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Saturday, 12 May 2018

Banal and Dangerous: Clarke Gayford versus the Journalists

New Zealand's journalists are complete rubbish. They're awful.

I remember this one time Heather du Plessis-Allan claimed to have found a loophole in the law. The police immediately launched an investigation. You know why? It wasn't at all a loophole.

I remember this other time Enoch Powell wrote this piece on the disasters of immigration centred on an experience shopping for undies at Kmart. No, wait, it was Duncan Garner. Rivers of Blood. Weird snake metaphors. Or something. Easy mistake. (That crap was weeeirrd; at least Powell could competently articulate his point, you know?)

I remember a time when someone writing for the Herald compared pay cheque to pay cheque existence with keeping up with the Joneses. I didn't write it down to my deep regret but it did happen. I took the opportunity to try and rip a similarly dumb-thinking post to shreds later, though, in State Charity (read it, see if I succeeded).

And let's not get started on Ben Mack. (Actually, just so you know, they still have a career, so don't feel bad. I think they switched from the Herald prior to the WSJ affair,)

I know what you're thinking. I've managed a character assassination on NZ Journalism without once mentioning Mike Hosking. That's how bad the field is.

Actually, Hosking helps clarify that a lot of our journalists just do journalism... they're practising not disciplinary journalists. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it probably doesn't help.

It's actually really hard to think of any journalistic output that I'd recommend to people as think pieces. That shouldn't be the case. Look at all the movies that are made about real life journalism. Look at all the fictional characters who are journalists. Some of them get killed by the bad guys. Why? Because the Fourth Estate. We haven't got that here.

I guess I'd mention Tapu Misa's Long Brown Tail of Failure from 2009, but she doesn't seem to work as a journalist anymore. And I'm not even sure that was the name of the article (I read it for social studies, so I have a copy glued into a book somewhere... if I remember I'll look for it). There should be more than this! And it's not like I only remember that article because I read it for school or because I was young and naive. I read a lot of articles in those circumstances.

For instance, someone else I remember from my early years of reading the NZ Herald's website is Deborah Hill Cone. She's still around. And the cause of a hooha.

It's... not a good article.

Hill Cone has an opportunity here to engage with a really rather serious topic. She doesn't. She actually dismisses it. Literally. Dismisses.
  • 2.0 -- Treat as unworthy of serious consideration.
  • 2.1 -- Deliberately cease to think about.
Not sure which kind of dismissal is happening, but it's one of them:
No wonder Gayford seems to be enjoying the whole political circus so far. Possibly a little too much.
Political commentator Claire Trevett notes the past female spouses of our prime ministers did not get as involved in the Chogm spouse programme as Gayford has, and they very rarely did interviews. The women had a background support role, but Gayford seems to lap the attention up, like the political equivalent of manspreading.
But forget all that. Here is the real reason I find Gayford problematic.
This is a legitimate criticism. It's actually a really important one when you have people writing of Gayford in terms like:
  • Clarke Gayford writes for The Spinoff about his first days as first gent
  • There’s something about our First Bloke that keeps nagging me every time I see his cheerful face.
  • etc.
There are four layers to this problem.

The Sheer Idiocy of the Idea of a "First Spouse"

NZ's a monarchy. Actually, we have two different monarchs running around. There's the Queen of NZ who lives in the UK and then there's the Maori King. The point is that we're used to institutions which many people claim are anti-egalitarian.

In the US, they have a thing called the "First Lady". This is just bizarre.

The whole point of democracy is that there's no difference between Donald Trump, Brad Pitt, James Holmes, David Hogg or Lebron James. Politician, actor, murderer, survivor or basketballer... all of them have no greater claim to political relevancy than any other. I'd mention some random ordinary Americans but I don't know any.

Calling Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton or any other president's wife the First Lady cuts right across that. It promotes the idea that there is something other and above about being (a) the US president and (b) the US president's wife. That cuts totally across what that institution is about.

But the Americans actually take it further than this. To them, it's entirely normal for the First Lady to be a kind of political figure. Not just in the sense that you send wifey out to talk to charities but that they should have some sort of mission themselves. Hence, the much maligned cyberbullying thing.

This is very different to a peoples' princess or whatever. In NZ's system we're actually asked specifically to not listen to and prevent political involvement of non-political figures, i.e. the Queen. Watch To Play a King (series two of the superior House of Cards) to gain some insight into this. The charitable involvement of the wealth and leisure classes is, well, it's their thing, right? We're not holding them up as part of the democratic system. We say they're outside of it.

I include this as a layer because you have to understand the problem with the referent to be able to understand the problem with making the references to it.

Oh, and not one of us expects anyone else to care about the Royals. Except republicans. But they're not very bright.

Words Matter

This sounds pretty stupid, right? But it's actually quite profound.
“Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
Now, I don't want anyone thinking that Clarke Gayford's secretly Voldemort. That would be absurd. But his apparent refusal to stop people calling him "You Know What" is deeply problematic.

Let's mention Mike Hosking again. He's really fond of the saying "Middle New Zealand". Well, cool. Except, it's not. Middle New Zealand doesn't exist as a Thing. Hosking just uses it as a way to say "people who think like me" without drawing attention to the particularity of Hosking. It's very devious.

When you set up a concept and talk about it like it's a Real Thing, you force people to create the mental space for your concept. Whether that's Hosking and Middle New Zealand or NZ's journalists and the "First X" description of Clarke Gayford, it happens. And it happens in other realms as well. Think about "Reverse Racism"1 or "TERFism"2 .

One of the big ways that this happens is by normalisation. Every time you see Middle New Zealand, it becomes much more normal to you that this is an idea. You might start out thinking that it's not a real thing. And then one day you realise you're arguing that Middle NZ is real but isn't who Mike Hosking thinks it is. Even vehement disagreement can't save you from a paradigm shift. But ridiculing it can..

That being said, using the First Spouse Concept (FSC) in a playful matter isn't ridiculing the idea. A joke made at Trump's expense which relies on Melania Trump's being First Lady doesn't ridicule the FSC... it relies on people believing in the FSC. That kind of humour... say the endless parade of articles about how she won't touch Trump in public... says there's something meaningful here, that you should know and believe in the FSC. It's the FSC  itself that deserves ridicule.

This is one of the layers for very simple logic. Basically, "you're creating a bad idea". After all, we just established that the FSC is undemocratic above. And now we've established that all you have to do to bring it about is use the words.

Personalising Politics

Politics should be for people, not about people.

I think most people are against the personalising of politics. They see it as getting in the way of productive discourses and as obscuring what actually matters, i.e. the policies that actually get enacted.

On the other hand... John Key was widely condemned for being all about the personality and now that Jacinda Ardern does exactly the same things there are no more rebukes. Where is Planet Jacinda? (Always Jacinda, never Ardern... interesting, no?) How about the US Electoral College was wildly unpopular before 2016 and now Republicans will throw themselves in front of bullets for it? It's almost as if peoples' opinions generally relate to whatever is convenient for their other opinions.

