Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Happy at home

“The great end of prudence is to give cheerfulness
to those hours, which splendour cannot gild, and
acclamation cannot exhilarate; those soft intervals
of unbended amusement, in which a man shrinks
to his natural dimensions, and throws aside the
ornaments or disguises, which he feels in privacy
to be useless incumbrances, and to lose all effect
when they become familiar. To be happy at home
is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to
which every enterprise and labour tends, and of
which every desire prompts the prosecution."
—Samuel Johnson

When Boswell asked Johnson why people bothered
to get together socially, considering that the talk
was so often silly, Johnson replied: “To promote
kindness, Sir, to promote kindness.”

Go figure

The absurdity of judging economic success in terms
of “gross domestic product” has been exposed again,
this time by the New Zealand Institute of Economic
Research’s alarmist report on the Government's
proposed carbon emissions trading scheme.
According to NZIER chief executive Brent Layton,
reported in the media today, by 2025, when the
scheme is fully implemented, “GDP will fall by almost
$6 billion, household spending will be down by
$3000 per household and hourly wage rates will be
down by $2.30 in today's prices." Oh, and thousands
of jobs will have been lost.

This is like counting apples according to the number
of oranges you have. The whole point about the
concept of “sustainability” which must govern life on
this planet if the human race is to survive, is that the
old measures of “growth” based on production, output
and ever-bigger numbers are useless. They are at best
indicators of the hole we’ve gotten ourselves into. It is
precisely the GDP mentality that lies behind the
looting of natural resources and the consequent
ecological mayhem.

Other, more enlightened measures are available. For
instance, the New Economics Foundation in Britain
has devised a Happy Planet Index which is by no means
as clouds-and-flowers as it sounds. It is best conceived,
as Wikipedia suggests, as a measure of the
environmental efficiency of supporting well-being in
a given country. On this index the country that’s most
got it right in the world is Vanuatu. Colombia is second.
New Zealand is 94th. Go figure. If only the NZIER would.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A fate worse than debt

This just in:

Sniffer dogs have been taken to a creditor-free island
in the Hauraki Gulf because a feral debt collector
has got loose there and is liable to do a great deal of
damage unless caught soon.

"We’ve worked hard to make this island a haven for
seriously indebted Kiwis," says conservationist Ted
Brind, "and it would be heartbreaking to see some
of them go to the wall. It’s not their fault they’ve spent
beyond their means. For many of them it's the only
life they know.

"If debt collectors get a foothold here and start to breed,
the Kiwi may not survive. They’re an endangered species
as it is; many of them are now incapable of living on
anything but credit. I shudder to think what will happen
if debt collectors get amongst them."

Plans for creating a larger creditor-free environment are
currently being developed. An area the size of the North
and South Islands combined would be perfect.

Teddo & Brind

This morning at six, Henslow, Sewell, Bogey, Thring,
Violet and I went onto the breakwater and walked
there for an hour.—Edward Gibbon Wakefield,
constructing possibly the most evocative sentence in
the English language at Plymouth, October 1852,
before sailing to New Zealand.

Pressing hard for the title, however, would be this, from
the shipboard journal of C W Richmond, approaching
New Zealand earlier the same year: Mr Halbert has
Charlie and Cal and Toadie Groser and young Milner,
the ex-linen-draper’s man. Mr Neagle has Pope and
Johnston, Hal, Ar, Teddo and Brind.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


For those with lingering doubts about the iron laws of
capitalism—actually, there is basically only one, which
is you go where the money is or is likely to be—then the
announcements of April 17 will have dispelled them
once and for all. First, Fisher & Paykel confirmed that
it would close its Dunedin factory and shift production
to countries like Thailand and Mexico. On the same day
the ANZ bank said that 500 data-processing jobs would
be moved offshore; but for the moment let’s focus on
F&P, a New Zealand company of long standing. As one
of our leading and most enterprising manufacturers for
half a century, no one should question its historical
commitment to this country; and I was impressed by the
evident sincerity of managing director John Bongard
when he said how much it grieved him to make such an

But what’s a guy to do when, as James Weir pointed out
in the Dominion Post, F&P will pay no tax at all in
Thailand for the first eight years, and the Mexican
workers will get less than $4.50 an hour? As Weir also
says, "global manufacturing is a race to the bottom," and
F&P have been going ever more global since 1987. At the
altar of globalismo, one sooner or later will sacrifice
everything—home, friends, family, nation, loyalty, sense
of identity, all.

