Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Secondary trickles - vanishing rich people (aka "Y'all are doing capitalism wrong" part 2)

Hokay, first things first. On the offchance that people really really like me reviewing stuff and are worried that Cinemania's gone, it's been reborn phoenix-like as Love & Pop and I'm still writing stuff for them pretty regularly. Most recently I reviewed the Australian River Cottage spinoff (pretty good, very white), Hugh's 3 Good Things (moar comfort-food cooking TV), The Life After Death Project (a horrible doco about ghosts, centred on a pretty interesting-sounding dead guy), a Korean disaster movie (actually pretty amazing), and an Adventure Time special (it's Adventure Time, whaddaya want?*).

Right. Where was I? Oh yes. Taxing the rich.

I fall pretty squarely on the left in terms of politics. According to the most recent shot I had on Vote Compass**, I'm pretty much in the middle of the left-libertarian*** box. One of the things that goes along with that is that I believe in taxing people (particularly rich people, particularly very rich people) more in order to make it possible for the government to pay for more stuff, allowing the public access to free or heavily-subsidised services.

To clarify, I'm talking about income tax here. In NZ we have two primary kinds of tax - income tax on the money we earn, and GST (Goods and Services Tax) which is a percentage of the cost of everything we buy. The current government have cut income tax, and increased GST.

The problem with doing this is that while people with higher incomes will always pay a higher dollar share of income tax, even if the percentage is flat across all income brackets (here in NZ it's not, though I couldn't tell you the precise rates off the top of my head), GST always runs into the "you can only buy so much stuff" problem I mentioned in my last post. With income tax the government will get a bigger share if more people earn more money, while with GST the only way for the government to increase their take is to convince people to buy more stuff - and even the richest person can only eat so much food, and wear so many clothes. On top of this, increases in GST are always passed on in the price of the Goods and Services in question - so raising GST makes everything more expensive for everyone, which disproportionately affects the poor.

So, I'm in favour of plans (regardless of which party they come from) to cut GST and increase income tax in the top brackets to compensate. One of the most common objections I hear to plans like this is that they "punish people for hard work", and that if we tax them too heavily all our richest citizens will head overseas. To which I say, "who cares?"

First off, there's a tendency to misunderstand the way that tax brackets work in New Zealand - or to wilfully misrepresent it, if you want to be cynical. When you enter a new tax bracket, the new tax rate doesn't affect the entirety of you income - just the bit that pushes you into that new bracket. Secondly, if someone makes over a million dollars a year, and you really do tax 50% of their whole income - they still end up with a minimum of $500,000 - which is still more than 5 times the median income.

And as for people who'll leave if they're taxed - I contend that we can do without them.

There aren't that many people making more than a million a year in New Zealand, so if they all left at once the impact on our population would be pretty tiny. Moreover, the jobs that they're doing can, I believe, be done at least as competently by people who are willing to accept smaller salaries. I don't believe that people who have the skills to be CEOs of large companies are actually as rare or as superhuman as they like to make out, and getting $500,000 (even $1,000,000) per year instead of $4,000,000 still leaves you pretty well off.

The question is this: do you want it to be possible for some (not very many) people to be astronomically rich to the point where they couldn't spend all their money if they tried? Or would you rather have free schools, hospitals, and ambulances?

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*What do you mean you don't watch Adventure Time? It's really good! It hits that Moomin-flavoured sad-stuff-for-kids button whilst also being actually funny, and has D&D jokes without being self-conscious about its nerdiness. And it's a kids' cartoon where the characters aren't perpetually snarking at one another and the voice acting isn't 50/50 gravel and horrendous squeaking. Seriously. Go do it.

**It's a tool that aligns your personal values with the stated policies of the major political parties here in NZ. If you're a New Zealand resident, I strongly recommend you have a play with it. I didn't find the results especially surprising for me, but I get the impression that others might - and it's always nice to have your sense of where you sit politically confirmed.

***In the sense of letting people mostly do what they want - I'd call it "anarchistic" but the axis on the graph that Vote Compass gives you calls that "libertarian" as opposed to "authoritarian" on the other side. Basically, I'm on the side of Chaos if you're familiar with 4-axis D&D alignment grids. Chaotic Good, I hope.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Trickles (the "Living Wage" and stuff...)

My wife runs a small business, and is doing a business course* to improve her policies and procedures and things. Recently, she got into a discussion with her classmates (and a separate but similar one with the small business group she's a member of on Facebook) about the Living Wage. Obviously you can go find out about the Living Wage at that link if you want to, but for my teal deer friends: it's a recommended wage, calculated based on the cost of living in New Zealand. Notably, it's about $4.50 an hour higher than the minimum wage.

