stick a bunch of people together and they come up with a performance. Sometimes this can involve brainstorming. Sometimes this can involve quasi-improvised scenes that are then repeated. Sometimes this can involve inspiration or working from a prompt. There's lots of different ways of devising but perhaps the key thing is that a devised work is always going to reflect the people who make it. Ours was to be on teenage pregnancy... which is why the term baby daddy (or maybe it was baby mama) came up.

Now, I take a particular View of Americanisation. I'm against it. I firmly believe in American Cultural Imperialism and I stand firm against its on rushing tide. So, when I see 16/17 year old girls using the term "baby daddy" the conclusion that I draw is, "Ah, they're just repeating language that they've grown up around... to them it's completely normal". I'm not sure what the context of Hanna L. Smokoski's work was but I think it's a fair bet she's (a) an American studying Americans and (b) not working from the reality of teenage girls originally from the North of England going to college in NZ. Maybe Smokoski or Jane H Hill would disagree, as Lopesi seems to, but when I see young non-Americans using American language I don't see prima facie evidence of appropriation, I see prima facie evidence of enculturation born of globalised living. That is, quite literally, the opposite thing.

Of course, it's pretty possible to, say, not listen to rap or hip hop. I loathe the genre(s?) for example. This is unusual. Rap is completely, and I mean completely, mainstream. The reason why it's possible to avoid rap is because it's one thing. It is not possible to live in NZ without being inundated by American accents, American media and even American news. We just can't do it. An American can go their whole life not knowing what Wellington is... there will be (already are?) NZers who think the Windy City is Chicago. But even I am quite familiar with what rap is these days (when I was eight... not at all) and it is fairly ubiquitous in mainstream films. For whatever reason, most people don't perceive a sharp dissonance between the "lyrical" qualities and the music. If you do, and it really shouldn't be very difficult, you can see why the stuff is quite intolerable. This may be the point, of course, in which case I just don't get it. And the fact is, I don't care if I don't get it. And I shouldn't have to... it's not made for me. But, if you want to bring it here, thousands of kilometres from whence it came, I should be able to understand it if I so choose. Which is an enormous difference between a "white" American and an NZer of any ethnicity (none of whom are the target audience for the original hip hop).

Of course, one of the implications of being constantly assaulted by America is that the way we think is Americanised. It doesn't take much effort to notice that when American media wants a marginalised group it uses African Americans. There are fairly obvious reasons for doing this. I really hope they don't need explaining. And it's quite likely true that many of the issues and themes of African American produced media speak to the underprivileged, dispossessed, marginalised and oppressed in other countries. But it is entirely inappropriate to read the broad strokes of African American history, which is very particular even with a large brush, in, say, the history of Maori post-contact. I think that is something which is done. I think that it's a natural way to think when your mental model of what marginalisation is, is American but the reality of the world around you is New Zealand... we have a distinct shortage of Americans of any sort here, but I am very sad to say that we have oodles of Maori and Pasifka people left marginalised, dispossessed and underprivileged by our society. Thus, it seems to me, Baby Mama's Club.

Hopefully it's been pretty clear that Lopesi and I are talking about different things. For instance, I happen to agree with Lopesi's final words...
We don’t need to borrow from others for the sake of proving our own currency – but if you are going to use ‘baby mama’ for that reason, you should at least know what it means.
It just so happens that what Lopesi chose to write about inspired me to write about a kind of chicken and egg problem. It's very likely that the reason we get so much stuff from Black America in New Zealand is due to appropriation in the USA. Very likely. I mean, we also get the appropriating media*... Blaxploitation films screened here, for instance. But the difference in context is quite substantial. If I see an old fart like James Shaw (44) saying "baby mama" it comes across as being entirely different to my friend's usage of "baby daddy".... and remembering that Jacinda Ardern is likewise kind of ancient (37) we should think the same there, also (were she to use the term herself). Hell, NZ is now substantially more Americanised than it was 10 years ago... I am in a different generational frame, myself, to these poor souls we're robbing of NZ-centred cultural touchstones (let alone Maori ones) through our complete indifference. That's what I'm talking about. And it's a conversation Lopesi literally noted was different to the one she was making. I can't help how inspiration's cruel lightning strikes!

*Hence, why I agree with a lot of Lopesi's comments even though I obviously I believe in some ideas which make disagreeing very easy. I have no idea what the Watermelon or Fried Chicken things are about, but I know that they are Things. That means something. We, in NZ, are not metaphorically this simply because of distance.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Moving New Zealand's Summer Holidays

NZ and the Southern Hemisphere in general is very lucky in that if you want to hold a bunch of holidays which are clustered together at the end of the old and start of the new year, you can do this simultaneously with the big holidays that school children have. This way the start of each school year can also occur with the start of the year. In fact, so logical is this system it really makes the way the Northern Hemisphere runs things look absolutely mental.

The thing is... in NZ... it's really (?) rather hot during February, which is allegedly the hottest month of the year. Thus, last year and this year (for quite different reasons) we saw people propose a change to our holiday pattern. At the moment it's essentially twelve weeks off in total with a 6/2/2/2 split. What's suggested, in this article anyway, is that we have some time off at Christmas and new years and then run through January for no reason other than "lol, it's hot". The position is moronic, and the resultant 4/2/2/2/2 system is going to prove deeply problematic.

