Thursday, 25 September 2014

Labour too far to the Left - yeah Right.

My reply to a piece on the Daily Blog 

There’s a lot of moaning from the MSM about being blamed for the election outcome. With a few exceptions, they deserve the slaps but, while they played an important role – we can’t avoid the fact that some members of Labour’s caucus shot Cunliffe in both feet, engaged in a lot of lazy running themselves, and are now blaming him for Labour losing the race.

You could be forgiven for thinking that they threw the election so they could sacrifice him and get back to business as usual – turning the LP into a NZ version of the US Democratic party.

We have a poorly unionised workforce in an increasingly low wage economy that rests on a narrow and precarious base of extractive industry and cash crop agriculture, viticulture and horticulture. A lot of people are doing very nicely – able to afford to live the individualised, digitised lives of Bill Gates’ asocial vision – a lot of others are struggling to stay afloat and some are drowning.

Traditional working class jobs haven’t disappeared from the planet, they’ve been moved to places where the costs of production are lower, i.e. lower wages and conditions, poor H&S and environment controls etc. The only way corporates will bring those jobs back is if those costs are reduced here so they can extract the same levels of profit.

For the corporates, the means to that end are maintaining :
  • a large pool of unemployed;
  • a low paid ‘service’ class;
  • a massively indebted working class (which includes everyone whose only means of living is by exchanging their labour – be that by hand or brain – for a wage); and,
  • an affluent buffer class which includes the upper echelons of the public service and the media, and rightwing professional politicians.
This stratum of people have a vested interest in maintaining the manifestly unfair and unjust status quo and to ensure that the state’s service to the corporates is seamless.

When you drag political discourse back to the Right and redefine the Centre, you also redefine the Left. Moderate, totally unremarkable and easily achievable structural changes that would be as socially beneficial as the Right’s structural changes of the 1980s were destructive, are labelled as ‘far-Left’ and unrealistic. The way that message is conveyed is, for the most part, via the mass media which for the most part is owned and controlled by corporates.

The way forward for Labour is: to challenge that control of the media through support for a non-partisan well funded public broadcasting, and by creating its own voice; and, to rebuild its membership and supporter base. It has too small a membership and lacks National’s big bucks to compensate for that.

The only way Labour would attract the big bucks is by continuing to betray domestic labour in favour of international capital. It simply cannot compete as a Labour Party worthy of the name unless there is mass participation at the base which in turn demands accountability from its democratically elected leaders.

(edited to fix layout)

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Post-election blues

Frank Macskasy has written an interesting piece on the Daily Blog about things Labour needs to take away from this election.

Some people picked him up on his claim that National has not increased its vote over 2011, pointing out that the special votes have yet to be counted.  Although National may increase its vote once all the specials have been counted,  it's unlikely its percentage of the votes cast will increase significantly. 

And there's still the missing million - the 8.7% of eligible people who are not enrolled and the 23.2% who were enrolled but did not vote. Just under a third of people who could vote chose not to - resulting in the 3rd lowest turnout in 100 years.  

National's core support was, as always, consistent and obedient. They turned out and did as they were told, including voting tactically.  The Right's strategy to maximise its vote and discourage opposition voters is working well and what counts as the Left in NZ seems powerless to counter it. 

About 1 in 3 NZers voted for a party that was deeply implicated in a series of scandals which, in most countries, would have resulted in electoral failure.  I hoped it wouldn't but thought it was likely that National would be able to form a government, but the outcome was so unexpected as to leave some people convinced of voter fraud.

The morally-challenged National supporter who boasted on his Facebook page about having found a way to vote multiple times,  and the 'vote-National' tweets on election day from prominent athletes to tens of thousands of their followers have not helped soothe the conspiracy theorists' brow. That the athletes were from the two sports which featured heavily in National's formal and informal campaigns adds to the mix. 

So what are we seeing here? Why did NZ sashay further to the Right with John Key?

I often joke about the Amygdala Brigade but there are studies which support the theory that liberals and conservatives not only think differently but have differences in brain structure. 

Political conservatives have been typified as 'low effort' thinkers (LETs), and political liberals are 'high-effort' thinkers. It's theorised that the former cognitive style dominates in times of threat, social instability and danger and was perhaps the evolutionary 'default' mode. But, of course, without 'high effort' thinking we wouldn't progress. In truth, we all switch between the two but there are people who tend far more towards one than the the other and there are some who are incapable of anything but low-effort thinking.

