Red Alert

Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

The Precariat

Posted by on February 4th, 2012

The term “precariat”, although not new, has become more visible in recent months as a result of a book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, by Guy Standing, Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath.

Standing asserts that the precariat are a newly emerging social class, in part created by globlaised trends towards creating a flexible workforce that has resulted in a growing number of people across the world living and working precariously, usually in a series of short-term jobs, without recourse to stable occupational identities, stable social protection or protective regulations relevant to them.

This is not just a matter of having insecure employment, of being in jobs of limited duration and with minimal labour protection, although all this is widespread. It is being in a status that offers no sense of career, no sense of secure occupational identity and few, if any, entitlements to the state and enterprise benefits that several generations of those who saw themselves as belonging to the industrial proletariat or the salariat had come to expect as their due……….

So, according to Standing the social ladder of today looks something like this:

  • Elite: the absurdly rich global citizens, the transnational capitalist class, global power elite, fewer than the 1%;
  • Salariat: those still in stable, full-time employment, pensions, paid holidays, employer-provided benefits often subsidised by the state;
  • Proficians: or “professional technicians”, those who have skills they can market as professional consultants, freelancers, etc and who might actually enjoy moving around, from job to job;
  • Working class: as in the traditional working class for whom the welfare state and employment law was built but whose ranks have been decimated;
  • Precariat
  • Unemployed and Socially marginalised

Standing describes the precariat as “primitive rebels” – people who know what they are against, but are not sure what they are for.  But, nevertheless, a class in the making, approaching a consciousness of common vulnerability and therefore the “new dangerous class”.

The precariat is not a class-for-itself, partly because it is at war with itself. One group in it may blame another for its vulnerability and indignity. A temporary low-wage worker may be induced to see the ‘welfare scrounger’ as obtaining more, unfairly and at his or her expense. A long-term resident of a low-income urban area will easily be led to see incoming migrants as taking better jobs and leaping to head the queue for benefits. Tensions within the precariat are setting people against each other, preventing them from recognising that the social and economic structure is producing their common set of vulnerabilities.

Ring any bells?

This video will give you a good idea of Standing’s thesis and then you can decide if the book is worth reading.  I think it is.

A lot more than twenty questions and still going Part IV

Posted by on May 9th, 2011

1. What exactly did Brash get for his $30k?

2. Did Whale and Hooton get cash?

3. What was Lusk’s role in this?

4. Did Joyce contribute or was he just the fixer?

5. How much of it did Banks pay?

6. Was money only paid into NZ bank accounts?

7. What do Leonie Hapeta and Mark Mitchell have in common?

8. Is employing a specific consultant now a requirement to get a contested National Party selection?

9. Is there transparency during the selection process, ie did all candidates know of the consultant and his assistants roles on behalf of those employing him?

10. Does Whale get paid for all his endorsements of candidates?

11. What do Upston, Gilmore, Woodhouse, Lee Ross, Lotu Iinga, Wagner and Blue have in common?

12. Does Bill English realise that he is being undermined by these processes?

13. Did Goodfellow know his parties party’s consultant was moonlighting with Brash?

14. Has the team offered their services to any other party this year?

15. Did Key know of Joyce’s involvement, and if so did he tell his deputy?

16. What did Joyce say to Lusk last Wednesday night after they were rumbled?

More to come…………

The Financial Elite have Gambled away our Future

Posted by on January 29th, 2011

Yesterday’s Press Editorial welcomed the PM’s announcement on the beginning of National’s privitisation programme for our country’s assets with the words “John Key was able to demonstrate…the value of his background in the financial industry”.  Excuse me?  Did the Press miss the Global Financial Crisis, where “the over-paid heroes of Wall Street and the City worshipped the gods of globalisation, financialisation and speculation”?   The quote is a teaser for the best of the five books I read over the summer break: “The Gods that Failed: How the Financial Elite Have Gambled Away our Futures” by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson.  The first edition of the book was subtitled: “How Blind Faith in Markets Has Cost us our Future”.  The second edition (published in 2009) has an extra chapter, which as one reviewer said could have been titled: We Told You So.  The authors of this book are economics editors, Elliott with the Guardian and Atkinson, the Mail on Sunday.

