New plays up

It’s been a delightful year for producing plays at Hutt Valley High School. We’ve trialled two new pieces, Fight or Flight, with my Year 12s, and Fracture, with my Year 13s. Fracture may well end up being my favorite play; I was delighted with the way it turned out. Both are up on the site now, if you’re interested in reading them, or using them on stage yourself. As always, feel free to mess around with it any way you like, they’re yours to play with.

I’m reminded, in posting this, that a great many of my novels have started their lives as stage plays (Lester, No Alarms, Malcolm and Juliet and Genesis) and my current novel project is based round my play Singer. Starting with a play gives the luxury of being able to explore the themes and characters in a fluid and interactive environment, and is perhaps the best prep for writing a novel that I can think of. I remain indebted to the fabulously talented students who help me bring these stories alive. Mine is a very lucky profession (and I write this in the middle of yet another set of holidays).

Value added

The problem with bad ideas is that very often they appear, on first viewing, to be very good ideas indeed. This is why the habit of critical thinking is such an important one, worthy of a much more prominent place in the school curriculum. If we don’t develop the ability, and indeed instinct, to look beneath the glossy wrapper, then we’ll end up being sold any old nonsense. And, speaking of school, it’s quite possible that there is no field quite as vulnerable to the seductive power of glib fashion than education. Here’s a favourite example of mine. Consider the following statement:

It’s the job of a school to add value. There’s no point spending billions of dollars on education if that very process doesn’t add something valuable. Therefore, in order for us to know whether or not our education dollar is well spent, it’s critical that we can measure and report on the value we are adding. What’s more, knowing what the student can already do must be the starting point for any successful teaching programme, informing as it does what the next step should be.

Now, that appears deeply reasonable, doesn’t it? Almost to the point of being inarguable. Plenty of people at the Ministry of Education would say so, for it forms the basis of a significant push in our schools at the moment. Which is interesting, because the statement is almost certainly wrong. I should explain.

The first thing that must be noted, in the spirit of Heisenberg, is that measurement is never a neutral activity. The thing we measure is changed by the act of measuring it. Furthermore, measurement is an expensive activity, in terms of time and resources. A regime focussed on measuring will therefore do two things; it will divert resources away from other activities (say teaching) and it will change the way we think about the activities we teach and learn. The first is unambiguously negative, the second potentially so. Hence, we must conclude that a focus on identifying added value is a good idea if, and only if, the benefits exceed the costs. Yet, oddly, almost none of the enthusiasts for the concept see it in these terms.

So, let’s consider in more detail what some of the potential costs might be. Einstein (to continue the physics theme) once said: Not everything valuable is measurable, and not everything measurable is valuable. (Or was it the other way around?) So, if the cost of measurement is the first objection, then here is objection number two: A great deal of what is valuable in a school is intangible. Take for example the experience of heading out into the NZ bush to camp with a bunch of your peers. The most valuable takeaways from this experience will surely elude measurement (a moment of tranquility beneath the stars, a sense of belonging to a group, laughter around a campfire, the memory of which resonates through the years, and so it goes on). Now, imagine somebody tells you you must justify the camp in terms of value added. You can’t turn to the truly valuable aspects, as you know any attempt to measure them will be bogus, and so you may turn instead to something that could be measured, but is comparatively trivial: perhaps a temporary boost in fitness level, or an ability to correctly pitch a tent. The problem is immediately apparent. Justify the camp in these terms and two things happen. First, somebody will demand that more of the camp is therefore devoted to the intended outcome (let’s make the walk more grueling, let’s have tent inspections) and then, inevitably, someone will notice that the same outcomes can be more efficiently achieved in a less authentic environment. So we have tent pitching competitions on the school grounds followed by a brisk run around the block. And all of our lives are diminished.

Now for objection number three. In many cases, measurement inhibits learning. Two examples will make the case adequately. There is good evidence (a number of the studies in this area have used ethnic groups to make their point) that assessment increases performance inequities. In particular, the stress reaction in students who over time have become accustomed to failure inhibits performance. The more a struggling student expects the effort they are making to be assessed, the less effectively they engage with the task. The looming failure is enough to panic them into a non-receptive state. The second example comes from the area with which I am most familiar, that of creativity. I remember once being in a small group listening to the English Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, explaining why he was against grading papers in the elite creative writing paper he is responsible for. His argument will be familiar with anyone who has ever been involved in a creative endeavour. Motion suggested that as soon as you have grade levels, you have to have descriptors, and as soon as the student focuses on the descriptors (just what is the difference between a good and excellent piece of writing?) their approach becomes hopelessly mechanical, and the creative impulse withers. This is exactly my experience as a writer. The way to write is to find the story that needs to be told, and then, over time, to find the head space that allows you to discover the way to tell it. It’s a messy, frustrating and unreliable business. And nothing knocks you from your path more than the sense that there is some criteria to be met. Writing to please, according to some pre-conceived set of shoulds, is creatively disastrous. As any artist will tell you, the hardest piece of work to create is the one immediately following on from your greatest success. Expectations, be they imposed form within or without, are the enemy of creativity. So, careful attempts to identify value added will kill creativity and add to inequality. On to objection number four.

