He Iwi Kotahi Tātou – Guest Post by Philip McKibbin

Me mihi atu ahau ki ōku hoa ako me ōku hoa mahi.

Ko tēnei kōrero mā ngā tāngata katoa.

This article is for everyone.

There is only one way to address the problems that afflict us. That way is love. It can be difficult, though, to imagine love as something more than that which a family shows to a child, that which so many of us seek in romantic partnerships, or that which some of us believe we will find in God – and yet, we must. As bell hooks tells us, there is only one love, and it has the potential to transform our world …

Love is a way of relating. We can relate to different things: to ourselves, to other people, and to the natural environment. Togetherness, then, is an extension of love with other people. Friendships help us to appreciate this: these relationships – which are loving – are freely chosen, and they endure because they allow us to both be ourselves and be together. Love leads us to togetherness; and in togetherness, we learn how to love.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, this way of love is not achieving expression. Our lack of togetherness is evident in our inequalities, especially those between Pākehā and Māori. The idea that, because ‘we’re all New Zealanders’, we have achieved equality is false: it ignores Pākehā privilege and fails to account for disadvantage. The crises that confront Māori in education, health, and justice are not only Māori problems; nor are they only Pākehā problems. They are our problems, and when we understand them as such, they affect us all.

These problems are symptoms of our lack of togetherness, but they are not the only ones: interpersonal racism, on the part of both Pākehā and Māori, taints our thinking and poisons our relationships. The lack of trust between us – be it an unreasoning response to misrepresentation, or a weary wariness resulting from oppression – prevents us from seeing the potential benefits in working together to generate solutions to our problems.

As Hone Heke signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi, William Hobson – trying to say, ‘we are now one people’ – said to him, ‘He iwi tahi tātou.’ Heke corrected his grammar: ‘He iwi kotahi tātou,’ he said.* We can think about this story in a number of ways. We might remember the haste with which The Treaty of Waitangi was prepared, or think about the incompetence of those who drafted it. It is tempting, indeed, to read into this story all of the problems that have plagued us, as a people and as peoples, since 1840.

I think about the story differently. I choose to imagine both Heke and Hobson as well-intentioned, and as engaged in a joint project. As a Pākehā learner of te reo Māori, I sympathise with Hobson. I know – as do my hoa ako – that it takes courage to speak in a language different to the one you are most used to. Perhaps Heke knew that, too? Well, he could have responded to Hobson’s suggestion that we are one people by saying, ‘No, we aren’t!’ Instead, he strengthened the sentiment.

What is very clear is that Heke knew togetherness cannot be based on exploitation – that he understood this is evident in what he did, and did, and then did again to that flagpole in Kororāreka, cutting it down in acts of protest against the Crown. Togetherness is not a one-sided thing. Whether it involves people or peoples, it acknowledges our plurality, our mutuality. It also involves a commitment to equality: the opposite of equality is oppression, and as bell hooks says, when we choose to love we move against oppression.

We cannot ignore the racism – interpersonal, institutional, and internalised – under which Māori continue to suffer. And if we really are committed to overcoming it, we must understand it as it is: a weight, which we will only lift by pulling together. It is only by working with Pākehā that Māori will overcome racism; and by working with Māori to overcome racism, Pākehā will finally be deserving of the right to live in this country.

What should we do? We must all seek understanding, which we will gain by being together. We must then challenge ourselves with that understanding – and if we find fault in the way we think or feel, try our hardest to right it. And we should form friendships, because in friendship we will find the strength we need to transform ourselves and our world…

When we look on it alone, the way of love seems difficult – but because we will be walking it with friends, we will know how to respond to the challenges we encounter. As individuals, we must start on that path. We should invite other people to walk with us, and welcome them when they do. As we walk, more and more people will join our hīkoi.

And then – then, when we are all journeying together – we will explore our Universe, drawing on the strengths of our many cultural heritages, navigating new ways of being that benefit all of us as equals and that will continue to benefit our descendants…

Togetherness requires trust, and trust takes courage. Unfortunately, trust is something we lack here in Aotearoa New Zealand – but whether we are Māori or Pākehā, or Māori and Pākehā, or strong in our other ways, courage is something we have plenty of.

And we can always choose to love.

* This story is related by Papaarangi Reid in “Te Pupuri i te Ao o te Tangata Whenua.” (In Health and Society in Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Davis, Peter and Kevin Dew, 51-62. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1999.)

This guest post was contributed by Philip McKibbin, a freelance writer living in Auckland, New ZealandYou can find more of his writing at http://www.philip-mckibbin.com/.

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So It Seems: Of Hearts and Hospitals

It’s almost pitch black, at about 10.30pm on a Thursday night, in the middle of nowhere somewhere between New York and Baltimore. I walk out across the petrol station while the bus takes a rest break, and the cicadas aren’t just humming – they’re screeching. I look around. It’s desolate and dark.

I’m meant to be in New York, coming to the end of an internship with the office of Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme – a dream job. Instead I’m on a Megabus heading to Baltimore, on my way to Johns Hopkins Hospital, about to see the doctor responsible for discovering a rare condition called Loeys-Dietz Syndrome and an expert in heart surgery.

How did I get here? And how did it come to this?

*

Eight months ago, in December 2013–January 2014, I attended the wedding of my friend, Akif, in Pakistan. It was a unique experience, made even more memorable by the fact that for 10 days, 15 friends of Akif’s were largely confined to an apartment in Karachi because of the security situation in the city. The apartment was in the Defence quarter, located opposite an ostentatious shopping mall. A McDonald’s had its grand opening while we stayed there – but the apartment was otherwise surrounded by an expanse of desert-like terrain, with the shadowy shapes of Karachi’s skyline only barely visible in the distance.

We all went a little crazy in that apartment, biding our time until wedding events in the evening. There were rich conversations: on New Zealand politics and law, on the books we had (I was mocked for having a copy of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, which was read aloud and ridiculed), on the future. But even with the best company, most people get fidgety after that much time in an enclosed space. And we were no different. We were driven to activities that would’ve bordered on the wacky to anyone watching from the outside: building towers of bottles on glass tables, and narrating shadow puppet shows before we went to sleep at night – three per bed, with a hessian sack in place of bedding for one of us.

