The Dim-Post

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.

Key and reality

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:38 am

There’s a famous quote in Ron Suskind’s book about the Bush Administration – The One Percent Doctrine – in which Karl Rove articulated his view of politics to Suskind:

[Rove] said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

The quote came to mind when I was reading Matthew Hooton’s column in the NBR [paywalled, so I can’t quote or link to it]. Hooton ascribes part of Key’s popularity to his preeminence as a commentator on light-entertainment shows across New Zealand media. More FM, Breakfast TV, Seven-Sharp, etc. Critically these are (a) news sources for ‘median’ or persuadable voters and (b) they’re formats in which Key can assert his version of any news story unchallenged, and then go on to tell funny stories about the All-Blacks.

So there’s a reality-based community in which, say, people read the Inspector-General of Security and Intelligence’s report and see that Key’s office was found to have abused intelligence information for political purposes, but Key can create his own reality in the minds of hundreds of thousands of voters simply by going on Breakfast TV and explaining that his office was completely exonerated while the hosts nod their heads and smile.

The same thing is happening with the Sabin scandal. Key’s line is that Helen Clark didn’t stand down as Prime Minister during ‘painter-gate’, so why should Sabin have stood down as Chair of the Law and Order Select Committee while he was being investigated for assault? Of course, assault is a bit more serious than Clark signing a painting. But also, during ‘painter-gate’ and for many years subsequent National screamed that Clark should resign, and that she was our most corrupt Prime Minister ever. Key’s constant refrain that he’s only as bad as, or not much worse than the PM his party denounced as ‘quite simply the most corrupt in New Zealand history’ is a bad, nonsensical argument, and members of the ‘reality based community’ wonder aloud at how he can say such things and remain popular. But it works because the reality-based community is not the important audience, what’s important is that he gets to make it on infotainment shows where he enjoys good relationships with the hosts and there’s no balance or right of reply.

February 5, 2015

Helping Iraq

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 6:05 pm

Via Stuff:

In an unscripted speech on a marae today Prime Minister John Key told Maori leaders that New Zealand are not going to turn the other cheek to the horrors being seen in the Middle East.

Key’s unprepared statement in the meeting house at Te Tii Waitangi Marae came with an attack on the left wing.

After a peaceful welcome on the marae, various Maori leaders addressed him including prominent leader Kingi Taurua who said Maori were suffering because of their service in fighting for “other people’s sovereignty” over the decades.

Key said he agreed in part.

“I am with you, we should not go and fight other people’s wars.”

Diplomacy was what was needed but New Zealand also needed to support other people around the world.

“The day before yesterday a Jordanian pilot was burned to death with petrol and yesterday some gay people were thrown off a building because ISIS don’t like their sexuality,” he said.

“A few weeks ago 10-year-old kids were rolled out to behead soldiers who were part of the Iraqi forces. ”

Key said he heard from the left wing every time he went to countries with different human rights records to New Zealand.

“I am regularly reminded by the left that they have an intimate knowledge of apartheid and the Springbok tour,” he said in reference to the 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand that divided the country.

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Key has since admitted he does not remember where he stood on the tour.

“These are the very people (the left) who tell me their whole DNA is laced with human rights and standing up for people who cannot protect themselves, then they tell me to look the other way when people are being beheaded by kids, burnt alive and thrown off buildings.

“New Zealand is not going to turn the other way,” he said.

“We may join 60 or so other countries around the world trying to protect people who cannot protect themselves because the do nothing other than live in a country they want to call home.

“I reckon that is doing something for human rights.”

Here’s my problem with sending our troops over to help out in Iraq.

Firstly, ‘Iraq’ doesn’t exist anymore. Iraq as a modern country was invented by the west after WWI and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. An unrelated group of rival ethnicities, tribes and faiths patched together into a geographical fiction and held together by various tyrants until 2003, when the US invaded and the country disintegrated in the aftermath, flying apart into a chaotic failed state filled with millions of refugees, militias and rival warlords fighting in a massive bloody civil war spilling across the borders into several of Iraq’s neighbors, with most of the regional powers fighting each other via local proxies.  That’s what we’re sending our troops into. We’re only calling this disaster zone ‘Iraq’ because it’s embarrassing to our allies, the US and the UK – who invaded Iraq, botched the post-war occupation and bought about the unimaginable carnage and destruction of the resulting civil war – to acknowledge that the country we’re helping no longer exists.

ISIS seem like evil people. It would be a good thing if they’re weren’t controlling a large section of the-country-formerly-known-as-Iraq. But we’re aware that ISIS are bad guys because there’s a propaganda campaign being waged against them by the west, who intends to go to war with them, so all of their atrocities are heavily publicised. The Shia militia who prop up the government that we’re going to ‘help’ in ‘Iraq’ are easily as brutal as ISIS. They were responsible for the ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, which involved rounding up random civilians in Sunni neighborhoods, torturing them to death with acid and electric drills and then dumping their bodies outside their homes to encourage other Sunnis to flee (which about 1.7 million of them did). So those are our allies. They’re who we’re training, or helping, or whatever we’re doing. We just don’t hear about their atrocities because the media teams in the Ministry of Defense and the Beehive aren’t promoting them to the media.

