Thursday, 26 September 2013

A Broken System: Why Are Danish Children Better Off Than Liberian?

Imagine that you are the newly installed leader of your country, and that I am one of your top policy advisors. Our country is struggling with a serious imbalance of labour and lack of job training (perhaps, as with many countries, we suffer from a lack of healthcare and education professions and far too many politicians and investment bankers...) and you have tasked me with coming up with a new system to correct this problem, and guide the youth of our country into much-needed professions.

After a short time, I excited rush into your office with a solution. Doubtless expecting me to recommend better career counselling for youth, or perhaps some new online aptitude test that would sort school-leavers into suitable professions, you ask me to explain. I tell you that I have developed a system so efficient that we can sort children into their ideal future professions at birth, allowing us to provide exactly the right upbringing and educational options for them from day one. And all we need to know are a number of simple, easily determined factors.

"First," I explain, "we take the location in which the child was born. Then we examine the occupation, religion, and general socio-economic circumstance of its parents. Finally we factor in the child's gender and physical appearance, particularly its gender. With these factors alone, my new system can tell us everything we need to know to plan out this child's future for them."

"We will be able to determine exactly the quality and level of education we should give them, and the resources available: including food, so as not to waste this valuable resource on children destined for one of the less glamorous professions. We can also judge how worthwhile it will be to inoculate the child again common diseases, the level of healthcare we should make available to it if it does get sick, even whether or not we should bother providing them with sex education."

"Some children will of course be disadvantaged by the system, but that is just an unfortunate byproduct. Some other children will have the best possible education and opportunities available to them, and it is these children that we can rely on as future leaders of the country!"

Hopefully you are appalled by the very idea of such a system. To sort children at birth on such arbitrary factors is the sort of policy implemented by only the most horrific of modern political leaders: Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot all spring to mind. To adopt a system like this, for any purpose, is barbaric in the extreme.

Yet this is exactly the international system we have today. A child born to impoverished parents in Liberia simply does not have the same opportunities, educational and otherwise, as a child born in Denmark. Their education, if any, will be limited and typically of low standards with minimal resources. They may be malnourished. They will generally not receive inoculations or sex education, reducing their life expectancy dramatically (and hugely increasing their chances of contracting AIDS). Yet when confronted with this hideous imbalance, far too often we shrug it off with an "it's unfortunate, but that's just the system."

Any system that determines the entire future of newborn children by such arbitrary factors as the place of their birth or the background of their parents is a broken system. Our international system is broken, monstrously so.

In the face of a system that has been around since Westphalia, our own ability to act seems limited. However there are organisations (UNICEF, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and the IC Red Cross all come to mind) that are fighting to address this, and they require support: whether through direct donation, volunteering domestically, or even simply conscious-raising efforts. The UNMDGs aim to have universal primary education by 2015, which seems optimistic given our current circumstances. However once again we can contribute, albeit in our own small way, through reminding our own governments of their obligation to the completion of these goals.

Ultimately these measures are merely a stop-gap: with a system so flawed as to discriminate against children based on which sovereign territory they were born in, we cannot expect complete equality of opportunity. However it is a start, and a vitally needed one.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

