Speaker by Various Artists

57

The Government you Deserve

by Adam Hunt

From the age of eight when I landed in my brown corduroy shorts and walked off the plane into horizontal sleet, England was my home. I was there for 18 years, joking that you don’t get that for murder . We went to live in rural England in a traditional farming community. I had some time off school while the English kids caught up with my superior Kiwi schooling, then got an education, a job and a wife.

I was granted release in the mid-nineties, and after a brief sojourn in Sydney (where we should all spend a year in our twenties) got back home. It was a bit of an accident – my wife wanted to go back to England, and I suggested we go via Auckland. People who have seen me tell this story 20 years later smile when I choke up describing sitting in the shuttle bus and smelling New Zealand blowing in the window. I cried with relief, and stayed.

Those eighteen years in Britain were something I cherish. I was educated, I got married, I learned about the origins of our democratic system. I marched and rioted, got rid of a Prime Minister and drank significant quantities of brown water. 

But I always felt like an outsider, because I could never quite understand why the British seemed to take such delight in division: the class system just completely baffled me.

I lived in Suffolk, a postcard county with a history of being bolshy. The main town, Ipswich, was a fairly safe Labour seat. But it was surrounded by an ocean of blue. My thinking about the paradox of this English division began trying to figure out why the poorest members of British society (farm labourers, meat workers etc.) for which working conditions have historically been appalling, clearly thought it was in their interest to vote for the people who owned the land.

Sitting in my local looking at men with bodies broken by 50 years of hard labour and listening to them explaining why the guy in the Range Rover was such a decent chap (and lovely children - the nanny doing such a great job, what tykes they are when they come home from boarding school in the summer) would leave me open mouthed (and in need of more brown water).

I went to a solid state school of about 1200 kids 13+. We didn’t get a huge variety of subjects (no Latin on the menu) but I had a good education. Later on I discovered that on Wednesday afternoons (sports: a time when I could generally be found somewhere other than school premises) some of my cohort went to play golf. My mate shyly shared this years later, explaining how his parents had been careful to stress the importance of discretion - keep it quiet or the wrong sort of boys might want to go, and where would that end?

By the time we got to the nineties I had spent two years receiving final demands from the council for refusing to pay the poll tax and been on a trip to Trafalgar Square for a peaceful protest. We got rid of Thatcher (at the price of a VAT rise so those who could least afford still ended up paying - but a partial win). But when John Major was elected (he was anointed initially, as will happen shortly for Cameron's replacement) I couldn’t cope with the dissonance of it any more. We left.

From overseas it has been less frustrating, but still just as baffling. In the UK today they have a principled, thoughtful leader who has never been embroiled in expense or offshore trust issues, who has a long track record of working hard at the coal face for ordinary people. Who has a support base that spans the young and old, the black and the white, Muslims and Atheists. He isn’t afraid to call out the batshit inherited decisions of the establishment. But his name is Corbyn, and he doesn’t sit well with, well, some constituency that deems him inappropriate - we saw it in New Zealand with Shearer, there is something in our psyche that distrusts authenticity.

Pundits are describing the swing to Trump and UKIP (for they share the same DNA: cynical fascist thinking that appeals to the most basic of our instincts) as a call to reject the establishment. But for some reason this hasn’t quite managed to find its target. In our world have been embroiled in an experiment over the last 35 years that is just as ideologically flawed at that which it pretends to oppose.

We will one day view neo-liberal dogma as a fantasy invented by social scientists masquerading as mathematicians. Marx was an economist, and it is another bunch who have invented their own nonsense. This is at the root of our problems, because it fundamentally fails to consider us as a social species. It is an ideology that assumes everyone is a sociopath (which is why it tends to be sociopaths who float to the top of it).

So somehow in the UK (and to a certain extent the US and NZ) a well founded instinct that we are being screwed has been redirected. I can only admire the brilliance with which this desire for change has been directed away from the real cause of our problems. Somehow in the last 30 years it has become acceptable to promote the interests of the few over the needs of the many.