We can all agree that a lot of New Zealanders react badly to any criticism of their country, however valid it is.  'Dirty Politics' shook many Kiwis' cosy notion of their country as honest, decent, moderate -  a 'mature, sensible and successful'  nation.  Some just trusted Key and shrugged the revelations off as untrue.  Some reacted with anger, anxiety or disgust at Nicky Hager's revelations but that wave of emotion didn't sweep away the perpetrators of the dirty politics.  With the considerable assistance of a largely compliant mass media (which itself has far too many LETs in its ranks), the wave was directed at the author of the book and the Left in general. 

I've met a lot of people who would stake a claim to reason and rationality who declare trenchantly that they will NOT read that book because they don't need to; they know it is - as a manic letter writer in The Press today puts it -  'accusations, half-truths, innuendos, smear and lies'. 

An ethical and thorough investigative writer and the broad Left were accused of engaging in the very dirty politics that had been exposed. It was the purest expression of political spin.

The LETs' emotional state was then heightened by appeals to their (highly selective) xenophobia when the nature of Internet-Mana's Moment of Truth was unveiled and repackaged by National and the media as a group of foreigners (some of them 'criminals' and 'traitors') who were attempting to hijack our mature, sensible and successful nation's election.

John Key  - who is the arch exponent of intellectual and political minimalism - was the teflon-coated port in the ensuing emotional storm.  

But Key's non-stick coating has degraded and is leaking toxins. However much the National Party's spin machine and the MSM pour oil over the damaged surface,  stuff will stick. 

Contrary to Josie Pagani's fervent assertion, the forces on the Right are not as united as they seem. They're very good at giving the appearance of stability and unity, which is vital given the mindset of their core supporters, but the leaders of National's factions are predatory and would eat each other with as much relish as they display when they tuck into the flesh of Wagyu cattle. 

That dogfight may be triggered when the rock star economy is found dead from an overdose of hype - or mutagenic swede perhaps.

On the question of the Green's failure to vote tactically in Ohariu and Epsom - Labour rejected an offer to work together with them, presumably because the blimps in the Labour party thought a formal alliance would turn off some voters.  That was inexplicable to an outsider like me as Labour was always going to need the Greens to form a government and a coordinated strategy was logical and necessary in light of National's plans to manipulate the vote in Epsom again, and Peter Dunne's continuing vulnerability in Ohariu. 

Having been rejected, the Greens could have taken the moral high ground anyway and not stood candidates in Epsom and Ohariu and other strategic seats - but why should they?  And once they'd decided to stand candidates, why should they tell their supporters not to vote for them?   

The fault lies with Labour. Who in Labour I don't know - but Cunliffe is leader and he carries the can for what he's now admitting was a major tactical error. If I was him I'd be looking long and hard at the people who were in favour of rejecting the Green's proposal. 

The Greens then paid Labour back with their statement about Labour's policies needing to be vetted and having a MOU with National. This  meant that what should have been a strong, principled alliance ended up looking like the strained relationship that's 'only staying together for the sake of the kids'.  

It contrasted badly with National's media-assisted appearance of harmony and unity - and is why that slick piece of ad-man agitprop featuring elite rowers worked so very well. 

On the question of Mana - the decision to ally itself with Internet was always going to end badly in my opinion. It was always going to be hard for people to buy into KDC's  transmogrification - from someone who was the personification of the Wednesday Lotto ad - into a leftwing politico concerned about the impact of mass surveillance on the lives of ordinary NZers. 

But that does nothing to mitigate the unpleasant fact that Labour - with the help of NZ First and National -  took Mana down.  Kelvin Davis got into parliament on the back of right wing votes - which may be very apposite - and I suspect Josie Pagani is correct and he'll prove to be a loose cannon in the party. 

A shabby strategy yielded a crappy outcome for progressive politics given the end result is a staunch advocate for ordinary NZers and Maori has been lost to parliament.  Add in Cunliffe's unnecessarily high-handed rejection of Internet and overall it was badly done. 

There's a lot else that borders on the surreal in this election. 

Stuart Nash, who was described by far-Right political strategist Simon Lusk in 2013 as, 'an exceptionally gifted politician', won Napier only because Garth 'I love Joe Arpaio' McVicar split the rightwing vote. Nash has said he is considering entering the leadership race along with David Shearer, Grant Robertson and David Parker.  They would all do well to sheath their knives and ask themselves if 2/3rds of the Kiwis who did not vote National either want or need National Lite. 

National's machinations in Epsom resulted in a political neophyte (I'm being kind) getting into parliament with 0.69% of the party vote, while a party that got 4.12% of the vote was left out.  And I was so looking forward to seeing Key having to deal with Craig, Rankin and McVicar.

