The Dim-Post

March 5, 2015

And we’re off

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:06 am

Yesterday in preparation for the Hager/Snowden revelations the Prime Minister warned that it was all a lie. Today the talking point is that everyone always knew that the GCSB carried out surveillance in the Pacific, so who cares?

It’s true, we did know that. But we didn’t know it was mass surveillance, and we didn’t know that all of the data was simply forwarded to the US. The argument for the GCSB’s activities has always been that it safeguards our regional security interests. But now we know that its primary function is diplomatic. It collects data that the US can’t and forwards it on, and in exchange we get to be members of the Five-Eyes alliance.

Now, you could argue that Five-Eyes membership is a big win for safe-guarding our regional security. Maybe it is, I don’t really know. We’re not exactly beset by threats down here. But this is an area in which ‘national interest’ and the interests of politicians, diplomats and intelligence elites blur into each other. If you’re the Prime Minister or the head of the GCSB, or MFAT, then participation in this club is a huge win. Key gets to go to the White House and play golf with Obama. Our spies get access to global information networks. We get free stuff from the US. Totally awesome. No question that this is a great deal for them.

What’s unclear is whether any of this delivers any gains at all to the New Zealand public. Does spying on everyone in Kiribati and giving the information to the US keep us safe from terrorists, etc? Maybe in a super-indirect way it does! But it seems more likely – to me – that the benefits go to members of our political elite and the rhetoric about ‘keeping us safe’ is mostly nonsense.

GCSB in the Pacific

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 6:17 am
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The first Hager/Snowden story is up on the Herald. It shows that the GCSB is engaged in extensive surveillance in the Pacific, intercepting all network and telecommunications traffic in the area and routing it to NSA facilities in the US. (When GCSB analysts need to access the data they’ve intercepted they do so via NSA databases).

I don’t think its controversial for the GSCB to conduct operations in the Pacific. It’s our ‘sphere of influence’. There are coups in the Pacific. There’s corruption. Money-laundering, which is probably related to organised crime and could conceivably be funding terrorism. We have economic interests in the region, and despite all the rhetoric about ‘keeping us safe’, spying is frequently conducted for commercial purposes.

The problem is that almost all surveillance is now mass surveillance. Intelligence operations used to be targeted against individuals or companies or groups or governments. Now it’s just easier to spy on everyone and mine the data for targets of interest. So we’re violating the privacy of hundreds of thousands of people who live in nations that are friendly to us with no justification other than that it is technologically convenient.

The spies and politicians who enable them will bark, red-faced, that this is not mass-surveillance, because they don’t class gathering data as surveillance, only looking at it. The problem, as Snowden demonstrated, is that an awful lot of people can look at it. There are hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of people across the five-eye countries that can access this data.

And the agencies themselves seem untrustworthy. The oversight is inadequate. Last year we found out that the head of the SIS was passing on misleading information to political staffers in the Prime Minister’s office to discredit the leader of the opposition.

These security agencies have incredible powers. They justify them on the basis that they’re ‘keeping us safe’. Nothing we know about them suggests that they do anything of the kind. Everything we do know about them involves them lying to us and abusing their powers. If we’re going to have a state that conducts mass-surveillance – and apparently we are, because we do – then it needs to be implemented and regulated properly.

As for Five-Eyes, I guess New Zealand’s attitude towards it is basically a realist/fatalist position. If there is going to be a terrifying global Orwellian mass surveillance network we might as well be members of it. That might change when the inevitable stories of its abuse surface.

March 3, 2015

Hammond vs Credit Union Baywide

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 10:53 am

I was wondering why there’s been so much media about the $168,000 rude cake on Facebook HRT finding, and then I read the Tribunal decision which you can find here. It is very long, and amazing in a way that can’t really be summed up in a newspaper article. It depicts a culture of senior managers in an organisation who behave like toxic sociopaths and pour huge amounts of energy into settling petty vindictive scores – at the cost of running their business properly – but communicate all their awful, moronic, mostly illegal actions via a stream of bland corporate drivel and HR jargon about process and culture and branding and leadership. A particular low point is when they contact their victim’s new employer, who is desperately ill from chemotherapy treatment and urge him to sack her under the ninety day fire-at-will provision, threatening to withdraw their custom from his business and bankrupt it if he refuses to do so (signed off with a cheery ‘Kind Regards’).

