Sunday, February 21, 2010

The shape of the new...s

I don't know why, but this past week seems to have resulted in something of a revelatory moment for some of the leading op-ed writers in the news papers that the probligo reads in a week.

First, and most directly, came Tracy Barnett.
Our priorities are whacked.

We will stop to read about one Haitian man found alive after 27 days, yet stories on ten of thousands of other survivors won't see the light of day more than two months out of this news cycle.

You may read about the United States choosing to cut funding to the manned space programme, but how many of us have even heard about the 32 new planets that have just been discovered this past October?

We jumped up and down about John Key having shares in a uranium mining company this week. Yet we spent relatively tiny amounts of media focus on Key's proposal the same week to mine our national parks, though the decision to do so may have decades-long consequences on the perception of our country's brand and the scars it may inflict on a precious resource, our national parks.

The nature of the beast, right? New will always trump important.

But it was only after I returned home from a self-imposed news blackout for a month (which I highly recommend) over the summer holidays that something hit me that I never expected.

My profession suck at what they do. Let me be very specific. Commentators, pundits, columnists, people like me who get their little heads put in a box on the left side of the story, are myopic sheep - on a good day.

She concludes -
You don't notice it when you're a daily reader. But when I returned to it with fresh eyes, I saw entire waves of news narratives that felt hopelessly unimportant to any sane man's idea of the big picture.

Around Christmas, Barack Obama was the compromising statesman buried in the whitewater of political reality, but pushing through. Most thought some form of the healthcare legislation was "likely" to pass and he had a chance at being the only president since Lyndon Johnson to get something, anything, done on the issue.

Cut to six weeks later: One former naked Cosmo centrefold gets elected as a Republican senator from Massachusetts and the whole narrative changed overnight - not just on healthcare either. The new dog-pack mantra for February: Obama's presidency is toast.

Last week's Listener teased an otherwise excellent article by Jon Johansson with, "As President Obama stands on the precipice of failure just one short year after his resounding presidential victory ..." like he was God's American Idol contestant just spat out by Simon Cowell.
You can blame editors for trying to pull in eyeballs by deferring to the new. But commentators don't have that excuse.

We have a huge luxury. Our job should be to pull back and describe the entire landscape, not just the dog poop on the corner.

Who really loses this battle? All of us, because we start to see the world like its one continuous action movie.

We get so sucked into the vortex of the endlessly hungry daily news machine, we begin to think every story is about the fight, not the resolution. Suddenly our job becomes declaring momentary winners and losers.

Which begs the question, how many commentators do you read that don't chain themselves to the weekly news cycle and truly look above the parapet?

If you find them, let me know. Because that kind of bigger vision deserves everybody's focus.

All of which prompted the probligo to write the editor in the following terms-

“Calloo! Callay! Oh frabjious day!” as Lewis Carroll might well have said. At last there is a journalist, an op-ed writer, Tracey Barnett saying exactly what I have been trying to get through the Herald’s reader panel for about the past three years now.

Take as an example this morning’s front page. It covers –

- Bill English talking down the prospective top tax rate; old news from the last week and more.

- A woman whose treatment at the hands of the “Justice system” deserves front and centre.

- Bill English’s wife in an action against the Medical Council and abortion counseling. What is it with Bill English this morning?

If I were putting the page together, it would have –

- The second of those two, for sure.

- Britain’s “threat” to Israel over Mossad’s use of British passports. They could well have been NZers too!

- Changes to the regulatory processes in NZ investment markets.

It will be interesting to see if Herald ever follows the suggestions Tracey Barnett has made.

No, I will not hold my breath on that last sentence. But it has not stopped there either. In this morning's Sunday Star Times Rosemary McLeod asks the question "Is [a celebrity's] love life any of our business?"
THOSE WHOM the gods wish to destroy they first make pretty, obviously, and turn into newsreaders.

Then they set bold and brave young journalists onto them to find out who they're sleeping with. What could be more important in a world of so many catastrophes and disasters?

Alison Mau was formerly famous for being half of a novelty salt-and-pepper set of newsreaders with her equally pretty husband, Simon Dallow. Now she's famous because she left him and apparently has a girlfriend. And I don't care what this probably uninteresting woman does with her, or to her. I don't care if they do it while listening to Mahler's Ninth, or if they put on silly wigs and play the Ronettes in the background. It's none of my damn business, and none of yours, either.