Winston Peters is swishing around in his mantle of the nation's senior statesman, pontificating about the Green's being the cause of Labour's failure.  If No 3 on NZ First's list - Richard 'Wogistan' Prosser - is a measure of Peters' political integrity and acumen, we needn't take any notice of his opinion.

Finally, what put the mainstream media's role into perspective for me was the counterposing of Matthew Hooton and Josie Pagani as representatives of the political right and left; and the presence of Paul 'tells jokes about infant mortality in the third world' Henry who, judging by his outfit, thinks he's still 15. 

And meanwhile in the real world, there are the still unresolved questions of National's complicity in dirty tactics to influence candidate selection and advance corporate interests; mass surveillance and subservience to global corporate interests; the deep and growing fissures in the body politic.  All the spin and slick agit prop in the Right's makeup bag does not change the fact that the overwhelming majority of NZers did not vote for John Key's National Party. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

Looking through dirty windows into an empty room

A colleague of mine once described how he'd felt when interviewing a particularly nasty person who'd been engaged in some very unpleasant behaviour at work. 

He said that looking into the man's eyes was like, 'looking through dirty windows into an empty room".  

I don't know if he'd read that somewhere but I thought it was expressive - all the more so when I later met the man in question. I was as repelled by the person as I was fascinated by what made him behave in such a viciously anti-social way.

I kept recalling some lines from a Euan McColl poem,  "Items of News" about the violent deaths of some young people who

"once possessed a singularity, 

beyond the comprehension of their killers 
who stare at the camera lens 
with eyes as blank as bottle tops."

I get that same sense when I venture into the internet gathering places of the lowest of the low-effort thinkers, the storm troopers of the Right - the Amygdala Brigade.  The sort of people who are rioting in the streets of Glasgow as I write this. 

They're scary. As individuals they're bad enough, in a group, their viciousness can be both contagious and exponential. 

We may feel somewhat buffered from that in New Zealand - because we are such a moderate little place. We don't tend to take to the streets in a torrent of drunken, adrenaline and testosterone fuelled belligerence, beat the shit out of anyone who isn't one of us, and try to burn down the offices of a newspaper that offends us. 

But, there is a deep vein of conservatism in NZ which tolerates and, on occasions, encourages extreme views - and extreme views can lead to extreme acts very easily.

A sanitised expression of this deep conservatism can be found in the YahooNZ news poll, which almost always comes down with a large majority in favour of a very right-wing response to the issue the poll is addressing.   Its location on the YahooNZ website has been changed recently and the numbers voting on it have dropped - which may reflect the number of people who abandoned the site because it's recently been revamped into an irritating, advert-ridden mess - but the proportions haven't changed. 

A few days ago this question was posed on the poll:  

"Are you concerned by illegal mass spying of governments?"

  • Yes, of course (1220)  25%

  • Depends who's being spied on (1013)  21%

  • No, let them do it (2106)  42%

  • I don't care (575)  12%

Key words : MASS ILLEGAL - SPYING - GOVERNMENT  - and 75% of  YahooNZ poll respondents are OK with it. 

A poll the following day on the same issue was more neutrally worded but still reflected the same division - about 1 in 4 thought it is an issue, the rest are ok with it - they don't care, they believe that it's necessary, or they think that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

It may be that this poll is inaccurate or it may be that a majority of the people who visit the YahooNZ site are right wing and stupid. 

I add 'stupid' because I know there are some right wingers who do not think it's a good idea to allow an agency of the state to spy on all its citizens. They're politically aware enough to understand that these agencies develop an internal culture that can lead people within them to behave inappropriately unless they are kept in check by strict policy that has been framed democratically, and that is properly applied by the incumbent government. 

Just as the heads of the NZ Defence Forces can lose sight of their remit when they're playing with the big boys, so can the nation's spies - the more so because, of necessity, they operate covertly. 

We've had quite a few glimpses through some dirty windows  over the past few weeks and the rooms we've looked into are empty of all the things they should contain: ethics, good judgement, compassion, respect, decency. Even common sense has left the building.

We've been given a glimpse of the nature and extent of dirty politicking and the nature and extent of the surveillance state - courtesy of people of courage and integrity who decided it was necessary to clean a bit of the window to allow us to peek inside. 

Without suggesting which party anyone should vote for on this most important of election days - anyone who hasn't already made up their minds should be voting for the people who will clean the windows, take steps to keep them clean and make sure that the rooms of state are busy with people doing good things for the country as a whole, not just the top 10%. 

Monday, 15 September 2014

Just because I can….

"Listen, we have to stop doing these tobacco sponsored modelling jobs - we're starting to look like cadavers."

