Tuesday, December 18, 2018

NZ’s 2020 ‘reeferendum’

In 2020, at the next General Election, New Zealand voters will be able to decide whether recreational use of cannabis (marijuana) will be allowed. Holding such a referendum was part of the confidence and supply agreement between the Labour Party and Green Party. It’s a good move.

The referendum, already dubbed a “reeferendum”, will be held at the same time as the next General Election, which will save taxpayers money. This is a sensible move. It will also be binding, not advisory, so if legalisation passes, personal recreational use of cannabis will become legal in New Zealand, and politicians won’t have to take a stand.

Naturally, the Leader of the Opposition trashed the idea, as in the ONE News report, above. "Pretty cynical that you've got a Government that wants to distract from the core issues of a general election,” he huffed and puffed, “like who's best to govern.” What he meant, of course, is that he’s terrified that such a referendum will motivate younger voters, who support Labour and, especially, the Greens, and definitely not the Opposition National Party. It’s actually legitimate for him to be frightened about that—he needs younger and less conservative voters to stay home. It would just be nice if he was honest about that.

In that same report, the Greens’ Chloë Swarbrick points out, essentially, that New Zealand voters are capable of debating all the issues, and ever the lone MP for the neoconservative Act “Party” said that NZ voters can pay attention to more than one issue at a time. They’re both right.

But why does National oppose legalisation? The Leader of the Opposition, who is a conservative Christian (in the New Zealand sense, which is definitely not similar to the USA), has always opposed any sort of decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis because of what he thinks is some sort of "normalisation" of ALL drug use, and he says he worries about the impact legalisation would have on mental health.

The “slippery slope” argument is just plain silly, so we’ll skip over that. But we know for a fact that prohibition simply doesn’t work. We also know that not everyone has a problem using cannabis, and those who do are best dealt with through the health system and NOT the prison system, as happens now.

What I find so utterly dishonest about the opponents of ending prohibition is that none of them are talking about banning alcohol and sending people who use it to jail, yet we know about all the social harm that alcohol use can cause. Why the hypocrisy?

A professional morals activist who wants to lead the campaign against legalisation talked about how the NZ government is trying to make New Zealand smoke free, that is, with basically no tobacco use. But those are apples and oranges, as the professional troublemaker well knows.

Since human beings first discovered they could get off their face, they’ve spent millennia finding ever more ways of doing so. Humans will continue to do that; it will never change. But in recent years we’ve seen the utter social devastation caused by use of methamphetamine, and, more recent still, what’s often called “synthetic cannabis”, which often has fatal consequences.

We do permit alcohol, which can cause harm. We permit tobacco use, which causes harm. Heck, we permit sugar use, which has virtually no nutritive value and can cause harm. All those things are legal because people simply enjoy them, and despite any harm they may cause.

Yet we don’t permit recreational cannabis use, despite the fact it causes far less harm than all other illegal drugs. Why not?

There’s a lot of money behind alcohol, tobacco, and sugar, but behind cannabis are only criminals, often gangs. If we legalised it we could regulate it like alcohol and tobacco, we could tax it like alcohol and tobacco, and companies in New Zealand could make money from farming, processing, and retailing cannabis—all paying taxes, all hiring workers.

I can see no downsides to legalising cannabis for recreational use. The problems that may happen for some people can be dealt with as a health problem (rather than a criminal problem), but the possibility of problems is no reason to oppose legalisation. Saying it’s reason enough to keep prohibition ignores a very important point: Many of those same people would likely have problems with other substances if cannabis remains illegal, even if they just stuck with alcohol and didn’t choose an illegal drug that’s far more dangerous than cannabis. So, while legalisation may possibly lead to problems for some people, it will also probably reduce harm overall, and that’s a good thing.

I would prefer that Parliament just legalised it and was done with the issue. Most Kiwis back, at the very least, decriminalisation, but politicians don’t want to touch the issue. At least this one is binding.

At this point, there’s no way to know how this will turn out. Still, there are two things we know for sure. First, the referendum battle will be hard fought. From what we’ve seen so far, younger people will back legalisation, older people will oppose it.

The other thing we know is that if the referendum passes, the issue will be over. Kiwis never revisit a social issue once it’s decided. But if the referendum fails, then the issue will continue to drag on for years until Parliament finally legalises it.

Everything will depend on the specific wording of the referendum question: If it’s wrongly worded, it could lead to defat through confusion alone. Worded correctly and clearly, we can expect a definitive answer.

I support legalisation and I intend to vote for that option. Whatever the result, at least it may finally be over.

How will this presidency end?

The video above is from NBC News, part of their "THINK" series (they have a YouTube Playlist of the videos). In this particular edition, Corey Brettschneider, author of The Oath and the Office (Amazon Affiliate link), talks about the three possible ways that the current occupant of the White House could leave office. All three are possible.

There is debate about whether a sitting president can be indicted for criminal offences. I’m in the “of course he can be indicted!” camp on that argument. Whichever side is correct, the possibility cannot be dismissed outright.

The second possibility is impeachment. If the current occupant isn’t indicted for his crimes, then impeachment will remain as the only possible way to hold him to account. However, the Republicans who control the US Senate will never hold him to account, so even if the House or Representatives’ Articles of Impeachment presented an iron-clad case against the current occupant, the Republican-controlled Senate would still acquit him.

