Monday, April 14, 2014

The politics of Jesus (Monday 14 April 2014)

I really like what I see of our NZ Prime Minister John and his wife Bronagh Key. They seem extraordinarily pleasant, open, transparent people with the best interests of New Zealanders at heart. If you have time watch this lovely interview by John Campbell as he meets and eats with the Keys as part of a series on our political leaders at home.

Just before readers who do not like John Key and/or detest his policies switch off, I will be trying to bring you further instalments of John Campbell's series,**** so some fairness to all leaders is experienced here. Further, I don't think I am particularly biased towards National Party PMs: from the past (within my lifetime) I have admired Norman Kirk and Bill Rowling, detested Rob Muldoon and his style of politics, and looked in awe at the talents of David Lange. Though not when they were PM, I have met and much liked Mike Moore and Geoffrey Palmer. I was once enthralled to have a two minute conversation with Helen Clark when she was Leader of the Opposition: she is one of our greatest Kiwis. I was at primary school with David Parker (current Deputy Leader of the Labour Party) and have had a couple of occasions of meeting him during his career in politics: as nice a bloke now as he was a school friend then.

Possibly only Norman Kirk of those named above came from as hard a family upbringing as John Key had. My admiration for John Key partly stems from the fact that (unbeknown to me) he was growing up about 800m from where I lived in Bryndwr. My street was as middle class as any street in NZ. John lived in a tough state housing street that I steered clear of. He was brought up by a single mother. By all accounts there was not a lot of money. His life story, of moving from a poor upbringing to becoming one of NZ's richest men (prior to politics) and now to being our Prime Minister, is a genuine story illustrating the possibilities of betterment in a capitalist democracy (both here and in other countries where he made his fortune such as the UK and the USA).

But as we contemplate such things today we find ourselves matching present day economic conditions with the politics of Jesus which includes valuing of economic equality as an expression of equality of persons entering the kingdom of God as equal bearers of the divine image (Genesis 1), equal as sinners needing salvation ('all have sinned'), and equal as recipients of God's merciful love ('God so loved the world). What does the politics of Jesus mean for Christians working out which economic future to vote for?

Cutting to the chase, within the capitalist sphere of the world, Christians along with others consider the possibility of Communism as a system and (in my understanding) quickly reject it as proven not to work (Cf. failure of Soviet Russia and Communist China, both now (state-guided) capitalist economies) and also as destructive of basic human freedoms as it was imposed (mass starvations, ethnic cleansing, labour camps). That appears to leave some form of capitalism as the only option for the method of economic activity in the world and (again, cutting to the chase) presents as with the agony of supporting a system that poses equality of economic opportunity versus equality of outcomes: the former can be implemented consistent with human freedom, the latter cannot be done without dictatorship.

The story of John Key rising from poverty in Bryndwr to wealth in Parnell (especially via the key 'opportunity' means of education) is the perfect illustration of equality of economic opportunity on this scenario. When he was at Burnside High School (then NZ's largest secondary school), 2000 pupils from a mixture of socio-economic backgrounds, according to the narrative of modern capitalism, all had equal opportunity, if chosen and pursued, to become "John Key." Less trumpeted, of course, is the simple mathematical fact that if 2000 pupils are at one secondary school being educated for success, no economy can support all 2000 becoming extraordinarily wealthy: someone has to make their wealth at the expense of others. If one, say, rises to own and manage a supermarket, others are needed to stock the shelves and run the checkouts, one can realise  capital advancement out of the business, the rest settle for wages.

Are these the only alternatives, opportunity versus outcome? Does equality for people within capitalism (which can only sustain equality of opportunity) boil down to inequality of outcomes? These days there is a twist to the question: are we also doomed to have a system which offers increasing inequality rather than some kind of inequality in a settled state? Are we doomed to a situation in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and nothing can be done about the ever-widening gap?

As I best understand the following article, 'Capitalism simply isn't working' about economist Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, there is another way forward, a way which has been followed previously in the twentieth century, in which governments through taxation (we might even say 'actual, effective taxation') attempt to ameliorate the gap between rich and poor. (The cynic might say, 'At least revive the prospects of the squeezed middle-class'). This is undoubtedly attractive as taxation as an imposed redistribution of wealth is a very long way from the totalitarian methods of Soviet Russia and Communist China. Yet the point remains in the article that the globalization of economic conditions means that country A changing its taxation system does not present the advantages to that country which prevailed in, say, the 1930s or 1950s so long as countries B to Z refuse to change their tax rates.