10 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Meme At Home
In that episode of Spongebob, they inhabitants of Bikini Bottom basically deal with the plot of Unstoppable but instead of a train that'll explode it's an Alaskan Bull Worm. It's a plot that makes for a good movie and a good episode of Spongebob. Patrick's solution to the issue is to push Bikini Bottom somewhere else. That's a ridiculous solution, but because it's Spongebob it's a possible one... so they do it. Sadly, Sandy and Spongebob manage to divert the Worm so Bikini Bottom gets wiped out anyway. Which is the lesson these "it's too hot" dingbats need to learn... moving out of the way of a problem, doesn't actually solve it.

If you're not from NZ, this holiday nonsense probably sounds like a joke also. But it's real. The alleged problem of having school in February really is the heat: "as I wave hot sweaty kids off into hot sweaty classrooms, to sit for six hours in front of hot sweaty teachers." It's not actually that hot in New Zealand. Not when we define hot by "Australia". And shifting the pupils and their heat affliction back home doesn't help either because we don't build houses with insulation or central heating/cooling here. For the pupils most likely to be sitting in ovens at school, it's going to be even worse at home... and their parents are the least likely to be able to take them to the beach everyday/somewhere cooler. If the heat really is that bad (from memory, it's not but, hey, #globalwarming, amirite?), the only way to tackle it head on is to build better classrooms.

Okay, so moving the holidays to get out the heat really is that dumb, but would changing the holidays for other reasons (say, for the lulz) be that bad? What's the case made by our nutso article writer?
Keeping kids in school a tad longer than early December would also help families with Christmas planning and holiday organisation. Most parents are still working up until Christmas, despite kids being off much earlier, which means increased childcare costs and increased pressure and stress at an already pressured and stressed time.
Um... wut? Primary Schools shut up shop on 20, 19, 18 and 20 December in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2017. Colleges do close earlier than this, in mid December, but since almost everyone at them is 14 by then, these parenting costs largely shouldn't be incurred... you can just leave your young people at home. Regardless, we're not talking about "early December" so stop lying.

The second part of this is equally wut. I mean, how does it help to separate out these long holidays from the bunch of public holidays that the parents qualify for? Surely it's better to be using up this holiday time concurrently with parental time off? How on earth are parents going to manage 28 odd days off in February? It's weird.

So far, so bad for the holiday pushers, but it's going to get worse.

Let's say we have a couple of days off over Christmas etc. and then it's back to school. Is it the start of the year? Or is it the end of the previous year? If it's the start of the year then imagine how disruptive it will prove to suddenly gone from school for four weeks after establishing the routine. And if it's the end of the previous year, what's going on? Are we going to have teachers using public holidays to mark exams and the like? Is the general mood of everyone going to be, "What's the point, we're back on holiday in another four or so weeks?" How's that going to play out? Did any thought at all go into this idea?

Now, this isn't to say that there aren't arguments for shaking up how we do school terms. A lot of people are very critical of the length of the summer holidays... although at six-ish weeks they're hardly as bad in NZ as in some countries. But it's still something we talk about. I remember, actually, that everyone used to be impressed with my handwriting at primary when we got back to school. It was only later that I realised they basically didn't write anything over the holidays. I did. It is possible that a shorter cycle of holidays could have its advantages. I'm just not sure when you'd time these holidays to avoid problems like what I mentioned. But, for the most part, I don't think we need to change our holidays. We may need to provide some more funding to schools for heat issues, though.

2020 NZ Election Hypothetical

2008 -- Somewhere North of Auckland

A beautiful stretch of coastline. Lots of sun. Nearby beaches. Absolutely gorgeous. And all about to be zoned for residential development by the new government.


National's just won another election. The coastline's still gorgeous. But, at last, the properties are about to start going up. Four for now. The owner-developers celebrate the election win long into the night at a caravan on site.


John, Paul and George go over to Ringo's. It's election night once more and the results are rolling in. It's a resounding victory. The four neighbours can't even remember why people thought this one could be tight. To be fair, neither can anyone else.

They take the party down to the beach, because, you know, it's gorgeous and right there... a stone's throw (or less) from Ringo's garden. And his back door's even closer! 

None of them voted Conservative. Colin Craig, David Cunliffe and all the other losers are mocked, but none more so than Kim Dotcom. The beach isn't sure what's so funny, but the neighbours are.


The neighbours aren't sure if they should celebrate or not. Bill English has just returned a fantastic result. But, like Labour's Jacinda Ardern, English seems to have cannibalised prospective coalition partners' votes to do it. Maori are gone. Without Dunne, United Future was Dunne-in. (The pub does not amuse.) ACT as pathetic as ever. TOP? Stuck at 2% ish. The Conservatives? Did they contest the election? It's going to come down to Winston. The mood is subdued.


There are surveyors at the beach today. Or people who look like surveyors. Ringo's daughter swears they took away some of the sand and some of the water with them. Surveyors don't do that, honey, says Ringo.

March 2019

These aren't surveyors. But they have a report. And some court orders.

August 2019

A Blue-Green Party is established. They call themselves the Turquoise Party. Ringo makes a joke about Aquamarine. It makes him remember the beach. He cries. A lawyer hands him a tissue.

January 2020 -- Ringo's Sister's House, Remuera
It's over. The house has gone. Not literally. For now. They're pulling it down in March. But Ringo hasn't got the keys. He hasn't got the land. He hasn't even got hope. They lost the last appeal just before Christmas. Ringo could tell it was over. John didn't even join them this time. Ringo just focusses on getting things set for school: kind of his sister to let his daughter live with her this year. The verdict will come down any day now. Best to focus on other things. Everyone says.

