• Slash

     

     

    We – and by “we” I mean all of us – have been awfully slow to learn some important lessons.  We still believe that it is permissible to despoil our environment and destroy and waste our natural resources, and that – when we do – we are justified in saying that it was necessary in the interests of “turning a buck”, or “running a business” or “providing jobs”, and that we are then free to “clean up” the mess by tipping it into the nearest waterway and letting it wash down into the sea.

    Those seem to be the attitudes of the forestry industry, if the recent episode involving tons of “slash” – the debris left after trees have been felled – that  floated down the rivers to the coast, doing enormous damage to pasture, roads and bridges on the east coast around Tolaga Bay, is anything to go by.

    No one claims that this vandalism was deliberate.  It happened because the mess was left behind and no one could be bothered to clean it up, and it was then washed down rivers swollen by heavy rain.  But it was, at the very least, irresponsible and – typically enough – a manifestation of the attitude that “it’s not our problem”; it was regarded as a problem to be “externalised”, that is, passed on to someone else. Once the “slash” had been washed away, and had left the foresters’ land, it had supposedly been dealt with.

    Only, of course, quite apart from the damage it did on the way, surely we know by now that tipping waste, whether it be plastic bags, or dairy run-off, or slash, into the sea, does not solve such problems – it exacerbates them.  Once our waste reaches the sea, it has nowhere else to go, and the whole marine eco-system then has to bear the brunt.

    The sad thing about this most recent disaster is that it all happened in slow motion.  If you live as I do in the eastern Bay of Plenty, you will have had ample opportunity to see the crisis develop and build.  You could say that we had a foretaste of things to come.  Beaches such as Waiotahi have become over recent times almost impassable, as piles of “driftwood” (or, as we now know to call it, “slash”), have accumulated on the sand in the aftermath of every spell of heavy rain.  The warning signs of the threat posed by slash have been there, but neither the forestry industry nor the local authorities have recognised them or acted effectively to avert the damage.

    It is time that we were quicker to recognise the implications of what we do or allow others to do.  We don’t have endless chances to get it right.  Every time we make a mistake, the price is paid by the planet we live on – and sooner or later, we will find it impossible to row back.  It will not be enough to say then “if only we had known”; the damage will by then be irreversible – and what is true of “slash” is true of every other by-product irresponsibly produced by our selfish and short-term drive for profit.

    And a footnote for Eugenie Sage, the Green minister who, before the election, opposed the granting to Chinese interests of permission to bottle – free of charge – New Zealand water for export, but who – as the responsible minister – has now approved an extension of that permission.  She explained her reversal on the ground that, as a minister, she had to abide by what the law said, irrespective of her personal views.

    As a former politician myself, I always understood that most people who go into politics do so in order to carry the views they hold into policy and law so that they are given effect.  The usual pattern is that those who become ministers are thereby able to tell their ministries what to do, rather than the other way round.  I am afraid that the minister’s about-face has done damage to both the resources she is allegedly committed to protect and to the reputation of politicians.

    Bryan Gould

    14 June 2018

     

  • Let’s Have A Fairer Wage Bargain

    Cheerleaders for the “free” market always insist that the market is infallible and always gets it “right”, and so should never be challenged or second-guessed.

    When they say that the market gets it “right”, they are not making a moral judgment.  By “right”, they mean that there is no other option because, they say, the market is not concerned with morality and automatically arrives at the best outcomes.  Any attempt to intervene would mean outcomes that are less than optimal.

    This touching faith in the accuracy and objectivity of the market assumes of course that market operators are always in possession of all the necessary information about market conditions and have equal bargaining power.  Even the most purblind of believers in the market’s infallibility would concede that a significant imbalance in bargaining power or in access to relevant information would mean that the market must produce a flawed result for the parties so disadvantaged.

    The debate about such issues becomes even more pointed when the market being considered is the market for labour.  Given the way in which our economy operates, it is almost always the case that it is employers who have the whip hand.  In most circumstances, the employer will be able to pick and choose from those seeking work, and will usually be able to say that if an applicant does not like the terms (including the wages) that are offered, there will be others who won’t be so hard to please.

    Most people will quickly understand that – as between a large corporation and an individual worker – the balance of advantage lies clearly with the corporation when it comes to negotiating the wage bargain.

    That conclusion is confirmed by the shift in the relative share of wages on the one hand and of profits on the other in our economy over recent years.  The power of the employer – particularly since the 1970s, the period when “free market” policies have been in place – has meant that the share of corporate profits has risen, but the share going to wages has fallen.

    Little wonder, then, that those concerned about growing inequality and poverty in our society might question whether the “free” market for labour always gets it “right”.  The labour market, after all, is not just another market for commodities – it is a market that determines the living standards and sense of self-worth of large numbers of our fellow-citizens, and that defines the kind of society we (and they) live in.