On one of these days, with the fan whirring in the background, the only doctor in our group, Andrew, turned towards me from across the room. He looked at me – as I stretched – and, joking in part, mentioned that in some ways I looked like a person with an unusual disorder called Marfan Syndrome. He asked me whether I could do certain things – like whether my thumb poked out if I clenched it under my fingers in a fist-like move – and made some comments about my limbs and my chest. “You should get it checked out next time you go to the doctor,” he said – or words to that effect.

Marfan Syndrome is a genetic connective tissue disorder. It tends to arise in people who are tall, who have long limbs, spidery fingers, and slightly odd-shaped chests – though the symptoms and diagnostic testing require much more than this. If undetected, it can lead to sudden heart problems.

At the time that I heard about Marfan’s, I laughed off this comment. My friend Andrew was only half-serious. And my quick Googling revealed body shapes that, while resembling mine, looked much more unusual than my own.

In hindsight, I’m extremely grateful to Andrew for making this off-hand remark. In some ways, it was in that apartment in the Defence quarter of Karachi, that all of this began.

*

Earlier this year, as part of my Master’s degree at the University of Oxford, all students were asked to organise an internship, a “summer project”, to round off our studies of public policy. After some brainstorming, I decided that my ideal position would be with Helen Clark, the head of the UN’s Development Programme and former Prime Minister of New Zealand – a progressive leader who I’ve long looked up to. With the support of the Blavatnik School of Government, I managed to arrange this internship in New York for two months from late June until late August 2014.

Fast forward to early August – and I’m having the time of my life. I’m working with intelligent, friendly people, passionate about making a difference in the world in a rigorous way, and at scale. Topics at work span public health (in particular, HIV/AIDS), climate change, poverty reduction, and how organisations can best anticipate the future (“strategic foresight”). And on the weekends I’m roaming coffee shops and independent bookstores – Double Dutch Espresso, McNally Jackson’s, 9th Street Espresso, the Housingworks Bookstore – and finally coming to love a city I’ve always wanted to like but never fully wrapped my head around.

On one Monday, though, as I’m emerging out of a subway in East Village after a particularly busy week – and on my way to Bluestockings, another independent bookstore with a strong activist and feminist bent – I feel a fleeting but sharp chest pain that gives me pause. I’ve become quite an anxious person in recent years, so my mind leaps to the worst case scenario. I slow down, take a break, and decide to buy some water. I walk on for a while, but the pain returns, briefly. I text my Mum, back in New Zealand – a nurse, and a wonderful person who knows my anxiety as well as she knows about addressing pain. She calls, asking me whether I have been eating and drinking and sleeping well (a fair question given my occasional neglect of these things), and tells me to stay in touch. Inside Bluestockings, the bookstore, I can’t really concentrate. I feel weak and a bit faint in the New York heat. I remember sitting on a bench outside the bookstore for at least a few minutes, and then gradually getting to my feet to take small steps towards the subway home.

At home, my kind flatmate (“room-mate”), Mike, a medical student doing a period of practical training in New York, agrees to have a chat about how I’ve been feeling. He listens to my heart and mentions that everything seems and sounds relatively normal – noting, I think, that the issue could be to do with my aorta, but commenting that at 26, any problems would be unusual. “Keep tabs on it, though,” he says – and if any pains recur, I should let him know, he tells me. In the preceding few months, Marfan Syndrome had come to my mind several times (during occasional chest pains in Oxford), and it returned to my thoughts again. Had Mike heard of it, I ask, and what did he think? He laughs, surprised that this unusual disorder would come to mind. He expresses skepticism, but also looks equivocal. He can’t be sure, but it’s certainly an unusual syndrome.

Then, on Sunday – unfortunately the day after Mike moved out of the apartment – I blacked out. The night before I’d read a tragic story in the New Zealand Herald about a young New Zealander who died suddenly in Sydney of a rare connective tissue disorder. He looked tall and slim, and I couldn’t help think of Marfan Syndrome. I woke up worrying, and after a bit of an Internet review, which I tried to filter for more reputable sources, I found myself even more concerned. What if I had the syndrome, and I was about to be suddenly struck down by it? I read somewhere that severe episodes must be caught within a couple of weeks if they are to be managed (and sometimes they can have more immediate, catastrophic effects), and I felt like my pains had been occurring for the last week or so. Whether because of anxiety or something else, I found myself getting blurred vision as I sat on the side of my bed. This was the worst I could have feared, I thought; but at the same time I tried to stay calm.

Some water might bring some relief, I thought – it was what my Mum had always recommended. I got up and took a few paces down the hallway towards the kitchen, but at some point I realised I wasn’t going to get there. I turned back towards my bedroom, and next came a few moments that I won’t ever be able to piece together. I was fortunate to slightly nudge my head on the floor – presumably after my legs buckled from under me, or perhaps after I fell backwards – at a force not strong enough to cause any damage, but distinct enough to bring me back to consciousness. I stared back into my bedroom, startled and a bit bemused, and it took me a few seconds to realize that I had fainted or somehow lost consciousness. “I think I just fainted,” I said to my room-mate, Matt, who kindly grabbed me some water before he had to race out the door. Mothers and others must think alike: water is the remedy for most ailments.

I still thought that going to the hospital would be an overreaction – a lot of people faint, for a lot of reasons, right? – and in the back of my mind was a worry about the cost of hospitalization in the US. But when I sat down and felt a numbness in parts of my body (my foot and my arm), and began losing vision again in my left eye, I thought that the situation was probably serious enough to start making inquiries about medical options.

