Saturday, April 25, 2015

Lest We Forget

Today is Anzac Day, the day on which we commemorate those who died in the original Australian and New Zealand Army Corps action at Gallipoli in World War 1, and those who have served in the defence of our two countries since. I am always in two minds about such commemorations. On the one hand, I have enormous admiration and gratitude for those who died to defend the relatively free and prosperous societies we have established in countries like Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, I always find myself angry at the fact that we don't seem to have learned the lessons from that brave sacrifice.

World War 1 is particularly instructive because no one can seriously call it a just war. The Kaiser's Germany was no better or worse morally in its actions than Imperial Britain or France and probably better on almost any count than our ally, Russia. Others have written about the bungling and political expediency that led to war and the ridiculous circumstances by which New Zealanders found themselves invading Turkey, a country we had previously had no truck with, in support of the territorial ambitions of Russia, the country we had previously regarded as our biggest threat. But the root causes of the Great War come down to one common factor - the propensity of governments everywhere and at every time to sacrifice the freedom and eventually the lives of its people in pursuit of ever-greater power.

The threat to freedom does not come mainly from without, it comes from within our societies. It comes from those who who see the power of the state as a tool to solve whatever problem they perceive ails us. Initially, they are well-intentioned and the problems universally agreed, such poverty, prejudice and oppression, but sooner or later their sights are turned to people and causes that are nothing more than scapegoats for the wrongs they wish to right - foreigners, rich people, intellectuals or certain religious and ethnic groups. Historical grievances, real or perceived, are dredged out of the deep pool of past conflicts and used to justify present-day prejudices. Minor territorial disputes from earlier ages become reasons for beligerence and eventually actual military aggression. Thus begins war.

I see too many parallels with the origins of the Great War in the actions of governments and the words of demogogues today. As in 1914, there are signs that the long period of comparative peace and prosperity that the Western world has enjoyed is coming to an end. We have a declining superpower and an ascending rival and a host of regional and religious conflicts that threaten to go global. We have economic uncertainty and an end to the sustained growth of the post-World War II decades. This is dry tinder for political pyromaniacs.

The phrase "lest we forget" originally appeared in Rudyard Kipling's poem Recessional and didn't mean what we take it to mean today - that we should remember the fallen. Rudyard intended it to mean that we shouldn't forget what we have. At the time he was, of course, talking about British society and its values of freedom, morality, individual responsibility and respect for the rule of law. To me, this is the more powerful meaning of the phrase. We shouldn't forget those who scacrificed their lives, but more importantly, we shouldn't forget what they sacrificed their lives for.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Answer is Simple - Don't Pay Beneficiaries Cash

A recent article in the New Zealand media about Social Development Minister Anne Tolley's plans to crack down on mobile truck shops caught my eye and I discussed it with my wife, who has worked for many years in the social services sector. My wife confirmed the essential facts of the story - that some mobile shop operators were charging high prices and high rates of interest and were targeting customers in poor areas, with the result that some customers were getting into financial difficulty (or greater financial difficulty than they already were). Interestingly, she gave the same example of the $30 packet of cornflakes that is given in the article (without having read the article), suggesting that this is more of a meme than a real example.

Unusually for our invariably one-sided, scandal-mongering media, the article does include comments from the 'executive chairman' of the largest mobile shopping company, Home Direct, who appears happy to disclose his interest rates and fees, suggesting he has no nefarious practices to hide. And it is to Anne Tolley's credit, perhaps, that she is not planning to introduce new laws specifically to deal with this perceived problem but rather to use existing laws. However, I think this article, and Anne Tolley's response to it, is inherently dishonest about the true nature of the problem.

If, as the article alleges, poor people (and let us assume they are state welfare beneficiaries because almost all people on low incomes in New Zealand are entitled to welfare benefits) are being ripped off by unscrupulous mobile shop operators, this can be for only one of two reasons. Either the mobile shop operators are committing fraud (e.g. by misrepresenting their pricing or interest rates) or the poor customers are so desperate or foolish they knowingly pay above the odds. If it is the former, then it is simply a matter for the police. If it is the latter (and the article and Anne Tolley's response suggest they think it is) then the problem is a bit more fundamental.

In New Zealand generally we pay welfare benefits to people in cash and leave it up to them to decide how best to spend the money. Welfare workers like my wife will tell you that this situation provides the opportunity for gross abuse. For example it is commonplace in communities reliant on welfare for absentee male ex-partners to turn up on welfare pay day to threaten and abuse solo mothers to obtain what they see as being their share of the woman's welfare payment. It is also the day that the TAB (the government-owned betting chain), the poker machine halls, the public bars and the Lotto shops in these areas do the most business. It is not unusual for welfare recipients to have exhausted their entire two week payment within a few days of having received it, leaving them with no other means of feeding and clothing their children and paying their rent until the next pay day. It is not surprising therefore, that they buy from mobile shops that offer credit, even when this is at exorbitant rates.

