The Dim-Post

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.”

February 13, 2015

On Hooton on Sky City

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 9:07 pm

Matthew Hooton had a column in the NBR today about the Sky City deal that loads of people have already tweeted and linked and Facebooked, but I wanted to make a couple of quick comments about.

Firstly, that is just a really great piece of political commentary and part of the reason for that, I think, is that it pulls back the curtain on a major political news story and tells us why something is happening. Most political punditry focuses on what’s happening, and/or what the pundit thinks of it, or what should happen, or wants to happen, or what the different political parties say about an issue. Hooton is an political insider so he takes us deeper, explaining the history and the personalities and the processes, and how they interact with each other.

Jonathan Lynn, the co-creator of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister once said that he wanted his show to explain to people how government worked. How power and influence were wielded. How decisions were really made. And that, he explained, is why he never wrote any scenes in the House of Commons. There is some politics in the House, and much theater, but no government. Nothing that truly mattered. It’s a quote that came back to me this week when Winston Peters questioned the Prime Minister in Question Time about whether he dyed his hair, and ‘why the carpet didn’t match the curtains.’ You could just about hear the columnists in the press gallery sighing with relief. ‘The Prime Minister’s pubes! That’s this week’s piece sorted.’ Hooton’s column is a reminder that political commentary can be very vital. It doesn’t have to be trivial nonsense.

Having said all that, Hooton can write this particular piece because he isn’t a political journalist. He doesn’t have to maintain a good relationship with the Prime Minister’s office. He doesn’t rely on National’s press secretaries to feed him stories and tips. On the contrary, a lot of the people he’s writing about here are his enemies and commercial rivals. But my point is that political columns about government and ‘what’s really going on’ are a lot more important than whatever is happening in the House, or whatever trivial gaffe someone made, and they’re also a lot more compelling. It’d be nice to have more of them, and that’s supposed to be the point of having gallery journalists who are ‘political insiders’.

My other point disagrees with Hooton a bit. He wrote:

Mr Joyce’s botulinum-grade arrogance is making the debacle worse.

Mr Joyce genuinely believes his commercial background consolidating provincial radio stations makes him a match for Mr Morrison’s quarter century of experience in the Asian and Australasian gambling industries.

The SkyCity team is laughing at him the way Kerry Packer laughed at Alan Bond over Channel Nine and Toll Holdings laughed at Michael Cullen over KiwiRail.

Despite having no experience in the procurement and management of half-billion-dollar construction projects, Mr Joyce and the prime minister’s chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, took it upon themselves to deal directly with SkyCity over the terms of the convention centre contract and the associated regulatory-relief package.

The problem with government Ministers negotiating directly with Sky City goes a bit deeper than individual hubris, or incompetence. Sky City is a profitable regulated private monopoly. The best way for it to make more money is to win concessions from the government, and it can – and probably has – invested many hours and millions of dollars paying lawyers and accountants and lobbyists to try and figure out how to extract value from the state and the taxpayer. But Key and Joyce – who represent the taxpayer – don’t have many hours and millions of dollars to throw away trying to beat Sky City at the negotiating table. They have a country to run. This can only be a very peripheral issue for them. (Even now that the deal has exploded into a public relations fiasco Key is busy committing our troops to Iraq. You like to think he’s paying a bit more attention to that than the convention center.)

So Key and Joyce will never be able to out-negotiate Sky City because of the massive asymmetry in resources between the two negotiating partners. This isn’t a new problem (although this government seems to think it is). The problem of how the state and the private sector interact in free market democracies has been with us for a while now, and solutions to all of these problems of influence-peddling and conflicts of interest and information asymmetry have been solved and implemented in New Zealand for several decades. We have the SOE model and the State Services Commission and laws and processes and the Auditor General and basically a whole fucking public service to avoid this exact situation which Key and his Ministers have blundered into. This disaster stems from the right’s contempt for the public service. They’re just bureaucrats. Glide time. It’s all walk-shorts and red tape. The idea that those hated bureaucrats were actually an apparatus designed to protect Key, Joyce et al and prevent them from making a huge, predictable and easily preventable mistake wouldn’t have occurred to them.

