Monday, December 12, 2011

"merit" vs representation (I just have to put it in quote marks)

"Political candidates should be judged on their merits. What we need is quality; whether they're male or female or gay or straight or white or brown or purple shouldn't matter!"

This is nonsense.

It's nonsense because it ignores the obvious question: what, exactly, constitutes merit with regards to a political candidate?

I thought I'd try to unpack what constitutes merit for me, when I'm trying to explain why I think particular politicians suck or not.


Political identity is complicated, and it's different for everyone. What may be a low priority for some people (the fact that they're a woman!) may be a high priority for others (the fact that they're a woman!).

For me, my political identity isn't really centred on me being a woman, or even on me being a single woman who is purchasing a property with her non-romantic, non-sexual domestic partner-type person (even though this causes me to have to explain shit to people so fucking often and frustrates the shit out of me).


I don't think any moral value attaches whatsoever to what each individual adult decides for herself is important to her identity.

I do think that moral value attaches to making sure that each individual adult has a reasonable chance of voting for someone (or for a party) that she feels represents her, in whatever form that may take.

Aaaaand, as a statement of fact, lots of different groups of people feel that their interests have been shafted by rich old white men! Repeatedly! To the point that sometimes an individual adult, having thought about what's important to her, may feel like rich old white men don't represent her at all, or do so badly.

And for lots of people, it doesn't go that far. Like I said, my political identity isn't really centered on me being a woman. But that doesn't mean it's not important to me at all, or that I'd be happy if political life were always dominated by men in NZ to the extent it is today.

It's important to have a diverse range of backgrounds and personalities and personal characteristics in Parliament because we're a representative democracy, and society is diverse.

"But quality should trump that, right?"
Yeah, except that from where I'm standing there's not a lot of evidence that we have, or have had at any time in our history, so many brilliant politicians jumping at the bit to enter Parliament that we should judge on talent and talent alone.

Whatever talent means.


I'd start with the ability to analyse policy. At a basic level, an MP should be able to:
1. Explain what the current law and policy is on a particular issue that they have chosen to speak about.
2. Explain what, if any, current problems there are with that law and policy, and articulate why the problems are problems and not imaginary boogiemen sent out by PR firms to frighten the public.
3. If there is a balancing exercise in the current policy or law, explain what that balancing exercise is (for example: the trade-off between freedom and security). Explain why the balance is wrong, if the MP thinks it is.
4. Explain what the MP's proposed new law or policy is. Explain how it is intended to operate.
5. If there is criticism of that proposed new law or policy, be able to counter it with an argument logically connected to both the proposal and the criticism (rather than: "my opponent obviously spent the night on the toodle!")

A totally made-up example of this in action might be:

"The current law on unicorns is that they must be kept not closer than 3 miles from populated areas at all times. Any area that has more than 100 people living there counts as a populated area.

There are a number of problems with the current law. First, this law means that unicorns are mostly found in the central North Island, where they occasionally cause trouble at the Army training camps, and in Fiordland, where they compete with native birdlife for food. Second, the reference to "3 miles" has not been updated since we moved to the metric system.

As unicorns are dangerous to most adult humans, there is a strong public interest in keeping them away from people. However, although they are not a native species, they are internationally endangered and have adapted well to our New Zealand ecosystems.

Our proposed policy is that unicorns must be kept not closer than 1 kilometer from populated areas, but may travel to towns and cities for veterinary purposes. We will also work to remove unicorns from national parks, with the exception of a reservation near Mount Taranaki. Over time, we will create a sanctuary for unicorns on an offshore island.

The Opposition would have you believe that this will cost the earth. They are wrong: DoC figures suggest removal from Crown land will cost less than $25 million over 4 years, and will help to ensure the survival of some of our most treasured native birds. We do not think $25 million is too high a price to pay."

Can all of our current MPs do this? No. Often political explanations of policy come out as "blah blah blah SLOGAN blah blah blah BUZZWORD blah blah blah I WAS RAISED BY blah blah blah BUZZWORD blah blah blah." Politicians are often reasonable at explaining what the policy is, but totally crap at explaining how it's going to work, or acknowledging that it's not perfect, or explaining what the drawbacks are, or engaging in legitimate debate about its worth.


So if there even is a trade-off between "tokenism representation" and "merit", NEITHER SIDE IS WINNING AT THE MOMENT. Parliament is still pretty unrepresentative of New Zealand society, for a whole bunch of reasons. And despite being unrepresentative, it's not exactly filled up with the intellectual heavyweights of the world, who, uh, mostly happen to be old-ish, rich-ish white dudes.


At some point I intend to further examine what I think constitutes merit in an MP - it, like most things, is ~complicated~. But I do think there's an assumption hidden in the merit/representation thing that assumes that people who aren't "diverse" are more likely to meet the talent standard - like, you're a fat queer chick, obviously you're here for diversity reasons and not because you're any good - how could you be?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Occupy the World

The Justice of the Peace

by Hilaire Belloc

Distinguish carefully between these two,
This thing is yours, that other thing is mine.
You have a shirt, a brimless hat, a shoe
And half a coat. I am the Lord benign
Of fifty hundred acres of fat land
To which I have a right. You understand?

I have a right because I have, because,
Because I have, because I have a right.
Now be quite calm and good, obey the laws,
Remember your low station, do not fight
Against the goad, because, you know, it pricks
Whenever the uncleanly demos kicks.

I do not envy you your hat, your shoe.
Why should you envy me my small estate?
It’s fearfully illogical of you
To fight with economic force and fate.
Moreover, I have got the upper hand,
And mean to keep it. Do you understand?

I think about this poem quite a lot; it's one of my favourites. It's only posted a few places online. And I can't really find any commentary of it, except for this one little blurb where someone said that they really liked it because it's a little sarcastic.

And - a little sarcastic? Yeah, just a little.

It's exactly this kind of thinking that people are protesting about at the moment: a complete and fervent belief that property rights are handed down from on high and that it's a natural right that the state will protect your possessions, let you keep your squillion dollars and your penthouse and your yacht.

And how dare anybody question your right to that squillion dollars, question your assertion that you earned it by working hard, as though the things that other people do to keep a roof over their head and food in their belly and shoes on their feet (and books on their shelves and wine in the fridge and the heating as high as they want and a trip to the beach in the summer if they feel like it) aren't hard work and don't have value.

We sneer at Working For Families and middle-class welfare and do not question the underlying reason behind it: that, actually, people who are on the average wage in New Zealand would have difficulty supporting a family on that and paying the usual rates of tax. We judge beneficiaries for still having cars; for having cellphones and computers in their home; for faithfully buying a lotto ticket once a week; for having a beer with dinner, or two, or three - as though our society thinks being poor should mean suffering all the time, not spending your money on anything you want, not having choices and not having the opportunity to make short-sighted ones from time to time because, fuck it, it's a lovely day - doesn't a glass of wine on the patio sound nice?

And we don't question that, that earning the minimum wage if you're working full-time in New Zealand means you probably can't afford to rent a whole house if you're living in a city, not without extra government assistance. We talk instead about how jobs might be lost, as though employers hire people out of the goodness of their hearts and would pay more if only they could afford to, by gum. We talk about that fucking microeconomic graph, the one that says that labour is price elastic and assumes that's true both ways or that it's in any way realistic to talk about a labour market as a whole, as though demand for checkout chicks at the local New World is in any way comparable with the hiring of neurosurgeons, as though the negotiating process works the same way when you're a sixteen year old girl as it does for a sixty-year old grey-haired businessman in a suit worth a month's wages.

We let the entire conversation be overtaken by smirking fools talking earnestly about how hard they worked to get where they are, and who let the subtext run through the conversation like a lead-weighted punch to the face: if you're poor it's because you deserve it. If you're breaking your back cleaning other people's floors and bagging their groceries and typing their memos and organising their offices and driving their taxis and educating their children and - and you're not wearing thousand-dollar shoes and driving a late-model import, it's because you don't deserve any better. Because of course New Zealand is a fucking meritocracy, of course we're a classless society, we left all that behind in England don't you know?

Or the other one: they've got it way worse in those third-world countries where people still die of cholera and little kiddies go hungry and hardly anyone can read. And here we are, in New Zealand, with our public healthcare system and our public education system and our welfare state; why would anyone complain? Nobody is truly poor here after all -- except maybe the people who live in overcrowded state houses or boarding houses with cockroach infestations and dodgy plumbing, the students who have food budgets of $25 a week and who get irate on messageboards when anyone suggests that maybe they should expect better.

Except that they of course are poor because they made poor choices, and they're staying poor because they -- because -- because New Zealand is a land of milk and honey and what's with all the pessimism anyway?

