Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wishful Thinking

Everyone says the end is nigh for the ACT Party...

NZ Herald:



Oh yes, ACT is the party that the media and the pundits just love to hate. It seems they're almost obsessed to try and find any fault in the party, whether real or fictional, and use it to back up their claim that the party is at the edge of oblivion. Just about every mainstream outlet is condemning ACT, Brash, Banks, and anyone else involved, wondering why the party is even bothering with the election this year. It seems as if the more they keep chanting 'It's over for ACT," one day their wish might just come true.

ACT appears to be polling low, but the results on iPredict and other sources show that we're still outpolling New Zealand First, will still have 5 seats in parliament, and will keep the Epsom electorate. While they think polls have dropped, we're still doing reasonably well, and with the word out on cannabis decriminalization, they may even improve. 

Public support has been reasonably good for the cannabis stance (not yet policy), though all current politicians have condemned it. I find it odd that the media has ridiculed ACT for taking the bold step, while I doubt they'd give the same fanfare if the Greens announced a similar policy. The Greens have been getting pro-cannabis supporter votes for years despite having no cannabis policy, a waste of votes really, especially now ACT is the most progressive on this issue.

The media wants to play up that the party is divided over the issue, a rift between our two 'stars' party leader Don Brash and candidate for Epsom John Banks. While the two disagree on the topic, there is no policy yet and therefore nothing to disagree with while working together. They're still adamant that they're good friends and this does nothing to change them. The majority of the ACT caucus supports Dr Brash's stance, but those that do not are not condemned for it. ACT is unique in that we have no party whip and we encourage our MPs to make up their own minds on the issue; if a bill to decriminalize cannabis did get around, John Banks would not be required to support it. We do not need a party whip because we support individual's thinking, and we are more united than other parties in ideology that we do not need to be told how to vote. 

Don Brash has already told the media that we have a strong line up this year, something the majority of ACT on Campus agrees with too. There is no internal squabbling or tension, there is no dropping polls, no leadership battles, and no wacky policies. The media has got nothing worth reporting on us, but since we're the party they love to hate, I admit -  I'm surprised at how much they can fabricate news. 

Education About Sex Education

Anyone familiar with this article?

"Readers up in arms over sex education"

This has generated a decent storm on their website, after publishing a story about a father removing his child from sex education at school over material he thought was inappropriate. The public have responded fiercely, with the NZ Herald saying "More than 70 per cent of 13,550 Herald readers in an online poll said it was inappropriate for 12-year-olds to be learning in class about oral sex."

Yet again, a misinformed public getting upset over poor journalism and sensationalism; thus I will not give it too much thought. The interesting part to it was the follow up story that added fuel to the flame about a girl that is now pregnant under the headline "I learned all about it in class." What a load of shit! Anyone that reads the article will see that she said "I didn't wind up pregnant because I didn't attend a class […] It was purely the fact that I was drunk, it was New Year's, and some older male thought it would be fabulous to take advantage of me." The headline is highly misleading since her personal story had nothing to do with sex education, hence being misinformation added to the topic. To support the case for sex education, she even added "I believed upon the facts and myths of someone older than me claiming the withdrawal method worked." 

It seems that there is no regard for the importance of safe sex and the onus of consent. While it is inevitable that girls and boys will inevitably want to touch the other's (or same's) genitals, the requirement of consent I cannot stress enough is important. The difference between yes or no is the difference between rape and consensual sex, even at 14, it is the difference between underage sex and a charge of rape. The importance of safe sex and differentiating myths and playground rumors from facts is also crucial, the message of condoms and contraceptives should only be stronger if this girl is an example that people can still be influenced away from sensible decisions.