And maybe if we really were helping ‘the people’ it would be worth it anyway. And maybe it’ll be different this time! Maybe the UK and the US militaries won’t fuck this up, horribly, and cause untold suffering and death but still fail to reach any of their objectives. But realistically, their version of ‘helping’ ‘Iraq’ will be to flood the conflict regions with development money, which will be spent on weapons, and property in London and Dubai. They’re vaporise thousands of ‘suspected terrorists’ with drones. They’ll arm and train ‘a professional army’ who may defeat ISIS and will definitely set about ethnically cleansing any territory they capture, torturing male detainees to death and imprisoning female captors in rape camps (human rights will not improve). These are all just routine outcomes of western interventions in this region of the world, so unless anyone can convince me it’ll be different this time I regard New Zealand intervention in Iraq as a bad idea.

Correction

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:38 am

Via the Herald:

Reserve Bank governor Graeme Wheeler today raised the risk of a “sharp correction” in the housing market.

He warned that “the more that house prices get out of line with historic relativities, the greater the risk of a sharp correction, leading to financial instability”.

Wheeler listed rocketing house prices in Auckland and Christchurch as one of the main risks to the economy.

Though expectations were that house prices in Christchurch would eventually settle, “in Auckland, much more needs to be done”.

All the serious, smart people are saying that Auckland house prices are a bubble, that we’re like Ireland, that we’re heading for a ‘correction’, a collapse, the threat of negative equity etc. I’m just a humble blogger, but it seems to me that the supply of Auckland housing is still incredibly limited, and the fierce demand is driven by a combination of population growth, migration, low interest rates, tax loopholes and various other demand-side factors that aren’t going to change in the foreseeable future.

When I was in Ireland in, I think, 2005, their property market was insane. People were building vast Spanish style beach resorts on the coast of Donegal, where it rains for about 350 days a year. That was a bubble, and it burst because those holiday homes purchased at over-inflated prices with 100% mortgages were more or less worthless. But how is Auckland property a bubble? If the price of a scarce resource that loads of people want to buy is increasing, that means that the market is ‘working’. Why would it correct itself?

February 4, 2015

Shorter Sabin Summary

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:16 am

Andrea Vance has an overview here. The crux is that Key appointed Sabin to chair the Law and Order Select Committee while he was being investigated by the police, which is just a horrible, horrible conflict of interest. Key claims he didn’t know Sabin was being investigated when he appointed him, but he’s changed his story about when he did know three times in one week as new facts came to light, so everyone thinks he’s lying but no one can prove it.

On the one hand it seems really unlikely that our super-gossipy Prime Minister didn’t know one of his own MPs was being investigated for a very serious crime. On the other, if he did know, why would he appoint the guy to a position which could – and has – blown up into a scandal? Makes no sense. Maybe they thought they could ride it out? That Sabin is an ex-cop and the police would look after their own, and it wouldn’t go to court? No one would ever find out and Sabin’s career could go on as normal.

Which kinda begs the question: how did this get out? Who tipped off the media? Someone in National? Who feels slighted by the PM and his office? Who has close ties to the police and justice sector? Who would very much like Sabin’s position as Chair of the Law and Order Select Committee? Who is very close to WhaleOil. But who???

February 1, 2015

And all of it will happen again

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 11:34 am

I feel like people are getting a bit too carried away while diagnosing the inner-most soul of New Zealand over this Eleanor Catton thing. There were nation-wide freak-outs in India when Salman Rushdie criticised Indira Gandhi, and in the US – especially the South – when the Dixie Chicks attacked George W Bush (also, as Craig Ranapia pointed out on twitter, the UK melt-down over Hilary Mantel’s comments about our Kate), and it wasn’t because Indians are ‘a passionless people’ or Americans are ‘a nation of fretful sleepers’, or whatever other vague generalisations about New Zealand people are throwing around. It was because powerful people the world over hate being embarrassed on the international stage, and they always have loyal proxies in the media desperate to be outraged and vicious on their master’s behalf. This sort of stuff happens everywhere.

