Sunday, April 29, 2007

Australian glow

The New Zealand Herald published an AAP story reporting that Australian Prime Minister John Howard has announced plans to “remove all excessive restrictions on mining, processing and exporting of Australian uranium as a step towards embarking on domestic nuclear power generation.” The paper quoted him as saying:
In light of the significance of global climate change, and as the world's largest holder of uranium reserves, Australia has a clear responsibility to develop its uranium resources in a sustainable way—irrespective of whether or not we end up using nuclear power.
Call me cynical, but it sounds as if he was really saying: “Australia has a clear opportunity to make lots of money selling its uranium.” Obviously, there is opposition to his plan. The paper quoted Annette Brownlie, a spokesperson for a group called Just Peace, saying:
I think Mr Howard has just committed political suicide, given the statistics showing the public opposition—not only towards uranium mining but to the development of nuclear power in this country. Problems of waste and nuclear proliferation and nuclear accidents are all on people's minds, they haven't gone away. People really are very, very afraid of nuclear energy and the whole cycle.
She went on, saying it would raise suspicions that Australia was just an outpost of the US, and that…
Our neighbouring countries will have legitimate fear that Australia may become a nuclear-armed nation.
Clearly, that would be a concern of nuclear-free New Zealand.

But critics are also quick to note that safety and proliferation issues aside, there’s another huge problem with nuclear power: It requires a lot of water, and as droughts spread and endure in Australia, fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce—so much so that there are already plans being made to convert treated waste water (sewerage) into drinking water.

Add it all up—public opposition, probable environmental implications, and Howard’s obvious determination to please the Bush administration—and one can’t help but wonder what Howard’s playing at.

Friday, April 27, 2007

AmeriNZ Podcast #5 – The Lands Downunder

Episode five of my podcast is now available, and it's free no matter where you get it from. You can listen to it or download it through the player at the bottom of the post here, or subscribe for free through iTunes here (you must have the free iTunes player installed). You can also listen to it for free through the player on my MySpace page (options, options)...

This week I talk about New Zealand as it relates to Australia. This was motivated, in part, by Anzac Day bloggage.
Australia and New Zealand are very different from one another. Some people want a common currency, others want total union. Neither is going to happen. I follow up on that survey about gay neighbours, and I’m even more suspicious of the numbers. JoeMyGod responds to my comment. Can’t avoid mentioning racism.
Australian dubbing of TV commercials is goofy.
There are some changes in my life ahead, which don’t really affect this podcast. But should I add another show?
Mentioned on this show:
Slap Upside the Head story on gay neighbours

Get AmeriNZ Podcast for free on iTunes

High dollar kills jobs

Recently I’ve talked a bit about economic issues. This post is just a bit of an update.

As expected, the Reserve Bank lifted the official interest rate. Within hours of the announcement, appliance maker Fisher & Paykel told 350 workers in Auckland that their jobs were being sent to Thailand. In a cruel blow, the workers—who’d been working overtime to meet production quotas—thought they were being summoned to a meeting to receive bonuses.

Fisher & Paykel, an iconic NZ manufacturer, once pretty much had a monopoly on appliances in New Zealand due to protectionist tariffs that are gone now. That, combined with a dollar rising due to high interest rates has, they say, made it impossible for them to compete if they manufacture their washing machines in New Zealand. About 80 percent of their sales are overseas. The company also says the other 1700-odd jobs in New Zealand aren’t guaranteed, and neither, by extension, are jobs in Australia or the US.

Meanwhile, new figures suggest that due to rising interest rates it will now take a record 15 percent of disposable income in New Zealand to service debt. This, too, is caused by the rising official interest rate.

The government must find another way to restrain inflation than allowing the Reserve Bank to raise interest rates (which may go up again in June). The current policy makes matters worse in the short term, and by shipping jobs overseas will make things worse in the long-run, too.

The politicians of all parties created this mess. It’s up to all parties to fix it—with no sniping, no partisan point-scoring, no games, just action. The economy is still good, but the politicians can easily ruin it for years to come if they only play their political games. Grow up, boys and girls, and do the right thing for New Zealand.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ring around Rosie

Rose O’Donnell is leaving ABC (US) TV programme The View in June. To most Kiwis, that news would probably be a big yawn, since most have probably never seen it. The programme airs in New Zealand several days (or weeks) after the US, at around 9am on Sky 1, one of the channels on the pay TV service Sky.

I’ve seen her on the show a few times, and I’ve heard podcasters talk about her, too. I always thought she was good entertainment and, on the shows I saw or heard about, I agreed with what she said.

However, to hear right wing and “moderate” bloggers tell the tale, she’s the devil incarnate. American right wingers in particular clearly hate her and have demanded she be fired; some have accused her of treason for daring to question Bush. Self-described “moderates” have expressed “embarrassment” at her performance, claiming she does more harm than good to the left.

Give me a break! America’s TV media and much of its print media is a cheering section for George Bush and his cronies, and it only takes a quick channel surf or click through newspaper websites to see that. Rosie dared to challenge Bush when few in the mainstream media would and, in so doing, provided much-needed balance for the right-wing bile that oozes from Fox, CNN and other MSM media.

Yes, her performance was sometimes brash, often strident, but American political discourse needs someone like her to counter the right wingers who do the exact same thing. I didn’t see her very often, but I was glad to know that someone in the MSM was challenging Bush and the right wing.

America voted and liked Rosie: The View’s ratings jumped after she came on the show, up 500,000 people so far this season. That’s the kind of success that networks and sponsors notice, but not necessarily what they respond to. In the current climate, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone like Rosie—even a toned-down version—will be seen anytime soon in America’s mainstream broadcast media, and the country will be poorer for it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Anzac Day 2007

Today is Anzac Day in New Zealand. It’s an important day for both New Zealand and Australia, for reasons I’ve discussed in AmeriNZ Podcast #4. All across the country there were dawn parades, community services and other events.

The stores were all closed by law until 1pm today, and there were no commercials on television this morning. TVNZ’s TV One had a full morning of Anzac Day programming.

