Northern Advocate Column, Uncategorized

Dead monarchs and the cancelling of debts

17 November 2022

When the kings of the ancient Sumerians died or were overthrown by a rival, it was customary for a time to cancel debts for ordinary citizens. The wiping of debts was like a society reset. A necessary one in those early days of civilisation, when the cultural memory of more egalitarian communities still lingered.

Four and half thousand years ago, in the land that’s now modern-day Iraq, debt and early forms of money were relatively new, as was control or ownership of land. In these centralised economies, Sumerian peasant farmers could get into difficulty and incur debt. If it got unpayable, they might be forced to hand over land to creditors or the state. Often then having to sell themselves or family members into slavery. A drought, declining yields, invasion by another regional power, raids by nomads, or high taxes, could all see a peasant family’s fortunes and status in society plummet. Meanwhile, those lucky or in a position to play the system could amass a greater share of wealth.

The problem was, hierarchy and inequality weren’t good for society’s morale. When there are winners and losers, what reason do the losers have for sticking around to defend the winners from an invading army or nomad raiders? Some might prefer to join the nomads or engage in some banditry instead. Hence the practice of cancelling debts when a new monarch came to power. It was a practical way of maintaining the allegiance of commoners to the state and to the privileged hierarchy at its centre.

I tell this tale from the ancient world because there are parallels with today. In many countries, personal debt is high, fuelled by a house price boom and the spiralling cost of living. Wealth disparities have only grown since the Covid pandemic hit. Young people who aren’t from wealthy families are feeling aggrieved. Inequality is stoking political tensions in every country, whether mature democracies or oligarchal states like Russia and China. And it’s contributing to military tensions between nations. Rather than deal with the inequalities, one response is to try and unite a country by drumming up nationalism or even starting a war.

This is the world in which New Zealand might start looking at constitutional change following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. There will be different ideas about what we should do and at what speed. But regardless of who our head of state is (or whether one is even needed), shared allegiance to the state is undermined by inequality. The Sumerian rulers understood this. That’s why when one monarch died and a new one ascended the throne they tried to heal society by cancelling debts. The goal was to restore some equality (and political stability) which had been eroded in the previous years.

Skip forward a few millennia. On September 26, New Zealanders will get a one-off public holiday to mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth. A surprising move perhaps in these supposedly modern times. The Labour government has been smart (some might say calculating) in realising the opportunity to try and unite us in mourning, no matter how forced it feels.

While we’ll take the paid holiday, I’m sure many of us would prefer our debts were cancelled, like in Sumerian times. And maybe that idea is not so far fetched. Word is, if Matthew Hooton writing in the NZ Herald can be believed, Labour is considering cancelling student loan debt as its big election year promise. In the United States, President Biden already has plans to cancel $10,000 worth of student debt for low-to-middle income borrowers. At least some in ruling circles understand that you can’t have a functional society when citizens are overburdened with debt and wealth inequalities are left to grow unchecked.

The vast stretch of time and geography between an ancient Middle Eastern civilisation ruled by kings and modern New Zealand seems, on the face of it, enormous. It’s tempting to think we share nothing in common with those people and their attempts at state management. And yet old problems persist, giving rise to the demand for old solutions.

Poetry, Uncategorized

On this lucky earth

after W.H. Auden

Staring up from a field in Pakistan, your eyes
like the eyes of any child. Your face enlarged on a poster
that can be seen from the edges of the human inhabitable zone
on this lucky earth; and viewed again on our screens
while eating or opening a window, or just walking dully along.
Drones that hover their targets don’t see.

I sit outside a café at an unsteady table on an uneven path,
where another child, lifted high on shoulders, waves her tiny hand.
There’s a seamless sky behind the weight of cherry blossom;
and I’m unsure whether to share with friends
the image of you—as pixels to the wind—or to simply forget
and build my delicate home the way I’d like it to be.


Let’s keep trying to eliminate Covid from New Zealand


Democracy is a flawed, frustrating and messy business, but in New Zealand, I’m pleased to say, it’s in fine form.  The Government’s handling of coronavirus has been under intense scrutiny from the media, opposition parties, unions, academics, lobby groups, and most importantly, an engaged citizen body. Journalists are doing their job and exposing the gaps between Government intentions and reality on the ground. Better systems and policy will result.

Democracy is also working because our political parties are so poll-driven. Both Labour and National will be regularly polling to find out what New Zealanders are thinking. That there’s consensus between the two main parties, on the surface at least, to continue an elimination strategy, should reflect the majority view. 

