Red Alert

The Social Democratic Challenge: An Easter Perspective

Posted by on April 25th, 2011

Michael Wood pic

Introducing Michael Wood

Michael is 30 and lives in Mt Roskill with his family. A member of the Puketapapa Local Board of the Auckland Council, he has a keen interest in local government, community development, and the development of a robust local civil society. He has spent most of the past decade working in the union movement, most recently as a negotiator for the finance sector union Finsec.

His main interest in politics is inequality, its structural causes, and the development of a social democratic programme that fundamentally re-balances the current skewed distribution of resources. An active Anglican, he is also focussed on the role of faith in public discourse, and the need for the left to re-examine its heritage and re-connect with the broad faith community.

Michael is the former Botany by-election candidate and a Labour List candidate

The central theme of the Easter story is that of resurrection – the idea that out of the very darkest places, renewal and new life can emerge. It’s a powerful theme, and one that no particular faith or political creed can claim exclusive ownership over.

For those of us on the left who have a Christian faith (Anglican for the record) however, the notion of resurrection, the promise of something better to come, has particular resonance. Labour Parties across the world were often driven by strong base of Christian activism when they were being founded in the early 20th Century, and a common objective was to build a “new Jerusalem” in place of the dark, squalid, and brutal conditions of industrial society at that time.

I believe that the theme is just as relevant, if not more so, for social democratic politics today. The right’s wholesale adoption of amoral free-market values represents a complete abdication of responsibility for ever hoping or planning for something better. Politics is reduced to a bloodless, technocratic administration of market forces in which the lives of real people are in reality solely governed by aggregate forces of supply and demand. Their language dismisses the prospect of anything better as “utopian” and we have it drilled into us that “there is no alternative”. To me the most horrifying spectacle to unfold under this government has been the casual dismissal of rising unemployment (Key: “The figures bounce around”) as if it is by its nature uncontrollable and inevitable.

It is that hopeless inevitability that the theme of resurrection addresses. We say that a better future is always possible if we plan for it and work for it. It was out of the ashes of depression and war that social democratic movements across the western world built fair and just economic systems and social institutions when they achieved power in the 1930s and 40s. That was real resurrection in action – millions lifted out of poverty and despair, given hope, and told that they were worth caring about and had a stake in their society.

As now as we face entrenched recessionary conditions across the western world, and in many cases governments whose faith in a valueless market based system is unshakeable, it seems to me that a huge opportunity exists for social democrats to harness the values of resurrection again. This is about outlook, policy, and language – being clear with people that we are not just a differently coloured management team, but that that we are the party that believes that the current imbalances and inequities are not only wrong, but that they can be changed, and hope resurrected, through political action.

Talk to the victims of the recession – people in the poorer parts of town, the volunteers at the local CAB, or the small business owners who are going under by the score and you’ll find that they are all looking for resurrection of a kind.

Happy Easter!


72 Responses to “The Social Democratic Challenge: An Easter Perspective”

  1. SPC says:

    George, you confuse socialism with one party state communism and you also confuse totalitarian regime economies with democracies operating within a free trade economic system.

    Citing such political and economic extremes to justify the free market only really declares how equally extreme that is as well.

    There is a balance between a cyclical free market system and the socialist one, its called the mixed economy – until about 1980 this was the one operating in nearly all western democracies. It’s intent was to both manage the economic cycle and also to ensure social cohesion.

    Research now shows that where disparity grows there is an adverse impact on the economic performance. So the free market model and its fruit the GFC is not as efficient as you make out. One reason why a country such as China can out perform it.

  2. Dave says:

    Like others I would take this post more seriously if Mr Wood had actually ‘worked’ in one of the occupations he represents as a Unionist. It is remarkable that an individual can be a Union Leader without actually having worked in any of the roles he represents. I would take those that claim Labour is a ‘christian’ party with a grain of salt. Its actions not words that speak volumes. I’ve been hearing a lot of words from Labour lately, certainly some indignation at the fact no-one is listening, but very thin on costed policy. Perhaps Michael will bring something to the table with his “decade” of union advocacy. I mean Unions have always ‘created’ jobs haven’t they?