There are three key (closely related) problems with emphasising personality:
  • It makes it really hard to hold politicians to account.
    • Politicians who are about personality tend to be able to throw up another distraction. Smile and Wave Key is quite possibly the greatest political operator to have ever lived. This is a man who was nicknamed the Smiling Assassin in his pre-political life, who oversaw eight years of reasonably incompetent government and rode from scandal to scandal without a scratch! You shouldn't be able to do this. But being just goofy enough, just dad enough, just blokey enough, just friendly enough etc. etc. John Key became Teflon John.
    • The reason this works is also related to the old "style versus substance" argument. It's hard to challenge people on substance when they're not offering any. If your criticisms seem irrelevant, it's hard to make traction with them. And if, on top of that, you come across as being incapable of deviousness of the highest order, you're never going to face a scandal that sticks... people lack the mental space for that. You're not too good to be true, you're too fallible to disappoint.
    • Oh, and before I forget, tu quoque is a fallacy. People recognise that attacking the people themselves is wrong/it vibes ill with them... but that's all that style leaves to attack. Quite the fix, right?
  • It helps divorce the people from their rule/it's undemocratic.
    • The way elections work, in theory, is that political parties offer up a set of politics, a vote is held, and the combination of political parties whose platforms seem the most relevant to the electorate ends up in power.
    • When you hold elections which deal a lot with contests between personalities, where is "the common man" in the cut and thrust of the campaign? No where, right? Their concerns aren't what the election is fought over and hence they're not what the politicians have to care about. And if they care about other things it follows that what the politicians actually do reflects those other concerns. Hence, elections don't facilitate the rule of the people.
    • From a slightly different tack:
      • Look. We can spend all day quibbling about whether or not people actually make the kinds of choices in elections which we assume they do. We can complicate matters by wondering if, perhaps, sortition is the best articulation of democracy (which implies that random voting is desirable). We can argue until the cows come home about the credibility of political promises. We can do all this stuff. But the fact remains that it's really rather difficult to distinguish between functionally identical things. Indeed, the difficulty is discouraging.
      • One of the things to note about personality politics is that it works. Like, it really works. Get it right and you're John Key. Get it wrong and... you're Donald Trump (who still managed to win). So the point is that you either bring another personality to the table or you run vapid anti-personnel campaigns (remember when instead of attacking immigrants or threatening to sink boatloads of people3 Labour was the "not John Key" party? God, I hate that I miss that). Once the first person "cheats" and goes to personality, everyone has to. That's the Nash Equilibrium. And, as in most cases, it's not a social optimum.
  • It creates dissonance between institutional design and operation.
    • I'm not sure how obvious this is or not but institutions like laws, systems (e.g. transport or education) or organisations (the traditional kind of institution) are set up based on a set of assumptions. Sometimes these assumptions reflect idealisations... design an institution for the way things should work (perhaps to encourage that reality, perhaps out of idiocy, perhaps out of hope other programmes succeed, perhaps for whatever else). 
    • Likewise the actual operation of these institutions is based on behavioural assumptions, e.g. you design a court system that should work but in practice you operate it to streamline "waste of time cases" (e.g. divorce) which choke up more important things.
    • These assumptions can occur at all levels, both high (e.g. a government telling how (spitals to compete with each other) and le.g. a teacher bringing shareable breakfasts to their classroom in the morning).
    • When institutions aren't working properly they are usually being under-funded, deliberately shackled or burdened with wrong assumptions. Electoral systems are no different. 
    • Imagine that you set up something like MMP which lets you vote your heart. The idea is to work based on policies, right? Except it doesn't work that way. There's nothing in NZ's Electoral Act which stops the National Party from putting out advertising which says the idea of a particular coalition is bad. Not the outcomes thereof. Not even the vibe. They literally attack the very concept. (Note: Labour and NZ First are hardly more -democratic... and if the Greens actually let them go ahead with the anti-Waka Jumping legislation all the bad crap National did for democracy will be overshadowed.) 
    • Where personality politics comes into play is that it works with MMP. In fact, in many respects, MMP exacerbates it. In the old days a personality like John Key or Jacinda Ardern only had a direct effect on votes in Helensville or Mt. Albert, i.e. the seat being contested. The "hangers on" (er, the other party members) just reaped indirect benefits. But with the party vote, being smile and wave (or generating nothing personal life stories detached from present political scandals) helps you out with the entire electorate.
    • That is, in a nut-shell, we designed a political system which is meant to allow somewhat more niche political viewpoints a place at the table, but ended up creating a situation where competing based on personality (always a strong strategy) is optimised.
In a similar vein of thought God forbid we reach a point where a politician's relationship status is seen as relevant to what they do. And, unfortunately, this is exactly what the journalists' attitudes towards Clarke Gayford are doing. He's not relevant. He is irrelevant. He's not a politician and he has no real place in our newspapers outside of when they want to talk about fishing shows or brief biographies of his (much more successful and famous) partner. He's a WAG, and we all know that reporting about WAGs is a bad idea. But the truth is, if you're going to compete based on personality, who exactly you're living with is a natural way to play things... it's a facet, after all, of your personality. And if you're not living with anyone? Well now, what does that say?

The Americanisation of Political Discourse in New Zealand

New Zealand and the USA are different countries. That should be obvious. It is also probably obvious that in different countries things work a little differently. Or very differently. Quite often both at once. There are, after all, quite a few similarities between NZ and the USA. But they're very different countries... in NZ, "black" people are few and far between, Asians and Pasifika are different ethnicities and people have ethnicities not races. In the USA the reverse is true in all cases.

It should hopefully be equally obvious that analysing different things as though they are the same is problematic. As a quick example, you'd probably lose a game of draughts pretty quickly if you attempted to play it as a game of President. In fact, I'm not sure how you'd actually do that. Which just further demonstrates the point, right? Rules (abstractions) which are appropriate in one situation may or may not be appropriate in another. We might go as far to say that it's complete luck when concepts derived in one circumstance apply in another. That may not be true, but it's certainly more true than closing your eyes, sticking your head in the sand and pretending that you could just use [whatever] [wherever].

With respect of Clarke Gayford and the Journalists, the issue is that using terms like "First Bloke" just help normalise facets of American discourse. If it's appropriate to see the PM's spouse/partner as being like the US president's spouse then maybe it's appropriate to see the PM as being like the US president. It's not. They're extremely different positions. Similarly, given the politicised and semi-official part of the system of the US presidential spouse, the terminology introduces the idea that maybe America's system has some parallels with ours. It doesn't. They're not wholly different (we're representative democracies) but the American system is so screwed up and so backwards it might as well be... Iran or North Korea.

Already we have some problems introduced by Americanisation. I think this is the route cause of why John Key and Jacinda Ardern (these personalisers extraordinaire) were able to reap success... we can't just watch US elections without picking up some ideas about what elections are meant to be. Back in the day it was much easier in NZ to not receive coverage of American politics but the world has shrunk. Similarly, look at the way Labour and National behave... to them minor parties can just be excluded. That we have debates involving only two parties is disgusting. It would, in fact, be better to not have debates at all. And I blame Americanisation for this. Not necessarily that these started but for the absence of outrage over this.

Conclusion

Clarke Gayford needs to look in the mirror and realise that he's the one who's got to say no. He's got to come out and put the journalists in their place. They're not going to. Deborah Hill Cone literally wrote a column dismissing the relevance of the relationship of the journalists and Gayford is problematic (ironically, "the Fourth Estate's" blissful ignorance/rejection/denial of observer effects has been remarked upon with regards to the Comey letters). That Gayford doesn't do this is a black mark against him. And it's not something that's going to go away with some cutesy glib response of the like that Ardern, Key and, increasingly, Gayford have become famous for. Not because those won't work, but because it's the underlying truth. Believing fervently in A doesn't mean B isn't real. Unfortunately, truth isn't relevance. Let us not delude ourselves... no-one will ever read this and no-one is going to actually sit up and notice that between them the journalists, Gayford and Ardern are letting something really rather bad happen.

The truth is out there. All I can hope for is that someone else realises it and publicises it better than I can. I've tried. And I've failed. Which is more than can be said for Gayford and the journalists.




1 "One of the biggest barriers to understanding seems to be the ubiquitous presence of ‘reverse racism’. Trying to explain to outraged Pākehā people that racism and hurt feelings aren’t the same thing is… tiring" In other words, reverse racism's idea is real but it's not actually racism. The reality is that it is JUST RACISM. Reverse Racism is a totally pointless idea.

2 "I’m not defending TERFS and SWERFS; I’m asserting that the acronyms to describe them need to be rethought because feminists who exclude trans women and sex workers from the equality they’re allegedly fighting for aren’t radical at all. (I would go as far as to say they’re not feminists at all, but that’s another piece for another time.)" Same idea but it's harder to see due to the confounding influence of definitional debate. Here's the only definition of feminism worth a damn.

3The article I originally read was from the Herald and didn't include a line about making sure people were off the boats. To be honest, my contempt for Labour is such that I don't see how you Radio NZ manages to believe Ardern means the people were off the boat. Scuttling ships, sure. But when you say destroy you are doing something very deliberate, you're taking a hardline against the boat people (or "people smugglers" ... Ardern actually had the audacity to claim that capable ships are risking peoples' lives... is she also anti-cruise ships??). Notice how they also don't mention whether people are on or off the boats with the destroy line (and I missed it in the video? going crazy here, I think). If it sounds like murder, it's meant to sound like murder... even though Radio NZ is probably correct that it's not the intent. But politicians can't get credit like that. The action for them is putting the words out. They want it to sound like murder. And that is disgusting.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Minority Person Claims To Come From Racist Country

I talk about a lot of different topic on this blog. A lot. Even allowing for my label-crazy tendencies. You might remember such classic blog posts as:
I could go on, right? I mean, I am going to go on, but I'm pausing briefly here to point out there's a theme to what I am doing with these posts. They're not so different in subject, the examples I am drawing. In fact, I think they present angles to talk about today's title.
When I started writing this post like this yesterday the above seemed rather clever. I suppose I thought the idea was to get you, the reader (if only a conceit), thinking about how I think about things. That's useful. As I once said, the point of political analysis is actually substantive political argument. If you know the shape of my thinking, you can strip me out and get to the TruthTM of the matter. But looking back at this now the idea doesn't seem quite as sensible. I mean, how well do these links do that job?

I suppose the general themes you get (or could get if you squint a bit) from the above are thus:

  • Context matters to me, a lot.
  • The way we express ourselves is an important thing to consider.
  • I am frequently disappointed in my fellow New Zealanders, including in areas/errors connected to racism.
  • It's not helpful to apply American/foreign discourses to New Zealand.
These are useful ways of approaching Taika Waititi's claims that New Zealand is a racist country. Here's what he said or some of it:
Taika Waititi: Nah, it’s racist as fuck. I mean, I think New Zealand is the best place on the planet, but it’s a racist place. People just flat-out refuse to pronounce Maori names properly. There’s still profiling when it comes to Polynesians. It’s not even a colour thing – like, ‘Oh, there’s a black person.’ It’s, ‘If you’re Poly then you’re getting profiled.’
[...]
Ruban Nielson: I appreciate being Polynesian more than I did when I was there. When I go back now, I find myself being more aggressive when I’m pronouncing Maori names around people who refuse to do it. (laughs)
Taika Waititi: Yeah. Because because they don’t mispronounce French words, do they? They can say fucking ‘Camembert’ properly.
Interviews are like comedy gigs.