The metaphor that drives the narrative is inspired by the twelve gods of ancient Greece that lived on Mount Olympus.  Elliott & Atkinson have styled the super-financiers and the international organisations, (central banks, IMF, World Bank, WTO), the “New Olympians” and the twelve gods of the modern Mount Olympus: globalisation, communication, liberalisation, privatisation, competition, financialisation, speculation, recklessness, greed, arrogance, oligarchy & excess. 

“Greek mythology provides plenty of raw material for a book about the failings of modern financial markets.  There is the story of King Midas, who found the ability to turn all he touched into gold a curse. The tendency of markets to veer between the wild optimism of booms and the manic depression busts is akin to the life led by poor Persephone, condemned to live every six months of every year in Hades. But Pandora – a gift from the gods whose beauty belied her baleful influence on the lives of mortals – makes the best metaphor.”

As they said August 9 2007 was the moment the lid came off the modern version of Pandora’s box.  And the rest is history, which is why I believe this book must be read, because unless we learn the lessons of history, we condemn ourselves to repeating it.

This book is well-researched and easy to read.  It contains a chapter called ‘Last Tango on Wall Street” which has a very simple explanation of how the New Olympians (our Prime Minister’s background the Press values so highly) found ways to make money out of nothing – creating securitised financial products like “collateralised debt obligations” out of the subprime market and then hiding the risks behind AAA rated institutions.  The New Olympians made personal fortunes with bonuses they never had to repay when it all turned to custard.  And they were happy to see the taxpayers pick up the tab for their trillion dollar insanity. 

I conclude with this quote: ‘Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise.  But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation’.  That was John Maynard Keynes in 1936.  When will we ever learn?

The Turning Point (III): The Keynesian Resurgence

Posted by on March 25th, 2010

In  the wake of the global financial crisis, the Washington Consensus is dead.

Keynes, however, is alive and well.

Keynesian fiscal intervention helped avoid a second Great Depression in 2008-9, just as it rescued economies from the first one in 1929-35.

Not surprisingly, there has been an explosion of recent writing on the Keynesian Resurgence.

From the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf and IMF Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard to Noel laureate economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, Dani Rodrik and Robert Reich, lessons are being drawn from the crash to answer the question: “what next?”

I am currently reading Paul Krugman’s ‘Return of Depression Economics” and will blog on this shortly. Robert Skidelski’s “Keynes: The Return of the Master” is emerging as a “must read” for social democrats, alongside Wilkinson and Pickett’s “The Spirit Level“.

Here is a quick taste of some common themes that emerge:

  • Neoclassical economics cannot prevent major cyclical crashes crashes and asset bubbles. Its theoretical underpinnings look increasingly shaky. Global financial re-regulation is urgent.
  • The inequality of wealth and income flowing from trickle down economics has been bad for everybody: more equal societies empirically do better. Reducing inequality has a strong economic payoff.
  • Active government is more necessary than ever in the wake of the crash, but will have to be smart and cost effective.  It will learn from both the post-War Keynesian period and the neoclassical consensus that followed it, and be different from both.
  • Counter-cyclical fiscal policy makes sense, and there is potential to automate some of the stabilisers to build the balance and resilience of markets.

Contrast this to the current National government: still preaching trickle down tax cuts for the richest few; ignoring the growing inequality and sense of despair among the many; hidebound by the ideas of an era that has already passed; bereft of leadership as it stares in the rear view missor of focus group entrails and last month’s polls.

The world is changing fast. New Zealand deserves new thinking. Fast.

Fair cop Farrar: Mike’s done us proud

Posted by on January 21st, 2010

This year has had some odd beginnings for me. Here I am agreeing with David Farrar. Well actually, we agree on a number of issues I suspect. Just not some of the really fundamental ones.

Anyway, David drew attention on Kiwiblog to the fact that none of us  (on Red Alert) have congratulated Mike Moore on his appointment as NZ Amabassador to the US.

Of course Labour has made a statement in MSM congratulating Mike. But fair cop, we haven’t said anything here.

There’s two things to say. Firstly, it’s an honour and a measure of the man that he has merited such an appointment. It’s hugely significant and follows from his rather interesting, but stellar career as Prime Minister of New Zealand and Director-General of the World Trade Organization.