My wife's course-mates and co-small-business-groupers were resoundingly against the idea, on the basis that it'll make it far too expensive to employ people and cost jobs. This is the point of view currently presented by the majority of right wing parties in New Zealand at the moment as well. Unsurprisingly to people who know me, I think they're wrong.

Now, a disclaimer: I am not an economist**. I think though, that economics is a less scientifically objective discipline than some economists like to make out - and it's certainly not immune to ideology or fashion.

The primary argument against the Living Wage (as I said above) seems to be that it will cost too much for small businesses. First off, this doesn't seem to be the case. The Living Wage people offer accreditation for businesses that adopt the Wage. They're all over the place (there's a cafe here in Palmerston North that does it) and none of them seem to be keeling over at time of writing.

I think there's a fundamental misunderstanding going on here. It's tempting for people to see themselves and their families and businesses as somehow sealed off from the rest of the world, with a little door where inputs and outputs go through. That's not quite right though. If paying your employees just meant more money in the salaries budget and nothing else, the naysayers would be right. What actually happens is more complicated.

Pretty much everyone is familiar with the concept of "trickle down" - the idea that cutting taxes would mean that the rich would spend more, and everyone would benefit all the way down the chain. It was a lie, of course. The problem with trickle down is that while some rich people might enjoy having more money, there's only so much stuff you can spend money on. Some people do buy a bunch of stuff they don't need once all their immediate needs are met, but there's a limit even to that - to put it simply, people don't need to eat twice as much just because they earn twice as much. All this money just ends up accumulating, and doing nothing much useful for anybody***.

You know who does have stuff they need but aren't buying? Poor people. Not even poor people - below-averagely well-off people. Ordinary people. The people who, for the vast majority of small businesses, make up almost all of your customer base.

"Trickle down" is a lie, but "trickle up" actually works. Measures that put money in the hands of people who don't have any are going to be more effective at stimulating people to buy stuff, because I can guarantee that there is stuff that those people want and need that they cannot currently afford to buy. Unless your business is selling multi-million dollar real estate****, these people are your customers and their lack of money is what stops them from giving that money to you.

There are other benefits - the Living Wage seems to greatly improve staff retention, and having done recruitment and discovered how badly it sucks, that seems like a major plus to me. It also seems fairly self-evident that paying employees a rate they can live on would make them less likely to dip their hands in the till or otherwise let the side down.

There's a counterargument to the effect that if you give one staff member at the bottom of the chain a raise, the other staff members will all expect a commensurate one. I think this is flawed. First off, I don't think that good staff would begrudge someone a payrise that brings them above starvation wages just because it narrows the gap between them. Secondly, the Living Wage is a base rate like the minimum wage - it's something you decide not to go below. You can still address everyone else's pay through whatever mechanism you ordinarily use, you just don't go below the Living Wage.

This is part of my grand theory "You've All Got Capitalism Wrong". More on that anon.

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*It's going well, thanks for asking. Seriously, really well - I'm very proud of her indeed.

**My Uncle Brian is, but that doesn't really mean anything useful here.

***I'm aware that some rich people donate vast chunks of their largesse to charity. This is irrelevant to my argument because a) charity is a terrible way of meeting the majority of social needs, and b) money put into charity patches holes in the social fabric - it doesn't do a great amount to push the economy along.

****Or brain-destroyingly-expensive jewellery, or painfully high fashion, etc. etc.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Well, fuck.

So the Psychoactive Substances Amendment Bill went through under urgency last week. For those not in NZ, that means a) all the synthetic cannabis products excluded from the previous version of this legislation (about 40 products from the previous about-a-gazillion) are now banned until they can be proved to be of "very low risk" and b) the government might well have shot a giant gaping hole in what could have been the first thing to approach sensible drug legislation in this country.

Russell Brown has a good post about this over at Public Address, but here's my take on what happened. There are two "official" narratives, one from the government and one from grassroots anti-drugs people which are both wrong, or at least, they're quite selective in the ways that they're right.

The anti-drugs crowd seem to believe that the passing of the original Psychoactive Substances Act put a bunch of synthetic cannabis products on the market as "safe". These products were anything but, and caused massive problems, with addiction and emergency visits becoming rife (see the horrifying photos of queues around the block from legal high stores for evidence). Eventually, in response to public outcry, the government finally acted (after too long) and put a stop to it. The moral tenor of the marketers of these drugs can easily be determined by the fact that they proposed to test this stuff on innocent animals.