Can't we just all relax, take a chill-pill, get our knickers out of that bunch they're in and take the stick out of our asses.

Nothing to see here.

Did you hear the All Blacks have a game on tonight?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hungry Hungry Kids

From tsmithfield at 12.55 pm in reply to The Standard's post "Too Many Hungry Kids":

Anyway, do you agree that IF parents in NZ avail themselves of all the help available (WINZ, emergency grants, foodbanks, etc) there is no need for any children to go hungry in NZ. If so, the argument for why the fault is with parents not the government runs like this:

1. There is sufficient resources in the system to ensure that no children go hungry.
2. Responsible parents would ensure they availed themselves of all available resources to ensure their children didn’t go hungry.
3. Children are going hungry.
4. Therefore, the reason that children are going hungry is that not all parents are responsible.

I really really like people who use deductive logic; it pleases me greatly when people tease out their arguments. So even though I know T Smithfield not at all, I'm writing directly in response to his or her comment because I think it spells out the conservative viewpoint really nicely, and I'm posting it to my own blog because (a) the Standard isn't an especially welcoming forum, and (b) like everything I write, this is likely to be long.

I'm going to accept point 1 above very quickly: I think it clear that New Zealand is in a position to feed all her people; we're not in a famine.

I'm also going to accept point 3 as a point of general knowledge, and one that's being pretty widely discussed in the media at present.

For the purpose of this post, I'm going to extend "parent" to include anyone who has dependant children, because I don't see the purpose of excluding custody arrangements other than "mum and/or dad looking after kids".

There are two main reasons why I think the argument above doesn't work well in reality. One is internal to the logic, and one is external; I'm starting with the former.

I: Responsibility, availability, and The System
Let's start with the position that a parent deliberately withholding sufficient food from their child constitutes abuse, that abuse is a separate issue, and that here we're talking about parents who are, or who feel themselves, unable to provide sufficient food for their child.

An analogy:

My mother is an advocate for the elderly and the disabled. As such, she is very very familiar with the workings of WINZ, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, and various social agencies. My grandfather, her father, has recently been diagnosed with dementia and is currently going through a slow and horrible decline (even from a distance, it's uncomfortable to watch: and we're not close). She doesn't live in the same city as her father, and her brother who does is acting as his welfare guardian as he's no longer able to make many decisions himself.

When things go wrong with the careworkers, as they often do (careworkers aren't brilliantly paid, for starters; also, the administrative skills required to organise a large number of staff over dozens of disparate locations are immense and time-consuming. Stuff gets missed), my mum gets called. Her brother finds dealing with the agencies really difficult and frustrating; my mother calls them and explains what she wants to happen and what their legal responsibilities are and then it gets fixed.

This isn't because she knows how to game the system; it's because learning how to get the most out of a large and complex bureaucracy is a learned skill. She's been working in the field for more than 10 years (and she got into it in the first place because my younger brother is disabled).

Social assistance is a similarly large and complex bureaucracy. You don't just rock up to WINZ and ask for money. There's also Budget Advisory Services, various charities which provide emergency assistance, Citizen's Advice Bureau, Housing New Zealand, your children's schools, and so on. There are many different agencies, and they all have different people to talk to and different (sometimes contradictory) policies and aims.

People do not magically know the best way to approach a foodbank when their cupboards run bare. It is a learned skill. Not all parents who have hungry children will have learned that skill yet; they may have suffered a complete collapse in the family finances recently. Maybe up until now friends have helped them out. Maybe mum did have a job but has been laid off.

And—I'm a highly-educated, literate person and I still find forms really confusing. Admittedly I've never had impending hunger to spur me on, but I'm honestly not sure if I could manage to figure out all the help I could get if I found my funds weren't going far enough.

WINZ isn't in the habit of widely advertising everything a person can get access to; you sort of need to know what question to ask. As for the charities, they do exist but they don't advertise much either; they can't. When they do, literally hundreds of people turn up.

I'm really, really uncomfortable with the idea that not knowing how to get stuff automatically makes you irresponsible. There's probably a point where it does: if you know how to contact a charity and know that they can help you, but you don't because you can't be bothered, for example. Though that would fall towards the abuse end of the spectrum, for me. I'm not sure where I'd place "didn't contact them because I was embarrassed and ashamed of being unable to provide for my own kids", and that's probably a more realistic example.

Tied into this is the actual availability of assistance at any particular instance of food crisis.

WINZ has really strict guidelines on how often a beneficiary can get an emergency grant. I believe foodbanks (usually) put the same kind of boundaries on how much and how often they'll give assistance to an individual or family.*

So if you're a household that has had several food crises in a row, some of the help out there in the world may not actually be available to you, because you've already hit your limit for the year. Maybe you've made really bad spending choices, or maybe you've just had a series of really bad shit happen to you. Unexpected expenses can and do arise: the kids have lots of ear infections or respitory disease; the car breaks down and you have to fix it or else dad legit cannot get to work**. If there's not a lot of fat in your budget at the best of times, these unexpected expenses will be very difficult to deal with.

So the kids go hungry.

And that's shit. I don't want anyone reading this to get the impression that I think kids going hungry is somehow okay. It isn't.

But I think it's faulty logic to say that hungry kids implies without exception irresponsible parenting. The parents may well be acting the best they can, doing the best they can, and with every intention of giving their kids the best lifestyle they can - and still not do very well.

II: Where the harm lies.
My more serious objection to the standard conservative "irresponsible parents! don't encourage them!" line is that, you know, the problem that we are discussing here is one of HUNGRY CHILDREN.

The children have not gone and signed their mums up to the DPB.

They have not rocked up to the Sallies for a food parcel.

They didn't ask for mum to be laid off, or for nana to have gotten sick, or for their dad to be addicted to the pokies, or for whatever problem has occurred in their families that means they're now not getting enough to eat.

It isn't that I have some idealised view of children as little innocent lambikins who deserve nothing but cuddles and good times. It's that children aren't in a position to be able to determine their own fate. They don't decide who their guardians are.

Perhaps more crucially to this debate, they don't get to vote, or to determine public policy, or to have their opinions quoted in the newspapers, or to write blog posts. We decide what their needs are, and then we implement policies to achieve them. We seem to have decided that a need of children is that they not be hungry. Awesome!

Buuuuuut, like. If there are areas of New Zealand where lots of parents are not giving their kids breakfast or lunch (and there are areas!), whether that's because they're all irresponsible or because shit has gone wrong in their lives or because of a combination of things, the thing we should be focussing on is that THERE ARE AREAS OF NEW ZEALAND WHERE LOTS OF KIDS ARE GOING HUNGRY.

Talk all you like about personal responsibility: you're still not talking about the actual harm. Personal responsiblity does not here lie with the people who suffer the harm. Talk all you like about not encouraging people to remain dependant on the state, but don't fool yourself that you're helping the ACTUAL HUNGRY CHILDREN when you talk about "moving into work" and "bootstraps". I totally agree that full-time work does usually provide a better lifestyle than living on benefits! It still isn't the point!

Public policy should be firmly aimed at solving the specific identified problem, and not some other random thing that you've tacked on there for shits and ideology. The specific identified problem here is hungry children, not irresponsible parents, and the policy should therefore focus on said hungry children and not the sins of their fathers.

PS: Throwing Money At Problems Won't Help

Actually, throwing money at problems is the standard first step to resolving them. Labour and resources cost money if you don't have them already (unless you can barter for them or receive them as gifts).

People unable to access healthcare? We fund better access! The amount of money thrown at a problem may be proportionally very small or very large: at one end, redesigning a single form so that it makes more sense to the people using it; at the other, redesigning an entire computer system.

I don't purport to believe that throwing money is in and of itself a solution. Obviously there must be thought involved to determine what the best solution is and how to achieve it.

Where the problem is explicitly that some people lack resources, the solution is inevitably going to cost money (assuming that you agree that the problem is a problem and should be resolved). It doesn't necessarily have to cost a lot of money, and part of the decision-making process is figuring out what represents best value.

But an education program aimed at teaching budgeting skills costs money.

Raising wages costs money***.

Raising benefits costs money.

Foodbanks cost money. School breakfast schemes cost money. Putting the kids into CYFS custody costs money.

You know what, in this, doesn't cost a cent? Leaving the kids to go hungry.

* And there are good reasons for this, most fundamentally that their resources also are limited.

** Haaaaah, the public transport debate: You Don't Really Need A Car. See, public transport (plus the occasional taxi) works well for me, as a person who works Normal Office Hours and who lives in an inner suburb. It doesn't work for my dad, who works a night shift (the buses don't run that late!), or my mum (who does work Normal Office Hours, but whose job requires her to travel anywhere in the North Shore/Waitakere DHB area to visit clients). It would work well for one of my brothers, though he does have a car, but not for the other, due to his disabilities.