February 2020 -- Ringo's Cockroach Infested Flat, Dominion Road

"Consents should never have been granted to build in the area." "Gross negligence." "Fundamental failings." "Severe damage to sensitive environment." "Erosion." "Unreasonable reliance." "No compensation."

John, Paul and George came over after the verdict. Ringo's sister told them to push off. They went to a pub, and on the spur of a moment decided to flat. They "outbid" thirteen different groups of students for an awful flat. A month later, they're still in it... and really glad their families could live with other family members in sizeable Leafy Suburb properties. Although a bit confused about why they're not there too.

Ringo stubs his toe. Blames John Key.

George remembers why they're flatting.

Election Time 2020 -- Remuera

Ringo knows one thing. He's not voting National. Damn their environmental record, he says. His wife's not convinced. His sister isn't convinced. John, Paul and George are. Ringo's sister mentions Labour. Everyone laughs. Bloody socialists, says Ringo's daughter. John slaps Ringo on the back, "Good, on ya mate." George chips in, "And the Greens are even worse!" They toast the continued ill-health of the Green Party's polls.

"Who you're voting for this year Ringo?" It's Ringo's boss. She's a committed Nationalite.

"Oh, I want a blue-green party."

"A Turquoise man, eh? I'm going to vote Turquoise myself this year."

Election Day 2020 -- Ringo's Polling Booth

This is it. The moment where a lifetime's worth of National voting was undone. The moment where Ringo became a Turquoise Party voter. 

Wait... what? The Party List? #2 John Key? That bastard was in the Turquoise Party?! And #5? Nick Smith! The prick!

Ringo party votes for Winston Peters. He's not happy. It makes him electorate vote for the Greens candidate. He doesn't even read the name.

Election Night 2020 -- The Cockroach Flat

It's an election night miracle!

National 15% Labour 35% Turquoise 20% The Conservatives 4.7% NZ First 8% The Greens 8% TOP 4.3% ACT 1% Maori 2% Mana 1% and collected unimportant parties 1%.

But it turns out Turquoise won only the one electorate seat. They've split the party and seat votes of the centre-right! National manage to hang on to exactly 15% of the total seats through the electorate seats only (18). Bill English, their leader, won't be in parliament!! Maori and Mana have come storming back, winning a seat apiece! But neither TOP nor the Conservatives have managed to grab one! Disaster!

But there's still going to be an overhang! (I think) And the wasted vote is ridiculously high at 10%!

What's Going on Here?

If you ask me, this hypothetical illustrates a number of issues that are currently present in New Zealand's electoral system.

Firstly, we've got the problem of wasted vote induced by the stupidly high threshold. By my hypothetical the Conservatives and TOP should have 6 (5.64) and 5 (5.16) seats respectively. Instead, they walk away with none because they didn't win any electorate seats.

Secondly, when things go wrong, NZ's MMP system actually gets terribly complicated. And difficult to understand. Luckily there is an "MMP SEAT ALLOCATION CALCULATOR" so we can use that to see what happens here, but first some further notes on the example:
  • From above, I have 18+4 seats already allocated (1 each for Turquoise, Maori, ACT and Mana, 18 for National).
  • I'm arguing that the split votes allow Labour, Greens and NZ First to win some electorate seats. I say that this leaves 5 Maori Seats for Labour, 2 extra Labour seats, 28 more Labour seats and 7 apiece for Greens and NZ First.
Hence the result:

So, I was wrong about the overhang, although we could easily change that with different assumptions about the electorate seats won by Labour, the Greens and NZ First. Also, apparently, Bill English will be getting in to Parliament. Let's say Labour wins two fewer electorates and National gets them instead...

We'll use this version as the "true" results of the example when I go on to use the example for posts. But let's see what happens if the Conservatives win one of those extra seats and TOP the other.

You can see how radical the departures from the democratic will NZ's 5% threshold can induce immediately, right?

In the first example, we're looking at a likely coalition of Labour (46), Greens (57), Maori (60) and Mana (61) or Labour (46) and Turquoise (73) because the alternative would rely on Maori or Greens working with National.

In this new version, we're looking at:
  • Turquoise (24), National (42), NZ First (52), the Conservatives (56), TOP (63) and ACT (64)... or maybe without ACT
  • Labour (43) and Turquoise (67)
  • Labour (43), Greens (53), TOP (58), Maori (60) and Mana (61)
  • Labour (43), Greens (53) and NZ First (63)
  • A minority government by Labour relying on ad hoc support of any of the other parties/these voting blocs
  • A minority government by Turquoise relying on ad hoc support of any of the other parties/these voting blocs
Very different worlds, no?

Although, one suspects that if there was to be a Turquoise Party of such attraction to National voters, it would not be a party particularly inclined to work with Labour. Similarly, if environmental concerns were to suddenly become this influential, Labour's electoral performance would reflect that. But, remember, this is a hypothetical, a thought experiment, designed to illustrate certain points not a model.

Thirdly, you can see immediately why parties have incentives to behave in ways that are contrary to the health of our democracy.

National's various victories under John Key and its 2017 performance under Bill English all represent what happens when the centre-right vote isn't split. In contrast, people who lean left vote for a bunch of different political parties. In the example, you see what National's afraid of... becoming second fiddle. Now, those concerns aren't really reasonable, but if you can control the entire right bloc of votes, you end up with a lot more power... and can even push yourselves towards single-party government.

