2017 rewind: Why fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench

The fourth-most-read post on Boots Theory last year questioned a pretty strongly-rooted tenet of modern Labour Party faith. People have said to me since the election result, “see, it worked!” Yet National still gained 44.4% of the vote, and Labour’s boost came directly from Jacinda Ardern’s amazing personal appeal. And the question now becomes: is winning one election worth it if we don’t actually change the status quo?

Originally published 25 March 2017

Labour and the Greens have announced a cornerstone coalition policy for the 2017 general election: a set of Budget Responsibility Rules which will, per the Greens’ website:

… show that the Green Party and the Labour Party will manage the economy responsibly while making the changes people know are needed, like lifting kids out of poverty, cleaning up our rivers, solving the housing crisis, and tackling climate change.

It feels like I’ve been banging my head against this brick wall for a decade. The short version is this:

Labour and the Greens cannot credibly campaign on a foundation of “fiscal responsibility”. It is anathema to genuine progressive politics. It isn’t a vote-winner. It’s a vote-loser.

I’ve heard the defence: but we ARE the fiscally responsible ones! Look at our surpluses in government! Witness our detailed policy costings! BEHOLD OUR GRAPHS!

If empirical evidence worked, we’d already been in government and this conversation wouldn’t be happening, and I know I for one would be happier for it.

Everyone knows this is crap. No one really tries to defend it by saying, “but fiscal responsibility is the most important thing in government”. They say, “but we need people to believe we’re fiscally responsible.” They say, “but the media always ask how much our policies will cost!” They say, “we need to win or we can’t achieve anything, learn to count Stephanie.”

We know we’re selling our souls, but only for the right reasons. The tragedy is, we’re not. Fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench. Once you dip so much as a toe in, it makes everything else you do reek.

Don’t just take my word for it – after all, we’re all rational creatures making objective decisions based on evidence, right? Take it from someone who has the evidence, my favourite American Anat Shenker-Osorio:

Peer-reviewed psychological studies show that money-primed people … become more selfish. They are, for example, much less willing to spend time helping another student pretending to be confused about a task. When an experimenter dropped pencils, money-primed subjects elected to pick up far fewer than their unprimed peers. Also, when asked to set up two chairs for a get to know you chat, those who had money put on their minds placed the chairs farther apart. Money-primed undergrads showed greater preference for being alone.

The results of these experiments should give progressives pause and serve as lessons for how we do our messaging. Talking about money first makes the whole subsequent conversation start in a mean and selfish place — the last thing we want when we’re talking about the common good and our national future. …

Those politicians who actually believe in the institution in which they serve would do far better to speak of what government does for us — and trust that we’re smart enough to know that good things don’t come cheap.

If we prompt New Zealand voters to think about money first, they aren’t going to think about common good, about ensuring their neighbours have a good life too. They’re going to think “actually, getting another block of cheese each week does sound good” and the right’s fourth term is secured. They don’t even have to work for it, because when we explicitly buy into their values, it weakens our own.

It cuts out the heart of our politics. Our critics are absolutely right: Labour and the Greens are not trusted to be good fiscal managers. THAT’S THE POINT. No one wants us to be good fiscal managers – except for the right, who are thrilled that we not only want to play in their playhouse but will obey all the rules they’ve made up to ensure they always win.

It’s like some people watched Mean Girls and thought, “well of course we have to wear pink on Wednesdays and throw out our white gold hoops, how else will we get Regina George to truly respect us?”

Pink is not our colour. Fiscal responsibility is not our strength. The economy is not the most important thing in the world – HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA.

We’re meant to be the ones who care about people, and make sure everyone in our communities is taken care of, whether they’re sick, or old, or exploited by a shoddy employer or having a baby or building a life in a new country. These are the areas where we’re strong. These are the values which we must promote – not just because we hold them dearly, but because doing that is the best way to fuck up the other side’s message of greed and self-interest and exploitation of people and our planet.

People want change. They don’t want poverty and housing crises and public services stretched to breaking point. They know these things cost money! But they’ve been told for decades that government must be small, and the private sector runs things better, that the only metric that matters is that sweet surplus. They know it doesn’t feel right, but there doesn’t seem to be another way of doing things, because we keep telling them we agree with it. And they vote for the party they “know” are the better economic managers, because that’s National’s brand, and not all the graphs and spreadsheets we throw at them are going to convince them otherwise.

We’re never going to win while we keep playing in the right’s playhouse and skinny-dipping in the Bog of Fiscally Responsible Stench because we want to smell just like our enemies. We have to be an alternative. Stop talking about the bloody money and start talking about people.