The second thing is to draw attention to his book Saving Globalisation launched a few months ago in Parliament. I haven’t had time to do more than flick through it, but it’s hugely interesting and informative and somewhat controversial.

Not just for those interested in globalisation, but for anyone interested in the state of progressive/social democratic ideas in a globalised world.

A recent review on Amazon puts the essence of the book like this:

Moore passionately believes that greater international economic engagement and interdependence driven by truly free trade can reduce poverty and promote more freedom and democracy throughout the world.

Weirdly, I’ve heard that the book hasn’t been reviewed in New Zealand. Not sure if that’s true, but if so, for goodness sake what’s wrong with us?

I don’t know Mike well. I’m newish to politics, he’s at another level. But we’ve had a couple of robust conversations (over fish and chips) and I like that he’s constantly thinking and challenging our ideas and political strategies. I’m looking forward to more robust discussions and think he retains enormous value in our Party, in our country. So congratulations Mike, keep on doing us all proud.

Darwin’s Sacred Cause

Posted by on January 12th, 2010

Ok this was not a book I pulled off the airport bookshop shelf as part of my ‘must read over Christmas’ collection – although my Executive Assistant thought that if I had chosen it, it would have been a natural selection!  My Christmas present from my brother and sister-in-law (she is the anthropologist in the family so I know she chose it) Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery & the Quest for Human Origins has been the most challenging read of the break, but it is extraordinary.  I learned a lot about Darwin, but equally I learned a lot about the time when he was formulating his theories.

World authorities on Darwin, Adrian Desmond & James Moore offer an amazing insight into how Darwin came to his view of evolution, linking it to his commitment to the abolition of slavery.  They researched unpublished family letters, manuscripts, notes that Darwin wrote on other books, ships’ logs…everything they could lay their hands on. 

In the introduction they say “Not only is the evolutionary upshot of his hatred of slavery unknown, Darwin’s humanitarian imperative itself has never been brought adequately to the fore.  We try to show how it locks him into the context of nineteenth-century abolitionalism, and how it speaks directly to our post-colonial age, with its hatred of ethnic cleansing and apartheid.  Ours is a book about a caring, compassionate man who was affected for life by the scream of a tortured slave.

As it says on the fly-leaf, Desmond & Moore argue that only by appreciating Darwin’s Christian abolitionist inheritance, can we fully understand the perplexing mix of personal drive, public hesitancy and scientific radicalism that led him to finally in 1871 to publish The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 

The book was published last year to coincide with the worldwide Darwin celebrations of 2009 – the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Extremely highly recommended reading – 376 pages plus an almost 80 page bibliography!   There are a number of on-line reviews – I have just linked to one.


Posted by on January 9th, 2010

Sorry for the delay to those who have been desperately awaiting my latest book review, but I was out of cellphone range (hurray). 

I read Freakonomics (Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner)  a couple of years ago.  I had been meaning to read it for a long time before I finally got round to it, because I was put off by the title to be frank.  In the introductory explanatory note to Superfreakonomics the authors admit to the alarm expressed by their publisher over the first book: “…you could hear the sound of palms smacking foreheads: ‘this pair of bozos just delivered a manuscript with no unifying theme and a nonsensical, made-up title!’”  Such was the success of that book the publishers did not even blink at the title Superfreakonomics

Freakonomics was of course controversial for the suggestion that the dramatic reduction in the crime rate in the United States could be traced back to the landmark Roe v Wade decision.  I seem to recall the theory was that fewer children were born into the kinds of environments that tended to produce the drivers of crime. 

This time the authors take on a range of subjects from prostitution, suicide bombers, apathy and altruism and climate change.  Their approach encourages the reader to look at things a different way – whether you agree with their conclusions or not, it is an entertaining read.

My favourite chapter is on apathy and altruism, largely because it reinforces my view about the impact of television and the effect that it has had on the generations born since its insidious takeover of the lounges of the modern world.  But that is only a small part of a chapter that revisits the Kitty Genovese case (where 38 witnesses allegedly did nothing while she was murdered in the street outside her apartment building) and also the experiments on altruism which failed to repeat the results in a live situation contrasted with the laboratory results where people knew they were being tested.  It appears that we might just be a little more altruistic when we know or think we are being watched. 

