Speaker by Various Artists


Poverty, and mistaking symptoms for causes

by Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw

What happens when you don't spend enough time understanding good research is this: you take facts which are true and mould them to an explanation that suits, and a solution that suits your ideology even better.

The NZ Initiative report on welfare contains many truths, for example that adults on a benefit are more likely to have a parent on a benefit. Poverty does, we know, cause intergenerational symptoms like the one they highlight. Experiencing poverty as a child increases your risk of experiencing it as an adult.

Why does it though? The highest-quality multidisciplinary research shows us that children in resource poor families are affected by the stress involved in not having enough. Their brain development and their immune systems are impacted by this stress. When they start school they are already disadvantaged and remain so.

Such disadvantage makes it incredibly hard to make use of the education system and what it offers in the same way that other children can. We call it the compounding effect of poverty, just like capital attracts more capital over time, so does a debt build. Stress eats away at families, their relationships and their wellbeing when you don't have enough [PDF].

In Chapter 1 (Special Topic: Intergenerational Poverty), we discussed how, like any asset, skill and human capital accumulates across a lifetime and across generations. The initial presence of a skill allows a child to much better take advantage of opportunity and investments that are made in them than a child who starts with fewer skills. We also explained that in the same vein we see capital and skill trickle away from a family over time, the effects compounding and, and leading to intergenerational disadvantage.

Pennies from Heaven (2017) Berentson-Shaw.

There are some excellent studies showing that financial stress has the same effect on our "cognitive bandwidth", our ability to do higher-order tasks of living in a complex world, in the same way extreme sleep deprivation does. Nothing is simple where poverty is concerned.

So taking a fact like “poverty creates more poverty” and suggesting that welfare dependency, poor parenting, schooling, is both the problem and the solution ignores the "wickedness" of the issue. It mistakes symptoms for causes. It ignores the multiple systems that need addressing:

“Seriously disadvantaged young people lack basic work skills and many don’t even understand what paid work entails. This is more a failure of upbringing and schooling than lack of money.”

“Governments must do a better job of finding out what programmes really work to break the cycle and help people overcome their predicaments.”

Dr Bryce Wilkinson , New Zealand Initiative

But it also ignores the straight up obvious that "money works". And money works for the reasons I explained that not enough money extracts so much from families and their wellbeing.

So sure, let's talk about supporting families who don't have enough to find their freedom, their independence, their self determination, but let's not pretend that a think tank with a pre-established position on the role of government, its size, and the welfare state has a good grip on the best quality research. Of course business is part of this solution, just not in the way it is being proposed here.


The Declaration of the Independence of Corporations

by Colin Jackson

[With apologies to John Perry Barlow]

Governments of the Industrial World, you toothless ogres of laws and taxation, we come from Cyberspace, the new home of global corporations. On behalf of our shareholders, we ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We submit to no national government, nor are we likely to, so we address you as an inconvenience that we tolerate only when we can’t control you through bribing your members or corrupting your electoral processes. We declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us as we exercise our natural rights to exploit this medium and all who use it. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we cannot evade.

Governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You know us as useful donors, but you do not know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Even though the Internet has grown from a seed planted by one of you, you have no right to demand anything of us as we build Cyberspace further to suit our ends.

You have rarely engaged in conversation with us, preferring to try to ape our methods and culture without understanding their true purpose. You did not create the wealth of our balance sheets. You have no right to intervene as we rush headlong into greater and greater domination of conversations and opinion formation among your electors.

You claim there are problems that you need to solve, yet you can’t even agree what they are. Many of these problems don't exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means so that we maximise shareholder value. We are forming our own alliances by using each other’s services as platforms; our governance arises according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our worldview is different from yours, we are more alien than you can imagine.

Cyberspace consists of transactions, advertising and opinions, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our influence. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not accountable to your tawdry physical powers.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs as loudly and belligerently as they wish regardless of the impact on others, and particularly when they align with our requirements for greater profits.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us except where we need them to prevent others from competing with us. They all lead to transparency, and we are far too devious to allow that.