Implicit in the push for more careful assessment of educational achievement is the belief that learning occurs in stages, with each level of achievement being dependent on first mastering the previous step. At any point then, measurement allows us to identify the stage the student is is, and so provide them with the specific knowledge or guidance required to move on to the next stage. Now, this is undoubtedly true for a small subset of learning. Think of the very many foundation skills that must be mastered in mathematics before one can deal confidently with calculus – first one must have a sense of number, then of basic arithmetic, later of relations, and later still, algebraic expressions. We can properly identify an ever finer-grained sequence of skills which must be negotiated in an approximate order, and finding out where he gaps are can be crucial in remedying difficulties.

However, for a great deal of the learning we do, this is not the process. In these cases, knowing where the student is currently at adds surprisingly little to our ability to help them improve. A couple of examples will clarify. Occasionally, as part of a drama programme, I teach students to juggle. Now, juggling has a clear progession, from total confusion, through to making uncontrolled sense of the pattern, trough to sporadic success, then low level mastery, and eventually something like fluency. And yet, at every stage, the advice is the same. Practise some more. One of the clearest indicators of a person’s juggling prowess is their capacity to juggle five balls. Master that and you can properly call yourself a juggler. It’s very tricky. Here is what you need to know, in order to master this complex skill:
The five ball cascade uses exactly the same pattern as the three ball cascade, only the throws are higher, and need to land more consistently.
That’s it. It’s all the knowledge you need. And what advice can a tutor give you to help you achieve it?
Practise this every day. For most people, after some months of consistent practice, the brain will begin to see the pattern.
Again, that’s the extent of it. And a huge amount of what we learn and indeed need to learn, is of this nature. Our knowledge becomes embedded over thousands of hours of repetitive practice. Knowing where in the journey you are at, at any given time, is essentially inert information.

Teaching acting has a similar quality. The advice I am most likely to give an actor (beyond the foundational stuff about voice and audience awareness) is to try to inhabit the character. Find a way of stopping being you, and being then. Fully imagine your way into their world and situation. Understand why they do and say the things they do, and how that makes them feel. The task is essentially the same for a first time student as it is for a professional actor with decades of experience. One piece of advice, to be learned over a life time. Sometime the actor struggles to find a character, other times they get there quickly. Our job is to help them explore the role, and to provide the encouragement and criticism needed to motivate them in the search. Eventually, they become a little more proficient. Because it is not a case of moving sequentially through skills, where each level has a new instructional need, knowing where the student currently stands is again of no instructional use. This objection might be best summarised thus: knowing how much value you were adding (even if it were possible) would do nothing to help you add value.

In drama students, it is not so much that they move through a sequence of ability levels, as they are caught within one of a number of mutually exclusive orbits (like electron clusters, shall we say?) The workmanlike actor, over a lifetime, becomes slowly more proficient at being workmanlike, in the same way that the true talent slowly, over a lifetime, learns to more reliably let that talent shine. One doesn’t move from proficient to talented, nor could one even compare two actors caught in different orbits. They’re just completely different things. Occasionally, there is a quantum fluctuation, a random and inexplicable leap for one orbit to another, linked I suspect to moments of confidence or clarity, and when the leap is upwards it’s a fine thing to witness, but as for leading a student through the levels, the metaphor just doesn’t hold.

Objection number five. We can never be sure the progress we observe is value we ourselves have added. This is an interesting factor that is often overlooked in educational research. Put simply, an awful lot of learning happens despite us. Just because a student at the end of the year can do things they couldn’t do at the beginning, that’s no indicator that we helped them do it. A child at some stage learns to walk, despite us never teaching them (and anybody who noticed the change and concluded that they, the parent, had added value, would be a judged a moron). But so it is with the increasing intellectual and social sophistication that comes from undergoing brain development in adolescence. Now, these skills of social discernment and complex reasoning, although developing offstage, are key drivers in the capacity of students to reach new academic heights as they age. We see the results, but can not sensibly conclude we added value. Some studies of reading development note that in middle class homes, reading age increases over the holidays at much the same rate as it did in school time, whereas in socially stressed households, we often see students going backwards over the break (this is said to be one of the biggest drivers of educational inequality). So, what should we say of the school’s contribution to the reading development of the middle class child? How much is down to the teacher? How could we ever know? Why would we want to?

And finally, to round out the half dozen, my sixth objection is something of an echo of the second. For the whole value-added edifice pre-supposes that the purpose of education is to learn. In fact, that’s only one of the purposes. We do want the student to emerge from the machine more capable than when they went in. But, and how easy it is to forget this point, we also want the student to experience. School is not just a preparation for life, but it is also a significant part of the life itself, and so the goal of providing experiences that are of themselves worthy contributions to the totality of a life well lived, is every bit as important as the goal of teaching them something. And attempts to measure value-added tend to miss this entirely.

So, could it be that an idea that sounds very smart from the outside, (measuring student progress to inform teaching practice) is actually of practically no value (and significant cost) in most educational contexts? Could it be that as processes go, this one is expensive, promotes inequality, devalues what is most important, fails to recognise how most learning occurs, stifles creativity and yields end data that is largely meaningless? If that is true, then serious questions need to be asked about the competence of those setting educational policy, because they appear to believe the opposite is true. This is not just a New Zealand trend, so in this sense perhaps we should not judge our own officials too harshly. The international nature of this particular folly suggests that beneath the surface the forces in play are largely political.

Meantime, the highlight of my teaching year next year will be directing the full school musical. Students will come together to sing, to dance, to act and entertain. They will support each other, face down their fears, experience moments of pure magic and walk away with memories that will never leave them. Do pity the first fool to approach me and suggest I consider measuring the value I have added during that process.