But it’s a fluid situation, events and circumstances will shift opinions. Time is a factor too. There are already growing calls for a more liberal border policy and a strategy of “living with Covid” for the sake of the economy. 

I’m still very much in favour of elimination, however. Here are my seven reasons why. 

Reason 1: We can hold out until a vaccine is available. Maybe a vaccine is a year away. Hope is alive when there’s a realistic timeframe. An elimination strategy can last this long. 

Reason 2: We don’t yet know enough. Will a vaccination be needed every year, like for the flu? Do people who get Covid-19 develop lasting immunity? Within a year we’ll have answers. Staying the elimination course until we know just what we’re dealing with would be sensible. 

Reason 3: Self-preservation. As I close in on 50, I don’t really want to take my chances with the disease. I’ve a history of chest-heaving coughs that last for months from just a simple cold. The black humour at our family dinner table consists of jibes pointing out I’ll never make it if I catch Covid. Thanks, family.  

Reason 4: Protecting the old people I know. More than my own chances up against Covid, I worry about my parents in their mid-seventies, who are full of life and looking forward to more good years. For my mother, who has an existing health condition, catching Covid would put her at extreme risk. I’d prefer they didn’t have to live in fear and isolation. 

Reason 5: I want freedom of movement. If we have to “live with Covid” I’m not going to be out in public much. My entertainment dollar won’t be spent at cafés, restaurants or sporting events. To maintain contact with my parents, I’ll have to limit contact with other people. That’s why the economic effects of Covid spreading through the community are severe. Many people will choose to isolate for a longer stretch than a lockdown lasting weeks. 

Reason 6: Our economy has to change. I’ve sympathy for people who’ve lost their jobs and livelihoods, but my perspective on the world tells me that Covid is just one of the “disruptors” the economy is going to face in coming years. Climate change, an inevitable financial crisis, increasing energy costs – these things were going to challenge the status quo anyway. By continuing to pursue an elimination strategy, we have an opportunity to reshape the national economy into one that’s more self-sufficient, sustainable and responsive to the needs of people. 

Reason 7: Common purpose is easily lost. Fighting coronavirus at the border, with occasional temporary lockdowns, coupled with mass-testing and tracing, is easier to unite around. Suppressing Covid or preventing the health system from being overwhelmed, is a less clear-cut goal. Evidence from overseas suggests that people start thinking more individually in those circumstances. If we give up on pursuing elimination, then I fear we’ll also kiss goodbye to the “team of 5 million.” 


Trump, a rich white gansta rapper

14 May 2016

T.I. and Donald TrumpI’ve been listening to gansta rap lately. Inspired by the movie Straight Outta Compton, which is about the pioneer rap group N.W.A (Niggers With Attitude for those who don’t know).

Those Dr Dre beats are irresistible, but what I’ve been relating to is the anger, the humour, and the honesty. Some of it isn’t pretty, there’s certainly misogyny and crude expressions of hate, but the best tracks speak to the reality of being black in America’s urban wastelands.

This musical exploration has led me to make a surprising comparison, to the guy with the funny hairdo who’s about to contest the election for the next president of the United States.

It dawned on me… Donald Trump is a rich white gansta rapper. He says whatever’s on his mind, some of it ugly, some of it just to get a reaction. On many issues he’s obviously ignorant, which he doesn’t care, further endearing himself to some of his similarly ignorant supporters. But he’s tapped into something that relates to what I was saying about gansta rap (or “reality rap” as some early practitioners preferred). The thing that Trump has been consistently saying is that America is in a shit of a mess. “Things are really, really bad out there”, he’s said.

Wages are low, good jobs are hard to come by, student debt is crippling a generation, basic healthcare is inaccessible to many, education is falling apart, along with roads and other public infrastructure. 80% of Americans are experiencing a decline in their living standards. Bill Clinton, Bush (senior and junior), Obama, and the other political careerists in Congress, have done little to change this reality. They’ve happily submitted to the wishes of big banks and the rest of the financial class on Wall Street.

The brewing resentment and general hatred of politicians is working in Trump’s favour. He has gained traction with Republican voters who are sick of slick PR groomed politicians mouthing platitudes and vacuous slogans. He’s also given voice to a dangerous version of that anger that wants to find targets to blame, whether it’s Mexicans “stealing jobs” or out-of-touch liberals, the type that Hillary Clinton represents.

