Why fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench

Labour and the Greens have announced a cornerstone coalition policy for the 2017 general election: a set of Budget Responsibility Rules which will, per the Greens’ website:

… show that the Green Party and the Labour Party will manage the economy responsibly while making the changes people know are needed, like lifting kids out of poverty, cleaning up our rivers, solving the housing crisis, and tackling climate change.

It feels like I’ve been banging my head against this brick wall for a decade. The short version is this:

Labour and the Greens cannot credibly campaign on a foundation of “fiscal responsibility”. It is anathema to genuine progressive politics. It isn’t a vote-winner. It’s a vote-loser.

I’ve heard the defence: but we ARE the fiscally responsible ones! Look at our surpluses in government! Witness our detailed policy costings! BEHOLD OUR GRAPHS!

If empirical evidence worked, we’d already been in government and this conversation wouldn’t be happening, and I know I for one would be happier for it.

Everyone knows this is crap. No one really tries to defend it by saying, “but fiscal responsibility is the most important thing in government”. They say, “but we need people to believe we’re fiscally responsible.” They say, “but the media always ask how much our policies will cost!” They say, “we need to win or we can’t achieve anything, learn to count Stephanie.”

We know we’re selling our souls, but only for the right reasons. The tragedy is, we’re not. Fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench. Once you dip so much as a toe in, it makes everything else you do reek.

Don’t just take my word for it – after all, we’re all rational creatures making objective decisions based on evidence, right? Take it from someone who has the evidence, my favourite American Anat Shenker-Osorio:

Peer-reviewed psychological studies show that money-primed people … become more selfish. They are, for example, much less willing to spend time helping another student pretending to be confused about a task. When an experimenter dropped pencils, money-primed subjects elected to pick up far fewer than their unprimed peers. Also, when asked to set up two chairs for a get to know you chat, those who had money put on their minds placed the chairs farther apart. Money-primed undergrads showed greater preference for being alone.

The results of these experiments should give progressives pause and serve as lessons for how we do our messaging. Talking about money first makes the whole subsequent conversation start in a mean and selfish place — the last thing we want when we’re talking about the common good and our national future. …

Those politicians who actually believe in the institution in which they serve would do far better to speak of what government does for us — and trust that we’re smart enough to know that good things don’t come cheap.

If we prompt New Zealand voters to think about money first, they aren’t going to think about common good, about ensuring their neighbours have a good life too. They’re going to think “actually, getting another block of cheese each week does sound good” and the right’s fourth term is secured. They don’t even have to work for it, because when we explicitly buy into their values, it weakens our own.

It cuts out the heart of our politics. Our critics are absolutely right: Labour and the Greens are not trusted to be good fiscal managers. THAT’S THE POINT. No one wants us to be good fiscal managers – except for the right, who are thrilled that we not only want to play in their playhouse but will obey all the rules they’ve made up to ensure they always win.

It’s like some people watched Mean Girls and thought, “well of course we have to wear pink on Wednesdays and throw out our white gold hoops, how else will we get Regina George to truly respect us?”

Pink is not our colour. Fiscal responsibility is not our strength. The economy is not the most important thing in the world – HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA.

We’re meant to be the ones who care about people, and make sure everyone in our communities is taken care of, whether they’re sick, or old, or exploited by a shoddy employer or having a baby or building a life in a new country. These are the areas where we’re strong. These are the values which we must promote – not just because we hold them dearly, but because doing that is the best way to fuck up the other side’s message of greed and self-interest and exploitation of people and our planet.

People want change. They don’t want poverty and housing crises and public services stretched to breaking point. They know these things cost money! But they’ve been told for decades that government must be small, and the private sector runs things better, that the only metric that matters is that sweet surplus. They know it doesn’t feel right, but there doesn’t seem to be another way of doing things, because we keep telling them we agree with it. And they vote for the party they “know” are the better economic managers, because that’s National’s brand, and not all the graphs and spreadsheets we throw at them are going to convince them otherwise.

We’re never going to win while we keep playing in the right’s playhouse and skinny-dipping in the Bog of Fiscally Responsible Stench because we want to smell just like our enemies. We have to be an alternative. Stop talking about the bloody money and start talking about people.

The challenge for women in 2017

I was asked to speak on a panel of “Inspiring Women” with MPs Jenny Salesa and Mojo Mather (no pressure!) at the PPTA Conference on 4 March, on the topic of “the challenges for women in 2017”. Here’s my speaking notes, which are probably a lot clearer than what I managed to burble out live!

There are a lot of challenges for women in 2017. There’s the issues which get boxed away as “women’s issues” like equal pay, and there’s so many issues which disproportionately affect women, which we don’t always acknowledge, like poverty, and housing, and childcare, and the population getting older. There’s the big orange elephant in the room, because right wing authoritarianism as embodied by Donald Trump is going to be terrible for women, not just in the United States.

But across all of this, the huge challenge is keeping up hope when there’s so many battles to fight. Sometimes we just have to remind ourselves that we can’t do it all and it’s not going to be fixed overnight.