*** Though is WAY more complicated than that.

Monday, June 13, 2011

On intent, and how (and why) I think it matters

I think intent matters. I think the reasons why we do something are relevant in assessing how we should be judged on what we do. I think some of the factors that are important in determining intent (and these do not limit any other factors that may arise in a particular context) are—
(a) what the person thought they were doing:
(b) what they were trying to achieve:
(c) whether they were acting in good faith:
(d) what they actually knew about the situation they were in:
(e) what they could be reasonably expected to have known about the situation they were in.

I think intent matters because I dislike the idea that someone is just as culpable for being accidentally offensive as they would have been if the offense had been malicious and intentional. That doesn't sit comfortably with how I think about morality: surely hurting people on purpose is worthy of more blame than doing so accidentally?

Most of the discussions I have seen about intent have been in the context of someone being offensive and then saying that they didn't mean to be, as a kind of excuse for the harm they have caused. For better or for worse, it usually comes along with an apology. On the side of whoever has been harmed, someone (quite rightly) points out that the fact that the harm wasn't purposefully caused doesn't mean that it didn't happen or wasn't real.

Where I break with both sides is that I just don't find a lot of the claims of complete innocence very credible.

An example of something that I do think was done innocently—and it's kind of a ridiculous example, but I think I can use it to make the particular points I want, so I'm going to run with it:

A few weeks ago I went to the birthday party of a good friend. There I met a friend of hers, who was a very good costumer. We got to talking about corsets (as you do), and she said to me that corsets were better than bras for large breasts, because they give better support and take less pressure off the spine.

I wasn't offended by this, but it did sting a little and it is one of the things I carried away from the evening. It fits in with a whole lot of stuff I have going on about body image and the curse of shopping and what expectations my professional career will place on how I look and dress.

The first point I want to make with that example is that I can't infer any sort of purposeful or reckless attempt to upset me or poke at wounds from that conversation.

The second is one about words having meanings and meanings being contextual: if I had been in the midst of a conversation with that same person about body image and the curse of shopping and what expectations my professional career will place on how I look and dress, and she had said the same thing, I would have been much more upset and I would not have found a claim that she meant to do no harm particularly convicing. This is because I work in a fairly conservative office and suggesting that I wear corsets would clearly not be a reasonable response to me talking about how difficult I find buying work clothes.

I think it is fair to expect that people who are debating things in good faith will pay attention to the conversation they are having, and take contextual clues from that conversation (rather than from how they talk to other people in their lives). I think it is reasonable to expect that people will turn their minds, even if only briefly, to thinking about what the likely sore spots are for whoever they're talking to and then (if they are determined to continue the discussion in good faith) not say things that are likely to poke those sore spots.

There is, of course, a limit to what a person can be reasonably expected to know about a particular thing (either a topic, or what the sore spots are of the person they're talking to).

But, for example, I think it can be taken as read that someone who identifies as leftish and who is bothering to engage in explicitly feminist discussion should be aware of basic dialogue about how women are (often) treated in discussions (hysterical! irrational! devoid of reason and unable to make coherent points! simply ignored!); and therefore if that person should choose to use argumentation techniques which rely on ad hominim attacks like "calm down, you're being irrational" they have absolutely no basis on which to claim that they are totally innocent and had no idea that their words could give offence when, inevitably, someone is offended.

This is what I mean when I say that I think intent is important, but that claims of a lack of intent should be critically examined.

I think part of my problem with the discussions about intent that I've read is that they almost invariably take place in a context where (at least initially) everybody is acting in good faith and nobody is trying to be malicious and hurtful. In that context it isn't so much that intent isn't important as that if everybody is claiming that they genuinely had no idea they were giving offence and there's no reason to doubt that, the conversation must of necessity move to what the person should have known.

And maybe "you ought to have known X and Y and Z; these concepts should have been familiar to you as a regular commenter on this forum/a member of Group B/a resident of this country/a citizen of the world" is a tougher sell than "your motivations are irrelevant", I don't know. Whatever else it is, communication is complicated.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Abortion Supervisory Committee v Right to Life New Zealand Inc

I'm going to start this post with a disclaimer:
a) I'm not a lawyer; I'm a law student, so I've got some experience reading and analysing case law, and I'm familiar with the workings of Parliament and the courts - but obviously there are a lot of people with much more experience and subject-matter expertise than I have; and
b) this was written in less than a day; I haven't taken a lot of time to really consider the issues. This is a "first reading" sort of response; and
c) my own views on abortion can be found here.

And a few notes on terminology:
Numbers in brackets (eg [1]) refer to the paragraph of the Court of Appeal judgment unless stated otherwise (a PDF of the whole thing can be found here on the Court of Appeal website.)
"s" means "section" [of the Act]

I: the "live birth" bit - foetuses, unborn children, and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990
The starting point here has to be the old common law "born alive" rule. That is, in essence, that the foetus has no legally enforceable rights until born alive. [52] (The Court of Appeal also notes at [59] that the authoritative New Zealand case which discusses this rule is Harrild v Director of Proceedings [2003] 3 NZLR 289 (CA). I haven't read that case, but it's probably available online somewhere.)

The reason foetuses have no legally enforceable rights until they are born alive is that they are totally inseparable from their mothers. And of course "legally enforceable rights" doesn't just include things like the right to life; it also would include things like the right to inherit property or to sue for negligence or to enter into a contract for the purchase of goods - things which it is totally ridiculous to think of a foetus doing.

Right to Life, in their defence, hasn't posited that the "born alive" rule should be completely discarded; as discussed at [51], RTL submits that the foetus has a fundamental right to life which trumps the "born alive" rule only to the extent of the right.

The Court of Appeal doesn't agree. At [59]: "We do not consider that this is an appropriate occasion on which to embark on a detailed discussion of the born alive rule. [...] For present purposes, we simply reject the submissions advanced by RTL under this ground of the cross-appeal."

Section 8 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 states "No one shall be deprived of life except on such grounds as are established by law and are consistent with the principles of fundamental justice."

BORA also gives a bunch of other rights to people (and most of the sections start with "No one"): freedom of association, freedom of expression, right not to be subject to torture or cruel treatment. As Miller J (the High Court Judge) said at [99] of his judgment (at [62] of the Court of Appeal judgment), "very few of the rights mentioned in the Act could possibly be exercised by or on behalf of an unborn child. [...] its rights would be inseparable from those of the mother. And the right to be free of unwanted medical treatment could not sensibly be asserted on behalf of the unborn child independently of the mother. Who, if not the mother, would speak for it, and if their interests were in conflict how would those interests be reconciled?" (emphasis mine).

Essentially, both the High Court and the Court of Appeal find a) foetuses don't have a right to life under BORA, and b) it wouldn't make any sense for Parliament to have intended foetuses to have a right to life under BORA, given the way it's drafted. So RTL loses on that ground too.

I'm totally unsurprised by what the Court of Appeal found on these parts of the claim. It's not a radical, activist decision; it's actually pretty conservative, given that the "born alive" rule has existed in the common law for hundreds of years, that under s 159 of the Crimes Act a child becomes a human being for the purposes of the Act once it has been born alive, and that it'd be nigh on impossible to read BORA in a way that sensibly gave rights to both foetuses and the pregnant women who contain them.

Also: this part of the judgment (all the bits about the law recognising a right to life on the part of foetuses) is unanimous (so, all three Judges agreed) and consistent with what Miller J found in the High Court.

Where the Judges disagreed is on what the role of the Committee is, and whether they (and the certifying consultants) are doing their jobs properly. Without further ado:

II: Are certifying consultants obeying the abortion law? The majority approach:
The main thrust of the Committee's submissions about this (paras [83] to [88]) is:
a) the Committee does not get, and cannot get, detailed case summaries of individual instances of women who get certification to receive an abortion. They also don't have access to any of the women (in order to take interviews, for example).
b) the role of the Committee is to ensure that there's a consistent approach to accessing abortion throughout the country: making sure there's enough certifying consultants and that they make more or less consistent decisions.
c) the Committee is also responsible for making reports to Parliament about how many abortions are occurring, who is having them, and whether the law is working well.

It's worth noting here that section 30(5) of the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977 provides that, when the Committee is deciding who to appoint as certifying consultants under the Act, the following views [held by medical practitioners] are incompatible with being a certifying consultant:
(a) [believing] that an abortion should not be performed in any circumstances:
(b) [believing] that the question of whether an abortion should or should not be performed in any case is entirely a matter for the woman and a doctor to decide.

So, assuming that the Committee is doing their job properly (and the Court of Appeal thinks that they are), there aren't any hardline "abortions for everyone who wants one!" people working as certifying consultants anyway. So there, RTL!