Instead of doing something simple that would have worked (e.g. voting Labour, or even better adopting proportional representation) the British have been carefully shepherded to an outcome that will do nothing but reinforce the position of the elite, promoting more fear and infighting among the people who it will hurt the most.

And that includes the British Labour party. At a time when they could have risen triumphant over a divided Tory party, they have chosen instead to sacrifice the good of their country and the needs of the many on the alter of egos and sense of entitlement*.

Nice work fellas. As Churchill said, in a democracy you get the government you deserve.

 

*Yes you Benn: this was no time for Daddy issues.

288

A Disorderly Brexit

by John Palethorpe

The United Kingdom elects 73 MEPs to the European Parliament every five years, from twelve regional constituencies. Each region has a number of MEP’s, proportional to their size. Proportion is important, because it’s one of the few election processes in the UK which does not use First Past The Post.

No UK European Parliamentary Election turnout has ever exceeded a turnout of 38.2%. In the eight elections between 1979 and 2014, the UK’s turnout has consistently been lower than the rest of Europe.

Britain never took the European Parliament seriously. It was seen as a place where politicians who couldn’t win a proper seat, using a proper system like FPTP, were sent by their party to get experience. Who’s your local MEP? Well, there’s four or five of them from different parties. Right.

Quite often the complaint was that MEPs got paid handsomely, and they do get reimbursed very well, for doing nothing. Except they weren’t doing nothing, but you’d rarely hear about their efforts from them or their parent party in the UK.

The Parliament itself was in another country, easily dismissable. The political media bought into it. Election results weren’t viewed in terms of relevant to the European Parliament itself, but as indicators of the popularity of the Government in Britain, or the popularity of Opposition parties. The idea that the elections themselves were a way to voice discontent, to protest vote, began to take hold.

It did not go un-noticed. UKIP gained 100,000 votes (1% of the total) and no seats in their first tilt at the European Elections in 1994. By 2014 that had swelled to 4.3 million votes (26.6 of the vote). In 1999 the BNP mirrored UKIP by gaining 100,000 votes. A decade later they’d polled just over 800,000 - before they imploded in spectacular and satisfying fashion.

This matters because Nigel Farage, the most visible member of UKIP, and Nick Griffin of the BNP could not buy a seat in the UK Parliament during this time. And they tried. Each time they did, the unvarnished racist fascism of the BNP proved too unpalatable for the electorate and Farage’s slightly more bonk-eyed euroscepticism failed to attract enough disenfranchised Tory and Labour voters.

Those same voters were happy to send them to Brussels though, highlighting a particularly bloody-minded attitude towards both the right-wing and Europe. Sending parties whose sole aim is to sever ties with the European Union to serve in the European Parliament. Very British.

A friend of mine working for an NGO in Brussels once bemoaned us sending the worst people over to Brussels as our representatives. The relationship was being soured by the refuseniks who took their Parliamentary seats, only to play to the cameras back home.

Electing politicians who refuse to engage with the political system they are elected to be representatives to, and who leverage off their refusal to gain populist support at home. While at the same time the other, traditional, parties of Government failed to effectively communicate just what it was their MEPs were doing across the North Sea. That's a recipe for a democratic deficit and a democratic disaster.

Brexit isn’t a sudden seismic event, it's not a political earthquake. The language being used by politicians of all stripe implies that it is though. But it’s not. It’s more of a slow erosion process, but admitting that would mean that those who were in positions of political influence during the long goodbye would have to accept responsibility for their utter failure to engage on the European Union.

As I mentioned previously, when the European Parliamentary elections were held, the talk was always about how it would affect the Government of the day or the opposition. The warning signs of the BNP’s 800,000 votes in 2009 were only seen as problematic for local councils, not for the UK’s relationship with the European Union.

That’s why there’s an awful lot of people openly expressing regret at the Leave vote, despite having voting in favour of it. They’d become accustomed to using votes on Europe as a protest, and also used to protest votes not really changing anything in a First Past The Post system.

