Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Go back to sleep, Granny Banks

I'm not one of those people who complains about media bias. I like to think that I'm more sophisticated than that. Instead, I complain about media opportunism. Opportunism explains why both the right and the left can sincerely believe that newspapers, radio and television are biased against them. The media is against them, when it works. But it also supports their causes when it sells papers.

The big problem with this kind of opportunism is that it tends to be pretty poorly researched. Sometimes it's even bigoted, myopic, sensationalist and self-contradictory. Take, for example, yesterday's editorial in the New Zealand Herald: Housing idea a recipe for ghettos . The Granny's editorial takes aim at Housing New Zealand's recently released discussion document Building The Future: Towards A New Zealand Housing Strategy and begins by outlining the well-documented pressures facing Auckland's housing market. The region hosts 31 per cent of New Zealand's population in just 2 per cent of its land area. By some estimates, this so-called "disparity" has led to a 20% increase in housing prices in the Auckland area in just a few short years.

Although the paper admits that there is a problem, the cure envisaged by the New Zealand Housing Corporation may be too much for some to bear:

[The strategy] would be the catalyst for the establishment of ghettos, complete with the array of social problems they bring. Auckland City's mayor has labelled the plan "social apartheid". He is right. This is an idea that would remedy one minor ill by creating something far worse. There is, in fact, little to suggest the illness has reached a stage where it requires drastic medicine. Or, indeed, ever will.

Really? We already know that housing affordability in Auckland is a serious problem. Rental rates in the city are ridiculous, especially when you consider this city's crappy housing stock of low density, poorly constructed and mouldy uninsulated villas. Could this have anything to do with why New Zealand has over three times the rate of asthma than any other country in the world?

As far as ghettos are concerned, Maori and pacific peoples are being pushed to the margins of Auckland, to the point where most pakeha in the city are afraid to even visit Otara market. According to the recent quality of life survey carried in New Zealand's eight largest cities, there is a close relationship between levels of household income, tenure and geographical location. Maori and Pacific people are more likely to live in cramped and unhealthy housing conditions than pakeha. There is a problem, and it does rquire medecine.

The Herald writes that Auckland's housing difficulties will be solved by 'natural' market forces, and goes on to suggest that the poor should be housed on unattractive lands, in valleys and alongside railway tracks. Let's look at some of these market-based approaches to housing. According to the NZHC discussion document:

The economic and social changes of the 1980s and 1990s introduced significant changes to housing policy. They signalled the end of the Family Benefit Capitalisation Scheme and subsidised interest rates, which had contributed to the rapid growth of home ownership throughout the previous three decades. They also led to the freeing up of financial markets, making capital more accessible; the removal of subsidies to local government for pensioner housing; the introduction of market rents for state housing tenants, alongside a widespread sales programme; and the introduction of the Accommodation Supplement as the primary form of government housing assistance.

In other words, this country's recent history of Rogernomics has reversed a long-standing trend toward greater equality of housing tenure. The marketisation of housing and planning on Auckland has led to a situation where New Zealand's largest city is a sprawling, congested and expensive mess. It's an awful city with traffic and social problems and divisions well in excess of what a city its size should be experiencing. And although the report indicates that housing inequality is a significant contributor to social and economic inequality, the document shows that New Zealand is well behind other countries when it comes to providing housing for those with low incomes:

New Zealand has a comparatively low level of social housing provision (6%) compared to many European countries where social housing makes up 25-40% of the market.

The policy instruments that the Herald accuses of leading to ghettos are in fact designed to achieve the very opposite: by reserving a portion of new developments for low income housing, the aim is to mix low income housing with higher income housing, thereby preventing the trend toward ghettoization that Auckland is already experiencing. These policies have been recognised around the world as helping to create safer and more integrated neighborhoods and cities. But maybe Banks and the Herald's editorialist just don't want to see poor people.

In actual fact, the NZHC discussion document is an excellent and timely document that envisages a range of solutions to a very real problem. It's just another example of how painful it is to drag this country back into the mainstream of social policy from the neo-liberal morass of Rogernomics.

Monday, May 10, 2004

War and Privatisation

I have to say that I don't relish the thought of blogging about the conflict in Iraq. To some degree that's because there are so many others out there who are doing such a good job. But I've got other reasons too. First of all, I'm Canadian. I'm an expatriate, but I'm still Canadian. Social-democratic minded Canadians like me still have a reticence about writing on the United States, no matter where we happen to live. It's kind of political.

A prime minister of ours once quipped that the Canada - U.S. relationship was like a that of a "mouse in bed with an elephant - no matter how friendly that elephant is, one is affected by every twitch and grunt." It's an apt metaphor because it captures perfectly the strange mingling of intimacy and resentment that has always characterised the Canadian view of the relationship. As a person who has felt many twitches and grunts in my lifetime I think sometimes neglect to pay attention to what my ex-neighbor gets up to. Even when it becomes clear that the ol' elephant next door is being rather less than friendly. Or is killing and torturing innocent civilians.

It might be one of the benefits of living in New Zealand to be among people who don't mind writing about the United States. Much of the time it's fawning, but often it's incisively critical. On that side of the ledger I'm particularly grateful to idiot at No Right Turn for keeping me up to date with the events taking place in Iraq. His latest post is a link to Seymour Hersh's article 'Chain of Command' which analyses the abuse and torture that took place at the Abu Ghraib prison. While I tend to get a little sleepy following all the details, Hersh's article did contain a few things that captured my interest: civilian contractors in Abu Ghraib operate in a indeterminate legal environment.

According to the Berkshire Eagle out of Pittsfield, Massachussetts:

At least four of the Americans involved in the physical, sexual and psychological abuse of Iraqi detainees are civilian contract employees who, it turns out, are legally accountable to no one. The worst that can happen to them for the repulsive crimes they committed is the loss of a paycheck... The role of the Abu Ghraib hired guns -- some evidence points to their being ringleaders in the torture and abuse -- is another example of the lunacy of burgeoning privatization in U.S. defense programs. Turning some military jobs over to private companies began almost a decade ago when contractors were paid to feed troops and do their laundry.

And in an article in The Guardian last year, the author outlines the extent of military privatisation:

While the official coalition figures list the British as the second largest contingent with around 9,900 troops, they are narrowly outnumbered by the 10,000 private military contractors now on the ground. The investigation has also discovered that the proportion of contracted security personnel in the firing line is 10 times greater than during the first Gulf war. In 1991, for every private contractor, there were about 100 servicemen and women; now there are 10. The private sector is so firmly embedded in combat, occupation and peacekeeping duties that the phenomenon may have reached the point of no return: the US military would struggle to wage war without it.

The Berkshire Eagle summarises the history of privatisation in the U.S. Army, and comments:

In addition to investigating the specific administrative breakdowns that led to what one Army general called "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses," Congress needs to re-examine the fast trend toward military privatization and reverse it.

If Congress finds that the U.S. privatisation of warfare has led to a breakdown of accountability and has contributed to abuse and torture, the two people chiefly responsible are none other that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Again, the Guardian writes:

The Pentagon will "pursue additional opportunities to outsource and privatise", the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, pledged last year and military analysts expect him to try to cut a further 200,000 jobs in the armed forces.

...if an American GI draws and uses his weapon in an off-duty bar brawl, he will be subject to the US judicial military code. If an American guard employed by the US company ITT in Tuzla does the same, he answers to Bosnian law. By definition these companies are frequently operating in "failed states" where national law is notional. The risk is the employees can literally get away with murder.