"I tell you, my corset's so tight I can't breathe and I think my stomach just emptied into my lungs."

Woman thinks: "Lord I'm so bored. I can't wait to get this stupid hat off. Why did I wear this hat? Her hat looks so much more stylish. Look at her pretending to be interested. Why did I wear this stupid hat? How long did he say this journey took?"

Man : "and on the 157th day we sailed round this bit …"

"Do you think if we stare at him hard enough we can put him off his stroke and get out of here early?"

"Hope so. My bum hurts. These marble seats are all very well aesthetically speaking but they're damned uncomfortable."

"I know. How come he gets a proper chair?"

"God my feet hurt. These seats are hard. I tell you, it's the last time we do one of these product placement gigs. You can tell that Carrick whatshis name to shove it next time."

"Does my bum look big in this?"

"I wonder if I look as bored and pissed off as I feel?
I know I've said it before, but never again - I've had it with this product placement schtick. 
If this moron beside me says 'absinthe makes the heart grow fonder' one more time I swear I'll shove that bottle up his nose.
I could have been a lawyer. Or a jockey. I like horses. Maybe a surgeon. Or a florist. Flowers are nice.
I wish this stupid painter would hurry up, how long can it take?
I'm hungry. You'd think they'd provide some food but no, just the booze and fags.
I wish he'd hurry up, it's not as if it's high art - they only want it to publicise how feckless the poor are.
A governess maybe. Or an explorer. I'd really like to be an explorer."

"If he doesn't shut up I swear I'm going to stuff this rag right down his pompous throat."

Man: "Look, can you concentrate on this please."

Woman: "I'm sorry but there's a man in doorway staring at us. Who are you? You're a painter? Oh, ok."

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Once upon a small blue hill….

A rewrite of a poem for kids I wrote years ago about a turtle….

Once upon small blue hill, 
A haughty PM stood.
He'd forgotten why he stood up there, he only knew he should.

He stood and stood, much time flew past, 
And still he stood, quite still,
Standing on a heap of lies, atop that small blue hill.

At length a horde came up to him, 
In bright and varied guise,
"Why stand you here oh perjured one, beneath these hostile skies?"

"Don't question me," the PM said, 
"At the end of the day I must,
For there is some design in this, I stand up here on trust."

"You're standing on a pile of lies!"  
The horde cried out in rage,
"You absurdly stupid politico, why don't you act your age?"

"Nonsense," the PM muttered, 
"It's how it's meant to be,
"Besides, I need my pile of lies, they're all I have," said he.

At that the horde cried out aloud, 
And prepared to storm the lies,
They polished up their hows and whens, and sharpened up their whys.

The PM stood defiantly, 
But the ground began to sway -
Then opened up and swallowed him. 'Twas on election day.

The End.

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Babby House

There was a letter in The Press yesterday from a National supporter in North Canterbury.  She wrote heatedly:

"I am sick, sick, and tired of the fights going on with the parties. They are all like little children playing what I call 'Babby house". 

Note the reference to ALL the parties. We don't get to find out what Babby house involves, but she goes on to tell them to:

"Pull your socks up".

But then she claims  :

"National has done heaps for our country."

So, clearly not ALL parties are playing Babby house and have wayward socks.  It seems National has:

"always been there, especially in our major disasters, earthquakes and floods."

I'll leave aside the vexed question of National's actual record in managing the aftermath of said earthquakes and just note that, as National leads the government it would be a bit odd if it had absented itself during major disasters.  

Just when you'd think it couldn't get any better, she makes the extraordinary claim that :

"John Key has kept our country afloat, bad times and good."  

Clearly the cult of personality is alive and well in Sefton. 
She then makes the rather cryptic claim that she has :

 "never known people to follow other parties like sheep." 

I have no idea if that means that she and other National supporters do follow like sheep but she gets back on the TeamKey track with the assertion that : 

"At least John Key knows where the money is coming from".  

Well, she's right there, he's fully aware of where he's borrowing it from. But she wanders off into lala land again with the claim that he :

"won't dib into it like the other parties would, and get us into a mess." 

I assume she meant 'dip'.  Clearly she's completely unaware - like most people who vote National - that we are in more debt now than when National took office. 

Finally, she exhorts us to :

"learn to trust the man.  He knows what he's doing".

I'd write in and say that I know Key knows what he's doing - and that's precisely what scares the crap out of those of us with some claim to intellect.  But, I suspect that it wouldn't make a skerrick of difference, so I probably won't.