What followed – between that moment and getting to the hospital – was pretty farcical, and wouldn’t happen in a country with public healthcare. I was very lucky to have emergency health insurance, provided by the Blavatnik School of Government where I was studying. I decided I should call them to check that they would cover my hospital visit, but I realised that I couldn’t call them off my US cell phone. I added Skype credit – technology has done wonders for me, at different stages of this story – and called my UK insurers. I was told that they would call me back in a few minutes, and that they recognized that it was an emergency; after 20 minutes I called them, only to be told by a friendly-sounding man that the insurance would cover my hospitalization, and that they would now find a hospital with which they had cover and call me back shortly. I waited, I think, for another 40 minutes, all the while sitting at my bed and playing out scenarios in my head. I decided to play some music by the New Zealander Liam Finn to calm me down – I had seen him play an outrageously good live show in New York only a fortnight previously; Liam Finn, like technology, would be a helpful companion in the coming days. His song, ‘Second Chance’, was ringing through my head:

You stand around your haunted home

Those demons won’t leave you alone

Don’t forget me when you grow old

Remember! Remember! Remember!

I looked at my clock. Almost an hour had passed. I decided to call the insurers again, and a lovely man named Kevin told me that I should go to Mt Sinai Hospital, and that I shouldn’t worry about being covered.

In another moment that was as comical as it was farcical, I realised that the mobile data on my phone plan in the US had not been working, though I had paid for it. I suddenly thought that I should see if this could be fixed – if I was about to go into hospital, I’d need a way to speak to people, and perhaps I could get hold of them on Skype.

“Hi, uh, I have a bit of a medical situation,” I stammered – my Kiwi tendency towards understatement probably coming through here – as I leapt into a taxi I’d hailed down.

An upbeat, male call-centre voice replied: “What is the problem with your phone, sir?”

“Ah, yeah, I don’t have Internet though I’ve paid for it. But I really need Internet: I’m about to go into hospital and need it to get hold of people.”

In words that I am not making up, and which show up the ills of a society that prioritises rule-based bureaucratic interaction over human dialogue, the man responded: “So, let me summarise: you have a problem with Internet on your phone …”

If I hadn’t been so worried, I would have laughed. As it was, I let out a small smile. Unfortunately, my Internet couldn’t be fixed during the course of that taxi ride. But I was too focused on the hospital to really care. Moments later, I checked myself into the emergency ward of Mt Sinai Hospital, New York.

*

I had been expecting to wait for some time, but I was impressed with the speed at which I was moved into a bed in the Emergency Department. I was given some preliminary interviews, told I would be getting various scans done, and fitted out with a gown. (I later discovered that I had put the gown on the wrong way round, with openings – usually exposing the back – that revealed my chest. I got some funny looks, but as anyone who has spent time with me knows, there was hardly much of a muscular spectacle to behold there.)

The first day in hospital flew by. I had curtains around my bed and I lay back, relaxed, looking out into the main central medical desk in the department – a positioning that gave me the curious feeling of being an audience member peeping at actors preparing to go onstage. It was especially curious being able to hear, occasionally, the doctors discussing my case, on the phone or with each other: “Uh, yeah. We have a 26 year-old male, who’s had a syncopal episode, with marfanoid habitus …”

That day was full of slightly absurd episodes – or maybe I was just on the look-out for absurdity to keep myself calm. There was the rap-battling, freestyling male-and-female nurse duo, who were constantly sniping at each other – with my highlight being the male nurse’s line, “If I was a donut/You’d wanna glaze me.” There was the drunk man brought in – whose severe alcoholism, to be sure, was no laughing matter – who croaked out for a urine bottle, only to use it, put it down next to his bed with no lid on it, and then swat it over, spilling the contents all across the floor in front of me (where it stayed for a good 10–15 minutes, painting the floor yellow). There was the CT-scan room, a room that I thought would be full of sterility and technology – but that was brought alive by the sound of loud hip-hop music when I was taken in on a stretcher. (“They always have the best music in here,” deadpanned the staff member tasked with pushing my stretcher.) I also couldn’t shy away from hearing the rectum examination that had to be done on the man with whom I was sharing my right curtain; I’m sure this procedure was much worse for him, since it had to be done essentially in public, with only curtains shielding him from the other patients. Welcome to the Hospital.

Those anecdotes may imply that I made light of the experience. I didn’t. I felt comfortable talking to people within the hospital – the nurses and doctors were very warm, partly I suppose because it was not so common for someone as young as me to come in. But when I made contact with the outside world – when I called my friends Alaister and Mitch, and when my parents made contact by calling the hospital – I found myself slightly choking up. It was only in talking to people not in the hospital, and in hearing their reactions to what had happened and what was happening, that I started to realize the seriousness of the situation.

And some important news came towards the end of the day, around the time my friend Mitch visited: one of the scans revealed that I had an enlarged aorta, or aortic aneurysm. And the doctors were all seriously considering the possibility that I had Marfan Syndrome, with all of them being impressed that I had a friend that pointed out the possibility to me. The fact that the enlarged aorta was being investigated alongside Marfan Syndrome was significant: if I had Marfan’s, the enlarged aorta would be considerably be more problematic, as the connective tissue disorder at the heart of Marfan’s would make it more likely that the aorta might tear (through a “dissection”), with potentially deadly consequences. The doctors began to talk about surgery, with one even using the term “life-threatening” to describe my position, a term that stayed with me. They said that I would definitely have to stay overnight as they considered options.

*

I was moved the next day to an observation room with three other patients. There was still a chance that I would have to go into surgery. A friend (and my girlfriend’s brother), Paul, took time out of work to chat and to bring me a phone charger and some headphones. I also struck up conversation with a lovely older woman, Gladys Brodsky, who was dealing with the effects of heart surgery. On my second day, she invited me over to her side of the room to share a hospital lunch.

Gladys was a Jewish artist who had spent her life in Woodstock. She was grey and frail, but with a certain elegance that remained even as she faced up to the vulnerability of being in a hospital. In her own way, she was charming: she spoke about Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and others living in Woodstock; Israel and Palestine; and her past days as a women’s rights activist. “If all men were injected with oestrogen at age 13, and took on a few female characteristics,” she mused at one point, “I think the world would be a lot different.”

