Saturday, May 31, 2008

US to attack Iran by August?

On May 28th, the Asia Times carried an article (Bush 'plans Iran air strike by August') by Muhammad Cohen, claiming US President Bush intends to bomb Iran "by August".

The air attacks would be directed at the headquarters of the elite "Quds force" of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The Quds Force stated mission is to spread Iran's revolution of 1979 throughout the region. It is claimed Quds has been assisting the Iraqi insurgency.

The report claims that two US Senators who have been briefed on the mission will be making their opposition to it public in the near future.

There is no way to tell whether this is true until we see corroboration from the two so far anonymous senators or someone else in the know.

Certainly, the Bush Administration rhetoric against Iran has been heating up over recent months and the organisation named in this report was last year designated by the US Senate as a terrorist organisation. It is unusual for a part of a country's military to be designated as a banned terrorist organisation.

There does appear to be reason for concern. There is already a campaign underway to put political pressure on the White House to abandon any such plans. The consequences of any such attack are incalculable. In my opinion, the Bush Administration has a record of consistently underestimating the negative consequences of it's actions. I hope this won't be yet another example.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Herald-Digipoll Obscurity: Where are the numbers?

[UPDATE: The main results and analysis for this poll are in this story in the Politics section. There weren't any links to it from the story referred to below, but I should have checked the Politics section first. It would have been obvious in a printed copy of the Herald.

With undecideds on 13.8%, labour has to win people back. There is no big pool of unpersuaded. It will be a tough ask...with a lot of energy going into minor gains, unless something happens and National fall over before the finish line....which can't be ruled out given we know so little of their policy. ]


A new poll out today in the NZ Herald is a bit hard to make out - at least in the online version.

Like other polls, they make no mention of the proportion of undecided voters, so we have no way of knowing how many people are still undecided. This is a huge flaw in my eyes as it can have the effect of grossly exaggerating the apparent levels of party support.

Also difficult to explain is the lack of a simple table or list reporting the poll. All numbers are couched in analysis and comparison with past polls that we have to try to see through to get our own picture of things.

Inexplicable is the lack of any number for several parties including the Greens who appear to have polled third, but with no actual percentage of support reported. All we get is:
On the basis of this poll the Greens would comfortably get over the 5 per cent threshold and return to Parliament with eight MPs, two more than now.

What basis?

Either some editor (print and / or web?) screwed this up or the Herald is playing silly-buggers with the poll results for some reason. Why not just report the result? I hope it's just a screw-up.

I've read it several times now (sometimes I miss things. No...really) and still don't know the results of the full poll. The numbers just aren't there in the online version. What we have is a poll already distorted by leaving out the undecideds and a partial result for the rest....which doesn't appear to include the actual level of support for the party that polled third. The Greens. Did they go up? Down? We're told this for the other parties mentioned, including those with less support.

Not good enough.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Labour's web site needs fixing......

homepaddock posted about a Labour Party ad on the masthead of "The Courier" in Timaru. He felt that as Labour does not have a local MP, this ad alerting Timaruvians to a "Timaru Government MPs’ office" must be party political advertising and therefore was not properly authorised under the Electoral Finance Act (EFA). homepaddock attempted to find out who these Government MPs were for Timaru, but had no luck.

I had fun with this. The Labour Party web site used to allow you to put in the name of your electorate and find out which MP (list or local) covered one’s area.

They have now changed it, so you can’t locate an MP easily by electorate. You have to look either at a list of MPs names, or at your region and work out which MP is yours. There is no obvious way to tell what areas the list MPs serve without clicking on every single one individually.

If you’re in a National-held local seat, then you have to click on every list MP until you find the one with an office near you. There is no way to work out from your electorate which Labour MP is “shadowing” your area. You used to be able to do this easily. Now you can't. That is a step backward.

I called the 04-471-9998 number on the “Contact us” and found myself talking to the PM’s office. They didn’t know who was shadowing Timaru. They put me through to the Labour Party in Fraser House on Willis St in Wellington. They were helpful, but first I had to explain the whole idea of shadowing and then ask who it might be for Timaru. They didn’t know, but told me to call the Senior Whip’s office at Parliament and they would know as that was part of their job.

I did so and found out that, by coincidence, Tim Barnett, the Senior Goverment Whip is the “local” Labour MP shadowing the existing Aoraki electorate which includes Timaru. Apparently they are shuffling some of the list MPs around as local candidates, so the areas they shadow now aren't the seats they will be running in locally this time around. Timaru will be in a different electorate for the coming election due to boundaries being redrawn.

Bottom line: I found the web site made it very hard to work out who your Labour MP might be if you didn't live in a local electorate held by Labour. In my humble opinion, this aspect of the existing web site is poorly thought out. It should not be harder now to find out who is currently representing you than it was prior to the web site being "improved".

Also interesting was being told the Labour Party doesn’t currently have a party web site. The only Labour web site is the Parliamentary one at labour.org.nz. That’s why the phone number goes to the PM’s office. They said one would be up soon.

I explained the problem to the person I spoke to in Tim Barnett’s office and suggested they sort out this basic issue of finding out who represents you ASAP. For their own good. He said he would and he sounded like he meant it.

Zimbabwe disaster rolls on

Zimbabwe's election campaign resumed on May 25th in advance of the poll on June 27th that will finally decide who will be the President of Zimbabwe: 84 year old incumbent Robert Mugabe, leader of ZANU-PF or Morgan Tzvangirai, leader of the opposition MDC.

Tzvangirai had been out of the country for several weeks in the lead-up to the campaign. Upon his return, Tzvangirai claimed 50 people have been killed in election-related violence and 25,000 made refugees since March 29th.

President Mugabe has called U. S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs ,Jendayi Frazer, a prostitute and threatened to kick the US Amassador, James McGee, out of the country. Mugabe accuses the United States of meddling in local politics.

ZANU-PF, Mugabe's party, says he will accept accept the outcome in the final election should it come to that. They say they expect to win.

If all this wasn't bad enough, apparently President Mugabe may have cancer and flew to Singapore last week for tests.

The most recent development saw a newly elected MP arrested for allegedly having approached the military on March 31st hoping to win support in the wake of what they believed at the time was an election victory for Morgan Tzvangirai.

Meanwhile, ordinary Zimbabweans speak their mind via BBC News' interactive web coverage of the coming election.

Fingers crossed for a genuine election and an outcome with integrity on the 27th of June. Hopefully air traffic control in Harare will be able to pick up flying pigs on radar.

Roy Morgan poll: National 49 : Labour 35

Angus Reid reports a Roy Morgan poll today that narrows the spread between National and Labour to 14 points.

National 49
Labour 35
Greens 7.5
NZ First 4
Maori 2.5
ACT 1
United Fut 0.5

(At time of writing, the graphic has the Maori Party and NZ First Party results reversed. I've sent a note notifying them.)

This poll shows the gap between National and Labour is effectively 7 per cent as it would take thatnumber moving from National to labour to put them neck and neck.

Also interesting is that the Labour, Green and NZ First share of the votes add up to 46.5% with the Maori Party taking the total to 49%. If that were to be the case on the election day, the fate of Jim Anderton, Peter Dunne and Rodney Hide could determine the outcome. If either of the latter two were to lose their seat, we could still have a Labour-lead government. Jim Anderton and Winston Peters do not appear to have had any great difficulties working together over the past 2 and a half years.

This is just one poll, but it is noteworthy as not being one of those (Colmar Brunton, for example) usually weighted in favour of National as compared to other polls.

If the gap between National supporting and Labour supporting parties were to narrow any further, a Labour lead government could be looking at a fourth term.

This poll is almost identical to a Roy Morgan poll from November 2007.

Karl Rove reacts to McClellan's book

Interesting viewing. Rove (a.k.a. "Bush's Brain") portrays McClellan as out of the loop, not informed and has no idea why McClellan is saying this stuff. Other White House connected people are also expressing shock. Given the historical lack of condor from all these people, I can't put too much faith in anything any of them say.

Journalists who recall McClellan rubbishing them for asking hard questions (well...they say they did.) are piling on.

McClellan may be taking a late, but principled stand or it might just be one Bush-crim shafting the rest for a few dollars. We may never know.

Here's Karl Rove on Hannity & Coombes on Fox News:

Propaganda instead of the truth

Guess what? Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan has revealed in a new book that US President George W Bush used an aggressive “political propaganda campaign” instead of the truth to sell the Iraq war.

Well.....d'oh.

In another blindingly obvious revelation, McClellan says:
"What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary."

You'd think grown adults would have these sorts of things figured out BEFORE they act in high office, but apparently not.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Politicians and pundits on "waste"

I'm not saying there isn't waste in Government. I have seen it first hand, but it isn't always what you think. In my opinion, the BIGGEST cause of waste I know of in the public service is the damage done to moral and motivation of public servants by cynical, ignorant politicians referring to them as "bureaucrats" as though they were dung on your shoes. The presumption the jobs they do are a waste, worse than useless, no matter what job they do or how well they do it or how hard they work, is hugely damaging.

Every time National, in particular, talks about public servants this way, they underscore for me and no doubt for many public servants and their families what horrendous people management skills National has, as a party and as a would-be employer if in government.

Would you want to work for people who talked like that about you?

