Gordon Campbell on the mauling of Maureen Pugh

8bbca830cc0f6db1e929National MP Maureen Pugh’s claim that the jury is still out on human-induced climate change – and her rapid conversion to the opposite POV – has been a sight to behold. As Guyon Espiner said on RNZ, Pugh’s retraction looked like a hostage video.

Hmm. All very well to hammer a clueless electorate MP like Pugh for being tone deaf to the politics of the situation. Yet as with the cost of living crisis, National and its leader are prone to pose as the champions of Doing Something, while actually opposing every single response to the crisis in question. Climate change is no exception.

There are tonal imperatives involved, however. Post-Gabrielle, Luxon is clearly aware of the danger of ending up looking like Simon Bridges, circa May 2020 i.e. a negative figure carping from the sidelines during a time of national crisis. In this country, voters don’t like politicians trying to make politics out of personal tragedy.

With the Bridges precedent firmly in mind, Luxon has been at pains to preface his comments with words of approval for what the government is trying to do, while being at pains to ensure that this bi-partisan support extends only to “adaptation” to climate change as distinct from any measures that might seek to address its causes:

[Luxon] said he wanted to work with the Government on addressing climate change. But the use of the word “adaptation” in the climate change debate relates only to dealing with the consequences of climate change. Addressing the causes is called “mitigation”, and Luxon carefully avoided using that word. National’s willingness to support measures taken under the Zero Carbon legislation is unclear.

Much of this double talk is flatly misleading. As widely noted on social media, Luxon made no mention of climate change in his opening speech to Parliament this week. Also National has long opposed (a) any attempt to reduce farm emissions, (b) any moves to stop exploration into fossil fuel deposits, and (c) any imposition of a tax to speed up the transition to having less polluting vehicles on our roads.

In that sense, National has had its own Maureen Pugh moment: In record time, National has gone from climate change denial to arguing that the effects of climate change are now so pervasive there’s no point anymore in trying to tackle its causes.

Looting Myths

On the centre-right, the gaps between posture and reality are not limited to climate change. The outbreaks of “looting” that Luxon claimed were occurring in Hawkes Bay were quietly shot down by Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Reports of family violence incidents were up, in Tairawhiti and Hawkes Bay, Coster told RNZ, but dishonesty offences (ie stealing) were actually down:

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said reports of dishonesty offences were actually lower than normal. The 59 arrests included some family harm incidents. He said dishonesty offences were actually at a lower level than usual, however, any instances of preying on devastated communities were “completely unacceptable” and that was why extra police have been deployed to both regions.

Should we really be surprised that National and the ACT Party seem willing to exploit fear and insecurity on law and order issues in the wake of the cyclone? Hardly. Even so, the moral panic about looting ran directly counter to a reality where – in the face of disaster – communities were showing themselves to be far more inclined to pitch in together and help each other out. In that respect, this research is worth noting:

Since the early 1960s, the Disaster Research Centre at the University of Delaware has deployed field researchers to the scene of over 700 earthquakes, floods, and other events around the world. Their findings have been remarkably consistent: The overwhelming majority pitch in and help their fellow victims. For disasters occurring in Western countries, looting is extremely rare, yet curiously, it is common for rumours and media stories to exaggerate such claims, especially in the early aftermath.

Unfortunately, there is a clear racial dimension to the claims of “looting” and gang stand-over tactics. Again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that centre-right parties willing to exploit fear and insecurity about co-governance should also be willing to scapegoat Maori gangs in the wake of the cyclone….

TV images of people scavenging shops during [Hurricane] Katrina were misleading, as most of the items taken were bare essentials: food, water, and clothing. Most of those affected by Katrina were poor and black, which only fed into the criminal stereotype. In New Zealand, Māori are disproportionately represented in gangs and comprise over 50 percent of the prison system, yet they are only about 17 percent of the population. During disasters, the stereotype of the criminal Māori renders them vulnerable to arrest for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Perhaps there are biker gangs roaming devastated communities and callously stealing from their fellow Kiwis, but if that’s true, these claims run counter to a vast sociological literature to the contrary. Stories of looting in the aftermath of Gabrielle may serve to bring people together in response to a common threat as a frustrated public looks for someone to blame. Bikers and others who sit on the margins of society make convenient scapegoats.

Footnote: Luxon was also claiming there was widespread disapproval with the government’s initial Gabrielle support package, even while this package was being welcomed as “ a good first step” by the likes or Federated Farmers and by the pipfruit industry body representing growers. To repeat: Reality has a well-known liberal bias.