I am mocking this poor correspondent  - not as a person - but as an exemplar of a set of platitudinous, inaccurate and parochial attitudes.  Really I should reserve my anger and my contempt for those who have the power to encourage originality, accuracy and liberality and who fail to do so.  

I've read at least one newspaper every day for almost my entire life and I've had enough of  sensationalist and misleading headlines, more white space and photographs than print,  airhead froth, biassed domestic and second-hand world news - and I'm seriously considering cancelling my subscription to The Press.

This week's final bale of straw, other than moronic right-wingers' letters to the editor, was the fact that they trumpeted their own poll result as evidence of National's imminent victory, and for the second time, and this time much more prominently, they featured a photo of the leaders' debate with John Key in the forefront in fine focus and an out of focus David Cuncliffe in the background.  The symbolism is as obvious as it is unworthy. If they'd done the reverse the Right would have been screaming 'foul' and with justification. 

Call me old fashioned but I do still hold to the notion that our fourth estate should be a vigilant guardian of democracy. The Press is asleep on the job.

The Men In The Mirror

The affluencia (1) engages in various forms of reinforcement behaviour aimed both at establishing and maintaining their place in various hierarchies, and affirming the political and social correctness of their extravagant lifestyle. 

For the most part, the affluencia represent the triumph of style over substance; appearance over essence; the allusive over the explicit, and the slick and superficial over the thoughtful and insightful.

This is the reason that John Key is so popular with them, and why they are so uncomfortable with someone like David Cunliffe. 

The mirror that Key holds up to them is a highly flattering one. It convinces them they really are the beautiful / clever / talented / meritorious people they think they are. In return, they hold up a mirror that reflects back a flattering image of him.  Anyone who fails to hold up the right sort of mirror risks getting their bum bitten. (2)

In contrast, the mirror that Cunliffe holds up to them is not as harshly revealing as I might want it to be, but is revealing enough that the image it reflects is far from flattering.  The affluensia hate him for making them feel uncomfortable about themselves so, to punish him, they hold up a grossly distorting mirror and get the media to claim that it's a true likeness. 

Key appears to be the archetypal affluencist. He's all mouth and Saville Row trousers. He deals almost exclusively in generalities. When pressed for an explicit answer he'll glibly waffle or make stuff up without missing a beat.  He needs the political discourse to be simultaneously dumbed down and frothed up because he's at a disadvantage when it gets complicated.  The media is usually happy to oblige in keeping it thus.  

A person who thinks deeply about issues is likely to be at a disadvantage when faced with trivial questions. Such a person will either try to turn the silly questions into something meaningful and risks being mocked by those who expect and want frothy, low-effort replies; or, they will try to engage with the questions on the questioners' terms and risk sounding clumsy and unauthentic and being mocked for that. 

The Stuff video of  'not so serious' questions to Cunliffe and Key is a case in point. Key is completely at home answering vacuous questions such as : what three things would you grab in an earthquake; who would you be want to be reincarnated as; what super hero do you identify with?  Cunliffe was not at ease because he lacks Key's capacity for slick and superficial small talk. He should have declined the offer; the commercial adage that all publicity is good publicity does not apply in modern politics.

If he was the host of a TV chat show,  Key's slick, easy manner would be highly appropriate but, in the Prime Minister, it's a reminder of how far we have fallen into US style presidential politicking.  The most vivid image I have of Key after the 2008 election is when he headed in to make his victory speech surrounded by a phalanx of flinty-eyed security men, as if his devotees might mob him or some terrorist try to attack him.  That style presaged the way our politics have steadily moved toward being more and more about the veneer of personality and image and less and less about substantive issues and firm policy.

The media's complicity in all this, via the endless production of the sound bites that have replaced proper political analysis and discourse, may be likened to sugar companies' lacing of food with high-fructose corn syrup. They are so disruptive of the metabolism of the body politic, they are potentially fatal.

There's a debate over how much of a veneer Key's public persona is. Is the slick, easy manner and claim to a slightly right of centre political stance actually a mask for a ruthless, far-Right ideologue hell bent on selling NZ off to transnational corporations? Or is what you see really what you get?

I think the answer lies in the dirt. His dismissal of Nicky Hager as a Leftwing conspiracy theorist, his complete failure to take the issues in any way seriously, and his brass neck attempt to turn his Party's own dirty politicking back onto the Left suggests he's more the ruthless far-Right ideologue than the easy going Centrist. 

As Key is persisting with the centrist schtick, we need to ask ourselves - what do we want in a PM?  Someone like Cunliffe who demonstrates high-effort thinking and who reaches deep into himself for the hard answers?  Or someone like Key whose preparedness and ability to dig deep for the answers to the hard questions is compromised by an apparent lack of intellectual and moral depth? 