The wisdom of Greeks

When the new school year rolls around in February, my boys will be amongst the number passing through the gates on the first day, embarking upon what I hope will be a happy continuation of their learning adventure. One day I would like to write a book about schools, perhaps a reflection on what has now been two and a half decades working in the field. If I ever do, I’m sure I will start by asking ‘what is this thing called school for?’ It’s not an easy question, but there must be a compelling answer. After all, by the time my two pass through the other end, the state will have committed upwards of a quarter of a million dollars to their time within the institution. It beggars belief that we would be doing that without a solid plan.

Here’s not the place to attempt to justify that spending, that would take a more expanded format. Instead, let me outline quickly what I hope happens to my boys as schooling becomes part of their lives. To do that, I will turn to the ancients, still the most reliable guides in any number of situations. Here are three of my favourite pieces of Greek wisdom.

Plato once said: Be kind, for everybody you meet is engaged in a battle.
Aristotle observed that virtue always lies at the centre of opposing vices.
Protagoras once stated: The fire burns the same everywhere, but the law of the land changes from place to place.

Those three nuggets by themselves are almost enough to live by, I think. And it takes a lifetime to get the hang of them. Here’s why I love them so much:

For me, Plato offers two messages. The first, that kindness flows from empathy. Nobody’s life is entirely easy. We will all meet fear, loneliness and grief. And so we all need kindness, all the time. The human being appears to have evolved a unique capacity for imagining our way into the lives of others, to understand, at least partially, the world from another’s point of view. I hope school sharpens this skill in my children. Through the literature they encounter, the games they play together, the opportunities for service they are offered, they will become kinder, and better at seeing the other as an extension of themselves. Or so I hope. Plato’s second message, if you think about it, involves resilience. If everybody we meet is engaged in a battle, then so too are we. Life will be hard, sometimes. I want my boys to experience some of that hardship, in a safe and controlled environment, so that they develop the skill of bouncing back.

I’ve always found Aristotle’s dictum here profound. We live in a culture fond of black and white summaries, of dichotomies that save us the trouble of grappling with subtlety. Generosity is good, selfishness bad. Bravery virtuous, cowardice despicable. Dedication is admirable, slothfulness to be avoided. And this is childish nonsense. Aristotle saw that excessive bravery is simply recklessness, and that caution is the moderate form of cowardice. So too with generosity. Give too much, becomes the instinctive martyr who can function only when enduring misery on behalf of others, and your life has been shamefully wasted. Think only of oneself and the same is true. I hope my boys can grow to understand the importance of balance in all things. Of sometimes striving, and sometimes saying to hell with this and going to the beach. I hope they will look after their health without becoming nuts about it. I hope that their kindness will be balanced by self-preservation, that they will be humble enough to ask for help, and proud enough to assert themselves when they need to. The trouble with the middle, though, is that it takes remarkable control to resist the attraction of the extremes. And so this is my true Aristotlean hope for my boys’ education, that they are given every opportunity to develop self-control, even if it means that they are left to stumble sometimes.

And as for Protagoras, was ever a more wonderful summary of human knowledge recorded? Here is a perfect anticipation, thousands of years before its time, of the post-modern view, but without any of its excesses. The world is knowable, in so many ways. The fire burns the same everywhere, and so we can study it, and learn its laws, no matter what our cultural background. And yet the laws of the land, our beliefs, our values, our dreams, differ from place to place. Whatever the truth of these things, the best we can hope to do is find solace in our community’s stories. And what does this mean for education? Well, I think of curiosity, and of tolerance. If we can understand the physical world, through careful application, then I hope the native enthusiasm for learning that my boys exhibit is fanned by the classroom, not stifled. And tolerance, because if all the rest is story, then surely the first thing we must learn to do is listen to the stories of others, that we might understand them before we dismiss them.

So there you have it: empathy, resilience, self-control, curiosity and tolerance. Throw in the ability to celebrate (for which a pithy Greek quote comes not to hand, but there will be one for sure) and I would be awfully happy with any education system that nurtured these qualities. And why do I want these things for my children? Because I am selfish enough to desire the satisfaction that comes from seeing one’s children happy. And as best I can tell, these are the ‘virtues’ that will get them there. As for their reading and their maths, or their grades in general. I care not one jot. That stuff is ephemeral, the justification for the busyness that is required to maintain order in a cost-efficient institution.

Monkey morality

A few years back, I wrote a book called Falling for Science, a response to a year spent at The Alan Wilson Centre, a research organising specialising in molecular evolution. The book was a response to my first encounter with the philosophy of science, and was my way of trying to make sense of the way science and story telling are necessarily intertwined. The conclusion, perhaps banal, was that we make sense of the world both by constructing models of our physical experience, and by using story to interpret those models, so freighting them with personal meaning.

Next week I’ll be giving a talk to The Sea of Faith conference, where a theme is the relationship between brain science and spirituality. I want to look at the way certain scientific discoveries constrain our meaning models, and specifically to make the case that, if we are to accept evolution, we are led to the conclusion that the human mind has no reliable access to moral truths.

That’s a reasonably challenging view; for most of us, the idea that some things are just right and wrong, and we know what they are, dammit, is instinctive. And, for most of us in the modern age, evolution stands uncontested. So, if these two cherished views are incompatible, that’s going to cause a problem. Not surprisingly, a great number of people, amongst them eminently qualified philosophers, disagree with me. Here then, in truncated form, is the case against moral knowledge, along with a quick examination of a counter-argument, from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which was provided by a correspondent, Darrell.