By not taking the European Parliament seriously, political parties and the media ensured that it didn’t really mean anything to British voters. The only people who took it seriously and were vocal about it were those seeking to leverage political capital from it, like Farage and UKIP.

People complain that the Remain campaign were muddled and uninspiring. That’s hardly surprising given that no political party had managed a full throated and authentic defence of the European Union in over a decade. Instead they attempted to align themselves as understanding the concerns of eurosceptics, attempting to triangulate their way to regaining votes they’d lost to UKIP instead of attempting to actually defend the European Union.

Meanwhile, the Leave campaign spent nearly twenty years practising their lines and establishing a track record of solid xenophobia, nationalism and right wing popularism.

The voters never took the European Parliament seriously. Neither did the big political parties. UKIP did, they saw an opportunity to gain political authenticity, secure a sweet funding stream and gain nationwide profile through their positions as MEPs. Trotsky’s French Turn re-purposed for Little Englanders. There’s no small irony in that.

In a political environment where news-cycles and term limits create a short-termism, Farage and UKIP have played the long game. So too have Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond and the SNP, who have seen UK Governments come and go while remaining committed to their cause. Both parties have benefit hugely from the traditional big parties of Labour and the Conservatives taking the electorate for granted, viewing certain areas as ‘theirs’ and not noticing the disintegration of trust in them.

There are echoes of the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014 in the Brexit result and its immediate aftermath. The winning campaign has immediately hit reverse and is backing out of the core promises made to voters should they choose Leave. Voters are understandably angry at this, much in the same way the Scottish electorate were. In that case their wrath was reserved for Pro-Union Labour, who lost almost all of their Scottish seats in Westminster in 2015 and nearly all of their Scottish Parliament seats earlier this year.

Where will voters target their wrath should Brexit fail to deliver the no immigration, money for everything, good old Great Britain promises that were made? David Cameron has already resigned, going from the man who helped save the Union in 2014 to the first Tory Leader to win a majority in 23 years in 2015, to the guy who fucked a pig and then the Union. When he first arose to prominence, it was joked that the ‘heir to Blair’ as he was then couldn’t possibly out-do Blair in terms of resentment. Nobody’s laughing now.

The leadership contest should see Boris Johnson fulfil his destiny, having establishing his public-school buffoon reputation, and become leader of the Conservative Party. He’s an intensely dangerous politician, a smart man doing an impression of an idiot. Michael Gove is also in the ascendancy, which I can only assume is final proof that God does not exist.

That said, it won’t be all plain sailing. Only ⅔ of Conservative MPs backed Leave and there’s talk of an anti-Boris candidate. The eventual decision will be made by 100,000 or so Conservative Party members. That’s comforting. They elected Cameron last time.

The Parliamentary Labour Party is blaming Jeremy Corbyn, but they’ve been blaming him for everything since he was elected leader, against their wishes, by the party membership last year. They seem to be looking for a miracle leader who can solve a decades worth of decline within the Parliamentary Party, who are at least partly responsible for it.

Then there’s outside of England. Nicola Sturgeon attempting to retain Scottish EU membership should England and Wales leave and preparing for Indyref 2: Electorate Boogaloo. Sinn Fein calling for a unification vote for Northern Ireland, given Brexit wholly undermines the Belfast Accord of 1999. The sight of Ian Paisley MP, son of the Doctor, advising Northern Ireland residents to get a Republic of Ireland passport.

Spain offering joint sovereignty of Gibraltar, lest border controls make life unbearable for its British residents. Calais demanding that the UK take back the border to Dover, meaning an end to the refugee and migrant camps at the French port. The EU indicating that if Britain wants to leave then it should do so quickly, given it doesn’t want to stick around. Oh, and the world economy lost $2 trillion dollars - and that’s just on the vote outcome.