  3. ak says:

    “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why are they poor, they call me a Communist.” Camara

    “When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.” Romero

    Bishop Romero was shot dead by a US-trained death squad as he celebrated Mass.

    Kia kaha Michael. Ignore the hypocrites. Attempting to co-opt the Gospel message to the service of parties of oppression is the ultimate obscenity, unworthy even of acknowledgement.

  4. jennifer says:

    Maybe the right wing extremists, the wide boys from Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, and their domestic desciples, should listen to Warren Buffett, who recently said of the super rich, that ‘they may like to think they did it all by themselves, but the society has done an awful lot for them, and if you get a chance to live very rich in a society, in my view, you ought to have a taxation system, a personal values system, where you believe that an awful lot of it should go back to the people that got short straws in life.’ Sounds fair to me.

  5. Quoth the Raven says:

    @SPC

    I could respond to your assertion, about how well the free market works in practice, by saying that its operation is now resulting in an increasing disparity of income and wealth, growing hardship for the many and increasing gain for the few.

    Economic freedom correlates positively with not only with per capita income, but also with the income level of the poorest 10%. Globally inequality and poverty are declining. Precisely because of economic reform in nations that used to have far less economic freedom than they currently enjoy and the trend is continuing. Economic freedom results in ever increasing prosperity for all people. Your assertions to the contrary are evidentially wrong.

    There is a balance between a cyclical free market system and the socialist one, its called the mixed economy – until about 1980 this was the one operating in nearly all western democracies. It’s intent was to both manage the economic cycle and also to ensure social cohesion.

    It is still operating to some extent in all western democracies. To claim it is not is simply hyperbole. In fact the size of government here in New Zealand and in the US has actually grown since the forties and fifties. To lay the blame for the GFC on the free market is naive. The best paper I’ve read on explaining the GFC is the following A Crisis of Politics, not Economics: Complexity, Ignorance, and Policy Failure. You would be wise to read it.

  6. SHG says:

    The idea that there are devoutly religious MPs in Parliament scares the crap out of me.

    Think about it. The laws of the country being crafted and put in place by people who believe in invisible superheroes who speak to them about what’s right and wrong. It boggles the mind.

  7. SPC says:

    Quoth the Raven – it’s actually technology advances and free trade (that disperses investment capital and expertise) to where there is cheaper labour that is increasing the per capita wealth of human beings. That this transformation is occurring in a country still heavily regulated (China) is indicative that the free market itself within nations is not the magic panacea.

    However within the western nations there is increasing income disparitry and increasing wealth disparity. Those with access to capital in these nations have benefited from investment in cheaper labour economies and banking/investment services for a global market etc, whereas the value of labour and access to employment is declining in relative terms. Otherwise new ideas/technology enable vast fortunes to be made as intellectual property/patent/ etc is more valuable in a larger world economy.

    To be simplistic, the value of labour is equalising across nations and the value of capital centred in global market niche positions including ownership of productive assets is increasing against all labour.

    Thus of course increasing inequality of income and wealth is occuring and you have not made a case otherwise. Any comparison between the world’s top 1% and the rest within the OECD, or within the wider world, shows this.

    There are billionaires in Russia, the ME (royalty), India and Mexico etc. Similarly there are fortunes being made in China. Thus even in those countries the top 1% are richer compared to the the rest of the population than before – to levels not seen since land owning aristocracy and autocratic forms of government existed in some of those countries.

  8. SPC says:

    PS That you say there is still a mixed economy inthe West to some extent – well that’s not much different to what I wrote. But we have not just a diminished mixed market model, we have a continuing active campaign against what is left of it.

    I said that it had been diminishing since about 1980 in the West. You respond that the size of government is still larger (New Zealand and the USA) than it was in the 1940′s and 1950′s. An interesting move back to a time when full employment reduced the government transfer cost for unemployment and related solo parents. And of course we now also have the cost of pension/super/social security/health care for the aging of the population and the social costs of inequality (the USA has 1% of its people in the criminal justice system and the cost of protecting the global market as a place their corporates can do business) – such as people on SB and IB.