The third possibility is some sort of deal, and there’s a legal precedent for that. Spiro Agnew, who was elected Vice President with Richard Nixon in 1968, and re-elected in 1972, was also a hard-core crook who accepted payoffs at the White House. He ultimately resigned from office in exchange for a plea deal that kept him out of prison. Something similar could happen with the current occupant of the White House.

The case of Agnew is relevant in another way. Agnew was adamant that a sitting Vice President could not be indicted, but he entered into plea bargain negotiations to avoid real prosecution. This week, Walter Dellinger, who was head of the Office of Legal Counsel from 1993 to 1996 and acting US Solicitor General from 1996 to 1997, wrote a piece for the Washington Post concluding: “Where the crimes are extremely serious and the proof compelling, the principle that no one is above the law may leave little choice but to proceed to court.”

It’s important to note that while these three outcomes are possible, that doesn’t meant they’re likely. All three are problematic, not the least because if a sitting president cannot be indicted, and removal from office through impeachment impossible, then all these options are academic, leaving electoral defeat as the only way to remove him from office.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that NO ONE is above the law. That means that, probable or not, it’s completely possible that the current occupant will face justice sooner rather than later. Only time will tell.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Visit the Kiwi way

The New Zealand Department of Conservation as just launched a new campaign designed to encourage tourists—whether foreign or Kiwi—to “Visit the Kiwi Way”. It’s a good idea—and it’s needed.

The things the video above mentions are all things that tourists do or don’t do, as the case may be, and they often have a huge impact on the New Zealand environment because of it. By educating visitors on what we expect of them—and using typical Kiwi humour to do so—we may get visitors to treat the natural environment with more respect.

The campaign includes all the usual things, such as information to encourage visitors to respect the land, environment, and wildlife, but also a few other things that tourists may not know, like that they’ll need a permit to fly a drone on Conservation land. Actually, there are other restrictions on drones elsewhere, too, something many Kiwis don’t even know.

Tourism brings in more foreign spending to New Zealand than any other industry. All up, it makes around $35 billion for New Zealand, two thirds of which is domestic and one third is foreign. The tourism industry employs 7.5% of the New Zealand workforce. All of which means that the tourism sector is VERY important to the country, and is projected to keep growing.

So, with the industry growing, we need tourists to do their part to help keep New Zealand’s natural world everything tourists expect it to be. Hopefully this campaign will help achieve that goal.

Pew’s 'striking findings' from 2018

Pew Research has long been the go-to place for statistics on what the world thinks about issues, policies, and so much more. Their data is so good that when they label a report, “18 striking findings from 2018”, it’s hard to ignore. In fact, it’s good not to.

Many of their findings this year were surprising to me, including the one that the number of illegal immigrants to the USA continues to fall, and has been since its peak in 2007. In fact, it’s not as low as it was in 2004. It’s not the statistic itself, it’s that so many people believe the exact opposite is true—that the number is rising. Most of those who believe that support the current regime, but I’m sure far too many who don’t also believe it.

A similarly not-at-all-surprising statistic was that Americans 18-49 were far better at identifying factual statements as factual, and opinion statements as opinions, than those who ere 50+. Moreover, this held true regardless of ideological bend of the statements. The current regime’s strongest, most hardcore supporters tend to be low-information and/or more poorly informed than people who don’t watch any news at all, and most of them also tend to be older. I have no way of knowing whether that’s coincidence or not.

There are so many other stats that are interesting for one reason or another that it’s impossible to single them out. I’m sure they picked 18 because it’s 2018, but if they were as interested in clickbait as news organisations are, they’d have had fewer and picked an inflammatory headline, something like “5 most shocking findings of 2019”. I like their way much better.

But, then, that figures: I don’t have trouble telling the difference between facts and opinion, and I’m not too keen on supposed news organisations blurring that line.

I wonder what striking findings they’ll tell us about next year. I can’t wait to find out.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Ask Arthur 2018, Part 2: Living where?

Today’s questions in this year’s “Ask Arthur” series are all about living places, where we are and where we might live. The first question comes from Facebook friend Andy, who I wasn’t able to meet up with in real life before he an his family moved to another part of New Zealand, proving, I suppose, that even close geographic proximity doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to make the move from Facebook to real life. At any rate, Andy asked:

Now that you and Nigel have weaned yourselves off the North Shore, and are happily ensconced in Auckland's southernmost frontier, have you ever considered making a clean break, escaping Auckland altogether, and taking up life in the Provinces?

As it happens, we actually did that already. I don’t talk about it on Facebook, nor very often on the blog, and for no particular reason. I just don’t. But in 2010 I published a post called “The country life” about the couple years we lived in Paeroa, in the Waikato, just south of the Coromandel. Living there was good and bad, as anywhere is.

In 2006 we moved back to Auckland’s North Shore (where we’d lived since we got together in 1995 up to 2003). We’d realised that we weren’t really “country” people, and that we valued close proximity to the stores and such that we wanted access to.