(I’m half expecting Argentina to make a dash for the Malvinas while everyone’s busy)

There’s the possibility it all grinds to an anti-climactic back down, that Article 50 is not activated and the UK doesn’t leave the E.U at all. That doesn’t make the disenchantment, disregard and outright hostility towards Europe and Westminster any less of a problem though. Nor the racism, xenophobia and divisions that the referendum has starkly illustrated.  An MP was MURDERED during the campaign by a right wing fascist, for heaven's sake. Cameron came to power speaking of Broken Britain. As he departs, it seems it is more broken than ever.

It is, without doubt, an exciting time for British politics. Exciting like the rush of adrenaline you get when you’re about to bin your car into a wall. Well, at least they’ve got control of the vehicle now.

I think. 

19

If the fish stinks ...

by Tim McKinnel

On 16 May 2016, a long-awaited report into New Zealand’s fisheries hit the inboxes of media, politicians, and fishing industry bosses. It was complex, detailed and damning.

In addition to data suggesting our oceans were being plundered, there were reports within reports that were suggestive of a benevolent and toothless regulator allowing a misbehaving industry to act with impunity.

The ‘catch reconstruction report’, released by the University of British Columbia, found that the total amount of marine fish caught in New Zealand from 1950 to 2010 was 2.7 times more than recorded by official statistics. It started a firestorm, making headlines throughout New Zealand and internationally.

Social media was abuzz with condemnation of the industry and the government, and greenies, recreational fishers and opposition parties were united in their call for a wide ranging inquiry into the fishing industry. In response the fishing industry and its lobbyists went on the offensive, using ad hominem attacks, partisanship and hyperbole to attack the science that made them look bad.

For those who bothered, the report made for troubling reading. It painted a picture of an exploited natural resource, with widespread underreporting and dumping by industrial fishing companies. Most troubling was the revelation that approximately 37% of total catch was made up of commercial discards – and the suggestion that the regulatory agency responsible for enforcement was aware of the nature and extent of the issues and was ignoring them.

In a country built on the exploitation of natural resources, the report can be read both as metaphor and an excoriating expose of the capture of a government regulator by the very industry it is supposed to be regulating.

In the wake of the release, it was fascinating to watch the fishing industry, its lobby groups and the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) wade into the argument, seemingly testing different and sometimes contradictory public relations lines day-by-day. If they had taken the Myers-Briggs test, they’d have been operating at the far extreme of feeling mode.

They claimed the report failed to understand how official data was reported, that it was highly politicised, that it contained stories masquerading as science and was highly biased. The regulatory body charged with protecting our fisheries, MPI, went even further, criticising the report's methodology and claiming that it was contradicted by its own evidence.

Except that it wasn’t.  

After a few days of official attempts to discredit the reconstruction report, an internal MPI report was leaked to Newshub. This MPI report, Operation Achilles, followed a cameras-on-boats trial and revealed levels of waste consistent with the reconstruction report data. More troubling, the report suggested that MPI may have given an undertaking to those being monitored not to prosecute any offences caught on camera. Which if true, surely was an open invitation to dump, discard and offend carte blanche?

In response to the leak, MPI set about trying to undermine its own report, claiming it was out of context, preliminary, misinterpreted and plain wrong. And then another MPI report was leaked, Operation Hippocamp, with remarkably similar findings.

Attempting to explain the ministry's failure to prosecute Fisheries Act offences captured on video, Primary Industries minister Nathan Guy argued that it  had insufficient evidence and claimed it had received a legal opinion saying it was unable to prosecute - a strange dichotomy when there was video evidence.

Important questions arise from these claims, which seem to have been recognised by the Director General of MPI, Martyn Dunne - who appointed Michael Heron QC to review the decision not to prosecute in Achilles, Hippocamp, and a third operation, the aptly named Operation Overdue.

Up to this point, the story had been centred on fish dumping, underreporting and non-prosecution. The argument had become, ‘sure it happens, but not in any way near the numbers the academic report suggests’, even though the MPI reports reinforced the data in the reconstruction report.