RTL, on the other hand, thinks that the Committee should be able to require certifying consultants to keep a detailed record of the diagnoses (under what ground women are certified able to have an abortion) and "their severity". And a bunch of other stuff I can't be bothered typing out - see paras [89] to [94].

What the majority held, at [100], is:

"We are satisfied that none of the functions or powers of the Committee, as set out in ss 14(1)(a)(i) or (k), s 36 or any of the statutory provisions relied on by RTL, either singly or in combination, empower the Committee to review or scruitinise the decisions of certifying consultants in relation to either the authorisation or refusal of an abortion in individual cases. It follows that it is not open to the Committee to form its own opinion about the lawfulness, including the clinical correctness, of the decisions of the certifying consultants in particular cases."

And at [101], "we consider that the Act characterises the decision of certifying consultants as a "medical assessment pure and simple". The legislation has been careful to immunise the Committee from involvement in decisions made by health professionals on medical and clinical grounds in particular cases."

That's pretty unequivocal.

On the subject of it being "a medical assessment pure and simple", the Court noted at [32] that "there is no right of review, either by the Committee or anyone else, of the decision of the certifying consultants. This is the case, even though the woman herself may wish to review a decision determining that the case for authorising the performance of an abortion had not been made out." (emphasis mine)

The right to review is a pretty fundamental part of legal processes. The fact that you can't appeal a decision made by a certifying consultant really does highlight that it's a medical decision rather than a legal one. And, you know, there is a strong case that it should be a legal decision, as in "you have the right to have an abortion!" but that's not what the law says at the moment.

The only purpose I can see of the Committee collecting and reporting on detailed medical information of women who (attempt to) get certification for an abortion is in order to further political goals. The majority notes at [103] that professional obligations require medical practitioners to keep detailed records of cases anyway, and that those obligations are enforced by the Health and Disability Commissioner (along with other medical authorities).

Say the Committee were to, for example, keep detailed records on why women received abortions on mental health grounds, and then present reports to Parliament with statements like "X% of abortions are performed because otherwise the woman would be a little bit depressed" or whatever - insert more appropriate language if you like. That isn't a medical opinion; it doesn't give nearly enough detail for that. It's a political opinion, and a political statement, and it has social and political history behind it, and this is why the Committee doesn't present Parliament with statements like that.

(I'm leaving out the minority opinion of Arnold J - you can find it from para [154] of the judgment.)

III: the majority overturns certain findings and observations of Miller J
The really controversial part of Miller J's judgment in the High Court was about whether some abortions performed in New Zealand were actually legal.

Miller J commented at [56] of the High Court judgment (quoted at [132] of the Court of Appeal decision) that:
"The approval rate [of certifications] seems remarkably high, bearing in mind that under s 187A the consultants must form the good faith opinion that continuance of the pregnancy would result in serious danger to the mother's health."

And here's the part of the Court of Appeal judgment that pro-choice people should be pleased by, and I'm quoting it in full because it's very definite and on our side:

[133] It has not been necessary for us to consider the evidence on this aspect of the case. We merely record that Ms Gwyn submits that Miller J's statements were expressed in sufficiently definite terms as to have serious potential repercussions for certifying consultants and the administration of the abortion law.

[134] Given our conclusions on the nature and scope of the Committee's functions and powers, we consider that factual findings or observations of the type made by Miller J were inappropriate. No such findings should have been made.

(emphasis mine) And:

[136] With respect to the finding that cast doubt on the lawfulness of the decisions of the certifying consultants, given the conclusions we have reached on the main ground of appeal, such findings ought not to have been made. We consider that the appropriate channels of investigation would involve either a complaint by a patient or potentially by the Committee itself, in which case the Health and Disability Commissioner would become involved. Alternatively there might be a complaint to the police, in which case the police would investigate the matter.

[137] Accordingly, we are satisfied that the findings as to lawfulness of the decision making of the certifying consultants or judicial comment about New Zealand having abortion "on request" ought not to have been made in the circumstances of this case. We conclude that they are of no lawful effect.

(emphasis mine) In short, and written in strong language for the judiciary, Miller J shouldn't have suggested that abortion was available "on request" in New Zealand, and the only people who have the right to question the decision of a certifying consultant are the patient, the Committee, or the police (if a complaint is made to them).

This is consistent with the Court's findings on certification being a medical assessment, not for some third party to question on the grounds that they think your reason for getting an abortion isn't good enough.

IV: some legal stuff
RTL probably has a right to appeal to the Supreme Court on a question of law, and they may yet do so. I'd be incredibly surprised if the Supreme Court found differently on any of the "right to life" stuff, since neither the High Court or the Court of Appeal have said anything unorthodox about it yet. The stuff about the role of the Committee is possibly a little more open to debate, particularly since there's Arnold J's dissent in the Court of Appeal.

The other interesting "law student" thing that came out of this is costs. It's pretty common in New Zealand for the losing side to have to pay the winning side's legal costs.

In the High Court, the Abortion Supervisory Committee lost, so they had to pay Right to Life's costs.

But! When ASC won at the Court of Appeal, the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court costs order and imposed a new costs order on RTL to:
- pay ASC's costs in the High Court; and
- pay ASC's costs in the Court of Appeal for a complex appeal on a band B basis

Let's just assume that's a lot of money. Court is expensive!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Children: a lifestyle choice?

"Don't have children you can't afford."

Well, it's a bit bloody late after the kid has been born, isn't it?


"Don't have children you can't afford."

Let's start at the very beginning: people have children! We're a species that reproduces! That's how the species survives!

(Things I'm not addressing: whether the world is overpopulated. Whether people in rich countries have some kind of moral duty to not have children to make up for the exponential population growth in poorer countries. Immigration vs population growth through birth. Racism.)

Adults have children. Not all adults, obviously, but lots of us. Some of us do it because we really want children! Or we really want to be mums! Or we feel social pressure! Or it just happens! The contraception fails, and the pregnant woman doesn't want to have an abortion!

Some people will engage in a lot of pragmatic decision-making before they become pregnant or knock up their partner or whatever, and they'll have thought about things like "how are we going to fund this screaming poo factory?" and "will I go insane through lack of sleep?" and "is now really the right time?" Other people will not engage in those decisions—they'll certainly make a number of other decisions, though, like "where will baby sleep?" and "oooh, tiny red shoes or tiny green ones?" Some won't be making any sort of decision to get pregnant at all, but will still be happy when they find out they are.

But none of this is the point: the point is that people have children.


"Don't have children that you can't afford."

Most people will never be in a position to afford private school and horse-riding lessons. That's a reality of the New Zealand economy.

Leaving arguments about whether that's a good thing aside for the moment, there are serious questions to be discussed about what sort of lifestyle a New Zealand citizen should be able to enjoy as a minimum if they so desire.*

I'd place this minimum somewhere like:
- comfortable accommodation that doesn't have major structural issues and can be heated reasonably** cheaply
- reliable access to food of the kind the individuals can and like to eat
- ability to access (some) leisure activities
- ability to travel (at least around the country)
- ability to access education and healthcare
- some other stuff, like clothes

So what all parents should be able to provide for their children, at a minimum is a roof over their heads and food and clothing and some opportunity to do fun things and some opportunity to see the country.

If there are parents in New Zealand who can't do that, I'd argue that we're failing as a society.


"Don't have children that you can't afford."

It's time for a bit of a chat about Bad Financial Decisions. We all make them sometimes (well, at least everyone I know has made them sometimes). For instance, just last week I spent $90 at the pub at a friend's birthday party I'd had no real intention of drinking at! I reasonably regularly blow all my spending money for the fortnight on new shoes/clothes/bits of computer hardware!

I'm still: paying my rent and bills and buying breakfast and lunch most days and paying off my student loan and paying off my bank loan and saving up (very slowly) for a house deposit and—basically I am not living on Struggle Street. This is mainly because I am 26 and single and don't have dependants and I earn above the median national salary (for a person in full-time employment)!

There are people—lots of people—in this country who earn what I earn and support a family on it. The Bad Financial Decisions they are therefore able to make without their budget cascading into the shitter are smaller, because they have higher unavoidable expenses.

And, right, the size of the Bad Financial Decisions you can make without it ruining your budget gets smaller the poorer you are, so that a (very) wealthy person can invest $30K in a dodgy finance company and lose the lot without it bankrupting them, whereas a poorer person might have to legit decide whether rice or potatos are a more economical choice this week.

And everyone's going to stuff up sometimes. You're going to have weeks where you're like, FML, I just want to get drunk on the couch, so you buy a bottle of tequila and wake up the next morning smelling of alcohol and regret. You're going to spend more than you really should on shoes, or buy the slightly more expensive (but much nicer) loaf of bread, or whatever.