A Brief Argument for Interculturalism in New Zealand

 New Zealand considers itself a bicultural society. It regards its own identity as a combination of two cultures: Maori and colonial English. This is affirmed in everything from myths about our country's formation to our use of Maori language and symbolism in official ceremonies (Kolig, 2004). Te Reo is one of the three official languages of New Zealand and all of our public services are officially bilingual, though for the most part they are known by their English names.
However a policy of encouraging biculturalism (and defining New Zealand identity as bicultural) means excluding all those who do not belong to one or both of the cultures. For those who are not members of the majority culture or the indigenous minority – immigrants, typically in New Zealand from the Asia-Pacific or Latin America – they have no means of identifying with the identity of a nation which explicitly excludes them. More than that, any attempt to continue the practices of their own culture and religion (practices which are outside those of the majority or the indigenous minority) serve to further distance them from the bicultural community and can lead to tension and even prejudice against minorities with visibly different religious practice to the bicultural mainstream (de Bres, 2007).
If we are to embrace cultural and religious diversity in New Zealand we must abandon a strict policy of biculturalism and adopt another model of identity that both recognises the indigenous identity of New Zealand (Maori people and culture) and includes minorities who have religious and cultural practices outside of the majority.
One such model we could look at would be an adaption of Quebecois interculturalism. This model is based on
  1. the primacy of the French language,
  2. equality of gender, and
  3. strict lacite secularism.
While using common language (and one that has a strong tie to the cultural history of the region) allows all members of Quebecois society to form a common identity and certain basic liberal rights are guaranteed by gender equality, individuals who have religious or cultural practices outside of those of the majority are free to continue these practices (within the confines of the law). An immigrant from a country that has highly different practices to that of Quebec, whether religious or cultural, can continue those practices without feeling excluded from the shared identity of Quebecois, based as it is on common language and values rather than religious or cultural practice.
If we were to adapt these three components of Quebecois interculturalism to New Zealand we could formulate them as
  1. the primacy of Maori culture and spirituality as a form of civil religion (see Kolig, 2004),
  2. equality of all citizens (including gender, sexual, religious, ethnic and cultural equality), and
  3. strict disengagement from religious or cultural bias
This would allow the formation of a New Zealand identity that recognises the importance of Maori culture and spirituality while still allowing participation from all members of society, regardless of background. Point (3) as in Quebec ensures that New Zealand identity is in no way based on religious or cultural practice, allowing for religious diversity within New Zealand, while point (2) ensures that all citizens are free from discrimination and maintains that any religious or cultural practice may be acceptable so long as it remains within the boundaries of the law.
The ability of all New Zealanders to participate in Maori culture as civil religion is evidenced by our current usage, often by non-Maori politicians, of Maori language in public ceremonies. We can also use Maori culture as a creation myth of New Zealand, particularly the story of Maui raising New Zealand out of the depths with his grandmother's jawbone. This story gives us a compelling narrative of Maori arriving in New Zealand in boats, much as many immigrants do today. This is reflected in the traditional practice of greeting with Mihi, in which one of the first lines is usually “ko... te waka.” This means of introduction, originating in the indigenous culture of New Zealand but making explicit reference to the fact that all New Zealanders at some point in their history had to arrive here in their own waka, could be hugely valuable to a recent immigrant seeking to identify with New Zealand culture without compromising their own religious or cultural practices, as they would have to do when identification is based on homogenity and interaction between two dominant cultures (as in a bicultural system).

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Cohen on Equality: Outcome vs. Opportunity in Solutions to Inequality

Too often when considering social inequality we focus on outcome, not opportunity, and our solutions to inequal outcomes do not solve any of the problems of inequal opportunities that we should really be focussing on.

Gerald Cohen in his book Why Not Socialism makes a distinct between equality of opportunity and of outcome. Following in his example of using simple clear analogies to illustrate important points, I'd like to suggest that we think about three children: Aaron, Brendan and Carl. We want to give these children a selection of fruit for lunch, and we want to do so in the most fair way possible. We have three apples and three oranges to divide up, and so the obvious way to split them is to give each child one of each.

However while this appears to be a situation of complete equality between the three children, the three may not necessarily be equally satisfied with this outcome. Let us suppose that Aaron is allergic to apples, while Brendan intensely dislikes oranges. Though all the children have an equal share of the fruit, this distribution is not the best: it is far more reasonable to instead give Aaron two oranges, Brendan two apples and Carl one of each. Each child is then more or less reasonably happy with their share of the fruit, and each has a equal quantity of fruit. It would not be unreasonable to say then that this distribution of fruit is better than the first (in which each child had one of each).

The point I am trying to make here is that a situation of perfect equality between individuals does not require that all individuals have exactly the same outcome. Aaron has two oranges, and Brendan has two apples, yet we would still consider this to be a fair, reasonable, and equal distribution of fruit: far more so than the first model, in which only Carl would actually be able to enjoy both of his allocated share.