If they were my boss and talked about me like that, I'd tell them to shove it where the Sun doesn't shine. I have respect for myself and the work I do even if they don't. But I don't respect them when they abuse and denigrate hard working people who, by virtue of their jobs, aren't allowed to talk back.

Its hard enough to hire and retain good people to work in the public service as it is due to lower pay and stingy working conditions. Trash-talking public servants and treating them like rubbish only makes it harder.

National, like ACT, too often come across as a bunch of bullies kicking people - public servants - who aren't allowed to fight back.

I'm actually politically fair-minded, but National make so many errors of judgment out of arrogance and simple party hackery (IMHO) that I find myself persistently and consistently targeting them for what I feel is justified criticism. This is just one more example.

www.winterpower.co.nz

Transpower has set up a web site to inform us all about the state of the power supply during the Winter. It's "winterpower.co.nz"
Winter Power Watch is about providing all New Zealanders with accurate, up to date information about the outlook for electricity supplies during winter 2008.

We're heading into winter this year off the back of a significant summer drought in the North Island and low rainfall in the South Island. At the same time, the electricity industry has been dealing with numerous technical issues such as the forced retirement of New Plymouth power station (because of asbestos contamination) and limited transfer of energy across the HVDC link between the islands.

...etc..

Well worth a look. I found on homepaddock's blog. It had been cited by Bernard Hickey as an example of government waste.

I don't agree. I found it very useful. My requirements wouldn't be the same as Mr. Hickey's, I guess. Probably a case of one person's waste being another person's excellent value.

Arresting John Bolton

UK author and Guardian columnist George Monbiot says he is going to attempt to arrest former US diplomat, John Bolton, today at the Hay literary festival at Hay-on-Wye, for his role in conspiring to illegally wage war on Iraq.
"On Wednesday 28th May 2008, I will attempt a citizen’s arrest of John Robert Bolton, former Under-Secretary of State, US State Department, for the crime of aggression, as established by customary international law and described by Nuremberg Principles VI and VII."

The case is an open and and shut one by any measure other than Might Makes Right. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration in the United States has torn up and shit on any international law other than Might Makes Right. They have been aided and abetted by their accomplices in the UK, the current Labour government (not that the Tories there wouldn't have jumped at the chance).

We can wish George luck with this. He'll need it. At least he's getting some news coverage and then there is this other matter.

[UPDATE 2008 05 29: The arrest attempt was blocked by Hay Festival security staff.]

South American Union created...

Thanks to Idiot Savant over at No Right Turn for highlighting the signing of a treaty creating a new South American Union along the lines of the European Union.

This is probably the biggest news story of the week globally as it may mark the birth of a new superpower over the longer term. This story should have been front page news.

I almost missed it, distracted by the trivial nonsense about a Housing NZ conference that was front page news in the Herald instead of things that really matter.

Oil: "US inventories" Eh?

Continuing my growing fascination with the oil market and how prices are worked out, I followed up references to "US inventories". By itself, it meant absolutely nothing to me. Utterly vague. Inventories of what? Crude? Refined products?

Turns out, it's all of those things. A more user-friendly format can be found here.

The information is more or less raw. There is no contextual or analytical information other than a comparison to stocks in previous months and a year ago.

A couple things stand out. Imports of crude and refined products appear to be down (2.4%) to a greater extent over last year than demand has been reduced (1.3%). Refineries are operating at 87.9% of capacity. Overall, inventories are falling as stocks are drawn down.

One can't draw too much from this single snapshot, but it's been useful to look at the raw data and try to make sense of it. Now off to find differing views on how to analyse what I'm looking at. I have no historical perspective on this single snapshot, but looking at it at least provides the basis for questions that enable further investigation.

With imports down over the previous week and stocks falling, one would hope to not see that trend continue.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Where is National's policy?

So why isn't the National Party releasing any significant policy? Voters need time to come to grips with it and make up their minds about whether to support it or not. No one wants to have to choose 'the money or the bag'. What's in the National Party policy bag?

For democracy to function properly, we need to know the answer to that question.

National aren't saying. Either they have no policy, or they are placing the voters' need to know second to some other consideration. Not good enough.

The idea may be to release a blizzard of policy late in the cycle when the media has turned its focus to the "leaders" and has little time for policy. Voters will thus have been kept in the dark and fed either nothing in the way of policy or the 'proverbial'.....and they will go to the polls in a poll-driven, policy-free vacuum and expected to do the Right thing.

[UPDATE: In an "Oops" moment, National MP Kate Wilkinson, accidentally released a policy fragment. Many employers have already been anticipating this policy anyway by ignoring their legal obligation to contribute to Kiwisaver.]

US dollar now on the "oil standard"?

Today's Herald brings news that the price of Brent Crude (oil) has edged up again, this time to $133 / barrel. What I find interesting is the explicit link drawn between the value of the US dollar and the price of oil.
"It's very much the US currency at play. The market is reassessing the dollar and has probably taken the view that the dollar hasn't bottomed out and may fall further," said Mark Pervan, a senior commodities analyst at ANZ Bank.

Old news, perhaps, but the comments here take the idea from the realms of speculation and place it squarely in the realm of investors agreeing to use another value (a 40 US gallon barrel of oil) instead of the value of a currency. That seems to me like a half-way house to jumping to some other currency with oil as the foundation for any of a series of such moves.

OPEC is sticking to the line that oil prices are all about speculation as there is more than enough oil to meet demand.

Who to believe? The voices and influence of investors are much more easily heard via the media than the single voice of OPEC, so one can't allow "volume" or "quantity" of opinion to aid in making the call. OPEC hasn't been a reliable source, being effectively unaccountable to anyone and with little in the way of transparency. Unfortunately, I don't know of any voices that are trustworthy. Not that they don't exist. I just don't know who they are.

More investigation required. With the Emissions Trading Scheme effectively on hold for several years, the geo-political drama around energy is more immediately gripping - both my interest and my wallet.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Oil Futures Contracts

Oil futures should reveal the current market's long term view of oil prices. Oil futures contracts can extend up to 9 years into the future.

As of today, the price for oil contracted to be delivered in December 2016 is US$134.07/ barrel. The trend looking out over that 9 years is all upward, though not very steeply. It would be interesting to see what happens to the prices of any such contracts as time goes by.

Right to Silence Sensationally Misleading

The NZ Herald has a story suggesting former PM, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, has called for the right to silence for persons facing charges be reviewed.

In reading the article, the article does not make it clear what the circumstances were when Palmer made his remarks. Did they call him for an opinion? Did he issue a press release?

Palmer's remarks are equivocal. He has no problem with a public discussion of the right to remain silent and says that there are arguments on both sides. It sounds like the answer you give when you're not staking out a position either way. Sure! Let's talk about it, bearing in mind any change would take a long time and be fraught with problems and complexities.

On the face of it, the headline "Ex-PM: Let's look at the right to silence" is misleading. Palmer appears to be responding to such suggestions rather than initiating them.

Later in the article, we see an unattributed statement:
New Zealand's human rights-centred law had created many rights which did not exist less than a century ago.

This comment, wherever it came from, is an attempt to portray the right to remain silent as not legitimate by implication. The reasons aren't given, but the meaning is clear enough. Why it is included in the article isn't clear as the right to remain silent is not one of the rights the sentence refers to. It's been around a long time.

As the article later points out, anyone other than the accused can now be compelled to testify at trial.

Putting this sensational piece of overblown nonsense aside, what about the issue at its core?

How would a law "forcing" people to speak actually work? Who exactly are we talking about? The "right to silence" pertains to the accused. Beyond identifying themselves, the police cannot force any citizen to talk if they don't want to. What can be done if they refuse to speak? Torture them? Coerce them somehow?

If the police turn up on your doorstep asking what your brother, sister or neighbours have been up to, could they, under some new law, cart you off and charge you with something for saying: "I don't know" if they aren't happy with your answer?

In the Kahui case, if there was clear physical evidence and / or credible testimony as to who did the crime, then whether Chris Kahui says anything or not doesn't matter. If that evidence doesn't exist, how on earth could you compel Kahui to tell the truth, given you lack the evidence to know whether he is or isn't?

Chris Kahui was also the only accused. The right to remain silent applied only to him and no one else. How would forcing him to say anything have changed anything? How would you force anyone else to say anything? The police already have the power to interrogate people in an investigation. They chose not to use it.

I can imagine a trial where Kahui was "forced" to give evidence:

Prosecutor
Q: "Mr. Kahui, did you kill your twin boys?"

C.Kahui
A: "NO! I don't know who did it, but it wasn't me."

Prosecutor
Q: "Ms. King, did you kill your twin boys?"

M.King
A: "No! Chris didn't do it! I don't know who did."


What more could any change in the law compel them to say?

Maybe you would charge everyone in the house at the time with murder and treat them as a group. Would that loosen lips for the better? Or would it simply allow the best and most convincing liar(s) to shaft some innocent person?

Without credible evidence to prove who did what, the outcome of this case would be no different. You can't convict someone of murder if you can't prove they did it. You can't require them to confess if they didn't do it (or if they did) and you have no proof otherwise.

Congrats to Scott Dixon

I'm no motorhead. Not even close. But even I know what a HUGE achievement it is for Kiwi racing driver Scott Dixon to have won the Indianapolis 500 endurance race.