Statements like "people just need to budget better" a) place an unreasonably high expectation on people, and b) ignore reality. The reality is both that it can be extraordinarily challenging to survive on a low income (and people are, by doing so, regularly making very good budgeting decisions) and that people are people and human and make mistakes.


"Don't have children that you can't afford."

More than just individual Bad Financial Decisions, sometimes stuff goes wrong in people's lives: they get sick, or lose their job, or interest rates go up so their mortgage payment is higher than they budgeted for, or inflation is high, or we're in the middle of a global recession, or their relationship breaks down—

Sometimes those people have children!

Nobody deserves to become sick; very few people deserve to lose their jobs; interest rates and inflation and global financial crises are largely out of the control of Average Citizen Nancy; and relationship breakdowns are by definition the fault of the parties involved but, you know, shit happens.

Even the most careful budgeter in the world won’t think of everything that could possibly go wrong in their lives; none of us can predict the future.


“Don’t have children that you can’t afford.”

Uh, yeah, but they’re here now. What are you proposing we do instead?

We’re ostensibly a civilised society.

Back in the day, unwanted children used to get left on hillsides or hit over the head with a rock; ritualised and common infanticide is found all over the world in ancient civilisations.

But we grew up as a species and produced surpluses and villages and towns and cities and city-states and nations and the UN; and now we have all these laws against leaving your children on hillsides or hitting them over the head with a rock. And it’s a good thing, too.

The effect of it is that people who produce children are expected to care for them, and if they don’t (or if they do, but they’re really crap at it), we take the kids from them and stick the parents in jail if it’s bad enough and shame everyone involved a lot.

At the same time, though, it’s not like there’s a drop-off centre where you can turn up with little Timmy, all “I’ve had him for a couple of years and he’s too expensive and ugh I really hate this parent lark, take him away.” I suspect, based totally on my own brain and not on any research or internet-based anecdotal evidence that any drop-off in levels of adoption in Western nations is connected to the availability of contraception and abortion, and also possibly to the ability of solo mothers to receive State support. But that’s an untested assumption! I also suspect that anyone who rocked up to Child, Youth and Family all “I’ve had enough of Little Timmy, take him away!” would a) not receive that much assistance, and b) be shamed for trying it.

So you’ve had a kid: you’re stuck with him or her (unless you’re going to be sufficiently abusive so as to have the kid forcibly removed from your household and/or be sent to jail, which I think we can all agree is not the sort of thing we want people to do ever.)

The moral of this section is: if society is going to require individuals to do something, and some of those individuals are going to have difficult doing that thing, society is obligated to help them.

To link all this together:

1. People have children!

2. Sometimes people with children face expenses they can’t reasonably anticipate.

3. Sometimes people’s income is inadequate for their needs.

4. Society expects people to care for their children, and makes it difficult to get rid of children (not that many people actually want to, I expect).

5. Points 1 to 4 mean together that society has some sort of obligation to make sure that people with children are able to maintain a reasonable lifestyle.


“Don’t have children that you can’t afford.”

Complaints about the cost of living in New Zealand come, obviously, from people’s dissatisfaction with the cost of living in New Zealand. I don’t think a blanket reply of “well you shouldn’t have gotten knocked up then, should you?” is a very reasonable response to this.

I also think that if a large proportion of families in New Zealand genuinely feel as though they’re unable to easily maintain the lifestyles they want, we should be talking about that. We should be talking about what a reasonable lifestyle actually is: do we expect people to be able to pack the kids in the car and go to the beach for a holiday a couple of times a year? And—and we should also be having a conversation about whether people’s lifestyle desires are reasonably attainable. Like I said earlier, most people are never going to be able to send their kids to private school or give them horse-riding lessons, and maybe that’s okay.

But, uh, I think it’s totally reasonable for a family who earns the median wage (and I am here talking about a household with one working adult) to expect to be able to have a comfortable house and enough to eat and to be able to pay the bills and buy a few luxuries, and if that’s systemically unrealistic then I think we’ve got a bit of a problem.


“Don’t have children that you can’t afford.”

Levelled, right, at single women who have children and who get their income from the state.

There’s, I don’t know, hundreds of years of history here about the purpose of marriage and the operation of wider family networks; about the Poor Laws of Elizabethan England (and similar laws worldwide); about the status of women in law (not good; let’s just take that as read); about the rise of the nuclear family and industrialisation and the effect that had on those wider family and community networks by virtue of requiring highly mobile labour; and about how we fixed some of what capitalism broke by introducing social welfare.

But for the purpose of this exercise:

1. Children are good; and
2. Parenthood is work; and
3. Children, while good, are expensive because they’re not productive and they need a lot of care.***

Parenthood is not paid work! That doesn’t make it not work! See also housework, and also the bit above about the societal obligation to do certain things.

Women who have children and who get their income from the state are doing work in raising the next generation. This is work that we should support. Do I think that living on the DPB gives people an enviable lifestyle which I would like to emulate? No. This is why accusations of teenage girls getting deliberately pregnant so they can live off the state for the rest of their lives (and so on) always makes me think that their lives must be utter shit if they possibly think that a total annual income somewhere around $24K with which they must support a child sounds like a good deal.

And even if they have gotten deliberately pregnant: uh, children are still good! Parenthood is still work!


“Don’t have children that you can’t afford.”

Levelled at those poor people, who should clearly have got a better job before they started breeding.

I’m not going to lie, this sounds like eugenics. It also sounds like total bollocks.

The median wage/salary for those in full-time employment was, at July 2010 (according to Statistics New Zealand) $44,800. Full-time employment at minimum wage will get you $28,080 a year. There’s a lot more women in part-time employment than men, but I’ll leave that aside for the moment.

My statistical skills are a bit shite, but here goes: the median wage/salary figure is a lot higher than the median income from all sources (the latter gets skewed down by people who work part time or receive benefits).

But even assuming that only people who work full-time or who have a partner who works full-time should be able to have children, there’s still going to be an awful lot of households who have an income between $30K and $50K. The median household income from all sources (including benefits (including Working for Families)) was $64,272 per year as at June 2010. Half the households in the country have a combined income of less than that.

So is $64,272 per year enough to support a family on? What sort of lifestyle will it give? Is that lifestyle a reasonable one? What if the family is earning $44,272 per year – is that enough? Or $22,272? Remember the bit above about parenthood being work, and children being good.

Also think a little about whether you really believe that an adult’s right to choose to have a child should be in any way connected to the size of their bank balance, and then think: if this somehow became official policy, would you be in a position to determine what the magic figure was? And would you be over it?

* I'm totally down with people living off the grid if that's what they want, but I'd place a minimum standard somewhat higher.

** A note about how I use "reasonable": I'm a law student (and it's ruining my life AND my mind) so I tend to think of "reasonable" as meaning "what an ordinary person would think apt and fair in the circumstances". The effect of this is that it isn't a strict standard; to use the heating example, "reasonable" would be tied in to the person's income and the size of their dwelling.

*** I welcome any suggestions of reform of child labour laws. Seriously, drop that in any time you like.

Monday, May 9, 2011

this turned out rather angrier than i expected

I do not understand what the problem with lifestyle beneficiaries is.

I will define "lifestyle beneficiary" for the purposes of this post as a person who, for whatever reason, chooses not to seek paid employment in such a way as to cover all of his or her expenses, who does not have any personal relationships such as their expenses are paid for by an individual (or a group of individuals) and who therefore relies on the state for an income. The term obviously usually has negative connotations, but that's what I'm going to talk about. I'm not intending to import them as subtext to this post.

I don't know if there are any good stats to suggest what proportion of beneficiaries are lifestyle beneficiaries. I'd expect it to be small, mostly because the stats I have seen seem to suggest that most people move off the DPB and the dole fairly quickly, and invalid's benefit is of course a different matter.

Anyway, I really don't see the problem.

The government of New Zealand used to explicitly follow policy aimed at full employment. This was, up until the 1980s, a fairly bipartisan thing (as I understand it), and is presumably one of the things behind Think Big and all the other grand infrastructure works of the 60s and 70s. In the 1980s, things changed, and there's been for the last 30 years a fairly bipartisan approach of laisse fair economics.

Talk all you want about whether that was a good thing or not; I think it is genuinely up for debate, at least in some areas.

One of the inexonerable consequences of moving away from state intervention to create and sustain full employment into a situation where you let the market rise and fall as it wishes is that you will end up with people who are structurally un- or under-employed. This isn't, as far as I am concerned, up for debate (and if you are a right-wing economist, you'll probably argue that it isn't a bad thing. That's genuinely up for debate too).