Then Greenpeace revealed that MPI had contracted an industry owned and controlled firm, Trident Systems, to video and monitor Snapper 1, the country’s largest and most valuable inshore fishery. On the face of it, it’s a clear conflict of interest. No matter what access MPI has to what would ultimately be many terabytes of footage, if an industry is responsible for reviewing, analysing and reporting on itself, there is a risk of abuse, and the public would quite rightly have little confidence. In response, government and industry have argued that the RFP was an open and fair process.

But was it?

I know from reviewing MPI’s Request for Proposal (RFP) document that Snapper 1 could not be monitored by cameras without the agreement of industry. MPI appears to have had no way to enforce the installation of cameras or the video monitoring programme. The RFP process required applicants to have the consent and support of industry as part of their application. You would assume Trident, an industry-owned firm, might have the inside running on getting its own consent and support.

And so, a new series of questions arise. Who, in this so-called open and transparent system, entered the RFP process? Why was Trident Systems preferred over the other applicants? Which individuals made the decision to award the tender to Trident, and on what criteria? And how did MPI and industry manage the inherent conflict of the industry consenting to and supporting itself, relative to external applicants?

The past fortnight of evidence paints a damning picture. The public has learned that MPI has known about high levels of dumping and underreporting, then ignored it, and failed to prosecute. Despite having video evidence of serious offending. There are suggestions there were agreements not to prosecute, and the awarding of a contract to the fishing industry to monitor itself. These are serious questions, requiring serious consideration.

MPI’s only substantive response to date has been to order an inquiry into facts the public only knows about because of the three leaked reports. It has the appearance of a deliberately narrow inquiry designed to look firm but achieve little. The message to hard working MPI staff seems to be that if you really want something done, you have leak like a sieve to get the MPI hierarchy to do anything.  

If MPI had reacted to the independent report in a responsible and concerned way, if officials and the minister had taken it seriously and immediately begun looking into the independent statistics, they may have been able to hold onto the public’s confidence. Instead, mirroring our worst suspicions about their relationship with industry, they came out shoulder-to-comms-line-shoulder with industry, firing the same asinine lines at the independent researchers who had produced the report.

I’m left wondering what’s coming next. I know the fishing industry and MPI’s tactics and denial have backfired, and they now have the interest and attention, not just of Greenpeace, the researchers from Auckland, British Columbia, and Oxford Universities and a number of respected journalists, but of recreational fishing groups and kiwis already worried about our disappearing fish.

Whether the current investigation reveals MPI is not the dispassionate even-handed environmental regulator New Zealanders expect it to be, or quietly tries to put the whole situation to bed, is yet to be seen. It is possible that MPI might be in need of a reconstruction itself.

Whatever happens there must be a broader inquiry: to examine MPI’s overall approach to regulating and prosecuting large fishing companies, its relationship with the fishing industry, and how it came to award the contract to monitor the industry, to the industry.  

Usually fishing stories are about the one that got away. This fishing story has such a stench about it, it is vital no one is let off the hook.

–––

Tim McKinnel is an investigator with Greenpeace

19

I am a Really Useful Engine

by Rebecca Gray

A couple of weekends ago, we were getting ready to go try out the new section of Te Araroa tramping track between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay. Very nice views, I recommend it, though probably not on a really windy day.

I went to look for a backpack and my partner said “don’t worry, all our things will fit into this pack that I’ll take”.  And I was like... “but, but IF I DON’T CARRY ANYTHING I WON’T BE USEFUL."

And it was mostly a joke, and we continued to make jokes about it (“you can put the poles in the pack if you like”; “NO I WILL CARRY THESE BECAUSE NOW I AM USEFUL”). But it was also a little bit not a joke. How dare I let someone else contribute more than me, when I could just as easily do my share?

We all have different comfort zones with this sort of thing, but some of us genuinely feel uncomfortable taking money for nothing, sitting around while someone else looks after us, or generally not appearing to work as hard as we could. This may be the sort of learned cultural hangup that my brothers blame on Presbyterianism. I blame Thomas the Tank Engine.