What happens in an interview happens only because of the specific circumstances of that interview. Here we've got a three person interview done via Skype. The only one I've ever heard of is Waititi so I'll quickly note he's a director, actor and writer. He's pretty famous. Oh, and he's Maori.

Let's discuss four issues that arise from this.

Number One: Maori Names

I'm not 100% sure what sort of Maori names Waititi's trying to talk about. He probably just means all of them. But the truth is there are three kinds:

  • peoples' names... there is no excuse for deliberately mispronouncing someone's name but it must also be said that sometimes you just can't do it (this shouldn't be an issue with Maori names except with rhoticism).
  • place names... there is a world of difference between how Paris is pronounced in English and French but that doesn't make the English version evil or even wrong... it's just the English pronunciation of a French word, or even a borrowing.
  • random place names... it is inappropriate to mispronounce (not try) place names for places which aren't part of your everyday life, e.g. the Seine or the Kapiti Coast.
When something is really part of English now can be a difficult question. The Kapiti Coast is reasonably well known but it's not like Taupo or Rotorua or Manukau... at least not where I live. But my general point is that the context matters. It's always dubious with peoples' names, but with place names (and Maori words more generally, e.g. kumara) things are a bit different. And which names can be said to be English? Well, now, that depends on where you live.

See? Context.

Part of the issue, it must be said, is that the level of awareness of what is and isn't correct differs. 

Personally, I pronounce Maori as something like Mow-ree. You often hear something not dissimilar to mouldy, Mole-ree. As far as I know that's actually hyper-correction and the real pronunciation is much closer to how I say it but not quite how I do. Yet, a The Mole-ree brigade imagine they have the correct pronunciation.

With things like Whakatane the munters who go around saying Wakatane are just wrong. Everyone knows how to say "Wh" in basically the right way, i.e. "f". So widespread is this is that it's given us the old Whanganui or Wanganui issue... te reo isn't really a written language and the local dialect is more similar to Wanganui, hence why it is spelt like that (except with the river, and why not just use f? clearly there's some complexities here I should have looked into). 

Now, this isn't really what Waititi's talking about. "Flat Out Refuse". It's very, very clear that he's talking about people who are offered a right pronunciation and choose to not take it up. Who knows why? Maybe because they're from Manukau and it's much more part of their life than Waititi the Wellingtonian's. Maybe they're a munter who also says Camembert properly. And if they are, it's probably fair to say, "Hey, you're a racist munter"... why else would they pronounce one foreign language properly but refuse to do the same for another?

Number Two: Profiling

The discussion about profiling doesn't really need much elaboration on. Or, well, it didn't except it's also in the news for a separate reason.

In statistics a lot of what you do as an undergraduate is called model building. Sometimes that's for predictive purposes and sometimes it isn't. The way to go about building models, as Thomas Lumley (quoted in the article) will tell you, differs between these two cases. When we're talking about profiling, I believe we're talking about prediction.

A classic example of profiling is the Arab looking dude getting chosen for a "random" bomb test. Their physical appearance (Arab-lookingness) is the only reason they're suspected to be someone to check out. The problem is that this reasoning is just really dodgy. Very few Arab (looking) people are terrorists or otherwise threats to society. A tiny, tiny minority. I reckon the odds of finding a terrorist are a lot higher if you're looking at Irish and Northern Irish males over the age of 40.

But that would be profiling too.

The line between profiling and not-profiling occurs when you start talking about absolutely high probabilities, not higher ones. When you start taking all the characteristics, feeding them to a model and then acting. Not when you're looking at a person, looking at your profile of a "bad guy" and then deciding they fit it. And let's be honest, normally it's only the one characteristic that makes the profiler go "Gotcha".

The issue is a bit more complex than this, of course. If you had a data set that said French government agents are 74% likely to commit a crime in NZ, would that be sufficient material to deport them? Would it be sufficient material to watch them? If something they're predicted to do happened, it would definitely validate (in my eyes) specifically trying to exclude them (although I'd want a separate team otherwise un-involved with the investigation to do this).

But the truth is that Waititi's often talking more about stuff like Overheard's "get ready to run" controversy... where some random person said if you see Polynesians walking behind you in a group at night (maybe not even at night), it's time to get ready to run. (I believe the post was deleted by the admins, but I assure you it happened.)

Firstly, harden up. New Zealand (and Auckland in particular) is safe. The paranoid among us are paranoid... they cannot find statistics to validate their fears.

Secondly, how is that not racist?

Don't try and answer. It's sort of explained by the harden up point. But you shouldn't even need that much explanation.

Number Three: What does it Mean for a Country to be Racist?

There are lots of different ways to talk about this but I'll quickly bullet point five of them:
  • when racism is an ordinary and everyday experience within the country
  • when the majority of people in the country are racist
  • when there's a non-trivial prior belief that any particular person you might encounter is racist
  • when you find unusual disparities in the lived experiences of people of different ethnicities
  • when you find unusual disparities in the institutional outcomes of people of different ethnicities
All of these are pretty valid except point two. I mean, why would you talk about that?

Number Four: I REALLY Don't Like Using Kiwi as an Identifier


From this article... and yes it is literally the only reason I wrote any of this blog post.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Vapid Side of Online Gender Discourse

There was a time where Craccum would regularly publish letters. In 2015, quite a lot of the ones they published were by me.

The editors and I didn't really get along. I think a lot of that was a misunderstanding on my part of what they tried to do with their responses. I'm a... seriously minded fellow and I really should have noticed by reference to Sophie whatsherface what 2015 Craccum did when they were serious about following up on letters. 

On the other hand, 2015's Craccum editorial staff really were dilettantes when it came to feminism. They knew a couple of talking points and just chucked them in wherever. So, there was some substantive room to not get along on.

The insights offered by Craccum weren't well informed. They weren't electrifying. But they were earnest and honest. In short they weren't vapid. At least in this limited case.

The following year's editorial staff were extremely disappointing. But they did make the interesting point that it's often seen as childish to define words. That's true but it shouldn't be. (I think this was, iirc on all counts, Abley's point also.) I think a large part of the issue is that after about 13 it suddenly seems dumb to be unsure of what a word means. And after about 16, it suddenly seems dumb to use small words. So, let's define these words. Dictionary of choice says:
  • Vapid: Offering nothing that is stimulating or challenging; bland.
  • Dilettante: A person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.
  • Earnest: Resulting from or showing sincere and intense conviction.
  • Honest: (of an action) done with good intentions even if unsuccessful or misguided.
  • Honest: Simple, unpretentious, and unsophisticated.
  • Honest: Free of deceit; truthful and sincere.
In other words, Craccum '15 were honest and sincere dilettantes whilst I was overly earnest. So, what do I think is vapid?


You see a lot of cartoons that look like this on the internet. Some of them are quite good. This one is awful. A complete waste of space and effort... in production, hosting and reading. Let's dive in anyway... and obviously we're assuming this isn't satirising the webcomic genre it belongs to.

Masculinity is Under Attack

Okay, so we're going to talk about notions of being male?. We're going to dive in and engage specifically with the things that people who say this actually think?

Er, no, we're not.

I don't care if your final intent is to mock, abuse or denigrate... if you're going to talk about an observed class, talk about the observed class, not the talking points the observers have about them, If your intentions are more earnest than this, it's a travesty but even here it's still wrong.

You Want to Put Blinkers On and Look at the World in a Completely Self-Centred Way

Liberty is when you're free to do those things which don't restrict other peoples' freedoms.

It seems a completely natural thing to point out that people ought to consider others. Whether we're making an intensely traditional argument like the above one or saying something about, e.g. #MeToo, we come across this idea, right?

But, at the same time, anyone with the slightest awareness of a world where whataboutism is a term should know that the notion of talking about men's issues, masculinity and maleness from a male point of view is only allowed to happen in a completely self-centred way. In every other situation the idea is mocked, ridiculed and dismissed. In other words, this is the deeply ironic statement.

Also... I hate it when I am forced to sound like the lunatics who go on about the Matriarchy.

Can't a Man Just Be a Man?

Far be it from the cartoon to explain where its anguished villains come from.

No, wait, the entire point of satire is to use earnest representations of the satirised object.

Men Must Lead... Tough Guys are Back

I admit, since 2015 I've become completely disenchanted by this subject... it is now, like most things online, no longer stimulating. I find myself bored of the internet. But this doesn't have that truthy sound. It sounds exactly like the old talking points of critics of ideas like fathers' rights or male failure theses or male justice statistics explainers or MRAs or academic feminists etc. etc.

Unfair to Men if We Don't All Keep Playing Along With a System That's Rigged For Us

This is the moment where the cartoonist loses all credibility.

Seriously, read what the alt right think... their central and general thesis is the system is rigged against them. In the particular case of our subject today? They think the CURRENT system is unfair to men.