The follow up story looks at the case in more detail, saying "Her opinion contradicts the international research," or in other words, trusting the opinion of a young teenager over extensive research the world over. It examines interesting cases where a teacher apparently made orgasm noises and other peculiar incidents. None of them particularly harmful, nor are they curriculum, nor appropriate; but it seems enough to want New Zealand Herald readers to criticize the sex education program. The ERO report (parents' best friend, not the teacher or the school) says that at age 12, the topic is the human body, with actual sex education coming at a later age - something I can back up as a student of this system. Our school did not do the part of "applying condoms to plastic penises" until Year 10, or age 14-15, which is age appropriate. Remember, the legal age of consent is 16 in New Zealand, while many countries it is younger. We certainly would rather do this sooner rather than later, better safe sex than sorry with STDs and AIDS. 

While parents will be shocked by the idea their teenagers may be having sexual relations and the conservative puritans may be shocked anyone is having sex, the key here is to minimize the risk as much as possible. Abstinence does not work, look at any figures from the United States, where schools that preach abstinence over safe sex have more issues than the rest. The humanitarian work going on in places with high birth rates are working desperately to push a safe sex message to minimize health risks, hampered by the abstinence messages. 

These days, sexual relationships and activity is quite normal amongst teenagers, and most have the brains and the information equipped to make rational decisions. Another case where New Zealanders do not teach young people to make rational decisions, prevent them from taking any risk, and cotton wool their kids so they hit reality too hard when they are adults. Again, this is another case where parents are blaming society for their kids turning out funny, where they have failed their jobs as parents and used society as a dumping ground to raise their kids for them. The time a child spends with their parents is far more than they spend at school, thus if they would like to see their child see things differently, the responsibility is theirs to teach their children. Education needs to be concentrating on young people making calculated risks, rational decisions, and thinking independently. As for the parents, they need to be educated to take the New Zealand Herald less seriously... 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Student Protests

Today (26/09/2011) I visited the rally for the "Nationwide Day of Student Action" that took place at the AUSA (Auckland University Student Association) quad at the University of Auckland, one of the protests occurring simultaneous with other universities. They had advertised this event with posters and messages everywhere. I had heard of it as early as Thursday 22nd September at a university Amensty International debate, where university lecturer Mohsen Al-Attar (LLM, PhD candidate) had hijacked the debate moot and turned his speech into a promotion for the protest. The next day (Friday) I went to class and asked my tutor Vernon Tava (LLM, Green candidate for Northcote) about the protest, and I thought it was a good idea to have a look at what it was about.

I must state, I was there to observe and learn, I wasn't there to hinder the protest in any way, whether I agreed with it or not.

At 1PM in the AUSA quad, many faces were present in the audience, Vernon Tava, Mohsen Al-Attar, Jacinda Ardern (Labour list, candidate for Auckland Central), Nicky Hager, leaders of AUSA, the socialists and about 300 protestors. As much as I would like to say students,there were a large number of non students, including supporters of the Mana party. Ardern said that her opponents Nikki Kaye (National, Auckland Central MP seeking reelection) and David Seymour (ACT list candidate and Auckland Central candidate) were invited, but were not present. This is clearly not my typical crowd, and I kept a low profile since I knew ACT and like-minded capitalists were in their crosshairs.

The speakers were clear to blame ACT and National, they saw a political reorientation and an ideological attack on students, with Green supporters quick to add they were against VSM (Voluntary Student Membership, a bill proposed by ACT). They also mentioned that students were in a state of disunity, with Al-Attar mentioning that students are quick to assume identities associated with "Young Greens, Young Nats, ACT on Campus" and other identities, that the government saw as a weakness, adding that we should set aside these differences to unite under the banner of students. The speakers also seemed to imply that they had the full support of the student body, with the entire audience cheering everything said. The general targets of all the talk were University of Auckland vice-chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon, the ACT Party, the National Party, supporters of VSM, the New Zealand Police, university administration, older generations that benefited from free education, and even themselves.

The question that has been missed here is - what are they protesting?

One of the main reasons I went along was actually to see what it was people were against. What I found is that the 300+ people gathered were not united by any one reason or goal; everyone was there for different reasons, all of which they were unhappy about. I found a two-sided flyer that advertised the protest for two different causes. 