    I would say that blaming the GFC on the income and wealth inequalities and other workings of the free market is simplistic, rather than naive. Simplistic but accurate.

    Yeah I’ll read the stuff on the link. but I suspect I’ve read versions of the line of argument elsewhere.

  9. Quoth the Raven says:

    SPC – Your prior claim was that free market results in the increasing hardship for many and increasing gain for the few. Now you’ve shifted your claim to that of a relative one. The empirical reality is that economic freedom results in increasing prosperity for all and increasing gains for all. Not just the few. The world is becoming a more equal place. The reward for labour in developing nations is increasing as it continues to rise in the western world e.g., the US. Yes, there are fortunes being made in China and India and this is occurring as the poverty is declining, wages are rising, the middle class is rising and the lives of the great mass of people are improving.

    Technological development does not occur in a vacuum. It of course occurs within a social context and of course it is unsurprising to me that it is positively correlated with economic freedom. For instance:

    The paper uses regression analysis to examine the effect of the components of economic freedom on growth, output and investment and finds that “economic freedom enhances growth both via increasing total factor productivity and via enhancing capital accumulation.”

    Ayal, Eliezer B., and Karras Georgios (1998). “Components of Economic Freedom and Growth: An Empirical Study.”
    Journal of Developing Areas 32 (Spring): 327–38.

    and free trade QED.

    That this transformation is occurring in a country still heavily regulated (China) is indicative that the free market itself within nations is not the magic panacea.

    No one said it is magic panacea. That is hyperbole on your part. That this is occurring in China is because of its economic reforms in the direction of greater freedom. The exact opposite direction to which social democrats what to take us. But beware China, its central planners are creating problems which they will have to deal with in the future.

    If you are so concerned about inequality maybe you should look into the myriad ways in which government intervenes in the market to privilege the few and harm the prospects of many. Then stand by with those of us who support the freedom of the peoples of the world and oppose them.

    One more link I couldn’t cram in there: Poverty and Economic Freedom: Evidence from Cross-Country Data

  10. Quoth the Raven says:

    I would say that blaming the GFC on the income and wealth inequalities and other workings of the free market is simplistic, rather than naive. Simplistic but accurate.

    Simplistic, naive and clearly inaccurate. Read it,

  11. SPC says:

    The quote you took was from a post on April 26 at 10.21am in a dialogue with another person – within a context. It was in regard to western nations – that had democracy etc. Re-read it.

    But it is true that income and wealth disparity has increased between the top 1% in the west and the rest and also the top 1% in the wider world and the rest of the world’s population.

    It is also true that there is increasing hardship now occurring in the west because of the GFC recession and government budget problems.

    There is at the gross level some equaliusing between nations via global market free trade and the transfer of capital and technology/expertise more than from the free market within nations themselves.

    Sure free market proponents conflate these issues to justify the growing income and wealth disparity between the few and the many that results.

  12. SPC says:

    Yeah I have read the ACT type prescription that somnehow less government provides better a better market and this is better for the poor. It’s been around since the 80′s. But I would suggest that its the influence of corporates on the US government in terms of tax avoidance that is undermining capacity of government to either invest in an economic renewal or develop a sustainable economy.

  13. tracey says:

    “I would take this post more seriously if Mr Wood had actually ‘worked’ in one of the occupations he represents as a Unionist.”

    This is one of your more odd posts Dave. Does a lecturer have to have worked in all the areas they lecture on, or a lawyer in all the areas they advocate upon, or a politician in all the areas they proclaim upon?

    Simon Power has never worked in a prison but presumes to know all about conditions, best methods etc

    Nick Smith has never worked in Insurance of within ACC

    Next you’ll tell me that people can only have opinions about things they have directly experienced, which would kill this blog and most conversations held every day in NZ

  14. tracey says:

    Oh my jennifer, that sounds like Warren Buffett is preaching hate and envy… oh wait, that would make him self loathing. Still what would he know, right? (wink)

  15. tracey says:

    QTR, do the studies also examine the passage of “time”? For example, if I am paid $1US a week in 1980 and in 2011 I am paid $2US a week, have my circumstances improved ( ignore inflation, unless this is particularly addressed in the studies too). I’m curious as to how this is interpreted. EG is it seen as a % improvement in economic terms for that person or is it viewed in terms of the $2US per week and what opportunities that opens the worker to etc.