I saw part of the wreath-laying at the national war memorial. I tuned in just before the German ambassador laid a wreath, and left just after the US Ambassador laid his. And it struck me how great it was to see former enemies together laying wreaths of remembrance at another country’s memorial. Maybe there’s some hope for the world yet.

Today, we went up to the local mall where we had butter chicken for lunch (I know, at a shopping mall—who’d have guessed they’d have the best around?). On the way home, I saw an old man leaving a bus stop, a row of medals pinned to his jacket, on his way back from a community service somewhere. Further along, I saw a young man in his crisp New Zealand Navy uniform walking down the road, heading back from a different ceremony. All over the place, people wore their RSA Poppies (pictured).

And yet, after 1pm the mercantile spirit was reawakened. Some store even extended their trading hours to make up for the four hours they lost this morning (which kind of defeats the purpose). And we see a store or two promoting an “Anzac Day Sale” though, curiously, these sales are usually several days long, despite the name.

It’s tempting to say that the old diggers didn’t risk their lives (or lose them) so people could engage in crash commercialism. But, in a sense, they did. Freedom also means the freedom to be crass and crude sometimes. The thing that’s most obvious about Anzac Day is that the general public remembers what day is actually all about. I think that’s quite something.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Right remedies

Economic issues are definitely not my thing. Like most people, I barely understand them. Well, that’s not really true, is it? We ordinary people do understand economic issues; we have to get by in the world, after all. It’s just the experts and politicians we don’t understand.

I’ve made two posts recently on economic-related issues: One on interest rates in
New Zealand, and also one on the prospect for a common currency with Australia. Both posts centre on the fact that, in my opinion, life is far more complicated than the so-called experts admit. The reality of ordinary people is often very different from what these experts promote (sometimes as a way to advance a particular political ideology).

A case in point is the recent report on New Zealand’s economy from the OECD (the OECD is made up of the world’s richest nations), part of which talks about New Zealand’s standard of living being below the median for the OECD.

The report does indeed sound like a National Party manifesto, as acting Finance Minister Trevor Mallard said. Here’s why:

It calls
New Zealand’s economy one of the most flexible and resilient after 20 years of reforms, but it still lags behind other nations. This is something the right wing parties always say, too. The report goes on to recommend answers: Cut the top tax rate and raise GST (Goods and Services Tax). Raising GST would disproportionately affect the poor and working classes who can least afford the increase or reduce consumption (there are very few exemptions from GST; food and medicines have GST charged on them). The report also recommends raising the age of eligibility for national superannuation (retirement benefit), and reducing its real value over time.

So, to simplify it, the report urges that the richest people get tax cuts and the poor and working classes and the elderly all get hit harder. Sounds like typical neo-conservative nonsense to me.

Interestingly, however, the report also urges that
New Zealand adopt a capital gains tax to discourage investment in property—something that would hit the middle and upper classes hardest.

New Zealand party that’s home to the most neo-conservatives finds some of this too much:

National Party spokesman Bill English told Radio New Zealand raising GST and instituting a capital gains tax were not on the party's agenda.

Their position figures, since all voters would oppose raising GST, and their middle and upper class base would oppose a capital gains tax. Actually, I would, too, and I’m hardly a National Party supporter (I’d like to tell English where to go after he suggested that the government should cut spending on health).

The truth in these matters exists—yet again—between the extremes. Encouraging the middle and upper classes to invest here in
New Zealand, but not in property, would be a good thing—but not too fast or property values would crash, which would hurt all homeowners.

Similarly, encouraging people to save more and spend less would be good overall, but hard to achieve. Punishing people for spending isn’t the way to do it.

Cutting retirement pay is meanspirited—by then it’s too late for people to make up the difference. And, besides, the government is taking steps to deal with future retirement by setting aside money in a huge fund to pay for the future demographic bulge in retirement entitlements. From July this year, the KiwiSaver plan will encourage people to save for retirement.

Both ends of the spectrum can agree that raising productivity would help, but the government is correct to note that the current record low unemployment rate means that large numbers of relatively low-skilled workers have entered the workforce, driving down productivity.

All of this boils down to an argument over numbers, which is sure to make most people’s eyes glaze over. It’s this inattention that encourages politicians to play games with the economy. Some of us are watching, however.

Monday, April 23, 2007

One dollar

Once again the prospect of a common currency for New Zealand and Australia is being promoted. It ain’t gonna happen, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Opposition Leader John Key said last week that the idea should be looked at again, then Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen rubbished the idea. All of this was in the run-up to the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum, an annual gathering favoured in particular by neo-conservatives and leaders of big business.

Miraculously, just as the conference was beginning, a new poll was released showing that 49 per cent of New Zealanders favour a shared dollar, up from 29 percent in 2000. 41 per cent of Australians also support the idea.

For the second time in a week I suspect a study is promoting questionable results. Here’s why:

Australia has made it clear that any common currency would mean New Zealand abandoning the NZ dollar and adopting the Australian dollar instead (as Prime Minister Helen Clark has just reminded people). When Kiwis talk about a common currency, they mean a new one. So, if the survey question had asked, “Do you favour adopting the Australian dollar instead of the New Zealand dollar,” I doubt that it would’ve had 49 percent support. Actually, I doubt it would’ve had 29 percent support.

If New Zealand adopted the Aussie dollar, NZ would lose all control over monetary policy. Interest rates, for example, would be set in Canberra, and New Zealanders would have to put up with it, regardless of economic conditions here.

The countries, despite their similarities, are very different. Australia sells minerals and similar commodities, for example. Our inflation rate to last December was 2.5 percent, while it was 3.3 percent in Australia. Our interest rates were also much higher.

The main result of adopting the Aussie dollar is that New Zealand would become, in effect, a vassal of Australia, and it would then probably be inevitable that New Zealand would become part of Australia. There are some in both countries who want this to happen, though they’re minorities. New Zealand can, in fact, become part of Australia at any time, should it choose to do so, as I’ve discussed before.