Now, you might say that the last election shows why parties also have an incentive to not behave like this. If National had helped the Conservatives out in 2014, it's likely they'd have managed to be around now even with the Colin Craig nonsense... which might have meant that National could have formed another government (some of NZ First's voters would be attracted to the Conservatives). But my example has a rebuttal to this argument.

You see, in New Zealand, we still use first past the post for electorate results. As a consequence, split votes are a big problem. This is a well remarked on problem with FPTP. I'm not sure what we should do to fix it... preference voting like the flag referendum? Borda Counts? But we need to plug this backdoor issue. Keeping new parties down, helps avoid losing electorates where your "kind" of party is dominant. It stops something like the above from happening... where a party vote swing caused electorate seat collapse due to split votes. Here's what happens if National's "lost" 23 seats went 12/7/1/1/1 to National/Turquoise/Conservatives/Mana/Maori:

National has now won way more seats than it should have. It is over-represented... essentially, MMP has failed to achieve proportionality because the size of parliament doesn't change to even out the overhang, it just adds on the extra electorate seats. It's actually possible that this sort of thing would be more likely with a better electorate seats measure, but it's fairly easy to fix.. we'd just need to be able to add on another 70 list politicians in the case of such extreme overhangs.

The reason I say "actually possible" here is because to investigate we'd need to deal with a realistic example. This one is contrived to make a very specific point very, very obvious. That's an okay thing to do. But the truth is that sometimes examples have to be realistic in order to gain any insight from them. If we wanted to evaluate what an alternative model for choosing the winner in the electorate seats would be, we'd need a realistic example. But what I've done is sufficient to lay bear the incentives parties have to not change the threshold and make new political parties credible votes. You do that and you not only dilute your own "power" but you open yourself up to split votes in safe seats. These are deep problems with our current system.

Fourthly, let's talk about the disconnect between New Zealand's broader constitutional principles (as I see them, anyway) and the electoral system... as seen in coalitions.

There are different ways of understanding constitutions. The one that I think is most widespread (at least among interested lay people such as myself) is the view that the constitution is the rules of government and thus the limits on its power. Sure, it says how everything meshes together but it's the limits on what government can do and how that matters most.

The way NZ's constitution limits/contains government power is fivefold. Namely:
  1. By allowing the GG to dismiss the PM. This would cause a constitutional crisis and it's not clear who would be blamed (or what would happen). This gives the GG incentives to not dismiss the PM and the PM incentives to not push it.
  2. Short terms of three years with transparent government and proportional elections. The idea is that if a government oversteps, it will get punished at an election which always just around the corner. The electorate is given lots of power and assumed to be willing to wield it.
  3. Through coalition government. It's necessary in a coalition for a government to keep several different houses in order, this gets really difficult if dubious stuff is on the cards. You could almost understand this as the belief that a junior government party will find its integrity faster.
  4. Faith. What I mean by this is that while the New Zealand Bill of Rights act cannot prevent legislation contrary to its will from passing, it does require all legislation be compared against it. What I mean by this is that we have citizen's initiated referenda which can't bind the government but they can make it think twice... or give energy to the opposition.
  5. Parliamentary politics. Firstly, we have to acknowledge the Opposition as an idea. A strong Opposition forces the government parties to engage with bad things they're doing instead of just passing them and moving on. Secondly, the role of Opposition party MPs in committees and the like means that the government has to choose which committees it will have a majority in.
Compared to some other countries, there isn't really much that stops a government from doing what it wants. Consider that:
  • Votes are almost always conducted on a party basis. Not in the sense that the whips have to corral parliamentary cats but in the sense that a party says it has X members and thus has X votes which will be voting in whatever way. In the UK, for instance, the party leader basically coerces MPs to vote the party line by holding the ability to punish and reward members in accordance with their behaviour. The whips in the UK are the agents of this coercion.
  • Governments are frequently able to bypass parliamentary measures. The National government we just had was notorious for passing legislation under urgency. It seems to me that this is a fairly easy fix... require the ability to pass legislation under urgency to be decided by a super-majority and if that passes, the legislation still has to get the majority vote. The problem with using urgency frivolously is that slowing the passage of bills down gives more time for opposition to/doubts about them to coalesce/form. As Terry Pratchett once wrote, “People don't like change. But make the change fast enough and you go from one type of normal to another.” Irrelevant filibusters aren't a good means of slowing something down, but it's the same core idea.
  • The PM is essentially God. In theory the prime minister is just the first among equals relative to their Cabinet colleagues... the reverential deference of the Holiness the President of the United States, Serene Ruler of the Americans as seen in the US version of House of Cards or Designated Survivor is completely inappropriate. However, the PM has much more power because in practice what Cabinet says go, and the PM gets to control who's in Cabinet... and one doesn't become a PM without being persuasive (and Cabinet is small enough for groupthink). In the USA, their president has to jump through all sorts of hoops as a result of not being part of the legislature. I don't think separating powers out is necessarily better, but if you don't let the system mesh properly then not separating powers runs several risks.
  • We don't have any Supreme Legislation. Now, I don't see why we couldn't make NZBORA supreme if we wanted to. This would have the net effect of preventing legislation that falls afoul of NZBORA from being able to be passed. This doesn't even have to be in conflict with parliamentary sovereignty... by definition parliament is able to make a supreme version of NZBORA that isn't even double entrenched. In the USA or Australia, the Supreme or High Courts are able to strike down unconstitutional legislation. I don't actually like this system... a lot of the cases the US Supreme Court deals with are actually political questions unsuitable for a court, as was the Barnaby Joyce citizenship saga in Oz. But, the point here, is that this is a kind of "check" on government we lack.
  • There is no upper house. Again, I'm not actually convinced that Upper Houses are needed. The "ideal" kind is filled with experts who are appointed until they wish to retire. But even substantially more imperfect ones still function as a "check" because it means more people have to lack integrity for bad stuff to be enacted. At the moment we're literally one vote from an Act of Parliament saying all Blue Eyed Babies must be incinerated. If we had an upper house we'd be two votes away...
If you're at all familiar with American politics I am sure you've heard of the phrase "checks and balances". Well, I don't believe in checks... but I do think we've got a "balance" problem in NZ. And that's the type of thing that coalitions represent, and the electoral system is creating the associated balance problem. (The difference between checks and balances is that the former stops or changes the way something happens whereas the latter plays with incentives within the same process, i.e. actors balance/tradeoff different concerns/objectives in their decisions.)