    I may not have framed that well but hopefully you get my gist

  16. Dave says:

    @Tracey – “This is one of your more odd posts Dave. Does a lecturer have to have worked in all the areas they lecture on, or a lawyer in all the areas they advocate upon, or a politician in all the areas they proclaim upon?”

    Well, I would have thought it was obvious that someone like myself (mathematics, engineering and physics working experience) would lecture in…..mathematics and physics. So yes it is absolutely necessary. I wouldn’t dream of lecturing in English, just because my job title is Lecturer. So its a pretty silly question and I’m surprised you would believe that would be possible.

    Direct experience gives the ability to have a knowledgeable informed response to issues. Inexperience is found out very quickly. People can hold opinions on anything they like, but when it is an uniformed and inexperienced one, its is definitely not a fact. Lawyers have experience of the law they are advocating, not the crime, so it is quite different. To use your example Simon Power is a lawyer and justice is something he has a wealth of experience of. True he has never been a Prison Guard or inmate, but he doesn’t run those aspects, the Prison Managers do. Policy is what politicians set, not operational management.

    I still maintain that a Union advocate who is a very young man and has never actually worked in any industry (union advocacy is not an industry) has very little to offer.

  17. Quoth the Raven says:

    Yeah I have read the ACT type prescription that somnehow less government provides better a better market and this is better for the poor.

    I don’t know what the ACT party says and I wouldn’t care. The economic reality is, as demonstrated by the empirical data, that greater economic freedom is better for the poor. You can argue all you like, but that is what the real world data shows. Just follow my previous links.

    That you say there is still a mixed economy inthe West to some extent – well that’s not much different to what I wrote

    No it wasn’t. What you said was “the mixed economy – until about 1980 this was the one operating in nearly all western democracies.” ‘Was’ as in past tense. When in reality the mixed economy to a lesser or greater degree is still operating in all nations of the West today.

    But it is true that income and wealth disparity has increased between the top 1% in the west and the rest and also the top 1% in the wider world and the rest of the world’s population.

    Globally income disparity has declined so the latter is incorrect. It may be somewhat true of some western nations, but I see no major trend in the direction of increasing inequality. Also, you ignore income mobility. What you also willfully ignore, as I said in my previous comment, are all the ways in which the state through economic interventionism, exasperates income inequality and makes life harder for the poor. You have to look at the wider picture.

    tracey – Real wages or compensation are those that have been adjusted for inflation. So increases mean that one can afford to consume more. So there has been an improvement in those terms for that person.

    Here are a couple interesting posts on American consumption data. The Economic Condition of Poor Americans (and the rest of us) Continues to Improve
    The Poor-Rich Gap is Shrinking (Follow up on consumption data)

  18. tracey says:

    No its not, lawyers are advocates and so are union leaders. Which part of advocate are you struggling with?

    Being a lawyer does not give you an automatic wealth of experience of justice, how could it? Are you saying a conveyancing lawyer understands the entire justice system from experience, or a commercial lawyer? How?

    You “know” that many people lecture in topics they havent experienced in a workplace application. You would expect EVERY lecturer, based on your logic, to have workplace experience of the topics they teach, as opposed to academic and/or research based knowledge/experience.

    John Key, for example was a currency trader, but now he is running a country and its tourism. Um, why, he has no workplace experience of running a company OR in tourism.

    “Lawyers have experience of the law they are advocating, not the crime” No they dont they have knowledge of the law they are advocating which is quite different to experience. in the workplace of the law.

    Power worked as a lawyer in Palmerston North for a maximum of 5 years. Now although his second firm was commercial he did some duty solicitor work. Again, this is useful, no doubt to his justice role (not sure how useful in his former roles in conservation or transport) but the idea you have that five years of some duty solicitor work in the 1990s is a good basis for Justice Minister based on your “work experience” and direct knowledge/experience argument.

