• Lies and Lies and Lies

    When Shepard Smith of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News lambasted Donald Trump on-screen this week for ‘lie after lie after lie’, it was a hugely significant turning point for the Trump presidency.  The President has hitherto been able to rely on the uncritical support of the right-wing media, so – when he cannot easily dismiss Smith’s condemnation as “fake news” – he is left to explain to his equally uncritical supporters why even his friends in the media have had enough of his cavalier treatment of the truth.

    His critics, of course, will ask why it has taken so long for supposedly responsible news reporters to call him out on his more egregious flirtations with falsehood.  And, for students of the political process, it raises the question of whether Donald Trump has any longer even a rudimentary understanding of what the truth is.

    It seems clear to me that the President long ago ceased to recognise that there is such a thing as an objective truth.  He has after all built a whole career on a simple proposition – that the truth is what people believe, and that it can therefore be established, whatever the objectively determined facts might suggest, by the degree of confidence and persuasiveness with which it can be declared.  If people believe what you say, that is enough – the truth is thereby established for all practical purposes.

    He discovered in his business career, and in building his public image, that force of personality and the credibility that comes from celebrity were much more important than the facts; and, as the boss of his own commercial empire, he surrounded himself with toadies who knew that their jobs depended on believing whatever he told them.  He has carried that experience with him into politics where it has again proved its worth in persuading people to vote for him.

    He saw no need to abandon this tried and true approach to the truth when he reached the White House.  Indeed, as early as his inauguration, we saw the technique at work.  He was quite happy to declare, in the face of the established facts, that the margin of his victory was one of the greatest on record and – even more ambitiously, given the visual recordings of both events – that the turnout for his inauguration was greater than that for his predecessor.  The gullibility of his supporters, he thought, would be enough to win the day.

    Despite some reverses, and the degree of scrutiny to which he is now subject, he has not lost confidence in his ability to declare that black is white.  As long as he is believed, by his supporters in particular, the “truth” is thereby established.  We can expect much more of the same – unless there are more Shepard Smiths prepared to do their jobs properly.

    The issue that prompted Smith’s exasperated declaration was the meeting held during the campaign by members of the Trump campaign team, including Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jnr, with a range of Russian figures, including representatives of the Russian government and security services.

    The meeting was kept secret and its existence denied – and even when news of it broke, the purpose of the meeting and the identity of those attending was misrepresented.  The person doing the misrepresenting was none other than the President’s son – truly a “chip off the old block” if the extent of his lies is anything to go by.  He seems to have well and truly learnt the lesson provided by observing his father’s example over many years – that it matters little what really happened as long as the preferred, even if false, version is presented with sufficient confidence and certainty.

    It is always distressing to realise that a person one has dealings with is unable to tell the truth – and is, not to point too fine a point on it, a congenital liar.  It is not just distressing, but alarming, when that person is the President of the United States.

    We cannot expect Donald Trump to recant or to change the habits of a lifetime, so what is to be done?  The one glimmer of hope is that Trump’s poll ratings have slumped dramatically to record low levels.  Perhaps ordinary people have at last had enough and have enough self-respect to demand that their elected leaders are worthy of their trust.  Perhaps some of that self-respect will rub off on Trump’s political colleagues, and they will act before bad gets worse .

    Bryan Gould

    17 July 2017

     

  • What Stops Us from Housing the Homeless?

    What is your reaction when you read or hear about families (especially those with young children) sleeping in cars or in garages or simply on the streets in this cold weather?

    Do you, as I think many do, feel a brief flicker of concern but reassure yourself that the adults who find themselves in such a plight have to be feckless or inadequate or irresponsible, and therefore deserve no better?  Do you say to yourself that anyone who cannot organise their lives to provide a roof over their heads cannot expect others (and particularly the taxpayer) to bail them out?  And do you stick to that view, even while reluctantly agreeing that it is a little rough to make children pay the price for their parents’ assumed deficiencies?

    If your answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, then you are in good company – because that is broadly the government’s answer too.  But then, are you happy with a government and a Prime Minister who could, with the stroke of a pen, authorise the expenditure that would get these families and children off the streets, and into safe, warm and healthy accommodation, but refuses to do so?  Are you happy to stick to what might loosely be called your principles and to let the dice lie where they fall, come what may  – even if the dice are the only cover that some of your fellow citizens might have available?