Generational change

This paragraph in a eulogy for Jim Anderton on Newsroom, got me thinking about generational change in politics:

Trapped in near-perpetual opposition since the first Labour Government of 1935-49, with only brief single-term governments in 1957 and 1972, younger members of the party, the so-called ‘Vietnam Generation’ were desperate to modernise the party and reform it into an organisation capable of establishing a lasting government. To this generation, commitment to the party’s union origins was less important than social justice and, ultimately, power; compromise was needed.

It’s been clear for the past decade or more that a significant change is needed in progressive politics and activism. Centrism has drained the passion out of the left; the old ways of organising workers don’t apply to a casualised/”gig” economy; and the problems of poverty, inequality and injustice just keep getting worse (no thanks to the “compromises” the Vietnam Generation decided to make to achieve power – instead of driving genuine democratic and political change through the unions and other progressive movements of the day.)

It’s easy to point at the election of Jacinda Ardern as our second-youngest-ever Prime Minister, with new faces like Grant Robertson and Kelvin Davis at the Cabinet table, and say “things are obviously going to be different.” That thinking certainly drove a lot of Labour’s last-minute poll boost, which came from the disillusioned left, not “soft” National voters.

But it’s more complex than that. We have to reject the kind of “logic” which insisted in the early 2000s that having women in multiple important roles – Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of the House, Governor-General – proved sexism was dead, or more recently in the USA, where Barack Obama’s election “proved” racism was over, even as more and more black people were murdered by the police at “routine” traffic stops.

There’s always a system, a structure, a machine behind the fresh young faces. Hence rightwing pundits crowed at the news that Heather Simpson, who achieved legendary nemesis status as Helen Clark’s chief of staff, had been brought into the new administration and was exercising a high level of control over its setup. Other Clark veterans like Mike Munro and GJ Thompson were also announced as senior members of Ardern’s team.

Never mind that the same rightwingers would have hammered Labour equally hard for its lack of credibility (and did, over issues like the allocation of Select Committee seats) if the new PM hadn’t picked anyone with previous experience in government.

It would be worrying if Labour’s strategy were driven by people still operating in an early-2000s mindset, both in terms of policy direction and campaigning strategy. Especially with the Greens not delivering a strong election result and thus not in a position to exert as much pressure or provide cover for ambitious, progressive policies. The government sits on a knife-edge; even if you don’t necessarily agree with the need to push a strong leftwing, socially liberal set of policies, it’s a simple matter of survival. National know how to bounce back from defeat and adapt to new political circumstances. Once they’ve figured out who’s going to knife whom for the leadership and who’s going to strategically defect to ACT with a safe seat, they’re coming on hard. A Labour-led government which tries to focus-group and commission-of-inquiry its way through not offending anyone will not survive.

But it’s also a trap to think that progressive change requires youth, and there are no better examples than Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, little centrists, I know neither of them “won”; but I also know – as I suspect they both do – is not about single short-term election campaigns. It’s about changing the world and changing what’s achievable in politics, and if you want to argue that Corbyn and Sanders haven’t fundamentally altered the political activism of their respective countries, you’ll need to let me get a glass of water so I don’t choke on my cackling.

Sanders’ run took the word “socialist” from being a Fox News epithet levelled at anyone who suggested healthcare was a nice thing people should have to a badge of honour; combined with Trump’s victory, the Democratic Socialists of America have gained 27,000 members and seen their average age drop from 68 to 33. In 2017, socialists kept winning elections.

Corbyn – who we all know is totally unelectable except for all those elections he keeps winning or increasing Labour’s vote share in at almost unprecedented levels – is embracing new styles of campaigning, at the cost of traditional party structures:

If Corbyn gets his way, when you think of Labour, you won’t imagine rows of MPs on green leather benches, or a smartly suited minister chatting to a reporter. Instead, you’ll think of activists reinvigorating their estate’s tenants association, while others organise their co-workers and stand with them on picket lines.

The fly in the ointment for us is that a pillar of Sanders’ and Corbyn’s success is in their respective decades of unwavering commitment and activism, which gives them a credibility young up-and-comers can’t get; but there’s no one I can think of in New Zealand politics with similar bona fides.

Ultimately, it’s simply too early to say which way our new government will go. In the most refined managerial terms, there are risks, and there are opportunities. There are other obstacles to be overcome – like entrenched ideologies and ass-covering instincts among our public sector leaders, or the simple inertia of any large organisation which is used to doing things a certain way.

But age doesn’t determine whether you’ll change the world: what does is having the will to do it and the skills to do it well.

2017 rewind: Who has to apologise?