She spoke lovingly about her father (“a socialist, not a communist”), who used to hold learning evenings every Tuesday with members of the community on political topics (“only the men”, she noted, when I asked if women went too). “He was a genius,” she said wistfully. I told her that I sometimes felt similarly about my own father, and this sparked a further discussion about whether our conception of “genius” is gendered – we both concluded it probably was, and that our mothers were probably geniuses, too. We touched on bigotry, as well – and Gladys spoke eloquently about how racism lies “deep in the bones” of the United States.

For the first time in my life, I thought about the beauty of good conversation, and how much I enjoyed it. In the listening and learning that exist in a conversational dialogue, in the symmetry two or more people can find when each shares a part of themselves, in the spontaneity that can gush out when two people are truly comfortable – there is something special.

In between this conversation and the visits of other wonderful friends (my old flat-mate Alaister, who shared partying stories to keep me upbeat, and my dependable friend Mitch, who would visit me on three consecutive evenings after long days at his law firm job), there was sobering medical news. There was further talk about surgery, which my mother (calling from New Zealand) cautioned against going into suddenly, and the doctors wanted to continue with further testing. They told me that MRA imaging was going to be done next, to try to resolve discrepancies in the measurements of my enlarged aorta.

Perhaps in an effort to steel myself against these sombre updates, or to find some semblance of support as I tried to maintain mental strength, I began to build some rapport or warmth with the staff at Mt Sinai. Dr. Weiss always left me feeling buoyant, clasping my hand after delivering updates. A friendly young transporter inquired about why I was in hospital, and when I mentioned that the doctors were interested in Marfan Syndrome, he made me feel better by referring to a young basketballer, Isaiah Austin, who was drafted into the NBA only to have his career cut short by the condition. The story is a sad one, but thinking of myself as potentially in the same category as an NBA basketballer made me feel just a little more chirpy, especially since my sports-playing history is a tale of great aspiration and enthusiasm coupled with limited achievement.

The staff with whom I felt some tension were financial representatives, who visited on several occasions, and called my cell phone (at one point while I was talking to a doctor) to try to get me to sign a payment form. If signed, the form committed me to paying all costs not covered by insurance. The staff pursuing my signature were friendly individuals. And it was not surprising to me to be told about these forms during my stay. But I couldn’t help but be slightly sickened by this constant reminder of the links between money and access to emergency treatment in the US. I was determined not to sign the form, so I asked on several occasions for more time to consider my position, and eventually the representatives must have given up on me, or forgotten about it. A form remained unsigned on the side of my bed when I was discharged – a small, maybe meek, symbol of my opposition to the forces of finance driving healthcare.

*

Before I was discharged I spent two nights in a smaller room that I shared with a middle-aged man, Joe, who was about to get heart surgery. I didn’t see much of Joe, a slightly taciturn but seemingly kind guy who was a doctor himself, since a curtain remained drawn between our beds. But I heard a lot about him: you cannot avoid learning about other people through overhearing conversations in hospital rooms like that one. One of the first things I heard was a panicked scene when I woke at 5.55am on Wednesday morning to hear, five minutes before his surgery, Joe apparently losing consciousness. His wife shouted, “Joe! Joe!” and cried for help, with monitors beeping loudly in the background in a manner most people will be familiar with from television and movies. Joe recovered, fortunately, but his surgery was delayed, and the incident was a sharp reminder to me of what heart surgery (which was being discussed in relation to my condition) might entail.

It was around this time that I also learned – through overhearing Joe’s family’s comments, and some Googling on my phone – that a patient was being tested at Mt Sinai for the Ebola virus. This didn’t do anything to reduce my anxiety. I started wondering (as anyone might, I think) whether I could have come into contact with the man on my first day in the emergency ward, or indirectly through my visits to reception desks and shops down the corridor. But I soon realised that this kind of speculation wasn’t all that rational, or helpful.

My own medical position appeared to be stable – apart from several moments of brief chest pain, which may have been the result of anxiety – and the doctors were closing in on a diagnosis. After a gentle older cardiologist, Dr. Halperin, spotted a strange double flap at the back of my throat, called a bifid uvula, the medical teams started to favour not Marfan Syndrome but a slightly more aggressive and newly discovered syndrome called Loeys-Dietz Syndrome. Loeys-Dietz is another connective tissue disorder, which often manifests through long limbs and spidery fingers, but also involves certain specific symptoms – a bifid uvula, flat feet (which I have), and aortic enlargement. Doctors are keener to operate on those with Loeys-Dietz Syndrome when the aorta is less enlarged than with Marfan Syndrome (for Marfan the threshold for surgery is a 5cm diameter in the US, I was told whereas the American threshold is 4.5cm for Loeys-Dietz), since the danger of a tear is greater. This made the accurate measurement of my aortic enlargement all the more important: my first measurement had come back at 4.9cm on the CT scan, whereas my second measurement on my echo had been 4.1cm.

To clarify the measurements, I had to do MRA imaging of both my brain and my heart. Getting an MRA done is a strange experience, as anyone who has had one will know. You lie on a slab, with your chest or head fixed in place, and you enter a large dome. Odd sounds are emitted periodically, which reminded me of the robot voices on the Daft Punk song, Technologic. And the technician issues various instructions over a loudspeaker-like instrument, including “breathe!” and “breathe normally!”. To avoid becoming too anxious about it, I again played Liam Finn’s “Second Chance” in my head. The rippling synthesizer sounds and scratching guitar tune kept me calm, and I tried to write out the words in my mind: “Sew the seeds/Sew the seeds to life/By packing up to make it right.” I thought also of the people that had made the previous days bearable – my family and girlfriend, who were constantly in contact; my visiting friends; and the virtual visits I received on Skype from people in the UK and New Zealand (including a wonderful group Skype call with the friends with whom I’d organized a conference in Oxford, the Global Scholars Symposium).