    Is there no room in politics for a simple human reaction to the plight of another – for a simple act of compassion and kindness?  What is it that makes us think that governments cannot, and should not, be expected to behave as any ordinary decent human being would do?

    And what conclusion would you reach if, after a moment’s thought, you realised that these benighted homeless families were not actually the authors of their own misfortunes but were in fact the victims of forces over which they have no control – that they were paying the price for the unceasing quest for ever higher profits by banks, landlords, developers, all of whom have played a significant part in ratcheting up  purchase prices and rents to levels that cannot be afforded?

    Do you think that you have any power to hold the government that we elected to account, presiding as it does over the disposition of the billions we provide to them as taxpayers, for their failure in a wealthy country to ensure that some small part of our riches is devoted to ensuring that children have somewhere warm and safe to sleep at night?

    Have you imagined what it would be like to have nowhere to lay your head, on the coldest nights of the year?

    What is to stop a Prime Minister from saying to himself, if not to others, that it is an affront to live in a society that pretends it cannot afford to provide a simple roof over the heads of our most vulnerable?  Why does he not listen to his conscience and instruct his ministers and civil servants that an immediate solution must be found today, and that a long-term solution must planned for and financed tomorrow?

    And why do we not stop to question a system that leaves the vulnerable defenceless against the depredations of the greedy?  Why do we not say that this is not the New Zealand we wish to live in or thought  we lived in?  Why do we not make sure that our political leaders understand that we elect them to do our bidding, and that our bidding is that decent housing is the minimum that every child has a right to expect and that it must be made available?

    Or would you prefer to find refuge in the thought that the homeless do not deserve to be helped, that it would cost too much to do so, that they should learn to help themselves, that they would waste any opportunity given to them, that the government cannot afford it and needs to protect its own surplus, and that you would in any case prefer to enjoy some tax cuts?

    Solving the homelessness crisis is a matter of political will.  Do you have that will?   And will you make sure that your will prevails?

    Bryan Gould

    17 July 2017

  • Is Donald Trump Real?

    Many Trump supporters are no doubt bemused at reports that, as evidenced by opinion polls across the globe, the USA’s standing in the eyes of the world has fallen sharply under a Trump Presidency.  They will be further perplexed by the mixed receptions for the President delivered in countries usually friendly to the USA, and promised in those he is yet to visit.

    And, they will ask, was the President deliberately snubbed by the wife of the Polish president?  And why was he isolated by other world leaders at the G20 summit in Hamburg?

    They do not perhaps understand that these responses to Donald Trump reflect the widely held view that he is not even a halfway decent President – and, rather more importantly, the even more widely held view that he is even less a halfway decent human being.

    It is no exaggeration to say that America’s friends around the world are aghast at the fact that American voters apparently believe that such a person is fit to govern and represent them, let alone to lead the “free world”.

    Such views have been cumulatively confirmed as we learn more – from the President’s own actions and more particularly words (courtesy of Twitter) – as to exactly what kind of person he is.

    It was hoped that the Donald Trump we saw on the campaign trail was a fabrication designed to capture headlines and attention, but one that would be put to one side in the unlikely (so it seemed) event that he would take up the reins of office.

    Sadly, the man we saw during the campaign, having installed himself in the White House, has revealed himself to be the real Donald Trump, so far as there is one.

    We now know beyond peradventure that the man who is President has the mind of an overgrown and spoilt schoolboy – a self-obsessed schoolyard bully, a bigot, a braggart, vindictive, ignorant, living in a comic-strip world, and with a prurient interest in, but limited understanding of, the opposite sex.

    The juvenile behaviour, the “yah boo sucks” language, the trivial vendettas – most importantly, the inability to grasp what his role really entails, and the limitations which the constitution imposes on his powers – are all signs of arrested development, wrapped up in what passes for, just about, the body of an overweight male adult.

    These flaws make it difficult to take him seriously.  He was probably wise not to echo JFK’s famous salute to the people of Berlin – “Ich bin ein Berliner” – when he, Trump, arrived in Hamburg.

    But the problem is that American voters have entrusted him with serious powers – powers to decide between war and peace, powers to risk the future of the planet in respect of climate change, powers to deny 23 million Americans a semblance of effective health care for the sake of putting in place hundreds of billions of tax cuts for his rich friends.