The government contend that they were on the right track, but overlooked the risk posed by the synthetic cannabinomimetics that they allowed to remain on sale. They have now rightly removed these products from shelves, and put the burden of proof back where it belongs - with the manufacturers.

Actually, these drugs have been around for a long time. Ten years at the very minimum. The first ones appeared all over the place in little metal single-smoke cylinders, and seem to have been pretty close to inactive. The recipe quickly got refined and they started to sell by the packet. The attraction at this point was pretty clear - these products seemed to fairly closely mirror actual weed (which has a strong social niche in New Zealand culture) and were all legal to buy. It's important to note that all through this story, legality has been the main drawcard with these drugs - along with the ability to get high and still pass drug tests for pot.

Four or five years in, there was the first surge of media attention addressed at these specific "legal highs". I talked about that here. As a result of that, a large number of these products (if you're a New Zealander you'll probably recall the brand names "Spice" and "Kronic") were banned, along with their active ingredient. Because we were still operating under our original drug legislation which required the government to ban individual chemicals one by one, a raft of new products sprang up to take the place of the banned ones.

It's probably at this point that the real damage starts to get done. The evidence suggests that it's at this point that the chemicals on the market start to be seriously habit-forming and people start having panic attacks, heart palpitations and the like. However, these things are available everywhere - corner dairies all over the country stock this stuff, so if you're an addict it's fairly easy to stay under the radar.

When the government passed the Psychoactive Substances Act, they did two things. They gave councils the power to control where these substances could be sold, and they reduced the products available from hundreds to around 40 (considered to be "low-risk") which were allowed as an interim measure until councils finished deciding where their OK zones for legal high sale were going to be. Unfortunately at this point councils decided more or less en masse to throw all their toys out of the cot at once. Many protested at not just being able to ban the sale of non old-white-men drugs entirely and refused to zone, while others zoned as punitively as they could get away with.

As a result, the number of outlets selling these new more habit-forming drugs dropped dramatically. Can you imagine the queues that would appear if, tomorrow, all supermarkets and dairies were banned from selling alcohol and liquor stores were cut down to 2 or 3 per hundred thousand people? Do you think that it might look as though there was a sudden plague of alcoholism all around the country?

I must stress that this is not to claim that this newest batch of cannabis substitutes were good drugs. They appear to be very bad for their users both mentally and physically, and the people who sold them are probably not nice people.

The issue is that we're now back in blanket-ban territory, and these drugs have probably been bought up cheap by people who intend to stockpile them and sell them for vastly inflated prices on the street (they still get around drug tests for pot, and there are still addicts out there - money to be made...) Why? Because we had a media panic. I also want to restate that the reason we have this particularly vicious and addictive batch on our hands in the first place is because the previous safer generation were also banned as the result of a media panic. And we got that generation because we swallowed someone else's media panic about cannabis way back in the '50s. This is not a sensible way to make laws - look at the Sex Offender Registry in the US, and its many many abuses if you want a stunning example.

There are two consolations here. The first is that we do have the Psychoactive Substances Act, which has probably got the government out of playing whack-a-mole with drug designers for the time being. It's been mauled (the government is now in the bizarre position of being legally forced to ignore all data from animal tests, conducted anywhere in the world unless they prove a drug is unfit for sale) and drugs are going to be inhumanly hard to pass through it in the short term, but it's still around - so that's something.

The second is that this whole debacle does seem to have reopened the debate on which drugs should be legal and why. Let's hope we can actually talk about that this time, eh?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Lest we forget

ANZAC Day has always made me a bit uncomfortable. I suspect this is partly a consequence of being brought up Quaker(ish)* - I have an inherent dislike of armies and militarism that makes the spectacle of hundreds of servicemen and women in uniform filling up the streets in the days leading up to ANZAC Day feel a bit like an invasion. I also did a research project about the treatment of conscientious objectors and their families when I was in high school which left me with a very nasty taste in my mouth about the RSA.

All this is to say that I come from a point fairly widely outside of the mainstream here. I realise that for many people the point of the day is to  honour those who did what they felt was right and made the ultimate sacrifice, but I feel like the strong involvement of the military poisons that. It seems to me that the most important lesson we can learn from the disastrous Gallipoli campaign is never to repeat it. Not just to avoid the ridiculous strategic and tactical mistakes that led to the monstrous waste of life, but to value human life more highly and to be highly critical of government's reasons for extinguishing it.