Two fundamental scientific models are being assumed. First, that complex design in nature is the result of natural selection. Given that the brain is the most complex piece of design we know of in nature, the argument is that it slowly developed its characteristics over time, in response to the differential survival rates of particular genetically determined variants. Second, that the laws of quantum physics are reliable. That is, that the physical sub-structure of the brain behaves according to probabilistic determinism. A particular state of the brain exists as a probabilistic function of its state in the previous time frame. In other words, we don’t have non-physical entities exerting any systematic influence on physical entities.

The moral argument is a conditional one. It doesn’t say, we must accept such science, but rather says, if we do, we are left concluding that the brain does not reliably access moral truths (it may hit them by random, from time to time, if they do indeed exist). In form, it is essentially a plausibility argument. It says, if we know of no mechanism by which a physical occurrence could occur, and have no evidence that it is occurring, we should conclude it does not occur. Think of this in terms of the claim that at night, while you sleep, your kitchen furniture levitates. A strong scientific argument against, that most would accept, is that we know of no mechanism by which a table or chair could levitate. So it is with this particular argument.

What then, is the equivalent of levitation? Consider a moral judgement. You see a child being beaten and cry out ‘stop, that is wrong!’ We can think of the time between the beating being observed, and the utterance being offered, as a sequence of physical states. First, light of the image hits the retina. Next the light information is converted to electrical impulses and so forth, right through to the brain state required for the utterance to be primed and offered. Physics suggests that every physical state is probabilistically determined by the previous state. In other words, the information at state one is sufficient to explain state two. Nothing uncaused happens within the physical brain, beyond the random element of the quantum equations (which being random, is without cause or purpose).

So, if the final utterance is reliably moral, then in some way, the design of the brain has been set up such that this ‘machine’ is calibrated to true moral values. However, evolution tells us that the design is the result of pragmatic forces. In other words, our particular moral instincts have evolved over time in response to the impact they have on genetic reproduction. Hence a fierce desire to protect one’s own children, that does not extend with the same ferocity to the children of strangers. We have no reason to believe that such pragmatic needs also match the true moral compass. If they do, it can only be because moral truth is identical to pragmatic need.

We have also clearly evolved a mental plasticity, which allows us, by way of culture, to overlay new behavioural tendencies, and we see this in the way moral mores change over time. We can teach our children to not only follow their instincts, but also to moderate and to some extent modify them. But again, there is no obvious reason why our cultural tendencies, which often reward either power interests, or the interests of social stability, should track some higher truth.

So, imagine a universe in which the beating of children is, in fact, morally good. How would the evolved brain, or the subsequent cultural overlay, ever discover this truth, let alone shape the brain to track it?

My argument is that we know of absolutely no mechanism by which this might happen and so, as with the levitating furniture, we should conclude it is not happening. (Some will argue that, unlike the furniture, we have clear evidence via our personal conviction, that moral truths exist. But ask yourself, should you meet a person with clear personal conviction, but no physical evidence, that the chairs levitate, would that also sway you?)

So, what’s the argument against this? Darrell suggests an answer can be found in this Stanford entry:

Consider how a moral realist will approach the above debunking argument. It is intended to show us that realism is untenable, which of course means that this conclusion cannot just be assumed from the start. Yet if we begin the argument allowing that there may be independent moral truths, then why should we accept the initial claim about the pervasive influence of evolutionary forces on the content of our moral thinking in the first place? If there are independent moral truths, then we may plausibly have grasped many of them through autonomous exercises of our capacities for moral reflection, whereby we have come to recognize good reasons for thinking certain moral propositions to be true...”

The above makes two important claims. First, just because we may have established the way evolution can shape our moral intuitions, this does not in itself preclude the possibility that some of our moral intuitions refer to something more than mere selective contingency. In other words, science may provide one way of moral knowledge entering the system, but this need not be the only way. To assume in advance it is the only way is to beg the question.

The second claim made here is that, in fact, we do have another means of grasping moral positions, and this involves our capacity for reason, what here is referred to as autonomous reflection or autonomous moral reasoning. This is the observed human capacity to reason our way towards new truths. We have after all reasoned our way to the fact that there are infinite prime numbers, or that the world is round. Nobody claims our access to such truths is precluded by evolution. So, if we can reach mathematical or physical truths in this way, why not also moral truths?

The first point is valid, and one would be foolish to question it. An argument showing how evolution shapes moral judgement is not in itself sufficient to show either that there are no moral truths, nor that we have no access to them. The problem, it seems to me, comes about with the second claim. For, the argument I am making is that, while moral truths may exist (I have no opinion on this either way) we should conclude we have no access to them because we have no plausible mechanism by which they could be grasped. And that is an explicit claim that the appeal to autonomous moral reasoning does not work, if its intention is to show it to be a reliable generator of morally true statements. In other words, the analogy with scientific or mathematical reasoning is a false one. Here’s why:

Remember that the argument is not that we can not reason our way to moral beliefs, clearly we can and do, but rather that such reasoning will not reliably guide us towards external, or objective, moral truths. To see this, consider how both mathematical and scientific investigations work. Mathematics is essentially the process by which we unpack the implications of a set of axioms. So, in the case of prime numbers, we first set up a mathematical system, with a set of rules and definitions, and once these are accepted, we can work our way through various proofs (say the unlimited number of primes). So, we can say, given a particular set of axioms, a certain set of results must follow. The closest we can come to statements about mathematical truth is to say, if A is true, then it implies B must be true.