What makes the alt right an alternative right, rather than the extreme right... given we use the conceit they're different things... is that that the alternative right criticises Social Justice arguments whilst using their premises. You can switch between voting for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump because both times you're against the establishment, pro-gun, anti-globalist (co-operation in one country) and convinced the Man is Keeping You Down. The difference is the Alt Right believes the Man's policies are the key to defeating the Man. Except they call the Man the Deep State.

Why Are We So Threatened By a Level Playing Field?

Yes, it would help to establish that everyone agrees this is what is being created. Clearly, it isn't the case. Remember, we're not talking about people who see the current system being toned down... we're talking about people who see the current system being toned up. Maybe that matters.

Where Does This Assumption Come From That Any Gains For Women Are Losses For Men?

By analogy to child custody disputes and educational attainment statistics. Just a guess.

Maybe this isn't a great format for engaging with complex, if typically conspirational and intellectually fraudulent, arguments. (Analogies are really, really dumb.)

We're Drawn to Alpha Males

This is just nonsensical. The only people who believe alpha males exist are... the alt right.

People are drawn to charismatic people. A lot of the time charisma is not associated with moral goodness. In fact, it's possibly easier to cultivate when you're bad (ever seen Megamind?).

To think that the charismatic are alphas is ridiculous. Grow up. It's pathetic to imagine others are your superiors in life.
  • Pathetic: Arousing pity, especially through vulnerability or sadness.
  • Pathetic: Miserably inadequate.
Actually, the most fascinating insights arise because of our failures to live up to normative standards... this is the chief lesson of Brave New World. (It's not. But it really is something you could call a lesson of said book.)

Strength, Bravery, Power

None of these are bad things.

Well, power gets a bit of a bad rap, but the truth is that it's an increasingly cliched criticism of a text to say it just repeats the cliche of ambition = evil.

Winning At Others' Expense

Can be a bad thing.

When your points rely on clearly false equivalences, you don't have points. You've got memes.
  • Meme: An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.
This is a pretentious sense of meme, but when you're mindlessly sharing midnless talking points you be meming.

Comfortable in Themselves

Another very ironic section.

What we have here is a cartoon which oscillates between ridiculing and accepting the premises of its chosen bogeymen (i.e. the alt right) that has ultimately reached the point of arguing that strength is about being comfortable in one's own skin.

This is why it would be useful to not start off trying to ridicule the alt right but rather exploring what their end goal is. Does this guy know Jordan Peterson is a self help author? Does he know being comfortable in your own skin is the defining cliche of the genre?
His secret? After watching several hours of his lectures, I think I've figured it out. It can be summarised in a single word: responsibility.
Dr Peterson's message is a hard one to hear: "Life is suffering." Hardship is inevitable and life will always find some way to make you resentful. But don't complain about it, because that'll make it worse. Instead, find some reason to make life worth it, despite that suffering.
[...]
"Why should you feel good about who you are? You should feel good about who you could be," he said. And we actually like that message. It allows us to take responsibility for ourselves and it gives us a goal to strive toward. It gives us direction.
Dr Peterson isn't in the "self-help" business, he's in the "self-improvement" business. Rule number one in his book is: "Stand up straight with your shoulders back." Rule six: "Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the worldis."
Luke Kinsella's summary of Peterson's appeal appears at first glance to suggest comfort is the opposite of what Peterson is after. I disagree. How do you do that stuff in the last paragraph without being comfortable? To me this summary says: accept your reality and use that to move forwards. This is not about anything which wants one to feel diminished and lesser. This is a philosophy that asks one to be in a position to be responsible. That requires comfort with oneself.

We're Taught... I Dominate You or You Dominate Me

Actually, no.

I like sport. I'm the kind of person who people are sometimes surprised to learn this about. But I do. And anyone who went to school with me would know this immediately.

You ever hear of the ball hog? The sore loser? The gracious victor? No I in team? Sportsmanship? It's not about winning it's about having fun? It's about winning the right way? 

The lessons of the sportsfield, the team sportsfield of any sport, subsume the individual in necessity for the team. They allow recognition of individual success but the individuals all complement the whole, the greater part. The domination of one team might be the object, but it's not the point. The point is doing things right and doing it as a team.

We Can All Be Satisfied, Safe and Respected

Yes, this is exactly why you need to listen to these people. They don't feel respected. A lot to nearly all of them aren't responsible in the-Peterson-Kinsellian sense and blame women, feminists and the Man for this. But that doesn't mean they're wrong about not being respected. Look at the train strike. I literally wrote an entire blog post arguing that everyone, including the unions involved, misunderstands why Train Managers matter. You can have the right idea for completely wrong reasons. This is particularly true when we're dealing with society and all its confounding variables.

Men aren't valued as a class. That's a fact. No-one wants to hear about the male view or opinion. It's always assumed that the default societal view is male. But that's not the case. It's elite. And, yes, it's usually an elite male view. But you hear a hell of a lot more about what Emma Watson thinks about the world than you hear about Oliver Twist's view of things. And you get a lot more of Hilary Clinton's views than you do Emma Watson's. And this is true even if normally we're just hearing an endless parade of David Camerons.

I don't want to give the Alt Right "Freudian Excuses" because usually what that means is we valorise and accept the character as "not bad". I don't like the alt right. And I know it seems completely insincere to say this when I'v basically had to take their side and be them. I shouldn't be doing that. My whole point is that these kinds of cartoons shouldn't be squaring off and trying to dominate that which feels fake.
  • Valorise: Give or ascribe value or validity to.
  • Valour: Great courage in the face of danger, especially in battle. (Different Words! Blew my mind.)
More terminology may have been mangled here. I make no apologies. My pet frog died.

Tradition is Also Slavery 

Not here it's not. What kind of insane BS is this? Do you know when slavery was abolished?

It was traditional. But it's not any more.

Mass Land Theft

By which he presumably refers to the New Zealand/Land Wars.

If you fight a war, expect territorial change.

Don't get me wrong, the confiscations were way out of proportion and were sometimes levelled against non-combatants or even quasi-allies... the actual problem was unjust warring (e.g. the invasion of the Waikato).

Also, not really a tradition. Don't see anyone defending it now, do I?

Cultural Genocides

Yes, this literally didn't have a name until the 1940s. That's how long people have been aware of genocide. Until then people didn't perceive a unique thing, and as soon as they did see a unique thing they decided it was bad.

Also, it's just genocide you ninny. Look it up.

Just because lots of examples exist over a long period of time doesn't mean you've found a tradition:
  • Tradition: A long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another.
Powered Wigs and Believing in Mermaids

These are harmful how? Not the point? Absurd, then? I mean, maybe? Ever hear of historical empathy? Traditions? Not really.

Also, remember when I said analogies are stupid? They're stupid here too.

Traditions are Things We Used to Do

No, they're things we still do because they were done before.

These 'new rules'

In my experience, when people don't articulate exactly what they mean, there are three options:
  • they tried and failed, finding the articulations didn't line up with their expectations
  • they don't actually have any idea
  • they're waiting to see what's formulated in response to make sure the "official" version is something else
If you want to make an entire and very, very self-satisfied cartoon about something... put it at the front.

This was pathetic. I pity its author. I find it woefully inadequate.

If Masculinity is Under Attack, It's the Shit Parts

See why you need to do some legwork?

Fire Away

I'm tired so I'm just going to call you a loser. But you already seem to believe this.

Now, if I could only draw this up in cartoon form, make the loser thesis the point from the start and get it published on someone else's website (not that a blog should count as someone's website) we'd have put in exactly the same amount of effort.

Toby Morris... if you want to say something interesting and worthwhile, here's a starting formula:
  • there are people who believe X
  • what exactly is X?
  • why do those people believe X? why do they think they do? 
  • what is my response to X?
Or, in cartoon form:
If You Know the Original Source, help a brother out???
aka. it wasn't the medium

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Review: Captain America -- The First Avenger

It always amazes me when I watch the Fast and Furious movies how well they managed to avoid massive retcons. The only one that really stands out is why Dom is in Tokyo; I'm happy to accept the idea that it was a retro tech fad (it does explain why those phones can do some stuff they shouldn't be able to).

As most people are aware, the Fastchise wasn't intended to have the following chronology: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 3, 7, 8 and so on. But it does. And hence the retcon above. But the amazement is more that in every subsequent film the baddie is almost always revealed to be linked with something Bigger. And the way they do that is so smooth.

The Fastchise's chronological ordering and plot ratcheting make it very difficult to decide how to watch the films. You get a similar problem with the the Chronicles of Narnia , Redwall and, thanks to Fantastic Beasts, Harry Potter.

If you engage with the series in production order you recreate the audience's experience. After all, the original moviegoers and readers couldn't decide to watch Furious 6 before Tokyo Drift... that movie wasn't out yet. Likewise, the Magician's Nephew was published well after The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. This ordering also lets you get a feel for the meta-development of the series and characters.

Chronological order is what we might call the fan's order. I say this because it gives the greatest appreciation for the story that the creators eventually decided they wanted to tell. This is something that is most interesting to the fans. And it's the way I watch the Fastchise even though I really couldn't care less about cars or the characters' preferred music genre.