We’re into the top 5 most-read posts on Boots Theory in 2017. First up, we revisit the Metiria Turei story, and ask ourselves why so many people’s lasting impression is, “well she didn’t apologise, that’s what made it so bad.”

Originally published 3 October 2017.

An excellent piece by Maddie Holden at The Spinoff on the sexism of the 2017 election got me thinking. She writes:

Enter Metiria Turei. We’re all familiar with the story of her ousting from Parliament for a forgivable, decades-old mistake that shed light on the glaring deficiencies of our welfare system, but perhaps it’s not immediately apparent that her treatment related to her gender. It’s simply a matter of honesty and trust, we’ve been told, and charges of a racist, sexist double standard have been dismissed using fine-tooth comb analysis. It was her attitude, they said, and any MP who broke a law would be expected to pay with her otherwise flawless career in public service.

On the Sunday morning after election day I was on a panel for Radio NZ’s Sunday Morning, where the topic of Turei’s resignation came up. Fellow panelist Neil Miller said it “rankled” with many people he knew that Metiria Turei didn’t apologise, or appear contrite enough. Now, I stand by what I said then, i.e. “what the hell did she have to apologise for?” (weka at The Standard has helpfully transcribed some of my comments in this post, and here’s an awesome round-up of posts analysing the real reasons Turei resigned.)

But with the lens of Holden’s article, another thought struck me: the sexist double standards of apologies.

If you are a woman, especially a poor Māori woman, and you do something wrong out of the noblest of motives – providing for your child – let’s be honest: no apology would be enough. If you didn’t cry, it would be proof you weren’t sincere. If you did cry, it would be proof you were a weak feeeeeeemale and unfit for politics anyway. Whatever words you use, they will be found wanting; it’s all well and good to say sorry now, the talkback twerps would sneer, but why did you do it in the first place you awful bludger?

But if you’re a man? Well.

If you’re a man, you can shrug your shoulders and say “oh, those things I said weren’t actually my view, or even factually correct, soz.”

If you’re a man, you get to say “my lawyers told me it was okay” or “I reckon it’s pretty legal” and this does not in fact rule you out of being Prime Minister or Minister of Finance (but then, even blatantly lying about budget figures apparently doesn’t rule you out from being Minister of Finance).

If you’re a man, you get to say “oh well my life was just really hard back then when I physically assaulted my partner repeatedly” and pillars of the community will queue up to denounce anyone who doesn’t give you a second chance even when you continue to propagate violent rhetoric and label yourself the victim.

If you’re a man, you get to demean survivors of sexual assault live on air, refuse to take personal responsibility for it and get handed plum political roles while other people insist that we should just take it on faith that you’ve changed, even as you offer more non-apologies.

Hell, if you’re a man you can say “I’ve offered to apologise” when your government utterly screws up the handling of a sexual assault case and that’s somehow the end of the matter, and even if you subsequently refuse to apologise you get damning headlines like: “PM not keen on apology”.

Not.

Bloody.

KEEN?

Can you imagine it? Can you hear the shrieking that would have ensued if Metiria Turei had called a press conference, sniffled a bit and said “Look, I feel bad if anyone was offended, but I only offer apologies when there’s a serious reason for me to do so, I obviously never intended to hurt anyone’s feelings, but it was a long time ago and has been taken out of context”?

Because that’s all a man would have to do.

It may well “rankle” for some people that Metiria Turei never apologised, for something which requires no apology from anyone with a heart. But let’s not allow this to become the received wisdom, as though any apology would have satisfied the critics. They are not fair-minded even-handed assessors of a complex situation; they are hateful troll-monkeys who would always be able to find some reason to demonise a Māori woman whose true crime was surviving and challenging the status quo.

What I read on my holidays

We’re still in that quiet time of year where not a lot is happening unless you’re into cricket. Here are a few longer reads I’ve been enjoying over the downtime.

New York Times: How tough is it to change a culture of harassment? Ask women at Ford

The jobs were the best they would ever have: collecting union wages while working at Ford, one of America’s most storied companies. But inside two Chicago plants, the women found menace.

Bosses and fellow laborers treated them as property or prey. Men crudely commented on their breasts and buttocks; graffiti of penises was carved into tables, spray-painted onto floors and scribbled onto walls. They groped women, pressed against them, simulated sex acts or masturbated in front of them. Supervisors traded better assignments for sex and punished those who refused.

That was a quarter-century ago. Today, women at those plants say they have been subjected to many of the same abuses. And like those who complained before them, they say they were mocked, dismissed, threatened and ostracized. One described being called “snitch bitch,” while another was accused of “raping the company.” Many of the men who they say hounded them kept their jobs.

