The Dim-Post

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
Tags:

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.

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.

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