For me it's a no-brainer but then it would be because I'm a do-gooding, bleeding-heart, tree-hugging, feral-feminist, hand-wringing, wishy-washy, liberal-lefty - activist. 

1. I made up the term 'affluencia' - or at least I think I did but it's very likely someone else has used it before me. The meaning should be fairly self-evident but, because I like to amuse myself with such things, I fancy it being an acronym for - acquisitive, frivolous, fault-finding, lightweight, uncaring, egocentric, negligent, censorious, ignorant arseholes. 

2. This is a reference that relates to a deleted paragraph about horses mutual grooming - a process which sometimes ends with the dominant horse nipping the subordinate one. I deleted the para and forgot the later reference to bum biting. Hope that clarifies it for anyone who was confused.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Don't sugar-coat it

People on the Right have been arguing that 'Dirty Politics' has been a distraction from the 'real issues' facing NZ.  For me, those 'real issues'  include: 
  • massive private and increasing public debt;  
  • loss of democratic control over national institutions and   resources;
  • increasing economic hardship among the unemployed and the working poor which is impacting on the most vulnerable, especially children;
  • appallingly high and skewed incarceration rates;
  •  increases in diseases of poverty and metabolic disorders; 
  • an over-reliance on various forms of extractive industry, the bulk of the profits from which go off shore or to a tiny proportion of the NZ population; and 
  •  an agricultural and horticultural sector that is incapable of feeding its domestic population at all, let alone cheaply.
Any intellectually and ethically rigorous examination of the dirty politics exposed in Hager's book must conclude that it is a strategy aimed at obscuring the 'real issues', masking the causes of them, and diverting people away from sensible and humane responses. 

The Right moralises like latter-day Poor Law Commissioners about the costs to the taxpayer of the 'feckless' poor but they're silent on the issue of the overt State subsidies to the likes of the owners of aged care facilities, and the covert State subsidies, via housing benefit, to employers who pay below subsistence wage.  

They also have nothing of value to say about the costs to our health care system and the loss of both productivity and potential caused by the diseases and disorders that are directly attributable to the cynical marketing of sugar-rich, nutritionally depleted foods, and of alcohol and tobacco. 

Ex-National Party MP, Katherine Rich, is Chief Executive of the NZ Food and Gocery Council, which represents manufacturers and suppliers to the grocery industry - including dairying, alcohol and tobacco companies.  In Chapter 7 of 'Dirty Politics', Hager detailed how Rich used lobbyist Carrick Graham's and blogger Cameron Slater's services to attack people who were deemed to be critical of the industry.  

In Nigel Latta's documentary about sugar, the last in the series of six excellent programmes looking at key social issues facing NZ,  Rich was interviewed by Latta.  Her responses to his questions are typical of the ethics and honesty of industry lobbyists.
  • First, attack your critics, in this instance endocrinologist Robert Lustig who, Rich claimed, 'exaggerates the role of sugar',  is 'melodramatic' and has been called 'hysterical'.
  • Second, reduce complex arguments to a simplistic parody and mock them.
  • Third, say that, in any event, it's not the industry's fault because they're only doing what the market wants them to do. 
  • Fourth, say it's people's own fault for choosing to eat too much of the wrong things and to exercise too little. 
  • Finally, say government cannot legislate to force people to make good choices in terms of what they buy or how much they exercise.
Let's first consider the question of choice.   It's insulting for a member of the affluensia like Rich to claim that, if she can make the choice not to consume junk food and can use advertising as a source of information, so can everyone.  

The reality is that there is little real consumer choice in New Zealand nor much of the vaunted competition which the Right argues ensures best value for the consumer.  Most people have to shop in one of two chains of supermarkets, both of which actively promote the consumption of certain types of foods that are high in calories and low in both essential nutrients and nutrient diversity.  

Combine that with a low wage economy and a high proportion of people who live from wage to wage, and the question of consumer choice becomes an unpleasant joke.  Add in the damaging qualities of the substance that most cheap, processed and fast food is laced with, and a lack of public knowledge of its harmful effects, and it becomes downright ugly. 

Only the terminally vacuous, the irretrievably venal or the determinedly dishonest can deny the fact that the consumers who are most at risk of the adverse effects of cheap, sugar-rich, processed foods, are those who have least choice about whether to buy them. 

The food industry hates and persistently smears Robert Lustig because he insists that it IS the industry's fault; that it knows the harm it does and, either cynically chooses to ignore it, or is deliberately doing harm; and that it uses cynical marketing techniques to encourage people to buy food that is, quite literally, killing them. 