Our election in NZ is not an election of a 'one world government'. It is just for the government of an incredibly tiny percentage of the world's population. What are we to do for the equal benefit of all NZers in a world where our economy depends as much on wage/tax rates in China as it does on (say) America's attempts to assist income for its farmers via subsidies?

**** I now note that David Cunliffe is going to be a no show for this particular series of interviews:

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As a bit of a postscript and so I do not lose sight of the link, I note John Pilger's plaintive cry of the heart about twenty years of economic life in post-apartheid South Africa. His article illustrates the dilemma we seem to face re choices. On the one hand his characterization of the control of the post-apartheid economy by the same forces that controlled it beforehand is troubling. In theological terms, Mammon's rule over the kingdom has been both unchanged and unchallenged. On the other hand his own recipe for an alternative, essentially widespread nationalization of industries and massive control via state intervention in economic activity is a recipe for failure. South Africans might be more equal today in their share of wealth as a result but their non-participation in the usual trading conditions of the world (e.g they would have been battered by the banking system on Pilger's approach) but that wealth would be much diminished. But particularly poor (in my view) is Pilger's failure to acknowledge the likelihood that a government controlled economy creates enormous opportunity for cronyism: the operators approved by such government, from Cabinet ministers downwards becomes the new rich. To truly change the system one needs to change the individuals ...


mike greenslade said...

Kia ora Peter,

John Key does seem a nice guy. The 'story' of rags to riches makes a happy read. However, it has it's problems.

The idea that Burnside High provided equal opportunity for its students is unfortunately flawed. Eleanor Catton recently referred to that in a TV interview. Data analysis confirms it.

Education, like politics, can be selectively blind. If we want to think about the politics of Jesus, we need to be asking tougher questions than the ones you raise.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Mike
Yes, I readily concede that re tough questions.

I don't resile from the fact that the overall intention of a school like Burnside is to provide a great education for all its students; nor from the assumption that theoretically all students walking through the gates have equal opportunity to access what the school provides and equal chance of having the best teachers over the years of being there.

But I see your point (without having seen the interview or the data, I'll make an assumption that it is something like this ...) that once inside the school gates the school's reality is a complex organisation which some are better geared to make the most of than others; and aspects of the school respond better to some pupils than to others.

Extrapolating further, I can imagine that JK's sunny, confident disposition would have gotten him a long way into the Burnside 'system' (or, indeed, in my experience, into any school he had attended, state or private).

Michael Reddell said...

Piketty's book does a great job of gathering data, on patterns and levels of wealth over time for a variety of advanced economies. It would be good to see someone do something similar for NZ. But the book is on considerably shakier ground when he moves on to prognosticate about how these variables will behave in future, and is simply an expression of personal political preferences (about which economists have nothing distinctive to say) once he gets on to policy propositions.

In sum, the book is well worth reading and thinking about. But one should always be wary about suggestions that trends of recent decades are likely to run on forever. As just one example, the current very low interest rates in most of the world mean that returns to many "rentiers" are now lower than they have been, perhaps at any time in modern history.

Father Ron Smith said...

re the politics of Jesus. I am no political animal - except insomuch as politics involves people, and Jesus was always concerned with the spiritual and social welfare of ALL people. In a religious world of Church prosperity, Jesus was often seen to 'kick against the pricks' as it were, often to the discomfort of the Church hierarchy.

Church Law was not always, for Jesus, actually cherishing the marginalised and disadvantaged of society - especially amongst women and lepers, whom Jesus constantly affirmed and justified as being worthy of religious acceptance.

The "New Commandment", as we today affirm during Jesus' journey to the Cross during Holy week, was manifestly one of the reasons for his arraignment before Pontius Pilate by the Scribes, Pharisees, and the Temple authorities.

So what has changed, in the polity of the Churches, that seeks to bring about justice for ALL? I am part of the problem, too, and long for substantive change to happen.

Janice said...

Taxation is robbery.

A snippet from this American work which was published in 1962:

The ultimate of taxation-for-social-purposes is absolutism, not only because the growing fiscal power carries an equal increase in political power, but because the investment of revenue in the individual by the State gives it a pecuniary interest in him. If the State supplies him with all his needs and keeps him in health and a degree of comfort, it must account him a valuable asset, a piece of capital. Any claim to individual rights is liquidated by society's cash invest­ment. The State undertakes to protect society's investment, as to reimbursement and profit, by way of taxation. The motor power lodged in the individual must be put to the best use so that the yield will further social ends, as foreseen by the management. Thus, the fiscal scheme which begins with distribution is forced by the logic of events into control of production. And the concept of natural rights is inconsistent with the social obligation of the individual. He lives for the State which nurtured him. He belongs to the State by right of purchase.