Wow!

A moment, and a victory, that will make his name a household word for years to come in New Zealand and in the homes of racing fans all over the US.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Budget, faith, intellectual honesty and trust.

I never had any problems with paying taxes. I understand insurance.

My attitude to political parties is agnostic. I don't do "faith". I have no inherent dislike of an political party or ideology. All I ask of any of them is that they be based on reality, not belief, and that they demonstrate some intellectual honesty when the two collide. An essential element in sustaining intellectual honesty is listening. I have a big problem with any party or government that doesn't listen.

I tend to judge them by what they do, not what they say.

During the 90s I developed considerable respect for Jim Bolger and Doug Graham. They heeded reality for the most part and tacked and trimmed when necessary. Bolger was turfed out by the economic religionists within National and after that I certainly had problems with much that National did, and to be fair, with the accumulating effects of flawed policy already implemented.

Their 90s drive to make us all buy private health insurance from impoverished multi-nationals by allowing the deterioration of public health by stealth really got up my nose. It was the dishonesty of it. Doing it while claiming not to. I'd rather pay the tax that at least goes somewhere in NZ than the private insurance that covers less and less and goes to some shareholder in Omaha or Manchester.

By 1999, our local school in Raumati Beach wasn't able to afford to fix the roof or the boys loo.....with water trickling across the floor and out of the door for months. They used the girls' loo in turns. Teachers were leaving in droves. Their pay was terrible. The government was trying to force bulk funding on schools and the impact on kids was collateral damage.

Max Bradford's electricity reforms forced my local community-owned power trust to sell half of itself to a foreign-owned power company, sending half my rebate overseas and putting the price of my power up. It never came down. Power was moved to a market model. Why would anyone build new generating capacity or urge conservation when shortages are much more profitable? Not enough power? The price goes up! Why waste money on a new power plant and give up the bonanza? The insanity of it was obvious to everyone but the faithful.

Apprenticeships wiped. Obviously dreadfully stupid, but they wouldn't listen. Education was a personal asset, so they claimed. Students fees through the roof generating mortgage-size debts with ballooning interest, paid to the impoverished banks, heaped on young people who should be starting families and careers and who ultimately will keep New Zealand operational if they don't leave.

Blind faith. It is the enemy of reason and prudent action.

Labour isn't perfect. Far from it. But they are less inclined to blind faith. National was worse on almost everything that mattered to me. Given the chance they will be worse again. Despite John Key's apparently moderate personal views, the same crew stands behind him waiting for their moment to resume the rush to cut services and export our money to their clients of greatest concern: banks and insurance companies. They may make donations, but they don't vote.

As of last week, National declared war on me. They want to take my vote away so they can win power more easily by pushing to get rid of MMP. That moves them from mere endurable irritant to the status of enemy of my democracy. If National really wanted my vote, they would put up policies I can support, not try to change the voting system so my vote is rendered worthless.

I have nothing against them at all as a political vehicle. As above, I do have reason to not trust them NOW, based on what they have already done and who they still are. Maybe one day that will change. But not today.

The fact National has released so little policy says to me they don't want to allow too much time for people to think about it. Keep'em in the dark and when the time comes feed'em the proverbial.

Having said all that, I don't vote for either of them. They both fall over badly where prudence is concerned. To be fair to them, though, that isn't necessarily their fault.

Most Kiwi voters don't know - and don't really want to know - how the world actually works. What is in your local council's annual plan? How do you make a submission to a Select Committee on legislation affecting you? Do you know what a Select Committee is? How do you find out about Bills in the first place?

To some extent, the media are enablers by infotaining people instead of informing them. But then people don't read stuff they don't want to read.....

Problem is, if people knew how the world worked, they would share responsibility for it. As any school child knows from their earliest days, the best way to avoid being responsible for anything ts to ensure you know as little about it as possible. That way, if things are going wrong, it's always someone else's fault. It can't be yours. You didn't know anything about it.

How does one comprehend a voter who won't give up the V8 even though a 1.3L car would cost them less than half as much? The kids can go without? Gimme a tax cut.

Politicians of any stripe who may try to lead in one direction or another for reasons they think prudent for the future, but uncomfortable for someone in the present, will find themselves running hard into this lump of willfully ignorant inertia that composes the broad mass of voters.

All I ask is that politicians listen and show some intellectual honesty. Save the faith based on unfounded belief for Church on Sundays. It has no place in politics or government. Don't be cynical manipulators of public opinion for electoral advantage. When you behave like that, I can't and won't trust you. Any of you.

It was a good budget.....if you like tax cuts. I'm not fussed.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ambiguous online media polls

At the moment (Thursday evening, Budget Day), Stuff has an online poll asking:
Do Michael Cullen's tax cuts meet your expectations?
Yes
No

How does one make any sense of that?

If you expected Cullen to be less generous, you would reply "No". If you expected him to be more generous, you would also reply "No".

Two people with opposite expectations responding to the poll would correctly give the same answer, thus rendering the answer meaningless as there is no way to separate a positive deviation from a negative one as far as expectations are concerned. All you know is the extent to which the Budget was something other than what was expected - not whether the Budget is deemed good or bad.

The only way to reply "Yes" is to have expected exactly what Cullen delivered.

This poll is intended to produce a "No" answer....indicating disapproval, or budget security was very weak and everyone expected exactly what was in it.

Peak SOMETHING...just maybe not oil (yet)

Over on Flogblog, Frog reports that oil future prices are now higher than the present oil price. This configuration of pricing is referred to as "contango", apparently.

(Skip down to "Peak SOMETHING" if you want the 'punch line' to this post)

I love the way one can learn so many new things every day on the Internet. The way my mind works is to take pieces of information and play with them in a variety of configurations. What does this idea look like next to that idea? Is it plausible? How would human behaviour impact on the model thus constructed? Still plausible? Now let's go find out if it's also real. Almost certainly not, but along the way I'll learn a lot more and continuously refine my models. The model itself is really just a starting point for asking more questions in order to learn more. I also remember what I learn better if it all hung out on a continuously a-building infrastructure of compounding questions and answers. One aspect of this it allows me to challenge the received wisdom. It what we are being told actually true and correct? How else might the same facts be credibly interpreted?

So what follows is a bit of a romp through recent oil industry trends, with information and ideas assembled like a "Lego" set of pieces for constructing models to aid further understanding and investigation. This NOT a conclusion or assertion. It's speculative to aid thought and maybe discussion.

On the face of it, oil pumped out of the ground has been one of the biggest bonanzas in human history. It facilitated the creation of a global civilization built upon a foundation of apparently inexhaustible and inexpensive energy. The wealth thus generated has been enormous in historical terms, very likely dwarfing all that came before it.

The people who own or control oil are automatically among the most wealthy people on Earth. The more of it you own, the more wealthy and powerful you are. The Saudi royal family, inhabiting a sandy patch with barely 5 million people, are among the most powerful people around thanks to oil. "Rockefeller" and "Bush" are just two political dynasties built either directly on oil or connections to it. Wars have been fought over oil because wars can't be fought without it.

The only problem is, oil is a finite resource. An oil find of a "billion barrels" that took 60 million years to develop is barely enough to supply the world's fuel needs for two weeks at roughly 86 million barrels / day. A resource that is consumed in two weeks that took 3.12 BILLION weeks (60M x 52) to form isn't a resource with a long term future. It will flare brightly, like a camera flash in terms of geological time, and disappear. Come back in 60 million years for a refill.

Enter the idea of "peak oil". Peak oil is when you've reached the maximum you're able to extract and after that maximum, the amount you extract in each subsequent year will be less than the year before. You've peaked. Variables are extraction capacity and demand. How much can you pump on a given day and much do you need anyway. In practical terms it means little as far as shortages are concerned provided the daily supply remains greater than daily demand.

There is a lot of debate about peak oil. When the Iraqi reserves have barely been tapped and the Canadian tar sands are just becoming economic, can it be said that peak oil has really arrived? Maybe looking at the source isn't the whole story. Maybe it's a red herring entirely. Maybe the ability to extract and refine it are also factors.

There are several choke points between oil in the ground and petrol in your tank. Pressure on any or all of these over an extended period could easily result in a situation where concern develops that at some immediate future time supply will not meet demand and price goes crazy.

What impacts on production (besides a declining amount of oil in the ground)?

War or threat of war. Iraqi oil production was seriously impacted by the US invasion and subsequent insurgency. Israeli and American threats to unilaterally nuke Iran have the same effect. Iran wants to use the Euro, not the US$ so the resultingUS-lead sanctions have meant reduced investment there making matters worse. War in Sudan. Nigerian and other rebels have a role to play too.

Weather events. Oil isn't always in convenient places. Its is frequently under a lot of water. Many if not most of the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico were at least temporarily put offline by Hurricane Katrina. As climate change causes weather events to become more variable, the risk of interruption to oil production from weather-related events like storms or flooding rises.

