Thursday, 7 November 2013

This is how I write when I have a word limit

Earlier this year the Labour History Project held a competition calling for essays on people’s vision for New Zealand. I entered this, but – as you can tell from the fact that I’m blogging it – I didn’t win. My title was “We Can Do Better”, because I’d spent all the time available on the essay itself and had to come up with something vaguely snappy-ish at the last minute. Because it was written for an audience of politically conscious New Zealanders, I mention quite a few things in passing which I would have had to sit down and explain for an international audience. I’ve put in links that hopefully should be helpful there. I wrote this all before the recent revelations about the Auckland rape gang and the beyond-incompetent police response to it, or that would have been the major focus of the essay.
Yes, this is how I write when there’s a word limit. When I worked at a local student magazine my style was described as “brisk”. I guess it makes for quicker reading but I hate not being able to explain all the nuances.

We humans are very good at coming up with solutions to our problems. Unfortunately, the solutions tend to create more problems. Plumbing means cleaner cities but dirtier oceans. Literacy means less ignorance but more squinting. The best we can hope for is that the new problems are smaller than the old ones. Then we can solve those ones, and so on.
So if you want to know what the future looks like, don’t look at the people celebrating existing ideas. Look at the naysayers, the people picking holes in them. Look at the Earth Hour people, not the “Human Achievement Hour” people. They’re where the next wave of improvements will come from.
That’s why I don’t take a Utopian approach to politics – any more than to housework. I’m never going to make the house perfectly clean, and it wouldn’t last long if I did. Instead my philosophy is what’s called meliorist, from the Latin for “better”. You see something that needs fixed, you fix it. You see something that needs cleaned up, you clean it up. You make things better than they were before.

Let’s start with rivers. Intensive dairying is the problem; sheep and beef farms put barely more pollution into the water than natural tussock. “But,” say some, “New Zealand has an advantage in dairy.” These are the minds we need to change; let’s try and see where they’re coming from.
The basic idea is co-operation through specialization. Instead of everyone trying to do everything for themselves, they do the thing they’re best at and share or trade it with others. The logic is the same whether the parties are individuals, or organizations, or countries. We know this isn’t just a made-up ideology, because it’s how cells in your body work – some specialize at moving, some at carrying signals, some at removing poisons from the bloodstream.
The other thing you need to know about cells is that, when they wear down from overwork, they kill themselves. The “wearing down from overwork” part also happens to people. On a national scale, over-specialization is what’s poisoning New Zealand’s rivers. If you don’t fancy the suicide solution, the alternative is to develop other skills and change jobs; or, if you’re a country, to diversify your trade portfolio.
New Zealand will probably remain a food-producer. We’re isolated, with world-class biosecurity protocols already in place. We still have a halfway decent amount of wild forest to soak up pollution and halt erosion. I suggest we specialize in non-GM foods – a service the world will need all the more if it mostly switches to GM foods, as a source of genetic variation to counter the market’s tendency to favour one “best” product.
But we’ve recently stopped getting away with farming on depleted soil and polluted water. Environmental degradation reduces land values; it’s harder to raise cows if they haven’t got clean water to drink. By rights, farmers should get together and put the rivers which enrich their properties in trust. Anyone polluting that water would then have to pay the trust the cost of cleaning up.
Some will say that should be the government’s job. I say we need a conservation system that doesn’t fall over if the government stops caring. Others will say corporates will manipulate the trusts’ environmental testing standards; somebody has to monitor them. True, but corporates also manipulate governments. I propose we entrust the monitoring to a party independent of both, with abiding interest in the health of the land: iwi.
Now that’s going to get some people shouting; and at least every third sentence of the shouting will be “I’m not racist!” There are a lot of myths among Pākehā about Māori issues, and even if I had the space to address them, I’m not Māori and cannot speak for Māori. But I need to say something, even so.
I am Pākehā. I am proud to live in a country founded not on bloodshed but on an agreement. Removing the Treaty of Waitangi, as some suggest, would undermine my identity as a New Zealander. It does not privilege Māori over others; it gives Māori the same rights to dispose of their property as they see fit, and have their wishes respected, that everyone else enjoys.
I have an explanation – not an excuse – for my people’s irrational fears. There is no concept in Pākehā culture equivalent to “tangata whenua”. Most of our ancestors, 170 years ago, were poor British people to whom “This land is mine by right of descent” was usually followed by “so you can leave now, peasants”. That’s the fear the scaremongers play on.