Let's take another look at the potential coalitions from the ("true") example election:
  1.  Labour (46), Greens (57), Maori (60) and Mana (61) 
  2.  Labour (46) and Turquoise (73)
  3.  Labour (46), Greens (57), NZ First (68)
  4.  Turquoise (27), National (47), NZ First (58) and Greens (69) / Maori (61)
As we can see some of these aren't really plausible. We could also chuck in some extra partners if we wanted... parties do do that sort of thing, see: Maori in coalition with National.

When I first wrote about coalition options last night I thought (b) was a realistic option. In theory, it has to be. However, unless we want a complete breakdown of the "suspension of disbelief" it really probably needs to be excluded, even though the point of a blue-green party is that it will go either way... unless we see the idea as a "neoliberal" environmentalist party. Thus, we're actually looking at another case of where a realistic example is really required.

The question of why I didn't think about (c) is a difficult one to answer. After all, this is the current government's arrangement. I guess I just got lost in my hypothetical. In fact, this would quite likely win out. While I think the Greens, Maori and Mana would all be relatively happy to work together, there is a bit of bad blood with Labour and they have no slack... 61 is the absolute minimum number required for government. And (d) just makes the bad blood even worse because it's now National.

But here's the thing... coalition negotiations ought to reflect the relative power of the different parties involved... tradeoffs. If we're thinking about how (d) might happen, it would be very difficult for Maori to encourage it over the line. They need the presence of NZ First and only just manage to bring the numbers up. As a consequence, Maori would have to negotiate few policy concessions to make up for its relatively low number of seats. The Greens, in contrast, have a fairly good negotiating position to extract concessions... they're involved in a lot of other potential coalitions and they have a reasonable number of seats.

Now, you might say that the Greens have disproportionate negotiating power. Well, that's not true. The Greens are never able to get more than their 11 seats worth because every concession that they get has to be balanced with what prospective other partners want. And, after all, Labour would be able to say, "Waoh, hold your horses, remember the Turquoisers?"

Once the negotiations are over, political parties have basically only as much power as their seats allow them. That's the first rebuttal of the anti-micro party wing. The second is basically an extension of the above. If we had a parliament of 120 parties the problems with that would be fairly negligible... negotiations would probably take forever but they'd be sped up enormously by the fact that anyone who tried to power play literally can't offer anything more than their next best alternative... so micro-parties ultimately cancel each other out. But I've distracted myself. Remember the first rebuttal?

When you look at the 2017 election, NZ First might have had a bit more power than it should have had. It was able to assume that the Greens would stick with Labour no matter what which allowed it to be fairly ambitious. If there had been actual substantial policy differences with Labour on the big things this could have been an issue. Indeed, NZ First is probably NZ's most modern political party... even though it was far more similar to Labour (despite its leader's ex-National background I might add), NZ First was willing to consider a deal with National. But the point is that 2017 reveals the constitutional threat posed by electing few parties to Parliament. We really do rely on coalitions to stop a party forcing through objectionable policies. And hence we rely on an electoral system that will return many rather than few parties.

Finally, I'll just note that I also talked about some subsidiary issues above. Believe me, I wouldn't spend all day typing (I wake up at 1pm, sue me) if I did not actually think I was talking about real problems. The issue is that the reason why I spend all day typing is my limitations as an author... which is why these issues are being labelled subsidiary issues even though the electorate seat issue is something that I feel quite strongly about. It's also true that there are other problems involved here. After all, I didn't talk about rotten boroughs... that's only vaguely represented in this case.


I will be using this hypothetical for at least one more post... that's why I started off with Ringo.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Universities and Laptop Bans

I've talked before about how I reading Minding the Campus to get my "fix" of university related content. Well, through that I came across Inside Higher Ed, which I use for the same purposes. And to the tell the truth, I use it more these days... not because of the absence of an obvious political bent but because it updates more frequently. I'm pragmatic like that.

It appears Americans aren't pragmatic like that.

Woah. Big claim. And not one I am actually going to defend.

The thing with reading both websites and their attendant links (e.g. to Delagar, the James G. Martin Centre or The Tattooed Professor) is that they're not exactly what I was after when I first returned to Minding the Campus... a more student centred conversation. But as my years of reading both sites suggests, I'm not disinterested by what the websites actually are. Some of the stuff they introduce me to is very interesting (e.g. apparently there's a signalling versus human capital argument in economics). And sometimes it isn't so much.