Environmental concerns. The Canadian tar sands contain a vast amount of oil that has come to the surface and mixed with the soil. It can be extracted, but until recently was relatively expensive to do so. Even worse, in the long run, is that to extract it you must strip mine vast areas entirely in places so cold the environment is slow to recover from relatively minor disturbances, never mind stripping the top off the ground for any area the size of France. That a lot of this land belongs to other people at the moment or is subject to longstanding aboriginal land claims merely adds spice to the situation. Property rights tend to be overridden when oil is at stake. Those that want it tend to find a way to give themselves the power to take it, so let's assume this resource, too, no matter how destructive it may be, will ultimately be exploited. That sort of thinking is clearly seen here:
Last week, Goldman Sachs predicted oil prices would average $141 in the second half of this year and added that crude prices for delivery far into the future would also likely rise sharply as oil companies have trouble accessing new reserves to feed demand growth.

"This is due to 'the revenge of the old political economy' (resource protectionism), which imposes significant policy constraints on the free flow of capital, labor and technology that are substantially limiting supply growth," Goldman said in a report.


In other words, let them do what we want, where they want, when they want.....or you're limiting their potential for growth. Growth is the only imperative. Bugger everything else. When oil is the prize, prepared to be buggered unless you're very well organised.

Other factors like civil unrest and labour disputes tend to be more short term and the market can look past them beyond acknowledging any problems with brief price spikes until some general takes control or the union leaders are sent to jail and production resumes.

Cartels

So the most likely way to interfere with oil production is to run out or to simply not pump it for some reason. OPEC is a cartel, after all. Many is the time when I have seen someone shrug and say "We are doing all we can" with a smile on their faces while actually doing little or nothing. It isn't in their interest to see the price of oil fall while the US dollar is also falling against other currencies due to huge war budget deficits. It's like a discount on steroids. The US$1 trillion spent on utterly unproductive activity in Iraq is re-appearing as inflation.

Or, rising demand may really be exceeding the absolute ability to supply, even if total production is still rising and has not reached a peak. The result of that would also be an apparent shortage, too.

Speculators

Of course the price of oil might have noting whatever to do with supply of oil itself, but more to do with heavy interest from mega-funds speculating in oil futures. This appears to be the view of OPEC ministers who have declared oil markets to be well supplied and they do not intend to increase production prior to their next review in September.
Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries have repeatedly rebuffed calls for more supplies from consumer nations hard hit by the inflation in fuel costs, saying the rally is due to rampant speculation and not to any supply shortage.

On Tuesday, Venezuela Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez and OPEC Secretary General Abdullah al-Badri reiterated that they think oil markets are well supplied.

The next choke point is refining.

Oil refineries take a long time to build. This one just getting underway in Vietnam will apparently take 5 years to construct. In the energy-intensive US market no one has been building any. They have been shutting them down. As of 2005, no oil refineries had been built in the US for almost 30 years. In fact the number of refineries in the US fell from 324 in 1981 to 132 in 2005. Actually refining capacity at the expanded remaining refineries fell from 18.6 million barrels per day (bpd) to 16.8 million bpd. This would be despite rising levels of consumption. Demand for petrol rose 45% in that period. Refined oil products would have to be imported from elsewhere to fill the gap.

Is refining being choked to keep rices up? This BBC report makes it fairly clear that limiting refinery capacity has been used to inflate prices, a strategy now underway for a decade or more.
No new refineries

(US Senator Joe) Wyden uncovered several memos and internal documents from major oil companies. These charted the way that capacity in the US refining industry was reduced to maintain higher profits.

Wyden received one such memo from oil company Texaco, written in 1996. The company felt it was quite clear that petrol supplies needed "reducing."

"The most critical factor facing the refining industry on the West Coast is the surplus refining capacity, and the surplus gasoline production capacity," said the memo.

"The same situation exists for the entire US refining industry. Supply significantly exceeds demand year-round. This results in very poor refinery margins, and very poor refinery financial results. Significant events need to occur to assist in reducing supplies and/or increasing the demand for gasoline."


Enron pioneered artificial energy shortages as a means of infalting prices and thus profits in the 90's. It should come as no surprise that the oil industry was paying attention.

Thought Model in Oil Exec's Mind: With rapidly rising demand from India and China, how can we make oil prices do what electricity did in Southern California? Well, we can take refineries offline for good and fine-tune by closing others for maintenance when prices dip. We can drag our heals, creating a refining bottleneck. Doesn't matter how fast they pump it if we can't make it into petrol / diesel fast enough. We can try to build refineries in places that will see lots of environmental opposition (that way we get to blame greenies for any fuel shortages that eventuate and may be able to get laws changed to let us build where we want, if we want to).

A refining cartel appears to have created the effects of "peak oil" where no immediate "shortage" may exist (according to OPEC as above). No one will want to be blamed for that one so a forest of fingers pointing in all directions will be very much in evidence.

Peak SOMETHING!

There is a clear pattern emerging here. Almost everyone involved in the oil industry has a direct financial incentive to NOT supply enough oil or refined products. It's like a perfect storm: "Hurricane Cartel" aligned with an earthquake of speculation.

The consumers of these products are at their mercy with only political power in democracies as a means of seeking any redress, while at the same time big oil and big bank money wields huge influence in those same democracies. Especially if the country concerned actually has oil or an influential community of cash-rich speculators.

Peak oil? Maybe. Or it might just be Peak Greed.

OK...That's today's speculative model. I've found a fair amount of evidence to support it. I'm surprised and yet not.

[Update: Idiot Savant points to Paul Krugman's argument that the lack of growing inventories points to genuine supply / demand forces operating. Therefore, speculation can't be the cause, unless someone is buying all the oil and hiding it somewhere. It's a good point. One of the people responding to Krugman pointed out that perhaps the oil was being left in the ground.....and thus would not appear in inventories. Are people buying oil now further and further forward, to be pumped later and later? Is that why futures contracts are being bid up beyond current prices?

Depending on why it was in the ground, the reason would point to which of the various "causes" was to blame. Producers refusing to pump? Oil buyers paying for future oil that hasn't been pumped yet? Purchaes made that go into forms of inventory that aren't currently monitored? Some thing else? The bottom line so far as is that inventories appear to be at normal levels now and for the past several years oil has been rising in price, but people are nervous about forward supply. Yet oil so far has kept pace with demand. So why the high prices? Where is the circuit-breaker in this loop? Or is it the sum of all these factors that represents the whole? A pie is a pie - not a slice?]

Discuss, anyone?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Goff's Gaffe: "...at the moment"

Time to eat humble pie. It's my own fault. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. I try to put things in the best light and not assume the worst. It's an approach that usually serves me well.

Sorry Audrey. Sorry Colin. Sorry even to the NBR.

If what Phil Goff is reported to have said in the NZ Herald this morning is a correct quote, then Goff really is on the hunt for Helen's job and a calculation on his part of a poor showing at the coming election would explain the timing as nothing else can.
Mr Goff did little yesterday to make amends for his public admission that he wants Helen Clark's job if Labour loses the election.

"There is no question about leadership at the moment," he said yesterday when questioned about his pre-recorded television interview.

A seasoned politician who wanted to end discussion about leadership would usually give such an answer unconditionally, without qualifications such as "at the moment".

That little "at the moment" does convey to me confirmation of Goff's immediate (not eventual) ambitions (hence my apology to those whom I disagreed with yesterday) and a certain lack of regard for his own party and its fortunes in the coming election. If I were a Labour supporter, I'd be fairly annoyed with Phil at the moment.

It's not all about you, Phil. Good luck with that.

Meanwhile, I'll let my post from yesterday on this matter stand as a reminder to me to be more humble and make it clear when I'm speculating versus asserting.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Goff and Excitable Media

Politicians usually refuse to answer hypothetical questions. They do this because they know that some or all of the media will make it into some thing it never was

So it has been with Trade and Defense Minister Phil Goff's interview with Oliver Driver on Alt TV two days ago. Have a look:



The National Business Review (NBR)presented this as:
"A senior government minister has for the first time acknowledged that the Labour party faces the prospect of losing the election."
Newsflash: Election outcomes are never guaranteed. Goff said they could lose. He also said when people had a chance to look at the policies, they might win, too. Isn't that how it is every election? I guess other people hearing the same thing heard it differently according to what they wanted to hear.

The lesson here is that any politician should simply refuse to answer a hypothetical question.

"Next question, please. I do not answer hypothetical questions."

They would do this not because the answer isn't obvious or straightforward, (Goff's answers were both) but because their answer will be turned into a beatup by some or all of the media.

If Goff made a "gaffe" as Audrey Young would have it in her Herald blog, then his mistake was taking an interviewer seriously.

Personally, I'd rather a politician not be crucified by the media for being honest about a "what if".
Q: "If you were Superman, what would be your favourite super power?"

A: "if I were Superman, I'd enjoy being faster than a speeding bullet."

Tomorrow's headline: "Senior Minister Thinks He's Superman."

Is anyone still wondering why politicians often resort to obfuscation instead of straight talking? This is why.

If Goff really were positioning himself to be Labour leader post-election by sabotaging Labour's electoral prospects this election, tell me again why anyone in the Labour Party would even bother to talk to him? It makes no sense.

[2008-05-28 Update: Audrey Young, of the NZ Herald, has removed the "Goff Gaffe" post from her blog]

Windows versus Linux

The latest from Slashdot on Microsoft's Windows Media Centre is that it is crippled.
Microsoft has acknowledged that Windows Media Centers will block users from recording TV shows at the request of a broadcaster.