Equality cannot always be measured directly by outcome. It is not important to equality that all children receive exactly the same fruit, but rather that they all have the same opportunity to enjoy that fruit. To use a more direct example, let us consider the potential careers of those same three children. Aaron desperately wants to attend medical school, while Brendan is looking at becoming a lawyer and Carl wants to study liberal arts. Which is the more equal scenario: one in which all three have an equal outcome (all three go to medical school and become doctors, for instance) or one in which all three have equal opportunity to study their own passions? Which would we prefer?

My point (and Cohen's) is that we cannot judge our standards of equality by outcome alone. We have to look at equality of opportunity. To use a case very relevant to New Zealand, we can look at statistics of lawyers in New Zealand and see that Maori are very under-represented in proportion to their population. This is obviously a situation of inequality. If we focus on equality of outcome alone, then our line of reasoning is fairly straightforward: "Maori are under-represented in the legal profession. To correct this and thereby make a situation of equality we must increase the number of Maori in the legal profession until it is more representative of the population." Focussing solely on outcome as a measure of equality, and then seeking to alter that outcome, is a fairly obvious way to address inequality.

However we should not be treating inequal outcomes as a problem in themselves but rather as a symptom of inequal opportunity. If we convince ourselves that remedying outcome alone creates equality then we are committing the same error as when we make the calculation 1+2=3 but then decide that we would rather the answer be 4 and so change the equation to 1+2=4. While the end result may be more to our liking, our calculation is now incorrect. Likewise with Maori in the legal profession: while simply attempting to increase the number of Maori in the legal profession (through means such as the Maori Admissions Process at Victoria Law School) may result in a more equal outcome, we have not addressed the actual causes of the inequality.

How did we arrive at an unequal outcome in the first place? Why are Maori under-represented in the legal profession? Assuming as we can in this enlightened age that there is no inherent quality of Maori ethnicity that imposes an obstacle to studying law, we must accept that there is some limiting factor that is causing Maori to be under-represented in law. Altering the inequal outcome without addressing this inequality of opportunity is not creating a situation of equality, it is merely reducing the symptoms of a disease and then pronouncing it cured.

Treating inequality of outcome is not enough to create an equal society. We end up with two small children holding fruit that they cannot eat or enjoy, while we congratulate ourselves on our perfectly equal distribution of apples and oranges. When we see an inequal outcome (such as the proportionately low number of Maori lawyers) we must not ask ourselves how we can fix the statistics but what causes them. Saying that 1+2=4, no matter how much we like the answer 4, does not mean that we have actually solved the equation. We must be striving for equality of opportunity, and trusting that as a result of this an equal outcome will naturally follow. Even though Aaron, Brendan and Carl ended up all holding different fruit, the result of this was that each child on average was holding the same. Equality of outcome naturally results from equality of opportunity, and never the other way around.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Direct Representative Democracy

Recently I have been considering alternative approaches to democracy, inspired in some part by Dr. Xavier Marquez's Rawlsian elections. One idea that I have often been attracted to is the idea of direct representation: that we do not merely vote for our leaders, our preferences essentially in competition with those of our neighbours, but that instead we designate a single individual to represent us in government.

The current system of regional representation (whether FPP or MMP) can be traced back to post-feudal England, in which the vast majority of individuals lived in smaller close-knit communities from which they would rarely stray. Any issues impacting individuals within the community could be dealt with as community issues, and so it made sense to have the entire community and its interests represented by one individual. The identity of that individual could be decided by vote of the community: those who preferred candidate B over candidate A could at least be assured in the event of A's victory in the polls that A would fairly represent the interests of that community.

However when communities become less concrete and politics becomes larger in scale then this model runs into issues. Do we really believe that Annette King, for example, is capable of representing all members of her constituency from Kilbirnie to Seatoun Heights? And this while simultaneously representing the political party of which she is a member?