The problem in this country is that the main vision for change is “Let’s put things back the way they were”. We can’t bet on there never ever being another Rob Muldoon.
Fair call – what do I know about Muldoon? I was six when they voted him out. All my life, anything the government has held on behalf of the people, it has either gutted or sold off in the name of saving money. I just can’t see it as a pair of safe hands for our future.
So what I’ve suggested for cleaning up rivers, I’m going to suggest for our other resources as well. Let’s have community trusts for forests and beaches. Let’s have trusts running local public transport. Let’s have trusts running energy generation from wind and sun. Where community organizations already provide those services, let’s give them what they need.
We can’t rely on food production alone; we must diversify. We need to be manufacturing, especially if we want to do public transport and renewable energy. The cure for poverty is jobs – decently-paid. Corporates say they must be allowed to pay less or they can’t offer work at all. But a company’s accounts show only one side of the ledger, where wages are money going out. They don’t show the side where better-paid workers can better afford to buy goods and services, which is money coming in.
That other side needs a say in corporate decisions. We figured out centuries ago that dictatorship doesn’t work for governments. Isn’t it time business became democratic as well? Overseas studies have shown that granting workers power over their own work decisions makes the business not just more ethical, but more efficient, by enhancing co-operation.
We already have community trusts for labour resources; they’re called unions. New Zealand’s income support system is riddled with inefficiencies. Unions connect people who, between them, know about job openings and skill shortages all over the country. Why not put that knowledge to use helping people into work? Then, anyone who gets a job through that union, you sign up as a member.
With the advent of 3D printers, manufacturing is about to change. In ten years the money won’t be in churning out products, it’ll be in making designs for people to download. Oh, there’ll still be jobs assembling complex machinery, and for anything that requires specific chemistry. But intellectual property – already a giant – is going to get even bigger.
Blogger Frank Macskasy suggests that National’s spying laws are mostly about stopping illegal downloading. Hence why Kim Dotcom, not some supposed al-Qaeda operative, was the one they raided. Stopping people sharing information is a losing battle. Is there a better way to pay information creators? Is there a better way than selling ever-increasing amounts of advertising?
People pay their internet service providers (ISPs) for access to the internet. Presently, content-creators are also expected to pay ISPs, which is frankly silly. Once again I think the answer is a community organization; let designers, artists, writers and programmers band together and demand the money flow in the appropriate direction. Or perhaps create their own ISP and offer free downloads and ad-free webpages to anyone who’ll switch to them.
Let’s face it: low-skill jobs are going to be replaced by machines. A low-wage economy is the fast road to the Third World. We need to expand our education sector and at the same time make it accessible to everybody. I think my community trust model should save the State quite a bit of money. That money must be spent reducing the cost of education. Education should be free to the student.
No, I’m not suggesting students get something for nothing. Study is a full-time job. A three-year degree takes time and labour which, if spent working on the minimum wage instead, would be worth about $40–$60,000. I think that’s enough to ask somebody to pay for getting educated, without getting into a lifetime of debt for the privilege.

Of course I’m under no illusion that any of these little ideas are going to turn New Zealand into the Promised Land. I just think they would make things better than they are now. I’m quite sure that if we implemented them, we’d find a whole bunch of new problems to solve. But that’s OK. We’re human beings. We’re good at solving problems.


  1. "So if you want to know what the future looks like, don’t look at the people celebrating existing ideas. Look at the naysayers, the people picking holes in them. Look at the Earth Hour people, not the “Human Achievement Hour” people. They’re where the next wave of improvements will come from."

    This sounds similar to Solomon's position on going to the house of mourning Ecclesiastes 7:2-4.

    "2 It is better to go to a home where there is mourning than to one where there is a party, because the living should always remind themselves that death is waiting for us all. 3 Sorrow is better than laughter; it may sadden your face, but it sharpens your understanding. 4 Someone who is always thinking about happiness is a fool. A wise person thinks about death."

    Just thought it was an interesting congruence.

    Nice work with the blog.

    1. You'd have to squint pretty hard to see the resemblance. Death and grief are not really problems we can solve.