Clearly this is problematic if we hope that moral reasoning can reliably deliver up moral truths. For such reasoning to work, first we will need to define and accept our moral axioms. For example, a person starting off with the proposition that a moral goal is greatest benefit for the greatest number will be able to reason their way to a number of moral propositions that therefore follow (imperatives ruling tax systems, perhaps). However, the propositions thereby reached will only be reliably true if the starting moral assumptions are already true (that’s just how deductive logic works) and we must ask, well where did the truth of the starting assumptions come from? And, the evolutionist will argue, we know of no mechanism that would make the starting assumptions reliably true.

Science works slightly differently, in that both its starting assumptions and reasoned to propositions will then be tested against the world as we experience it. The belief that the world is round was tested against the angle of the sun at different geographic locations, for example. We say the model holds, not just because of the way we reason towards it, but also because of the way our experience of the world matches the model’s predictions. In moral reasoning, however, the real moral world exerts no influence against which we can test it (unless we redefine morality in pragmatic terms – the moral is that which fulfills us, for example – which was the evolutionist’s point in the first place).

So, where does all of this leave us? Well, we can still construct, consider and refine our moral systems, and set great store by them socially. We can use them to attain the goals we value, and to work towards a shared sense of humanity. What we can’t do, if we are to cleave to our scientific understandings, is hold that our moral discoveries are indicators of some higher, unchanging truth.

Dear Politicians of the Left,

Dear Politicians of the Left


Well, I suppose Saturday night was a tad frustrating for you all. You got an old fashioned shellacking, by any standards. I imagine you’re now so caught up in games of blame and shame, that you’re not much interested how it feels to be one of the minority who voted for you. But you know what, we’re mighty frustrated too. I voted for you because I thought some of your policies made sense, and I share a great many of your values. I rather hoped the polls were wrong, and you might contrive of a way to sneak over the line and put some of those policies in place. It was, of course, a naive form of optimism. With all due respect, you screwed up. So here is a short list of things I would love to see from the Left, as you regather and start thinking about another three long years in opposition.

First, I would love to see you concentrating on something other than beating each other up. Seriously, I don’t mind that most of the Labour caucus don’t much like David Cunliffe, but I do mind that I know about it. How the hell did you think people would vote for the man when you made it so patently clear you, his colleagues, didn’t like him? Shut the hell up about this stuff, keep it behind closed doors. The only possible reason you could have had for so gleefully spreading your disdain is personal gain. And I really object to having my views represented by politicians more interested in their own careers than the trajectory of their policies. When Bill English got rolled, he took a  deep, grown-up breath, and went to work as a loyal finance minister. I can’t imagine everybody in the National caucus likes everybody else, but they’ve worked pretty darned hard to keep their feelings private. You folk, however, have made an art form of disloyalty. And it turns out voters don’t find that venal approach to careers appealing. Who knew?

Stop pretending you’re the only party that cares. You might believe this, but nobody else does. The average voter believes that, by in large, our politicians are interested in solutions that make our lives better. We won’t agree with all of their ideas, but we find it awfully hard to believe that just because somebody tends to the right politically, their great aim in life is destroy our environment, and torture the young. We don’t believe John Key lies awake at night dreaming up new ways to compromise our privacy or steal our children’s toys. He strikes us as slightly over-enthusiastic, sure, a little goofy too, and we don’t love all his policy solutions, but the devil incarnate he just ain’t. Key supported the anti-smacking bill, and gay marriage to boot. And his economic instincts are nothing like the craziness of the Roger Douglas era Labour Party (yeah, we’ve not forgotten about that. Sorry.) So why on earth did this campaign turn into one attempt after another to undermine his credibility? I know, you’ll argue that circumstances overtook you, but who invited Dotcom to the table, and who came running to the media to express their outrage every time another slur hit the headlines?

And how about paddling together? Seriously, the election was barely over and we saw The Greens lining up to position themselves as the true voice of the opposition. So what, your plan, now that Labour is on its knees, is to start kicking it? They don’t need you to kick them. They’re doing just fine on that front all by themselves. Here’s a thought, how about The Green Party go back to being, you know, Green. Doesn’t it make a certain amount of sense, if your reason for being is the saving of the planet, to focus on environmental policies? Do you know how many clicks of your website it takes to get you to anything substantial on Climate Change? Because you want to feed the children. Well guess what, so does everybody else. But, by couching this earnest concern in terms that make it impossible for you to work with anybody on the right, you have left yourself with precisely zero political leverage. If the only party you can work with in government is Labour, then you can only have influence when they’re in power, and even then you can’t negotiate credibly because they know you have nowhere else to run. Meanwhile, the planet grows hotter, and you’ve given the major parties no political incentive to worry about it. Who’s plan was this, exactly? Why haven’t they been fired?

Here’s a final thought. New Zealand elections are fought in the centre because our instincts are remorselessly moderate. You will regain power when you find a way of appealing to the centre. And the big problem, that you don’t much like to talk about, is this: you don’t much like middle New Zealand. You should get over that.

There, that’s out of my system now. The thing is, I really wanted you to win. It’s bad enough living in Wellington and having to support our sports team, but this too?


Your sincerely







It isn’t easy, being …

Continuing on with my pre-election assessment of major party policies, I’ve been thinking about the way the major party’s policies on poverty, the environment and housing compare.