Are nation-states, though, so powerless in the face of this
trend? It ain’t necessarily so. The first two reasons for
moving that rolled off Bongard’s tongue were the rising
Kiwi dollar and interest rates, and neither of those is a
God-given force of nature beyond governmental control.
Both, in fact, could be addressed through reform of the
Reserve Bank Act, which more and more is taking on the
aspect of a constipatory blockage in the alimentary canal
of the New Zealand economy.

Not to put too fine a point on it, for the sole sake of
containing inflation the act keeps both interest rates and
the Kiwi dollar damagingly high, to the detriment in
particular of exporters, upon whom our economy’s
lifeblood depends. It means that no matter how well they
do in terms of production and efficiency, exporters will
be penalized by the poorer returns consequent on an
overvalued exchange rate. As stated earlier this year by
John Walley, chief executive of the Manufacturers and
Exporters Association (MEA), this made a mockery of
2007's being officially designated Export Year. "Despite
the best of intentions," wrote Walley in the New Zealand
, "the scheme failed because it generally provided
nothing tangible to exporters to compensate for the
impact of less than a tenth of a cent adverse change in
the dollar."

In other words, so long as the dollar rides high and free,
any attempt to incentivize exporters is like pushing them
forward while cutting the ground from beneath their feet.

The MEA wants the Reserve Bank Act amended so that
domestic inflation is specifically targeted without
collateral damage being done to the export sector
through the impact of the exchange rate. There are other
ways of tackling inflation, as Bryan Gould has argued in
an impressive submission to the Finance & Expenditure
Select Committee’s long-running and seemingly
interminable inquiry into monetary policy; and there are
other ways of monitoring and regulating exchange rates
in order to keep people working, producing and
exporting. Otherwise, as Gould says, "As a country, we
cease to be interested in making new wealth, because it is
just too hard. We concentrate instead on manipulating
existing wealth and on creating higher values in existing
assets like housing."

Ever since the excessive inflation of the late 70s and early
80s our policy-makers appear to have lived in terror of
the beast’s return: the Reserve Bank Act, which so
dominates the economic landscape, was created precisely
to prevent such a calamity. In the process, however, some
very silly and counter-productive things have been allowed
to happen. Sooner or later, maybe, F&P would have closed
down all their New Zealand operations; but I’m betting
that, had monetary policy not been such a be-all and end-all
for the past 20 years, they would have stayed around a lot
longer. Their departure, factory by factory, worker by
worker, should cause us all in New Zealand to think long
and hard about the macro-economic course to which
successive governments have committed us.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Axe cuts

“The triumph of Christianity was accompanied by the
sound of the axe on age-old arboreta.”—Robin Lane
Fox, Pagans and Christians

The sacred groves, where pagan gods were worshipped,
were seen as dark primitive places resisting the dazzle
of Christian light; hence, during the next two millennia,
the enthusiasm for chopping down trees. The motive
was missionary as much as economic. Keen to smash
the ancient religions, God explicitly instructs the people
of Israel (Exodus 34:13) to “destroy their altars, break
their images, and cut down their groves.”

And the colonists coming to New Zealand did just that.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Fuel for sport

Can motorsport survive in the age of peak oil? Fast
machines, I guess, will always give some people a
thrill, but surely the day will come when Super V8
cars and the like are regarded not just as boys'
toys or luxuries but ecological outrages. One could
imagine protesters lining the racetracks objecting
to the waste of petrol—fuel that could be used for
more urgent purposes. Perceived as barbaric,
motorsport might well go the way of gladiatorial
combat, consigned to the history of a more primitive
age. As for boy racers, like it or not they’ll have to
become more environmentally sensitive. Coming
soon to a neighbourhood near you: boy walkers.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


The great moments of art occur by accident; the rest
is packaging. The best poem is the one overheard in
the street—and you didn’t even write it.