Lustig’s argument is compelling and, unless you are a PR pro or making loads of money out of the food industry in some other way, it's impossible to ignore.  He focuses on sugar and especially on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) for very good reasons. 

There is an epidemic of general and morbid obesity and Type 2 diabetes across much of the developed world - with all the massive health problems associated with those conditions - from kidney, liver and heart failure, to loss of limbs and sight.  The human and social costs are incalculable. Most of the victims are poor. 

The fattest nations on earth are also the largest consumers of sugar - both sugar refined from cane and beet, and more importantly, HFCS, which is sweeter and cheaper, especially in the USA. It's widely used in the production of cheaper food items and in 'low fat' items and 'health foods'.

Critics argue that the food industry laces its low-fat, low salt and its cheaper ranges of processed foods and drinks with so much sugar that the consumption of these products has created metabolic disorders of a type and severity never before known in human history.

Morbid obesity was once such a novelty that, at the turn of the 19th century, a man who weighed 50 stone became wealthy by charging people to visit him. Today 320 kg is horribly commonplace and people at the extreme end of the obesity spectrum tip the scales at 450 + kgs. 

The question is, what drives a person to consume 20,000 calories a day and eat himself into such a condition? 

The crux of the problem lies in the omnipresence of sugar in processed foods and drinks and in particular, the widespread use of HFCS. It's not just in sweets, cakes and biscuits, it's also in breads, cereals, processed meats, yoghurts, sauces, muesli bars, spreads, tinned products of all sorts and, in soft drinks.  

Some of these products are extremely high in calories but almost completely void of nutritional value.  The worst culprits are soft drinks.  The cheaper the food is, the more likely it is that it contains HFCS. 
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A 2009 report from researchers all over the world, including NZ, concluded that HFCS is a major contributor to obesity.  It noted that there may be specific issues relating to how the body breaks down fructose which does not appear naturally in high levels in most of the pre-WW2 dietary staples.  

Dietary fructose is metabolised primarily in the liver and we can only metabolise it in very small quantities. It’s laid down as visceral fat,which adheres to internal organs and even thin people may have internal fat deposits that are injurious to health.  Fructose is also known to increase the risk of atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance and increases the levels of uric acid and LDL cholesterol. 

Some individuals and some ethnic groups may be less able to metabolise fructose just as some populations cannot metabolise alcohol. Genetics may play a part in whether an individual becomes obese and how badly. Social class certainly does.  In the NZ population Pacific Islanders have the highest levels of obesity, Maori are next, then Pakeha and Asians are the least obese but are reporting the most rapid increase in obesity. 

There is also the possibility that a person's liver may already be stressed by having to cope with the enormous range of 'toxins' we ingest (often unknowingly and involuntarily) on a daily basis - residues of the thousands of chemicals at use industrially and domestically.  There may also be a part played by the widespread use of milk solids and soya meal in food processing.

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The body naturally seeks homeostasis - equilibrium. Our metabolism - the complex chemical processes that maintain life - operates on a feedback cycle of the production of initiating and dampening hormones secreted by endocrine glands, adipose tissue and the digestive system.  

Given its fundamental importance to life, our knowledge about the subtle and complex functions of the body's hormonal messaging systems is still sketchy - in no small measure because so much research is funded by industry. (Eg. a lot of the research into obesity is funded by pharmaceutical companies looking for a drug that can control appetite.)

We didn't know about insulin resistance - the precursor to type 2 diabetes - and we didn't know about the hormones that are involved in the regulation of insulin, until the 1980s. We know now that the over-consumption of sugar, especially fructose, disrupts the feedback loops that allow our metabolism to restore homeostasis. 

In the case of appetite - there are 2 key hormones that initiate the desire to eat and, through the feeling of satiety, stop us eating.

In broad terms, leptin is slow acting hormone that regulates energy balance and suppresses appetite. It is released into the circulatory system by adipose tissue and in the stomach and crosses the blood-brain barrier. Grehlin is a fast acting hormone that plays a complex role in signaling hunger.

These hormones are linked in complex ways to the body's ability to accurately judge body fat and the appropriate production of insulin.  

Too much sugar - and in particular it seems, too much fructose - causes imbalances in the subtle and complex feedback system.  Put simply - people end up constantly feeling hungry and appetite is not switched off once they've have eaten.

Lustig argues that, in this situation, biochemistry drives behaviour. If you alter the biochemistry by flooding the system with a substance people cannot metabolise effectively and safely, eventually the metabolism becomes less and less capable of regaining and retaining equilibrium.