In 2017, of course, we moved to Auckland’s southernmost area, the former Franklin District. Our house now is still in Auckland, but it’s far enough out that it’s around 25 minutes’ drive to any larger area with supermarkets, hardware home centres, etc. Yet we also have a small hardware store and a Four Square five minutes away, along with several cafes and an awesome takeaway shop. Where we live now is kind of the best of both worlds—more rural, country-style living, but with city amenities close by.

That sounds kind of perfect, and, in fact, we do like the area a lot. However, we’ve come to realise we might like to live a little more rural so we don’t have such close neighbours. Nothing grandiose—no more than a hectare (two and a half acres). We couldn’t have known that when we moved here, though it would have been helpful if we had.

One of the things that will make us move sooner rather than later is the clock: I’m about to turn 60, and Nigel’s just a few years behind me. By the time he reaches 60, I’ll be retirement age. If we’re going to make such a move, it’d be better to do it sooner rather than later. But if we do, it’ll likely be in this same general area.

Longer term, as we get older still, we may need to move closer to city services. However, by then Auckland will have moved closer to us, so we may not need to. That’s entirely speculative at this point—ask me again in ten or fifteen years.

The next question is actually related. Roger Green asked:

Will New Zealand disappear because of climate change? And if so, approximately when?

No, it won’t, but coastal areas are vulnerable for a whole lot of reasons.

Earlier this year, a study from HSBC found that New Zealand is one of the five countries least vulnerable to climate change. That’s somewhat deceptive, however, because while most of New Zealand will be fine, some coastal and low-lying areas definitely are vulnerable, and one part of Wellington was found to be particularly vulnerable, according to a report last month.

The biggest threat isn’t so much rising sea levels as such, but the fact that storms are becoming more severe more often. Coupled with more frequent and more severe droughts, and the possibility of worse wildfires, things could become difficult for people here. There will also probably be the rising possibility of tropical diseases as the country warms up, and there may be shortages of drinking water.

However, I’m not likely to be among them, since the worst effects are due closer to the end of the century, probably well after I’m dead. Even so, we’ll see worse storms and other weather events within our lifetimes.

Around the country, preparations are already underway. The Ministry for the Environment publishes resources, especially for local governments, on their page “Adapting to sea-level rise”. In addition, local councils provide flooding data as part of the LIM (Land Information Memorandum) report, and that includes areas that could flood in a “once in a hundred year storm” (the sort becoming more frequent).

There may come a time when coastal settlements will have to be abandoned, in part because no one will be able to get any insurance. A high percentage of Māori live close to the sea, often on ancestral land, and they will be disproportionately affected by loss of coastal areas. However, wealthier parts of cities will also be affected, because they’re often close to the water’s edge, or on cliffs overlooking the water.

The area of Auckland we’re in won’t be affected by sea level rise, even if it’s far higher than expected, because we’re farther above sea level. Most of the country is in the same situation, fortunately.

Roger also asked:

If you were to live in the US again, where would that be?

The short answer is, I have no idea. When I thought about this last year, my answer was either Hawaii or California. At the moment, I’m leaning more toward Hawaii.

I’d rule out Chicago, despite my personal connections and history, mostly because of the weather. I now hate the very idea of those winters.

Having said all that, it’s still highly improbable that I’d ever live in the USA again. But, if that remote chance came to pass, I think it would be Hawaii.

Thanks to Andy and Roger for the questions!

It’s not too late to ask a question: Simply leave a comment on this post (anonymous comments are allowed). Or, you can also email me your question (and you can even tell me to keep your name secret, although, why not pick a nom du question?). You can also ask questions on the AmeriNZ Facebook page, though some people may want to keep in mind that all Facebook Pages are public, just like this blog. If you’re on Facebook, you can send me a private message through the AmeriNZ Page.

All posts in this series are tagged “AAA-18”. All previous posts from every “Ask Arthur” series are tagged, appropriately enough, "Ask Arthur”.


Let the 2017 asking begin – The first post in this year’s series.
Ask Arthur 2018, Part 1: Perfect place

Change on NZ TV screens

Tonight longtime TVNZ broadcaster Peter Williams signed off for the last time, nearly 40 years after his career began. He’s been a familiar face on New Zealand TV screens for so long that a couple generations have grown up seeing him. Nearly four decades is a long time for any broadcaster.

Peter Williams has been on TV the entire time I’ve been in New Zealand, among the last I could say that about. In all those years, he was always professional, generally matter-of-fact, especially when presenting the news, and not over dramatic or sensational. It’s difficult to find people who have anything unpleasant to say about him. When he left the studio for the last time, he received an “honour guard” of colleagues sending him off.

It’s possible that his “nicest guy in broadcasting” image may change in January next year when he joins rival media company Media Works “Magic Talk” station, a combined talkback radio and music station that will replace the company’s “RadioLIVE” talkback radio network. “I have plenty of thoughts and opinions on various issues, formed from having quite a few years on this planet," he said last month when the new role was announced. “I'm really enthusiastic about sharing my views with those who call, email or text in.”

This may be what’s sometimes called an “inside baseball” thing, possibly unlikely to be of any interest to people who are not from this country. However, anyone wanting to understand another country would do well to look at its media and its shared cultural touchstones. This is one of those things for understanding New Zealand.

Just before Williams’ final sign off, fellow news presenters Wendy Petrie and Simon Dallow, who anchor the news Monday to Friday evenings, presented a retrospective video of his career (below) which may help to place him in the broader context of NZ pop culture.