    And he is intent on further using those powers to divide races and religions against other, to portray his opponents as enemies, to promote – using his powers as President – his family’s and his own business interests, and to issue threats to a free press and an independent judiciary.

    With each new self-inflicted wound, each new glimpse into a Presidential mind like a sewer, there is a sense of revulsion and disbelief.  America’s friends are unfamiliar with the intricacies of the American constitution, but they are increasingly desperate that “something should be done”.

    If the President’s state of mind gives cause for concern, as it does – if he often seems lost and confused – what remedies are available?  If he loses touch with reality – and seems often to be acting out the role of an imagined Donald Trump as though it was just a televisual image in a fantasy world – what can be done to restore a sense of reality before irreparable damage is done?

    The leaders of the Republican party bear a heavy responsibility.  Republican votes will be needed if effective action is to be taken.  They alone have the power to deliver those votes.  The question is – what takes priority, the interests of the party or the country – or, for that matter, the world?

    Bryan Gould

    7 July 2017

     

     

  • What Happened to That Penalty?

    Let us be clear.  The Lions deserved to draw the series.  Given the odds they faced, they showed great skill and commitment to play the world champions to a draw.  Warren Gatland, his captain and his team can depart these shores with honour and the sense of a job well done.

    Nor was there anything fortuitous about their comparative success.  They presented the All Blacks with real challenges, with their rush defence, the accurate box kicking and the physicality of their Irish loose forwards in particular.  There were some aspects of their game on the other hand that, by contrast, did not quite live up to their billing – the scrum in particular – but, on the whole, they deserve the plaudits they have received.

    It is in no sense an attempt to deny that credit to them that, reflecting in part the sense of unfinished business that both sides must feel, we must register the critical influence of the referees on the results of the two tests the All Blacks failed to win.  Those disappointed by match outcomes are always likely to complain about refereeing decisions – but there can be little doubt that the All Blacks, in the second and third tests, were done no favours by the inconsistent (at best) rulings of the two French referees.

    A couple of instances will make the point.  It is no exaggeration to say that the critical moment in the series was the deserved red card for Sonny Bill Williams in the second test for an unintentional shoulder charge to the head. It meant that the ABs played the greater part of that match a man down, and he was then suspended for the following match so that the ABs were denied his particular skills and experience in the third test.

    Contrast that with the yellow card given to Mako Vunipola in the second test for what was undoubtedly an intentional shoulder charge to the head of a player – Beauden Barrett – who was sitting on the ground.  Vunipola received the lesser penalty of the yellow card and was able to play in the third test.  Referee Garces was hardly a model of consistency.

    An even more striking instance of refereeing frailty and inconsistency can be seen when we compare the closing moments of the second and third tests and the impact of referee’s decisions on their outcomes.

    Owen Farrell kicked the winning penalty in the second test when a penalty was awarded against Charlie Faumuina for tackling Kyle Sinckler in the air in front of the ABs’ posts.  The Faumuina tackle was perfectly lawful – even run-of-the-mill – in itself.  What converted it, according to the referee, into an illegal action was that, as Faumuina launched himself to tackle a player about to receive the ball, that player happened to jump a few inches off the ground as the ball from Conor Murray reached him.

    The episode was completely innocuous and it was the most technical of offences, but the referee had no hesitation in awarding what was likely to prove, and was, a match-winning penalty to the Lions.  Let us now switch focus to the last couple of minutes of the third test.

    In this case, in an incident all too familiar to anyone with any knowledge of rugby, a Lions forward failed to take the ball cleanly when the ABs kicked off, the ball bounced forward, and it was instinctively but no doubt inadvertently handled by the replacement Lions hooker, Ken Owens, who was standing in an offside position.

    He immediately realised what he had done and threw up his hands in an apparent attempt at disclaimer.  The referee immediately awarded a penalty in a kickable position.  Anton Lienert Brown, who had snapped up the ball when Owens threw it away and was heading for the try line, stopped when he heard the whistle and saw the referee’s uplifted arm.

    The referee almost immediately recognised the possibly match-deciding significance of what he had done.  He then asked to look at video footage of the incident, perhaps expecting or even hoping that he would see something that might get him off a potentially painful hook.

    The video footage showed, as conformed by the video referee, that Kieran Read had legitimately challenged for the ball and that the ball had indeed gone forward – albeit marginally – from the failed catch.  There was therefore no reason to change his original, and clearly signalled, decision.  He nevertheless did so.