But right now, there’s no compelling reason for New Zealand to adopt the Aussie dollar, and certainly no need for us to become part of Australia. No matter how much big business and neo-cons might want—and benefit—from a common currency, it just won’t get the backing of New Zealand voters if it means abandoning the Kiwi dollar and adopting the Aussie dollar.

That won’t change no matter how many times the Opposition brings it up or how long they keep it on their wish list. It’ll only change if and when there’s a reason for ordinary Kiwis to want it to happen. You can bet your bottom dollar that won’t happen any time soon.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Earth Day 2007

Today is Earth Day, a day set aside to celebrate the earth and promote environmentalism. We did neither, really, having a perfectly ordinary Sunday. Mind you, over the years we’ve done more than many other people.
I went to the 25th Anniversary Earth Day in 1995 in
Chicago, and for a time I was really motivated to do all the right things: Reduce, reuse, recycle (or course) and to do things like find non-toxic cleaning solutions. Like a lot of people, I found that convenience trumped commitment.
One lesson I took from that was that for people to live with less impact on the earth, it has to be easy for them. For example, when I lived in
Chicago, as well as later when the two of us lived in a small rural New Zealand town, there was no kerbside recycling. Nevertheless, I’ve always been good about taking recyclables to the drop off place—using fossil fuels to do it, of course. In Auckland, we have kerbside recycling, and a far higher percentage of people do it (so many, in fact, that there’s too much plastics, glass and paper collected).
Another lesson is that people respond to financial incentives. On Earth Day 1995, I was living in what they euphemistically called a “garden apartment”: It was a basement, so dark that we needed lamps even in daytime. I changed all our lightbulbs to compact fluorescents and we saved a huge amount on electricity.

These things are still true today: People will choose better options when it’s easy for them—meaning it causes little disruption—and when they have a financial incentive for doing so. Get either wrong, and people make the wrong choices.

Here in
New Zealand, forestry is being cleared for dairy farming at an alarming rate. Dairy farming has about the highest impact on the earth of any type of farming, both directly—the high number of resources the animals require—to more indirect things like pollution from run-off and allowing animals access to water ways. Commodity prices and self-interest of the landowners means that this seems like a good choice.
Commercial forests, mostly owned by foreign-based trans-national corporations with no connection or any real regard for New Zealand, are demanding all sorts of government concessions, or they threaten to clear-cut their land (as the smaller, private owners do when they convert to dairy farming). Right wing parties are quick to back the corporates, rather than stick up for
New Zealand. But, at least in New Zealand these trans-national corporations don’t automatically get their way, unlike other countries.
Despite my opposition to corporate welfare, it’s only realistic to acknowledge that no business will do anything without getting something in return, because people don’t, either. So if I ruled the land, I’d use government and tax policy more creatively.

But I don’t rule the land, and I can’t have any more influence on the country than anyone else. So, I concentrate on doing what I can to make things better.

We have several things planned, including: We’re going to switch to more energy-efficient heating/cooling. We’ll replace vehicles with more fuel-efficient models (
Auckland has a terrible public transport system, so cars are necessary) when the opportunity arises. Next year, I’m going to grow more of our own vegetables in raised beds held with timbers made of recycled plastic (closing the loop in recyclables as well as meaning no need to treat or maintain the timbers with toxic chemicals). We’re also nearly finished replacing 31 ceiling light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. Eventually, we’ll put in a rain water collection tank, too.
So: What are you doing to help?

Friday, April 20, 2007

AmeriNZ Podcast #4 – Poppy Day

Episode four of my podcast is now available, and it's free no matter where you get it from. You can listen to it or download it through the player at the bottom of the post here, or subscribe for free through iTunes here (you must have the free iTunes player installed). You can also listen to it for free through the player on my MySpace page.

It's Poppy Day in New Zealand in preparation for Anzac Day. I talk about both and other things, like more on language, some “shout outs”, and heating homes in New Zealand. I did a pre-recorded thing about ANZAC Day at end, and the sound is a bit wonky. I'll get better.
Mentioned on this show:
Mike Hipp of PodcastSoup.net
JayT of JayT Online
Article on gay neighbours
17 degrees Celsius = 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit

Get AmeriNZ Podcast for free on iTunes

Pariah and damned

There is no more distrusted and disliked religious group in New Zealand than a secretive ultra-fundamentalist sect called “The Exclusive Brethren”. In the hard world of politics, they’ve been branded a cult and accused of intimidation and trying to secretly buy elections in which they don’t even vote.

The truth, as it always is, is somewhat more prosaic. To me, and a great many New Zealanders, their religious and political beliefs are extremist. But in a democracy, that normally only becomes an issue if someone uses or advocates violence to impose those beliefs on others.

In the case of this group, however, their spending at least $1.2 million dollars in a secret campaign to smear the Green and Labour Parties caused many to despise them and has led to calls to ban anonymous political campaigns. They launched their smear campaign because NZ laws require than money spent on behalf of a party must be included as part of the party’s total spending, and must be authorised by the party. The alternative is to campaign against the other parties, in which case the funds don’t have to be counted.

However, it became clear that senior National Party members, especially then-leader Don Brash, met with sect members several times, creating the appearance of collusion, even if there was no direct coordination or consultation (which is still a matter of dispute). This is one of the factors that led to National’s defeat in the last election and the fall of Brash.

Now the National Party has accused Prime Minister Helen Clark of “hypocrisy” claiming she’d met sect members in and asked for a policy statement. The Prime Minister denies ever meeting with sect members, but says she was accosted by aggressive sect members and increased her security as a result (sect members often sit in the public galleries in Parliament, glaring down, some Members say, at the proceedings below). The Prime Minister also says she was surrounded by a group of sect members at a public meeting and she then asked for a policy statement (presumably so she could get away from them). Her office said that she never had a scheduled meeting with the group.

So, did the Prime Minister meet with the group? Apparently not. Did National make it up? Possibly their source was somehow tied to the sect, but in any case, both the sect and National would have a vested interest in trying to make people believe that the Prime Minister had met sect members, too.