“Only what is seen sideways sinks deep.” (E M Forster)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Big deal

The fuss over Winston Peters taking a different view of the
free-trade agreement with China is just that—a fuss,
whipped up by the Government’s enemies in order to make
trouble where there really is none. For goodness’ sake,
Peters’s party is in an informal coalition with Labour; he
may be Foreign Minister but he is also the leader of
another party that is not Labour, and is therefore entitled
to disagree with Labour if he wishes. He was definitely out
of line to say that, if asked overseas in his capacity as
Foreign Minister what he thought of the agreement, he'd
reply that it could have been better; but he seems to have
fallen into step now. To say, however, as Fran O’Sullivan
does in today’s New Zealand Herald, that this difference
of opinion makes New Zealand look ridiculous in the
world’s eyes is hyperbolic to the point of hysterical.
Frankly, it’s unlikely anyone outside New Zealand has
noticed; and if they have, they wouldn’t care. A major
trade deal has been signed—that’s a concrete fact; the
Foreign Minister thought a better deal could have been
got—that’s a valid opinion. Let’s all move right along here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

May might

I hope I never become one of those people who write
letters to the editor about missing apostrophes and the
misuse of the English language by teenage txters.
Language evolves all the time and we should let it do
so without getting too picky. I am no pedant but.

We all have our bêtes, however—some more noirish
than others—and mine is the vanishing might. In
certain contexts might and may mean two clearly
different things, but in the past 20 years, for reasons
I can’t establish, other than sheer carelessness, may
has been steadily shoving might off the stage, to the
detriment of meaning and the confusion of the reader.

A headline in yesterday's New Zealand Herald illustrates
the point perfectly. It said "Detox centres may have
saved two men." In times past you would automatically
have taken this to mean that two men had been saved
and that possibly they could thank detox centres for that.
In fact, as the news report showed, the men had died
without ever going near a detox centre. The headline
was obviously supposed to convey the meaning that, had
they been sent to such places, they possibly would not
have died; in which case the correct way to say it was
"Detox centres might have saved two men."

But the distinction between may and might now seems
lost on many people; and the language in turn is losing a
useful shade of meaning.

Monday, April 14, 2008


I do wish they wouldn’t sing at Labour Party conferences.
Not in public, anyway. One glimpse on the television
news of Ruth Dyson, Maryan Street and friends singing
an anti-John-Key parody of “The Gambler” onstage at the
latest conference was enough to have me hiding my head
under the sofa cushions. Not only was it embarrassingly
in-house, it exposed Labour as caring just a bit too much
about Key. Boy, they must be scared of him. If they are so
scared, they should find subtler ways of demonizing him.

Broken windows

Every age believes at one and the same time that no other
age before it has been in a worse mess, and that no other
age has been quite so wonderful to live in. In our time, we
particularly like to fancy that technological change has
never been so fast, the pace of life never so frantic. But as
early as 1853 Matthew Arnold identified “this strange
disease of modern life, with its sick hurry, its divided
aims.” In a story published in 1900 Henry James referred
to people of his generation as “victims of the modern
madness, more maniacal extension and motion.”

Every time you feel superior to the funny old ways of the
past, remember that the future will find you old-fashioned
too. In 2108 they will undoubtedly chuckle over the quaint
way people in 2008 got paper money (paper money!) out
of slot machines set into walls. Cellphones will seem as
clunkily antiquated to them as, say, wind-up phonographs
do to us.

Look back harder. What we call history is noise; is the
signature on the piece of paper as opposed to the paper; is
not the window but the stone smashing through it.