    So, as long as the MP above understands the Employment Law, processes and procedures etc he is qualified to be a union advocate. He will have visited many workplaces to observe and understand the demands of those workplaces.he will have spoken with many workers and liase regularly with workplace representatives, the workplace version of a prison manager

    You must wonder what the heck National were thinking putting up Jamie Lee Ross in Botany, based on the above

  19. Dave says:

    Sorry Tracey I disagree. Union advocacy is not a career option I have ever seen espoused by School guidance counsellors. Again, I believe if you don’t understand what a job entails at a professional level you will lack the judgement to make the right decisions. Policy is a different matter completely. Operational and Policy are split for that very reason. My reservations with Mr Wood are his lack of real world experience. Thats it. Has his job ever been at risk, hardly, has he had his performance measured by outcomes, doubt it, has he had to EVER look for a job in a declining market, of course not. He has, if he wants, a job for life. Lack of experience in a vocation is a defining characteristic of impending failure, unless you’re a union delegate. Telling others what to do when you have no clue how they do it, is a bit like a childless person telling others how to bring up their children. It is an oxymoron.

  20. Julie says:

    Just to respond to Dave’s last point about what it is like to work at a union, and how it is a “job for life”. I have worked for three different unions in four different roles (admin, education, organising/servicing and leadership). I first started union work in 2003 in an admin role part time, then worked somewhere else for six months or so, then back to a different union in a full time education role. This second job was on a (legitimate) fixed term, and thus no job security after the term was up. As it came to an end I won a permanent job at a third union, and was much relieved – union jobs are often quite hard to come by, hotly contested by people from other unions and community organisations as well as active members who want to become staff. Subsequent to that I competed internally for a promotion and have now negotiated a part time return to an organising role because of other commitments that have arisen which make full time work impossible for me now. Doesn’t sound that different to working for plenty of other organisations, commercial or otherwise, to me, in terms of the realities of employment like having to go through interviews and appointment processes and job insecurity. Especially because there are a relatively small number of jobs and people talk – if you stuff something up or aren’t very good at it word will often get around the other prospective employers pretty quickly. Again, just like many other industries.

    In terms of your assumption about performance objectives – there a number of performance indicators involved in union work which are easily measurable and for which you are held to account. If you do casework (aka “servicing”, supporting members’ with individual problems or small group ones, like incorrect pay, in trouble for X or Y, a bullying boss) then if you aren’t getting good outcomes (and not necessarily money btw, most people actually want an apology in my experience) members will very soon start telling your boss about it and you’ll need to explain. If you do more organising work (building networks of workers, helping them to communicate, share concerns, raise issues collectively, and lots more) then you are working very closely with members, helping to develop their skills, and again that is measurable in terms of numbers of new members on your site, who participates well in training courses, where are we making progress on key issues, which site got no signatures for the petition on this important campaign, etc. And again, members will communicate their displeasure if you’re slack.

    It seems to me Dave that you are making a whole lot of assumptions about union work based on absolutely no knowledge of it. Which is kind of ironic, don’t you think?

    (Disclaimer: I’m Michael’s partner, however he doesn’t even know I’m writing this comment or that I’ve read yours, although I guess he will once I hit submit!)

  21. SPC says:

    Dave are you saying being accountable to an employer as an employee as real world experience then this excludes self-employment. If you mean only a job delivering profit to a a capitalist in a free market environment (including the
    self-employed) then this excludes public service and union work or working for Fonterra (co-op). But union work in a post compulsory union environment is probably one of the toughest markets in the world – they need memberships to pay the wages and that means delivering for members.

    That it’s a declining career path under mdoern labour legislation is why it won’t be suggested by career advisors (in the past it was a job that arose out of “amateur” activism as a union memeber, now its a professional career path for non union members who compete for jobs across unions).

  22. Julie says:

    Not just non members SPC, plenty of people in the union I work for have come on to staff from being active members in that union, or indeed at others. Yes there are other pathways to working for a union now, but still lots develop that way.