    The opportunity for Beauden Barrett to kick the goal,(and who knows whether he would have done so) and thereby win the test and the series was therefore denied.  Why?  We may never have a satisfactory explanation.  The weighty implications of the decision, and the point reached in the match and the series, should not have been a factor, just as they seem not to have been for referee Garces in the second test.

    It is at the very least unsatisfactory that a great series should turn on a referee apparently chickening out in this way.  We take nothing away from the Lions, but we should expect better, and the match deserved better, than this from an international referee.

    Bryan Gould

    9 July 2017

     

  • Who Is Responsible for Housing Affordability?

    The solution to Auckland’s twin housing problems of homelessness and unaffordability seems as far away as ever, despite the much-trumpeted Housing Accord signed by the Auckland Council and the government.

    I say “seems” since it appears that no one has the information that allows us to make an accurate judgment.  Under the Accord, which was approved in September 2013, ten per cent of the new homes built in Special Housing Areas have to be affordable housing – that is, houses that could be purchased by a first-home buyer on a modest income.

    It is now clear that, such is the lack of seriousness with which these issues are being tackled, neither of the signatories has bothered to keep a reliable (or any) record of how many affordable homes have actually been produced and what proportion they represent of the new houses that have been built.

    In the meantime, the median house price in Auckland has risen to over $860,000 – hardly most people’s definition of “affordable” – and the average price is higher still.  The Housing Minister, Nick Smith, tried to deflect criticism when questioned by asserting that it is not the government’s responsibility to see that the promised affordable houses are produced – even though it is his signature that commits the government to achieving the targets identified by the Accord.

    He concedes that the government has failed to check that private developers meet their obligation to declare formally that 10% of the new houses built are affordable; he argues instead that the much delayed pick-up in new housing consents will eventually help, as and when the houses are built, to restrain the rise in house prices, even as they continue to rise, albeit a little more slowly.  He thereby by implication consigns the 10% affordable houses target to the scrap heap.

    This is, of course, entirely predictable and in line with the government’s conviction that the private market can be trusted to solve the affordability problem.  Why should we even bother, the government says, to make sure that the government’s friends in the development industry keep their word on affordability when increased supply alone will do the trick?

    So wedded are the government to this view that we can now, it seems, treat the Housing Accord, and the commitments required of developers, as just so much waste paper – a perception reinforced by this week’s news that more than half of the Special Housing Areas have been scrapped.  Nick Smith’s signature seems to mean nothing.

    What this debacle reveals is a complete failure to identify the true causes of the problem.  Ministers and others cannot seem to get their heads around a very simple proposition.  If you have an asset (like land and, by extension, housing) that is in limited supply, but you have a virtually unlimited supply of purchasing power chasing that asset, the inevitable consequence is that the price of that asset will rise and will go on rising inexorably.

    Even if (with or without a meaningful Housing Accord) you manage to increase the supply a little at the margin, but do nothing to restrain the volume of demand for the asset (or the purchasing power available to purchase it), the only outcome will be – as mortgage lending increases to match the increased supply – higher prices (and profits) across the greater volume of the asset.  And that is even more likely if you take no steps to enforce any commitment agreed with those controlling the asset whereby they undertake to provide certain classes of the asset on favourable terms.

    The proposition that increased supply will resolve the unaffordability problem is, even assuming that Nick Smith actually believes it, nothing more than a con trick – a trick designed to benefit private developers, but destined to betray those who have been priced out of the housing market.  And so, prices go on rising, even if marginally more slowly.

    Ministers have no excuse for adhering to such evidently mistaken nostrums.  They need only look to the analysis developed by the Reserve Bank.  The central bank has demonstrated, through its introduction of loan-to-value ratios and debt-to-income ratios, its understanding that only the restriction of the otherwise unlimited power of the banks to create money by making loans on mortgage will succeed in restraining the rise in housing prices – and such fall as there has been in the rate of increase is clearly attributable to the introduction of these measures.

    But rather than concede and act further on this simple point, Nick Smith prefers to inflate the developers’ profits, disappoint those who cannot afford to buy their own home, and disclaim all responsibility for his own signature.

    And if he really believes that it is exclusively supply, rather than demand, that is the problem, why does he not, rather than sub-contract it to developers, take that problem on himself – by tasking the government to build the affordable houses that are needed?

    Bryan Gould

    6 July 2017