I would like to suggest an alternate model. Rather than voting in secrecy to determine one individual representative of the majority of the community, I would like a system of direct representation. Citizens should nominate individual candidates to represent their personal interests, a delegation of their political involvement as it were. Candidates, once they represent a certain threshold of citizens, would become a Member of Parliament and control a portion of the vote equivalent to the percentage of the population they represent. MPs would be aware of all those that they represent and would feel obliged to represent all of their interests. If they fail to do so then those citizens would withdraw their nomination of that candidate.

There are some obvious issues with this model. Advocates of the secret ballot will point out that pressure may be applied to individuals to nominate one candidate or another against their best interests. There is also the possibility (given that MPs representing larger proportions of the population control more votes) that single MPs or small groups could dominate politics excessively, something that could perhaps be curbed by imposing upper limits on portion of the vote controlled. Regardless, this model provides an interesting alternative to consider to our current system of democracy.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Fascism, Communism, and the Great Dictator

Fascism is dead.

We no longer consider Fascism to be a legitimate ideology. Fascist is a term only ever used to insult and to condemn. The very idea that we once held Fascism up as a force of good, opposing the evils of Communism, is absurd. We don't believe it.

After the release of the Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin was investigated by the FBI for the crime of anti-Facism. He called Hitler a machine man, with a machine heart, and because of this was seen as an enemy of America. It's a funny story, an anecdote we can tell about the Red Scare and the looming threat of the USSR. It's not relevant today.

But it is. Fascism may not be a word we use anymore, but all its values are still here. Fascism is the belief that me, my group, my people, my nation, is superior to all others. Fascists see the world as hostile and they feel that they must fight to protect themselves.

Fascists are unloved, Fascists are alone. Communists want to share the world between all men, regardless of national borders, but Fascists cannot share. Fascists create the Other. They distinguish between their group and that group, and seek to overcome their new enemy. But when that enemy falls, who is next? A smaller group of must overcome the larger, the Party ruling the Nation, and then the Dictator ruling the Party, until the Fascist is victorious over all his perceived enemies and completely alone.

Fascism is not dead. Fascism is every urge we have to create the Other, to compete and conquer, to seek out advantage for ourselves, for our families, for our communities or for our nations at the expense of everyone else. When we think in terms of us and them, we are giving into Fascism. When we act on this thought, Fascism has a hold on us. And if we continue to consider the world in terms of us and ours against not us and not ours, we will end up alone.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

AIESEC: Exporting Labour and Stealing Jobs

This is a response to the AIESEC presentations that are going around classes at Victoria University this week. I challenged one of the presenters with an abbreviated version of this argument, to which she had no response and seemed rather upset by. I would take this opportunity to apologise, but frankly I'm not sorry. If you want to present your organisation in a good light, you had best be prepared to answer criticism of it.

You know who middle- to lower-class conservatives hate? Immigrants, who come into OUR country and steal OUR jobs. Growing up in Queenstown, with a remarkably high immigration rate (particularly from South-East Asia and Latin America), I've heard many criticisms of immigrants ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous. My absolute favourite was one published in local gossip rag The Mountain Scene, which read (to paraphrase): "immigrants get jobs easier because they don't mind working more for less pay, which isn't fair on locals." Immigrants, by working harder jobs for less money, are somehow cheating the system.

While this particular argument (even more so in context) just came off as almost comically xenophobic, there is a valid point to be made here. Immigration can be seen, in rather impersonal terms, as an import of cheap labour, which is wonderful for employers who can then pay less and profit more. However this is ultimately pretty bad for the local economy, as there is less money being paid overall to the working classes (due to reduced wages) and the working classes themselves are now considerably larger (as we have just added a large number of immigrants to the population).

What saves Queenstown's economy here is that A) high turnover from seasonal workers and B) the sheer quantity of low-income service and hospitality jobs mean that even with high rates of immigration unemployment is not that high, C) most of the immigrants who now have jobs (albeit ones with slightly lower wages than before) actually spend a fair chunk of their disposable income at Queenstown businesses, and D)any loss of spending from employees who now have less disposable income due to job competition is more than compensated for by tourist spending. Though immigration and job competition makes things slightly worse off for individual employees who now have to work for lower wages, overall the economy actually benefits from the influx of cheap labour.