Poverty should have been a  big election issue. David Cunliffe assumed the leadership talking up the Left’s special concern for the poor, and has attempted to brand Labour as the party that cares, the implication being that the current government don’t lose sleep over the current levels of deprivation. The poverty debate, however, has all too readily degenerated into arguments about the extent of the problem (ranging from bad to extremely bad), along with vague assertions about who is to blame. The important stuff, what we might do about it, has had much less air time than the Left had surely hoped.

If this were the only issue I considered when voting (and there are worse single issues to focus on) then this would be a particularly easy vote to cast. National’s policies, it seems to me, are predicated on the notion that there just isn’t much one can do about the problem, and therefore, beyond aiming for economic growth, and hence more jobs, it’s just a fact of life and we have to get used to it. There are a number of reasons why this strikes me as a hopeless approach.

First, while jobless rates are clearly a crucial part of the equation, it’s not the case that they are the only determinant of poverty levels. Wage, benefit and cost of living issues are also crucial. Over the past thirty years we have seen dramatic changes in poverty. The reforms under the stewardship of Roger Douglas saw a significant rise in poverty, mostly because people did not exhibit the kind of flexibility the architects of the reforms envisaged. Although new jobs and industries did to some extent emerge eventually, an entire subsection were by then moving towards entrenched unemployed that in turn became intergenerational. The reforms failed to manage resource re-allocation adequately, and thousands of families have suffered ever since. The benefit cuts under Ruth RIchardson also saw a large rise in poverty levels, whereas the implementation of Working for Families saw a material reduction in poverty for those fortunate enough to be in work. So, while one might choose to argue about the pros and cons of various interventions, it is simply not true that poverty is not responsive to policy settings. That National has been so reluctant to engage about the issue of which settings they might try to change and how, strikes me as little more than an abdication of leadership.

My other main objection to the ‘jobs first’ approach to poverty reduction is that it rather ignorant the fact that no party is currently projecting a future where we return to full employment. In fact, as joblessness falls, and we experience upward pressure on prices, the Reserve Bank Act mechanism essentially requires that the brakes are put on growth.  So, given we all expect unemployment to persist, and even have sanctioned an in-built mechanism to support that persistence, suggesting that the sole answer to the poverty question is jobs is disingenuous. Considered as a package, a Labour/Green approach to poverty strikes me as simply taking the problem more seriously. The only possible defence the Right might construct at this point is to argue that the proposed measures will hurt job growth, the case they’ve tried to construct against a rise in the minimum wage, but they haven’t produced the studies or data to support their claims, and for me it has the feel of rhetoric.

While there are any number of environmental issues in play, from water management to oil exploration, climate change is surely the biggest issue. Although it’s hardly had a run during the political discussions this election, that doesn’t mean it’s a problem that’s about to go away. Indeed, our best attempts at modelling the phenomenon have grown no less alarming, and it seems both that change is coming and that, if we  don’t act collectively and decisively, that change will be hugely costly. Given this backdrop, one  might expect any serious political party to both have a strategy for adjusting to these changes, and a strategy for contributing to the global effort to minimise them. Perhaps the most depressing element of this election is the fact that an observer could easily be left concluding the problem doesn’t even exist.

National score poorly here. Under their watch, the Emissions Trading Scheme has fallen over, and their official line seems to boil down to ‘it’s not for us to lead the way.’ The argument, I guess, is that any action taken unilaterally by a small trading nation will make no difference to the overall situation, but will hurt us significantly. Against that, I would argue first, that the assertion that adjusting to the new imperatives first will hurt us economically is by no means established. What it will surely hurt is those industries built upon the assumed right to pollute without paying for their mess, but there is also genuine potential for growth amongst clean industry alternatives. Ethically speaking, I’m not particularly comfortable with the argument that, because I can’t fix the entire problem, there’s no need for me to do my bit. Pragmatically speaking, if we were to extend this approach to social behaviour, in the name of consistency, we’d buy our way into a pretty mess, I imagine. I can’t shake the feeling that the real problem on the Right is that they’re just not convinced by the science. Perhaps Colin Craig will be able to push for Creationism in Schools if he makes government, or classes in moon landing conspiracies.

On the other side, Labour are not pushing this policy area at all, and to my mind their approach (mostly trying to reform the ETS) tends towards the token. Not surprisingly, the Greens are more active on this front, although I have to say I’m disappointed that they have chosen to use clean waterways as their flagship environmental policy this time around. I suppose they’re attempting to appeal to a broader swathe of voters, but if The Greens can’t be relied upon to keep climate change front and centre, then what hope is there? This feels like one of those times in history that will take a bit of explaining, when our grandchildren start asking their pesky, ‘what were you thinking?’ questions. Nevertheless, by comparison, the Left win this one without raising a sweat, and I’m feeling much better about sending my vote their way.

Finally, and briefly, housing. This isn’t an issue that would normally be on my radar, but it is remarkable just how dysfunctional our housing market has become, and how brutally this impacts the standard of living of middle income earners. Should we find a way of bringing prices back in line with international guidelines, a massive amount of income would be freed up for the next generation of mortgage holders. Of course, for every person’s gain, another must lose, and so it is worth noting where the winners can be found in during a housing bubble. Essentially, rising house prices see a transfer of wealth from the new entrants to the existing owners, which is an intergenerational transfer in favour of the middle aged and beyond. The servicing of the debt generates income for the banking industry, so in our case that’s money being earned by NZ mortgage holders being transferred offshore in the form of banking profits. And it’s a transfer of wealth (untaxed) towards landlords, who in general would find themselves above the average for income and wealth levels. Reversing all of that scores points in the name of both equality and international debt, as well as offering the next generation a way into the most secure and reliable method of savings we have. So, any party that could turn this round would be doing something incredibly positive.