In any case, everything changes, nothing stays the same forever. Tonight something reasonably significant changed in New Zealand, and that’s worth noting.

The year in search – 2018

The video above is Google’s “year in search” for 2018. Google tells us that, “the world searched for ‘good’ more than ever before”. There’s plenty to said—or speculated on—as to why this might be the case, but I think we should just skip that: People wanted to look up “good” things, and that’s, well, good.

Google says: “Lists are based on search terms that had the highest spike this year as compared to the previous year.” That suggests that the popular searches we also temporary, at least some of the time. But, then, that’s kind of the point of searching: We become aware of something, like a topic or a person, and we want to know more about it.

The top rankings by country tell us in more detail about what, specifically, people wanted to know more about. That makes them more revealing than any of these videos could do.

The top 5 overall searches for the world were: 1 World Cup, 2 Avicii, 3. Mac Miller, 4 Stan Lee, 5 Black Panther. The top 5 global news searches were: 1 World Cup, 2 Hurricane Florence, 3. Mega Millions, 4 Royal Wedding, 5 Election Results.

The top 5 overall searches for the USA were: 1 World Cup, 2. Hurricane Florence, 3 Mac Miller, 4 Kate Spade, 5 Anthony Bourdain. The top 5 news searches in the USA were: 1 World Cup, 2 Hurricane Florence, 3. Mega Millions, 4 Election Results, 5. Hurricane Michael. The fact that this news list is so similar to the global list suggests that the USA really does dominate global searches.

Normally, I share Google’s top 5 overall searches for New Zealand, but they haven’t made that publicly available yet. Fortunately, Radio New Zealand has published a piece on “What Kiwis searched for on Google this year”. According to them, the top five overall searches in NZ were: 1 World Cup, 2 Stuff news NZ, 3 Commonwealth Games, 4 Census NZ, and 5 Cyclone Gita. The most-searched things in news were: 1. Census NZ, 2. Cyclone Gita, 3. Royal Wedding, 4. Thai cave rescue, 5. Jacinda Ardern’s baby. The RNZ report on the searches was interesting, but when TVNZ re-published it on their One News site, they deleted all references to Google, which means that it wasn’t clear where the data came from. Sure, we could guess what it was based on, but we couldn’t know for sure. For a site that’s supposed to report news, the lack of any detail was shockingly sloppy and stupid.

What I personally find so interesting about these annual summaries is that they give us a snapshot of life in a given year. The videos Google makes kind of dramatise and animate that data, but it’s the lists themselves that are the interesting part. They tell us what captured our attention, even if we don’t necessarily know why, at least, not without more research.

We humans are curious by nature, and we want to understand things. That’s what the searches really show. It, too, is good.

And, it was nice to see the New Zealand Prime Minister, her partner and newborn baby were in the video, too. That was good for a whole lot of reasons.

Related previous posts:
The Year in Search – 2017
The Year in Search – 2016
The Year in Search 2015
Spirit of the Times – 2014
Visual Reminders

Older Gays Guess Famous Gays

In the video above, “Old Gays Guess Famous Gays”, some older gay guys try to work out who various famous gay people are. Their results are mixed. I guess I must be officially old, because I didn’t know who all the guys shown were. Better than their panel, sure, but nowhere near 100%.

On the other hand, most of them are American, and I don’t live there, so maybe I did as well as could be expected? I really don’t think I could know who all the Americans who are because many of them are—to be blunt—no big deal in this part if the world.

Or, maybe I’m just old. Even if that’s the case, I can at least take comfort in the fact that I at do try to stay current. That’s something, right? Right?!

This is the third video featuring the older gays that I’ve shared this year. The first was part of a post on slang, and the second was the panel reacting to Troye Sivan videos.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Weekly debrief

The video above is Matt Baume’s Weekly Debrief for this week, and it has more details about the current regime’s recent moves that will block researchers’ work on a possibly cure for HIV. Yes, it’s as petty and ideological as you’d expect, but this video explains it better—and more quickly—than most others that I’ve seen.

I could say more—in fact, in the original version of this post I did, but that was mostly about the utter evil that is Mike Pence—and he’s absolutely behind this move to condemn people to death from HIV. I don’t need to restate the utterly, blindingly obvious about what a truly awful excuse for a human he is.

The rest of the video talks about what’s coming in 2019 and—spoiler alert!—some is bad. Who’d have thought that? Considering how utterly awful the current regime in the USA is for LGBT+ people, things will get MUCH worse in 2019. We just don’t know how bad yet. Mike will get his way, after all.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Weird summer day

Today was one of those days that was an absolutely brilliant early summer day—warm, sunny, blue skies with puffy clouds. Just lovely. But then it changed and it got weird. And now, it’s a weird summer night.

I went to Pukekohe today to do the grocery shopping and some other stops, and when I left the house it was a brilliant day. I knew that thunderstorms were predicted for this afternoon, and I wanted to get back home before then.

In Pukekohe, my first stop was the chemist that sells the tart cherry pills I take to prevent gout attacks (the only place in the area where I can get them; it seems that the only alternative is to order online). I refused a bag—what’s the point of being virtuous if one doesn’t signal their virtue?—even though they use paper, not plastic. I knew I had resusable bags in my car, which actually means my virtue was moderated by the fact I forgot to bring a bag in with me.