The answer to all these problems is the same - don't pay beneficiaries cash, pay them in kind. Give them food, rent, transport, medicines and any other necessities of life for them and their children, but don't give them the cash that provides the opportunity for them to be ripped off. Unless, of course, you believe they are entirely capable of looking after their own finances, in which case they don't need state welfare at all.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

It Can't Possibly Come Down to a Bush-Clinton Fight, Can It?

The dance of the seven veils has begun. No, I'm not talking about Salome's performance for Herod Antipas, I'm referring to the drawn-out unveiling of candidacies for next year's US presidential elections. On the red side, we have confirmed candidacy announcements from Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio; and euphemistic 'exploratory committee' announcements from Jeb Bush and neophyte former doctor Ben Carson. Jeb Bush is the frontrunner in the early polls. On the blue side, we have...well, Hillary Clinton. If you're anything like me, and take an interest in US politics, you're probably already groaning, "No, no, no, it can't possibly be coming down to a Bush-Clinton fight, can it? Hasn't this country of more than 300 million people got two decent presidential candidates who don't belong to one or other of these two families?"

I think it is unseemly in a democracy to be ruled by political dynasties. It's unseemly because it demonstrates democracy is not working. It is the sort of thing that happens in countries that are democratic in name only, countries like the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The frequency with which dynasties have arisen, even in democracies are that are worthy of the name, can only be down to two factors - either the name recognition is, in itself, sufficient reason to attract voters to the candidate, or there is some form of favouritism or nepotism built into the political system. If it just comes down to name recognition, that suggests the voters are too shallow to consider real political issues. If it is favouritism, that means the voters don't really get a choice between the best candidates. Either way, it indicates democracy is not working.

Now, it may surprise you to learn I'm not a doctrinaire democrat. I believe, like Winston Churchill, that democracy is the least bad system for selecting our political leaders, and like Thomas Jefferson, I believe democracy only works effectively when it is tightly constrained. The unconstrained will of the majority is nothing but mob rule and the tendency towards this must be tempered with strong constitutional checks and balanced with strong protection for individual rights. One of the important constitutional checks in most Western nations is regular, fair and openly contested elections. The growth of political dynasties suggests that the 'fair' and 'open' criteria are not being met.

The United States desperately needs fresh political blood. That great nation is, I believe, on a path towards mediocrity. It is the most heavily indebted nation in absolute terms and has the biggest government expenditure deficit. Even in relative terms it is one of the most heavily indebted nations in the world. Unlike similarly indebted countries like Greece, the United States gets away with it because its dollar is the world's reserve currency, which means the value of its currency is inflated by demand for it as a unit of exchange. This suppresses the effect of all that debt on other economic indicators like interest rates and inflation and that means the US Government can continue to fund those deficits by borrowing and printing (electronically) more and more money to pay its debts. But sooner or later reality will catch up with America and that comparison with Greece will start to look a whole lot more real. At that point, or hopefully before it gets to that stage, Americans should hope they have better political leaders than the current crop.

And I really don't think they will be wanting a president named Bush or Clinton.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Imperial Presidency

US blogger Mark Steyn often writes about how the US presidency has become more and more imperial in its affectations - the 40-car motorcades, the clearing of entire golf courses so the US president can play a round, and how the current president requires over 4,000 hotel rooms for his entourage when he travels to Australia.

I experienced some of this excess when I was in Cambodia recently. My trip to the South-east Asia nation happened to coincide with the US First Lady's visit, during which she demonstrated that she can blow the US taxpayers' dollars at a rate that is every bit as impressive as her husband's self-indulgence. It seemed that Michelle Obama was determined to dog our every step during the few days we were in Cambodia. Our aircraft was late arriving in Siem Reap because, we were informed, Michelle Obama's aircraft was ahead of ours. Then we discovered whole sections of Siem Reap were barricaded off, necessitating a slow and circuitous route wherever we went.

The next day when we visited Angkor Wat we were informed that we could not climb to the top of that magnificent structure because (yes, you guessed it) Michelle Obama was planning to visit some time that day. This was in the morning and no one seemed to know at what hour the US First Lady would actually arrive, but someone (presumably the US Secret Service) had decided it was necessary to close the entire historic site on the off-chance that she might turn up at any time. It was only when I complained loudly that the embarrassed Cambodian officials relented and allowed my wife and I to climb the structure and we were the last allowed to do so. The next day we flew to Phnom Penh and our aircraft was delayed again as the entire airport waited for Her Royal Highness Michelle's airplane to depart. Contrast this pretentious, monarchical spectacle with the genuine article - the heir to the British throne, Prince William, humbly flying 'coach'.

Here in New Zealand, where we can still run into our politicians walking unaccompanied along Lambton Quay (the main shopping thoroughfare of Wellington), we think there is something very unsavoury about elected leaders affecting all the pretensions of imperial rule. Of course leaders need to be kept safe, but that can be done without the theatre that accompanies the US president and his court whenever one of them ventures out into the world.