Here’s the thing: This is a democracy. While I personally find the sect’s beliefs repugnant and even creepy, they have a right to those beliefs. Under the Human Rights Act, no politician can refuse to meet with them just because he or she doesn’t like the sect’s brand of religion. If I was an MP and was asked for a meeting, they’d have the same opportunities as any other constituent; but I certainly would tell them in no uncertain terms where I disagreed with them and would not be supporting their positions.

The issue of the sect is a sideshow the main event: Outlawing anonymous and secret funding of election campaigns. The National Party benefits from millions of dollars in anonymous—but legal—donations every election. That is an affront to democracy. If people don’t want it to be known to have contributed more than $10,000 to a party, or that they’re not even New Zealanders, then why would the people even want them donating?

Clearly National would want the secret funding to continue, and the attack Labour for the support the party received from labour unions. But National is dishonest in attacking Labour for this. Such funding is in the open, above board and doesn’t hide huge contributions, as National’s reliance on anonymous donations to trusts does.

It’s time for reform of election funding and to end the influence of secretive, shadowy people peddling who knows what agenda. National should stop its little games and back reform—or won’t its secret supporters let it?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Money money money

I see belt-tightening ahead. That, and more imported goods. Oh, and travel to the US, too.

Experts are saying that the governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand is about to raise interest rates again. That’ll hit ordinary Kiwis one day without doing anything to achieve the main goal, controlling inflation.

The Reserve Bank is supposed to restrain inflation, and it’s only weapon is the discount rate, which determines the rates that ordinary people pay for their mortgages and businesses pay for their finance. However, most residential mortgages in New Zealand are fixed, so the rates for them won’t rise for up to a couple years.

It does plenty of damage, though.

First, it makes the value of the New Zealand dollar go up. Recently, the Kiwi dollar hit its highest point relative to the US dollar in the couple decades since it was floated. That means that imports become much cheaper, but our exports become much more expensive. That’s inflationary as people buy imported goods that are suddenly cheaper, but our exports are harder to sell, and that only makes matters worse. When the fixed-rate period of their mortgages ends, they’ll pay more each month.

On the bright side, the high Kiwi dollar—which is expected to hit 80-85 US cents—makes travel to the US much cheaper (not counting airfare) because our dollars go farther. And let’s face it: In the short run cheaper imports benefit ordinary people.

Much of the problem exists because New Zealanders invest in property. We’re “obsessed,” to hear the experts tell it. Duh! You’d have to be an idiot not to be. New Zealand has no capital gains tax, and many expenses are deductible from ordinary income. Other investments don’t carry that advantage.

Many of these “experts” lump people’s homes into the same category as rental properties, which they clearly are not. These “experts” try to convince ordinary people to invest in shares rather than property, even saying that people should rent their homes instead. Yeah, right. Most New Zealanders would say, “get stuffed”. Me too.

Oh well, this will probably mean cheaper consumer goods for us. I like that. And, it’ll also eventually mean higher mortgage payments. I don’t like that. Not that there’s anything I can do about either.

Tomorrow is Podcast Day, but in the meantime you can catch me on the latest AcherrRadio group show, AR434, here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Service interruption

And now for something much lighter. This morning, my partner discovered our Internet connection was down. I checked it during the morning, and still nothing.

Sometime after midday, I suddenly thought that I should re-boot our modem, and it worked: The Internet was back. So, I went to our ISP’s homepage to find out what the problem was. The website said:

Engineers know about this problem and are working to fix it as quickly as possible so you can get back online.

So I think to myself, if the Internet connection is disrupted, how would I read that? Later, they added:

Telecom has advised that cause of the issue is a faulty hardware in one of the exchanges, and that replacement will be dispatched shortly.

That was good, and later again they added:

Telecom advised that authentication issue should be fixed now. Please reboot your modem/router in 20min time.

I was only able to read any of this because I’d rebooted our modem, so I wondered what use the instruction was to someone who hadn’t already done so. It’s kind of like telling a blind person to read an instruction manual.

Yes, I know that someone could check the web from an unaffected area (assuming there were any), but that wasn’t possible for me. Not that there’s anything the ISP could do about that. I could’ve called them to find out what was up, but I suppose I didn’t care that much. After all, there was nothing I was working on that couldn’t wait.

Still, it felt very weird to be cut off from the world—no email, no web news, nothing I’m used to. Fortunately, this little reminder of my dependence on modern technology had no real consequences—this time.

Still, it could’ve been worse: The power could’ve been out. Then I wouldn’t have been able to use the computer at all, there’d have been no morning TV (or even lights), and worst of all, there would’ve been no coffee. No coffee! That’s simply unimaginable.

The next step

In the weeks ahead, before the public stops paying attention, there will be endless repeats of the videos from Virginia and endless discussion about what went wrong, how it could have happened and what can be done.

Much of the discussion will be absurdly simplistic, some of it extreme, and a bit will be horribly offensive. The discussion is important in itself, and it’s good for
America to enter into a dialogue about things like gun control.

But let’s be clear about one thing: If the killer hadn’t been able to get his handguns, those students would be alive today. The
United States is alone among the world’s developed nations in having such a rampant gun culture. No other developed nation makes it so easy to have guns and no other developed nation has the extreme problem that America has with gun violence.

Virginia killer followed all applicable gun laws in Virginia, and so did the dealers that sold him the guns and bullets he used on his murderous rampage. One of the gun shops sold 32 guns that were used to commit other crimes. Clearly existing laws offer zero protection to innocent people.

The question has been asked, can laws ever provide protection? Can America’s gun laws—even if the NRA didn’t exist—ever prevent future gun massacres? Clearly as written, they can’t, but neither can they be changed in a way that would provide protection because there’s no political will to do so. The NRA leads the right and far right in a messianic cult in which the gun has replaced the cross as their religious fetish object, and the great mass of Americans have bought into their world view: Gun laws can’t protect people.


Most developed countries have recognised that freedom to pack heat doesn’t equate with freedom in general and they restrict gun ownership to people with a legitimate reason for having one, like hunters, farmers and gun collectors. It’s really not that hard to figure out: Control access to guns and you reduce the opportunity to use guns to kill people.