I was very keen on Thomas and Friends ever since pre-school age. My innocent memories of the Isle of Sodor and its benign dictator the Fat Controller were rudely questioned in recent years. Some critics have made a pretty valid observation that these stories conveyed unsubtle messages about gaining all your self-esteem via labour in a conservative, imperialist system. No seriously, do not read this article if you want your memories to stay untarnished. Buuut…

Our hero, Thomas, and his friends jockey for positions just below that of the bullying aristocrat Sir Topham Hatt but never seek to rise to his level. The stern, dour little Englishman in top hat and tails dangles meaningless honors like getting to "carry the most special special" to divide and conquer the trains...

The trains, complicit in maintaining this unjust system, humiliate each other for the small scraps of praise the little tyrant doles out rather than banding together (no unions on Sodor)...

once you have engaged in Thomas cultural criticism, there's no going back. It's nearly impossible to listen to lines like "being strong was only good if you were also really useful, and he had to be really useful" without hearing something sinister.

(Jessica Roake)

Oh man. Actually I’m pretty sure unions were represented in the stories, but it was only the trucks – who were plain looking and probably had less posh accents – who sometimes went on strike. They were portrayed as trouble-makers with bad attitudes.

I have been thinking a bit recently about what kind of “work” is valued differently, and why. Whole books can be written about the undervaluing of caring work or the persistent assumption that women will undertake “unpaid emotional labour”.

Then there’s the treatment of people who can’t work: if society sees receiving aid as a sign of weakness then they can be further disadvantaged. Sarah Wilson writes about this on her blog Writehanded

It’s this (beneficiary-bashing) rhetoric that makes me, and so many others, feel like ‘less-than’ for needing what we’re entitled to. It’s so ingrained in kiwi culture that, for me, it’s now internalised self-doubt, and sometimes even hate.

(Sarah Wilson)

This blog has drawn attention to just how frustrating and dispiriting it can be to deal with the welfare system while suffering from a chronic disease. Blogging looks like a voluntary activity, but Sarah is also a professional writer and what she is doing here looks very valuable: it may result in much-needed change. I hope she is getting some payment for her efforts.

I recently stumbled upon an advice column that expressed the trouble society seems to have with accepting that people who don’t earn money make valuable contributions, and indeed that people who are not able to do what looks like “work” are still valuable. A brief excerpt:

Sometimes, the thing that people Do, the thing that is their work in the world, is not something our culture (or our country) is willing to pay for.  Emotional labor and artistic work are two big examples of that, advocacy and activism are others. These are real and valid and utterly necessary kinds of work.

That’s true alongside the fact that not all humans have the same capacity for work, for various ability-related reasons, and our idea of what constitutes enough work for someone to avoid being tagged with “lazy” is predicated on this tremendously ableist model.

(S. Bear Bergman, via Bitch Media)

Our work in the world is not always something that we will be paid or widely recognised for. While volunteering recently, I met someone who has restructured her whole work life to concentrate on voluntary social support work.

What she is doing seems immensely valuable. It involves helping vulnerable people who might not otherwise get enough support. She wants to do it and is able to do it because her husband has a well-paid job. Due to circumstances (i.e. the need to pay bills), some people who are equally good and capable and motivated simply cannot make the choice to do such a good thing.   

Payment is clearly not the only way we gain value from what we do. As Thomas and his friends apparently thought, the sense of prestige and satisfaction attached to certain types of work means that we choose it without prioritising financial benefit.

I recall, when working in an embassy, editing speech notes for a diplomat who was going to talk at a university. He planned to say to the academics that their careers had something in common: they were a path that would not lead to high financial reward but brought great opportunities to contribute and engage with exciting ideas. Now, it’s fair to say that neither of these careers are terribly paid, but at the same time he wasn’t wrong to imply that people who are smart enough to get into diplomacy and academia could probably earn more in another sector.