To be honest, chronological order only screws you up if you start off with Lord Brocktree and then move down through Martin the Warrior, Mossflower, The Legend of Luke (part of which predates Martin the Warrior), and so on until you get to Redwall... where suddenly there are horses? The Redwall series is an example of a where important meta-developments create what TV Tropes calls Early Instalment Weirdness. Discworld actually suffers(?) from it too.

In truth, when it comes to the movie-side of the MCU (regarded by fans as the poor brother), these issues arise more than you probably hear about. So let's take a spoiler filled look at...

Captain America's First Movie

It can be fun to essentialise movies in an irreverent manner. It's also a good way of cutting to the chase and revealing the true nature of the film as a piece of entertainment, hence:
James Bond. But American. So he has superstrength. And is a solider in WWII. And has no character flaws.
Captain America is not my favourite character. One of my least favourite scenes in the comics is when a pre-power Tempus is explaining her favourite superhero. It's Captain America. She's Australian. It is very dumb writing. It needs explaining.

The whole point of Steve Rogers is that he's a stand-up dude. Both in the moral sense and that he doesn't like bullies. It's just that this makes him a pretty boring character. It's in the later films when this trait can manifest more as obstinacy where Rogers becomes more interesting. In this film he's just a curio, embodying the traits of good soldiers... bravery, selflessness and intelligence.

What drives The First Avenger along is that we're able to be invested in the circumstances around our curio. It helps enormously that one of the major supporting characters is WWII, without that we'd just never buy into Rogers. But everyone else makes sense.

A lot is often made of Marvel's Villain Problem... the idea that they're not particularly interesting and are ultimately kind of generic. To read this in Red Skull is to miss the point.

As is made clear in Agent's of SHIELD and even in this movie or The Winter Solider, HYDRA is much more than Nazism if, indeed, it is Nazi. But Red Skull's Nazi background is everything in understanding his schemes.

Without WWII, neither Red Skull nor Captain America could exist. What they're motivated by and the things they believe in reflect their early 20th century contexts. Red Skull's a character, not some embodiment of whatever extra-textual message you're looking for.. if to make sense of a character or to invalidate a character you turn exclusively to extra-textual stuff you've missed the entire point. It makes sense for Red Skull to think about blowing up all the enemy capitals because he's from a world where that was a normal way of thinking. It makes sense to be some world conquering madman, because some people really do want to reshape the entire world.

The First Avenger is an entirely serviceable film. It's not bad, so out of ten you'd never rank it say 1-3. It's not "meh" so 4-6 doesn't make sense, which means it's a 7/10 because it's not "actually, that's really rather good" either. Most films are a 7/10. It's hard to convince one person to make a film that sounds bad, it's even harder to convince two people and so on. Anyone who tells you the average film is 5/10 has never really thought about it. Captain America has enough stuff in the background to push it from 6 to 7, but that's true of most films.

Also, Cap works best when you put our curio in fish out of water situations.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Even Stevens? No, Says Amy Stevens

I have a degree in economics.

I'm frontloading this not to show off but to make it plain you really ought to consider what I am about to say. I'm not your usual armchair commentator.

There is a lot of bad economics out there that is promoted as not only good economics but orthodox economics. This actually goes as far as the very discipline itself: what economics is, is very misunderstood.

Economics is a very flexible discipline. It's not quite as adaptable as statistics but the economic frame of mind is highly portable. There are a lot of subjects to which economics goes, "Well, obviously we should think about them this way". It's actually quite rare that you have to coerce a topic into a format understandable via economic concepts.

Education, as it happens, isn't just readily understandable through economics, it's one of economics' favourite subjects. Yes, that's right. Education is just as interesting to Economics as trade. In fact, it might be more interesting. The point is, there's a debate to be had. If this surprises you, you don't know anything about economics.

There are several ways economics likes to understand tertiary education or aspects thereof. It's often seen as a form of signalling, a way of indicating that you (the student) are a good type and worthy of purchase (employment). It's probably more commonly understood as human capital investment; tertiary education improves quality. More obscure angles include bubbles, bundling and bellwetherism. In popular discourse what you often find is things like Amy Stevens' "thinkpiece" entitled, "The millennial problem with free tertiary education."

Let's do a largely paragraph by paragraph take on that... been a while since I've done so.
While typically a National voter, like many I decided 2017 was time for a change. Given I'm at the higher end of the tax bracket spectrum, some might ask what I had to gain from the employment of 'Taxinda'.
If you're a typically National voter you must be voting National's way more than 50% of the time, right? Which would imply that Stevens is old enough to have voted since 2011. Alternatively, this is more likely a misleading way of interpreting the text. That's probably more likely. I went the other way though because because being more precise in the use of language is important. Let's take a look at NZ's tax brackets:
Up to $14,000...................................... 10.5%
Over $14,000 and up to $48,000......... 17.5%
Over $48,000 and up to $70,000......... 30%
Remaining income over $70,000........ 33%
So, we assume that Stevens is pushing $70,000 but isn't quite there? And is paying... not very much on that somewhat less than $22,000? Is this an entry level salary? It doesn't seem like it? What stage of life is Amy Stevens at anyway? Remember this as we skip some paragraphs to get to...
However, one policy that concerns me is free tertiary education, and the extra $50 a week students are getting in their pockets for living costs. 
It hurts that those just out of university - with student loan debts of  $50,000 to $70,000 to our names - are left to foot the bill. 
Okay, I don't believe Stevens for a moment, here. Neither should you.

The typical degree in NZ is three years long. I did a conjoint so it took four. In fact, I did a conjoint purely funded by Studylink and with more courses than required. I managed $42,000-ish. That's quite some way off Stevens' lower range. It might even include what I am doing now... which is a fifth year of study. Let's see some aggregate data.
Students were leaving university with an average of between $16,600 and $17,220 of debt, with bachelor students tending to have the largest volume of borrowing, the report found.
That's like half of what I've got. But the same article also includes:
The average loan balance at June 30 was close to $21,000, the report said, while the average time it takes a graduate to repay their loan is now 8.4 years.
Presumably by average they're reporting means, which they shouldn't be. Mean values are highly sensitive to outliers and skewed data... both of which are to be expected with money related variables. If we go to the actual report, the median is more like $15,000. And if you look at page 32 you'll see that on 30 June 2016 only 6.3% of students had loans of more than $50,000. And that number barely changed for 30 June 2017 (page 38).

Amy Stevens... you are talking out of your arse.

Now, it obviously follows that people are getting hysterical the other way. Student Loan Doom is a feature of the USA a lot more than it is here.

I have $40,000 in debt, yes, but it's interest free. And I am in a small minority... 85% of people have loans of less than 40k and 50% less than 15k. We're not loading up people with debts so great as to cause access problems. And given that these are interest free... well, ask a financial adviser if there's a difference between $40,000 with and without interest.

The access problem that we actually have in NZ is regarding living costs. There are eight or something like that universities in NZ. All of them are in fairly major cities and two are in Auckland... across the road from each other. To go to university you need:

  • to move
  • to live within a reasonable distance of a university (in zone, if you will)
  • to live along a major transport artery and tolerate a long commute (me)
  • have a very, very long commute

Three of these options are burdensome. The first and fourth obviously induce pressures which can compromise the programme of study. That's not good from our human capital perspective. You might even argue that so does the third. To be honest, the train is a drag some weeks and some days.

Fees free education when divorced from compulsory education is the definition of middle class welfare. It makes living life according to middle class sensibilities free for the wealth (middle and upper) classes. For everyone else it doesn't materially impact the burdens that they actually suffer. Notice, for instance, which schools are close to university? High Decile and private schools.
My friends and I all felt relatively well off at university. In fact, we now appear less well off as entry-level workers.
With many of my friends working 'cashies' outside their 9-5 (we wish) jobs, I'm not sure there are enough hours in the day for the echo boomers to subsidise students for their study - or rather, their lifestyle.
A lot of people have a big problem with anecdotes. I don't. I know the actual issue with anecdotes is generalisability.

Most of the data that we talk about is just a collection of lots and lots of anecdotes. I have $40,000 of debt... that's an anecdote. If you add my anecdotal experience together with lots of similar ones in a systematic fashion? Now we have a dataset.

It's kind of okay to use anecdotes, then. So long as you're not talking about evidence gathering and let us know some basic details, the anecdotes can be used to shape a discussion.

Stevens isn't talking about evidence gathering. She's mentioning that her friends feel cash stretched. Well, okay, if we knew any details about you or them we'd be able to do something with this. But there's a big difference between someone who finished uni in 2010 and someone who finished in 2017. We need to know this sort of information. Especially when you've already made very, very misleading statement.

As it is, Stevens' friends have nothing to say.
What’s more, the extra students going to university for the 'free ride' will only devalue our education system and flood the New Zealand labour market. It will become more and more difficult to distinguish between a highly skilled worker and a free rider.
That's not what a free rider is.