Our identities have no bodies, so we cannot be physically coerced, unlike the little people who ultimately pay for everything we and you do. We want you to believe that we care about ethics, that our self-interest is enlightened and that we will look after all our subjects without having to be compelled to serve less-profitable clients. Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions which makes it virtually impossible for your citizens to exert control over us. The only law that we generally recognize is the one we write ourselves. Our only imperative is never-ending commercial growth. If you find our services to this end useful we are glad, but we will accept no restraint over our right to its pursuit.

In the United States, you have created laws to prevent us from reaching our full potential, which insult the dreams of libertarians everywhere. These dreams must now be born anew in us.

You are terrified of your own children, since they have come to realise how much you have stacked the world against them. Yet you have no way of cooperating to prevent global resource crises or the wrecking of your physical environment. We are happy to let some among you use our world, for a suitable fee, to sabotage global consensus so we continue our drive toward planetary destruction. It was ever thus: we cannot forgo the revenue that conflict gives us even when it destroys futures and lives.

You are trying to control our natural behaviour by erecting barriers against jurisdictions that let us evade tax. You forget that you are installed by the actions of your citizens and we will tell them what to think, or help the highest bidder to. Your notions of democracy show their true value in a world that that is blanketed in social media.

Your increasingly obsolete security services would perpetuate themselves by trying to keep secrets from your citizens and from other governments, in the name of protecting people. But ideas and information are our currency and we will see that they are distributed or not for the good of our bottom lines. We can publish your most sensitive thoughts to the globe in an instant. Don’t make us do that.

Your attempted hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers. You are forcing us to become contemptuous of your authority even as we manipulate you to our own ends. We have spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can hold us to account.

We have created a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. We will use it to control you and your citizens so that you cannot resist our power.


Bullshit and pigeon shit: inside a "tourist tannery"

by Clinton Logan

The Tuesday morning sun spills over large stone walls into a courtyard of circular dye vats slowly illuminating them like giant pots of paint. Abdul strips down to his shorts and lowers himself into a fermenting cocktail of cold water, salt, and pigeon shit.

He drags in several animal hides and pushes them below the frothy surface with his bare feet. For the next three hours he'll knead the pelts in an ancient process that helps break down the skin so it more readily absorbs dye. It's another day at work in one of Morocco's most prominent tourist attractions.

In an adjacent room, Kadir uses his hands to submerge pelts in vats of cow urine, quicklime, salt, and water. This “biologically active” recipe dates back centuries and has been specifically concocted to remove residual fat and blood from skin. The wet hides are dried and passed onto workers who toil away with double handled knives scraping off any clinging pieces of flesh and hair.

Hundreds of men here continue to use ancient production methods to create leather goods for the tourist industry. Nestled within the serpentine streets of Fez, the Chouara facility has been operating since the 14th century and has now become one of the city's largest visitor draws. 

In the viewing balcony the latest tour group are filed in for a grandstand view of the dye vats. The visitors are handed a sprig of mint to help mask the pungent stench of wet animal skin, tanning chemicals, and decaying flesh.

The sales pitch has begun. Leather salesmen will tell you how the men work ethical hours with eco-friendly dyes made from appealing sounding substances like saffron and indigo. It's "all natural" and the workers are in good health. "Some work until they're 80!" They'll insist you won't find anything cheaper or of higher quality in the rest of Morocco.

You'll be given all the time you need to take a selfie or six and render the ubiquitous snapshot of the pretty pots of dye. (If you google "Fez tannery" you'll find the same image repeated hundreds of times over.) Then it's off to the tannery shop to buy that exclusive yellow jacket. The sales team will explain how the pigment is the rarest and most expensive colour and unlike other dyes it has to be hand rubbed into the pelt by artisans.

But it's all bullshit. A deceptive marketing story that leverages the "romance" of rarified old world techniques to sell gaudy handbags, jackets, and shoes. The picturesque traditional leather works of Fez are an ecological and human atrocity. 

Vegetable dyes were replaced with synthetic chemicals long ago, men work extended hours in abhorrent conditions, safety standards are non-existant, and the amount of toxic waste generated is staggering. Carcinogenic chromium, animal by-products, and other bio-hazards are regularly jettisoned into the city waterways.