But my next stop was The Warehouse, where I brought in my reusable bag. Virtue level restored.

I next went to Countdown, which stopped using plastic bags a couple months ago, BUT I needed some onions, and instead of getting ones in a pre-packed plastic bag, I used one of the mesh produce bags I bought to put them in. As I did, a lady near me was putting her selections into a plastic bag. My virtue score rose dramatically (not the least because I bought the non-meat meat again and some of the non-chicken chicken we want to try, but that’s virtue of a different sort altogether).

By the time I was checking out, the clouds were gathering together, darkening the sky. But the rain held off all the way home, and even until after I got home, unpacked everything, headed out for Friday takeaways for dinner and got back home again.

Then the weather hit.

We had lightening and thunder and heavy rain, but, at first, the gutters didn’t overflow; apparently when I cleaned them out the other day I did a good job. Bt later on the rain got heavier still and the gutters overflowed where the bottle-brush like stuff is in the gutter. Maybe I should move it.

What was especially weird was that the lightening and thunder kept going. And going. And going. I used to say that thunderstorms were unusual in Auckland, but they’ve become much more common in recent years. But this is the fist time we’ve had one that just kept going for an hour or so. And more thunder sounded a couple times throughout the evening. That’s weird, too.

Still, I avoided getting caught in the storms (Leo did a little bit), we never lost power, and the cleaned-out gutters performed as they were supposed to. And, the first part of the day was warm, sunny, and summery. All up, I’d say it was an awesome day—a little weird, maybe, but still really great.

I’ll take it.

‘Unsell’ cars for teens

The ad above, “Unsell”, has been in heavy rotation on New Zealand television over the past few weeks. It tries to steer parents into selecting safer cars for their teens using the slogan, “The safer the car, the safer they are.” It’s a new way to promote an ongoing effort: Keeping Kiwis—in this case, younger Kiwis—safer on the road.

The ad is for the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), which is responsible for everything from driver licensing, through to roading projects, vehicle licensing, and more. It has a lot of responsibilities, but all of them are about rod safety one way or another.

I’ve long been fascinated by the NZTA’s roading ads, including the “In His Shoes” ad I shared in January, which is still broadcast from time to time. Some of their ads have been more effective than others, of course, but lately they seem to be getting it right more often than not.

Anything that helps people to think about safety first has got to be a good idea, and I think this is a good ad.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Ask Arthur 2018, Part 1: Perfect place

It’s time to begin answering the questions in the 2018 Ask Arthur series, a little later than I’d planned to start this year. It happens. This year’s questions are varied, as usual, and as in previous years, I’ll sometimes group related questions into one post. I may not always answer the questions in the order they were given to me, but this first question is also the first asked, and once again, real-life and long-time friend Sherry was first in with a question:

If the world were a perfect place, would it be closer to the U.S. or New Zealand? What would be the key measures of perfection?

It’s an interesting question, and one that could be more than a little fraught: If I say a nice thing about one country rather than the other, potentially someone may be offended. So, it makes sense to say, as I have for the entire time I’ve lived in New Zealand, that there’s no such thing as a perfect country. People can claim there’s one all they want to, but the reality is that countries, all the way down to a local community, are built by human beings and we’re all flawed in some way, so our creations are, too.

The next important point is that the real measure of the perfection of a place is a simple one: Whether it’s perfect for oneself. I wouldn’t want to live in a desert, for example (though I might consider living in a dessert…), but some people absolutely love it. Same with a place that’s cold and snowy for most of the year: Definitely not for me!

With all that out of the way, and those caveats taken on board, the next thing to say is that place isn’t really all that relevant because beauty is found in all parts of the planet, and the climate we like the most exists in many places. So the perfect place it’s less about those things because, theoretically, at least, they can be found in many places.

For me one of the top criteria for a perfect place is that English is the main language. The reason for that is that I’ve come to realise that I don’t have the capacity to learn another language, beyond a few words or phrases. It’s not for lack of trying—definitely not—and I’m stubborn enough to refuse to give up. But I’m also realistic enough to know that the odds of picking up another language are remote, and becoming more so the older I get. So, I’d struggle anywhere where I couldn’t live using English alone. Some people would find that sad; to me, it’s just reality.

So, with natural beauty, weather, and non-English language out of the equation, that leaves all the things that make a country unique, it’s culture, absolutely, but also the values that make that place what it is.

I have found some things to be true. More democracy is generally, though not always, better than less democracy. Working together as a society to solve our shared problems is better than always going it alone, and personal responsibility means nothing without social responsibility. Care and concern for out planet, its wildlife and wild places, the air, the water, the climate, is non-negotiable. Healthcare is a human right.

In each of those areas, New Zealand is, in my opinion, better than the United States.

Democracy is the structure that keeps us from ripping each other’s throats out when we disagree. It’s what keeps things orderly and predictable because we know that if we lose the argument on the day, we may win it on another day.

For that to work, government and its democratic institutions must have legitimacy—basically, people have to believe they can effect change through the democratic process—the consent of the governed, and all that. New Zealand clearly has the edge on the legitimacy of its democracy, and so, its democracy is better.