I confess that I am still utterly mystified by the full rationale behind why certain types of work are paid more than others. This 2008 comic about payscales at American colleges recently resurfaced, and prompted some frustrated eye-rolling (spoiler: football coaches paid more than 10x what professors are paid).

My current musings are general but also self-interested. I’ve been doing various kinds of study-related talking and writing while preparing for my final PhD thesis exam.

In the meantime I’ve been searching for non-academic job options. My professional identity is thus switching awkwardly between "experienced research adviser, can pass for a real adult when talking to a bank manager" and "aspiring junior academic, will do anything for kudos/ attention/book vouchers". 

Dr Miya Tokumitsu has written about how exhortations to “do what you love” can lead to workers being exploited (think unpaid internships in socially desirable fields) while the majority of the less-educated workforce, who may not have a choice about whether they love their job, are disrespected. Tokumitsu observes that this issue is particularly prevalent in academia:

Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

(Miya Tokumitsu)

I think it’s fine if we do a bit of work for free. Most of us who want careers that involve coming up with new ideas do. If people only created while being paid, then independent voices would not be heard, start-ups wouldn’t start, and artists would not create enough to get to a point that people wanted to pay them. Our world would be a much more boring, much less progressive place. But it’s also totally fine if we have to sometimes make a call about spending our energy on the stuff that keeps us fed.

I wonder whether the deeper difficulty we face is with allowing ourselves to concentrate our efforts on things that other people might not see as “really useful” work. I picture a spectrum of social pressure around career work that on one end is all about the conventional, materialistic trappings of high-earning success, and on the other about being inspiring and exciting and the sort of person that others want to quote and create with (often with little money involved - this is more about recognition).

But in the middle there must be many people who will not be widely recognised in either financial or reputational ways. They may be contributing massively to the people around them, but most of us will never notice. They may be on the brink of figuring out something amazing, but in the interim their work doesn’t make much sense to anyone else.

It’s nice to be validated as “useful”, but we can spin ourselves into all sorts of angst by attaching our self-esteem to jobs. Thankfully we are not engines. We are so much more complex and more wonderful than that. It helps to recognise that we contribute and produce in many areas of our lives. When we find ourselves being lectured by the narrowly work-obsessed little Fat Controller in our head, we sometimes need to tell him to back the hell off. He doesn’t have the full picture.

Rebecca Gray is a PhD student at the University of Otago and blogs at Choose Your Story

187

Confessions of an Uber Driver II: How we doing?

by Ben Wilson

So you're back for another ride? Liked the service last time? Or maybe the price? Used your promo code to get $20 off your first ride and realized you could have gone all the way to the airport on it? Were pleasantly surprised to been offered a free bottle of water, a breath mint, the use of the cranking sound system via the aux cable? Were you shocked that the driver got to your house before you managed to get out the front door? That the end of the trip involved just getting out and walking away, while you pondered whether to tip the driver by giving them a 5-star rating? It all seems a bit too good to be true...so you ask the question I get asked every night: Are you guys doing OK out of this?

At this question, I usually pause, reflectively. The 5-star rating seeker in me, that customer service-oriented inner voice, screams caution. This might not be a question that the rider really wants an honest answer to. What they really want to hear is that somehow, magically, by the power of technology, that we're doing more than OK, we're doing famously. They really want to believe that I love everything about the job, and by proxy, that I love them. That this is that magic win-win promised by futuristic technology, that new economy that we all think must be just around the corner.

I'm pretty sure what they don't want to hear is a long-winded discussion of the economics of driving a taxi. It's an old, established and quite boring industry, and a discussion that many of us have had once before with a particularly animated and boring, probably racist, old taxi driver in a trip where we made the mistake of being bored and asking about his life. Surely Uber has nothing to do with that?