Today I don't really care about the points being made by this dude. When I was watching Thirteenth, a very good documentary he appeared in, I did. But today, The Tattooed Professor merely serves as an incidental part of the narrative. There are great many opinions I have about lectures. One day I might even feel the urge to write some of them out. But TFP's reminded me that banning laptops is a subject that attracts a great amount of anxiety among the American lecturership.

That's not very pragmatic.

When people talk about laptop bans they mean within the lecture theatre or other classroom environment. As opposed to banning laptops more generally from campus. It's an enormous difference. So what's my take on laptop bans?

You might expect that I'd be in favour of laptop bans. After all, I am anti-BYOD and isn't that exactly the same thing? No. It's not. BYOD is an Exercise Book Ban. At least, in the sense it's usually proposed as a 1:1 substitution of the school book with the laptop/tablet, no matter how inappropriate. In a more flexible set-up, BYOD is a mandatory purchase scheme. Often it doesn't even let you buy a Samsung tablet instead of a iPad. At least the old school stationery list didn't say you had to go with Warwick or Office Max. BYOD is the rort everyone says uniforms are. #triggered Anyway, the point is, BYOD and laptop bans are actually pretty much the same thing: rigid control of the means of (note) production.

Don't get me wrong, some of the reasons I use to condemn BYOD are similar to those used to justify banning laptops... namely that the evidence out there says notes written on laptops tend to less retention than notes written by hand. There different ways of talking about this. You could say, "Yeah, well, that's basically the net effect of handwriting in the long run as well" (see: the signalling link). You could criticise the evidence. You could say that "hey, this is because we haven't gone far enough yet." I emphasise the could there because...well... that last one is a dumb argument... at least, with schools.

To be honest, it's a very bad sign that the argument is  one of the conclusions of the "bad guys" in Not Our Problem If only we hadn't chickened out and pushed through all the reforms. Well, there's a reason we chickened out. And that's that people were getting hurt. (Sadly, that novel is based on a true story.) If you can't incrementally improve education through reform (based on current evidence), you shouldn't change it. Why? Because you're literally playing with childrens' lives. And their children's lives and so on (education is inter-generational #onlyreadtheabstract). So it's a problem if the evidence suggests BYOD reform doesn't spark improvements. And it's a really, really big deal if the supposed changes of the system (as I showed in the Magpie) aren't changes at all.

The thing is, university isn't like school. It's social purpose differs and its experience is always going to be very difficult. The similarity is that both involve education in an institutional setting. There is a lot of room for variety there. One of the big differences with universities is that they're kind of into the radical choice. Sure, you don't have to come to your lectures (there's no roll) but the evidence says people who do perform a lot better. Sure, you can not hand in your assignment (no-one's going to harangue you over this), but that'll make passing much harder. But American universities seem to be much more paternalistic than the ones we have in NZ. This affects them in all sorts of ways, and one of them is that they entertain this laptop ban question.

That being said, it's not like I haven't encountered laptop bans myself. Okay. One. But still. For a few interesting weeks a course that spent half its time raving about mobiles as "Weapons of Mass Distraction" the lecturers went as far as to  actually ban laptops. Now, in that course, it was only a few pyschos who were actually using laptops because due to subject and course-level features they didn't make sense, but it was the idea of it. And, trust me, essentially everyone was using laptops to do the assignments... they were in R, after all. It was not an issue.

In other courses, laptops are much more common. Marketing 303 was insane. Every time the lecturer said something you just heard the sounds of probably thousands of fingers bashing away on their keyboards... almost always their Mac keyboards (the sheep). I can type faster than I write by hand, so when I was struggling in Anthro 201 I decided to try out a few lectures on my smaller (then recently) Ubuntu-fied laptop. I didn't like the experience. But I could try it out. So I did.

One of the reason BYOD proponents are BYOD proponents is that they say things like, "Weighs less than even one textbook". Well, firstly, we didn't really use textbooks at school and when we did we left them at home. That's the relationship with textbooks at uni, too. Back when I had readings in textbooks I did bring them with me... but only if I wanted to read on the train and very rarely did I bring more than one. What I would do is use library copies. Which brings me to my second point... by and large students who show up to classes (the ones I meet) prefer to read hard copies anyway. We print readings and take them to tutorials. Not because we're not used to reading online. Not even because we don't have digital copies. But also because people who like to write by hand tend to go to tutorials more often, in my anecdotal experience (#qualification). And readings tend not to be useful in lectures... which might be veering into The Tattooed Professor's points and I said I wouldn't go there.

Where lecturers need to have a laptop policy is if other students' use of laptops is distracting. The noise of the fingers is loud, yeah, but it drones and so it drones out. It's more funny than irritating, honestly. Students who watch, say, the Cricket World Cup on their laptops? Yeah, that's a problem. An entertaining problem, true, but a problem all the same. This is best remedied by the lecturer pointing out the issue to the class as a whole... and possibly directing people who want to use laptops to sit at the back. If it was a really widespread issue? Very likely it indicates something else is going wrong in the course, but in the interests of the fee paying students who are paying attention... this is the circumstances where I can see a ban's being justifiable. Not because of the risk to the risk-taker, but to the spillovers.