    A “free” market that allows the powerful (whether private employers or government departments) to exploit the relative lack of bargaining power of the individual worker cannot be regarded as producing the “right” or “best” outcomes.  Our modern-day society would be happier with itself if wage bargaining were not so unfairly tilted in favour of the employer.

    How is that to be achieved?  In a democracy, it is up to us, if we so choose, to elect a government that is committed to intervening in the labour market to ensure that the parties are in a more equal position and are required to agree on certain basic features of the wage bargain – features that will ensure proper conditions at work and a fair return to those devoting their working lives to an employer.

    It is a safe bet that many of those who voted last year for one or other of the parties that now comprise the governing coalition did so in the belief that they would thereby produce just such a government.  It is encouraging that one of our most experienced and thoughtful politicians – Jim Bolger, who has an unrivalled long perspective on where we have gone wrong – has agreed to head up the new government’s effort to put things right.

    The ideologues are of course aghast that our elected government might seek to second-guess the market.  Let us hope that ideological blinkers will not dissuade us from achieving greater fairness in the way we distribute the fruits of our economic success.  That success becomes all the more likely if all those contributing are assured that their efforts will be properly rewarded – and is a further step in making our country a better place to live.

    Bryan Gould

    7 June 2018

     

  • At Last – A Republican Who Tells It Like It Is

    As President Trump stumbles from one bungle to the next, particularly in the field of diplomacy, the mystery is that the Republicans have stayed silent, and have offered no dissent or criticism in response to Trump’s many failings – not just in respect of foreign affairs but in domestic affairs (of which there have been many) as well.

    But, at last a Republican Senator has had the courage to break ranks and tell it like it is.  The Arizona Senator, Jeff Flake, has just published a book, titled “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and A Return to Principle”, which spares Trump nothing in its condemnation of his moral and policy mis-steps.  And Senator Flake has gone further, lambasting the President in a recent speech in these terms:

    “Our presidency has been debased by a figure who has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division and only a passing familiarity with how the Constitution works…the Congress, is utterly supine in the face of the moral vandalism that flows from the White House daily…I do not think that the founders could have anticipated that the beauty of their invention might someday founder on the rocks of reality television, and that the Congress would be such willing accomplices to this calamity. Well, simply put: We may have hit bottom.”

    It is hard to over-state the sense of despair, disbelief and disgust that these words express.  They cannot be dismissed as the complaints of a political opponent.  We can only assume that there are other senior Republicans who feel similarly but who do not have the courage to risk their seats in Congress or their political futures if they tell the truth.

    As it happens (and not surprisingly, since they come thick and fast), this development comes hard on the heels of yet another Trump debacle – the cancellation of his meeting with Kim Jong Un.  The episode tells us a great deal about Trump’s order of priorities and how his mind works.

    We know that President Trump saw his meeting with the North Korean leader as a defining achievement of his Presidency, and it did, in truth, offer a brief hope of an enduring peace on the Korean peninsula and a permanent relief from the threat of nuclear war.

    But, important though these worthy goals may have been, they were clearly not the outcomes that were uppermost in Donald Trump’s mind.  How do we know this?  Not just because of the pleasure that Trump obviously derived from the (faintly ridiculous) suggestions that he should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but because we have seen photographs of the impressive celebratory coins that Trump had struck  – coins that bore the profiles of both Trump and Kim – to mark the historic meeting even before it had happened.

    The boost to Trump’s ego was apparently so valuable and tempting that he could not forbear from claiming it even before the meeting had taken place – and now that the meeting may not after all take place – he is left, not with egg, but fragments of precious metals, on his face.

    We should all be alarmed that international relations, involving major questions of war and peace, and nuclear war or not, should be in the hands of someone whose priorities are so narrow and self-serving.  Even more seriously, major decisions are being taken by someone who displays a lack of understanding of how other countries react when they are insultingly treated – taken for granted, threatened and pushed around.

    The Singapore meeting, if it was to happen, had to be preceded by the most careful preparation, to make sure that both parties knew exactly what was in the other’s mind.  We now know that what was in Trump’s mind was the potential boost to his popularity, not the unresolved questions as to what Kim meant by de-nuclearisation.  And any chance that Kim would be prepared to offer what the Americans wanted was certainly dashed by the crude threat that Kim, if he failed to come up to scratch, would suffer the same fate as Colonel Gadaffi of Libya.

    Instead of those careful preparations, however, we had a repetition of nuclear threats and boasting by Trump about American military might.  That Nobel Prize now looks a long way away – and Senator Flake may soon find that he has some company in the Republican Party.

    Bryan Gould

    25 May 2018

  • Big Rocket Man?

    As with any informed discussion, facts are important in the political debate.  But, all too often, the facts are submerged by the spin put on them by the politicians – and what we hear in the end is the story about the facts, rather than the facts themselves.