Part of this is because New Zealand has a parliamentary system, which means the executive can never have more power than the legislative because they are the same. It means the legislature can get things done, and if it goes too far it can easily be changed completely.

We also have a proportional representation system so that our parliament reflects, as closely as possible, the will of the people. If the USA had that, even only just for the US House, it wouldn’t have half the problems it has. Mind you, New Zealand has no upper house, so the USA would have to abolish the Senate to have the same level of democracy—and that’s not necessarily a bad idea.

On the other hand, we elect representatives to our District Health Boards, which control healthcare within specific regions—the hospitals, the priorities for the area, especially in public health, those sorts of things. This was brought in by Prime Minister Helen Clark’s Labour Government (which ended in 2008), and I think it was a mistake. Too many people (dozens, even) we don’t know at all to choose among for a handful of spots, and some people run just out of personal ambition. Our local elections (towns and cities) are done by postal ballot and it’s appallingly bad—mid 40s percent bother to vote. The authorities adamantly refuse to even consider how online voting might be done. So, our democracy is not perfect, just better.

Because New Zealand is a social democracy (basically, that’s a fusion of socialism and capitalism within a democratic system), we value collective action. We believe that together we can do more than any of us could do alone, and that we can solve problems and move forward together. So, like all but one developed nation, we have national healthcare. Education, police, fire, are all functions of the nation's government which minimises political interference (I say “minimise” because politicians like to muck around with education all the time, and they sometimes pander on crime).

The USA doesn’t share in that ethic—it once did, but no more. However, New Zealand is far from perfect: We have the world’s worst youth suicide rate, among the worst domestic violence rates, the gap between rich and poor is growing, and people with mental illness have problems getting the help they need. The reason for all those persistent problems is that we don’t take enough social responsibility, leaving it up to individuals to work out. That’s failed. We should get back to Kiwi values and work together to solve those problems.

And that’s why I say, “personal responsibility means nothing without social responsibility”. People can’t “tough it out” when they’re in emotional or psychological pain, when they have no decent housing, when interpersonal violence is chronic. Essentially, we act too much like the USA, and not enough like New Zealand.

New Zealanders really do care about the planet and our environment—it’s not all hype and tourism slogans. However, we’re hamstrung by a strong farming lobby that prevents action on things like pollution of fresh water—our streams, rivers, and lakes—by dairy farms, something they deny is even a problem. The corporate sector—most of it owned by foreigners—doesn’t want strong action on climate change because, like corporations everywhere, they care only about their immediate profits.

What is different about New Zealand as compared to the USA is that all our political parties believe in science and they all want action on climate change. They differ only on what action we should take and how soon. The parties of the Left generally promote more urgency, the Right less, but ALL sides agree on the basics. Unlike the USA.

And the big one: In New Zealand, healthcare is a human right, and no one is denied healthcare because they can’t afford it. We don't even get a bill when we're discharged from hospital. People are still free to pay for experimental treatments themselves if they want to, but except in the rarest of cases, all treatment is possible in the public system. In the USA, well, things are very different.

So, when you look at what makes New Zealand society and culture what it is, its shared values and, especially, its commitment to social democracy, add in the natural beauty, good weather, and English as the main language, and New Zealand is for me the perfect place. For someone else, it could easily be somewhere else. Indeed, for most of the world, it is.

It’s okay to think of a place as being perfect, even if no one else agrees with you. Because the one thing I believe more than anything else is that the real measure—the only one that matters—for deciding on the perfection of a place is simple: Whether it’s perfect for oneself. New Zealand is—for me.

Thanks to Sherry for the question! It was the—ahem!—perfect place to start.

It’s not too late to ask a question: Simply leave a comment on this post (anonymous comments are allowed). Or, you can also email me (mailto:amerinz@yahoo.com?Subject=AmeriNZ%20Blog) your question (and you can even tell me to keep your name secret, although, why not pick a nom du question?). You can also ask questions on the AmeriNZ Facebook page, though some people may want to keep in mind that all Facebook Pages are public, just like this blog. If you’re on Facebook, you can send me a private message through the AmeriNZ Page.

All posts in this series are tagged “AAA-18”. All previous posts from every “Ask Arthur” series are tagged, appropriately enough, "Ask Arthur”.


Let the 2017 asking begin – The first post in this year’s series.

Changing nature of Christmas

Christmas in New Zealand is a mostly secular/cultural holiday, which means that most people don’t engage in the religious traditions surrounding the holiday. It seems as if the USA may be slowly catching up with New Zealand in the way Americans observe Christmas.

This time last year, Pew Research released a look at the relative importance of the religious aspects of Christmas in the USA, and the results show a definite decline in the importance of religion. However, it still matters to most people.

Pew sums up the entire report in its opening:
As long-simmering debates continue over how American society should commemorate the Christmas holiday, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that most U.S. adults believe the religious aspects of Christmas are emphasized less now than in the past – even as relatively few Americans are bothered by this trend. In addition, a declining majority says religious displays such as nativity scenes should be allowed on government property. And compared with five years ago, a growing share of Americans say it does not matter to them how they are greeted in stores and businesses during the holiday season – whether with “merry Christmas” or a less-religious greeting like “happy holidays.”
Not surprisingly, Republicans are more likely to back traditional Christian religious views of Christmas, Democrats less so. However, what’s different is mainly the percentages, rather than having completely different positions on the underlying religious assumptions. Even so, the strength of adherence to a religious Christmas is declining for both sets, a trend that, all other things being equal, is probably likely to continue.