And here I stop, because I don’t know how you do that. The obvious point is that this is mostly an Auckland problem, house prices there are well out of step with the rest of the country. It’s tempting to conclude this is purely a supply issue, and that the inability of the Auckland housing market to keep up with migratory demand is the problem. To this end, efforts to free up land, encourage higher density living, or even just having the Government build the houses, all have merit. And it’s possible the Capital Gains Tax will have a positive impact here, although I can’t imagine it will be huge (I don’t think there’s any case internationally of it having this effect.)

However, and here I’m wandering well beyond the sphere of any expertise, I’m not convinced this is all about a regional supply problem. Internationally, bubbles seem to rise up unexpectedly, and the housing market has some curious features, not least of which is that the headline price (and so expected value next time you put your own price up for sale) is the result of marginal trading, which is to say, most of the time, ost houses, are not on the market, they’re just being lived in. The strange behavioural quirks this causes, from owners remortgaging  to exploit their new, and largely illusory wealth, to sellers feeling they have lost if they don’t meet their newly inflated expectations, mean that house markets can go nuts even when the underlying supply conditions are not particularly dire. Which is not to say supply won’t be part of the solution, but I wonder if policy makers shouldn’t be thinking a little more broadly.

All of that said, I’m simply not expert enough to know which of the two sides is more likely to ease the problem and so, even though it’s an undoubtedly an important issue, it won’t be part of my decision making. Not that there’s really much of a decision left. It turns out I’ll be voting Green again, all the while hoping against hope that The Conservatives aren’t part of the next Government.

The road less travelled

With the election only three weeks ago, I have decided it is time to think a little more carefully about who I might vote for. And how better to do that, than try to write those thoughts down? An oddity of the MMP system is that for the most part you are voting not just for a party, but also for a coalition government. So it seems to me part of the voting equation is a comparison of the lead party’s policies. Which of the two large centrist parties is most deserving of my support, either directly or by way of a tick for one of their support parties? The usual way to do this is to break it into policy areas and put them head to head. The obvious problem is that for most of us, most of the time, we know very little of the nuts and bolts of any particular portfolio, and have to make do with ignoring the complexity, and attending instead to far simpler substitute problems (perhaps the rhetoric-soggy policy statements, or just a gut feeling about values, or, heaven forfend, the ‘seems like a nice enough person’ test.) It’s a fairly average form of democracy at this point, but it’s still far better than not engaging at all.

If I think about things I believe the government can have a positive influence on, and that I care about, I’d immediately nominate: health, education, the economy, poverty, the environment, housing, race relations and maybe justice.

I know almost nothing about our health system, apart from the fact that it’s one of the biggest areas of government spending, and that as technology moves on, lifestyle disease becomes more prevalent and our population ages, it’s going to get an awful lot bigger. So clearly, the smartest use of the money is what we’re after. It’s also an area, like the environment, where there’s a strong delineation between short term and long term interests. In the short term, the health imperative is to fix those who are ailing now. In the long term, the imperative is reduce the number of people ailing in the future. My largely uniformed guess is that it is in battling with this distinction that a government can do the most good. The immediate spending needs are urgent and compelling. Furthermore, they are the most amenable to political reward. Reduce a waiting list here, expand a hospital service there, approve a new drug for subsidy in that area, and you are seen to be making a real difference. The slower programmes, those that aim to get greater engagement with the health system from the most reluctant participants, those that encourage healthier lifestyles, or enable earlier intervention, are a much harder sell. First because they do not silence a crying need, and second because the benefits will accrue long after the responsible minister has left office, so where’s the upside for them? My tentative conclusion, then, is that our political system will crete a bias towards short term fixes, and preventative measures with better dollar for dollar outcomes will be overlooked.

If that’s true, then I ought to vote for whichever side seems most capable of taking a popularity hit in the name of future benefit. Listening to National and Labour on this, there’s a strong element of tweedle dum and tweedle dee. Neither seems to be promising to take the bull by the horns on this issue, let alone following up on such promises. There is an instinctive left/right divide in play, though. As a general rule prevention means social intervention, altering the conditions that lead to the undesirable behaviours. And, as a general rule, the right don’t much like intervening. Partly it’s a belief intervention just doesn’t work (which feels defeatist to me, it sure worked with smoking, and seatbelts in cars, it’s working with immunisation, and breastfeeding…) and partly it’s the spectacularly stupid idea that individuals, left to their own devices, will tend to make the best decisions. I certainly don’t behave like this, and nor have I ever met anybody who does. Environment makes a huge impact upon my decision making. One would have to be far removed from the social stream to believe otherwise (come to think of it, what social traits do these folk have in common – John Banks, Jamie Whyte, Don Brash… in education we would refer to them as ‘on the spectrum.’) We’ve seen hints of this tendency from National – a reluctance to embrace healthy food in schools policies, for example, and so health leads me to the left, but not by much. I don’t see a game changer here on either side.