History is broken windows.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Just wondering

Anyone still carrying a torch for the Chinese Government?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Smoke screen

Even after the "free trade agreement" between New
Zealand and China had been signed, news bulletins on
both TV1 and TV3 continued to lead with the fatal fire
at the coolstore outside Hamilton. The fire occurred on
Saturday night, and by Monday night there remained
only smouldering ruins, but still this item of news took
precedence over the Beijing signing. The latter will
have an incalculable effect on the lives of every New
Zealander for many years to come—but of course the
pictures weren’t so interesting, were they? Nowhere
near as dramatic as smoking ruins and grief-stricken
firemen. Thus the impact of the visual (the physical
images we see) dictates news priorities, diminishing
the power of the abstract (the invisible meaning
of an event). Which also explains why stories about
crime and violence dominate television news bulletins
out of all proportion to their importance. Strictly
speaking, TV news is not news at all but a kind of action
movie with narrative interludes.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Ask a tree

The idea of progress is necessary to capitalism—or rather,
to capitalism's illusion about itself—but is not strictly
necessary for the well-being of people. Pre-capitalist
humanity had no concept of earthly progress such as we
cherish today. Their idea of progress was to get to heaven.

Progress was all right for a while. It just went on for too
—Ogden Nash

The “growth” of which economists and politicians speak is
strictly finite. All that grows will ungrow. Ask a tree.

If there were no calendars, we would have only a limited
sense of linear time. The sun rises each day, but only to
set again and begin the whole business over again the
next day. Similarly, the seasons repeat. Only the aging of
physical bodies suggests a linear progress from one point
to another. But perhaps we age inwards, not onwards.
Our individual sense of going somewhere—albeit only to
death—is projected onto the human race as a whole to
create the illusion of progress.

Throughout the whole medieval period the cyclic and
linear concepts of time were in conflict. Scientists and
scholars, influenced by astronomy and astrology, tended
to emphasize the cyclic concept. The linear concept was
fostered by the mercantile class and the rise of a money
economy...time was now regarded as something valuable
that was felt to be slipping away continually.
—G J Whitrow, What Is Time?

In 1602 Francis Bacon, promoting the linear concept,
wrote a work called The Masculine Birth of Time.
Welcome to our world.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


The medieval Catalonian oath of allegiance to
their monarch:

We, who are as good as you, swear to you,

who are no better than us,
to accept you as our king
and sovereign lord,
provided you observe all our
and laws—but if not, not.

40 years on

Writing a biography of Helen Clark, as I am, is in some
ways to write the political history of New Zealand over
the past 40 years. Clark was politicized by student
activism over issues like the Vietnam war in 1968; the
story of her rise to power is the story of the long march
through the institutions by that generation of activists.
Now, of course, they have wound up managing and
maintaining the paradigm of economic policy laid down
by Roger Douglas and his right-wing friends in the
1980s. It would be wrong, however, to see Clark, Phil
Goff & co as “radical left-wingers” who, over the
decades, morphed into respectable custodians of
capitalism. Capitalism was never under threat from
what the French modestly call les événements of 1968
and after; the left in New Zealand, such as it was, had
no viable critique of economics, being far more
concerned with social issues, identity politics and
international relations. That is precisely why Douglas
was able to do what he did when he got power in 1984.
He had an economic plan; the left didn’t. This is not to
negate the profound effect of left-wing issue and
identity politics, which have changed New Zealand
much for the better. But it might help us—it’s helping me,
anyway—to understand why even the Clark Labour
government, enlightened and progressive in many
respects, is unable to seriously contest the power of
capital, both global and domestic.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Sucking it up

Sometimes if you stop and look around you in a city street,
you might be struck by the remarkable number of people
who at any given moment are sucking on something.
Cigarettes, water bottles, juice drinks, cans of alcohol, soft
foods of many kinds from ice-cream to doughy buns—we
seem to need to have something in our mouths to get us
through the day. Thus consumerism keeps us ever-needy,
infantilized, taking it in and sucking it up.

Atman returns

Our true high self: the part of us that was never born
and will never die. The Hindus call it atman—the
eternal deity within each soul. In wise love, says
Yeats, you divine that higher self in your lover and
try to reflect it back to them. That in fact is probably
the greatest gift you can give anyone: a glimpse of
their own atman.

When, though, was love ever wise? We need dates,
names, precise locations.