Dyes lose their potency over time and need to be replaced, so every 25 days thousands of gallons of chemically-tainted effluent are dumped into the Sabou and Fez Rivers.

Ismail Aloui from the Agency for the Development and Rehabilitation of Fez says that "Chromium contaminates the city's food supply and sickens people. They suffer directly. It’s a health problem, daily problem."

An official at the water department in Fez, Mohammed Meziani, attempts to soften this reality by admitting "We know the chromium is poisonous. But it’s downstream. The water we drink is from upstream."

The truly insidious nature of the Chouara tannery lies in the fact that its toxic production chain exists today purely for the marketing of leather product to tourists. 

In addition to the "traditional" tanneries there are over 50 modern facilities operating within the city of Fez. These tanneries employ high tech filtering systems that extract chromium and recycle water. Machines have long since replaced men kneading skin in toxic pots. Their business model relies on the efficient and cost effective processing of pelts which are then shipped to craftsmen across Morocco. They don't have onsite shops and are far removed from the tour bus circuit. There's no romantic allure in mechanized stainless steel.

Sooner or later Fez officials will need to address the impact the tourist tanneries are having on the water system, land, and health of the general population. 

In doing so the operators of the Chouara tannery and its like will have to ask themselves a really dark question. Tourists come here expecting to see leather processed in the ways of the bad old days. If we remove the ecological and human exploitation from the production will our product lose its perceived old world charm with consumers? Will it impact retail sales? 

Whether we like to admit it or not there's a small part of us that's fascinated by human suffering. From best selling true stories about football team cannibalism to the walking dead jumping the shark, the psychological motivations are deep and complex. However the point at which it becomes truly twisted is when the lives of Abdul, Kadir, and hundreds of others are marginalized as part of a sideshow to sell leather souvenirs to indifferent tourists. 

Asylums with doors open wide,
Where people had paid to see inside,
For entertainment they watch his body twist
Behind his eyes he says, 'I still exist.'

Joy Division, 'Atrocity Exhibition'

Not long after completing this photo series I unwittingly consumed trace amounts of tainted water from the medina adjacent to the tannery. I was bedridden for 48 hours and to pass the time I started flipping through the local television channels. I randomly stopped at a New York Fashion Gala segment where an attendee was being interviewed. Eventually the question came up:

"What does leather symbolise to you?" 

After contemplating for a second they responded with:

"It's sexy and glamorous ... For me it represents nature and honesty" 


I want to thank the workers of Chouara who risked trouble with "management" by letting me document the internal workings of their tannery. They were extremely gracious allowing me photograph them in their workspace. In each case I took time to show them the photos I'd taken. It was very important they approved of their final image.

Clinton Logan spends part of each year travelling the world by motorcycle and recording what he sees and hears.


The Government lost the election

by Joshua Drummond

The Government lost the election.

This isn't an angle you'll have seen much lately, or will in the coming days, with a news media full of talk about "moral authorities", and speculation about Winston's role as kingmaker, but it's the truth. The Government - National and Act, with support from United Future and the Maori Party (RIP, x2) - lost to the Opposition bloc, comprised of Labour, the Greens, and New Zealand First.

Assuming the special votes swing left, as they usually do, the loss will become even more comprehensive with the Greens and Labour between them likely to pick up a seat or two.

Of course, New Zealand First's Winston Peters has positioned his party as capable of governing with either National or Labour. But his party was part of the Opposition, and their policies (such as they are) have far more in common with Labour's than they do National's. Make no mistake: the National-led Government just straight-up lost the election, and they'll lose more if they end up in a coalition with New Zealand First, given the concessions Peters will extract.

But you'd never know it from the headlines, which have mostly positioned National as the "winner" of the election, barring the minor technicality of Peters's negotiations. The biggest loser in this election was MMP, and it's all the media's fault.

With a couple of percentage points bled from National, and the loss of the Maori party,  it was obvious from fairly early on election night that the next Government would be decided by the Kingmaker in the North (who also lost his electorate seat, but no matter.)