The structural unemployment comes from the fact that sometimes the market will have a few less jobs than people, and sometimes the market will provide a lot less jobs than people. But there are incentives to always having fewer jobs than people: it keeps wages lower, it makes the market more flexible, and blah blah blah classical economics 101.

[Someday I will talk about why I think this is so utterly shit, but today is not that day. Today is about pragmatism.]

So you now have some people who, try as they might, are not going to get or keep a job that pays their expenses. This is a problem: having homeless people dying on the streets is pretty unpleasant plus it turns out that they are people too and not some alien species who don't warrant basic human decency or care!

As a sop to these radical notions of "not being total douches" and "caring about your fellow humankind", the state provides a minimum level of income at a level designed to prevent your unemployed people from dying unpleasantly on the streets. This is not generally a level which will allow them to go on extended trips to Europe, and maybe not even to the other end of whatever island they're on, but they're probably fed and housed and reasonably comfortable. Success!

But! It turns out that not having employment makes most people feel demoralised and shit, which gets compounded by unemployed people living on state funds being told constantly that they're bludging scum who don't deserve nice things. And if they're women: that they should keep their legs closed and not have kids they couldn't afford! Because everyone who doesn't plan and budget for their relationship breaking down has failed as a human being!

Nevertheless, some people who are structurally long-term unemployed manage to find other things to do with their time (whatever those things are), such as they're no longer that motivated to spend 40 hours a week in an environment they probably don't like that much all for a (few? lot?) more dollars in their pocket.

What the fuck is wrong with that?

If you're accepting of the basic bipartisan premise of NZ economic management: that there will be unemployed people; and especially if you're defending that policy on the grounds that it provides market incentives that you agree with --- if you're doing that, where's your problem with people who take themselves out of the market entirely, thus leaving jobs for people who DO want them? And who do so for what they get on the dole, which is effectively 4/5ths of fuck all?

Why do you want some people to be unhappy all the time?

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Calm down, love - and other annoyances

I have flatted with the same two women for five and a half years now; they're my closest friends.

These facts are merely background to the point of this post, which is about language.

So David Cameron told Shadow Minister Angela Eagle to "Calm down, love" in the middle of a heated Parliamentary debate. And I can't remember who it was or where I read it, but some MP asked another (male) MP whether he had PMS.

Is this sexist, the papers ask?

In a word: yes.

This is because words have meanings, and those meanings are contextual.


A story about my flat:

We cook together, and thus we grocery shop together. This one time a couple of years ago, I started crying completely out of the blue in the middle of the cat food aisle.

I get PMS. I have a couple of days every month where I am consumed with impotent rage, usually directionless and a bit feeble. This month I spent a day ratty and ill-tempered at everyone I had any contact with (and some people who I didn't), and every third thought I had was "Heaven forfend you should have to [do X]."

And so on that ill-fated shopping expedition, my cycle was at its peak of rage, and I cried. I was aware at the time that the whole situation was completely absurd, so I was kind of laughing and wailing at the same time; I'm really glad the supermarket was pretty empty.

"Crying in the cat aisle" is now an in-joke in my flat for PMS-related things (and amongst a few other close friends too).

I'm totally down with this. It's an in-joke because it was so uncontrollable and random and ridiculous; and because I love these people I live with; and because we all go through PMS-related ragetastic moments; and because we're careful with it.




Meaning is contextual, man. I get to make PMS jokes and explanations because it's my body and my hormones and my anger, and I know better than anyone what my cycle is about and what I'm angry about and whether my anger is at an unusual (for me) level and whether that anger is, in my opinion, justified.

Close friends get to ask me whether I'm PMS-ing because they know me well and they know a bit about my body and my hormones and my anger, and they can call me out about if they like, and I can argue with them if I like.

Acquaintances don't. Random strangers don't. Because they don't know me or those things about me, and they don't get to ever fucking determine how I should choose to frame the discussion I am having.

Why it's sexist and offensive: because a query about PMS isn't just a question about my ovarian cycle (as if that's not intrusive enough). It's a whole lot of other possible statements, including (but not limited to)—
- that the thing I'm angry about isn't worthy of being angry about
- that I'm overreacting
- that I'm being irrational
- that I'm being ridiculous

And none of these things can lead to a good place for me.

Seriously, if it is PMS then I'm probably well-aware of it already and do not need you to tell me that my body chemistry is screwing with my reason. If it's not—if it's not, then you've just nicely dismissed everything I've been arguing as an overblown rant in a beautiful ad hominem one-liner.

And if you're a dude:

I don't know if you've been living under a rock all this time, but for many many centuries women had very few rights in (English) law and society.* Our assets belonged to our fathers and then our husbands; we couldn't inherit land; it was difficult or impossible to get an education or learn a trade or run a business or, you know, act as fully autonomous human beings. Women in the late Victorian period used to get prescribed hysterectomies and clitorectomies for "hysteria". The legal definition of rape specifically excluded anything that took place within a marriage.

So feminism 101: it's not new to describe women as reactionary, hysterical, ridiculous, and incapable of reason. Those were, in fact, some of the justifications used to perpetuate the treatment of women in our society for centuries.

All that (remember that words have meanings and meanings are contextual? GOOD.) gets imported as subtext when a man tells a woman to calm down, love, or asks whether she's PMSing.

And those general societal contexts sometimes get trumped by other contexts, such as that of close friendship and grocery shopping. So, yeah, you do have to be aware of the language you're using about a group you're not part of, even if they throw those words around themselves.


But, you say, some people are totally down with being asked whether they're PMSing. The way I figure it, there's a range of possible reactions if it's a stranger or the opposition doing the asking:
- at one end, always finding it offensive and hurtful
- thinking the asker is a bit of a dick, in a bad way
- thinking the asker is a bit of a dick, in a good way
- finding it funny
- and at the other end, not seeing the problem

(I think you have to be aware that it's problematic (or at least that some people would find it so) to find it funny.)

And given that you're asking someone whether they're PMSing in an argument during which presumably you are the other side, and you're presumably doing so for the purpose of point-scoring, you've got to be aware that there is a point to score at all: so you at least are aware that it's problematic.

How the hell are you surprised when they get annoyed? Nice going, asshole.

* Which is what I know about, so is what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

women: making choices or making babies (it's not a binary)

I've been following the debate about abortion on the Standard plus various other blogs with interest (for starters, try the Hand Mirror's excellent series on abortion in New Zealand).

It's a difficult subject to talk about. It's fraught with a whole lot of ethics (women's right to autonomous decision-making regarding her own body; the status of a foetus; whether any other person should be involved in a woman's decision-making process) and a whole lot of politics (is there room on a left-leaning Order Paper for a bill about abortion rights and access? Can we convince the punters?). It's also deeply personal for me, a person who could become pregnant (and probably will never choose to do so).

The thing is: I think at least some of the criticisms laid against the firmly pro-choice position from other pro-choice positions are a little disingenous. Here's why:

As I understand it, the firmly pro-choice position boils down to—
1. the person most qualified to make a decision about her bodily integrity and her ability/willingness to carry a foetus to term is the woman whose body it is.
2. that woman should be able to make a decision about whether to continue carrying a foetus to term at any point during the pregnancy.

The effect of this position is abortion on demand, including late-term abortions.

Now, let's take the position I was at until this weekend, which was:
1. without reservation, a woman should be able to decide to terminate a non-viable foetus. This includes all early-stage pregnancies as well as pregnancies which are later discovered to not be viable.
2. I have difficulty in accepting that a woman who is healthy herself and whose pregnancy is at a sufficiently late stage for the foetus to be viable (without significant disabilities such would greatly reduce the child's quality or length of life once he or she has been born) should be able to choose to terminate the pregnancy. This is one of those ethical gut-reactions that I can't suppress or adequately justify.

I still have difficulty accepting 2. above. But I don't think it matters.

The firmly pro-choice position would extend the right to seek an abortion to the greatest number of women who might choose to have one, namely all of them. This would necessarily include a woman who chooses at 38 weeks to terminate her pregnancy despite being in the picture of perfect health herself and knowing that the foetus is also healthy.

I don't know that that woman actually exists. If she does, I haven't heard of her. Women who choose to terminate a pregnancy at a very late stage do so almost exclusively for medical reasons, either their own or those of the foetus. The literature I have read (which is far from exhaustive) seems to suggest that there are women who would like to abort past the current limits in NZ law, but often this is a result of having been unable to access abortion services within the current limits in NZ law.

So why I think my earlier position was somewhat disingeneous is:
1. the firmly pro-choice position extends abortion rights as widely as possible.
2. there may be hypothetical women who would exercise that right in a way that I find morally repugnant.
3. however, if the firmly pro-choice position is restricted (for example, by term limits), it would almost certainly restrict the choices of women who I accept without reservation should be able to access an abortion.

