Gordon Campbell on Labour’s free education plan, Iowa and Jefferson Airplane

The “free” education policy that Labour has just unveiled has some obvious shortcomings. The universities are right to stress that the cuts to their net funding (after inflation) over the past few years are already jeopardising their ability to provide quality education to the current student intake – even before you factor in what a larger influx of young students or middle-aged people in search of job re-training might do to the system.

The NZUSA is also right to point to the parallel need (a) to fund an increase in the level of student living allowances while (b) relaxing the criteria for access to that support. Even so, Labour deserves credit for at least acknowledging that the current student debt system cannot continue to be ignored by the Key government – which has made an art form out of cosmetic policies that provide plenty of photo opportunities, while avoiding genuine engagement with many of the country’s glaring social problems.

One of those problems is the student debt mountain, which will hit $15 billion this month. Student debt is forcing an entire generation to defer starting families or entering the housing market. In the process, tertiary education – and the career avenues that it alone provides – threatens to become an option for the privileged few. Along the way – and this is the real concern that’s driving the Labour policy – automation and the job destroying, labour cost-cutting imperatives that technology serves – is about to wipe out many of the white collar jobs that once provided a career to university graduates, and that enabled them to readily repay their investment in tertiary training.

In other words, the same processes that wiped out manufacturing jobs for blue collar workers in the 1980s – and the likes of Mike Hosking might be surprised to learn that we’re still paying the social cost – are about to bite into the middle class, and the lifestyle that many regard as the essence of the New Zealand way of life.

John Key and his colleagues do not bother themselves with such concerns. We seem to have a virtual government, one that provides only an illusion of governance when it comes to anything beyond the sort of corporate giveaways due to be signed in Auckland later this week. So…to repeat : Labour deserves credit for at least (a) recognizing the twin disasters of student debt and job destruction, and (b) devising a policy response – however inadequate, and flawed.

What Labour is proposing is not a wholesale debt write-off. Existing or recent former students get no relief from this proposal. In fact, the ‘free education’ tag is something of a marketing device, and a misnomer. This is really a state sponsored jobs re-training programme, for the current and upcoming victims of technological change. In its first year, it has been budgeted at $265 million, and would hit its upper limit of $1.2 billion only in 2025, during what is optimistically expected to be a third term Andrew Little government.

It looks like a worthwhile investment. In sum, a substantial level of “ free” tertiary education will cost – even at its maximum point – considerably less than the cost of bailing out the willing investors in Canterbury Finance. It is now up to Labour to engage with NZUSA and the tertiary education providers to hammer out the details of a workable system. No point in trying to engage Steven Joyce in this kind of exercise. Systemic change is too hard, too slow, and doesn’t offer him very many photo ops. Not his thing at all.

Iowa, Who Cares ?

Later today Iowa will launch into its 19th century systems of caucusing that, by tonight NZ time, will deliver the first substantive results of the US presidential campaign, 2016. You could hardly imagine a less representative entity than a party political caucus, held in Iowa. Safe to say, the rest of the country is not quite as obsessed as Iowans with the relative position of corn vs ethanol in the US system of farm production subsidies. But there was Donald Trump on the eve of the vote, decrying the evil of ethanol subsidies.

The process is also bizarre, and can be readily gamed. Only committed activists have the motivation – and resources – to last the night. In 2012, Republican rebel Ron Paul came third in the straw poll that begins the evening, but walked away with 22 out of 28 delegates at the end of the night – entirely because his supporters raised so many procedural motions that by the time the real business of the voting came around, everyone else has given up and gone home, except for Paul’s diehard libertarian loyalists. Add in the blizzard that’s due to strike tonight, and ordinary Iowans have every good reason to stay at home.

So Iowa is a state that has nothing much in common with urban California or the East Coast…and its caucuses reward the organizing stamina of party activists and crackpot zealots. That said, the last polls held before voting day showed Donald Trump regaining a clear lead over Ted Cruz, with Marco Rubio third. ( Amusingly, Trump is winning the horse race, even though the same people polled rated Cruz as being more trusted and respected.) The Iowa polling tables clearly show Trump’s polarizing effect… but hey, lets vote for the crazy guy regardless. In the end, what will really matter tonight are the margins: the distance between Trump and Cruz, and the size of the gap between Cruz and Rubio, who has (finally) been picking up some national momentum in the past week. For trainspotters, the fate of John Kasich (who has been talked up of late by the Republican Establishment ) is also of some interest.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was still polling ahead of Bernie Sanders yesterday. To have any chance at all further down the track, Sanders really has to win both Iowa and the next contest in New Hampshire. After that, the primary contests head into states that are solidly Hillary Territory. For Sanders, a loss in Iowa will mean that even if he did go on to win New Hampshire that will be viewed as a regional aberration, attributable to the Vermont senator’s geographic proximity to New Hampshire. So if Iowa matters to anyone, it matters to Bernie Sanders. Already, he’s the one who has been talking up the likely impact of the blizzard on the turnout.