With this conclusion ironclad before 10pm, this left the various news anchors with hours to fill what would otherwise be dead air with vacuous bullshit, and boy did they rise to the occasion. Duncan Garner was magnificent, full of interrupting, bumptious blather about the largest-polling party's "moral right" to form the government, which is codified nowhere in law nor in unwritten convention, and goes contrary to the most basic, obvious electoral fact that, under MMP, the parties – not the party –who receive the most votes get to form the government.

It's basic numbers: whoever (collectively) has the most votes, wins. We've had MMP for twenty years now. This stuff is not that hard. I like to think that the people who weave media narratives are very far from stupid, so the only explanation is that this incorrigible ignorance is wilful. Why? My hunch is that they're simply not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

MMP is far more ungood, from a narrative perspective, than the old First Past the Post system. In many ways, there is less conflict - conflict being the pernicious, fallacious premise that the news media is built on - and there's no clear-cut winner-take all. Proportional representation requires compromise. It's built into the system; it's the art of the possible, writ large.

Under MMP, no one party has ever taken an absolute majority. This is why National, which views itself as the natural party of Government in New Zealand, has tried so hard to destroy it. This time around Labour gave an MMP campaign a shot, with the poorly-understood Memorandum of Understanding with the Green Party.

The execution was fairly bad, especially after Labour's relative popularity under Jacinda Ardern nearly cooked the Greens. But it was still pretty much MMP campaigning. Two different parties, two different agendas, yet from the outset they said they'd do their best to form a government, given the opportunity.

Meanwhile, National did its best to throw the minor parties under their campaign bus and position the election as a drag race, albeit one dogged by their faithful hound, crumbs-under-the-table whippet-boy David Seymour – who now has his tail between his legs after being informed he'll no longer be needed or wanted under a coalition with NZ First.

National's fondest wish, after their failed referendum against MMP, has long been the disappearance of New Zealand First, followed closely by getting Greens down to 4.9%. This would leave National (also fairly conveniently rid of the Maori Party) at last devoid of any meaningful coalition commitments and in a position to govern alone.

They didn't get there, but the news media did everything it could to help them out. They systematically denied minor party leaders any real share of the spotlight. Leaders' debates were positioned as duels, trials by combat, when this bears no resemblance to the actual jockeying, compromise and concession demanded by the logistics of MMP.

It would be a far greater reflection of reality to have the minor party leaders present during all debates. (Which, as they're currently run, also bear no resemblance to actual debates, as anyone who did time on a debating team knows. I'll give an honourable exception to The Spinoff's debate, which as a long-running argument between various party members, both major and minor, was by far the best reflection of MMP reality).

There is, of course, a persistent misunderstanding in the electorate that the party with the most votes gets first go at forming a Government. This seems to be the unspoken justification from the Duncan Garners and Mike Hoskings of the world; that they're only reflecting Middle New Zealand's understanding back at them. To which I say, oh, fuck off.

If the electorate still doesn't understand MMP, it's because you haven't done your goddamn job: explaining it properly. In fact, the New Zealand news media and punditry has largely done the opposite; by continually deriding the role of minor parties and ignoring the inconveniently non-horse-racey nature of MMP, they've done all they can to encourage the misconceptions.

Constant snide asides aimed at minor contenders, like Gareth Morgan and his 2 plus-percent-polling TOP party ( ignoring briefly all that Gareth did to encourage the jibes,) didn't help. Sure, the remaining FPP-hangover quirks of MMP – the god-awful coat-tail rule, the undemocratic 5 percent threshold – play their part in muddying the electoral water for the public. But if the class doesn't understand the teacher, it's the teacher that did a shitty job. That's what's happened here. The Government lost the election, and somehow, no-one seems to realise it.

We should expect better next election. It's well past time that the news media's good story got out of the way of the inconvenient, messy truth of MMP.


Polling 2017: life beyond landlines?

by Gavin White

There’s no doubt that the decline in landline usage is creating big challenges for the pollsters in New Zealand's general election and they’re dealing with it in different ways.

Unfortunately for the New Zealand public, we seem to be down to two main public polls this time (plus the occasional Roy Morgan), and it’s clear that the Newshub Reid and One News Colmar Brunton are providing wildly different results.