I've been a Linux user since late 1993. I liked the idea of software no one owned and anyone could improve or change. As time went on, it represented software no vendor had crippled to suit their or someone else's marketing needs, wants.

I was exclusively a Linux user for my own use for about 5 years, until the YouTube online video revolution. Linux just didn't have any free or cheap video capture and editing software that suited my needs. The ones that did exist either segfaulted on my Linux distro (version) or didn't work properly.

Meanwhile, Microsoft offered Windows Movie Maker on Windows XP and Windows Vista. Having used both, the version on Windows Vista is MUCH better than the one on Windows XP. It has fewer options for output, but it's more stable and handles audio more accurately.

To make vids I've had to use Windows and I don't like it. When I find a Linux program that can edit MPEGs and produce reasonable quality video, I'll be free to return to Linux for almost 100% of what I do on computers. I've heard "kdenlive" may do what I want.

What's renewed my interest is that the latest Microsoft update for Vista, purporting to be a "malicious software removal tool", kills my external sound jack so i can't use headphones with my Acer laptop. If I roll the update back, I get my sound back...and then Vista installs it again and my sound goes away. I know I can stop that, but I'm effectively orphaning my system if I can't put any more updates on - ever. That has happened to me before on Windows. It's like the system is telling me it's time to go buy a new computer......and the problems become more numerous and serious if I try to hold back the tide and use the laptop I bought barely more than a year ago.

If kdenline works, my deliverance from bossy MS software may be at hand.

End of the World Resumes as Planned

(Self-appointed) end-times witnesses and God's gifts to mankind, Ronald and Laura Weinland, disappeared from view after absolutely nothing happened on the 18th of April.

Now he's back. His most recent post indicates his prophecy for the end of the world is very much underway as far as he is concerned.
May 8, 2008

Laura and I are going to resume making Sabbath visits for as long as we are able to do so. Before the Passover season, it was not yet clear whether we would be able to continue this program, but now it is evident we will have some more time to make such visits. Generally we are not going to make such plans very far in advance for the U.S., and from time to time we may have to make last minute changes.

New locations were posted today for some upcoming trips.

The volcano in Chile was probably a breath of fresh air to the Weinlands. Similarly, the earthquake in China would have been wonderful news. One can just imagine how happy they would be if Israel or the US were stupid enough to unilaterally nuke Iran's nuclear installations.

Never mind that God wouldn't have had anything to do with any of it. Just the usual mix of natural disaster and human stupidity. Timeless.

Some reasons why the US is in a mess.....

Watching videos on YouTube I'm often struck by how lost many Americans are as to why their country seems to be an unstoppable train wreck. I've given this a lot of thought over the years, especially since the pace of decline began to accelerate after George W Bush took office. He has merely been the straw that has most greatly stressed this great camel's already sorely tested back.

As is often the case, the seeds of the US's present troubles were sown a very long time ago. Here is a recent video response I made to someone wondering "why"....... It's not the whole answer, of course, but it does deal with a critical part of the problem: the failure of democratic accountability.

National: Tax Cuts for the Top Earners

Idiot Savant over at "No Right Turn" explains how the National Party's tax cuts will be mainly for the top earners.
Mr English made it clear that them priority would be workers earning $60,000-plus - in particular those pushed into the top 39 per cent tax bracket by wage rises.
‘‘We need to keep faith with those people, that's our top priority,'' he told TV1's Agenda yesterday.

Anyone under $60,000 thinking of voting for National to get a tax cut might want to think about that.

I've said the best tax cut would be one that targets the people already having trouble making ends meet. Exempting the first $5000 from tax would benefit all tax payers, but also give the largest proportion of benefit to those on the lowest incomes.

National must still believe in "trickle down" instead of letting the lowest income earners keep more of their own money.

Monday, May 19, 2008

ANZ: Wallet-rape by bank fees

I should have known when I read Poneke's tale about the cafe at Karori Park that I would not escape my own brand of torture.

We discovered that since we paid off our mortgage with the ANZ Bank, they have been charging fees like a wounded bull.

$1 per cheque. That's $4 for four cheques.
60 cents for each eft-pos transaction. That's $41.40 for 69 of them.

There were over $50 in bank charges for a 3 week period beginning April 22nd.

To put this in context, we have not paid bank fees for most of 20 years. When our home loan was paid off last month, we were not asked what account we might like or communicated with in any as to any change of status with respect to our account. What has happened has been a change without any advice or notification. Maybe the Terms & Conditions allow for this sort of thing, but you would think at least one customer service brain cell might realise this wasn't a good way to treat a longtime customer.

The fees we are currently being charged do not conform with ANY ANZ account fee schedule I have been able to locate on their web site. All the transactions we are being charged for should be free or cheaper. So on Sunday I sent a "SecureMail" via the ANZ Internet banking web site asking why this was the case. I have reservations about e-mail for this as I know how it works: someone sees the first two words, bangs you into a some slot that isn't appropriate, then chalks it up on the daily stats as "Job done!" and off to lunch they go.

I got a reply today. As I suspected would happen, whoever read it, saw "mortgage" and fired back directing me to the Home Loans department about my home loan. They hadn't actually read my note.

I responded saying "I DON'T HAVE A HOME LOAN" and asking them to answer the question I had put. I felt bad using caps, but they had completely ignored this when I said it in my first note. I should have just phoned. Silly me. I'll phone them tomorrow anyway. I knew better and made the mistake of trusting.

We're moving everything to Kiwibank anyway. The savings are already there, just a few automatic payments to migrate and we can ditch the ANZ for all transactions. But I want my $50 back.

Freedom of Speech For Foreign Billionaires

The Electoral Finance Act seeks to make election spending by individuals and groups more transparent and to restrict the ability of cashed-up interest groups or individuals to spread self-serving rubbish at election time and get away with it as the Exclusive Brethren did last election.

I have no problem with that. My speech is still just as free as it was before. I can say what I like and no one is going to stop me or prosecute me. Mainly because saying what you like isn't against the law.

Ok, I can't print off a million of my own leaflets and drop them in every letterbox in the country, but then neither can you. Fair is fair. We each have one vote, one voice. What wasn't fair was all the cashed-up people and groups amplifying their speech in their own interest while none of us ordinary voters had any capacity to reply if they were misleading or full of lies.

But there IS one way to campaign all day and all night for the party or cause of your choice with no limits, no caps and few restrictions.

All you have to do is own a media outlet: Radio network, TV station or network, newspaper....whatever. The rules don't apply to these people.

Almost all of the commercial media in NZ is already owned by foreign billionaires. RadioWorks? Yep. TV3? Yep. APN? Yep. Fairfax? Yep. They are all effectively exempt from campaign spending laws. Foreign billionaires, as a rule, tend to favour political parties they think will enhance their profits. Rupert Murdoch's FOX News loves the US Republican Party. His SUN in the UK loved Tony Blair while Blair was waging war and knobbling the BBC. Now Murdoch loves the Tories again. That's just a couple of examples.

Even under the EFA, if these proprietors and their agents here decide they like one political party over another, it's open slather to voting day. They don't even have to be open about it. They could simply tell you good news about the party they favour and bad new about anyone else. Heroic, gowing features about their favoured leader and sad, grey stories full of questions and uncertainty about the ones they don't like. Job done.

They call it news.

If Kiwis want to enjoy this same freedom, we'll have to create our own media outlets again. Why should foreign billionaires be the only people (not) in New Zealand who can flout the intent of the EFA and spend whatever they want saying whatever they please...and we have no right of reply? They not only can spend what they like, but they also own the means by which anyone might reply. Wouldn't that be nice.

This may seem cynical. The point is there is nothing to stop it being the absolute truth. There is no real competition in media here. Almost every newspaper is a monopoly in its own town and the vast majority of those are owned by one company.

I'd like to see a law that prevents anyone from owning more than ONE media outlet. Take your pick. A newspaper in Auckland? A radio station in Timaru?

It's worth looking at the Australian laws on cross-media ownership and foreign ownership. Much more careful than we have been about who owns what and where.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

National Party Moves Against MMP

Today's Sunday Star Times has a story saying the Mixed-member Proportional (MMP) voting system is in danger under National. They are promising a two-stage referendum, with the first referendum at the 2011 elections asking people if they want to keep MMP or not.

This is no surprise. The move to a genuine democracy left the National Party displaced from its previously favoured position under the First Past the Post voting system as New Zealand's largest minority party. Under that system, the Nats most often won 100% of the power despite other parties winning at times in excess of 60% of the vote.

The move to MMP brought a system of representation where all voters for significant parties are represented equally and that allowed voters who had previously never been able to elect anyone they wanted to be represented by parties other than the two major parties.

The campaign against MMP has been lead by the usual democracy-hating folks: wealthy, self-appointed elite right-wingers who can't win public support for their extreme and self-serving, faith-based policies. Graeme Hunt and Peter Shirtcliffe are top of the list of people who don't want you to have a vote that actually counts if you disagree with their vision of a New Zealand run by the elites who think know everything for the elites who think they know everything.

These people aren't interested in democracy or fairness. They want power and they are campaigning to take yours away and give it to themselves via a campaign to return to First Past the Post and 100% of the power for their political vehicle of choice: the National Party.