On the other side of the political divide, an “old socialist”, Bernie Sanders, has been pushing Clinton hard for the Democratic nomination. He’s connecting with the stirring amongst young people in particular for something radically different, which Obama has failed to offer. Obama’s main message as president has been “play by the rules” and you’ll have your shot at the American Dream. While presenting a charming face, the Obama administration has tried to stifle the long tradition of black protest movements. He has endorsed policies which have locked millions in jail for minor offences and then stripped them of their human rights when released.

The cover of rapper Kendrick Lamar’s hit album, To Pimp a Butterfly, has a crowd of shirtless black men and children in front of the White House holding fistfuls of dollars. A white judge lies prone on the ground. It’s a satirical image. Life for the majority of black Americans hasn’t changed with the election of an African-American president, if anything it’s got worse. 

And things won’t change for the better if Trump reaches the White House, but this election season in America might be showing that people have had enough of bland “no alternative” politics. The scarier side of the equation has surfaced with Trump, but maybe there’s hope for leadership and a grassroots movement that properly shakes the foundations of America’s unjust political system.


Labour’s promise of free tertiary education

20 February 2016

Free tertiary education for three years — who wouldn’t want that? It’s what the Labour Party is promising if they’re elected in 2017, and again in 2020 and 2023, when they finally hope to implement the policy. 

While I’m sympathetic to the intention (if underwhelmed by the urgency), it won’t go anywhere near far enough to address some of the issues facing post-secondary education. From my experience as a tutor and observer of what’s happening in education there’s a big crunch occurring from a number of directions.

Worldwide the numbers of young people opting for education after high school has grown enormously over the last few decades. From the perspective of governments this is costly. 

Then there’s the phenomenon of “educational inflation”. Once upon a time a bachelor’s degree might get you a good job, then it was a masters degree that was needed to stand out. Now even that’s no guarantee of a well-paying job for many graduates. The question many young people will be asking: is why endure years of living hand-to-mouth, be saddled with student debt and risk being no better off than when you started? If you’re not from a family wealthy enough to support you for a number of years, there’s pressure to make a rational decision to drop out of the higher education race or only buy into it as an alternative to being on a benefit.

It’s also rational to think differently about education. Perhaps I can learn what I’m passionate about it in some other way, through volunteer work and mentoring for instance. Or maybe I accept that I’m going to work in retail or hospitality and I’ll gain a sense of worth through self-education as a creative artist or becoming an expert on permaculture. Both of which can easily be done by watching You Tube videos, getting books from the library and connecting with like-minded people in the community.

You’ve also got the emergence of new education providers that aren’t tied to national academic regulations. Internationally there are new internet-based education providers like Kahn Academy offering an online education for free. These will likely get better in quality and be more appealing to international thinking student. 

Consider all these factors and the model of centralised government funded tertiary education starts to look increasingly dinosaurish.

In response some politicians will likely advocate selling off tertiary institution assets altogether. The market reforms of the tertiary sector already see New Zealand universities and polytechs run like corporations competing for fee paying students. At the top are overpaid upper management, who usually have no background in teaching. While many staff put up with temporary and part-time contracts and the stress of unrealistic work demands.

The market model combined with declining government funding also means tertiary institutions are being tempted to sacrifice educational quality for a fast buck from courses where teaching hours are less than what national standards require. Some New Zealand tertiary institutions have recently been found out, others will be nervous.

So yes Labour, three years of free post-school education sounds good, but you’re going to have to do a whole lot better if you want to properly address the problems and issues faced by the tertiary education system.

As a parent I know I’ll be encouraging my kids to think very carefully and perhaps outside the box about how they pursue their education and life goals.


Love poem to Hikurangi

862852906 February 2016

I was surprised to read the headline the other day that house prices in Hikurangi had risen 20%. According to real estate agents this was catch up for years of being undervalued. It seems like that old joke about Hikurangi being the “Ponsonby of the North” might finally be coming true.

Well, I’m all for good cafés and quality (but inexpensive) restaurants opening in my hometown, but I’ve no desire for Hikurangi to change too much. I’ll like its unpretentiousness, its working class history that’s evident in the modest houses, the remains of the old dairy factory and stories of a coal mining town. There’s a feeling I get in Hikurangi of being on the outskirts, separate from the mainstream, marginal. It hasn’t been fashionable to live here.

And I guess that’s the problem I have with Hikurangi being absorbed into the runaway housing market and now in the sights of Auckland property investors. I’m afraid something of the character of the town will be lost.