The outcome is the epidemic of metabolic disorders - the most visible symptom of which is a general increase in weight and a massive increase in morbid obesity and the range of serious health issues associated with it. 
The saturation of our food staples with high fructose corn syrup and other forms of sugar is the single biggest factor and the most easily remedied.  There are other social and environmental factors that may intensify and compound the ill-effects of a nutrient-poor, sugar-rich diet.

Good quality rest is essential to the balance between regulatory hormones. If you have high cortisol levels at night you will not get quality sleep and your grehlin  (the appetence hormone) levels will be higher the following day.  A high cortisol level may be a result of eating too much sugar, it may also be caused (and certainly will be exacerbated) by being in a persistent state of stress. 

For some people, a diet that is high in sugar, salt and poor quality fats, and low in nutrients, combines with their genetic blueprint and a lifestyle that is low in exercise and high in environmental, social and economic stressors.  

Imagine life as a river; downstream there's a huge whirlpool.  Some people enter the river a long way up stream and others enter it close to the whirlpool's edge.  If your life is balanced and healthy even if you enter the river close to the whirlpool you can pretty much hold your own against the current, maybe even swim upstream.  But, the more unbalanced and unhealthy your lifestyle is, the harder it is to resist the pull of the current. If you can't swim hard enough to escape you get sucked further into the vortex until you reach a point where it is impossible to break free; forces completely beyond your control are pulling you under. 

Put another way - there's a point at which restoring metabolic equilibrium is no longer possible because the metabolic processes have become chaotic.  

I asked above, what drives human beings to consume 20,000 calories a day and eat themselves into a state of complete helplessness and early death? 

You can go down the low-effort thinkers’ route and believe it's simply due to individual pathology - a sudden increase in the number of lazy, self-indulgent people who make bad choices and eat too much of the wrong things and exercise too little. 

Or, you can exercise your intellect and your humanity and see it for what it is - the gross disruption of people’s metabolism caused by a cynical, callous, profit-driven industry.

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If you're still with me, the following section provides some back ground on the changes in agriculture and food production since the 1950s.

An agricultural revolution occurred after WW2 with the use of nitrate fertilisers. A massive boom in food production took off in the 1960s in the USA with the industrial scale farming of maize, which was alternated with legumes such as soya beans and peanuts to offset the soil nitrogen depletion that occurs with intensive maize growing.

Maize fuelled the massive increase in the quantities of cheap food available to the USA's burgeoning supermarkets and fast food restaurants.  The soya meal and peanuts also found a role in food production as protein boosters and bulking agents. 

Super markets and fast food chains rely heavily on processed foods with a long shelf life.  Instead of people buying raw ingredients and cooking, preserving them etc, the food industry takes raw ingredients and makes more profit out of them by turning them into a finished product. This processing hides both the quality of the raw ingredients and the nature of the added ingredients like protein boosters, colour and flavour enhancers and artificial preservatives.

Coincidental with this was the development of technologies that allowed the vast maize surpluses to be turned into high fructose corn syrup (among other things). 

The era also saw a huge increase in cardio-vascular disease and bowel cancer that sparked a debate between those scientists who argued it was due to increased consumption of saturated fats and a sedentary lifestyle, and those who argued that the main culprit was the massive increase in the consumption of sugar.

The lobbying power of the heavily protected and heavily subsidised US maize growers and the chemical industries linked to them, ensured that saturated fats were blamed for the health problems.  

The food industry smelled a chance for even bigger profits in marketing 'healthy' low-fat foods.  Health and appearance obsessed consumers, guided by the advertisers, dutifully consumed the 'healthy' low fat and low salt alternatives.

The problem with taking fats out of food and not adding salt is that you remove a lot of the flavour so, to enhance flavour, the industry added even more HFCS which also acts as a preservative, adds calorific value and, the more people eat it, the more they want of it. In the USA, consumption of HFCS increased by 1000% between 1970 and 1990.  

Any observable reductions in heart disease and colon cancer as a result of the removal of natural fats may well have been attributable to other lifestyle changes, such an increase in exercise and dietary fibre. The startling outcome of the increase in the use of sugar from the 1970s was that people started getting fatter and Type 2 diabetes, once known as 'adult-onset' diabetes before it started appearing in children, was becoming more common, as was non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

The 1980s' monetarist reforms resulted in the export of the American model of intensive, chemical dependent agriculture and food production to the rest of the developed world.  Public health advocates and scientists who tried to argue that the problem was the omnipresence of sugar and of HFCS in particular, were ignored, mocked or smeared.  

All attempts to control the food giants' use of sugar have failed.