National is taking a risk here. Many who might vote for them later this year may be less keen to do so if they realise it may be the second-last time they will have any real choice at a general election. National has so far not made any attempt to make a case for a referendum. Every recent poll shows clear majority support for MMP. The attempt a few years back to trigger a citizens initiated referendum on MMP died an apathetic death. Of the 8 parties in the Parliament, only one wants a referendum on MMP: National.

In my 25 years in New Zealand, I've voted for pretty much every party going at one point or another. I was an activist for and voted for Bob Jone's New Zealand Party in 1984 partly because it was National who had allowed Muldoon to effectively become a dictator. They didn't lifta finger to stop him.

My vote means a lot to me and even more now that it actually counts toward representation under MMP. For me, effective democracy through fair representation underlies EVERY other issue in the political realm. Without it, citizens are collectively rendered impotent and irrelevant. New Zealand doesn't need the thinly-disguised crypto-fascism favoured by self-styled elitists like Hunt and Shirtcilffe. I don't know what else to call people who want to take my genuine vote away so they can get what they want.

National's obvious antipathy to effective democracy via MMP has for many years kept them on my list of non-starters. Looks like they have renewed the lease on their place on that list.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Poneke's Back

Must have changed his mind......Great!

Polls misleading?

The Fairfax Media poll out today would be devastating news for Labour if it were accurate and the sentiment in it unchanged by election day.

What the poll report doesn't tell us is how large the undecided voter pool is. It's hard to know what weight to give any poll that doesn't also reveal what proportion of those sampled were undecided.

What letter?

The Weekend Herald has this story reporting that Ministers did not know about any problem with former Immigration NZ boss, Mary Anne Thompson's, qualifications. These two paragraphs appear early in the story:
Ms Aikman said in a letter that the commission appeared to have been aware of these allegations about Ms Thompson's qualifications for the past four years or so, "but they were not raised with Ms Thompson while she was a public servant".
Ms Aikman declined to comment to NZPA yesterday other than to repeat the letter was sent in error.

The story doesn't say anything further about this letter. What letter is being referred to? Who sent it? Who was it sent to? When was it sent? Why was it "sent in error"? Where should it have gone? Why is it even mentioned?

[UPDATE: Found it. It's an allusion to a story carried the previous day in the Herald. Some mention could/should have been made of this earlier story.]

"Some Ingenious Argument..."

In speaking to the Israeli Knesset this week, US President George W Bush demonstrated once again how very out of touch he is with reality.

During what was reported as a long speech, Bush implicitly likened Democratic front-runner Barack Obama's commitment to talk to Middle East leaders as being akin to appeasing the Nazis. He went on to say:

Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along," Bush said. "We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: "Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided." We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.


It doesn't take "some ingenious argument" to see that Bush has made some grievous errors of judgment during his terms as US president. Among them is his tendency to vilify and attack people he doesn't like, with little regard to the evidence of the real level of risk they may represent to the United States or any other country. His claims that pre-invasion Iraq had WMD and links to Al Qaeda were both unfounded. Comparing any of these leaders to Adolf Hitler is bizarre and inaccurate.

Given Bush's primary presumptions about the Syrian and Iranian leaders can be demonstrated to be incorrect, his conclusions based on those presumptions aren't worth serious consideration.

No "ingenious argument" is required. The evidence is all anyone needs to clearly see Bush's many failures for what they are.

Friday, May 16, 2008

R.I.P. Poneke blog

I tried to look at Poneke's blog this evening and it appeared to have gone entirely. Hmmm. I was presented with a login prompt to Wordpress.

Found the answer on No Right Turn.

Sorry to see Poneke go. I can understand how having a voice of your own (What else is a blog, after all?) might be inconsistent with being a reporter / recorder of the voices of others.

Good luck, Poneke!

Cullen and Manufacturers

Stuff's Colin Espinor and the Herald are making much of the poor turnout to hear Finance Minister, Michael Cullen's pre-budget address to the Canterbury Manufacturers Association lunch in Christchurch.

Maybe the phone is off the hook with respect to Labour. It's tough times in New Zealand for manufacturers. The low US dollar they insist on pricing everything in has been a real problem for them. The competition from manufacturers in much larger countries with 3rd-world labour laws and better access to markets and capital has been crushing. Maybe there aren't many manufacturers left in Canterbury to attend.

But I honestly can't see how local manufacturers could get any more excited by the prospect of a National-lead government later this year. That party is even more committed to free trade and open markets - especially the China deal - than Labour is.

There can't be any real benefit from that quarter for local manufacturers. Trimming a little "red tape" by exposing the environment to renewed plundering and spoilage won't save much money for manufacturers.

How can National credibly enact policies to force wages down even further when criticising the present government for not doing enough to see wages rise? My eldest daughter's employer is already refusing to pay the legal minimum wage and my daughter begs me not to say anything lest they not give her a good reference if she should decide to leave that job. So they get away with breaking the law and low-balling a teenager who works hard.

As for tax cuts, the banks and the oil companies will soak those up in 15 minutes flat via interest rates and petrol prices and thanks to the lower tax take, services will be reduced, enforcement will be gutted and we'll all have to pay more and higher user fees and larger health care costs out of what's left, reducing our already shrinking disposable incomes. What good is a tax cut if the Reserve Bank of New Zealand can deem it inflationary and confiscate the money right back off you and transfer it to the commercial banks via higher interest rates. If that fails, the RBNZ can cut interest rates, the NZ dollar falls and our buying power for all the imported stuff we used to make here takes another hit. Tax is the least of our worries. It's close to being a red herring.

People can be perverse. Maybe the Canterbury Manufacturers Association should all be NZ First or Green Party supporters. Both have policies more in tune with the needs of local manufacturers than National or Labour, who will (apparently) hold to current policies until the last local manufacturer in NZ turns out the lights and moves to China, Mexico or those special export zones in Thailand where the usual labour laws don't apply.

Those "Buy Kiwi Made" ads should soon be changed to "Find Kiwi Made". It's getting harder to do that.

[UPDATE 2008-05-20: Audrey Young's blog gives a hint as to the most likely reason for the poor turnout for Cullen's recent speech:
His long-serving private secretary Kim McKenzie departed suddenly, apparently after a dispute of some sort - unrelated to the Budget. (He said today that she had not been sacked and was on leave and did not know if she was returning).

His traditional pre-Budget speech to the Canterbury Manufacturers’ Association drew a pitiful audience of 36.

Clark noted on Newstalk ZB this morning that the person organising it should have been shot given the fact that she had given a speech there only two weeks previously to a packed audience - wherein may lie the reason.

Little wonder that Cullen’s office is quick to say that his post-Budget speech on Friday to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce is a sell-out - sorry, is sold out - with 85 acceptances for tickets at $60 a head.
]

US House Defeats War Funding Bill

Voting 149 to 141, the US House of Representatives defeated a bill providing US$169B in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming year.

Bush will get the money in the end, but seeing war funding becoming a political football is a healthy development. The Democrats have typically just rolled over and signed the cheques. It will be interesting to see what happens when the war funding is debated again, closer to the elections later this year.

Three interesting items in this story:

The total funding for Iraq and Afghan wars will be US$800 billion after this bill finally passes.

The Democrat-proposed 0.5% tax on people earning over US$500,000 to fund tertiary education for veterans is opposed by the "support the troops" Republicans as being "bad for small business". In Kiwi terms, any person or business that earns more than $500,000 wouldn't be a "small" one.

The 132 Republicans who voted "present", rather than "Yes" or "No". A tactical ploy? Or an attempt to distance themselves from the war as elections approach? You can almost hear them in September / October: "I did not vote slavishly for every war appropriation!" No. They may have tactically abstained to prevent the majority Democrats in the House from attaching conditions to Bush's war money.

Democracy endangered by ignorance and incapacity....

There are still a lot of people out there who don't understand how MMP works. Having watched them struggle with it for 20 years in some cases, I've worked out that the errors they make are too often based on a lack of understanding how the old First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system worked. Confusion on the role of parties and the selection of candidates is common, even among people who have previously been elected as members of Parliament. You would think that at least they would know how things work....but apparently not. Too often they conflate the party into the institution of government. It's a logical flaw common from an era when one party WAS the government and the line between party and government became all but invisible at times. They struggle with the (long-over due and much-needed) separation between party and 'government' that MMP as introduced. They appear to not be able to see it.

In their minds, one party is still the "government", even though it does not have majority support. Other parties now participating in government are seen by these people as usurpers and not legitimate. "Loser parties" that shouldn't even be there. The connection between the votes and the seats isn't relevant in their minds.

Yesterday, the New Zealand Herald (Thursday, May15th) featured a letter from Ralph Maxwell, a former Minister in the Lange Labour government. Mr. Maxwell is also a prominent figure in the "battle" against the Electoral Finance Act.

Maxwell's letter was the feature letter and given a large headline: "MMP: Party Hierarchies Gain". The headline maintained my ongoing impression of consistently negative and/ or misleading headlines about MMP in the Herald.

The letter itself was dismal, being free of accurate content. I fear for the mind of its author. (I can't find a link to it, so will type it out at the end of this post.)