There are also many issues beyond guns and gun control, issues swirling around what creates these mass killers. If we can work that out, then it might be possible one day to intervene before the “silicone chips inside their heads get switched to overload” (to borrow from the Boomtown Rats).

These two things—figuring out what makes people do such things and the need to control guns—are not mutually exclusive. In a perfect world, they’d happen at the same time. But this isn’t a perfect world, and the two can’t happen at the same time, or probably at all.

America tries to figure out what happens next, there’s one overarching reality: Without a dramatic change in culture, laws or both, such massacres will happen again and again. The alternative is to try a new approach, a bold new direction. The choice, and the next step, is up to Americans. For the sake of all the innocent victims—past, present and future—I hope they get it right.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Gun shame

Yet another mass shooting happens in America. The political extremes scream at each other and the mass of people between the two struggle to understand or take away some lessons.

But the most obvious lesson is always missed and dismissed: No one needs guns.

The right and far right in America have long perpetuated the lie that the US Constitution somehow gives people the right to carry concealed automatic weapons with armour-piercing bullets. Yes, I know most of them don’t actually say that, but it’s certainly a logical conclusion based on their rhetoric.

At a minimum, the right and far right claim that the Second Amendment to the Constitution gives people the right to have guns, including handguns (the amendment has, in fact, been used to try and justify people carrying concealed guns, owning automatic weapons or armour piercing bullets).

All the Second Amendment says is this:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

For 200 years people have been arguing about what that means: Does it mean anyone can own a gun, or does it mean guns are only to be held in connection with “a well regulated militia”? Citizen militias are now a part of history. Their descendents, state National Guards, are basically part-time armies; the need for ordinary people to instantly form amateur armies is long past.

Incredibly, some in America are claiming the answer to gun violence is escalation: More guns and more violence. Some of them will argue that if the students had been allowed to carry hidden guns, the mass killing wouldn’t have happened. Which, of course, raises the spectre of raging gun battles as armed people shoot blindly, unsure of who or what they’re aiming at.

CNN had commentary from Aaron Cohen, whom they described as a SWAT trainer. He argued that all police should have a higher tactical level, ready to swoop in without waiting for SWAT teams. This raises the spectre of police being SWAT teams, and SWAT teams becoming heavily armed armies.

Is it any wonder that America’s image in the world is one of a land filled with gun-toting maniacs?

Gun nuts don’t care about America’s image. They say that if people don’t have guns, the government will become a communist dictatorship in which rape of grandmothers and babies will be compulsory (or something equivalent). A person would have to be a complete idiot to buy that argument.

There are plenty of democratic countries in the world in which ordinary people can’t own guns or, at least, not easily. New Zealand is one of them. Handguns are virtually unknown here. Criminals sometimes use rifles, but improvised weapons (knives, clubs, whatever) are more usual. Obviously, a knife or sawn-off shotgun can kill a person, too, but a victim’s chances are better facing a knife or club than a handgun.

The New Zealand police don’t carry guns. There’s a special unit called the Armed Offenders Squad that turns out whenever there’s a criminal with a gun. In New Zealand, “Special Weapons” are guns.

Obviously, it is possible to live peacefully in a democracy without carrying hidden handguns, but Americans won’t be experiencing such a country. The gun nuts will make sure no gun control, no matter how mild, ever happens there. And more shootings will happen.

So, the tragedy today was not that 33 people died at Virginia Tech. It also wasn’t the inevitability that something like this would happen. The tragedy is that it will happen again. Tragedy? Maybe a better word would be shame.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Housekeeping Notes

It’s been a busy time over the past ten days or so, with four relatives staying with us at various times, a work project to complete, and two podcasts to record and post. It’s been a fun time, but it’s meant that I haven’t had time to talk about a few recent changes to this blog, so it’s time for a brief time-out to do that.

First, I’m trying to make it easy for people who are interested in my podcast to get to episodes quickly and easily, while still making it easy for blog readers to get at the content they want. So, I added the RSS feed from my podcast’s host site to the top right of this blog. If you want to get to the episodes, they’re just a click away.

I also added a Label, AmeriNZ Podcast, which groups together the shownotes for my podcasts and any other post where I talk about it (including this one). This was important because as I post new entries on the blog, older ones get pushed down and eventually disappear from the Index (main) page.

Which brings me to the subject of general posts. Obviously, I still post to this blog, but regular readers will have noticed that I’ve stopped posting on Saturdays,
New Zealand time. This is a bit of a compromise. Because we’re in the first time zone, I feel I need to allow at least 24 hours for people to easily access my show notes before they get pushed down by new blog entries. However, I’ll probably often do as I did last week and post more than once on some days. The net effect is that I’ll probably produce the same number of posts per week, there just won’t be one on New Zealand’s Saturday.

In addition to the feed for my podcast, I’ve also added a Frappr map. This is just a bit of fun, nothing more. It shows the people who’ve recently visited the blog and where they accessed it from (yes, I know it doesn’t fit well, but that’s due to the limitations of Blogger as much as anything else). Feel free to add a pin for yourself.

Speaking of social networking (which Frappr is a limited example of), I’ve come over to the dark side: I’m now also on MySpace. Yes, I know, I’m far too old to be part of it, but MySpace is the world’s largest social networking site, so it’s something podcasters are part of to build audiences. Actually, this is really huge: Roughly ten percent of all Internet users are registered with MySpace. If you’re so inclined, you can go to my still-new MySpace here. When I went to bed last night, I had no friends. This morning when I got up I had three.

I’ve also been revising my various links. Included in that is an expanded section of fellow American expats in New Zealand, with lengths of residency ranging from a few weeks to more than a year. For some reason, all the people I’ve linked to so far live in the
Wellington region, more or less. I think they offer interesting viewpoints from their varying lengths of time in New Zealand.

And finally, I also recently added a Bush “Days Left in Office” Countdown (found through the Jimmi Chronicles, though I picked a simpler version). This, too, is just for fun—and it somehow makes me feel better to actually see Bush’s time in office ticking down to zero. If only the clock would run faster—probably the only time in my life I’ve felt like that since primary school.