I suspect this depiction of a malevolent management culture resonates with a lot of journalists working in New Zealand newsrooms. But there’s also a political dimension. All of National’s pro-employer labour market reforms are justified on the basis that employers won’t abuse them because there’s no financial incentive for them to do so. Yet here we have a detailed account of a financial institution that seems way more interested in bullying their staff and destroying people’s lives than making money or ‘maximizing shareholder value’ and they use National’s reforms to do it.

March 2, 2015

What we talk about when we talk about donations and political corruption

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 11:15 am
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Matt Nippert and the data journalism team at the Herald are uploading all of the electoral donations and crowdsourcing an analysis of it. All sorts of interesting things are cropping up. Like this:

New Labour MP Stuart Nash was bankrolled to the tune of $4000 a month by political backers for more than a year leading up to last year’s general election.

Mr Nash’s $99,000 in candidate donations meant his warchest ranked only behind Hone Harawira’s $105,000 courtesy of the Kim Dotcom and his Internet Party as being the country’s best-funded candidate.

And this:

Talley’s Group, a family-owned fishing and meat processing company based in Nelson, poured $42,500 into no fewer than nine separate races, mostly favouring National candidates fighting for regional seats.

Three members of the primary production select committee – Chester Borrows, Stuart Smith and Damien O’Connor – each received $5000.

Also, National is engaged in large-scale form of ‘legal laundering’:

An analysis of electoral finance declarations shows more than 80 per cent of donations to National Party candidates were channelled through party headquarters in a loophole described as akin to legal “laundering”.

National’s heavy reliance on funding candidates with donations from the party – shown in a Herald study to account for more than $1m out of $1.2m raised by their candidates for the 2014 general election – was a “striking use of electoral law that appears to be laundering the money”, said Otago University political science lecturer Bryce Edwards.

Electoral law requires candidates to reveal the identity of donors who contribute $1,500 or more, but political parties can keep donors secret even if they give up to $15,000.

Meanwhile Andrew Geddis points out the extremely unusual circumstances around Donghui Liu’s donation to Jamie-Lee Ross.

MPs and other political insiders get really upset if you suggest to them that this is all basically political corruption. Partly this is down to their massive egos. MPs don’t think it’s strange that corporations just give them huge sums of money. Are they not extraordinary individuals? Have they not been chosen by destiny to lead the nation? Related to that is cognitive dissonance. The system around political donations might look totally corrupt, but MPs all know that they personally are not corrupt – how dare anyone suggest that? – so Tallys must just be giving free money to the MPs that happen to sit on the Select Committee that oversees and regulates their industry because they personally believe in those individual MPs.

MPs also very quickly point out that the donations are not transactional. No one ever says ‘I’ll pay you a hundred thousand dollars and you’ll get a law passed for me.’ Which is superficially true but substantively false. Political scientists refer to the political donation system as a gift economy. Donations create a sense of obligation. It is basically like getting invited to a wedding: everyone understands that you have to reciprocate and buy the couple a gift. It doesn’t explicitly say that on the invite because it doesn’t have to.

The solutions are simple: (a) transparency, which means shutting down National’s latest donation laundering scam, and (b) strict policing of conflict of interest. If corporations believe in certain MPs so much they just have to shower them with money then that’s great, but those donations should preclude those MPs from sitting on Select Committees or holding portfolios that impact on their donors. Let’s see how devoted these companies remain if their political clients can’t deliver law changes for them.

February 24, 2015

Off to Iraq

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 5:23 pm
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  • I’m not as outraged at Key and National as most people on the left, because I think that if Labour were in government our commitment to the latest US/UK adventure in Iraq would be pretty much identical. The marketing would be different: our troops would be providing ‘humanitarian aid': painting schools, standing up for women’s rights, and so on, instead of National’s more paternal ‘training the Iraqi army’ pretext. But I just can’t see a Labour PM saying ‘no’ to Obama.
  • Also, our defense chiefs and MFAT mandarins will have been in Key’s office for months, gibbering and howling like rabid monkeys that we ‘have to get in the game, have to be in the room, have to be at the table’ regarding Iraq because urging our involvement in every single British and American military action seems like pretty much all we pay these guys to do. Key seems to be making the minimal commitment – sixteen trainers – he can to satisfy our allies and their ‘deep state’ servants/clients in the New Zealand public service.
  • The Atlantic Monthly had an article on ‘What ISIS really wants‘ which I found helpful. I was struck by the similarities between ISIS and the Khmer Rouge. It almost seems like bombing a country to rubble and destroying all its civic institutions has terrible repercussions and leads to the rise of obscene murderous extremist groups. So I’m pessimistic that the upcoming western air campaign against ISIS will lead to great things downstream, or that New Zealand is ‘doing the right thing’ by enabling it.