That is to say, by focussing on a hypothetical set of women I am ignoring the needs of actual women. This is not good policy-making.

The other argument I find slightly disingenous is the argument that runs:

"But what about the views of the man/boyfriend/partner/husband/parents/family/wider society? DO OUR VOICES NOT COUNT?"

The firmly pro-choice position is mainly framed as a simple "no." It may in fact be "no"; I haven't done a straw poll, nor is everybody's opinion identical (obviously).

But. Women don't exercise choice in a vacuum. That's probably one of the main points of feminism and feminist theory: that our choices are profoundly influenced by the positions we find ourselves in, and that the positions we find ourselves in may be (and often are) outside our control.

As a corollary of that, women don't make decisions in a vacuum. There's nothing about the firmly pro-choice position which excludes women who are deciding whether or not to seek an abortion from soliciting the opinions of people whose opinion they think are important, and from then considering those opinions in their decision-making process. For some women, the opinion of her partner may well be determinative.1 The point is that other people's opinions should not be determinative (or influential) if the woman exercising her right to choose does not want them to be.

So where's the problem? Most women will want to know what the feelings of their partner are, if they're in a relationship (you expect that, I think, in relationships). Many women will talk to their family, or to close friends, or to whoever they want to. Your voices will be heard! Many women will have regard to how you feel! It may take the form of consultation, where there's no requirement to actually follow what the consulted people ask for, but it will be there in many, if not most, cases.

(There'll be women who choose not to involve anybody else in their decision. And I fail to see the problem with that: they're autonomous human beings too, kid.)

1. You know, [stuff about power imbalances goes here], but I think a woman could legitimately choose to have a baby or not to have a baby because her partner wants one/doesn't want one, and I think it's absolutely that woman's right to decide for herself what factors are and are not important in her decision-making process. That's kind of what this whole thing is about, for me.

Monday, March 21, 2011

a defence of your right to be a doucheknob

1. People should know what the rights they're talking about are BEFORE they claim to have them and try to apply them to situations.
2. Law school ruins lives.
3. ???
4. Profit.

One of the things that really, really annoys me when I'm lurking in discussions is the freedom-of-expression card.

It annoys me for a lot of reasons, namely—
1. as far as I can tell, people using it are usually (in a New Zealand context) assuming a number of things about rights jurisprudence that aren't actually true. I think people get confused with the way the Supreme Court in the US seems to uphold their constitution all the time. We don't have a written constitution in the same way; specific to human rights, the rights are different, the court's definition of who can breach a right is different, and the court's ability to respond to breaches is different.

2. Freedom of expression in the New Zealand context (as per section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (BORA)) is stated simply as "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form." This is a really broad right; case law on the subject says things like "as wide a right as human thought and expression."

3. But there's more to BORA than just what the rights are. BORA only applies to acts done—
"(a) By the legislative, executive, or judicial branches of the government of New Zealand; or
(b) By any person or body in the performance of any public function, power, or duty conferred or imposed on that person or body by or pursuant to law."
(See section 3 of BORA at the link above if you don't believe me.)

That means that the right is only actionable against things done by the state. You can't enforce your section 14 freedom of expression rights against an individual you're debating with on the internet, because that individual isn't a branch of government or a person exercising public functions, duties, or powers.*

Which. Someday I'm going to actually engage in that argument with someone, saying things like "section 3 of BORA states that the Act only applies to acts done by the legislature, executive, or judiciary (or various other public sector bodies). I do not fall within that category. Therefore you have no rights under BORA as against anything I might do or say to you. I think you're thinking of the Human Rights Act, but that doesn't protect freedom of speech per se. There are protected grounds of discrimination, but your personality isn't one of them."

4. I don't think that freedom of expression, at least in the broad sense of A Thing That Is Good And Should Be Protected, stops existing because it can't be actioned or enforced in some situations. People being able to state their views openly IS a good thing, even if those views are subjectively (or objectively!) wrong.

As Voltaire said (and this gets quoted on the interwebs a LOT): "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

But—if you're going to accept that (and I think we should), then you have to go back to that niggly little first word of section 14 of BORA, "Everyone", and think about that
(a) a defence of your right to say something is not a defence of the statement itself; and
(b) if the right applies to everyone (and it must necessarily do so to be meaningful), then that must include the right to disagree; and
(c) if you are going to make public statements about something, then surely disagreement is part of the discourse; and
(d) sometimes disagreement is painful and offensive, but then sometimes the initial statements are as well.

I'm totally unconvinced by the suggestion that public disagreement with a postion taken on an issue somehow constitutes a stifling of the original statement, or an effort to shut it down, or an infringement of the original speaker's right to free speech. If anything I think that public disagreement upholds the right by validating the original speaker's right to take a position, even if it is objectionable to the respondant.

5. But I don't think that the above is necessarily what people mean when they cite their rights under BORA. Often the subtext is that you're a PC Nora-No-Friends who can't take a joke, and you want to shut them down so that we can all live in an idyllic world of sunshine and rainbows (but not the gay kind).

In which case I think the correct answer is probably to ask them why they find disagreement so hurtful and dangerous.

(There is in that last point a really interesting debate about intent, but I think at the point you're citing BORA to back up whatever you've said, you (a) are now aware that people have found it offensive, and (b) might well have known that people would find it offensive before you said it. Also I'm not willing to talk about intent and how I think it plays into debate until I've thought about it a lot, lot more.)

*Though it'd be really interesting to see what would happen if you were having a debate with, say, a Minister of the Crown online, and they tried to shut you down.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

to the middle class (of which I am a member)

My father and I talk about politics. We do this instead of talking about anything else, really - it's very definitely a family trait to get angry instead of sad, and politics almost always provides something to get angry about. Today I rang him and after a couple of minutes of the regular pleasantries (how are you? What've you been up to?) there followed almost an hour of arguing back-and-forth about Where the Left Is and/or Should Be Going, and What's With The Lack of Fight? Good times, man.

And one of the things we've been chatting about a lot lately is how bad we are at selling our policies to the Average New Zealander, when this should be easy because the Average New Zealander would clearly be a lot better off if they got paid more and weren't in so much debt and weren't treated as disposable by their employer.

So we got onto unemployment, viz:
1. It's pretty high at the moment.
2. Youth unemployment is near 20%, which is an unmitigated social disaster.
3. The Government is talking about raising the pension age.
4. The Government is also talking about forcing solo parents back into work (as in, accept this job or your benefit gets cut)

... it doesn't seem logical to me to be forcing older people to stay in work for longer and/or forcing active parents into the workforce when you have real problems in that people are finding it really tough to enter the workforce at all for the first time in their life.

Also worth noting is that you can't receive the unemployment benefit if your partner is in work. So from the Government's point of view, a family that goes from two incomes down to one when one partner is made redundant doesn't matter - that person doesn't affect the unemployment stats. And if that person stays unemployed (maybe childcare costs are prohibitive, so the family makes the choice to have a stay-at-home parent for a few years), then if and when a job comes available and is taken up by a solo parent desperate for a job - any job - so the kids don't starve, the stats look even better.

Of course, yes, yay paid employment in most cases, though if you do basic reading on benefits and poverty you'll learn about the cost of working (economic and social) and - insert the complications I'm not talking about here.

But you can sell welfare policy as:






and you can also sell it as:

- an acceptance that a glut of workers will drive wages down (as in, Economics 101!)
- an acceptance that workers aren't really in a position to be able to bargain as well as employers can (as in, Reality 101!)
- the creation of a situation where people are forced to take jobs they know aren't really suitable because otherwise they face starvation/having their kids taken away from them/homelessness/as you will
- stay-at-home parents in 2-parent households not really figuring in official stats all that well (and there's a lot of women's issues stuff here, which I'll leave to people who talk WAY more eruditely on the subject than I)

creates a situation where the stay-at-home parent may find it really fucking hard to get a job as good (read: well-paid) as the one they had when they do reenter the workforce, and this has flow on effects which negatively impact the lives of the middle classes, like:
- not being able to pay off the mortgage
- not being able to look forward to a comfortable retirement
- not being able to pay the kid's uni fees
- not being able to go on that overseas holiday

And maybe the answer to that litany of woes should be: cry more! Other people have it worse off than you! But I don't think it's a particularly satisfactory one: I don't think paying off the mortage and travelling a bit et cetera should be outside the reach of the dreams of people who are supposedly relatively well-off in our society. I also think that it can be really hard to properly empathise with people, and sometimes it's easier to explain stuff by applying its effects to your own situation, even if that doesn't quite get across the full horror of having to go to the foodbank because you also had to buy your kid a pair of shoes that week.