This also isn’t about religious orientation as such. A non-religious Christmas is sometimes called a “cultural holiday” because the people themselves may be at least somewhat religious or spiritual, even if they don’t treat Christmas as a religious thing. That matters because of the automatic assumption that people who don’t observe a religious tradition are atheists or agnostics, but, statistically, most such people are religious/spiritual, but don’t necessarily adhere to any particular religion—the “nones”, as they’re often called in statistics reporting.

I’m one of those who doesn’t think the religious side of Christmas matters (except to the religious, of course, and that’s their business, not mine). But Christmas can be a purely cultural, or secular, holiday involving time with family and friends, and for many of us—including most New Zealanders—that’s exactly what it is. I like it that way.

DJ Earworm 2018 Mashup

The video above is this year’s annual mashup by DJ Earworm, “United State of Pop 2018 (Turnin' It Up)”. It’s much like the mash-ups for other years, and this year also continues a personal trend: I’m familiar with a lot of the videos, and very familiar with a pretty high proportion of the videos included.

There are 25 videos featured in this mash-up (the complete list is in the YouTube description). I’m very familiar with seven of them, having seen them many times. While that’s less than a third of the total, there are more that I’m at least somewhat familiar with. This trend of knowing videos included, which has been developing over the past few years, has happened because I frequently watch our free-to-air music video channel (often when I’m blogging, actually). Those seven videos, however, aren’t ones I’ve shared on this blog. Knowing them doesn’t necessarily mean that I like them, after all.

In any case, these mash-ups are a quick look back at the pop songs that were the backing track to the year, and that’s kind of nice. It’s just what is. Not everything has to be serious.

Previous DJ Earworm mash-ups on this blog:

DJ Earworm 2017 Mashup (2017)
First December Mashup (2016)
Season of mash-ups (2015) – First video
And the roundups begin (2014)
Poptastic assault (2013) – First video

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

More American fast food arrives

American brands, both businesses and products, can be found throughout New Zealand, though there are plenty that aren’t here, of course. The fast food industry is particularly well represented, with another chain planning to launch next year, and a convenience store chain already opening locations.

Restaurant Brands, which currently runs KFC, Carl’s Jr., and Pizza Hut in New Zealand, announced this week that they’re bringing Taco Bell to New Zealand, something that’s been rumoured for many years. Mexican food of any iteration—real Mexican, Tex-Mex, or Californian-Mexican—is still pretty rare in New Zealand, so there’s at least a potential for it to succeed here, given it operates at the lower price end of the market, as the main burger chains do, too.

Restaurant Brands runs Taco Bell in Hawaii, Guam, and in New South Wales in Australia. They think that Sydney in particular is a model for what they can do in New Zealand. Over the next few years the company plans open 60 Taco Bell units, with about 20 in New Zealand.

The NZ Herald was particularly eager over the news, telling us what Taco Bell could cost in New Zealand, and that the first unit “could” open by July next year. I don’t know if New Zealanders are waiting with baited breath for Taco Bell to open, but it seems like the Herald might be.

Restaurant Brands used to run Starbucks in New Zealand, but they sold that business this past September to a company owned, in part, by a company that runs coffee cafes, which certainly sounds like a better “fit” than Restaurant Brands’ focus on fast food. [See also: “Why Starbucks 'struggled' in Kiwi coffee culture”].

There are, of course, some people who hate the very idea of Taco Bell, turning up their noses at it. So, there’s a kind of irony in the fact that Restaurant Brands appears to be about to be taken over by a Mexican company. Business is business, after all.

Another brand that originated in the USA is rolling our locations in New Zealand, and it’s entering a market that has far less competition.

Last month, Circle K Stores NZ opened their first location in Cook Street in Auckland. The second location opens in about a week in the Newmarket part of the city.

Circle K was founded in El Paso, Texas, in 1951, but is now owned by Canadian company Alimentation Couche-Tard. There are few American-style 24-hour convenience stores in New Zealand, most of them are connected to petrol stations (and the earliest of those didn’t allow customers into the shop in the evening, making them pay and get their goods through a teller-like window).

In New Zealand, the nearest equivalent to a convenience store is what we call a dairy, basically a very small, family owned and run superette. They all close in the evening. After that are small grocery stores, like Four Square (which also closes in the evening), and sometimes the shops of petrol stations, which may or may not be open into the night (or 24-hours).

When I lived in Chicago, I used 7-Eleven or White Hen Pantry locations when I was out late for whatever reason and normal grocery stores were all closed. Circle K plans to be similarly useful in New Zealand, locating stores where apartments (in particular) are higher in density, and that’s a niche for which there’s little or no competition at the moment.

They also offer American-style hot dogs and coffee, among other things, but the photos of their cabinet food on their Facebook Page shows that, as other American fast food companies have done, they have NZ-focused food on offer, with all the sorts of things that Kiwis would expect at any modern petrol station shop: Meat pies, sausage rolls, and backed goods like lamingtons.