February 23, 2015

Morbid Symptoms

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 10:05 am
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The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear – Antonio Gramsci

ACT held their annual conference last weekend, so the Herald et al have been running columns and profiles and news stories, all to pretend that ACT is a real political party and not a loophole in the electoral law for National to pour taxpayer money into.

The premise of all this is that ACT will rebuild under ‘classical liberal’ David Seymour. It’s all nonsense. ACT was never a classical liberal party (and the whole notion of ‘classical liberalism’ seems more and more risible to me: a bunch of guys who are outraged about, say, the threat to freedom caused by anti-tobacco regulation but indifferent to the expansion of the surveillance state, or any of dozens of other substantive challenges to individual freedom). ACT made its wins with conservative voters via race-baiting and tough on crime rhetoric, and when an actual conservative party came along ACT’s vote vanished.

They might get it back, I guess, but they’ll be competing with Colin Craig (probably), Winston Peters and most problematically, the National Party, who have a patina of urban liberals, women and Maori arranged across their front bench but whose MPs are mostly middle-aged or elderly white male ex dairy-farmer/ex-cop types who represent electorates ACT would need to target, and who tell their voters to give two ticks to National. David Seymour will never connect with that demographic.

If National gets voted out of government and goes through an identity crisis, and New Zealand First folds post-Winston, and Colin Craig goes away then the conditions might be auspicious for a ‘classical liberal’ and/or conservative party to arise, but the existence of ACT, occupying that space, grifting an electorate off National and money off the taxpayer makes it less likely. Instead the morbid symptoms will continue.

February 20, 2015

Ah, global capitalism

Filed under: finance — danylmc @ 8:00 am

The Wall Street Journal has the details of the $1 billion dollar loan Goldman Sachs made to Banco Espírito Santo which just cost the New Zealand taxpayer $200 million:

Goldman and Espírito Santo eventually settled on the creation of a company, Oak Finance Luxembourg SA, to raise $835 million for Espírito Santo from Goldman and outside investors. Goldman Sachs International co-heads in London, Michael Sherwood and Richard Gnodde, were briefed on the large transaction, according to a person familiar with it.

Oak Finance’s purpose—providing vital funding for a project aimed at increasing Venezuela’s refined-oil output—also checked off a box for Goldman as it tried to expand its relationship with the Venezuelan government, people familiar with the matter said.

Before the money was raised, Espírito Santo’s problems started intensifying. Its parent company was struggling to repay billions of euros to its creditors, including the bank and its clients. Facing potential losses, the bank was having trouble raising money from traditional market sources.

Goldman, meanwhile, was buying Banco Espírito Santo shares. Regulatory filings show Goldman amassed 2.27% of the bank’s shares as of July 15. It looked like a vote of confidence in the Portuguese bank, whose shares rallied 20% on July 23, the day the holdings were disclosed.

So the New Zealand Super Fund loaned money through a Luxembourg shell company created by a US investment bank to a Portuguese bank to fund the Venezuelan state oil company. Awesome.

The Super Fund gets pretty good returns so we don’t want to second-guess them too much, but related third party loans through tax shelter countries to banks that collapse amid accusations of fraud and tax evasion don’t seem like an appropriate way for a state investor to conduct itself, even if the money doesn’t get wiped out.

February 19, 2015

Neologism needed

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 6:11 am

Fierce debate rages in the comments thread of the previous post over whether the Andrew Little/David Cohen invoice fiasco is, actually a fiasco or just a trivial nothing. A routine clerical error. A beat up. A beltway issue.

It’s ironic, because David Cohen has written extensively about the term ‘beltway’. It comes from Washington DC, he points out, which has a beltway but Wellington doesn’t so we shouldn’t use it (This is the level of analysis Andrew Little paid a thousand dollars for). But this seems like the opposite of a beltway issue. If you’re preoccupied with policy and ‘political issues’ then an MP paying an invoice late is so trivial as to be laughable. What about Sky City? What about Mike Sabin? What about defense procurement? But to contractors and small business owners, clients who don’t pay their bills are a huge deal. It can destroy your business. So how are those people going to view a political leader who claims to champion contractors and small businesses in order to win their votes, while at the same time failing to pay a contractor who is screaming at him to do so? Very poorly, I suspect.

