Monday, May 5, 2014

The Politics of Jesus (5 May 2014)

There is a book doing the rounds at the moment which few will read but many will pretend to know well. It is Thomas Piketty's best selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Here to save you (and me) the bother of reading it are ten handy phrases for bluffing on the book.

(Here, by the way, are some interesting criticisms of the book. Here, by contrast, is a lead into an article berating US Democrats for being insufficiently vigorous in their pursuit of the overturning of capitalist inequality. Which leads me to note, as a bit of an aside, that the US Communist Party is alive though may be not very well).

As I understand the thrust of the Piketty tome, it is that the relatively few people who control capital around the globe are getting richer and richer so that inequality is growing which in turn carries a warning: the peasants always, in the end, revolt. So, the few need to watch out!

For a careful discussion of the book, head to Psephizo.

Poverty is a complicated subject for the First World in which I and (it would appear) many readers live in. A recent New York headline sums up one aspect of the dilemma well:

"Changed Life of the Poor: Better Off But Far Behind"

If we measure poverty by having access to a phone (once, even in my lifetime, he lack of which was a distinguishing mark of the poor) then today everyone in NZ is better off because it is just about impossible to find someone who does not have a mobile phone (themselves, when first available in the 1980s, a very distinctive sign of the rich!). But the measure has changed. If we asked a different question, such as how many mobile phone owners have a realistic shot at studying electronic engineering or computer app software development at university, then we realise how many people are 'better off (have phone) but far behind (cannot afford to go to uni).'

Theologians sometimes talk about God's bias to the poor, something I myself agree with as I read both the prophets, the gospels, James and Revelation. Should this mean that as a voter in this year's election I should vote for the party which offers to do most for the poor?

Time today means I cannot pursue that question further, but there are many more Mondays to go this year!

However as one small contribution to answering the question, undoubtedly the Mana Party is explicitly identified with assisting the impoverished in our society. Another John Campbell TV profile is now available (thanks Caleb!), of the leader of the Mana Party, Hone Harawira and you can view it here.

Quote of the Day from the interviews:

It is part of the journey for us to change the world.


Caleb said...

Hi Peter. A bit of shameless self-promotion... I've expanded my comment on your other blog into a blog in its own right responding to the Keys' and Halkyard-Harawiras' interviews.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Caleb
At a visceral level I understand your expression of preference re voting for Hone rather than John.

But economies are complex beasts. The ability to pay even 80% of one or other level of something re benefits is dependent on the performance of that economy.

For my own reading of the offerings of the various parties I have yet to find a better plan for the overall economy than the one being offered by a National-led government.

Thus at a conceptual level I am not convinced that I should vote for Mana.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Caleb
In my comment above I do not want to imply that you are only engaging with these matters at a 'visceral' rather than 'conceptual' level!

That's my response to your assessment of the two interviews - I like both John and Hone, for what it is worth, and wouldn't mind having either at my dinner table :)

Caleb said...

I'm not offended even if you were suggesting it was a visceral reaction - Campbell's interviews are personal and more about emotion and character than reason and policy, and so was my response.

Putting my usual more rational hat back on... Realistically by voting for Mana one is voting for:
(a) a Labour-led coalition government instead of a National-led one
(b) greater likelihood that Mana will be needed by a Labour-led government (given Labour's history of opposing everyone further left than them I expect they'll do to Mana/Internet what they did to the Greens in 2002 if they can)
(c) greater influence of Mana in a Labour-led coalition government.

So it's not like we're choosing between Key and Harawira for Prime Minister.

If I vote Mana it will be because I want them to have more voice in Parliament. I think they are closer than anyone else to the prophetic spirit of the Old Testament prophets, James and Revelation (not to mention Jesus himself), and I think the politics the church is called to is more a prophetic politics calling dominant political-economic systems to account than a Constantinian politics managing dominant political-economic systems well.

However, in reality at this time, someone will be elected to manage our dominant political and economic systems, either a Labour-led government or a National-led one, and it is very important for us all how well they do it.

National have been very successful in promoting an image that they are the party of financial responsibility while Labour are the party of debt. But this has very little basis in any empirical facts I've seen. The most I think you can say is that National adhere more closely to many economists' ideas of what is supposed to be good for the economy. But mainstream economics is dominated by one economic theory, and the idea that this dominant theory is better is a matter of philosophical preference rather than empirical results. If anything, the empirical results have been that neo-liberal economics tend to increase unemployment, inequality, poverty and debt and lead to global financial crises.


Caleb said...