The summary of the obverse side was a rally to "Defend the right to protest," on the basis that security had cracked down on students during a human rights protest. The reverse side was a "We are the university" protest that opposes VSM, opposes Stuart McCutcheon, and marks solidarity with Victoria University of Wellington as well as Greek and Chilean student grievances. 

This is what annoyed me about the protest, while I shall stand neutral on the various individual points they protested against; the fact is they gathered up numbers for more than one cause and protested with no real direction. Their causes were:
  • VSM
  • Stuart McCutcheon
  • Right to dissent
  • Academic freedom
  • University working conditions
  • Intergenerational equity
  • Solidarity with other students (VUW, Greece, Chile)
  • Free education
  • Abolition of student loans
  • Universal student allowance
  • Lack of employment following graduation
  • Freezes on increasing education costs

Despite the wide range of causes, their actions were to rally and create signs in the quad, then to the administration buildings on Princes Street, then circling the Clock Tower, and then to occupy the Owen Glen building. None of their actions were necessarily consistent with their motives, as much of the anger was directed towards the government, but the action was taken to the university. Rather than marking solidarity with students elsewhere, the protestors were all about a "battle," a "fight" or to "rise up." The news stories also say they refused to speak directly to McCutcheon, despite being another main cause!

I spoke with Mohsen Al-Attar on Princes Street, and honestly introduced myself as a member of the ACT Party. He wasn't offended, fortunately. I asked him about the protest and it's motives, and he tried to draw my attention to issues that would concern me, such as human rights and free speech at the university, along with frustration of the government for not doing enough to improve the job market. This to me implied that the protest had no certain goal, the idea seemed to be to gather as many students unhappy with something and use the numbers gathered to further any of these motives.

Why is it that student protests are always a phenomena of left-wing causes? Not to say that there weren't elements of those protests I agree with, but the overwhelming crowd was leftist, and trying to push a mostly left wing agenda. Also not trying to be a left-basher or alarmist, but the key evidence was that there were no means to try and find a united way forward in any solutions; there was no push to open dialogue with the current government about alleviating student debt or negotiate fees with McCutcheon. Instead, the protestors were simply intent on protesting, often did I hear people in the crowd asking what was going on to be replied with "just follow the megaphone" and the like. The push to "fight" and "rise up" in the "battle" was even likened to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, which is hardly a fair comparison given the Egyptian situation. It is events like this that give VSM more reason, as students are represented in a way that does not truly reflect the will of the student body.

It is hard to acknowledge the validity of the protest when there is no cause, only a will to protest. Not to discredit the effort these people have put in, only to recommend that they are clear on their goals and intentions, keep an open mind, and to maximize dialogue to achieve their goals. Rather than trying to 'fight the power' in an 'us versus them' situation, it is better to use the democratic system to change things from the inside-out, knowing that it is harder from to change things from the outside-in.

External links:


Friday, September 2, 2011

Makin' Minimum Wage

As the election draws nearer, one of the typical cards is being debated - minimum wage. Not a topic we're not use to seeing, but in an election where the focus is on growing and improving our economy, it's interesting to see what the arguments for against minimum wage changes are.

The left (Labour, Greens, NZF) says:
"That's not enough money for them to live on, we've got to give them a living wage." Phil Goff (Labour)

The right (National, ACT) says:
"If you mandate a minimum of $9 an hour, that guy has to go back home and watch TV at $4.50 an hour [on a benefit]. You've got to ask yourself if that is a sensible thing to do." Dr Don Brash (ACT) 

A minimum wage is the lowest price a person can legally buy and sell labor for. Minimum wage is a concept subjected to heavy debates amongst economists over its efficiency and practicality, while politicians take an opinion that favors their party line from whichever economist works in their favor. Much of the economic debate is placed on convention and circumstance of minimum wage cases, so to see what the politicians think they're doing, I'll break down the systems.