Which for me is what has happened to Grey Lynn, Ponsonby and other inner city suburbs in Auckland. The poor artists, the struggling musicians, the students, the weirdos and low income people have been pushed out. That’s not something I wish to see happen to Hikurangi.

A little while ago I wrote a prose poem that included some of the things I loved about the town I’ve lived in for 16 years. At the risk of romanticising Hikurangi and attracting more people to buy up the real estate, here it is…

Lovin’ the liquidambar next door, the red leaves that fall down on us.
The railway track over the fence, which you can look down both ways to a vanishing point.
The four damn churches; the toi toi in bloom, with the morning sun shining through like a halo, blessing us all.

The view of town when you come over the top of King Street: looking like the wild west.
The Hikurangi Hotel with its dark wood interior, pokie machines and whale’s dick over the bar; the Saturday night bands with their names in chalk.
The guy who wears overalls, who crosses the road at the same place everyday with his two dogs, who gruffly says hello.
The reggae that blasts from the house three up from ours.
The dairy, its cracked blue ceramic tiles and corner relief of a bull’s head; the Four Square that sells ready-made vegetarian curries.
The miner’s cottages and villas; the eastern hills with chopped down pine, gorse and scrub, so that it’s not picturesque.
The crossroads 6.7km out of town, where you can stand in silence.
The old stone path that gets covered in leaves, broken glass, cigarette butts and tinnies.
The young scruffies outside the Ruraltec talking about cars, girls and Xbox.

The primary school, the old classrooms in winter when it’s raining and the heaters are on; being 7 years old.
The dump and its growing piles of usable junk, the cheap framed photos on the fence, the bending of the rules.
The lake, the dragonflies flying low across the water and kids doing bombs.
The limestone rocks that tourists used to visit.
Because there’s room to imagine being somewhere else.
And our hill, the hill that Ngāpuhi forgot.


To the Greek people, Kalí tíhi and náse kalá!

Cassidy-Greece-120011 July 2015

I’d love to be in Greece right now. Why? Because the Greek people are engaged in a real political debate over the future of their country. It’s a debate I would love to see occur in this country at the same level of intensity.

Yes, the Greek people are going through some pain right now. Over 25% of the workforce is unemployed, the welfare state is in tatters, and many people risk losing their savings. But there’s also a sense of hope and empowerment, which could be seen in the jubilance ― particularly amongst young people ― that accompanied the “no vote” to austerity.

Something that’s been largely missing from the coverage here is what the majority of Greek people were actually voting against. The austerity measures being forced on Greece as part of the repayment of its debt to European bankers were extreme.

They included more cuts to pensions and benefits, higher taxes, slashing of public sector wages, but most crucially the wholesale privatisation of airports, harbours, railways, water and power companies, motorways, post offices, thermal springs, seaside land and cultural treasures. Greece was to be sold to international corporates at bargain basement prices. What future did this represent?

No wonder for many Greeks the better alternative, as tough as it might be, is to default on the national debt and try to rebuild the economy on their own terms. And this is where something else going on in Greece at the moment is instilling confidence.

Since the economic crisis began in 2009 there’s been an explosion across Greece of democratic and cooperative enterprises that have gone a long way to creating a parallel economy.

Food cooperatives have been set-up bypassing supermarket chains, doctors and other health professionals have established free health clinics, neighbourhoods have founded social kitchens where people pool their food and eat together. The Internet is being used to coordinate bartering and sharing of private and community resources. There’s even a trend towards Greeks offering up their homes for tourist accommodation in exchange for Euro dollars, bypassing the often foreign owned hotels.

These practical attempts to do what simply needs to be done have their base in a new ethos that’s about self-sufficiency, sustainability, local economies and community democracy.

Christos Ciovanopoulos from Solidarity for All, one of the many citizen networks now operating in Greece, says the movement is “politics from the bottom up, that starts with real people’s needs. It’s a practical critique of the empty, top-down, representational politics our traditional parties practice. It’s a kind of whole new model, actually. And it’s working.”

Tonia Katerini, an unemployed architect, who has helped set up a food cooperative in Athens, says all these new initiatives “are about people taking responsibility for their lives, putting their skills to use, becoming productive again.”

In many ways what’s happening in Greece, both the good and the bad, is the future. The debt fueled unfettered exploitation of people and planet has to end sometime. At least the Greek people are waking up to reality and realising the benefits of communities doing things for themselves in a sustainable and democratic manner. It’s a model that holds lessons for the rest of the world.

For that reason I wish the Greek people lots of luck and encouragement. Kalí tíhi and náse kalá!