(On top of this is the absurdity of the contractor being a right-wing columnist who gleefully published about it and is now leaking his correspondence with Labour to mainstream media outlets.)

We need a neologism to refer to issues or political stories that baffle (mostly left-wing) political parties and their activists but resonate strongly with hundreds of thousands or millions of actual voters (Cunliffe’s ‘man apology’ is another great example). The term should probably contain the word ‘beltway’ because if it catches on that would irritate David Cohen.

February 17, 2015

Same as it ever was?

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 8:53 pm

If I could distill the Labour Party’s woes over the last six years into just two words, I’d probably choose ‘bewildering stupidity’. The causes are manifold and complex, but the symptom is that Labour and its leaders often do bewildering, obviously stupid things despite the fact the things they are doing are obviously stupid. Think about David Shearer holding up dead fish in Parliament as his poll ratings flat-lined, or Goff dying his hair orange the day before making a major speech, or Cunliffe railing against secret trusts while financing his leadership campaign through secret trusts . . . The list is very, very long. And today:

Labour leader Andrew Little has hurriedly paid an overdue bill but apparently only after the Government used it to embarrass him in Parliament.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce attacked Little over his stance on employment law changes after revealing Little had not settled his bill with National Business Review columnist David Cohen.

Writing in the NBR last week Cohen confirmed he did paid work for Little to help him secure the Labour leadership but four months later was still waiting for the cheque.

It seems obvious (to me) that hiring a right-wing columnist to do your PR while you campaign for the leadership of a left-wing political party could go wrong in all sorts of ways. Being a former unionist Little has contrived for it to go wrong in a way that makes him look like a total hypocrite, by not paying Cohen, which gave Cohen ammunition for a column in the NBR and Stephen Joyce a way to mock the new Labour leader in Parliament and embarrass him on the evening news. I mean, doesn’t the former boss of the EPMU have an old and trusted ally to help him with his PR? Apparently not, but why not?

Sure, this isn’t as egregious as National’s Sky City deal, or sending our troops to Iraq so we can stay ‘part of the club’. But Key, Joyce et al have reasons for the questionable stuff they do. They have agendas. It’s deliberate; calculated. They have reasons! Labour just does random bewilderingly stupid shit for no comprehensible reason. All the time. People write columns about how Labour should ‘move to the center’, or the left or whatever, but addressing the bewildering stupidity issue should be their primary goal.

February 16, 2015

Another excerpt

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 6:28 pm

From Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux’s book about his friendship with V S Naipaul:

There was a story I never asked Vidia to verify – didn’t dare ask, because I wanted it to be true. If it was not true, it ought to have been.

Ved Mehta is a distinguished Indian writer. Vidia knew of him. Speaking of The New Yorker once, how under the editorship of William Shawn he could not interest the magazine in his writing, Vidia said, “Of course, they already have a tame Indian.”

Ved Mehta is also famously blind. A certain New Yorker doubted his blindness. Seeing Mehta at a New York party, speaking to a group of attentive people, holding court, the man decided to test it. He had always been skeptical that Mehta was totally blind, since in his writing he minutely described people’s faces and wrote about the nuances of color and texture with elaborate subtlety, making precise distinctions.

The man crept over to where Mehta was sitting, and as the writer continued to speak, the doubting man began making faces at him. He leaned over and waved his hands at Ved Mehta’s eyes. He thumbed his nose at Ved Mehta. He wagged his fingers in Ved Mehta’s face.

Still, Mehta went on speaking, calmly and in perfectly enunciated sentences, never faltering in his expansive monologue.

The man made a last attempt: he put his own face a foot away and stuck his tongue out. But Mehta spoke without pause, as if the man did not exist.

Realizing how wrong he had been, the man felt uncomfortable and wanted to go home. Leaving the party, he said to the hostess, “I had always thought Ved Mehta was faking his blindness, or at least exaggerating. I am now convinced that Ved Mehta is blind.”

“That’s not Ved Mehta,” the hostess said. “It’s V.S. Naipaul.”

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