Update 8:50pm: The first person added a pin to my Frappr map (thanks!). One thing I forgot to say about it before is that if you have a blog or podcast you want to promote, adding a pin to my map is another way to do it. It's all a bit of fun, but no reason why you shouldn't get something out of it, too. Go for it.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A big pile of it

I couldn’t make this up if I tried: An Auckland company has proposed filling a quarried volcano with treated human waste. Once filled and shaped to mimic the original look of the cone, the area would be rehabilitated and turned into a regional park.

Watercare Services, owned by local governments in the Auckland region, proposed this as a way of dealing with the 61 tonnes of biosolids (cleaned, treated and dried human waste) produced each week at its Mangere treatment plant.

A vulcanologist with Auckland University has helpfully reassured Aucklanders that they’re unlikely to have “biosolids” raining down on them in the event of an eruption because the next one will almost definitely form a new volcano, rather than come from any existing one.

If this project goes ahead, it’ll probably be the first time that government has deliberately set out to create a big pile of shit.

Friday, April 13, 2007

AmeriNZ Podcast #3 - Gay in New Zealand

Episode three of my podcast is now available, and it's free no matter where you get it from. You can listen to it or download it through the player at the bottom of the post here, or subscribe for free through iTunes here (you must have the free iTunes player installed). You can also listen to it for free through the player on my MySpace page.
What's it like being gay in New Zealand? How do New Zealanders treat gay people? This episode I talk about both. Please leave a comment—anonymous comments are fine, if you want.
This episode, like last week, was a bit rushed (relatives were about to arrive). Sometimes, life happens. Apologies, too, for getting the show notes up so late; Blogger was down (again) when I was ready to post.
Music: Love Who You Are (Radio Edit) HERO (c) 2000 Universal Music NZ Ltd.
Some relevant links from this episode:
Rainbow Labour (GLBT caucus of Labour Party MPs)
ArcherRadio. I was on the group show again this week. Just between us, I love taking part in the group shows. Listen to Archerr’s show, then please leave a comment on Archerr’s site.

Get AmeriNZ Podcast for free on iTunes

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Call me loyal

Okay, here’s a topic that’s not political. Well, not much, anyway.

Today I got a letter from a chemist chain I go to telling me they’re introducing a new loyalty scheme. I’ll be getting more information about that soon, along with a pretty new card with flowers on it. Add it to the list.

Loyalty schemes all work the same basic way, giving people points for money they spend in one or more participating stores. The more money people spend, the more points they get, points they can redeem for vouchers, products or services, depending on the plan. Essentially, the plans play on people’s low-level greed in which we all want to get a “good deal” or, even better, something for nothing.

There’s no such thing as “something for nothing”, of course, and the catch in these schemes is that to work they record every transaction you make: The dollar amount, what you buy, how often you buy, where you shop—it all gets stored in their computers.

The chemist is adding me to their scheme because I’m in their “Contact Lens Club”, where every time I make a purchase of solutions and stuff, it’s recorded. Once it hits $100, I get a $10 store voucher. Essentially, a 10% discount, which is not insignificant, considering the constant expense of contact lens supplies.

But I also have a multi-store loyalty card, one for a paint store, another for a book store, still another for a grocery store chain, and one for a record store. Plus, our credit card gives us points, too. I don’t use all these stores all the time (or even often, necessarily) and when I do I don’t always use the loyalty card. This isn’t because of the complexity of so many schemes to keep track of (though that doesn’t help), but also because I’m uneasy about someone keeping track of all my purchases.

Call me paranoid if you want, but I don’t like the idea of anyone knowing that much about me. Hell, it’s more than I know about me!

There are some perfectly respectable, non-hysterical people who argue that we should resist things like loyalty schemes, anti-crime cameras and leaving our mobile phones on all the time because collectively they’re turning us into a surveillance society.

Alarmist? Consider this: The United Kingdom has twenty percent of all closed-circuit TV cameras in use in the entire world, one for every 12 people. There, the average person is caught on CCTV 300 times a day. Now the
UK is trialling loudspeakers with some cameras so they can tell off someone who’s dropped a wrapper or whatever.

Do we really need to be watched so closely? Do we really need anyone to know so much out us, where we go, what we do, what we buy and how often we do any of these things? I’m having real second thoughts about participating in any of these programmes anymore.

But first, I have a few points to redeem and, oh! I think I’m almost to my next $10 voucher at the chemist…

New Zealand works

At 3.7 percent, New Zealand’s unemployment is one of the lowest rates in the developed world. Employers repeatedly complain about the shortage of skilled workers in almost every industry, giving job seekers much more choice and flexibility in obtaining work.

So it should be no surprise that the number of people on the unemployment benefit has dropped to the lowest level in 37 years, according to figures released by the government.

The number of people receiving the unemployment benefit has declined 34 percent since Labour became government in 1999. Overall, there were 401,415 working-age people receiving some sort of benefit back then. Today there are only 265,747.

The number of Maori receiving unemployment benefits has dropped below 10,000 for the first time in many years. When Labour came to power, there were 44,000 Maori on the unemployment roll; now there are only 9,902.

The number of people receiving a sickness or invalid benefit remains a worry. Both numbers have increased (4% and 3% respectively). The government says that the rate of increase is slowing, but it will be a potential weak point for Labour in the next election if they don’t start to bring these numbers down, too.

Predictably, the Opposition seized on these last two figures in their attempt to discredit the Government (which is what Oppositions do). A few weeks ago, Opposition Leader John Key claimed there was a growing underclass in New Zealand. That claim wasn’t supported by these welfare statistics. However, this morning on TVNZ’s Breakfast, the party’s welfare spokesperson tried to put a new spin on it, saying “I think what John was saying…” (whenever a sentence begins that way, you know a politician is going to try and reinvent what was actually said). She claimed that there are “pockets” where an underclass is growing, and that’s probably true—just as it is in any developed country.

Still, the overall picture is a good one: More people working and fewer people on benefits. Isn’t that what every country wants?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Health strike

A 48-hour strike by hospital lab workers and blood service workers has forced hospitals to cancel surgeries. This is a bigger deal than it sounds, due to the structure of the healthcare system in New Zealand.