It’s all good fun and does make you think.  Here’s the link to their flagrant self-promotion!

What the Dog Saw

Posted by on January 3rd, 2010

The second book I have read since Christmas is Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog SawI am a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell having devoured The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big DifferenceBlink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking & Outliers: The Story of Success

Gladwell makes you think twice about things you might otherwise take for granted or just not think about at all.  This book comprises a collection of Gladwell’s articles from The New Yorker

I will give you a quick dip into two of these articles.  The first changed my mind about a television ad that has irritated me for a long time – it’s LÓreal’s “Because you’re worth it”. I have always thought this is somewhat cynical when associated with make-up and hair colour.  What Gladwell presents however is the context for a campaign designed to follow Clairol’s “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure”.  This was a very clever campaign to present hair dyes as natural in appearance.  The response from L’Oreal was designed by a 23 year old woman working for McCann-Erikson. She decided that L’Oreal’s ad was not going to be about women wanting to meet men’s needs – it was about how this slightly more expensive product made her feel about herself – she didn’t mind spending a bit more meeting her own needs – “Because I’m worth it!”  It was a deliberate push back against the ‘I have to look good for my man’ attitude.  And it worked! So although the phrase has changed, I have seen it in a different light and am much less irritated – maybe I am worth it!

Another article should be required reading for the Minister of Education “Most Likely to Succeed”.  It starts off by highlighting how difficult it is to select a quarterback for the NFL from the College superstars.  The difference between how the games are played are just too great.  As Gladwell says “There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired.” 

He goes on to compare this to teaching.  He describes ‘value added’ analysis, which uses standardised test scores at the beginning and again at the end of the school year and then follows the teachers’ scores over the next three or four years.  Over time it is possible to assess the quality of the teaching.  

He refers to an economist, Eric Hanushek, who estimates that students of a very bad teacher learn on average half a year’ s work; whereas students of a very good teacher learn a year and a half’s worth of learning in a single year.  That’s an entire year’s difference.

“Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a bad school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a better teacher.”

The trouble is that “no one knows what a person with the potential to be great teacher looks like. The school system has a quarterback problem.” 

Would one of the Tories out there get the Minister of Education to think about value added analysis before she wastes another cent on national standards!  Unless the standards measure the ‘value-add’ (which they don’t) they will obviously be meaningless!

Malcolm Gladwell makes you think and that’s why I love reading his stuff.

Highly recommended!

Don’t You Know Who I Am?

Posted by on January 3rd, 2010

I had planned to write the odd book review on Red Alert as I planned to use this break to read all the books I have bought at airport bookshops over the past year.

Disappointingly I have only read two books since Christmas but I enjoyed them both.  I started with a total no-brainer – a few years ago Piers Morgan wrote a book called The Insider: The Private Diaires of a Scandalous Decade, which is what encouraged me to buy Don’t You Know Who I Am? Insider Diaries of Fame, Power and Naked Ambition.

Piers Morgan is a clever writer – he knows how to string together a good yarn and and despite his loathing of politicians, (which seems to me comes from a sense of having been personally let down by Tony Blair over the decision to go into Iraq), this politician loves reading his stuff.

He understands all to well the superficiality of ‘celebrity status’ and yet in a self-deprecating manner describes how he gets to splash around in the depths of that particular bird-bath.

There is something quite human though underneath the bravado and I get the feeling that there is more to him than meets the eye as I scan the words on the page.

But let’s not go there.  Let me instead quote my favourite paragraph from the book.  This will appeal to all of you who enter quiz evenings where as Morgan says ‘they all pretend it’s not competitive, but of course it is.  Everybody there wants to win’.

On this occasion Morgan’s team has managed the ring-in of all times – the 2004 winner of Mastermind, Shaun Wallace – they cream it.

And as Morgan accepts the trophy he boasts ” I stand here rather as Douglas Jardine stood in Australia at the start of the 1932/3 bodyline series. As the bouncers started, one member of the crowd shouted, ‘you won’t win many friends playing like that Jardine,” to which the great man turned with a bemused look on his face and said haughtily, “my dear fellow, I haven’t come here to win friends.  I’ve come to win the Ashes.”