But unfortunately, I'm a really bad liar. So I give the best truth that I can manage: I don't know for sure. The reason is because it's complicated. When your business involves a fairly random process like picking up rides, and the prices are also fairly random due to surge pricing, and the competition for it, and your costs are things that take a long time to get a handle on, and the number of customers and competing drivers is in constant flux, the honest truth is that it's hard to be sure.

It was hard to be sure before I began the job, too. Uber staff never made any promises. They just said that the long run averages were $30/hour. Of course I asked "Before or after my costs?", to which they answered "Ummm. Before. You're responsible for your costs, they're all different, so we don't know those". They could guess at most of them, but they don't. There's probably quite a good reason for that. The story isn't one they'd want to be telling you.

I was hoping to make this a data driven post, full of the statistics I've been collecting, but unfortunately, that kind of thing takes time, and the many people sending us those numbers need to be given a bit more time to finish their work.

Us? Who is us? Well, it's pretty much the large group of drivers who are furious and ropeable about Uber deciding without consultation to just drop the prices. The number of different ways of expressing the concept of being anally violated that I've heard in the last 3 weeks surpasses all of my life beforehand. Mostly this is because English is not the mother tongue of most of those expressing the sentiment, so it gets that strange flavour of something you know is an expression in another language, mangled in translation into something even more lurid.

Yes, the vast bulk of drivers who have anything to say about it at all, have nothing good to say about it. They feel as the local dairy owner might if their supplier came in and said that they were going to put all of the prices in the shop down by 20%, but weren't going to charge any less for the goods to you. You just have to suck up a much lower margin, because obviously demand will rise to fill the gap. Oh, and at the same time, we're also opening about 300 new dairies, in unzoned residential areas, to help meet all that demand. They tell you this as they walk around your shop putting your prices down.

So, since I can't fill you with data goodness just yet, I'll just give you my n=1 data, which is all that most of us have, since we've never been organized as a group before. My own long run average hourly rate for working pretty much only the dodgiest busiest hours on offer has been $27 paid out before costs. Taking off 15% GST, 5% for my PSL, 20% for the cost of gas and maintenance, we're down to $17.56/hour before any fixed costs.

Then there's compliance costs, insurance and depreciation costs on top of all that. I can't even break those down to an hour rate at this point, but my best guess is coming to an hourly rate of around $14 before tax. I have a particularly cheap car, so my insurance and depreciation costs are much less than would be normal. I would be surprised if anyone leasing a newish vehicle was getting much more than $10/hour before tax.

At this point, if I've been pressed, there's often a slight gagging noise into the free water that I forgot to put in there as a cost. This doesn't sound like the space-age miracle that somehow turned a well paid job (taxi driving used to be considered well-paid) into really well paid job. Quite the opposite, it sounds like a space-age miracle that has somehow turned a well paid job into a poorly paid one with much better service.

The cynical will usually leave it at that. It's a believable story - why should taxis not be exploited? Surely that tallies with noticing that 99% of them are driven by people who are clearly immigrants, often with poor English? Aren't they always exploited? But there's the strange anomaly of being driven by a guy who is clearly well educated and local. What's that about?

When pressed as to why it is that I'm not earning 10 times as much money doing something else, the answer is actually much less difficult. It's because I value the ability to pick the time that I work very highly, and Uber gives a flexibility around that like nothing else I've ever done. I'm a really busy guy, I just don't have time for part time jobs that would demand shift hours from me. I can't fit that in with my other commitments at the moment. It's a short term thing, probably. And as I explained in my last post, it's actually pretty enjoyable work, for me.

This is only tenable for someone who already has money, as I do, and whose partner has a job. For the other guys, that 95-99%, it's not tenable. They are making below minimum wage, and all the flexibility to pick their hours gives them is the ability to pick far more hours than people really should be working in a job operating a dangerous machine. They don't complain to customers because the rating system means that they literally risk their only job by complaining.

So, I think I'll go with my favorite tactic recently, in answer to your question. "How am I doing? A lot better since you got in! How are you doing? Do you mind DJing? I'm a bit over my playlist".