Excerpt of the day

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 1:18 pm
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I’m reading Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux’s book about his friendship(?) with V S Naipaul. It’s excellent. I think some of it is true. Here’s Naipaul as the writer in residence at a university in Uganda, giving critical feedback to students who showed him their work for appraisal:

“Really.” Vidia found the boy’s eyes and fixed them with his weary
stare. He said, “Don’t write any more poems. I really don’t think you
should. Your gifts lie in some other direction. A story, perhaps. Now,
promise me you won’t write any more poems.”
The boy shook his head and made the promise in a halting voice.
He went away bafiled and dejected.
“Did you see how relieved he was?” Vidia said. “He was glad I told
him that.”
Vidia rubbed his hands and disposed of other students in the same
fashion. I was surprised when he agreed to be the judge of a univer-
sity literary competition, but he carried out his duties his own way.
He insisted that there be only one prize, called Third Prize, because
the entries were so bad there could be no first and second prizes.
“Make it absolutely clear that this is Third Prize,” he told the
people in the English Department.

February 11, 2015

Win by not playing

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:21 am

Two weeks ago the Herald ran this op-ed by former Sky-City executive Heather Shotter making an impassioned, Jane-Austenesque plea for taxpayer funding for Sky City’s ‘free’ convention center:

It is widely acknowledged that international convention centres are essential elements that contribute to the growth and development of big cities. Not only do they bring substantial economic benefits, encouraging international business delegate expenditure during the tourism off-season, but if done well, they are pivotal to promoting the unique character or brand of a city to a wide range of international audiences.

But like any large pieces of infrastructure, convention centres come at a considerable cost.

All over the world, other large cities have acknowledged this and their governments see value in funding convention centres, either fully or with partial cash injections, because of the other economic benefit that they drive.

Centres in Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong were all constructed as part of comprehensive developments where the government and private sector have worked together to develop world-class conference and exhbition facilities.

Firstly, it is widely acknowledged by pretty much every independent economic analysis of convention centers you can find that they’re a massive scam that construction companies and politicians perpetuate on taxpayers. The promised benefits never match the tax write-offs and other public costs these companies impose, and in the case of casinos they’re completely wiped out by the negative impacts of the business.

Secondly, this reference to regional competitors is very meaningful, because this is a strategy that casinos and convention center construction companies practice all over the world. They play regional (and in this case national) tourist destinations off each other. Here’s a Washington Post article from June 2014:

All those consultants’ reports, it turns out, were based on optimistic assumptions and failed to anticipate the impact of industry consolidation and slower economic growth on the demand for meeting space. Even more curious was the consultants’ failure to take into account all the other cities contemplating subsidized expansions — something they surely knew because the same group of firms had prepared virtually all of the reports.

Rather than acknowledge their mistakes, however, the CIC convinced political leaders that the reason bookings had failed to meet expectations was that they didn’t have a big “headquarters hotel” to offer convention planners, who value such hotels because they reduce the cost and complexity of running such large events. Curiously, the private sector has been reluctant to seize on this golden opportunity to build them, so dozens of cities concluded that they had no choice but to provide subsidies for the hotels as well.

It’s a bit like being an arms company and selling weapons to a bunch of countries at war with each other. If/when National gives Sky their hundred million dollar payout, Sky can then turn around and start lobbying the governments in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney etc for tax write-offs or taxpayer cash because they’ll need to compete with Auckland. And, inevitably, in a few years time we’ll be seeing more op-eds in the Herald insisting that this wildly profitable casino company needs more taxpayer money to compete with whatever Sky just secured from state governments in Australia.