Situation of NZ Economy

The left says:
The Government's "tax swindle" had widened the take home pay gap between someone on $30,000 and someone on $150,000 by "a massive $135 a week" without stimulating the economy. Helen Kelly
"If you want stimulation, give the money to the people who don't have enough to spend, rather than giving it to people at the top who will put it aside and won't be out there spending it and generating demand for goods and services." Phil Goff

The right says:
The youth unemployment rate - 27.6 per cent for those aged 15 to 19 - is a "scandal". Dr Don Brash 
"I don't want to see an underclass of any colour. I don't want to see any children of any race living below the poverty line. " Dr Don Brash

The common goals are a stronger and more dynamic economy with people that are earning enough to live comfortably without the need for government assistance. Fantastic, I simply couldn't agree more! But like everything in politics, we might have similar goals, but the war begins when we try to figure out how to get there. The right, taking classical liberal economic theory would argue the textbook answer that every economist knows - that a minimum wage creates unemployment as the demand for labor decreases and the supply of labor increases on top of that. This theory in its intrinsic form is agreed upon by 90% of economists (ref American Economic Review,1978)  and would be clearly ridiculous and naïve to implement. 

The socialist camps on the left cling to the theory that it gives the lowest income earners better, and some economists show this does have some merits, such as forcing people to work harder for their wage and gives low income earners more to spend which boosts consumption. Green Party leader Metiria Turei has the most convincing argument for the $15 minimum wage, pointing out that "It would bring us more in line with Australia, where the minimum wage is A$15, just over $20, and actually advance the Government's abandoned goal of `catching up with Australia'," and that (assuming employers will create more jobs paying this much) it will reduce the number of people on welfare. 

The other side of the coin that most parties are offering is training, which I personally think is crucial. The argument that the minimum wage is not a living wage is ridiculous. Of course it's not, it's not really supposed to be! Someone washing dishes on minimum wage and expected to feed a family of four is in a different economic circumstance called underemployment. Washing dishes is a totally unskilled casual job for people wanting peanuts for wages. The fact that this is occurring points to another economic problem, which is where training becomes important, helping people create a career path that leads to better jobs. So is there any way to get all the benefits without the negatives? Economics is still debating this, and it does depend on case.

How I See It Happening:

Minimum wage system sets new price at $15 (Labour, Greens)
To be honest, my gut feeling is that a whole bunch of people won't become jobless in one hit, what I would expect to see is the currently unemployed finding it extremely hard to find jobs, while the present workforce is slowly whittled down as employers demand increased productivity to justify paying teams of people more. Unemployment on the whole would go up slowly for 12-18 months before economic growth may justify hiring some more people, assuming we can support the swelling unemployed population on the current welfare system. Tax take would be reasonably level under Labour's tax-free bracket and spending would increase due to higher pay of minimum wage earners, but this does not increase savings and would be only temporary until inflation catches up to the extra money.

Minimum wage system dismantled (Classical economists, far-right economists)
As much as I favor dropping the minimum wage and loathe being thought of as far right, the scheme in New Zealand probably won't work in our favor. Unemployment would plummet like a brick as new jobs are created by businesses taking advantage of the opportunity to buy up labor at low costs, youth unemployment especially. The jobs being created would be far more informal and have less responsibility but wouldn't pay for families to cover costs, leaving these jobs to be snapped up by those who do not need the employment, ensuring families stay on the benefit while teenagers living with their well-off parents get jobs.

Status quo (National)
While I am well aware that the National party's re-election campaign is to leave the situation unabated, the minimum wage scheme basically will be. Instead they want to focus on training and direct support, which is an idea that sounds good to me, but won't get everyone in work and certainly not fast enough. Unemployment is created when there aren't enough jobs available to employ the whole population, thus, it does nothing to create jobs to put people in. Training is great in that it ensures people do not simply upgrade their status from 'unemployed' to 'on minimum wage,' and begins people on a career path that will see the above minimum wage after some time. 