Of course, the thing to remember about university is that for the most part we're talking about "professional" students... they know what works for them personally, and we should let them (us!) weigh their decisions. At a school level, well, maybe by year eleven one is in a place to make a judgement about perhaps using a laptop instead/sometimes. My issue with BYOD is the universalism. My issue with laptop bans is the parternalism. They're similar things but not the same (am I talking about BYOD/Laptop bans or the reasons I am against them? Can't tell? that's the point).

post script

It's also possible to overplay the significance of laptops. If I had a PC I would probably not have had a very different university experience. There would have been a few cases with essays and assignments where I'd have lost working time, but in my first two years we're talking about very few days where I brought my laptop with me. And once I did get the lighter laptop? Well, I don't feel like I started bringing it any more often than before. For the most part, computer usage (and even internet access) on campus was well catered to by the university's computers. Things might be a bit different this year because I am doing something different, but that remains to be seen.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Why Healthcare in NZ Implies Priorities in Advocacy

Earlier today I happened to come across this post.  It's about solidarity, but I initially paid much more attention to healthcare. This post will reflect that. So, first, the healthcare stuff:
Take healthcare. We Kiwis [ed. yuck] take such pride in our public health system. We look at the absolute disaster of American healthcare and feel very smug.
Labour’s policy platform says this about health: “a nation where all New Zealanders, regardless of income or social circumstances, are able to live longer and healthier lives because they have the knowledge to make informed health decisions and the support of a strong and adequately funded public-health system.”
That’s a damn strong set of values.
But let’s take three issues which put that principle on shaky ground. (This may be where I lose some of you.)
And, indeed, that is indeed where Rodgers lost me. But not, I think, for the reason she imagines. There is, you see, a fourth issue (i.e. beyond abortion, assisted dying and trans health care) which is much much bigger and a much much stronger criticism of that statement. It is extremely conspicuous by its absence and it is the sort of thing I interpret as proof of my views on the modern political paradigm. I speak of the very affordability and accessibility of healthcare in this country.

(The bulk of this post was written as a comment at the bottom of Rodgers' repost.)

The reality is that when it comes to healthcare in New Zealand those are relatively small issues (and assisted dying/euthanasia is always in and out of the mainstream). I die a little bit inside whenever someone tries to tell me how much better NZ's health system is than the USA's. Do you know why? It's because ours is pretty rubbish for a pretty similar symptom... there are massive access problems associated with the system. Why the USA's system is terrible for the deprived is different (that's true) and the USA's healthcare system is uncategorically worse but our system is only better in the sense of "at least it's not as bad as theirs". There is nothing to feel smug about in our healthcare system.

Visiting your GP in this country has a varying cost dependent upon where you live. For instance, we used to live across the road from a doctor but we could also have gone to the local Counties Care which was quite a lot further away. If we were enrolled at the latter site (which we shouldn't be because, you know, it's so much further away) visiting the GP would be cheaper. That's a problem.

In New Zealand, the way the subsidisation of the very basic concept of "visiting your doctor" works is not just arcane in the sense that it's hard to understand, but also in that relatively few people actually experience it. Why? Because the subsidisation is a long long way from the point of "so cheap you don't notice the price". Which is why you find emergency rooms chock to over-filling... even late at night. I know this, because I've seen this.

Probably the best bit of our system is ACC. Of course, it creates a lot of stress because you've got to fill in all these forms. The chief worry is probably that (due to not being a doctor) you're always wondering that if you tell the complete truth you're going to end up having to face costs because maybe this thing you weren't worried about last week might have caused whatever you're coming in with. And I guess ACC also creates the perverse case of trying to make things look like accidents... and then it turns out that some stuff has exceptions even though it is an accident (see the not-Botulism poisoned family)... universal no fault my arse. Which is to say, ACC has some big problems too.

Don't even get me started on how screwed up it is that we have a God-damn charity running our ambulances. And charging through the nose, if you've got the nerve to need an ambulance for something ACC won't cover. In America the state actually looks after this. Much better. Ugly ambulances, but provisioned in a rational manner. No idea if they charge through the nose also (thinking about it now, that's an almost certainty) but there you are. But where's the smugness?

Honestly, I'm not sure what it is in our health system that I can have no reservations about. I guess I can just be thankful it's better than how it was in (the post-reform) 1990s, right? But that's almost as bad as saying it's better than America's. Maybe the higher level stuff (serious illnesses and the like) is done better but the way the system should be engaging with the majority of people is screwed up in such a fashion that people just don't see a doctor. That's an enormous problem and it should attract serious attention. It doesn't. And, unfortunately, because the root cause is "not having money" the only ways anyone talks about it is through "the living wage" and where deprivation intersects with other forms of disadvantage.