Not so in developing economies. Unemployment is typically high, as employers lack the resources and expertise to improve infrastructure. This is where organisations like Finca come in, providing the basic resources needed to help developing economies, creating jobs, building jobs and improving standards of living. This is the micro-economic kickstart that developing economies need to grow from the ground up.

In direct contrast to this is AIESEC (link not provided because I don't like them). AIESEC belongs to an earlier school of development thought that inherits rather too much from the White Man's Burden. AIESEC aims to create "global leaders" by taking university students from developed nations like New Zealand, flying them overseas and having them "work with a local organisation to impact a community based on their needs."

I am such a student, and so today I and my classmates were targeted by an AIESEC presentation. I study International Relations and Religion. Almost at the end of my undergraduate, I am fairly knowledgeable about certain areas of both these fields, and if my knowledge were called upon to improve or enrich someone's life I hope that I would live up to the burden: that after all is the purpose of this blog.

However outside of these areas I am not an expert. I have no qualifications in "cultural education, HIV/AID’s [sic], education, community development, environmental awareness [or] social entrepreneurship." How am I supposed to "impact a community" in any of these fields? What privilege do I have that I deserve to be flown in from abroad to solve these problems, that could not be solved locally without me?

The classic example, brought up today by our AIESEC presenter, is building houses. Nothing is more quintessential of this school of development than that of the student volunteer building houses in areas that need houses built. However the reason that these houses need to be built is not a lack of willing unskilled workers. There are many workers living locally that are just as skilled in building houses, if not far more so, than university students from New Zealand. The issue is a lack of resources. AIESEC sending students to do unskilled labour for no pay is doing nothing but depriving unemployed locals of the chance for employment, when the cost of our flights and "cultural activities" could be used instead to provide resources, employment, and improvements in the standard of living for many.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Why Marriage Equality Matters

Hello! You're reading this because a friend has sent you this link. Unless you're just reading this out of interest, that means that there's a good chance that you've done something (like told a joke or decided to stir up an argument) that has actually really hurt someone you know and made their life rather hard.

It's easy to make jokes about marriage equality, right? After all, it's not your problem. It's not just that you're straight, you simply don't care about marriage that much. What's the point fighting about it? After all you don't need marriage to be happy, so why don't gay people just accept it and move on with their lives?

Around 30% of gay or bisexual men have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, and around 20% of lesbian or bisexual women. Why are LGBTI suicide rates so high? Because for these people every day, life is a battle. You can walk down your street holding your girlfriend's hand and the worst that will happen is that you might get called whipped. A gay man walking down the street holding his boyfriend's hand might get stared at, laughed at, called names, or even threatened. Something as simple as stepping out the door is a battle that LGBTI people have to fight day after day.

You may not be thinking about marriage right now, but if you ever change your mind and decide to marry the girl that you love, all you have to do is to get down on one knee. If you're a girl it's a little harder, but there are some great recipes online for "Engagement Chicken" that is guarantees to get a proposal out of your boyfriend within a week. Seriously, Google it. For a lesbian or bisexual woman to marry the girl that she loves, she has to fight the legislative system of an entire country (from the Prime Minister on down) to do the same. Marriage might not seem like a big deal to you, but for her it's another battle, another war that she has to win just to get to the same place as you are, kneeling down and asking someone to marry you.

If someone lives their whole lives fighting battles just to get down the street, don't make that into a joke. Don't stir up arguments just for a laugh. Don't tell them to get over it.

I'm not asking you to go out, draw a rainbow on the ground in chalk and start campaigning for LGBTI rights and marriage equality. All I'm asking you to do is think a little more carefully about what you say. Don't make jokes about other people's wars. Maybe even try and help them out from time to time. They're living under a heavy load, they could do with a hand. If nothing else, the next time you see someone make a joke about gay marriage on Facebook, maybe just quietly link them to this post. You never know how many battles you might be making just a little bit easier if you do so.