Following a long wait (and a viewing of Robert Reich’s documentary, Inequality for All), the MRA results came back: showing an enlargement of 4.5cm – right on the threshold of surgery. To my surprise, the doctors were confident about discharging me. I asked them to hold off on letting me go so quickly, partly because my girlfriend Julia and Mum were now on their way to be beside me, and partly because I had earlier been told that if I had Loeys-Dietz, I may need surgery at this level of enlargement. After some further discussions, visits, and receiving some lovely flowers from friends Anna and James in London, my discharge recommendation was confirmed – and I was encouraged by the very thorough Dr. Kontorovich to get genetic testing, since a Loeys-Dietz diagnosis could only be clarified with this genetic information.

Leaving the hospital was in some ways a sad experience. I took off the electrodes that had been stuck to my chest (leaving me with paintball-like shapes imprinted all over my chest), exchanged my hospital gown for the t-shirt I’d worn when I first came in, and got myself out of the bed I’d been in for days. As I walked out, I said goodbye to Joe. “I feel like I’ve gotten to know you quite well,” I said, “even though we haven’t talked much.” He smiled. “Goodbye, Max.” And I wrote notes on scraps of paper to the doctors and nurses who had been so supportive. My Hospital experience was over, for now.

*

My Mum and girlfriend, Julia (as well as a family friend, Lora), soon arrived in New York. It was wonderful to be surrounded by people, after long periods of solitude in the hospital – and having them close, as I slept or walked or read, gave me a sense of security, especially as my mind wandered to whether I could suffer a sudden fatal dissection (something that is a possibility, albeit a small one, given my aortic size and possible underlying condition). It was uplifting to get unexpected messages of support, and beautiful gifts to make me feel better: more flowers from Louis, a care package from Ronan, a book on Ambedkar from Eesvan.

Being out of the hospital and back at work has also been tough, however. In the hospital, I felt relatively healthy, comparing myself to elderly and self-evidently very ill individuals all around me. But outside in New York, I see myself alongside apparently healthy and active people. I’m ashamed to admit it, but if I’m honest, I find myself feeling an occasional flash of jealousy when I watch others and assume (perhaps wrongly in some cases) that they have no health issues to worry about. More importantly, I have started to process the information that I received in hospital. I have wondered about the minute differences between a 4.5 and 5.0 aortic enlargement. And I have thought about how a Loeys-Dietz diagnosis might alter my future career plans and life – since, if confirmed, it would require care and monitoring and may have implications for having children.

*

I got back on the Megabus on that desolate Thursday over two weeks after the initial fainting episode, which ended up taking me to Baltimore, where an Oxford friend, Steph, generously let me stay the night at her place to allow me to see Dr. Dietz (one half of the team that discovered Loeys-Dietz Syndrome) and a surgeon specialist, Dr. Cameron. In Baltimore, I was told by Dr. Dietz at Johns Hopkins Hospital that it was pretty likely that I had Loeys-Dietz Syndrome, and I finalized plans for genetic testing. Dr. Dietz, a kind and attentive man, emphasised that if properly managed and operated on, individuals with Loeys-Dietz still lead long, successful lives (into their sixties and seventies), and he clarified some information that had made me worried earlier. One statistic that had scared me was that those with Loeys-Dietz have an average life expectancy of 26.1 years – my exact age in August 2014, at the time of writing – but Dr. Dietz emphasised that this was a figure drawn from early cases of Loeys-Dietz; he had now seen a far broader spectrum of cases, which would change the statistic significantly. I had medication confirmed, and talked about surgery with the world expert, Dr. Cameron, who discussed options in the US, the UK, and New Zealand.

I’m now waiting on the results of my genetic testing, finishing my internship, and preparing myself for the thought of surgery or management of my medical condition – whether I have Loeys-Dietz or not, the enlarged aorta will require careful attention. One significant challenge to grapple with is the constant anxiety I have felt that a dissection could be imminent. Is that numbness in my foot a product of bad circulation, traceable back to my heart? What about that neck pain – didn’t Charles De Gaulle have neck pain (as I have read) just before he died, possibly of a connective tissue disorder? And is that chest ache something problematic, or just my anxiety? These questions – rational and irrational – regularly intrude into my thinking, and I am trying to learn to let them pass. But at this point I cannot deny that they are at once distracting, unsettling, and sometimes terrifying.

I feel, alongside that anxiety, a great sense of gratitude and good fortune. What would I have done without the emergency health insurance provided by my place of study? Would I know all this if I hadn’t fainted that Sunday morning (something that the doctors still can’t explain, and which Dr. Cameron called “my guardian angel”)? Would I have even gone into hospital had Andrew not mentioned Marfan Syndrome in that apartment in Karachi eight months ago? Even more fundamentally, how would things be different had Dr. Dietz not developed our collective understanding of Loeys-Dietz Syndrome? Whilst the information I’ve recorded here has not been easy to process and induces anxiety, I feel much better knowing about risks to my health and being in a position to consider future precautions that I might take. I am lucky also to be in a financially privileged position – generous support from my parents has helped me to cover certain costs of follow-up treatment – which, I know, cannot be said for everyone, and which in our world (and, in particular, in the unjust world of US healthcare) makes a difference.

I’m trying right now, with gratitude and still some anxiety, to start to think about the future again. My sense of time was compressed in hospital – I could think only of the forthcoming hours. And I am still focused only on the day ahead. I have learned, I think, the true meaning of that hackneyed phrase, “one day at a time”. But as my confidence builds, I hope that I will be able to think more imaginatively about the arc of a life in front of me – a thought that has always given me excitement and happiness.

*

So hearing about Marfan in Pakistan; blacking-out and Skyping the UK; if I was a donut/you’d wanna glaze me; Gladys Brodsky and the NBA’s Isaiah Austin; doing CTs and MRAs; hearing about Ebola in the background and Loeys-Dietz in the foreground; through Baltimore and Megabuses – that’s how I’ve got here, to where I am now.

“So it seems”, as that Liam Finn song goes. “So it seems tonight”, as I sit here in the evening Sunday light, three weeks on from going into Mt Sinai Hospital, New York.