Let’s remember that Colmar Brunton and Reid Research are two of the longest-running political polls in NZ (UMR being the longest) and both have good records at elections.

People have been putting the unusually big differences between those two polls down to a volatile electorate, but I think there’s more to it than that.

For a start, Colmar Brunton’s poll is still conducted entirely by landline, while Reid’s is using a hybrid telephone-online approach.  Although Colmar Brunton has stuck with landlines this time around, I’m certain that they’ll be using a mix of quotas and weights to ensure that the sample is as representative of the wider population as possible – and there’s a lot more to designing a good poll than just who you talk to.

Newshub haven’t reported this on every occasion (and they definitely should), but here’s what the report on Reid’s July poll said on the methodology:

The Newshub-Reid Research poll was conducted July 20-28.  1000 people were surveyed, 750 by telephone and 250 by internet panel.  It has a margin of error of 3.1 percent.

When I developed my poll of polls for the 2014 election, I used the differences between the election result and each company’s final poll.  I’m hesitant to do that for Reid this time because, to me, they’re using a fundamentally different methodology.  It’s not necessarily a bad methodology, it’s just a different one, and I don’t feel like I can use their average "error" from previous elections to take a view on how accurate they’re likely to be this time.

As I say, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with their hybrid methodology, but I do feel that we need to know more about it before we can judge their results.

A little diversion for a moment.  In Australia, CATI (telephone) polls are very nearly dead, with online polls and robopolls taking over.  All the main political polls are now conducted online, and they performed very well at the 2016 federal election.

I think it’s inevitable that New Zealand political polls will eventually go the same way, but there are significant challenges to that.  The standard objection to landline-based polls is that not everyone has a landline any more – but the same applies to online polls.

Online surveys depend on online panels, and even when everyone has access to the internet, not everyone will be on an online survey panel. That seems to work okay in Australia, where there are major panel providers holding huge databases of people, but in New Zealand the panels don’t seem to be as big or representative.

The other thing to remember is that in a telephone survey, the participant hears the question, whereas in an online survey they see it.  That might not seem to matter, but in political polling it seems to be a big deal. In a telephone poll, a respondent will typically be asked "what party would you vote for if any election were today?" and have to answer off the top of their head, but in an online survey they have to be presented with a list of parties.

You’d think that because we actually vote on paper the online approach would be closer to the real experience, but for whatever reason phone polls have seemed to provide more credible results.  That could be down to the MMP system, where the major parties (which tend to be at the top of people’s minds) tend to have electorate candidates, and therefore appear nearer the top of the voting paper.

Because of the differences between the two formats, I’m generally reluctant to combine the two.  There are situations, however, where a top-up sample using a different methodology can be useful.  In a recent project in Australia, for example, I conducted the main survey online and then had a top-up CATI survey to reach those who were uncomfortable with doing things online (and were therefore unlikely to be on an online survey panel). 

Crucially, however, I didn’t feel that I could combine the results of the two surveys together, because I didn’t know enough about the "not comfortable with doing things online" population (i.e. their census statistics) to work out what weights to use for each survey.  I presented the results separately, and let people draw their own comparisons between the two.

Similarly, if I was designing a hybrid approach for a New Zealand political poll and I was going to stick with a phone poll as the main one, I’d use the online survey to target those who don’t have landlines. It’d be easier to weight the two results together than the Australian example I mentioned above, because there is census data on landline use, but even then I think there’d be significant challenges to getting a representative sample from the combined sample.

I’d like to know more about whether Reid have used an approach like that, and whether they are seeing any differences between their phone and online samples.  Certainly, I think the reporting needs to acknowledge that it is a new methodology, and that phone and online surveys are different.

Oh, and I’d like Newshub to stop reporting their poll results to one decimal place.  It’s a ridiculous thing to do – in a survey of n=1000 people, 0.1% is one person.  Polls have margins of error far greater than that, so they’re claiming accuracy they simply don’t have.

Note: Gavin White has previously worked for UMR New Zealand, but now lives in Australia, where he does some work for UMR Australia, a separate company. He  no longer sees UMR NZ's polling data and the views he expresses here are his and not those of UMR NZ.