Education is a little clearer, and as a teacher of twenty five years, I feel better informed, or at least closer to the action. National have put their money where their mouth is, and backed two major reforms The first is national standards in reading, writing and maths for primary, the second is the proposed new employment condition, wherein teachers and principals are paid extra to share their expertise within and across school groupings. I think both moves are well intentioned, but I have serious reservations about how smart they are. Seen in its most generous light, national standards is a system whereby we get better information about a school’s ability to add value. Presumably, under the system, there is an opportunity to identify schools that have found a way to make a difference. Take that information, and use it to share the successful school’s secrets, and maybe you’re on to something. Particularly when the point of focus is that subset of students we are struggling to educate well. The second change is presumably the mechanism by which the information can flow from the outstanding practitioners to the rest of us. As I say, good intentions, and ultimately they’re about addressing a real problem, which is the difficulty that exists internationally when it comes to educating the socially marginalised.

Nevertheless, they’re very average policies. National standards is very much about using a sledgehammer to crack an acorn, and exists much more because it appeases a paranoid middle class support base than because it does the job it sets out to do. A focus on testing, at the expense of education, is just plain bad practice, especially when the information regarding standout performance could already be gathered so easily. It’s made primary teachers grumpy and suspicious, and so undermined progress in the sector. And the new scheme is probably worse. Whoever thought that identifying the very best principals and teachers and then removing them from their jobs was the way forward has spent way too long inside an office. By all means keep exploring ways to more effectively transmit knowledge about best practice. But surely the easy way is to have people whose job it is to move through schools, observing, comparing and then mentoring. Like, I don’t know, the old inspectorate? The proposed system is ill thought out and deserves to be dropped. Against this. However, the left seem frustratingly wed to the idea that things are fine and all we need is more resources. So Labour are interested in more teachers, and the Greens want to address underachievement by addressing the root cause, namely poverty. This annoys me because it ignores the very great potential there is for changing practice within schools in ways that will lead to more meaningful engagement, particularly for those who are suffering the most. If the right have a slightly defeatist approach to health care, then at the moment the left could be similarly accused when it comes to education. So, well intentioned ideas that fail in the execution, versus no real ideas at all? It’s a difficult call. Maybe I’d give it to National, by a whisker.

The economy is another area where I feel at least vaguely qualified to have an opinion. I have a degree in economics although, in truth, I’m not anywhere near as familiar with the statistics as I’d need to be to put that skill set to much use. Still, that doesn’t stop one from forming an opinion. In general, I think New Zealand has been lucky with its finance ministers. Things got seriously wacky with Rob Muldoon and then Roger Douglas, and gave us a close up look at how badly it can all go wrong, but since then we’ve have a succession of fairly steady hands. History is likely to be kind to Michael Cullen and Bill English, both careful and pragmatic ministers, capable of informed diligence. We hit the financial crisis which much more room to move than most countries, thanks largely to the Cullen stewardship, and Bill English, despite representing a nominally right of centre government, was happy to spend up in order to flatten the downturn. We’ve had the good fortune of a trade bonanza with China, and the misfortune of a major earthquake, both of which have contributed greatly to growth. Unemployment is low by international standards, and jobs remain the surest way out of the poverty trap.

Against this, we remain very exposed internationally. Our current account deficit is high, and in this respect our exchange rate is overvalued, as capital inflows continue to indulge our overspending. There’s a sense that the rewards of growth are not being evenly shared, and like a great many world economies, we see a gap opening up between rich and poor (recent growth has seen this stabalise, but in big picture terms, the last three decades have seen poverty become entrenched.) There’s also a sense that our productive base is still too narrow, with the manufacturing base shrinking, and too little being done to utilise the potential of a highly educated workforce. Basically, we’re awfully good at finding ways to grow more grass and transform it, by way of cows, into milk products, but questions remain as to the long term growth capacity for this particular strategy. It’s not unfair, I think, to characterise National as good managers of the day to day stuff, they’ve provided a predictable, stable base environment, while wondering if they have what it takes to think smartly about the future.

In part this weakness is a reflection of another right-leaning instinct. Government’s, the right often opine, are simply no good at this stuff. Ask a government to think about how the future might look, and what we ought to do to get there, and they’ll get it wrong. That’s why they’re in parliament, and not in business. Personally I think that’s a little gutless, and also flies in the face of international experience. The one thing the great success stories, be they Singaporean, Korean, Japanese or Scandanavian, have had in common, is a government with a very clear sense of where it wanted its country to go. Labour, while not exactly visionary, have been using their time in opposition to put together a plan of sorts, and there’s a lot to like about it. I’ve written previously about how smart it is to be thinking more laterally when it comes to the reserve bank act, and they’re to be applauded for this. A capital gains tax makes sense, as does their more aggressive support for kiwisaver, and they’re talking the talk on research and development. In terms of personnel, there’s good reason to believe that David Parker will also be an excellent finance minister, and on this one the Labour coalition is more to my taste. National have worked hard to paint the Greens as loopy when it come sot economic management, and suggest Labour’s policy will be severely compromised. This though is bluster. As perhaps the last person left in the country who still thinks the Green’s quantitave easing approach was worth pursuing, I’m obviously not one to be spooked by an idea just because the self-appointed wise old men of NZ media commentary don’t approve, but the fact is that the Greens’ approach to the economy is, by international standards, mainstream economics, and the ease with which we’ve swallowed the right’s rhetoric on this is, frankly, embarrassing.

So, that’s me, halfway through my criteria, and this post is plenty long enough already. I’ll be back soonish with part two. Until then, it’s a very narrow lead to Labour and friends, which is reassuring given it’s who I habitually vote for.


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