January 30, 2015

Notes on John Mulgan’s Man Alone

Filed under: economics — danylmc @ 9:24 pm
  • I resolved to read lots of New Zealand novels this year and figured: why not start with one of the foundational texts of New Zealand literature?
  • Which turned out to be a good move because Man Alone is a very good book. Why didn’t I read it a long time ago? A variety of stupid reasons. When I was about twenty a friend told me it was boring, and even though I soon learned that this friend had awful taste his criticism stuck. Also, I had the notion that it was a New Zealand imitation of a Hemingway novel. Who needs that? And I thought – based on the title – that it was a celebration of kiwi masculinity and self-reliance. Also, it is ground zero for the endless academic preoccupation with the emergence of a ‘New Zealand literary identity’, which is not a topic I’m interested in.
  • With all of my mostly false expectations, I did not expect Man Alone to be a Marxist road-trip around the North Island during the great depression which is mostly what it is. A bit like The Grapes of Wrath but with occasional Maori.
  • The main character is an English WWI veteran called Johnson. The first part of the book describes his life drifting from place to place and job to job, then the impact of the depression, then life in a work camp and the Queen Street riots. Mulgan’s thesis here is that New Zealand was a good country with a communal spirit in which men could lead rich, rewarding lives but the predations of capitalism ruined it and transformed it into an individualistic unhappy country. As I’m sure every teacher or lecturer who sets this as a text super-quickly points out, Mulgan’s conception of a ‘good country’ does not include opportunities for women or Maori.
  • As with most political literature the characters tend to function more as symbols than people. One represents the lumpenproletariat, another the petit-bourgeois, etc. The banks and other forms of organised capital exist only as powerful, malevolent impersonal forces.
  • In the second part of the book there’s a shift as the narrative becomes less theoretical and political, and more personal. Johnson settles as a worker on a remote farm (safe from the ongoing crisis inherent to the structure of capitalism – or is he?). The future looks good. Then there’s a love triangle! Suspicion. Murder! A flight into the Kaimanawas, in which Johnson crosses the lower slopes of Ruapehu and then the Rangipo desert on the volcanic plateau.
  • Presumably Mulgan made part of this trip himself, and If I’d read this book when I were young fella I’d probably have tried to replicate it. I wonder if anyone else has? This should totally be a ritual for young New Zealand writers. We might lose a few budding talents to sudden blizzards but that would just deepen the romance.
  • The final section of the book takes place in England and Spain. It feels a little odd: it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the narrative. Mulgan wrote Man Alone in the UK. Maybe, like a lot of first-time novelists he felt he had to throw all of his experiences into his book?
  • Mulgan isn’t a Great Writer like Frame or Mansfield but I think Man Alone is a great New Zealand novel and a more accessible one than most classics of New Zealand literature. It’s a shame its mostly known among literary/cultural elites. (Whenever I hear anyone wonder why more New Zealanders don’t read or appreciate our local writers I flash back to 5th Form English where they made us read Bliss as our NZ Literature component.)

Update: Also, from the second chapter of Man Alone:

Everybody wanted to buy a farm sooner or later in New Zealand. You didn’t buy a farm and build a house and grow pine trees round it to stay there, but to sell it to somebody else and live off the profit.

Seventy-six years later I guess you just substitute ‘property in Auckland’ for ‘farm.’

On neoliberalism

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 5:59 pm

One thing Catton got really wrong about her critique of the government was calling it ‘neoliberal’ and claiming it didn’t support the arts because they’re profit-obsessed, etc. Like I’ve said before, these guys aren’t neoliberal and aren’t remotely ‘profit obsessed’. They don’t believe in free markets and market forces, and they give eye-glazingly large amounts of taxpayer money away to golf tournaments, yacht races, sports stadiums and other things that make no economic sense whatsoever (we know this because Treasury keeps telling them so.)

If New Zealand’s novelists had banded together, formed a lobby group with an ex-National MP as Director, taken the PM’s Chief of Staff out to dinner somewhere nice and all chipped in a donation to National’s election campaign then Literature would have quickly become part of Joyce’s ‘Business Growth Agenda’. Most of our literati would be in Menton by now, writing by the poolside at the gleaming new taxpayer funded New Zealand pavilion, and none of this unpleasantness would have happened.

Thoughts on Russel Norman’s retirement and Green Party leadership

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 11:00 am
  • Green co-leader Russel Norman has announced he’s retiring as Green co-leader in May. My understanding is that he’ll stay on for a while as an MP.
  • It’s a huge loss to the Green Party. To a certain vintage of political pundits – Barry Soper, Jane Clifton – the Greens have always been Morris-Dancing Pot-Smokers and always will be. But everyone else who watches politics has observed a dramatic shift over the years to a more corporate, media-savvy, relentlessly on-message Green Party. A lot of that is Norman’s doing. He’s also turned the Greens into a party of serious policy development. (It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that for several years Labour’s policy development process consisted of cutting and pasting text from the Green Party web site.)
  • Consequently the Green Party vote has roughly doubled during Norman’s eight years as co-leader.
  • There will be a leadership contest. It will, presumably, be very fair and democratic and insanely complicated, because that’s the Green Party way.
  • If Kevin Hague stands then I expect he’ll win. I hope other MPs stand against him though. It’ll be good for the party to raise the profile of the contenders, and it’s good for the new leader to earn their his position not just have it handed to them.
  • The next MP on the list is Marama Davidson. She’ll come in if/when Norman stands down as an MP. I think she’ll be good. And she’s Auckland based: the Greens need to expand their presence there.
  • This shouldn’t be the last Green Party MP to retire this year. Russel is a big loss but there are a couple of Green MPs who really, obviously aren’t working out and who need to stand down so that the next candidates on the party list can come in and campaign as MPs in 2017. As we’ve seen with Labour, if a party doesn’t rejuvenate itself the electorate will rejuvenate for them by voting for someone else.
  • This is good for Labour! If Annette King stands down and there’s a by-election in Rongotai then Andrew Little – or some other candidate – will almost certainly win, an outcome that wasn’t guaranteed with Norman around.
  • I wish Russel the best of luck in his new role as head of Exploration and Production at Todd Energy.
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