February 10, 2015

Notes on Potiki by Patricia Grace

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 11:26 am
  • I went into Man Alone with the preconceived notion that it was a celebration of stoic kiwi masculinity, and it turned out to be the exact opposite. I knew that Grace’s Potiki was about a marae locked into conflict with a property developer, so I went in expecting a postcolonial version of a ‘Little Battler’ story. Then I read the prologue which is a very brief, beautiful story about the life of a wood carver and I thought that Grace was going to thwart my expectations.
  • She did and she didn’t. The plot of Potiki is painfully cliched. A materially poor but spiritually rich family living on a coastal marae fight off the predations of an evil, murderous drug-dealing super-capitalist property-developer who wants to knock down their meeting house and dig up their graveyard to build a road to his new aquarium. But the plot is just there as a means for Grace to make her statements about the past, present and future of Maori culture and Maori society. As an insight into Maori attitudes towards the land and its appropriation it is pretty much canonical. No one will ever put it as eloquently as Grace does here.
  • Plenty of writers write books they want to read. Before she wrote Potiki Patricia Grace was a teacher in both primary and secondary schools around New Zealand, and I suspect that she wrote a book that she wanted to teach. I also suspect she mostly had Maori teachers in mind, teaching Potiki to Maori students but the book is now a standard text in New Zealand secondary schools.
  • Maybe I’m wrong about the authors intention, but reading Potiki feels like homework. It’s beautifully written and very, very worthy, but I always felt like I’d eventually have to answer questions about it in an exam. Describe in your own words, using examples from the text, why Uncle Stan refused to sell the warenui to Dollarman. 
  • It’s not much fun, partly because of the homework vibe. But there’s a deeper problem. One of the basic components of story-telling is that things are not as they seem. Heroes turn out to be flawed. Villains have secret plans. But in Potiki everything is exactly as it seems. The heroes are unambiguously good. The property-developer is utterly evil. Stuff happens, but not in an interesting way.
  • You could say that this stark good vs evil depiction simply reflects the lived experience of Patricia Grace and the wider Maori perspective. That there was no moral ambiguity about property confiscation and the Maori struggle to win back or keep their land. And that’d be true, but truth doesn’t necessarily make for good literary fiction. You could also say that Grace isn’t writing literary fiction in the western sense: instead she’s writing a myth using the forms of her own tradition but in a modern, political context. That’s fine too, but ‘modern political myth’ is really just a euphemism for propaganda. I’m not criticizing Grace for writing her book the way she did – it was a vital counterbalance – just explaining why I didn’t enjoy reading it.
  • It is an interesting insight into how a Maori intellectual and artist saw the future of her people in the time before the Waitangi Tribunal became a force for meaningful change, and the growth of (some) iwi as major forces in the New Zealand economy. Grace’s vision for Maori was one of communal subsistence farming. She’s very scathing about the idea of Maori being involved in the tourist economy.
  • It was an unusual reading experience for me because Patricia Grace lives in Plimmerton, and the book is clearly set in the reserve in Hongoeka Bay (my copy of the book shows the bay on its front cover), and I grew up in Plimmerton during the period in which the book is set. So it feels a bit like my childhood friends and I are always hanging out at the periphery of the story. Some of the characters go to school, and I wondered if they sat at the desk beside mine. But I think it says something about the segregated nature of New Zealand back in the 1980s and 90s that I didn’t know, and don’t recall anyone ever mentioning that a major New Zealand novel had been published that was set in our tiny seaside community.
  • I might be wrong, but I don’t think anyone ever tried to build an aquarium and five-star hotel in Hongoeka Bay. As I recall – and my memory is vague – the marae’s dispute was with the quarry adjacent to it. The quarry wanted to expand, widen the road and so on, but it turned out they didn’t have a resource consent to operate there and when it became obvious to the owners that obtaining consent would be difficult, and very expensive they closed down. I walked around the coast from Pukerua Bay to Plimmerton over the summer, and most of the traces of the quarry – the stagnant pools, piles of rubble, deep gouges out of the cliffs – have been covered with new growth of native bush. And gorse.
  • Most of the early analysis of Potiki talks about Grace’s use of untranslated te reo at key points in the text and the absence of a glossary. It was a daring, provocative thing to do at the time, and back then it had the effect of dis-empowering pakeha readers who couldn’t understand it. Now someone as oblivious to tikanga-Maori as I am can read and understand Potiki with little trouble.
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