It would be a great thing if we could manage more equality of opportunity but complete equality of opportunity is never going to happen. We are not born equally gifted of equally gifted parents. Even the order in which a child is born makes a difference.

However, the idea that inequality of outcomes is a bad thing that must be corrected by forced redistribution of wealth is pernicious. It does not arise from compassion but from envy, covetousness and the love of money. Jesus was not in favour of any of those things.

Kurt said...

"Taxation Is Robbery" by Frank Chodorov. Read the whole pathetic article. More Ayn Rand-style selfishness-is-good from the looney Austrians.

Kurt Hill
Ntooklyn, NY

Caleb said...

As you know from my comments on a previous blog, I think equality of outcome is a straw man - at least in NZ. Our parties all strive for equality of opportunity, but have different opinions on how to get there. I think you need to give up on this way of characterising right wing vs. left wing (or capitalism vs. commmunism), because it leads you to say things that you actually know are inaccurate, like saying capitalism (or right-wing politics) provides equality of opportunity, instead of saying it ostensibly strives for equality of opportunity, but largely falls short (just like the left wing).

I too think it's incredibly naive to say that Burnside High when Key was growing up succeeded in providing equality of opportunity. For a start, living in the Burnside zone (even in the state housing part of it) means you're likely to have a better public education than living in other parts of Chch. And it's well-known that the most important driver of education success is socio-economic status - a school can only go some way towards equalising this existing inequality of opportunity.

You rightly note that although Key managed to become a multi-millionaire through a combination of talents (cf: Smiling Assassin), opportunities, choices, assistance, hard work and luck, not everyone can. The fact that a poor boy became rich doesn't mean there's equality of opportunity. It's only possible for some people to attain Key-level massive wealth. We all have some opportunity to attain it, but some have far more opportunity than others. Usually the people who get it will be the people with the most opportunity, though in a minority of cases, people with less opportunity will manage to attain it (e.g., Key).

It's also worth noting that Key (like Paula Bennett) grew up benefiting from a strong welfare state; his mother's benefit, his state house and his public education were all part of the opportunity and assistance he had. The welfare state has been greatly eroded since then (partly by Key and Bennett themselves), which means equality of opportunity has been eroded. If Key's family moved onto Hollyford Ave today, their John would have much less opportunity to attain his wealth than what the real John did.

You make a good point re: other countries' politics greatly affecting our country. I'm afraid I haven't attempted to answer your question about that... sorry!

Caleb said...

Here's the next installment - Hone Harawira and Hilda Halkyard-Harawira.

Caleb said...

I've now watched both and am in a better position to comment on them. The main difference between Key's and Harawira's videos roughly corresponds to their overall political personas: Harawira's is far more about politics and real issues; Key's is far more about superficiality, personality and content-free generalities like "making a difference" and (eventually) "economic management".

Key does talk about "vulnerable people" after Campbell observes the wealth of their context, and he talks about his support for WFF (a Labour initiative he opposed at the time) and his concern for kids in poverty. But for him these vulnerable people and children in poverty are an abstraction. They aren't anywhere in his life.

Meanwhile, his claimed concern for kids growing up on welfare belies the fact that his government has kept benefits at the levels they were set to in the early 90s by Ruth Richardson. Richardson deliberately set benefits lower than necessary to survive, in an attempt to incentivise people into accepting the new low-wage jobs (those lucky enough to find jobs anyway - they also encouraged a certain level of stable unemployment, again for these "incentive" reasons - and no amount of individual incentivisation can fix the level of unemployment in the economy). The whole thing was and is a sacrifice of the poor in order to support poverty-wage employers.

Child poverty has dropped since the last Labour government brought in WFF (which Key now supports), and National's rhetoric is all anti-unemployment these days. But it still speaks volumes that Key's willing to use taxpayer money to subsidise those poverty-wage workers today, instead of supporting living wages. And that he looks no further than individual solutions to the social/economic issue of unemployment. Meanwhile, the abstract "vulnerable people" who miss out on the limited number of jobs offered by this "economic management" suffer now more than ever.

Suffice it to say I find Hone and Hilda far closer to the politics of Jesus than John and Bronagh.