*

Update, in December 2014:

Last month, I had heart surgery in Oxford to remove the aortic aneurysm mentioned above.  I’ve thought quite a lot about whether to share this piece of writing.  I’m not usually one for baring all on social media.  But I want to share this so that I am able to be more open about this syndrome that is now a part of who I am – and because I hope the writing might be of some small use to anyone going through anything remotely similar.  I also want to share this to show that in a year that has been a happy one for me, there have been hard times, too.  So often we focus on successes and strengths, but not on our vulnerabilities.

For those that might be interested: the surgery went really well, all doctors have said my long-term prospects are good, and I’m looking forward to getting back to life as normal.  I’m grateful for the amazing medical support that I’ve received, and for my family and friends, especially Julia.  I’m lucky to have had such care and such love.

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What Will the Future of Social Democracy Look Like?

In the last twenty or thirty years, there have been many efforts to try to rejuvenate social democracy: that is, left-progressive politics and activism as embodied in parties such as the New Zealand Labour Party and the United Kingdom Labour Party. Social democracy has long had its pillars: support for social services (especially universal healthcare, primary and secondary education, and state housing), a commitment to justice in the workplace, and advocacy of progressive values (such as equality, security, dignity, and responsibility). But in recent decades there has been an attempt to work out how social democracy might be regenerated, in light of changing social conditions and in response to fluctuating electoral fortunes.

One approach to rejuvenation was to keep the ends of social democracy, but to change the means: this was the approach of Rogernomics in New Zealand, and to a lesser extent of New Labour in the UK under Tony Blair. In New Zealand in the 1980s and the United Kingdom in the 1990s social democratic parties kept a commitment to good education and sound healthcare as end-goals – but they became more open to alternative ways of delivering education and healthcare, for example through the partial privatisation of the National Health Service in the UK. The focus was on not ideology, but on “what works”, in Tony Blair’s mantra. The problem with this approach to rejuvenation is that in changing the mode of delivery of social services, social democratic parties often ended up ignoring progressive values – such as equality and dignity – which were trampled on in the delivery of such services, and in the outcomes achieved.

Another approach to approach has been to alter the social democratic position on what might be called borderline issues, on which progressives may not have always had such a settled position. The UK Labour Party, and the NZ Labour Party briefly under David Cunliffe, have experimented with adopting a more restrictive approach to immigration, for example; and the NZ Labour Party under Helen Clark and the UK Labour Party under Tony Blair took a harder line on crime. Some would say, of course, that immigration and crime are not borderline issues for progressives – and that progressive values such as equality and dignity point away from the restrictive, punitive policies that social democratic parties have at times adopted. However, regardless of this point, what is clear is that this has been a tactic tried by progressive political parties – and is one that has also contradicted progressive values like dignity and equality (although some may disagree with this conclusion).

One further nascent approach to rejuvenation, which has emerged only in the last couple of years, has been to champion technology as the catalyst of next-generation social democratic policy. Some have claimed that on social democratic pillars, such as education and healthcare, technology can revolutionise outcomes and produce new ideas. Progressive education theorists have claimed that ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs) and technology in classrooms may be the way that primary and secondary education are strengthened in the twenty-first century. And healthcare specialists have become excited about using Skype and video-links to guarantee quicker doctors’ consultations and to enhance the ability of people in rural areas to access healthcare. This approach, though, too, has proven a disappointment in the search for real rejuvenation on the Left. Questions have been asked about how the quality of education and healthcare might be compromised through the use of technology, and it is not clear that technology offers any real step-change in the policies and principles needed for a successful twenty-first century social democratic tradition.

So if the answer lies not in changing the means of delivering social services, or in switching the social democratic position on borderline issues, or in embracing technology, what does the next wave of social democracy look like? At a time when social democratic policy might seem as if it is stagnating, and failing to build on the successes of the past, what will energise progressive political parties and take them in a new direction?

At times it is helpful, in trying to think forward, to look backwards. In particular, it is useful to reflect on the founding thinkers of the social democratic tradition that we have inherited today. Their work may not provide specific solutions to the present-day predicaments of social democracy; but they may show us at least how we ought to go about developing the next wave of social democratic thinking.

I outline here some suggestions that arise indirectly from just one of these founding thinkers: R.H. Tawney. His work has come to the fore again with the publication of a recent biography of him by Lawrence Goldman, The Life of R.H. Tawney: Socialism and History (Bloomsbury, 2013).

Tawney was a public intellectual working primarily in the first part of the twentieth century in the United Kingdom. He helped to set up the Workers’ Educational Association (which I discuss further below), worked on the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry and another inquiry into agriculture in China, and wrote a number of rhetorically powerful books, including Equality and The Acquisitive Society. He was also well-connected to members of the Labour Party that would take power in 1945 as well as other leading progressive thinkers: he was well-known to Clement Attlee, later Prime Minister, and was married to Jeanette Beveridge, brother of William Beveridge, author of the Beveridge Report – which is often thought of as crucial to the establishment of the British welfare state. In between all of this, Tawney fought – and was wounded in – the First World War; spent some time as a diplomat in the United States in the Second World War; and maintained academic positions at the University of Oxford teaching social and economic history.

Tawney’s life and work gives us three possible pointers about the future of social democracy today. First, Tawney worked tirelessly to forge new and creative connections with unions and working people. As mentioned, he set up in 1903 the Workers’ Educational Association, a partnership between universities, trade unions, and working people. This Association organized for emerging academics to teach tutorial classes to interested workers, often in the workers’ homes around the UK, on subjects such as political history, economic theory and local government (see p. 64 of Goldman’s book). Tawney taught the classes with enthusiasm and humanity, and himself learned about the British working-class from his teaching at the same time as the students in the class were able to draw on his knowledge of history, politics, and economics. He sought an ideal where education was supplied not by “churches, philanthropic institutions, and a group of benevolent officials at Whitehall”, but rather “by the people for the people” (p. 80). And it is apparent that the Workers’ Educational Association created a sense of collective consciousness and solidarity that paved the way for social democratic policy successes in the 1940s and later. The wider point to be taken from this is that the future of social democracy today will depend on new coalitions being built across progressive actors – and in particular, attempts being made to rethink and renew the relationships between unions and others.