Al Jazeera: Why is the West praising Malala, but ignoring Ahed?

Ahed Tamimi, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl, was recently arrested in a night-time raid on her home. The Israeli authorities accuse her of “assaulting” an Israeli soldier and an officer. A day earlier she had confronted Israeli soldiers who had entered her family’s backyard. The incident happened shortly after a soldier shot her 14-year-old cousin in the head with a rubber bullet, and fired tear-gas canisters directly at their home, breaking windows.

Her mother and cousin were arrested later as well. All three remain in detention.

There has been a curious lack of support for Ahed from Western feminist groups, human rights advocates and state officials who otherwise present themselves as the purveyors of human rights and champions of girls’ empowerment.

Giovanni Tiso: On polite Nazis and the violence of speech

The error in believing that fascism can be defeated through debate stems partly from the failure to see violence in speech, and in the exercise of speech. Few would fail to recognise that violence when watching the 90-second video, and the fixed stares of those fifteen men, whose every gesture signified: ‘We could hurt you, but choose not to. For now.’

Graham Cameron: Māori health and education models can work for everyone

We need to move past the assumption prevalent in our public services that if it was written by a Māori academic, has Māori words and concepts, and Māori people are using it, then it is only aimed at Māori. These models are aimed beyond the individual to building functional communities and whānau; ethnicity has very little to do with it.

2017 rewind: The immigration “debate”

Boy, this issue never goes away. Wait, am I talking about toxic immigration narratives, or mainstream media pundit-dudes making prats of themselves?

Originally published 8 October 2017

There were a few drafts of this post, as I struggled with how to address Duncan Garner’s blatantly, deliberately, openly, provocatively racist column (no one makes that much effort saying how not-racist they are if they aren’t about to be super-racist). Deconstruct line-by-line? Parody (unnecessary given this excellent piece)? Flowchart showing all this has happened before and all of it will happen again (everything’s better with a Battlestar Galactica reference)?

I settled on a bingo board.

Because I am tired. I am so very tired of this little dance we go on, every single time a Pākehā dude (usually) opens his mouth to complain about “floods” or “waves” of immigrants or wants to start off “an important conversation” about immigration by observing that the queue at KMart made him feel like he was in South East Asia. I am tired of the disingenuous defenders insisting that we stop talking about the actual words the grown man who works in a communication-based job actually wrote. I am tired of the expectation to buy into the charade that he just doesn’t understand the basic implications of his words, to soothe the troubled brows of people who think being called racist is the literal worst thing that can happen to a living being.

I am tired of having to explain incredibly basic concepts like “referring to groups of people in animalistic terms is dehumanizing” or “criticising racist rhetoric does not mean I believe in a fully open borders policy and what the hell are you smoking to suggest that I am, you obvious deflection tactic?”

I am tired of the constant threat: actually I’m one of the good ones and if you alienate me I might not support good things any more.

And I am afraid. Haven’t we seen this happen already? Don’t we know what direction normalising this kind of rhetoric, and shutting down of criticism of it, takes us in? Haven’t we all watched what’s happening in the United States and retweeted Sarah Kendzior enough to read the signs? Didn’t we just learn that pandering to the “less-bad” agitators – saying “oh sure Milo’s transphobic but at least he’s not an actual Nazi” – is part of the problem?

Weren’t we all guilty of laughing at Trump’s buffoonery and assuming he was harmless, and just coincidentally aren’t we all waiting to see which way Winston Peters will go, gosh isn’t it funny how he mocked that journalist for being Australian?

And I’m rolling my eyes at myself right now because come on, Stephanie, this is just one silly Duncan Garner column, it’s not an impending seachange in NZ politics towards the openly white-supremacist authoritarianism of Trump and Breitbart, be reasonable.

But being reasonable and giving people an endless supply of second changes or infinite benefit of the doubt is how people like me – people who aren’t directly threatened by this rhetoric – end up saying “I woke up one day and realised I was living in a dystopia” – while those who faced genuine harm from all those “poor choices of words” or “unintended implications” are screaming we told you so, why didn’t you listen?

This is how hatred and hate-filled politics becomes normal: not because there are people deliberately pushing a racist agenda, but because a much wider group of people ignore it, or reinforce it by parroting its tropes without thinking about it. And when they’re called out, they’re outraged, because they’re not racist and how dare you say so you basement-dwelling loser, and their indignation is another piece of the puzzle, because now the conversation is about whether those stupid social justice types on Twitter are just too sensitive to have mature conversations about serious issues facing our nation.

And I’m tired. But I had to say something. Because you can never see where it all started to go wrong until it’s too late.