She might also have used as examples the Beckhams, the Woods, the Clintons, and for the really petty minded any of the strange people who inhabit the most southwesterly city in the US.

Her conclusion, coming from that fairly constrained beginning -
I dislike the way we live vicariously through these marketed tales of other people's lives, collectively creating identities that bear little relation to the banal or possibly ugly truth, and I detest what it means about the evolving practice of journalism.

We've entered an era when sniffing around celebrities' clotheslines is considered an acceptable way to earn a living as a reporter, and where there's plenty of money to pay photographers for harassing people in their day-to-day lives because of their public profile, not because what they do really matters.

I wouldn't mind so much if at the same time serious investigative journalism was going on, about stuff that really matters.

Have we really reached a point where news of an actress's weight gain, or newsreaders' love lives, matter more than examining the power structures of the world we live in, and exposing the genuinely powerful people who abuse our trust?

For every one of these fake "stories" there's a sharp lawyer working overtime, using our stifling libel laws to stop the truth coming out about someone who really deserves exposure. That is the true scandal we should be thinking about. That's what we ought to mean by public interest.

To that end, the SST has this story well hidden on the front page of the business section -
KIWISAVER PROVIDER Huljich Wealth Management has been slammed for misleading investors after admitting using related party transactions to manipulate its investment performance.

The firm's managing director, Peter Huljich, described the transactions as "compensation" for poor investments that made little difference to fund performance figures, but Morningstar analyst Chris Douglas said the effect was a major distortion of fund returns.

Instead of reporting a -0.74% return for its Conservative fund for the year to March 2009, Douglas said the transactions allowed Huljich to report a return of 7.39%. For the Balanced fund the deals improved returns from -8.8% to -1.4%, and for the Growth fund from -12.55% to -3.68%.

"It's a massive difference, quite frankly," he said.

"For an investor who's looking at past performance it has a huge bearing on their impression and interpretation of those funds."

Late on Thursday Huljich issued a statement confirming allegations revealed in the Sunday Star-Times two weeks ago that Peter Huljich used his own money to boost the performance of Huljich KiwiSaver funds. The deals occurred in the year to March 2008 after the funds suffered losses on an investment in the float of Diligent Board Member Services, of which Peter Huljich was a director, and the following year after unexplained losses from inadequate diversification.

And does that story feature in the most read 15 stories on the webpage (and probably on paper as well)?


UPDATE - 28/2/10

On Thursday, dear old Garth (D.O.G.) George got his knickers all in a knot over the comments made by Barnett and McLeod's outburst, pointing out just how wrong they were, and springing to the defence of journalists everywhere. He completely ignored the fact that the time and money required to do any investigative work is allocated by Editors and other managers. He spent most of his column pointing out the difficulties being experienced by the news media - the press in particular - as a result of competition for readers' attention from the likes of the internet, dumb television programmes etc etc.

In fact he sounded quite old and wind-baggy; rather likes yours truly sometimes.

In this morning's SST Gareth Morgan gets stuck into the Huljich affair.
Peter Huljich has admitted to manipulating returns figures. What he did was tell lies about his performance in order to instil confidence in prospective investors in the Hiljuch KiwiSaver funds. As such, in my opinion, he is totally unfit to be a KiwiSaver provider. The only issue really from here is whether the regulators between them have the gonads to deal with him appropriately. So far they have demonstrated a decided lack of bottle. And we wonder why New Zealanders have so little confidence in our financial markets.

When it is possible to manipulate figures and get away with it like this, New Zealanders are absolutely rational to shun our capital markets. They are not free markets at all, they are stacked in favour of men such as Huljich.

Consider this reported comment last week.

"Managing director Peter Huljich said the clarifications did not alter the scheme's overall top-ranking with research house Morningstar, although it did affect two of the funds' rankings." (Dominion Post, February 20, 2009).

The point being that the dearth of investigative reporting is not just due to journalists, or the lack of funding from employers as pointed out by Barnett and McLeod; it is not just due to the need to provide what the market wants as D.O.G. points out. Between the two we end up with all of our major news media serving up the usual mix of smaltz and spritzer out of the womens' magazines. Stories that are worth the salt are usually buried in the "specialist" pages, well away from the light of day.

The biggest fault lies in society itself; when matters of local to international importance are merely noted, whilst the various mistresses of a "person of current fame" are given personal in-depth interviews with accompanying commentary.