Secondly, Tawney spent a considerable part of his life theorizing and thinking deeply about the place of education in society – and he, according to Goldman’s biography, helped to ensure that good primary and secondary education were key planks of Labour Party policy in the years following 1945. He famously wrote Secondary Education for All in 1922, which became Labour’s education policy and set out a programme for educational policy change. “The case being made,” writes Goldman, “depended on both the economic benefits to society and the enrichment of individuals that would flow from more and better education” (p. 204). And Tawney was practical, too, in focusing on the need for building and upgrading school accommodation, and the school-leaving age. When the 1929 Labour Government of Ramsay MacDonald failed to take forward Tawney’s recommendation, he continued to make the same arguments, with a 1934 pamphlet (The School Leaving Age and Juvenile Unemployment), and this led to the 1944 Education Act as well as later changes to the British educational system. The message to be taken from this narrative is that social democratic planks and principles require deep thought and ongoing advocacy. We now take free primary and secondary education for granted as core aspects of progressive policy (and indeed, most conservative political parties around the world support free primary and secondary education, too). But these policies are only accepted because of the hard work put into making the case for them by people like R.H. Tawney. The planks and principles that will form part of social democracy in the twenty-first century – whether those relate to an approach to prisons and criminal justice, or a new approach to citizenship, or something else – will also require hard work and deep thought.

Thirdly, Tawney was very strong in tying politics back to ethics, and this was central to his method as a thinker. He was a Christian as well as a social democrat, and his religious commitments meant that values were never far from how he justified his policy prescriptions. The industrial problem – the way that working people were treated – was, for Tawney, “a moral problem” (p. 170). Social issues were not just about the distribution of income and wealth; they were about “the moral justice of … [our] social system” (p. 170). And social justice, for him, was about not “efficiency and mechanism” but rather “morality and individual regeneration” (p. 171). This does not mean that a social democracy of the future has to be Christian. What Tawney’s thinking reveals is that social democracy in the future may be stronger if it is tethered to a firm ethical base. If social democratic values can be crystallised with clarity, in other words, it may be easier for policy-makers and politicians to develop concrete ideas as outgrowths of these values. These values may provide an ethical and intellectual reserve for those working and campaigning on the Left to draw from. Perhaps, then, work should begin on truly clarifying these values, new and old – a “politics of love”, perhaps, to suggest just one idea – as a way to generate policies for the next wave of social democracy.

These are just a few pointers, from merely one historical social democratic thinker. And much more work remains to be done to develop even these ideas from Tawney – about coalitions across progressive actors (especially involving unions), theorizing policy planks, and finding a more ethical politics. But what is clear from this brief analysis is that if we all want real rejuvenation in social democracy, we need to go beyond the false promise of deregulation, or punitive populism, and technology. We need to develop planks and principles and policies – and that may require reflecting on the past first in order to find a social democracy fit for the twenty-first century.

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Julia Gillard’s Autobiography and Principles of Political Leadership

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s political autobiography, My Story, has been gaining considerable coverage in recent weeks, as Gillard has launched a speaking tour – including to New Zealand – and has been candid in her criticisms of another former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

In some ways My Story is a conventional memoir. Following some introductory chapters, Gillard examines a series of policy areas – children’s policy, climate change policy, and identity, amongst others – and outlines the Labor-led Government’s contributions to these areas under her premiership in 2010–2013. In most cases she defends her Government’s legacy and at times the analysis is a little pedestrian.

In other ways, however, the book defies conventional structure and approach. It avoids the retreat into childhood and family history that is found in so many political autobiographies. It is openly critical about certain figures, most notably Rudd. And, perhaps most memorably, it offers some useful insights into political leadership more generally. It is worth recounting these as the New Zealand Labour Party has this week elected a new leader, Andrew Little.

  1. Purpose and political leadership

Gillard underscores the importance of purpose in driving her leadership. “Purpose is not ubiquitous in politics,” she writes (at 131). But “[t]hose who enter politics without purpose are those who are most easily buffeted off course when the going gets tough”. And it is evident that Gillard herself was clear about her purpose before rolling Kevin Rudd to become Australia’s first female Prime Minister in 2010. Former British Cabinet Minister Alan Milburn encouraged Gillard to write down on one sheet of paper a summary of her purpose in politics. She includes the document in her autobiography (at 134–136), which notes Gillard’s values, where they came from (her family home), and explains how these values should affect national understandings of work and a broader egalitarian culture. Gillard is so emphatic about purpose that occasionally her references to her own drive and values comes across as a little self-congratulatory or obviously intended to differentiate her from Kevin Rudd. But the message is clear: a sense of direction, and values, was crucial to Gillard’s political leadership. It is a useful general precept.

  1. Being organized and being a leader

Less directly, Gillard shows that being organized is an underrated part of leadership. She notes that Kevin Rudd’s administration was hopelessly disorganized. “The [Rudd] government left 2009 with no real planning or preparation work done for the 2010 election campaign,” Gillard observes (at 15). Personally, Rudd’s leadership style was responsible for much of this, she argues. He demanded “more and more paperwork … only for it to never be read or properly responded to” (9), had a “demeanour … of paralysis and misery” (17), and “found it impossible to delegate” (17). What emerges from these descriptions is a sense that we do not pay sufficient attention to organization when developing traditional models of political leadership. We usually associate political leadership with charisma, oratory abilities, or ability to exert discipline over a team. Gillard reminds us that organizational capacity should be added to this list of leadership attributes, that organizational capacity was lacking in Rudd’s premiership, and that she attempted to rectify this defect in his leadership.

  1. Hard work and leadership

Lastly, Gillard raises as a recurring theme the importance of hard work – for her own leadership endeavours, but also for the progressive project more generally. Her first speech as Prime Minister spoke about the value of setting alarm clocks early and rewarding “those that day in, day out, work in our factories and on our farms, in our mines and in our mills, in our classrooms and in our hospitals, that rewards that hard work, decency and effort” (280). Of course, it is possible to present a simplified version of this ‘hard work’ narrative, which demonizes some groups and wrongly glorifies others for being successful purely because of their own merit. But as long as this narrative is avoided, it seems that there may be some value in progressives highlighting the importance of hard work. There is sometimes a loose linkage drawn, often implicitly, between left-wing policy and laziness or idleness: this crops up in criticism of welfare beneficiaries and also lurks in the background of claims about ‘tax-and-spend’ parties. An emphasis on hard work in leadership can help to decouple these unfair associations.