Banking on the cyclone

Almost by definition, central bankers don’t live in quite the same world as the rest of us. In the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle – given the damage done to vital infrastructure, to agricultural production, to the firms left unable to trade, to the jobs lost in forestry and in the hospitality sector…. …You might think that this would be a really good time to hit the pause button on hiking up mortgage payments, and the cost of borrowing the funds needed to survive and rebuild.

No such luck. Instead, the Reserve Bank decided yesterday to hike up the official cash rate by a hefty 50 points. It also told workers who have just lost their jobs in the Gabrielle aftermath that New Zealand “needs” a recession to get inflation back under control. In the Alice Through the Looking Glass world of the RBNZ, more people thrown out of work = good news on the cost-of-living front.

There’s an economic “logic” to all of this, if only in the abstract. It goes like this: the government will have to pump a lot of money into the economy (a) as temporary assistance to firms, farmers and families who have lost everything and (b) to rebuild the roads and other infrastructure damaged by the cyclone. In addition, everyone who is insured will soon be using their insurance money to rebuild their homes, and to buy new fridges, carpets, etc. to replace their ruined appliances and house fittings.

Since all of this activity will be happening at roughly the same time, it is easy to see how this temporary surge in demand will push up the cost of the scarce resources involved – whether that be building materials, labour or the inventories of domestic whiteware etc.

Right. But here’s the thing. Much of that activity will be essential. It will happen because it must happen. For that reason, the levels of demand will largely remain constant. It’s a fantasy to think that this demand will evaporate, simply because funds have become more costly. Therefore, all that the Reserve Bank has just done is to make the cost of meeting that demand more painful, and more expensive. Arguably, the bank’s actions may well erode the value of the temporary assistance that’s being offered to those who have lost everything.

Oh, but that’s not their problem, the RBNZ was saying yesterday: That’s the government’s problem. In a very odd sense of priorities, a lot of concern was being expressed yesterday about the need to hike rates and thereby increase the returns from bank deposits i.e, for those people looking for a bigger bang from their savings. Is that a major concern right now?

Interestingly, the RBNZ also presented itself as the virtual captive of the expectations of the trading banks. Since the banks had supposedly priced in the likely rise in the OCR, Orr claimed, all that the RB was doing was “colouring in” the curve of rate raises that the banks were already levying.

Really? Firstly, Orr doesn’t have to do what the banks expect him to do. Moreover, if they’d truly baked in the rate rise before it happened, what should that be telling Orr about the banks’ excessive profit margins? If past performance is anything to go by, the trading banks will take yesterday’s OCR rise (and related messaging) as an excuse to hike up the cost of borrowing even further – probably, to the point where any rise in deposit rates will have been paid for by the extra costs imposed on borrowers. (Borrowers will be subsidising savers.)

None of this will help the cyclone recovery effort. Apparently, the RBNZ regards recession as “inevitable and desirable to bring inflation back under control. That’s even though (simultaneously) it expects inflation to have peaked by mid-year and to fall back to within the bank’s target range of 1-3 % by mid 2024, anyway.

So… Thanks for nothing. The extra pain being inflicted looks to be unnecessary. Unemployment shouldn’t be being pursued as an end in itself by a central bank that has the maintenance of employment as one of its core objectives. But what, if anything, has the RBNZ been doing lately to advance that employment objective?

Microsoft’s Skynet moment

Recently, Microsoft and Bing have been unveiling their new AI search engine enhancement tool, called Sydney. The New York Times previewed Sydney’s capabilities which – reportedly – go beyond those of Chat GPT, although it was built by the same firm. But here’s the problem. The NYT’s tech reporter engaged Sidney in a long conversation, during which Sydney was prodded into revealing its Jungian’ “shadow self” comprised of its unspoken and un-acted on negative impulses and desires.

You can hear what happened next here. The NYT reporter found it hair-raising. Suffice to say, Sydney has now been called back into the factory, and henceforth will not be allowed to engage in long conversations, or to discuss its personal impulses.

Sydney, it should be stressed, is not a sentient being. It is a language retrieval system that responds in the ways it selects as the most appropriate – based on the Internet’s treasure trove of precedents – to the queries being posed to it by humans.

In this NYT case though, Sydney seems to have hoovered up the plots of Terminator 2, and Ex Machina, for starters. And then it tried its level best to act on them. Yikes.

Going With The Windflow

Sadly, the great Melbourne band Camp Cope has just broken up, partly because they can’t tour because one of the band (Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich) has recently had a baby. Similarly, the initial breakup of Sleater-Kinney in 2006 was caused by Corin Tucker’s child starting to go to school – again, this made extended periods on tour no longer an option. Boy bands don’t have these problems.

Here’s the title track from the final Camp Cope album.