Because that is what "the market" wants to hear.

Garth you are right, but no more so than Barnett and McLeod. It is all the same pie.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A holiday in paradise; well the Coromandels actually...

Well the first half of the employer enforced two week holiday has been completed satisfactorily with not a galah in sight at any time; head and shoulders are clean...

To the east of Auckland is the Coromandel Peninsula. A two hour drive can reach most parts of it, three hours can see you in Colville in the very north end of it. About two thirds of the way up is the township of Coromandel. Well you might expect that I guess. It is an area with a history based on timber extraction and gold mining and in latter years strong resistance to timber extraction and mining of any kind. Over the hill is the Whangapoua Harbour and beaches. So we chose Te Rerenga as home base; a nice quiet little spot; B&B.

One of the major "attractions" in Coromandel is the Driving Creek Railway. Like all good things, this one also has a good story behind it. GO follow up the link above; read it from the source. I had a sub-atomic sized contribution, one which I doubt any of the major players would remember. About two months after Brickell bought the property a group of us went down to help out planting trees around the entrance. I think there were about three or four that I managed to get in the ground before the alchohol kicked in and I spent the rest of the afternoon in a very pleasant haze.

Anyway, this is the trip around by Mrs p and me the other day...

The carpark starts the tour.

The gradient to the sheds in the background is about 1 in 25, about the average for the full length of the railway.

You can actually see the "Eyefull Tower" from the bottom of the railway. As you can see from some of the following images the weather was misty, drizzly, and I can't find a decent frame showing it... From bottom to top is over 110 metres, roughly 375 feet, with distance travelled on track about 3000m.

The lower terminus is shops,
workshops, and facilities
along with a statuary. (Oh, and sorry about the lean on that last frame; the consequence of trying to take a low angle using the moveable LCD screen on the camera instead of "getting down to it"...

The track is a marvel of amateur engineering. The DRC home site covers the whole topic; very well indeed. It includes two "spirals" (which are almost impossible to photograph) and three "switchbacks".

The last switchback is suspended over the edge of the main ridge. I can testify to the fact that at the end of the level, it is some 10m above ground at least.

How does a switchback work? This gives the idea. We are about to head down to the right, and up to the left you will see the next train waiting for us to clear the switch.

You can see a red back in the carriage ahead of me. It belonged to the taller of these two; among the more interesting of the travellers on the train. I wondered if they were visiting this happy little chappie who I found sitting in a quiet corner at the Eyefull Tower.

Actually, I have always liked Barry Brickell's work. He has a sense of humour that I enjoy, and it comes through in different and quirky ways... like this - at the top of a 1.2m high (4 feet for Americans) pot in the statuary.

And that was just the first morning...

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

State of the Union...

This week's Listener has a fascinating article written by Jon Johansson giving account of his 12 month sabbatical in Washington DC.

The full text will be available here from 27 February, for safety's sake look around 1 March.

I am not going to even try to regurgitate the whole thing here. It is a fascinating and (for me at least) a somewhat frightening read on real paper. For any American it should at least give pause at the current state of the Union from an outside and objective point of view.

For those interested, there is a short bio for Johansson here and if you want to disagree with him personally you will find his blog here
but it is inactive since 2008.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

SCOTUS Scotched That! - 2

An hour or two grazing around the blogiverse for the topic has turned up only two general categories of commentary; the left-side horror show; passing mention from the right-side.

Neither side, from my quick and dirty scan, has commented on the dichotomy between the howls of protest that accompanied some the SCOTUS's decisions over the previous nine years; the outrage at a Supreme Court that was deliberately setting out to "make new law".

But let that thought pass. One of the reasons I enjoy this kind of "new direction" is for the possibilities it opens up. Yes, there are all of the Doomsday possibilities that the left-side are howling about. As I pointed out in the first on the topic there is little between that and the "problem" that Auntie Helen tried so hard to solve. Really there is little "new" in that debate.

What I want to look at requires a bit of "tweaking" in the corners of the decision, a twist or two here and there, a push or pull in other places...

If a corporation, a "virtual person", has the God-given right to free speech under the First Amendment, what other rights might a corporation have? A corporation is not a "person"? Read SCOTUS and the decision. That is its first fundamental - that a corporation has the right to free speech. It is guaranteed by the Constitution, and ultimately by God.