In economics the free rider problem occurs when you have someone who is able to claim the benefits of a product without the producer's being able to exclude them. If you don't pay any taxes and your country gets invaded, you free ride off your defence forces. If you catch a train which has no fare control measures without paying, you're kind of free riding... even if that's what you're literally doing. Free riders aren't people who consume products that cost $0.

The jargon that Steven is actually after here is "good type" for "highly skilled worker" and "bad type" for "free rider". And the concept she's after is signalling. The introductory problem is known as the market for lemons (i.e. dodgy second hand cars).

The basic argument is that going to university and paying is something that only good types will do. In the extreme version, the fact of attending university does absolutely nothing other than affirm good type-ness. As long as we make a few assumptions about behaviour, the bad types will always prefer to do something other than go to university. As a consequence, anyone who has a university degree has to be a good type.

If you're paying attention you'll notice this isn't quite the same as saying "highly skilled worker". In fact, it usually means someone that will be a decent (not dodgy) employee.

If we start to believe that university education actually improves skills, then we believe that we can make good types into better types. And hence we believe that we can make bad types into better types too... medium or even good types, right?

Because university is only a signal, when you make it free you stop the good types from being able to indicate their superior quality. As a consequence, bad types are able to enter the market and vie for jobs they would previously have been totally shut out of. Worst case scenario, the good types don't even find it worth going to university any more and the whole house of cards (sorry, market) collapses completely. (Woah, you mean self interest can cause market failure? B-but National said... sorry, mate, National positioned itself as the economically aware party but that was just fake news; they're a bad type.*)

In the real world we know this isn't true.

Going to university doesn't indicate good typeness. Sticking with it for three years and passing courses, does. Making university free doesn't change this. And in the right contexts, we might find that good types and bad types are currently both motivated rationally and selfishly to go anyway. Which is to say, it's unclear if this will change anything.

Furthermore, you don't have to do just the three years. There are plenty of options which will leave you at university for a longer period of time. If university is strictly about signalling and costs, you're able to substitute time for money. This can be seen as a way of interpreting marks as well. Employers aren't stupid. They know that putting in the time is associated with good types only and better marks.

I am also not convinced that universities are nothing more than "signal mills". I believe that I know more and have more mental tools now than when I started this blog. I know for a fact that there are ways of looking at the world that I would never have encountered if it weren't for courses I've taken. And, sure, the content is available elsewhere (online etc.) but that doesn't mean that my awareness of these things didn't stem from uni.

In the ideal world, you start off not knowing anything and by the end of the process you haven't noticed that you know more. If you're doing a PhD, you probably didn't struggle much ever. And it's the people with PhDs who shape our understanding of human capital versus signalling theory more than anyone else...

tl;dr -- a university education has an absolute value, and that's never devalued by others having one too
The free education incentive should be focused solely on industries where workers are needed, for example construction and trade. Perhaps then we wouldn't have to resort to immigration measures and could continue growing New Zealand as a small and open economy.
Irony.

Amy Stevens, you're an idiot. And if anyone doesn't want me to call her that, she shouldn't say dumb things. And by extension, if I don't want people to call me an idiot, I shouldn't say dumb things. I don't think I have. Somehow, I think Amy Stevens thought that too, though.**


* Yes, our analysis does suggest that if a bad type is able to win the most votes in an election, it's very unlikely there are any good types.


**Note... there's another concept related to signalling (i.e. another key idea in the analysis of adverse selection) which I don't recall the name of. I have suppressed such cautionary disclaimers both out of confidence and also as a means of making this link make sense.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Do Americans Understand Monarchy?

Do Americans Understand Monarchy? Probably not, no. I haven't come across one who I can say for sure does, actually.

An observation that I remember from year thirteen history is that in New Zealand there are very few memorials of the colonial past. Sure, there's the occasional historical site like the remains of a pa or a monument, but for the most part these weren't set up. In the USA this is... not the case. In fact, Americans are so keen on historical monuments and the like that a bunch of their lawyers buggered off to Runnymede and installed one for Magna Carta. Yet, recall the lesson of the History Boys:
[T]here is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.
I'm not entirely sure I agree, but if you take this as a limited statement it is really rather defensible.

The US predilection for memorialisation has a major consequence in mysticisation. To the American Magna Carta isn't a contract. It isn't even a treaty. The American sees Magna Carta as the start of liberty, the original root of their vaunted, worshipped and unequestionable Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Now, there's an alternative explanation for that latter symptom but it's scarcely better. Perhaps it is the supremacy of the US Constitution that makes Americans confuse paper (or, indeed, parchment) with Justice, Truth, Democracy and Freedom. These are just ideas and highly particular articulations of them are embodied in the work of the Founders and Framers. Jesus. It makes my skin crawl just to use these terms like that.

The American generally understands the point of their Revolution, i.e. an uprising. However, what they universally fail to grasp is that it was really more a rebellion. The revolutionary elements appeared after the fact, once victory has been attained. This happens quite often. The Civil War did not begin with the intention of executing Charles I: that was an idea that emerged out of the inevitable "now what?" The motivation of the Thirteen Colonies' War of Independence was, when you cut through the chaff, entitlement... they didn't want to pay taxes. That's it.

When you look at the relationship of those colonies to Britain at the time, you need to consider the way Britain worked. And the truth is that Britain was well on its way to the constitutionality we know today. Indeed, it had been since well before the Civil War... after all, Charles I and Parliament struggled largely over the issue of taxation. During Charles' personal rule he never instituted new ones, just resurrected old ones. There was a reason for this... he couldn't do much more than that. But what do Americans remember? They remember Evil George III and the Divine Right of Kings.

Social Memory isn't history. In fact, it's not even really compatible with history. One of the major implications of social memory is that people approach historical topics with deep seated prior beliefs. Usually these complicate, confuse and contest historical analyses. Which is why you find lay discourse in America about monarchy today which draws on the Divine Right of Kings. That was a philosophy of two monarchs: father and son. And it moved a long way from ministers on earth.

Another common American conception of monarchy is that countries with monarchs have subjects, not citizens. Sure, that has been true. But it's not at all something that is necessary to the idea. And that's why it doesn't exist today. If you ask me, the reason Americans make this mistake again and again is because they confuse paper with reality. Just because it is written down, doesn't make it right or why. We have the power and capacity to re-frame and re-articulate institutions. This is a lesson constitutional monarchy reveals far more clearly than any other form of government.

Defining monarchy is pretty difficult. The child's definition of "parent to sibling" sounds attractive, but hereditary monarchy isn't the only kind. I mean, we could say, "Yeah, they called themselves monarchies, but they weren't really". We definitely can do that. But, at the same time, if you're North Korea do you look like a monarchy? None of the tropes we associate with monarchy are present beyond emperor cultism. Which is certainly as Big Thing to notice, but where are the crowns? Why aren't siblings of the "emperor" afforded "of the blood" status? It seems to me that the only reasonable definition of monarchy is one burdened by self-description and self-use of standard tropes.

It follows pretty immediately that the formative power of the mind is a lesson laid bare by constitutional monarchy. After all, in an absolute monarchy, the formative capacity still exists, but the power is arbitrarily suppressed. And in a republic, there's a a substitution of the "divine right of kings" with the "divine right of the people"... and frequently also a suppression of the power. Which is to say... constitutional monarchies aren't just republics by another name, or fake monarchies as some (including Americans) like to say. Constitutional monarchies are post-modern government structures. They are the cutting edge when it comes to theories of state, government and society. And this impression only gets truer when you realise just how old republicanism is.

The paradox of America is that it happily believes in Evil George whilst hungrily eating up every gossip story it can get its hands on. The British Monarchy, in some sense, is to Americans is more different to the Kennedys or the Bushes than it is to the Kardashian-Jenners. The reason for this is probably that they're not at all exposed to the Big differences. There's nothing stopping Kim Kardashian from taking big political positions in public. There is something stopping Charles or the Queen from doing that. It's very strange to Americans, I think, to imagine an official public life which is completely apolitical. After all, they even elect judges in the US. This stems from their institutional settings, as I have already alluded.

Naturally, Harry and William and co. are gossip mag staples here as well. There really are important parallels between celebrity and royalty in the 21st Century. The difference is that there's a wider appreciation of what William and Harry are (i.e. lizard people*). Even if the only reason this exists is because the organisation of our society is an active question in NZ, it still exists. What Americans (as a whole, because individuals always will) don't seem to get is that monarchy is just a thing. The Queen is as meaningful as The Plumber. The difference is that more people know the Queen. That's it. That's the relationship of citizen and monarch.

As a final thought let's spoil the end of Legend of Korra: Book Four and Thor: Ragnarok.

The relevant character arc of Thor between the three Thor films is from over-eager would-be King to reluctant King. This is superficially similar to Prince Wu's arc in LoK. The difference is that Thor actually takes the throne where Wu denies it... proposing some sort of republican structure instead (LoK also features Republic City, so this is probably to be expected).

In the original Avatar run, Zuko eventually takes up the throne because his uncle says it would be a bad look for brother to fight brother for the throne. Even though Ozai is still deposed, the replacement of the father with the son is thought to be better. Yeah, well, probably not. In real life, it doesn't matter what kind of relationship we're dealing with... throne seizures tend to be destabilising. This gets more and more true depending on the institutional and other extra-personal features of the polity.