That’s an area where I think everyone here can take a lot of comfort. Because you’re doing your bit every day. Education is fundamental to progress and social change

People – usually right-wing people – try to act like education is just about facts and figures and career-focused skill development, but we all know that it’s a hell of lot more than that, and I know I wouldn’t be who I am today without the education I got, not just from what I learned but because for five years I was taught that educating women is the most important thing you can do to effect social change.

My high school was Baradene College, a Catholic girls’ school in Auckland. It’s part of the Society of the Sacred Heart, which was founded in 1800 by Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat, who placed huge importance on educating young women. Baradene emphasised the five Sacred Heart goals, several of which are obviously about God, but goal four is: A social awareness which impels to action.

In those formative years, I wasn’t just learning to read and write and calculate molar masses. I was becoming a member of a society which has values and principles, a citizen who has a duty to think about the world around me and be active in making the it a better place.

So just by working in education, whatever job you do, is tremendous. I’m not going for cheap pop here. The next generation of fighters for social justice who will change the world are being shaped right now in your classrooms. Hell, why do we think the right keep trying to screw the whole system up?

That’s a bit big picture though. I work for a union, and although I can go home every day knowing I’ve done my part for this broad enduring movement of ours, it’s also good to have little concrete things to hold on to. That’s another challenge, doing small things every day to stand up for ourselves and for all the women around us.

I’ve worked in the public service myself. I’ve been to a lot of meetings. I know a lot of us have had the same experiences: men dominating the discussion. Men being presumed to be the experts. Men making suggestions that we just made ten minutes ago but getting all the credit.

Soraya Chemaly wrote at Role Reboot and then at the Huffington Post about ten words every girl should learn:

“Stop interrupting me.”
“I just said that.”
“No explanation needed.”

Sometimes it’s easier to stand up for other people instead of yourself. When President Obama took office, a lot of the women who came into the White House felt sidelined, or that their contributions weren’t being properly appreciated. So they got together and came up with a strategy of amplification – when one woman made a good suggestion, the next woman would repeat it, and give credit. It’s as simple as saying, “I really liked Jenny’s idea, let’s try that.” or “Mojo made a great point when she said …………….”

We can even flip those ten simple words from Soraya Chemaly around to speak up for each other.

“Stop interrupting her.”
“She just said that.”
“She doesn’t need an explanation.”

We’re union members, so we appreciate the importance of solidarity, and standing together. And even though it feels like such a cliche, getting together with a bunch of women to have a glass of wine and a moan about work or life or living in a patriarchal society can do immense good for your mental health.

These big issues like equal pay and gendered violence and the rise of authoritarianism are going to take a lot of us a long time to overcome, so we have to help each other not burn out.

I’m just going to finish with the scolding heard around the world, when Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced as she tried to read a letter from Coretta Scott King in the US Senate. Justifying why he had blocked Warren from speaking for the rest of the debate, Mitch McConnell said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” I think that’s our greatest challenge in 2017: persisting.

QOTD: Felix Marwick on the OIA and John Key’s hats

I missed this earlier in the week: an update on Felix Marwick’s long-running attempts to uncover the extent of John Key’s communications with bloggers (i.e. Farrar and Slater). The last two paragraphs are spot-on:

What my use of the OIA shows is that leaks and surreptitious acquisition of evidence is the only way you are going to get political material of this nature that is in the public interest. The Official Information Act won’t overcome political self interest as long as politicians are allowed to determine what hat they’re wearing when they’re using public information for their own political ends. Being a Minister and a Prime Minister is a full time job. Politicians shouldn’t get to finagle the system just so as to protect their political manoeuvring. Governments wield immense power so there need to be adequate checks and balances on those that exercise that power.

The other thing you can deduce from a three year battle over access to correspondence is that the most senior politician in the land probably had something to hide.

John Key’s “well I was wearing a different hat at the time” obfuscations were quite literally straight out of Yes, Prime Minister. We’ll probably never know the full truth – especially given Key’s totally-not-suspicious tendency to delete all his text messages – but we can absolutely conclude that he was up to shenanigans he didn’t want the New Zealand public to be aware of, and we need better systems to ensure it cannot happen again.

Werewolf on leftwing misogyny

Two stonkingly good posts over at Werewolf this week – both superficially about the ongoing tantrums of Martyn Bradbury, but more fundamentally about the direction for the left and the role of women within a leftwing movement.

Anne Russell writes on the misogyny at The Daily Blog:

Meanwhile, we need a Left to take care of the sick and wounded; women, people of colour, disabled people, sex workers, the queer and trans community, all those who know that their battles are at the centre of the fight rather than a distraction on the margins. A brilliant article on weareplanc.org about the emotional conditions of capitalism argued that contemporary leftist resistance needs to correspond to capitalism’s current emotional stage: that of making everyone very anxious and overwhelmed. The article argues that the Left, at least internally, has to be kind to its members, offering a haven from the angry and overstimulating world of neo-liberalism-cum-fascism. As I wrote last year, this approach is not incompatible with outward anger against the state, cops, the prison system, corporations or any other oppressive institutions and forces. Rather, it will help replenish our energy to do that work.