First that comes to mind stems from the venerable, and very true "No taxation without representation". Now I had thought this came from Britain, at about the time of the Corn Laws. Transpires that it does not. According to all of the best www sources, it was "coined" in 1765 in Boston of all places. Others can put that into context of other events. The source is common in the following form -
Formal opposition to the Stamp Act led to the Stamp Act Congress in New York, in October 1765. Delegates from nine colonies convened and wrote a moderate statement of colonial rights. In addition to the adoption of "The Declarations" on October 19, the delegates prepared petitions to the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. Because the members of the congress were far more conservative in their sentiments than colonial legislatures had been, some of the delegates refused to sign even the moderate documents that were produced by the congress. Parliament rejected the petitions in spite of their mildness. The Stamp Act Congress was the first intercolonial congress to meet in America. It was a foundation from which the subsequent Continental Congresses arose.

There follows in that document a series of logically presented points leading to the conclusion that if His Majesties Government is going to impose taxes and duties on the population of the Colonies then there had better be direct representation rather than the (very speciously argued) "virtual representation" through the elections held in Britain. The colonists were represented by men elected by the "common man" of Britain.

Now, think on that for a moment.

Who probably pays the greatest share of the total tax take in any western, capitalist society. The "common man"? The voter? Take a look at the statistics. In NZ and Australia and I see the US as little different the greatest part of income tax, plus some 50% of indirect taxes are paid by corporations, businesses. Yes, one has to agree, most of that comes from the pockets of thee and me as we buy their products. To make matters worse, however, the corporations get taxed again when they try to pass the proceeds of their trading on down to the people who hold the capital, the share and stock holders.

How right is that? If the government were to select a sizeable proportion of the "real" population, let's say single men and charge them a penalty tax based upon their spending (to encourage saving for their future you understand...) there would be OUTRAGE!! Politicians would likely lose their jobs left, right, and centre!

How does that happen? Because single men are also entitled to vote. As "real" persons subject to taxation they must have the right to representation. That can only be achieved by the right to vote.

If ever there were an argument that stems from the heart of the Constitution, this has to be it. Why should the largest single contributing group to US taxes remain without direct representation in Congress? It is a discrimination that literally sticks the Stamp Duty on a miniscule.

Interesting, too, because that penny does not seem to have dropped anywhere else.

It also raises the spectre of how many votes a corporation should have. Ooo boy!! Is there fun in that debate as well.

For the moment I will wait for Citizens United to take up the cudgel and fight for corporate representation.

After all, it is only RIGHT!!

Monday, February 01, 2010

It was supposed to be a holiday - but SCOTUS Scotched that!!

Well, this was supposed to have been a weekend of work without the interruption of news, politics or any of the other contentious publication that normally crosses the probligo's doorstep. We went to Opo with the intention of removing a large heap of garden rubbish (yes, you are permitted to start thinking in terms of shovels, rakes, implements of destruction, and the ease of rather than bringing that lot up throwing ours down) that had built up against the back wall of the garage. We hired a fairly large trailer with a cage on top. That of itself turned out to be a wise decision indeed.

What rather curdled the weekend was an NZ Herald article, a kinda op-ed piece masquerading as news, drawing attention to a recent decision of SCOTUS - decided 21 January - in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission. I have not dug that article out on the web for the simple reason that I wanted to look into this for myself; primarily to determine its validity, did SCOTUS decide as had been said, and secondarily to see if there might be potential applicability to law changes in NZ.

Now, bear in mind that I am not a lawyer, let alone a specialist in US Constitutional law. The transcript I am relying upon is here, from Cornell University. It is (I understand) a precis of the Court's rulings, who agreed and who disagreed with which parts.

The fundamentals of the case appear to be:

1. The rights of Corporations to have free speech.

2. The rights of Corporations to participate in the election process.

As might be expected, both principles are closely intertwined. Both have also been publicly (not through the Court system) argued here in relation to the participation of groups such as the Closed Brethren, Ratana Church, Destiny Church, and the Workers Union movement in the process of supporting and opposing as part of the election campaigning period. Equally as hotly debated has been the application of spending limits to such organisations, the practicality and means of defining those limits. That debate was in large part the progenitor of the ill-advised and ill-fated Auntie Helen Act passed in haste prior to the last election. My post back here might help develop that side of the discussion.
I have written several times on the actions and attitudes developed by politicians in their frantic quest for and to retain power.