I think Circle K could do well, since there’s nothing else quite like it. Like it is for every other business, they’ll need consistently good quality and service and prices that Kiwis think are fair—the fundamentals, in other words.

I haven’t personally heard any rumours of any other US chains poised to enter the New Zealand market, though supposedly Amazon, which opened a distribution centre in Australia, is looking to do the same here so it can get into the grocery delivery market. I’m a little meh about that, though, because we’ve heard for years that Ikea was coming, and it never has. Also, when I arrived in New Zealand there was talk of Australian-based department store David Jones entering New Zealand, but it’s only doing so now, more than two decades later. But, then, I was surprised when Krispy Kreme Donuts opened here, so I’m clearly not very good at predicting such things.

I’m pretty relaxed about all this “creeping Americanisation” as it’s sometimes called. People like what they like, and they’ll discard whatever doesn’t work for them. For example, Australian chicken chain Red Rooster didn’t work here (much to my surprise), and they quit New Zealand only some five years after opening their first unit here.

In general, I think that people should be free to like whatever they like, and it’s silly to judge people based on something as trivial as what fast food chain they like. Maybe it’s because I like fast food, or maybe it’s also because I think what people choose to enjoy is none of my business. Live and let eat, I say.

Local reaction

A foreign backpacker* was murdered in Auckland earlier this month, and that set off an extensive public reaction across New Zealand. While it’s good the victim is being remembered, there are aspects of this that aren’t good. The questions about all this outpouring are, first, why this case, why now? And, more importantly, what can we do to fix things?

It’s good to mourn the loss of someone to murder, and not the perpetrator. And, sadly, this backpacker is not the first, and probably won’t be the last, to meet their death here, though by far the most common reason is accident. But the large public reaction is unusual, and it seems somewhat out of proportion, especially because this backpacker’s not the first to be murdered.

The alleged killer was given name suppression in court, which means it’s a prosecutable offence to reveal the alleged killer’s name in any way, including on social media. Unfortunately, some New Zealanders openly defied the law, or came close to it, in their anger over the crime. Name suppression exists to ensure the accused gets a fair trial, and also to protect the victim in some cases (usually cases dealing with sexual assault or abuse). Part of the idea behind it is that it’s impossible to “un-do” publicity about the fact that someone has been accused of a terrible crime, which means that if they’re not convicted, their life will be destroyed. This is especially true since the Internet is forever, and anyone Googling an acquitted person’s name after the fact would find out about the charges—but not necessarily about the acquittal (probably wouldn’t, even).

The right to a fair and impartial trial is fundamental to any concept of justice, and yet, because people are so worked up about this case, as they have been about others in the past, some are willing to risk breaking the law. The bigger issue here isn’t that they could be prosecuted for their Tweet or Facebook post, but that they could derail the trial completely—cause a mistrial—and that will only prolong the ordeal for the family of the victim and delay justice even longer. So, breaching a suppression order is always a stupid thing to do.

There’s room for a robust debate on whether there should name suppression at all, but that debate cannot be advanced by deliberately breaking the law, unless one is willing to pay the consequences of doing so in order to make some point. Most of us aren’t—or wouldn’t be if we calmly reflected on the matter.

It seems to me that the sometimes reckless disregard for the consequences of violating a name suppression order is merely the result of people’s outrage over this case, which is the same reason it’s happened before. People are also embarrassed that this has happened in New Zealand, when our international guests, whatever their age, gender, nationality, mode of touring, etc., OUGHT to be safe. Sometimes, no matter how good the vast majority of us are, one bad—or evil—person can stain us all.

But there have been other tourists murdered, and plenty of New Zealanders are murdered every year, too. So, why this case? Why has this one hit a nerve that those others haven’t? I don’t think we can fully understand that yet, but there are pointers.

It’s true that the news media has been fuelling people’s passions by giving the case extensive coverage, but they do that all the time, so that’s not a logical reason. Something else must be actually fanning the flames.

It could be that social media is stoking the fire by giving people an outlet to express their raw emotions—grief, shame, rage—without any brakes or space for reasoned thought. Social media—Facebook in particular—profit when we are in a heightened emotional state and reacting broadly, unthinkingly, and confrontationally, and probably out of proportion to an incident. That’s what social media encourages us to do.

We should remember murder victims like this one, we should feel sympathy for their families and friends, and we should also redouble our own personal efforts to make our foreign guests feel welcome and safe. All of them.

What we mustn’t do is allow our raw emotions to drive us to lash out in irrational and counterproductive ways, nor to allow one case to blind us to all the similar and, sadly, even worse cases that don’t make the news or social media posts.

In short, we need to be better humans. We cannot by ourselves prevent this from ever happening again, no matter how good and noble our intentions. But if we all work to become better humans, maybe—maybe—bad things like this will become so rare that a strong reaction will not only make sense, it’ll be required.

The way we’ve been acting as humans allows things like this to happen. By being better humans we can help to fix that.

*I’ve chosen not to name the backpacker, or to use identifying descriptors of the victim, even though the linked stories all do, because my questions and unease actually have absolutely nothing to do with this particular case. It’s also one of the few ways I can limit how much I add to the frenzy surrounding this tragedy when, again, this particular case isn’t the point.