The choice to not work for several years because you're raising children is not a bad one.* I think that people who make that choice should be able to do so comfortably. I don't think people who are raising kids should be forced to choose between losing their entire income in the form of government benefits or taking on a poorly paid, casual, and marginalised job that really doesn't provide them with financial security. Or, you know, forced to give up on economic aspirations, no matter how small or large or trivial or major, because you can't save for retirement and raise the next generation at the same time.

*By which I mean: raising children is a difficult thing to do, and it should be far more valued in society than it is - we should be applauding women for looking after small children, not insinuating (or saying outright) that they're all a bunch of bludging slappers who got wot they deserved.**
**Not to say that choosing to be in paid work isn't okay as well. Just. Fuck me, can't women make ANY choices without being dogpiled for it?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

stick it to the (wo)man

So, in brief lots and lots of words:
  1. the Government explicitly wants to get more beneficiaries in work. Don't get me wrong: this is a laudable aim. Most people who subsist on state benefits would like to have more money, and most of them would like to get it through paid employment.
  2. the Government wants to cut funding to education, including early childhood education. To some extent, I do sympathise with the view that early childhood education is basically daycare by another name. But whatever it's called, it's the place where a lot of kids go when their parents or guardians are at paid work, and where some kids go when their parents or guardians aren't at paid work.
  3. cutting funding to early childhood education will have the direct result of increasing the amount of money parents and guardians pay in hand to the centres. This is because the cost of running the centre doesn't suddenly decrease just because their income from one source has fallen.
  4. this will in turn decrease the marginal income of working parents and guardians. That is, the sum of "net income" minus "costs associated with working" will be a smaller figure.
  5. costs associated with working aren't, of course, limited to childcare. Other costs include transport, work-appropriate attire, and any work equipment. And I think these costs are reasonable enough, just as I think that parents paying part of the cost of their small children's daycare needs is fair enough.
  6. but childcare is a really, really high cost for a lot of people. Not everyone is in a position to rely on other family members to take on childcare so that they can enter paid employment. Not everyone has family. Not everyone has family in the same city. Not everyone has family who are appropriate carers for small children.
  7. and children are a social good. I mean, obviously they are also people -- and perhaps someday I will write about why I think people owe each other some care -- but they're an investment (trite, I know) into what this society will be able to support in 25 years.
  8. so the idea that parents should bear sole responsibility for raising and providing for their children doesn't really work for me. I'm going to personally benefit from there being qualified doctors in 40 years, so I should bear some responsibility for making sure that there are children to get there.*
  9. getting back to where I was going with this: it is contradictory to have an explicit policy to encourage people back into work and then create stumbling blocks that you know full well will make employment difficult in some cases and impossible in others.

*As an aside: if your policy, personal or political, ever relies on people not fucking in situations where it is likely that people will want to fuck, your policy is stupid.

For this reason, the statement that people should not have children they cannot afford, aside from being an utterly disgusting statement of privilege and assumption, is just so mind-bogglingly stupid it blows my mind. Children are a logical consequence of sex, and if it ever gets to a point where heterosexual sex, sans totally effective contraception, does not reliably, across the species, result in offspring -- we are so totally -- I'm trying to think of an adjective here...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

there are a lot more skeletons in the great closet of humanity than you'd think

So I should know better than to read comment threads on; they only make me angry. I read a few of the comments on today's article about Phil Goff's plan for tax should Labour win the next election, and honestly a few was enough.

Because every single one of these threads ends up in a cagefight about interest-free student loans and omg how totally unhelpful and useless history degrees are. And everybody talks very earnestly about how hard they work (and I have no reason to doubt that) and how it's unfair that they have to pay as much tax as they do and/or pay so much child support and/or don't receive enough child support (children: they cost money). But then! Interest-free student loans and history degrees rear their ugly head. Again.

Universities are, of course, meant to be bastions of learning, stalwart defenders of truth against all the forces that want to suppress it.

This is, of course, largely bullshit.

Universities are not about truth. They're not (in my humanities-driven experience) about questioning whether things are true at all. If they were, there wouldn't be 2 departments in one faculty, one of which teaches that people are ultimately rational and will act reliably in their own self-interest and one of which teaches how to get people to buy the things you make even when what you're producing is crappy. Independent thought isn't nearly as encouraged or as valued as everyone pretends.

And maybe that's okay.

And I digress.

Universities have always taught humanities subjects. For a very long time, history meant ancient history: Latin, Greek, the Roman empire. People went to university for much the reason they do now: to spend a few years becoming even more educated after finishing school. Sons of particular social strata went almost by default, unless they showed especial interest in another career or were especially dim. The rest of us didn't go at all.

For most of humanity, literacy didn't exist as there was no written language. I don't doubt that people learnt a lot of skills anyway.

For most of the time that there has been written language, most of humanity - almost all of humanity - has been illiterate. The real change in accessibility to written language, and therefore to information that wasn't known by anyone you knew in person, was the printing press (at least in Western Europe. My rest-of-the-world history is very shaky). Even so, it took the Enlightenment and a bunch of other shit happening before educating the poor became popular. Sometime after that, governments started legislating for free compulsory primary school education.

Most people still left school at ages we would now consider Far Too Young. They still went out and got jobs and were fully productive members of society. This is because, actually, for most jobs an education past 14 or so was kind of... useless. There are very few things you need to know calculus for. Or geometry, or Latin. People went into apprenticeships if they were going into a trade, or they got a job as a shop assistant or a clerk or anything else you can imagine. Society continued to flourish.

And it got richer, and suddenly levels of education that were barely imaginable a generation ago were open to most citizens of the wealthier nations. So people went to university, and they got history degrees.

And as degrees became less and less about proof that you came from the right sort of family, they became less and less of value on a CV. Because it has always been true that an Arts degree is not of a lot of practical value in day-to-day employment for most of the people who have them. ALWAYS.

Does this mean that the state should stop subsidising education in subjects it doesn't see as having practical value? Or, conversely, does that mean it should do a better job at subsiding skillsets it does see as having a lot of practical value (I'm thinking of the trades here)?

And does the lack of obvious correlation between the education you receive at university and the job you do now mean that your education has no value? I work in administration, and the critical analysis skills I learnt in Philosophy papers have proved to be very useful in my job, even though I can't explain how and Philosophy is, like, the go-to Department of Uselessness whenever people want to get their rant on (along with Art History).

1. If people have a right as such to an education, to what extent should a state fund it so that it is realistically accessible?
2. Does it depend on the content of that education? How do you know in advance what will be useful? Does it depend on who's making the judgement (at a societal level, or at an individual level)?
3. If the behaviours of a group of people will be predictable over time, should we be studying that in order to avoid the certain unwanted and predictable consequences of certain actions? (In other words: should we not be studying the mistakes of history?)

And a little more provocative--
4. Do people have a right as such to an education? What form does it take, and what is its scope?
5. What makes some forms of knowledge more useful than others? What's a working definition of "useful"? (Art is a social good.)

And finally--
7. History is written by the victors. What would happen if nobody read what they wrote?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

On the subject of industrial action

Some things:
  1. a lockout is not a strike
  2. work-to-rule is not a strike
  3. if your employees working to the rules of your organisation would result in a lower output than you have contracted yourself to provide then your rules are stupid
  4. do not expect sympathy from me when you brag about a 20% annual return on investment and yet aren't willing to give your workers a 10% payrise over three years without fucking them over in other ways
  5. do not expect sympathy from me when you are getting $160,000 in ratepayer subsidy daily to run your transport system (which cannot be run to the rules of your organisation)
Some other things:
  1. private provision of essential national systems is really stupid and doesn't work
  2. this is because the government cannot let those systems fail
  3. at the same time, a government buyout of the system is expensive
  4. private service providers are not stupid, and know that the system cannot fail
  5. private service providers are profit-driven
  6. this provides an incentive for them to run those systems at a level just above that which would force the government to buyout the system in order to keep it running
  7. this is one of the reasons why, for example, the rail system, the public transport systems, and the telecommunications infrastructure in this country are so faily
  8. (I admit there are exceptions)
Some other other things:
  1. if you are more concerned about how much you personally pay for a service than you are about the ability of the people who provide that service to earn a decent wage, then you deserve that they show you exactly the same amount of concern: that is, not a bit of it
  2. there are many people who are not paid decent wages
  3. this fact is not a sign that the people who earn slightly more than those people (a) should earn less or (b) do not deserve a payrise
  4. this is, instead, a sign that the people who are not paid decent wages should be paid more
  5. all this applies to working conditions as well
  6. no seriously, we in offices rely on low-paid people in service industries far more than they rely on us
  7. no seriously, we in offices are probably entirely irrelevant to the continual operation of the community
  8. we should maybe stop bitching then and be grateful that we do not have to work on public holidays or deal with our shitty, entitled asses