Under the national health scheme in
New Zealand (and similar programmes in other countries), care like surgery is free, but people go onto waiting lists. A person’s placement on the list is determined by a number of factors, including how critical their condition is, their age and general health, and other factors. The problem with having a surgery cancelled is that it has to be re-scheduled, and that can mean being reassessed and placed back on the list in a different part of the queue.

This is the drawback of nationalised healthcare systems: There’s never enough money to treat everyone immediately, so healthcare is inevitably rationed, with care going first to the sickest, those most likely to benefit, and those who are still in their most productive earning years.

However, in my view, that drawback is trumped by one simple fact: Everyone is entitled to healthcare and will get the procedures they need. There’s no need for private health insurance, and a health problem will never bankrupt anyone.

Contrast that with the totally private system in
America, where tens of millions of people have no health insurance and millions more face bankruptcy if they develop a serious health condition. And consider, too, that America’s healthcare is increasingly rationed by HMOs and other group medical plans, so many Americans face rationed healthcare that they can’t afford.

Accidents in
New Zealand are covered under a different scheme, and no one has to worry about getting emergency treatment if they’re injured. Care for injuries in car accidents is paid for, in part, by a levy on car insurance; care for workplace or general injuries comes from a levy on wages (similar to worker’s comp in the US).

The important consideration for Americans as they push for some sort of national health scheme, is which is more important: Universality or speed of access to medical procedures; the more you have of one, the less of the other. But
America is a very rich country, and if any country could figure out a way to have both, they’re it.

America, the main obstacle is the entrenched medical industry—for-profit hospitals, medical practices and drug companies. Without those barriers, New Zealand can make sure healthcare is universal which, to me, is the most important thing. American insurance companies are pushing for universality, but with a system they control.

It’s worth noting another difference: Huge numbers of prescription drugs are subsidised so the patient doesn’t pay the full cost. This is accomplished by having a central purchasing authority, which is something that the big pharmaceutical companies absolutely hate. In fact, it’s considered one of the main obstacles to a NZ-US free trade deal because for us it’s non-negotiable, but big
US companies demand that it be scrapped.

Healthcare in
New Zealand is available to all citizens and permanent residents (temporary residents—tourists and those here on limited work permits/visas—need private insurance). Dental care isn’t included at the moment, and that can be very expensive. Doctor visits are subsidised for growing numbers of people. Still, knowing that everything else is taken care of makes even these costs easier to deal with.

So, this strike will make things difficult for the patients affected. But at least the cost of their care won’t make them sicker.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The outlook for tomorrow

More droughts and more flooding. Warmer nights, but longer winters. Those are some of the expected outcomes for New Zealand from climate change in the years ahead, according to a UN report released today. Some areas of the country will have water shortages, increasing the likelihood of bush and forest fires, while some coastal areas will face increasing damage from storm surges.

In the short run, there may be some benefits, such as longer growing seasons for some parts of the country. Longer term, it’s another matter.

The government is taking steps toward making New Zealand carbon-neutral and sustainable, but the opposition claims that New Zealand emissions are growing faster than America’s:
This 6.8% growth [in greenhouse gasses] for New Zealand…compares to growth of 1.3% in the United States, 5% in Australia and a drop of 1% in the United Kingdom.
Now here’s the extraordinary thing about all this: BOTH of New Zealand’s largest parties are pledged to fighting climate change—on both the centre-left and centre-right. Most of the smaller parties are similarly pledged to the fight, which means that a clear and huge majority backs action. The problem is they don’t agree on the direction that change should take, nor how it should be accomplished.

And so, the dire predictions, which are likely to come true. As a wealthy nation, New Zealand is better able to prepare for climate changes than are Pacific Island nations who could be devastated by changes in climate, especially more frequent and more severe storms.

If only the politicians had reached their consensus decades ago, maybe the need to adapt would never have arisen. But it’s in the nature of humans, I guess, to ignore problems as long as possible. Be that as it may, at least New Zealand politicians are moving in the right direction, but there may still be stormy weather ahead.

This can’t be good

This can’t be good: Iran announces that they’re dramatically increasing uranium enrichment, and threaten darkly about pursing nuclear weapons if the West doesn’t back off (okay, I’m paraphrasing freely). That could help provide the specific excuse that Bush will use as provocation for his attack on Iran.

It’s probably inevitable that Bush will attack. He and the neo-conservatives who run his administration have been planning an attack since before they took power, and Iran’s pursuit of things nuclear provided a veneer of practicality for planning an attack they were probably planning in any case.

While Iran’s petulance doesn’t help, there’s probably nothing that will stay Bush’s hand. He’s expressed his contempt for Congressional oversight and, by extension, the Constitution. His ardent determination to continue with escalating his Iraq war shows that he also has contempt for the will of the American people.

So, if Bush and his controllers feel they’re above the law (US or international), and Congress is unable or unwilling to use their oversight responsibilities to control a runaway presidency, it seems to me there’s nothing and no one that can stop the Bushies from their plan to attack Iran.

Increasingly heated rhetoric culminating in ultimatums that can’t be met will mean the attack is imminent. I wonder if this time the mainstream news media will be a little more sceptical of what the Bushies say about their target. I hope the media have learned their lesson from Bush’s Iraq war that, as the old saying goes, truth is the first casualty of war.

Put it all together: This can’t be good.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Four day holiday

Today is Easter Sunday. Okay, well, that’s about all I can say about that.

The fact is, Easter is a day that has diminishing importance to New Zealanders—except as part of a long holiday weekend. This is New
Zealand’s four-day weekend, similar to America’s Thanksgiving (except that many in America work on the day after Thanksgiving).

New Zealand, both Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays. They’re really the last of the year, seasonally speaking, because we’re in autumn now, with the days becoming shorter and the nights cooler. We’re also entering a period with a dearth of pubic holidays.

The next holiday is ANZAC Day on April 25 (which I’ll talk about in more detail on the day), and then nothing until Queen’s Birthday on June 4. The dry spell between national public holidays after that is very long, ending with Labour Day on October 22—roughly four and a half months after Queen’s Birthday.