And Gordon Campbell the day before said on Labour’s candidacy troubles:

Bomber’s message is the one that women on the left have been hearing since time eternal ie, that they should keep quiet, remain patient until victory is assured, and – in the meantime – make sure their concerns and modes of expression don’t antagonise the heroes of the proletariat. Besides everything else, this looks like a failure of imagination. Is the Winston Wing of Labour’s support base – those heroic, hand-calloused members of the white working class that Bomber Bradbury and Chris Trotter always bang on about – really so immune to policy arguments pitched any higher than Greg O’Connor’s face on a campaign billboard, or Willie Jackson on the mike?

Martyn, who among his many well-nourished enmities has a strange grudge against Werewolf’s antecedent Scoop, will see these two posts (and this one) as proof of some grand conspiracy against him by the BlueGreenSocialMediaMillennialHipsterIdentityPolitics Stormtroopers. Doesn’t stop them being bang on the money, and doesn’t mean the broader problems they describe aren’t very real obstacles to real progressive change in New Zealand.

[edit: called it. It’s apt that Martyn describes Gordon Campbell as a “purveyor of violent sexual abuse revenge fantasies” even though it was Anne Russell who mentioned the case of Mervyn Thompson. Obviously women can’t have their own opinions in the absence of a man.]

Our unfortunate ignorance

I may have got a little ranty on The Spinoff’s Facebook page recently, after reading this excerpt from a new book on the “unfortunate experiment” at National Women’s Hospital. To wit:

I appreciate this is an excerpt from the book, but it rings a little callous that the line quoted above is literally from the last paragraph of it. The excerpt humanizes the doctors involved, and doesn’t even mention by name a single one of the women who were literally left to develop cancer due to wilful medical neglect.

Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s 1987 article in Metro gets only half a sentence – “It took the attention of feminists and a media response to highlight the tragedy …”

For people who have no idea what happened at National Women’s Hospital, this article will not be informative, either about the arrogance which led to up to 30 women dying of treatable cancer, or the significant impact it had on the way we think about informed consent and medical ethics. And that’s a shame.

As I say; I know it’s just an excerpt, from a book written by a doctor who had a significant role exposing the unfortunate experiment, with the clear intention of ensuring this horrific chapter in New Zealand’s medical history isn’t whitewashed. Per the Otago University Press statement (pdf) on its publication:

Since that time there have been attempts to cast Green’s work in a more generous light. This rewriting of history has spurred Ron Jones to set the record straight by telling his personal story: a story of the unnecessary suffering of countless women, a story of professional arrogance and misplaced loyalties, and a story of doctors in denial of the truth.

But that’s not what comes through in the foreword, where the doctors who wilfully experimented with women’s lives without their consent are humanized, where Herb Green’s initial work is described as “a major advance for New Zealand women” long before any mention of the fact his later work killed women, which erases a culture of medical superiority and sexism in favour of shrugging, “It’s difficult for an outsider to comprehend how this could have happened”. Fifty words are given to a 1950 FIGO determination on carcinoma-in-situ, and literally none to the names of the women harmed – not even “Ruth”, the central figure of Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s groundbreaking article, whose determination to access her own medical records blew the lid of the experiment; not even Sandra Coney or Phillida Bunkle themselves – reduced simply to “feminists”.

Suffice it to say, I don’t think The Spinoff have done its readers a good service. And that’s a pity because this book deserves to be publicized. This chapter of our history needs to be better known. We should understand the complex issues and background around medical science, patriarchal arrogance, the dismissal of women’s safety and autonomy, and our understanding of informed consent which impacts people to this day.

~

Coney and Bunkle’s article (pdf) was published in 1987. I was three-and-a-half and not really paying attention. But Coney’s subsequent book of the same name was one of the volumes my mother unsuccessfully tried to sequester from the family bookshelves as I reached those dangerous pre-teen years of awkward questions and being able to read a little too far above my age grade.

I picked it because I liked the statue on the front cover (and it was in a cupboard I clearly wasn’t supposed to be able to reach). I didn’t even know what a cervix was. But I knew there was something terribly wrong when one man in a position of power was able to do things to people under his care – to women – without telling them what was happening, or what the risks were. And I learned how hierarchies of power protect their own even when terrible harm has been done, even when it should go against every principle their institution or profession is meant to stand for. How people in societies are sectioned off into groups which are deemed less intelligent or less worthy of information or autonomy – women, people of colour, incarcerated criminals – especially where the advancement of medical science has been concerned.

It’s probably no surprise I turned out to be a feminist who doesn’t go to male GPs and never misses a smear.

We don’t have to demonise the whole medical profession. After all, it was doctors like Ron Jones who exposed the real data from Green’s experiments in 1984, and who are still determined not to let us forget. But we must be aware of the potential for harm when so much trust and power and blind faith is put in the hands of any profession, when laypeople are presumed to have no right to input or information about their own treatment, and when it becomes simply instinctive for institutions to defend their own against criticism. We have to remember our history so we can make sure it never happens again.

Books like this are tremendously important. But there are better ways to tell their stories.