That last bit is why I think Rodgers' views on solidarity are seriously challenged by the nature of healthcare in New Zealand. But before we get to the title of this blog post, I should probably quote those views, no?
When we talk about values, and say we believe in certain things, and then we turn around to people and say “shush! Wait your turn! We don’t want to talk about your health, or your lives, or the support you need, it’s a distraction!” all we do is undermine ourselves. We show that our values aren’t dearly-held and unyielding – they’re flimsy. No one elects flimsy.
This is how we improve the political prospects for the left in 2017: being bold. Standing on our principles. Even if people disagree with you, they respect you when you’re consistent and honest. [...]
This sounds good, but it has its problems. Values should be applies to circumstance, which means we need to stop acting like "flip flopping" is a great sin in politics (I'm simplifying a bit, flip flopping is more than just updating). Political values and positions that don't respond to contradictory evidence are not worth respecting. Truth has a bit of a bad name, but it's a value that everyone should have. The trouble is that Truth and Consistency are not good bedfellows.
A mass movement is not built by finding the largest homogeneous group we can and appealing solely to them. A mass movement is not built by nominating one group – like white working-class men – as the most important people to reach, and expecting women or Māori or queer activists to fall in line for the good of the cause.
That’s how we change the world. By being ourselves. Being the people who believe in solidarity and standing up for the oppressed, even if they don’t look like us or sound like us or need the same things as us.
In 2017, the challenge for the Left is not to find the magic words which will make a mythical racist white working class vote for us. It’s not to silence women or transgender folk or Indigenous people. It’s to stop buying into this divisive bullshit, and show everyone what our values are, and that a better way of doing things is possible. 
I think that Rodgers misses several key points in here. Firstly, that people who believe they've been silenced and excluded... told to sit by and wait why the real fight happens... isn't just women, Maori or queer activists. Secondly, that this sounds all rather impossible. How on earth can one do all things for all people? And I do think that's what she's saying here. Our values are, by definition, enormous and far reaching. Ultimately, I think Rodgers is working with a standard of solidarity that is not only unreasonable but actively harmful. The reason for that is scarcity.

It turns out that people have only so much time in their lives. That scarcity of time isn't, or shouldn't be, a barrier to solidarity because, hey, solidarity is signing a petition, it's driving past a strike on your way home and honking your horn or spontaneously donating some food to the strikers and it's saying you're on board. What solidarity isn't is advocating for everyone and everything. You can't do that. It's too much.

If you want to get serious about getting stuff done, you've got to have priorities. I feel like that's a non-controversial statement. In advocacy, if you don't prioritise you splinter. And you have to splinter because there just isn't enough time in the world.

I can't dedicate my energies to issues that face me (be myself) and to completely different issues that face someone else without compromise. I could half-arse both jobs, but the truth is that I care deeply about me. (I also view this as an issue of self-respect.) And that's true of most people. Solidarity thus either requires minimal effort (voicing support... i.e. prioritisation of effort) or sidelining of some subsection of groups (prioritisation). Splintering is the consequence of trying to do everything with maximum energy (i.e. no priorities).  What's keeping the movement together? It's actively trying to pull itself in all directions, all at once.

This paradigm (all values, all at once) also creates a situation where you can pull people up for not doing enough about some cause or other, or even a different parts of the same cause. That should be obvious. After all, you're competing for attention with other factions. If your faction doesn't get attention, what it is you're doing your all for is going to fall by the wayside. Other factions don't add nuances to the actual push because from the point of view or you and your fellows, every minute spent on them isn't spent on you. That's particularly clear if you're a healthcare reformer and they're education. (And let us not get started on how to handle disagreement... consider different views on how to handle sex work: illegal market, illegal buyers, legal market?)

The thing is that there's actually a very, very obvious way of prioritising effort. Advocacy for the deprived, neglected and unprivileged could be rationalised. And the way to do that is through socio-economic deprivation (otherwise known as what the left traditionally cared about). Why? Because it is either an alternative cause of the problems of an inter-sectional group (e.g. Maori would have better access to healthcare if it was accessible in general) or an exacerbating issue (e.g. the general lack of access compounds the disconnect between tikanga Maori and Westernised health provision).

In other words... actually it's an entirely sensible (and more sensible thing) to return to the old way and fighting working class fights, because, hey, it's everyone's fight. That's certainly true if the alternative is what strikes me as a naive call to be all things for all people all the time. (Racialising the working class helps no-one, however.) Although, by working-class let's not mince words... I mean the poor and the working poor (people for whom budgeting is not a solution).

Doing things this way doesn't mean neglecting other (subsidiary?) groups. For instance, you just tack on extra components when you have the time... which is something you create when all you're trying to do is a part of the struggle.

Say you're fighting for healthcare reform... you approach it from the position of building it from the ground up. It's no big deal to then chuck in some measures for trans health, for women's health, for men's health, for elderly health, for Maori health etc. etc. because you're only dealing with those things. You're not trying to simultaneously reform healthcare, provide an exhaustive set of rights for trans people, have a comprehensive reform of indigenous policies etc. etc. You pick the war (theatre), fight one war, and then try and win in every battle. Then you move on to the next war. You don't sacrifice the other wars/theatres, you just try and keep them in equilibrium/status quo. (Europe First, then the Pacific.)

If you throw full efforts behind a cause, you dedicate your best arguments and your best work. That stuff is a lot more effective and thus ultimately more efficient. It's how you achieve movement. That's why you can (metaphorically) create more time and that's why you can then add on stuff which the generalised push on wealth lines misses. If you try to do everything at once, you're never going to change the paradigm. You're going to force people to dedicate themselves to what they care about most. You may even create the Oppression Olympics, whereby it's necessary to attack other forms of unprivilege in order to finally get some attention for people like you. Solidarity isn't about doing it all, it's about giving up on the individual and making those concerns front and centre when the time for it arises. That's what I think Rodgers misses. Although, of course, I may have misunderstood her interpretation.

tl;dr -- division is the inevitable consequence of not having priorities, of holding solidarity as a call to advocate for everything rather than support it

(No-one should say Trump won because he cared about the "white" working class... people say he won because the "white" working class felt ignored and rejected by the Democrats. Or, in other words, that they felt excluded from the solidarity. Of course, in NZ Trump would never have won on account of not having most of the votes, which is another really important thing to think about when trying to use Trump as an argument for or against solidarity.)

See also my previous posts:

my criticism of state charity 

the Vimes Boot Theory