Monday, February 23, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009: Tours, ostriches and diplomacy

To tour or not to tour, that is the question: Unlike Hamlet, John Key seems decisive on the question of New Zealand's upcoming cricket tour to Zimbabwe; he appears determined to prevent the New Zealand cricket team from touring despite today's appeal from David Coltart, the new Zimbabwean Sports Minister, to let the tour take place. Normally I wouldn't care (let alone post on a blog) about sports, but this is a fairly exceptional issue; the government is basically threatening to ban a group New Zealanders from travelling overseas, a ban theoretically ultimately enforced by taking their passports. I am unaware of any other country where the New Zealand government does this (although, to be honest, I haven't done any research), which makes you wonder whether the situation really calls for it. But I digress; this is a news-rage blog, not a ... news blog.

What I really wanted to point out here - and, to be fair, this is more newsmusement (another coinage*) than news-rage - is that while Mr Coltart, a member of the anti-Mugabe Movement for Democratic Change, asks John Key to give the new government a chance, and some support, on the front page, page A16 throws up the headline "Mugabe birthday celebrated in style". A succession of elaborate (for Zimbabwe) parties will be held in Mugabe's honour including a gala dinner featuring "Nigerian hip-hop star 2Face", and the slaughter of dozens of animals. A local politics professor said "the birthday party was the latest of many signals that the ruling Zanu-PF party did not intend to respect the power-sharing agreement..." Perhaps another sign is that, while Zanu-PF keeps the presidency, the MDC gets the pivotal role of... Minister of Sport. Sorry, Mr Coltart, you have been a wee bit undermined.

* Actually, 'newsmusement' gives one result - a disgruntled blogger describing Fox News as Fox Newsmusement in 2007. Funnily enough, it hasn't caught on - until now.

The financial ostriches: Now I don't claim to know how the economic system works, and I find the large disagreements that occur between trained economists as pretty good evidence that they don't either. One argument that tends to go round - although, it must be said, not so much from economists - is that recessions are just self-reinforcing mass hysteria. That is, someone starts thinking there is going to be a recession, other people hear it and pretty soon there is one simply because everyone believes there is. Now, certainly there are elements of this: supposedly people, when told there is a recession, cut back their personal spending just when an economic boost is needed, thus making things worse. But I am sceptical of how far this can be taken - at some point we become the ostrich that buries its head in the sand when a predator approaches. (That's not actually true of course - ostriches run away like any other animal. But it still makes a handy metaphor.)

I mention this today because of another useless poll, this time carried out by Research New Zealand, on how New Zealanders feel about the recession. It turns out 49% of people feel their financial situation is worse than a year ago, and RNZ director Emanuel Kalafatelis concludes that "while the recession is biting for about half of New Zealanders, the negative effects of the recession may have peaked for now for others." Mr Kalafatelis (or Herald reporter Isaac Davison, it's not clear which) then comes up with this gem: "Further evidence that the effect of the recession may be slowing was the drop in the number of people who believed the state of the economy was hurting their financial situation." I'm sorry, but how is a poll result evidence the recession is slowing? It's like saying that climate change isn't happening because 63% of respondents don't think it is, or that the holocaust didn't happen because people didn't think it did. Like I said, I'm no economist and I don't know what is going to happen any more than you do, but I suspect we're not going to find out with a poll.

Then again, it seems that Mr Kalafatelis is a bit confused in general: "I don't think people have got a ruler out and compared their bank statements with how they were a year ago." Indeed, Mr Kalafatelis; they probably used a calculator.

And the Oscar goes to...: In the category of 'Best impression of a diplomat by someone whose main qualification is losing-an-election-but-being-married-to-someone-to-won-one', the winner is: Hillary Clinton! [Applause]. That most desperate of political dynasties, the Clintons, has now taken over the position of Secretary of State, and Hillary is evidently using her "celebrity" to get things done. Now, I'm not saying that Hillary is stupid - she's obviously got some brains. Her predecessor, Condaleezza Rice, whatever you thought of the Bush Administration's foreign policy, was clearly a top-class intellect. Before her, Madeleine Albright was a senior professor in International Relations at Georgetown, and then the US ambassador to the United Nations. By contrast, Clinton's international experience seems to have consisted of entertaining wives of foreign dignitaries, and not leaving her husband and moving to the Caribbean. I'm not trying to be sexist here; as I just pointed out, the two previous secretaries of state were exceptionally well qualified and remarkably intelligent women.

The problem is that Clinton has the job (indirectly, obviously) because she has celebrity, as the Herald headline today implies: "Clinton sprinkles stardust in first outing as secretary of state". The rather fawning article (from Reuters) goes into some detail about her trip to southeast Asia. "Clinton generally got a rock star welcome when she punched through the diplomatic bubble to meet ordinary people," it gushes. She "made a point about the necessity of accepting the outcome of a fair election, even when you lose"; except, presumably, if Hamas happen to win. After Bush, the US could no doubt use some decent PR with people in the streets of foreign countries. But forgive me if I'm doubtful that Hillary's "star power" will go a great way in wowing Benjamin Netanyahu, Kim Jong-il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the Chinese leadership - that is, the actual people the US needs to deal with. "With the smell of open-air sewers in the air [in Jakarta], Clinton took in small-scale projects to purify water, recycle rubbish into handicrafts and offer health care to mothers and babies. 'This, to me, is what diplomacy is about.'" Let's just hope the Iranians agree.

Double-take-inducing sentence of the day: From an article about an 11-year-old boy who shot his father's pregnant girlfriend: "The shotgun, which apparently belonged to Brown [the boy], is designed for children [!!] and Bongivengo [the district attorney] said such weapons did not have to be registered [!!]." Children's shotguns don't kill people; children kill people. Jesus. Christ.

When bad news... goes good: "Tiger kills loggers", says the headline above a tiny World Report article. Oh no!, I thought. The latest in a spate of wild cat attacks! (Although this time there is no hint of the Lion Man's involvement.) But then there's this: "A Sumatran tiger has killed two illegal loggers in western Indonesia..." Now, I don't believe in capital punishment, and I don't particularly wish harm on any person, least of all people so lacking in life possibilities that they have to resort to illegal logging in a forest inhabited by angry tigers. And yes, they're only doing it to keep up with Western demand for tropical hardwoods and hamburgers. But does it make me a bad person that I am much happier with this headline than I would have been with "Loggers kill tiger"?


  1. When bad news... goes good: considering the Sumatran tiger is one of the most endangered tigers (mainly due to their forests being destructed, no doubt), i'd have to say it's the forest equivalent of STREET JUSTICE. :p

  2. The tiger could stand trial with Bruce Emery.

  3. I reckon we need to train tigers to attack taggers. 83% of herald readers agree.

    Also, "newsmusement" now has two hits on google... congratulations on your first top-ranked search.. albeit for a term you (almost) coined yourself..

  4. I can't agree with you completely on your economics piece. Polls of the population are apparently often a very good leading indicator of the direction fo the economy.

    But the problem is one piece of evidence does not make a coherent theory. It seems the news media (herald included) like to pick up on the latest scrap of information and try to work out what it means. I am struggling to think of a decent metaphor, so this one will do. Imagine a marathon race where onr seconds worth of footage is analysed: The fellow in the green shirt is catching up! Yes, hes catching up!

    And the herald seems to be particularly incapable of nuance in its reporting on the economy. To the point where different headlines in the same edition will state as fact mutually-exclusive opinions. I havent read a hard copy of the herald for some time, so I will have to leave it to someone else to find a good example