Contrary to Maxwell's claim, the change under MMP to 120 seats and the 50:50 ratio of local to list seats was always part of the MMP recommendation going right back to the 1986 Royal Commission report. I have a copy. Over time, in actual practice, that ratio has 'naturally' adjusted to something like a 60:40 ratio through the addition of new local seats while the total number of seats remains the same.

Despite his history as a Labour Party activist, Mr. Maxwell is also obviously confused about the role of "party hierarchies" in political parties. Who else should lead and organise a party if not the leadership and elected (usually by party members) officeholders of that party? Granted the unions in the Labour Party have had a great deal of power, distinct from individual grassroots members. It's been that way for nearly a century. Long before MMP was introduced.

What is his problem with MMP? If Mr. Maxwell wants to choose candidates for a party, under MMP or any other system, he should join a party and take part. That's how it's done. Parties have always chosen their candidates. Parties have also typically reserved the right to "vet" local candidates for suitability, as we recently saw in the battle for the National Party nomination in Selwyn. No one wants another Alamein Kopu or another John Kirk. MMP did not change this. That is how it has always been done. As a former Labour Party MP, you'd think Maxwell would know this.

Perhaps he is just being cynical, saying whatever needs to be said to win support....true or not. That sort of thing happens all the time. Given his background ad experience, you would not expect him to et some many things wrong on the facts and in conceptual terms.

Under the First Past the Post system, 100% of the power was given to just one "party hierarchy". At least under MMP, we now have several "party hierachies" actively participating in government. That has been a huge improvement.

Mr. Maxwell's manifest confusion and error about how the New Zealand political system works and the shape of MMP, isn't enough to justify a referendum to change it. His fear that the government will put the election back a year is almost in the loony-tune category.

Maxwell's recommendation that we return to first past the post and one-party government in order to prevent multiple parties passing legislation (proposed by the largest party, who would rule alone under FPTP) is close on to being bizarre. As I said at the start, I fear for his mind.

A separate issue is why Maxwell's letter was featured at all, given the embarrassing errors it contained. It was not a useful contribution to any debate. It can only mislead people who might not know nay better. Was it just because of who he is? Mr. Maxwell didn't choose the negative headline.

Jeremy Hall's letter, which followed Maxwell's, was both factual and coherent, making the point that several parties were needed under MMP to pass the EFA, while under FPTP one party could have done it without needing anyone else's support. The headline was "Legislative Hurdle".

To me, that headline was misleading and plays on the idea that MMP slows things down, which is usually portrayed as a negative by MMP opponents. To me, it is one of the best things about the MMP system: a check on unbridled power. The very thing that Ralph Mxwell is complaining about.

Maxwell's letter:

I support your corespondent, R. W. Earp's call for a referendum on MMP. As one who worked strenuously for the introduction of MMP, I am disgusted by the outcome of its implementation. The major increase in the size of the House and the savage cutback in the number of electorates to a mere 50 per cent of the seats, leaving 50 per cent of the House to list MPs, were not part of the original referendum. (Me: Yes they both were.) It was a design decided by the two major parties. Listing all candidates, including those who won a constituency seat, places huge, undemocratic power in the hands of party hierarchies. The same pathway that foisted the Electoral Finance Act and the legislation, retrospectively, of Labour's $800,000 pledge card on us could be repeated to shift a year's election back until we are through an economic downturn or some other trumped up emergency. New Zealand First's seven list votes could again be relied upon to force through necessary changes to our electoral law. We urgently need a referendum this year for the public to decide whether we return to the first-past-the-post system, retain MMP, or align ourselves with the Australian preferential vote voting system.

Ralph Maxwell, Tauranga


If anyone needs a refresher on MMP, look here

Thursday, May 15, 2008

NZ Prisons

This week's escape from Mt. Eden prison 'touched a nerve' for me.

I worked as a Corrections Officer in a New Zealand prison during 2006 and 2007. I can readily understand why the Department of Corrections has trouble gaining and retaining staff. I went into the job full of enthusiasm and no small amount of curiosity. I learned one hell of a lot during my time there. I would definitely do it again. But in the end, like most people who work there after a few years, I left.

I have seen nothing in the media that adequately and accurately presents what prison is actually like. There was a multi-part series on TVNZ in early 2006, filmed at Rimutaka Prison near Wellington, that was probably the best I've ever seen, but it was on so late at night and so poorly promoted almost no one saw it. I missed all the episodes but for one...and I was interested and motivated. But the one I saw was full of truth, if lacking in depth. TV can't give you the feel of damp concrete, the smell of disinfectant, body odour, piss, shit, maybe some vomit and ALWAYS cigarettes that will fill your nostrils during a typical day in prison.

Other than that, much of the reporting fits into one of these categories: Sensational - end of story ; focuses on the political plays by politicians ; plays on public stereotypes / preconceptions that are misleading and often completely inaccurate, picked up from US shows like "Prison Break" or whatever.....

To be fair to the Department of Corrections, they have done their homework. They actually do know (or have a pretty good idea) what will most likely reduce crime. But they can't do much or most of it because the reality of what would actually work does not tally with public attitudes to criminals and punishment versus rehabilitation.

These same attitudes exist among prison staff on the floors holding the keys. The same debates rage in the smoko rooms in a prison as may rage in local pubs about crime and criminals. The staff have genuinely held beliefs, like any member of the public. Hardened by often painful experience, too. They see the murderers and abusers and thugs and see what they do and how they often behave like animals toward each other and officers and they rightly are angered by it. They may even have been seriously injured by it.

But that doesn't mean prisons are good. Or that they are successful in accomplishing the things they are intended to do. Staff are the first to look in the cell windows and discover the suicides. Mostly, floor staff, with a few exceptions, haven't read the research. They just see the crims. (Hard to miss them ) They aren't experts steeped in reems of data from a thousand prisons in dozens of countries. There is no 'big picture' when you and your partner are down an unlocked wing with 38 crims, including murderers, gang members and assorted thugs who may whisper "pig" or "fucking screw" as you pass if they don't know you (or maybe because they do).

The bottom line for the leadership of the Department of Corrections is that it isn't politically possible, externally, to spend the money and do the things that really would work, or internally to get many staff to buy into those ideas. So Corrections does the best it can. If / when what they do attempt doesn't work due to lack of resources and / or weak commitment on the floor, the whole idea of rehabilitation is undermined and perhaps declared a failure and the "hang'em high" crowd say "We told you so." Never mind the truth may well be the opposite had the policies implemented been supported adequately and seen strong commitment over time.

Much of what public debate does occur about prisons in New Zealand is ignorant or cynical or both. The public servants who actually work there aren't allowed to say what they know, on either side of the debate, other than through their union, leaving the field of debate open to people who often have strongly held beliefs, but little in the way of experience to back them up. Or people more intent on giving a favourite political football one more kicking around the party political paddock.

The wider public is thus poorly served and their ignorance preserved.

****

As for the escape the other day, when I worked in the prison, if you didn't have enough staff in a wing, the wing stayed locked. That's OK for a few hours occasionally, but if it happens a lot, the convicted crims and / or accused, mostly young guys, get pissed off with being locked in their tiny cells all day. You'd have to spend a month in one of these cells to have any idea what that feels like. One day wouldn't do it. Your head is still "outside". When prisoners get pissed off due to being locked all day because of short staff, the job gets more dangerous.

There definitely are mad, bad (and sad) people behind many of those doors. You may be struck by how the murdering monster on the TV News last night, last week or last month is the quiet, polite person in front of you saying "please" and "thank you" in asking for a bar of soap. Or maybe he's still full of his raging lethal ego, trying to assert control here, conditioning you with his violence and threats, yelling and screaming and bashing his cell door and threatening to "do you" when you unlock it to give him his evening meal. That's what his life taught him worked for him. His incarceration was inevitable.

Where I worked, you did shifts to an 18-week roster, usually working 10 days on and 4 days off. You work most weekends. Days, evenings and nights. Mostly days. But a big chunk of evenings and night shifts came every 2-3 months for 7 days in a row. I worked two kinds of shifts. One was an 8 hour shift for 8 hours pay, including a half-hour meal break and two shorter "smoko" breaks. The other was a 9 to 5 shift, with an un-paid lunch hour. Prisons are usually in the middle of nowhere, so you spend that hour at the prison. If an alarm goes up during your lunch on a "9 hour" shift, and you're on site, you're expected to respond despite the fact you're not actually being paid. I thought it odd that you would be expected to incur MOST physical risk at a time when you're not actually 'there'. You may even be putting your life on the line....for nothing other than to show loyalty to work mates. But who CREATED that situation?

Ten days in a row in a prison wing is a LONG run. You're "doing time", too. By day 9, even during a quiet period, you're getting punchy. If the gangs or some group of prisoners are trying to put pressure on staff for some reason - and they do - then 10 days is simply punishing. When you're new to the job, you're OK until the first time you find yourself wrestling on the floor with a belligerent crim. If you're lucky, you aren't injured. Maybe a few scratches and/or bruises. You hope they guy doesn't have hepatitis or HIV. If you followed the rules, you also weren't alone and more help came quickly. You're trained to handle these situations. But with short staffing, the rules often get bent or broken by staff trying to keep the routines running and you may find yourself down a wing with 38 unlocked crims, fingers-crossed nothing happens. If anything does happen, as far as management is concerned, it's YOUR fault. You should not have been there alone. You broke the rules.