I'm not at all impressed with National's economic management this term - in fact I'd class them as economically reckless. Their massive increases in debt, economic stagnation everywhere but Canterbury and the disaster of selling profitable assets to multinational corporations (not Mum and Dad investors) for bargain-basement prices are a few examples.

The last Labour government did extremely well with the economy; for example re-establishing the Super Fund (which would have been huge by now if it had never been dropped 40 years ago!) and gradually paying off debt - even while finding substantial amounts of money for Working for Families and interest-free student loans.

Of course, there's been a global financial crisis and a series of earthquakes since National's been in office, but even so I think Labour did a lot better with their five talents than National have with their two. It also speaks volumes that Labour found money to support the poor and save for the future, funding it by resisting calls for income tax cuts in healthy economic times, while National found money for tax cuts for the rich and funded it by increasing GST (which disproportionately hits the poor), selling profitable assets and sending debt sky-high.

Sadly I think National will win this election largely because of their successful promotion of the idea that they're better for the economy than Labour... Not enough of us will actually analyse the performance and the policies. I'm not putting you in that category - you are actually looking at the economic plans of the major parties. So I think we'll just have to agree to disagree. I have a lot more faith in Cunliffe, Parker, Norman et al to manage the economy than Key, Joyce, English et al. And I'd rather have Mana as a minor partner keeping them accountable to the poor than ACT as a minor partner keeping them accountable to neo-liberalism.

Caleb said...

One last comment about "The ability to pay even 80% of one or other level of something re benefits" - I think every percentage point of increase in benefits would reap dividends in reduced costs dealing with health problems and crime. (Of course, I understand your main point was that however much welfare and poverty cost us, we need a functioning economy to pay for them)

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Caleb
Excellent points to which my (brief) reply is:
- agreed, Labour under Cullen/Clark managed the economy well
- my liking for a National-led government continuing (purely at this point in respect of economics) is that it continues to demonstrate the importance of empowering businesses to grow and develop as the basis of offering employment, which is the key to a good tax take for funding welfare, schools, hospitals, etc; by contrast the Greens, who clearly would be a dominating force in a Labour-led government, continue to tell us about all the business activity it would discourage if not deny; the Labour economic spokespersons continue to fail to offer ideas which convince me they are going to be good for the future economy (i.e. one cannot rest on the Clark/Cullen laurels);
- there is no question that National policies re debt and asset selling deserve scrutiny and may be judged by history to be inept; nevertheless if they are less than ideal they remain ahead of Labour/Green thinking (I would argue).

Caleb said...

The Greens are committed to creating green jobs as an alternative to unsustainable ones - ie anticipating what we'll need to do anyway once the coal runs out and the carbon credit costs build up - and Labour to supporting local industries e.g. forestry.

While National pay a lot of lip service to empowering businesses to provide employment, this is more based on applying the economic theory that they believe will empower businesses to create employment... their hands-off approach is doing little to stem the tide of jobs going offshore where the profit incentive is higher - and they're actively cutting public service jobs. The exception is dairy farming, to which they have a very hands-on approach - subsidies, changing laws, sacking councils etc. Unfortunately more and more of the jobs provided by that industry are being filled by dodgy immigrant labour at or below the minimum wage (a friend who works for Immigration says a lot of their work is investigating this sort of thing).

The numbers are illuminating - National promised hundreds of thousands of jobs, but they simply haven't appeared.

Caleb said...

You are definitely right about not resting on the Clark/Cullen laurels.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Caleb
Your answer is fair to a point, but Green jobs are often a chimera (and/or very expensive in taxpayer dollars to develop), I don't think Labour talk about processing more logs into furniture etc is an economy game-breaker and it is as selective as you make out the government's approach to dairy farming.

News about employment is not all bad:

"Employment grew strongly in the first three months of the year but so did the supply of workers, leaving unemployment unchanged and wage pressures subdued.

Statistics New Zealand's household labour force survey recorded a rise of 22,000 or 0.9 per cent in the number of people employed in the March quarter, but that was matched by a 22,000 increase in the labour force, leaving the unemployment level unchanged at 147,000 and the unemployment rate steady at 6 per cent.

Over the year ended March the working age population increased by 50,000, boosted by a strong net inflow of migrants.

But the labour force grew by 82,000 over the same period as the participation rate (the employed and those looking for work, as a share of the working age population) climbed to 69.3 per cent - a record high and up from 67.9 per cent a year ago.

The increase in participation was strongest among people in their 30s, Statistics New Zealand said.

Over the year to March employment grew by 83,000 or 3.7 per cent, the largest increase since 2004."

Caleb said...

All good points. Immigration is definitely a complicating factor when it comes to the job market.

Caleb said...

Two more installments: Norman and Cunliffe