Jefferson Airplane, Finale

Paul Kantner – who died last week at the age of 74 – was in a strictly musical sense something of a spare wheel in Jefferson Airplane, even though the band wouldn’t have existed without him. He wasn’t a terrific vocalist in a group that already had two of those – Grace Slick and Marty Balin – and as a guitarist he wasn’t remotely in the same league as Jorma Kaukonen. Bass player Jack Casady meanwhile, led a rhythm section that had a series of excellent drummers, notably Spencer Dryden and Joey Covington. Kantner? He was the busy guy who brought them together and kept them together, for a while at least.

On record, the Airplane rarely reached the heights they did as a live act, and they became identified with an era – San Francisco’s hippie Summer of Love, 1967 – that hasn’t fared too well in the history books. Too bad. The many times I saw them live – and that included their grim set at Altamont in 1969 – they were a big machine of beautifully co-ordinated parts, with lots of airy open spaces to their songs that worked extremely well live, but which could often sound fatally weak on record. The exception to that being their biggest hit “White Rabbit” which set Slick’s vocal off against a stark “Bolero” drum rhythm, and Kaukonen’s angular guitar lines.

They weren’t a jamming band like the Grateful Dead. Even the staples of their live set (eg “3/5th Of A Mile in Ten Seconds” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover”) were good pop songs, not sprawling epics. Live, they came across as a bunch of larger-than-life beings with an unpredictable capacity for (a) fucking up and (b) careening onwards above it all, regardless. Largely, it was Kantner’s energy and ideological vision that kept the band from flying apart sooner than it eventually did, around 1974.

During the Altamont set, Marty Balin got knocked cold by the Hells Angels, just as their set got underway with a folky Fred Neil song. On the mike, Kantner (nervously) voiced a brief bit of passive/aggressive objection to the Angels’ rampant violence, which left it up to Slick to calm down the situation – “lets not keep fucking up ! ” – with a mixture of sass and horse sense. In the face of dozens of fired-up Hells Angels and thousands of drugged-out freaks, Grace Slick did really, really well that day.

Six months earlier, the band had played Woodstock. Here’s the live Woodstock version of “Volunteers” which Kantner co-wrote. With hindsight, the scary, insightful line here is not all that stuff about revolution, but the line that goes “ This generation got no destination at all…” True. Didn’t know where we were going, got off at the wrong stop.

Oh and here’s an interview with Slick and Kantner as they talk insightfully about Jim Morrison, and share a amusing story about the Doors’ keyboard player and MVP, Ray Manzarek.

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10 Comments on Gordon Campbell on Labour’s free education plan, Iowa and Jefferson Airplane

  1. “…a state sponsored jobs re-training programme, for the current and upcoming victims of technological change” you claim?

    Such motivations echo that optimistic technological fundamentalism of the 60’s & 70’s (ironically when NZ students were debt free)with it’s claims of future labour-saving devices and power too cheap to meter resulting in ballooning leisure time for us all. I call BS.

    “Labour deserves credit for at least (a) recognizing the twin disasters of student debt and job destruction, and (b) devising a policy response – however inadequate, and flawed.”

    Maybe. If people recognize that debt-free tertiary study for their community is both possible and desirable things may begin to change.

    Once upon a time, when NZ GDP was much lower, cheap tertiary education and full employment were both public policy and reality.

    If countries like Germany, Finland, France, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden are managing debt-free or negligible study costs while some of the poorest such as Mexico and Brazil offer high quality, nearly-free universities… what again is our excuse?

  2. I’d love to read a column about your experience at Altamont. Never heard of a New Zealander who was there before.

    Women can calm down a situation like that in a way that men can’t. If a man tries to calm down a violent situation he is normally seen as challenging the agro males and is likely to be attacked himself.

    I still can’t fathom why the Grateful Dead are considered so great. They come across on their records as a palid country band. If that was the sort of music they played live, I don’t think I would want to drop acid and listen to it.