****

How do staff respond to this stress? They call in sick. Crazy not to, in a way. If you go to work stressed, you might do something rash, like get annoyed with the prisoner who won't get off the pay phone (for the 100th time) when his allocated time is up. You might push the lever and cut off his call. That makes him angry and he loses it and smashes your face into the floor and you're off work for 6 weeks while your bones knit. At least you'll make a full recovery. Some don't.

OK, so staff have called in sick. What do you do? You call in other staff who will do the overtime. This overtime is in addition to their rostered 10 days on. They are covering for you on one of their 4 days off. Or maybe they will work a double shift today...and then come in tomorrow and for the next 4,5 or 9 days. Maybe they will do several doubles during their 10 days, then maybe another shift or two on their days off. Overtime is capped, but you can run yourself into a rut before you hit the limit. Next month is a new month.

Sickies happen so much, that management suspects that some staff organise "sickies" to effectively replace a normal shift with one paid at the overtime rate of time and a quarter. That additional wage bill represents a huge extra cost due to the high level of absenteeism, in turn related to the stress, in turn part of working in a prison and further exacerbated by working to a punishing roster hostile to social life and family life. After an initial burst, of overtime, toward the end of which I did some DUMB things, I rarely did "call backs". The time and a quarter paid for overtime simply wasn't worth giving up a precious day off after 10 days straight. I needed those days off more than I needed the money.

Younger or single staff tend to prefer the 10 days on, 4 days off. Many, if not most, are from military backgrounds and think people who don't like the 10-day regime are weak. They should harden up. Suck it up. "When I was working close protection in Iraq".....etc. So we were left to enjoy the four days off....in the middle of the week when no one's home all day and your friends are at work.

****

The job itself teaches you to say"No". If you're the sort who can't say "No", you either learn or this quickly becomes the wrong job. The crims always want something. They depend on you for access to everything. They will run you ragged and wreck the daily routine, endanger your security and more, if you let them. They only want what they want. "No" is often your best defense.

There are definitely times you can and should say "Yes" and most officers will, most of the time. Some joke about saying "No" to everything ("Talk to the hand!"), but the reality is that they are placing their and their co-workers' safety at risk if they seriously try to follow that.

On the flip side, if you say "Yes" when other officers have said "No", then you can run into increasingly serious problems with your co-workers. There are grey areas and it generally boils down to whether the senior officer running the shift is a "yes" or a "no" sort of person....remembering that everyone is mostly "no" out of necessity. You find you work your shift according to the "flavour" of the person you're reporting to. But the consequence of even these minor inconsistencies can be significant if a certain prisoner, on a given day, with a specific need gets a "no" to a request he REALLY wanted, in his mind NEEDED, a "Yes" to.....and has had "Yes" before. That can drive people in prison crazy with frustration.

Therefore, the lowest common denominator is to say "no" to everything legally manageable.....with the consequence that over time, this increases stress as prisoners respond in their own way to insensitive, arbitrary authority - the sort that may have helped shape their anti-social attitudes from their earliest days.

Picture this: You're working with staff who, like you, hold all the cards (the keys and access to ANYTHING) over the prisoners. You're harder. You know how to say "No". "No" is most often the best answer. How then do you relate to other staff? How much of this attitude do you take home to your family, given you spend most of your waking moments being conditioned to behave - and respond - in this way? As you can imagine, senior staff, long accustomed to saying "no" for years, maybe decades, are inclined to say "No" to staff, too. "No" is a big part of prison culture on the side that holds the keys. I quickly found that in discussing any issue that arose, it was essential that you not allow it to boil down to a "Yes" or a "No", because if it did, the outcome would predictable.

Maybe you're getting the idea prisons are deeply dysfunctional places. You would not be wrong. If you think about it, what might the most likely outcome be of taking all the most socially (and often mentally) damaged, crippled, abused -even outright EVIL - people and putting them all in the same confined place? A place where they have open and easy access to large groups of people like themselves for much of the day. It might seem like a really dumb thing to do if you want to PREVENT crime. In my opinion and in my experience, you'd be right.

But people who don't know prisons often BELIEVE prisons will deter all crime. Get tougher. Be harder. FORCE people to be better people. Send them to Boot Camp before they end up in the prisons! Never mind it doesn't work and usually only makes things worse for people already too often damaged from their very earliest days by previous force, past coercion. Maybe more discipline does work for people who not known any. Maybe more discipline would be petrol on the fire for those who have already suffered more than enough "discipline".

****

Prisons definitely do deter the vas majority of people from offending and many of those who do offend from re-offending. Prison sucks. It sucks hard. Doing things that would see you go back would be no longer on the menu for many people. But what about the rest? Sadly, however this is not true for many others who go to prison and keep going back. Once inside, prison can BECOME their life. They are "institutionalised". Everyone they know well is there. Their friends are all there. Their (often gang) family is there. Their personal values become set there. They aren't values normal people people share.

I'll end with one true story. The names have been changed. No one is innocent.

There was a charming, intelligent and enaging Maori guy in my wing who was also, unfortunately, a complete rogue. His history of trouble with the law was long, comprehensive and gradually escalating in seriousness as he revolved around, in and out of the justice system and prison. He, like many in prison, had been recruited by a gang and much of his offending after that was gang-related. Some was drug-related. He could be violent if he chose to and often was toward other prisoners. Rarely toward staff, though he was known to have the odd 'bad day'.

I was talking to him one day while I was supervising the outside yards. He was in his own concrete yard, segregated from other prisoners for his own safety for reasons I no longer recall. He probably owed someone for smokes. That's the most usual reason for prisoner to prisoner violence in prison: debts. Usually tobacco. Debts are often run up by prisoners about to be released. They then go "on segs" and escape the bash.....and go home not having paid up. They're crims. This guy was soon to be released.

But all "normal" crims, who might bash or murder their wives, friends or random strangers or steal anything not bolted down (and much that is) or bash you up for looking at them the wrong way.....well...they all hate the the "kiddy fuckers", the lowest of the low.

As he was due to be released in a few weeks. I asked him how he saw his life going once free. The "quotes" below are representative, not from any transcript other than the one burnt into my head.

He said: "My life is fucked. I'm just over 30. My family doesn't want to know me. No one will give me a job. I've spent over half my life in jail. All my friends are in jail."

I said, "You're an intelligent guy. Your life doesn't need to be this way. It would take a long time to build the trust again, but if you started today, in time, probably years, I know, and that sucks, but you would begin to see an improvement. No way will it be easy. You've built up a long and bad history. But there is no way back if you don't even try. You clearly have what it takes to make a go of it. You're not one of the guys in here who doesn't have two clues to rub together...."

He said,"My life is worth nothing outside. I've wrecked it. But I will make something of myself. I will do something good."

"What's that?", I asked.

"I love kids. I hate anyone who hurst kids. I can make something of my life if I have been able to make a difference to even one child."

"How are you going to do that?"

"I'm going to kill a kiddy-fucker".

I told him that wasn't a good idea. Prisoners sometimes talk this way and you just do NOT buy into it, for obvious reasons.

But a year later, long after he had been released, he killed his kiddy-fucker. The murder victim was another prisoner I also knew from prison who had a history of sexually abusing children. The guy I had been talking to that day in the yard had "made something of his life" according to the value system common among prisoners. It's the world and values they come to know.

How did prison work for this guy? How good is a system that, at least in part, produces an environment where the values that PREVAIL are so at odds with normal, decent human values?

This guy's values became so mangled, bent and broken that he saw his ONLY way out of the life he had created (and HE had created it) was to redeem himself and his wasted life by killing someone else who he saw as even more worthless than himself.

The values he acted on were common prison values. He would have picked them up from other prisoners inside and out of prison. Yes, there are some people who really should be locked up forever and key thrown away. Some people really are "born bad". But at least some who end up being the worst might have been put on a different road if their lives were changed for the better early enough. Before the hidings, drugs and booze. Prisons so a reasonable job of containing the consequences of social or genetic failure when everything else (social or medical) has failed.

But for the rest, the ones who are not irredeemably evil, how do you break that cycle? Is prison the best answer?

I think not. The answer will be more complex and subtle and relate to the personal situation of each person who heads down the road paved with criminal acts that disregard the life, property and well-being of others. The real answer will take more thought and insight than most people are prepared (or have the time) to devote to it.

Maybe you keep first-timers you incarcerate away from all other criminals. Maybe you keep them away from each other. Maybe they should see only staff and social workers and perhaps family, if their family aren't all criminals (too often the case).

But for sure, what makes a small criminal into a big one is sending him to 'Crime University' (prison) and letting the gangs make him one of their own. He can then spend his days in the yard being trained how to break people's bones or take their eyes out in seconds.

Go work in that. The public (mostly) have NO idea. When it gets to be too much, you call in sick. Breathe some fresh air. Let the pressure ease. It's either that or quit. If you quit, you can't pay your bills. You're letting your work mates down, if you quit. Besides, what else are you going to do if this has been your source of income for several / many years? Everyone "knows" prison officers are corrupt and petty sadists. No end of TV shows making that clear.

There is a lot more I could say, about gangs in prisons and what a critically important role prisons play in gang recruitment, discipline and culture, but this is already far too long.

Prisons seem to create as many, if not more, problems than they solve.