The Earth Kingdom, as it is depicted in Avatar and LoK other than Book Four, has poor institutions but symbolic leadership in the Earth King/Queen. Wu's decision is ultimately incredibly selfish... he chooses to replace a brief tyrannical regime with an imposed republican structure whilst removing the stabilising symbolism of the Throne. It stands in a stark contrast to Thor's acceptance of the Throne in a somewhat more troubling time for his people. When you see Monarchy as a thing suddenly removing it is just as radical, dramatic and destabilising a change as pulling the rug out from under you.

Don't get me wrong, Wu is a terrible person to be a king... he's deeply immature, selfish and air-headed. There have been many, many examples of poor monarchs and a lot have shared Wu-traits. But the lesson to be learnt is not that monarchy is all about personal power, but that those monarchies were. The logical lesson of Wu's arc in Book Four was that he should be symbolic... allow himself to be constructed in the way his bodyguard's Grandma did, to allow people like his bodyguard to do the work supported by that symbolism. In other words, he should have recognised that the problem was what his predecessor did, not what his predecessor was. Which, you know, would also have been consistent with the overall theme of LoK re: the nature of the Avatar.

Thor: Ragnarok takes that position. Thor puts aside his personal response to the Throne in order to be what his people need from it. The symbol subsumed the god. It's a vastly less American interpretation... and one wonders if it's related to the vastly less American nature of the production.




*An old joke made funny.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Why Jennifer Lawrence is a Literal Nazi

Let's say you see a photo of a woman on a bitterly cold day.

At first glance there's not much wrong with it. It's just some random chick in a black dress. Happens all the time. But then you notice that the dudes standing next to her are all wrapped up. Like seriously. They might as well be Cossacks, you know?

Then you start thinking about the contexts of the photo. It's not a bunch of randoms. It's a bunch of famous people.

Now, you're not stupid. You know that "candid" photos of famous people are posed. And this photo actually looks posed. This is a calculated photo. Everything that we see happening in it reflects some sort of purpose.

The conclusion you reach isn't inevitable. It isn't even the most likely one given this framework. But it is reasonable.

You start to type...
Gender expectations force actress to endure bitter cold whilst male co-stars get to be nice and snug.
This was all a real story but that quote isn't. And the reason it isn't, is because people love to allude, imply and suggest. But that's not good enough here. I need something which explicitly articulates its thoughts. And because this is a brief distraction, I'm not going to conduct a more thorough search. So I wrote that. But the story is real.

I've talked before about how context isn't a smoking gun. It can do a lot to make an argument more or less plausible but the challenge as a ThinkerTM is to decide what context... and how to incorporate it.

The truth is pretty obvious... men and women are expected to wear different things. If we want to be crude about things we'd say that Feminine Dress Sense doesn't exist. Clothes are objects of purpose, but how women are "meant" to look disregards all purposes other than "beautification". That's not sensible. Not in the way we say "wear sensible shoes" when we write permission slips for school trips.

Now, we might say that these standards are sexist. They fairly clearly are. Men can't dress stupidly and women can't dress sensibly. That's sexist. But is Jennifer Lawrence's beautiful/risque/black/choose your adjective dress evidence of this social problem? Couldn't she just choose to look that way? It's not as if "fashion" doesn't have, e.g. fur coats.

Of course Jennifer Lawrence can choose to wear a particular dress. She felt like the dress was "gorgeous" and wanted to show it off. She says she "love[s] fashion". It could have been even colder and she'd still wear it. (Although I do wonder how often this dress is worn/will be worn again.) All very personal, right?

Except it's not really.

The truth is that nothing about any of us is entirely endogenous.

I go to university because I want to. But the reasons why I want to are shaped by a great many cultural narratives. And past experiences. And structural settings which allow me to take on an interest free loan.

Similarly, Lawrence is a 27 year old woman raised in a society which (a) praises physical appearance, (b) values her specific appearance, (c) expects women to look good, (d) says wanting to look good is good (and not caring is bad) and (e) says the kind of dress she wore is "gorgeous". These are vital contexts which we shouldn't really ignore.

On the other hand...Lawrence (a) was the most prominent victim of a nude photo hack a couple of years ago, (b) would count as a "plus size" model if she started doing (more of?) that and (c) has a track record of speaking her mind. Again, vital contexts we shouldn't ignore. It's just that this time they suggest agency rather than automation.

The truth is that the argument from context reveals that every decision every single one of us makes is conditioned by "civilisation". We are all, every day, Roger on the beach, throwing rocks. And we are all Bernard, not Helmholtz. But we shouldn't see this as saying we have no agency. Rather we should see it as affirming that all agency is conditional. That yes there are all sorts of reasons why you'd expect Lawrence to wear something like that dress, but that it matters enormously that within those dynamics she's still able to choose. And did. And does.

This is a very, very scary point of view. It's why you'd be a Nazi in 1930s Germany. It's why I'd be a Nazi in 1930s Germany. It's why Lawrence would be a Nazi in 1930s Germany. But it's also a reminder of why this doesn't make us evil... only human. And in that respect it's time we frighten ourselves. A lot.




Disclaimer... I don't think I've ever seen a movie with Jennifer Lawrence in? I have seen her on the Graham Norton Show, though. Also, lol, clickbait. But at least I explained the damn headline.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

EPL 5 : Tottenham 1 - 0 Arsenal

I actually watched this game.

I'm not sure what people are on about. That game was exciting in both halves. Although I didn't really like watching the second half.

I think this game is probably a classic example of "home team" advantage. While I'm not sure how many of the record attendance were home fans, obviously there were a lot.

The general theory is that teams which press a lot run out of steam towards the end. Tottenham did not. I think this can be attributed to the energising support and belief of the home support.

Alternative explanations for the sustained and unopposed press include:

  • the half time talk (it was a very even game in the first half and suddenly, woosh).
  • the timing of the substitutions helping recharge in exactly the right places.
  • they really didn't have to do as much as usual... Arsenal had absolutely no solutions to the press.
  • poor passing from Mkhitaryan and poor passing/focus by Iwobi and Lacazette when they came on making the press look better than it was.
The press was so good that Spurs could easily have absolutely thumped Arsenal. I'm not sure if 5-0 would be enough goals. It was absurd. But some people on the BBC live feed were saying this game was evidence that Cech was past it. Maybe he is, but this game didn't show that.

So, Spurs were playing very, very well. But what was going on with Arsenal? Were they awful?

Arsenal were plagued by offsides. Two of those were dubious. I think maybe the linesmen were over-correcting for Aubameyang having been offside for his goal against Everton because Lamela was offside but allowed to run at goal... and the non-Aubameyang offsides were offsidey. My commentators thought that Lacazette's headspace was wrong, but his very obvious offside absolutely broke up one of the few moments where Arsenal managed to get by the pressing. It should be considered disastrous. Giving the ball away was the problem created by Sanchez running no-where. Players being offside is the same thing, just done differently.

I've already mentioned that Mkhitaryan and Iwobi may have been making the press look better than it was. In the first half there were a couple of great opportunities where Dortmund would probably have gone on and done something. The problem was Mkihitaryan's passes went out. And when he was replaced by Iwobi, it seemed that Wenger had managed to substitute in two players who weren't quite up to speed. Now, I like Welbeck so that may come into it, but maybe he should have come on in the double sub instead of either Iwobi or Lacazette.

But let's be real here... the reason this game was a Spurs victory (vs draw) was also the same reason why this game wasn't a complete thumping. Missed chances and good goalkeeping.

Wilshere's saved shot was a thing of beauty by Lloris. Only save he had to make, I think. But right at the end?! Lacazette should have scored. Whether that was the standing/volley shot (echoing Son's miss at the other end) or the run (echoing Lamela's miss at the other end, but that chance was worse) one of those should have gone in. I'm not sure, but squaring the ball may have been an option as well... although perhaps the other guy (Aubameyang?) was a bit far away.

Another way of looking at this game is as a classic example of why Giroud scored so many goals as a substitute. Arsenal aren't as fit as Spurs (or even Liverpool) so pressing isn't something that can work for them. And if a press does get through their defensive efforts (as in the second half), really all Arsenal can do is throw on some more versions of the same speedy striker archetype. When Giroud was around, you could lump the ball up and then bring it into the middle. You could try and put it on Giroud's head (which Arsenal weren't that great at even though Giroud puts headers away like nobody's business) or you could rely on Giroud to create short sharp exchanges to put someone else in. Plan B today was Plan A, except this time on the wings rather than through the middle. And it only worked right at the end when suddenly Arsenal were getting through the press.

As a final thought... poor Hector Bellerin. Did nothing wrong and seemed to be one of the best players on the pitch. But he's probably going to get pilloried for having managed a quality performance in the face of constant pressure on his side. And, yes, the goal did come from his side but it didn't fall on Bellerin's head.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Trickle Down Economics?

What is Trickle-Down Economics?

Trickle-Down Economics is a term used to describe a political philosophy based on the validity, general applicability and desirability of the trickle-down effect. It also believes the effect is a necessary feature of the financial and economic activities of the wealth classes.