  3. Embarrassingly enough, I went through a kind of Neo-Hippy phase between the 4th and 6th forms at College (1979-81). Grew my hair long, bought Jefferson Airplane and Buffalo Springfield albums (from Colin Morris Records on Wellington’s The Terrace, if I remember rightly – about the time that Lambton Quay was one big building site).

    ‘Today’, was my particular fave from Surrealistic Pillow.


    But, by 1982, I’d come to see (particularly middle-class members of) the Older Boomer (Hippy) generation as particularly irritating – dreary, innately self-promotional and, in their own smug little way, quite pompous. All that self-absorbed, morally-superior ‘New Generation with a New Explanation’ nonsense.

    So, 6 years after it emerged, I finally discovered Punk Rock and New Wave and realised just how vital and cathartic this, often wry, piss-taking, largely working-class Brit onslaught was, superseding all that awful, bloated, deeply-indulgent, US West Coast Bearded Hippy effluent.

    Madness vs the Doobie Brothers. Pretty much says it all.

    But then, within a few years, I’d come to see pretty much all Pop and Rock as essentially silly, worthless, frivolous fluff – bad poetry dressed-up as profundity – best left to younger teens.

    Still have that Surrealistic Pillow album tucked away in a wardrobe somewhere, mind you.

  4. Extraordinary that Black Democrats are so heavily in the Centre-Right, deeply hawkish Clinton camp. I saw one poll where a significant majority of Black respondents believed she would be the President most likely to transform US society for the better. Unbelievable.

  5. “Labour deserves credit for at least (a) recognizing the twin disasters of student debt and job destruction, and (b) devising a policy response – however inadequate, and flawed.”

    Maybe. Have people forgot that cheap tertiary study is both possible and desirable? Once upon a time, when NZ GDP was much lower, cheap tertiary education and full employment were both public policy and reality.

    Today Germany, Finland, France, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden all manage debt-free or negligible study costs meanwhile poorer countries such as Mexico and Brazil offer quality, nearly-free universities.

    What again is our excuse?

  6. @Hayden
    Did you actually read the column, before calling BS ? May a hundred thousand flowers always bloom, but I can’t see how what I wrote can remotely be construed as an echo of ‘optimistic technological fundamentalism.” If, as I said, we need the state to have a policy response when technology destroys masses of jobs and consigns a whole class of society to social alienation and poverty – as happened in the 1980s with manufacturing jobs, and which is about to happen with white collar jobs…. then, to my mind, that’s really the exact opposite of ‘optimistic technological fundamentalism.” Just sayin…”

  7. @swordfish
    And since I’m in a cranky mood this morning, I don’t think its fair to judge “hippie” music circa 1967, by the state that you found it in circa 1982, some 15 years later. Why, that would be like judging the punk spirit of 1977 by the sorry state into which John Lydon had declined, circa 1992. Agree with you though, about “Today” being a fine track…Marty Balin could do no wrong in those days. I always heard “Today” as the softer, sentimental side of the drug transcendence celebrated in ” White Rabbit..”

  8. Cranky ? In fact, a remarkably restrained response, Gordon, given my hyperbolic rant.

    Sometimes I smile when I re-read my comments from the day before. I was having a go at the dear old hippies for being “innately self-promotional” and “self-absorbed” and yet, looking at it now with a critical eye, I see almost my entire comment centred squarely and self-indulgently on my good self (suggesting, perhaps, David Brent-like levels of self-awareness).

    My views are probably partly coloured by a preference for British (over American) popular culture.

    And, moving away from pop culture, by a long-standing antipathy to what I think of as the ‘Heroic Boomer’ Orthodoxy on post-war social history. Sweeping dismissals of the socially-liberal strands that clearly existed among sections of older generations (including an exaggeration of differences between the Old Left and New Left)and hence far too much appropriation, by Boomer historians and journos, of the credit for transforming society in a liberal direction late 60s – mid 80s.

    Like many an enduring mythology, there’s a kernel of truth there, but it’s been exaggerated out of all recognition.

    But now I’m moving well away from the music.

  9. Apologies, I thought I’d edited out that little rant upon re-reading your piece and coming to the same conclusion! (I also happened to omit thanks for sharing your work – how rude.)

    I’m no Luddite but I do fear technological change will continue to adversely effect both “education” and job prospects so long as it is geared toward maximum efficiency (for every coloured collar) instead of optimum efficiency.

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