    A classic instance is the meeting organised to take place in Singapore next month between President Trump and President Kim Jong Un of North Korea.  To hear the way Donald Trump tells it, the meeting is a triumph for his brand of “diplomacy” – his insults and threats of nuclear attack and trade embargos have, we are told, forced a reluctant North Korean dictator to the negotiating table where he will make a number of concessions.  Trump is able to parade as both a tough leader, “putting America first”, and as a peace-maker.

    But it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the narrative that Kim Jong Un has no doubt put before his own domestic audience – and an attentive international audience as well.

    My focus on developing a nuclear capability has paid off big-time, he will say.   The strategy has meant that the leader of the most powerful country in the world has asked to meet me and seek a deal. I am able to meet him as an equal – I also head a nuclear-armed state.  And he will need me to help him, so that he can tell his people at home that the meeting was a success – there will be no more patronising insults.  “Little rocket man” has become “big rocket man!”

    And Kim can go further.  Now that I have established this elevated status for my country, he can say, I have been able to show how magnanimous and far-sighted I am.  Now that we have nuclear weapons and delivery systems that mean that our rockets can reach America, I do not need further nuclear tests and rocket trials, so I will happily offer a “concession” to this effect; I already have all the capability I need to make sure that no one pushes us around.

    I am happy to give assurances not only to the Americans, but also to the Japanese and other countries who are nervous about our ability to attack them that we have no intention of doing so.  And I can demonstrate our peaceful intentions by making new overtures to our brothers in South Korea, as I have done, crossing the border and bringing an end to the state of war between us, showing Koreans in both the North and the South that we are one people and that I am the one person with the strength and vision to unite them.

    Not only do I know that this vision of the future commend itself to Koreans, but it also has the support of our backers and sponsors in China (who are much more important to us than are the Americans) and who will continue to help us to lift living standards and improve civil liberties at home.  We do not need democracy to show that my popularity at home has grown in leaps and bounds in response to the initiatives I have taken.

    It is not a bad story, is it?  It provides a persuasive alternative to the American account of what has happened and will happen.  Like the Trumpian story, it is of course designed to identify the teller as the hero, and to place him centre-stage and to show him in a good light; but, tellingly, it has the additional virtue of corresponding quite closely with the facts and that is no doubt how it will be seen around the world.  Donald Trump, eat your heart out.

    Bryan Gould

    13 May 2018

     

  • What Was He Doing?

    Simon Bridges’ explanation that his hitting of the “like” button on Cameron Slater’s Twitter post ridiculing the Prime Minister’s partner, Clarke Gayford, was “accidental” should no doubt be taken at face value.  It beggars belief that the National party leader would allow himself to be seen as openly supporting such a disreputable campaign, especially after he had so publicly warned his party against being associated with it in any way.

    But, even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, his admission raises a number of questions which need answering.  Any association between senior members of the National party and Cameron Slater will revive memories of the allegations made before the last election that “dirty tricks” and “the black arts” were employed by the party and that Cameron Slater was their attack dog of choice.

    Slater was known to be particularly close to Judith Collins; they are on record as instructing each other on how to treat their opponents and congratulating each other on their “successes”.    Slater regarded Collins as his mentor, while she saw him as a partner in crime, prepared to use any means to inflict damage on those who could be seen as enemies.  She advocated what she called the Double Rule, meaning that if someone attacked you or was opposed to you, you hit them back twice as hard. “If you can’t be loved, then best to be feared,” she said.

    With this link fresh in the public mind, why, in other words, was Simon Bridges following Cameron Slater on Twitter in the first place?  It was surely sailing too close to the wind to run the risk of re-establishing in the public mind the impression that National’s leadership was still working closely with the notorious blogger.  Bridges has his hands full enough in trying to establish himself favourably in the public mind without making the task more difficult by rubbing shoulders with such unhelpful “allies”.

    And when Simon Bridges identified Slater’s post concerning Clarke Gayford and its import, why did he linger long enough to allow his thumb to wander to an inappropriate button?  And if he can’t control his own thumb, what chance does he have of controlling his party, Judith Collins and all?

    The whole episode is a sad commentary on the state of New Zealand politics and public life.  Politics is a tough business, and there is a tendency on the part of its practitioners (and perhaps of the public as well) to believe that “all’s fair in love and war – and politics” and that “the ends justify the means”.  But once we allow this to be accepted, we have lost one of the most valued principles of our public life and one that we have traditionally celebrated – that we have the right to expect of our political leaders that they should conduct themselves with honesty and decency.

    If that is once lost, then “anything goes”, no one can be trusted, and the whole point and purpose of democratic government is cast aside and destroyed.  The episode tells us that it is not just Simon Bridges’ reputation that is at stake but that important standards are at risk – and that we are at least entitled to say to him, when assessing (and accepting) his explanation, “not good enough – must try harder”.

    Bryan Gould

    10 May 2018