Of all the wars we have involved ourselves in over the last hundred years, I think only a tiny minority of those have been in any way justifiable. Disturbingly, I see increasing attempts to try and recast World War 1 in this light. That can't be allowed to happen.

Moreover, I think it's important (especially in regard to World War 1) to honour equally those who refused to fight. New Zealand conscientious objectors in World War 1 were deported to the front and subject to horrific punishments, many of which took place in No Man's Land - thus putting them in more physical danger than the actual combatants. You can read about this in Archibald Baxter's book We Will Not Cease.

Honouring the dead who acted in good faith is a noble thing, but perhaps it's time we paid less attention to Rupert Brooke and Laurence Binyon, and more to Wilfred Owen and Rowan Atkinson.

*My parents are anything but dogmatic, but my "mental furniture" is fairly Quaker in the same way that the mental furniture of ex-Catholics includes the instructions on the right calls and responses and when to sit, stand, or kneel in the course of a Mass.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Alphabet TV - B is for.... Big Love

First off, Cinemania has my review of Unsolved. In the highly unlikely event you were contemplating seeing this fairly-obscure product of the Oklahoma University Moving Image Arts Programme, don't.

Second, on with Alphabet TV!

Though actually, I should probably clarify a couple other things about it first. One is, we're waaay ahead of where I'm writing in the alphabet - I've just been slack and busy by turns. The other is that we're not binge-watching things in the traditional sense. The rule of Alphabet TV is that we watch things a season at a time, at whatever season we're currently up to. So for the last post about American Horror Story I should really have clarified that I meant Season 1.

Now, though - B is for Big Love. In case you're not familiar with it, Big Love is a dramedy about Bill (Bill Paxton) who is a fundamentalist Mormon living the Principle (ie, polygamous marriage) undercover in mainstream LDS society in Utah with his three wives and all of their children (I've actually lost count of how many there are). We're currently up to Season 3, but in this case it's actually not super-important for you to know that.


Big Love is a weird show. On the one hand, the whole deceptive undercover element is pretty interesting - and the various ruses the family use to avoid detection are pretty clever, and when it reverts to essentially being a dramedy about family under pressure it's far from the worst one I've seen. On the other, the central conflict is between Bill and his friends (the "good" polygamists) and the ultra-fundamentalist compound of Juniper Creek where Bill was raised. That is, the conflict is between "good" polygamists and "evil" polygamists. Juniper Creek is definitely warped, but it almost feels like it needs to be in order for Bill to look ordinary and decent in contrast.

Bill attempts to treat his wives with respect and dignity, but his actual belief structure dictates that he is priest-king of his own house and that his wives and children are beholden to him as a result. It's a deeply misogynistic and patriarchal structure, and seeing the dictator attempt to be benign doesn't really change that. There are also troublesome elements of the history of Mormonism as a whole which briefly surface, then disappear without much attention. I'm thinking specifically of the overt racism in some of the early doctrines, which is raised by a random black walk-on character and never mentioned again.

That said, you don't have to  take the characters' beliefs on to enjoy the show. The acting is largely great - especially Harry Dean Stanton who brings a peculiar beauty and melancholy to the role of the head of the Juniper Creek compound - and the relationships between the characters play out in consistently interesting ways.

Maybe check it out, see what you think?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Alphabet TV! A is for.... American Horror Story

Having got bored of the movie offerings at our local DVD rental place (and with my wife feeling hard done by because we tend to watch a lot of my review movies that I pick from a list on Cinemania as well as any I pick at the shop) we decided to give TV series a go. However, as mild OCD is a guiding force in our lives, we decided the only rational way to do this was to start with the A's and work forward, watching one boxed set at a time until we loop around.

It's going well - we're currently watching the closest to a dire series we've gotten, and we're up to L. It also transpires that fitting TV epsiodes into our lives is currently easier than watching movies.

At this point it occurs to me that I really ought to document this in case anyone thinks it's amusing. Therefore behold and wonder at the awesome force of ALPHABET TV.

A is for... Amercan Horror Story
I didn't really have any expectations of this - though I was cynical about the capacity of a series to maintain the scares and atmosphere over a whole run.

I was initially really impressed - each episode seemed to have a new unique scary thing that genuinely creeped us out, and the theme music managed to give us the jitters pretty much every time.

The premise (only mild spoilers, I promise) is that a troubled family move into a house which for some reason causes everyone who dies there to become a ghost. The collection of ghosts are pretty unnerving (at least to start with) but toward the end of the season everything did kind of degenerate into "Desperate Housewives, but everyone's dead".

A noble experiment.