So, it’s easy to see why Kiwis value the four-day Easter weekend holiday so much, even if the religious significance has largely passed.

It’s been many, many years since I last cared about Easter’s religious overtones. I don’t even normally get into the whole chocolate eggs and bunnies thing (he says, ignoring that he bought his man some white chocolate Easter eggs…).

There’s a trading ban on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, meaning most shops (with some exceptions) must be closed. This, apparently, is hard for average Kiwis to deal with: Area shopping malls were packed yesterday as people picked up all the things they couldn’t get on Friday (including me: I forgot to pick up cat food on Thursday). This increased activity was definitely noticeable, despite the fact that many people leave town for the long weekend (motorists are being warned to allow a lot of time for heavy traffic when they come home tomorrow).

Tomorrow is a normal trading day, though a public holiday. Some shops will be closed, like on a Sunday, but others will be open (and probably packed). Many caf├ęs and restaurants will add a “holiday surcharge” to bills because the government recently changed the rules to make sure that their staff receive fair pay when working a public holiday. I realise that many restaurants operate on very thin profit margins, but I think that some use the surcharge as a way to boost profits, ignoring that they also see a rise in business on public holidays which would more than cover the costs. Interestingly, not only does McDonald’s not charge a surcharge, they also advertise that fact.

And that’s a bit of a look at Easter in
New Zealand. The weather has been brilliant, not too warm, but with lovely sunny, mostly clear skies. It’s been what’s called “fine weather”, which means weather that’s clear and without rain (though that certainly meets my definition of nice weather). Anyway, if the weather were like this year round, we’d have to fight off all the people wanting to settle here.

It’s been a busy few days: Relatives visiting, a big work project to complete, a new podcast to do—it all added up. But tomorrow’s the last day of the holiday weekend, after which it’s back to normal (so-called). In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy what’s left of this holiday.

Have some chocolate eggs for me, won’t you?

Friday, April 06, 2007

AmeriNZ Podcast #2 – Two too

AmeriNZ Podcast #2 is now available, and it's free no matter where you get it from. You can listen to it or download it through the player at the bottom of the post here, or subscribe for free through iTunes here (you must have the free iTunes player installed). You can also listen to it for free through the player on my MySpace page.

Thanks to everyone who downloaded my first podcast—I really appreciate it! Special thanks to those of you who gave me feedback, either through comments here or by email.
This week, it’s a holiday-cast, recorded on a public holiday. The Easter holidays are way different in New Zealand. Shop trading hours are a major one.
Breakfast interview with Ali Clarke, author of Holiday Seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in Nineteenth Century New Zealand (Auckland University Press, ISBN 9781869403829). Waikato Times review of the book.
I talk about things that Americans notice, along with some language differences. Do I have an accent? “How to Speak Kiwi” from Kia Ora… Bitches!, the blog of another expat American.
New Zealand National Anthem info is here. My first podcast show notes are here.
A big thank you to these people who’ve been particularly encouraging and supportive:
Kalvin of Hello Waffles (the midwife to my podcast)
Mike Hipp of PodcastSoup.net
Andrew of iSay iSay iSay

Get AmeriNZ Podcast for free on iTunes

Thursday, April 05, 2007

New podcast tomorrow

Things have been really hectic today. It happens.

I'll be recording and posting a new podcast tomorrow. In the meantime, you may want to catch me on Archerr's group show, AR424, which you can download here.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Subscribe via iTunes

You can now subscribe to my podcast directly through iTunes. If you already have iTunes installed, simply click here to subscribe. The next episode is only hours away, so go ahead and subscribe now—and thanks!

Numbers and opportunity

Nineteenth Century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli famously said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I think about that every time I see some new survey or study.

I remember a time when, as a school project, a friend and I conducted a poll of our fellow students on the presidential election of the day (we would have been about 13). When I counted the results, if I had any doubt I’d count it the way I wanted the results to go. For all we know, others have done essentially the same thing in the real world.

So the recent release of some completely separate sets of statistics about
New Zealand makes me treat them with some suspicion. However, taken together, I think they form a picture that’s at least worth thinking about.

The first was research from Statistics New Zealand, and reported today by the New Zealand Herald. The study shows the continuing concentration of wealth in fewer hands. According to the article, 52% of the country’s wealth is owned by the richest 10% of the population. The bottom 50% of the population own 5% of the country’s wealth. At the topmost end of the scale, the top five percent own 38% and the top one percent own 16%.

Calling the figures “typical of developed countries,” Andrea Blackburn, manager of Statistics NZ's standard of living unit, pointed out that the inequality of wealth is similar to
Canada, but still not as unequal as the US.

A nineteenth century liberal or modern neo-conservative would find nothing wrong with this, believing it shows a sort of Calvinist divine reward. But statistics like this don’t—and can’t—show why the inequality exists, nor the structural and social barriers to equality of opportunity that prevent more equalised distribution of wealth.

Which brings up another study. Radio
New Zealand* reported that the Ministry of Justice released a survey of 5500 people’s experience of crime. Conducted in 2005, the study shows that 51% of crime affects just 6% of the population—people in the lower socio-economic groups. So you have people who are already poor being kept there, in part, by crime directed at them.

I’m all over the map on this whole thing. First and foremost, I want the government to make education one if its main priorities so that we have the best in the world. You’d be hard pressed to find many Kiwis (apart from neocons) who’d be against that. But I’d also like to see the government offer tax breaks to encourage parents to save for their children’s further education (university, tech, apprenticeship, whatever) so that students won’t need so many loans. And, I’d also like to see the government encourage business investment and development in
New Zealand by making growing economic opportunities here the priority, not helping foreign owners ship their profits overseas.

The government has a moral duty, in my opinion, not to just stop the lowest classes from drowning, but to work to try and lift them up. I believe that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” but first you need to get everyone into a boat. Otherwise they—and their relative wealth—will continue to sink.

*Radio New Zealand never keeps stories very long, so I don’t link to the specific story. For the latest headlines, go here.