Minimum wages kept steady, with younger people on new minimum wage (ACT, National)
Don Brash is supporting Sir Roger Douglas' bill in Parliament to reintroduce 'youth rates' for younger members of the workforce, to 'ensure a foot on the ladder,' in other words, give young people the jobs they can work in and let them climb the wage ladder naturally. Of course this is appealing to a libertarian thinker like myself, only that it presents the problem of discriminating older and younger workers. Technically this means a 17 year old and a 25 year old can work the same jobs for two different rates, even if both are equally capable and productive. This will drop the youth unemployment rate dramatically but will slightly increase the adult unemployment rate, leaving those who need work the most without it, and employing people who should really be in education of some sort.

Minimum Wage & I

My own experience with work began at 16, not because that was when the minimum wage kicked in, but because that was the age I felt ready to start working and earning pocket money, noting that I was still in school at the time. I started out on a couple of minimum wage shit kitchen jobs in the community, working for about $12 at the time. Every few months there would be a news story where someone demanded the minimum wage increased again, only for me to think that it wasn't going to make much difference really. Over one summer, I got an office job at a local law firm doing some office hand stuff, like sorting files, which was basically full time over the holidays and paid above minimum wage. I have to admit, being kept in an air-conditioned office sorting  paper while everyone else was on holiday in 32ºC weather would've been really demoralizing without the nice pay, which let me save enough to make repairs on my drum kit and upgrade my guitar, even a new MP3 player. After that, I got another job which was on minimum wage, but I really enjoyed it. At this point, the government put the minimum wage up to $13 and I thought "right, this is getting to the point where they won't be able to afford to keep me here." With minimum wage laws, it is illegal to sign a contract agreeing to less than minimum wage, even if I did want to keep my job. 

My Turn

While I would eventually (idealistically) see the death of minimum wage itself. The solution I propose is an interim 'first step' from the current situation that I think will get New Zealand sorted. 
  • No immediate change to the minimum wage price, but will be available to change upon another review in the near future.
  • Large focus on training, helping young unemployed into training or education (which there is plenty available for young people if they choose to seek it), while helping older unemployed people up skill to make them more competitive in the job market.
  • Increase the age of eligibility to 18, the age of majority. This allows young people seeking pocket money to do 'bugger all' work for 'bugger all money.' This gives young people an easy an accessible entry into the workforce, and covers the idea that young people want to 'muck around on the job.' Obviously this is means that young people working hard can be paid more for their work as they become more valuable to their employers. The eligibility for adult minimum wage would take effect when a new contract for work is signed at the age of 18, meaning a contract from an earlier age can stay in force until it is renegotiated. This system also ensures that teenagers and adults are not competing for the same work, as the level of responsibility is justified with level of pay, as this will create a large swathe of low-paying low-vaue jobs that employers can create for convenience, while creating work for teenagers seeking extra money.
  • Adopting Labour's idea of an income tax-free bracket for the first few thousand of one's income, such as $15000, which would see many low income workers fall below this threshold and be completely free of income tax. A flat tax system would occur after this level. Both features encourage hard work and create incentive to work more, be it harder or for longer, as they would generate consistently more money rather than marginally less as they work marginally more.

The effects would be small productivity increases, a large creation of jobs for young people, training and up skilling of the unemployed to give them better jobs in the future, minimum wage changes in response to economic - rather than political - conditions, decreases underemployment by finding real jobs for those needing real incomes and equips people with the skills they need for moving up the career ladder. The focus of the government after that point would be the creation of high-value high-skilled jobs for people to move into, decreasing the number of people on low-incomes and addressing the issue of underemployment.

There is no one answer in this as to which political party to vote for in terms of changing the minimum wage, so far I am not entirely convinced on anyone's minimum wage policies so the question, of course, comes back to you. The point is that no party will promise everything they think they would, the solution is actually a mix of a few things, plus a some no one has proposed because it seems the major parties have missed a few factors. Unemployment and underemployment are different problems requiring different solutions. Fix both and watch the economy take off like a Concorde.