What is the Trickle-Down Effect?

Since trickle down has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with politics it's pretty much what it says on the tin. Trickle Down is a metaphor. And what it tries to evoke is the idea wealth will trickle-down to the under-privileged. It's not just me saying this, here's a quote from a reading set in Economics 343 (East Asian Growth and Trade):
Concerns are arising that South Korea’s potential for economic growth is plummeting. These concerns are followed by arguments that policies that emphasised growth were, in reality, focused on the benefits of the few and the wealthy, and therefore resulted in polarisation and widened income inequality. A fundamental doubt has been cast upon the so-called trickle-down effect; no longer will the increased incomes of large corporations and high-income earners raise the incomes of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and medium-to-low income earners and, eventually, positively influence the overall growth of the economy. [Chung, Chul, “Why Doesn’t the Trickle-Down Effect apply to Korea?” EAF Policy Debates №33, 1 September 2015]
The thing is, Chung then goes on to say that the Trick Down Effect doesn't appear to exist in general and  proposes policies designed to get it working. Is he a trickle down economist? Is he evidence that trickle down economics is a real school in economics?

On Economic "Schools"

It doesn't take much thought to describe why Chung isn't evidence that Trickle Down is a school of economics. The reason is that the schools you might hear about (e.g. Austrian. Keynesian economics) don't actually mean anything. They are all inventions convenient to armchair economics and politics (which might be described as the profession dedicated to implementing the "insights" or armchair economics).

To a certain extent, the schools so beloved of the armchair represent stages of development in economic thought. It's a bit like how we might talk about the Medieval or Elizabethan eras except no-one who describes themselves as a Medievalist advocates using only the insights of Medieval thinkers. The very idea of that probably strikes you as being absurd. And this is probably the reason why these "schools" don't come up in textbooks, in classrooms or even in lectures except as footnotes. Economics is a discipline and just as how physics has synthesised the work of Newton, Maxwell and Planck Economics as a field today is product of all the work before it.

In this sense, Trickle Down Economics is exactly like all the other schools because none of them are part of the discipline.

Assessing Trickle Down Economics

In my definition, I did two things. Firstly, I gave the political philosophy three critical parts. Secondly, I said its adherents hold that the Trickle Down Effect is a necessary feature of the activities of the wealthy. That's in there because it's what I think characterises the position. Really it's the same thing as "generally applicable" but I distinguish the two on the basis that the three parts are what I perceive to the be fundamental reasoning underlying Trickle Down policies. Yes, adherents think all activities have it anyway, but when they advance policies they're saying that policy isn't going to change that. If there's some new stuff that happens as a result of the policy, the trickle down effect will be seen there too. That kind of idea. Hence, to assess the philosophy we'll look at the three critical parts. They're the functional parts.

(Also, "generally applicable" is a lower burden so I feel if I am able to demonstrate that there's a problem with it, I am being fairer to the adherents, who are few and far between, so discredited is their ideology.)

Is the Trickle Down Effect Desirable?

Obviously, yes.

If it really was true that the financial successes of the privilege caused improvements in the material and emotional wellbeing of the under-privileged it would definitely be a good thing. It would likewise be true that I'd happily stab myself with needles nine times daily if it could be shown this would certainly benefit the downtrodden. Wait, what?

While that last statement seems ridiculous it's actually quite important. Would I kill myself if it would for sure help everyone else out? What kind of harms are sufferable in the name of achieving the benefits? I have no great fear of needles. It would not be too much hassle, I think. Eventually I'd figure out a pain minimising method. The way I wrote it, I wouldn't even need to pierce the skin actually. But I wouldn't kill myself. And nor should I be expected to. The point is, while the trickle down effect might be desirable, that fact alone doesn't help us decide what to do.

Is the Trickle Down Effect Generally Applicable? Is it Valid?

In the simple sense, general applicability asks... can we use the idea of the trickle down effect to motivate actual policy? And can we do that in general circumstances? Or does the trickle down effect apply only in specific situations?

Answering those questions, I feel, is impossible without wondering about the Effect's validity. Hence, is seeking to create the trickle down effect an appropriate idea in general? And it has to be in general, because believers in "Trickle Down Economics" (the political philosophy) apply their beliefs in general.

Obviously, Chung thinks that the trickle down effect can be generated out of policy settings. I find his language in the conclusion somewhat confusing. To me, it seems that he's talking about extracting trickle down benefits from Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). That's not really what trickle down economics is about because it's really just trying to solve inequality problems by making policy for the middle/comfortable classes (e.g. fees free tertiary education, extended paid parental leave). Trickle Down is all about targeting interventions for the wealth classes: the tip top.
Following the 2008 global financial crisis, countries throughout the world are placing a priority on solving the problems of job creation and income inequality. In particular, there is emphasis on the importance of SMEs, which create the majority of jobs. this type of action, however, seems to dispute the idea that the trickle-down effect is no longer valid.
When we think about applying trickle down we need to think about the causal pathways... how the process results in benefits lower down. It may, in fact, be possible to do this.

However, let's think about how the world works for a second. While it is true that long term ("tomorrow's") growth relies on investment, it is also true that investment decisions reflect actions and circumstances today. If economics tells us these two things, what it is necessarily telling us is that any interventions targeted at the underprivileged which act through the wealth classes will have a delayed impact. Investment is about growth potential and insofar as it's normally related to technology private investment will not directly involve the less educated. Due to the correspondence of education level and income this means we'll side step the people we're trying to help foremost. So, yeah, the short term impacts of private investment spending probably don't represent the trickle down effect in action.

I'm also part of the camp which argues that inequality in and of itself suppresses sustainable growth. Of course, I am also a school of thought which believes one of the motivations of post-industrial imperialism ("new imperialism") was market seeking. If we want to argue that ISDS is about creating conditions of trust in which business can operate, the Victorians had a much simpler idea: let's take over and then obviously the laws will be the ones we know we can sell under. The point is that massive expansion of what is possible (through investment) ultimately requires consumers. This is the problem with inequality in a nutshell. And today there are no more new groups of consumers to find. For investment to be worth it, there has to be a market.  In this sense, we need to be careful about the length of the delay.

(The "in concert" influences of different spending profiles (crudely, rich, poor and middle class expenditure themes) are also recognised as being important.)

Common sense suggests that aiming left when you want to throw right is a bad idea. Economic reasoning suggests that eventually the ball will end up on the right side of the court. But it also suggests we have to be careful about how long it takes to do that. In this sense, the trickle down effect is not generally applicable because it is only in specific situations where it's an appropriate solution to the problems, i.e. inequality, poverty and underprivilege. In the general case, the logic suggests that seeking the trickle down effect is self-neutralising or worse. It might pull some people up but it also pushes everyone above them further away.

Further Thoughts on the Validity Angle

This could spend a lot of time talking about how the empirical evidence says the Trickle Down effect is not generally observed. We could do that. But we won't. It's obvious and there's not much to say. It's also what we expected from the above. We're more interested in the question of whether or not it's valid to seek the trickle down effect in the specific situations where we think it can work. The way to do that is through opportunity cost. The next best opportunity foregone. Firstly, why think via opportunity cost? Secondly, what does it tell us?

To the first question, governments don't have unlimited resources. Certainly, they do have enough resources in the developed world that it's extremely pedantic to criticise discussions calling for more absolute funding of, say, the police or healthcare or education as not taking into account the tradeoffs the government has to make. Factoring every budget line into every discussion is inhibiting. And it's downright unhelpful when there is enough budget to treat discussions as being about realignments of priorities. It's not a poor man being asked to spend more money on bread when he already spends everything on, say, his weekly sack of potatoes. But the tradeoffs are there, which means we have to ask the question: what works best for the objectives of the government?

How to engage with this question is exactly why I decided to write this post. A while ago now I was talking to this dude where I happened to say something very similar to this statement I accidentally came across by someone on Reddit:
It's not subjective at all, it's generally trivial to consider if a piece of legislation is objectively good or bad as long as there is an agreed framework for objectives.
Obviously you'll notice this is a kind of subjectivity in that there are lots of different frameworks that we can choose to use, but once you're in a framework then, as our Reddit friend put it, it's often trivial. And we've already seen that from the perspective of inequality, seeking the trickle down effect generally is not a great plan. But I really have to wonder if it's even the best option in the situations where we think it might work (whatever those are).

This seems like a complicated question to answer. It's probably the sort of thing Treasury, the Reserve Bank, government ministries, local government, academics and even think tanks spend a lot of time on. But I feel like we're going to have a better potato harvest if actually sow potato seeds instead of tulip bulbs, don't you?

Conclusions? 

If you see anyone seriously advancing "Trickle Down Economics" laugh at them.

The Trickle Down Effect is hard to find, hard to reach and probably not worth the effort. Scepticism of everything is a useful maxim, but any policy which suggests the way out of inequality is through creating or stimulating the trickle down effect* deserves a particularly sceptical reception.





*Which is to be distinguished from advocating Trickle Down Economics in the sense people who believe in that believe the trickle down effect to always follow.