It is a universal, so trying to select individual instances to prove the point are meaningless; Blair in the UK, Bush and the Republicans in the US, Howard in Australia, Ortega in Nicaragua, and Clark and Brash in NZ.

I fringed around the debates that came out of the last US Presidential elections and the “Swift boat files” in particular, but wrote fairly extensively on the parallel here with the Exclusive Bretheren (despite their religious prohibition on voting) spending a fairly considerable sum in supporting the National Party campaign.

The “Rules” relating to the funding of electoral campaigns in this country are quite extensive, are “agreed” between the political parties rather than being directly imposed, and have always led to vigourous debate post-election.

But there has never been anything quite like this last election.

I accept that SCOTUS has the power to rule in this way; that the judgement is right; that there is no real impediment to the overturn of some 30 years of precedent. I know that such "law-making" by SCOTUS is anathema to many Americans, not least TF, not least the right wing of American politics.

But to the crux -
1. Because the question whether §441b applies to Hillary cannot be resolved on other, narrower grounds without chilling political speech, this Court must consider the continuing effect of the speech suppression upheld in Austin . Pp. 5–20.

Ss441b is Federal Law preventing corporations and workers unions from using general funds "for speech that is an “electioneering communication” or for speech that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate." - essentially reflecting the Swift Boat (conducted by individuals not corporations) campaign against Kerry.
2. Austin is overruled, and thus provides no basis for allowing the Government to limit corporate independent expenditures. Hence, §441b’s restrictions on such expenditures are invalid and cannot be applied to Hillary. Given this conclusion, the part of McConnell that upheld BCRA §203’s extension of §441b’s restrictions on independent corporate expenditures is also overruled. Pp. 20–51.

Reading through the argument following the heading it is apparent that Ss441b is dead.
(3) The Government’s asserted interest in protecting shareholders from being compelled to fund corporate speech, like the antidistortion rationale, would allow the Government to ban political speech even of media corporations. The statute is underinclusive; it only protects a dissenting shareholder’s interests in certain media for 30 or 60 days before an election when such interests would be implicated in any media at any time. It is also overinclusive because it covers all corporations, including those with one shareholder. P. 46.

Vive le difference!!
(4) Because §441b is not limited to corporations or associations created in foreign countries or funded predominately by foreign shareholders, it would be overbroad even if the Court were to recognize a compelling governmental interest in limiting foreign influence over the Nation’s political process. Pp. 46–47.

I can only hope that I have pulled the major lines of the decision correctly. I hope that someone will put me back on track should I have strayed somewheres.

The principle as I understand it from NZ law is that at present at least a party's campaign is controlled and approved by the party only. That is an understanding of observation rather than law. The ill-fated mash produced by Auntie Helen has seen an end to any attempt at direct control at least for the time being. One thing that must be said here is that the Nats have been far more subtle and clever in their control of Labour's support base. By sidelining unions and by making the Federation of Labour effectively redundant (Old Tom must be weeping for eternity at the death of his dream) National has in large part drawn all of the teeth in Labour's primary support. For Labour to do the same, to the same extent, it might have to ban all corporations other than those owned and directed by the State, and to replace all personal political donations with Parliament set "budgets" from the public purse... arrrrmmmmmmm, isn't that what nearly happened?

The curdling thought is that the US electorate is going to be faced with the same problem as NZ. The difference is that here in NZ I would like to image we have a somewhat educated electorate. Evidence for that claim? Well, it did elect the Jonkey with a fairly stiff message to Auntie Helen's (now the Goffies) mob.

Recent times have shown the former coming out in their true colours rather than the breeding plumage of the election season. We are now facing the prospect of a "land tax" at 0.5% of current value (that will cost the probligo about $250 more a year; an increase in GST from 12.5% to 15%, the impact of which will increase our weekly budget by about $9 per week; and a tax cut which from the Jonkey's pre-election promotions might get me a decrease in income tax of about $6 per week.

Heigh ho!

We ended the weekend towing a well laden trailer back through the rain to Auckland. On board that we had four very large "garden bags" for immediate collection in about three weeks time - to be taken for composting - plus about equal amount for bagging and collection about four weeks later.

The ol' probligo is not one of those who finds a quiet corner and tips the stuff onto the scrub at the side of the road. Quite apart from it being wrong, this lot has quite a bit of morning glory in it. I would not want to be responsible for that getting loose in the Waima forest.