There is much more, to be sure, that could be said about Gillard’s views on leadership. The book’s chapter on gender is powerful and pithy: she speaks about how “both women and men continue to be trapped in gender prisons” in contemporary Australia (98), and notes interestingly that the stereotype that “women feel” and “nurture” (sometimes supported by thinkers working in the “ethic of care” tradition, such as Carol Gilligan) can undermine successful or ambitious women’s likeability.

There are certainly also weaknesses in some of My Story’s policy analysis. On some issues, Gillard seems too willing to go along with the Australian Labor Party’s standard position, rather than to interrogate deeply-held dogmas. This is particularly the case on the issue of Israel and Palestine, where Gillard focuses on the politics of attempts by Labor insiders to change Australia’s pro-Israel position, instead of offering any careful review of the merits of the policy. She is also far too sanguine about Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza. She writes: “In the months since [her original writing], the outlook has become so much darker. Children have died; violence has been answered with violence.” The broad, passive language evades any attribution of responsibility, and glosses over the fact that 513 Gazan children were killed in the 2014 Israeli invasion, compared to one Israeli child, according to reputable sources (the BBC and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs).

Overall, though, My Story provides some useful navigating lights for any political leader – including leaders operating outside the unique context that is Australian Labor politics. Gillard’s three lessons of political leadership – relating to purpose, organization, and hard work – may be obvious to some, and may not be a complete manual for electoral success. But they may also be a sound starting point, especially for political leaders like Andrew Little in New Zealand and Ed Miliband in the United Kingdom seeking to win upcoming elections in a principled and progressive fashion.

 

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High Horse/Preachy Politics

A while back I found myself in conversation with an Italian guy at a party. We had been isolated from the larger group so started sparring back and forward with the normal rubbish between two people who don’t really know each other and are killing time before their friends come back to save them:

“How do you know x,y or z?”

“Is your hair naturally like that?”

“How long have you been in Amsterdam for?”

“Don’t you miss home?”

He said he loved Italy, he missed the food, the weather, his friends and his family every single day.

Gesturing toward the window, and more specifically the rain coming down outside, I asked why he hadn’t returned – half expecting the answer to be something to do with the economy.

“Berlusconi” he replied.

This was in the aftermath of Berlusconi’s infamous bunga bunga parties and numerous corruption trials so he made an easy target.

“Yeah, he’s pretty bad isn’t he?” was all I could offer.

“It’s not him who’s the problem. He is a corrupt and sexist pig, but that’s been known for years. What stops me from moving back is that he is still the most popular politician in the country (insert impassioned gesticulation)! They love him there – still! How can I live in a place where the people condone this shit? What does it say about them?”

I trotted away from the conversation on my high-horse, smug in the knowledge that there were no bunga bunga parties in New Zealand anywhere north of Balclutha, and that the only dirt on our politicians was on their gumboots after photo-ops with Shrek the Sheep.

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Of course that all changed last month when New Zealand was treated to its biggest political scandal since a drunk Robert Muldoon called a snap election in 1984. People from both sides of the political spectrum had a decent crack at telling us what it all really meant. Those on the right came out of their corner punching, stating that it was nothing that we didn’t already know, all politicians did it, it’s a left wing smear campaign etc… while those on the left decried in breathless terms that the corruption was “beyond the pale,” was the work of reptilian shape-shifters and that the sun may in fact not rise tomorrow.

But the sun did rise, and with it more pre-election polls showing what the Prime Minister knew all along – we New Zealanders really don’t give a shit about systemic corruption and skulduggery behind closed doors. Rather, we would prefer to move on from this dirty stain on our history and onto the “real issues” plaguing our fair land. That isn’t the peripheral emotive issues like child poverty, polluted waterways, skyrocketing house prices, illegal mass surveillance or mounting national debt – it’s more like when will we get our $10 per week tax cut, who will protect us from The Economy, why does the Labour leader’s laugh sound so creepy and isn’t there an All Blacks game on the other channel?

As an expat New Zealander I’ve watched the coverage of this year’s election with interest. Living abroad I share the same nagging thought that my parents had when they went on holiday and left one of their teenage children in charge of the family home: will the place still be standing when I get back?

I’ve read a few articles recently about “The Brain Drain” (the KPI on whether the house is in fact still standing) and how less young New Zealanders have been leaving due to the good favour that The Economy has bestowed upon our country. Whether this is because our parents’ generation sacrificed their children to appease Him, or because the arse merely fell out of the Australian mineral boom it’s hard to say – but it’s an overly reductive explanation of why we leave the country, and more importantly, why many will not return.

When I left New Zealand my decision was not motivated by job prospects, much like any decision to return wouldn’t be. It is more likely to be motivated by the great intangible – how does the future look?

Like the Italian guy I was speaking to at the party, I miss home every day. I miss my friends, my family, the cricket, banter, fish ‘n’ chips, empty beaches … hell I even kinda miss getting sunburned after being in direct sunlight for eight minutes. But the overall picture being painted in recent months of New Zealand is of a country where the populous really doesn’t care about anything other than “not rocking the boat”. Most political discourse is dominated by partisan rhetoric, short-sighted policy and the overwhelming fear that individuals have of crashing into financial oblivion. In a country where the social safety net has slowly been chipped away over the last 25 years the latter is understandable, however this does not mean that we should give up on making difficult decisions today with an eye to the future.

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I won’t go to the lengths that my Italian friend went to in renouncing his country of birth, but it is difficult to watch the country you love slowly slipping into the mire. If the politicians we elect are a reflection on us, what do the results of this year’s election say about New Zealanders and what we want for the future?

This is a guest post, written by Stephen Dean, and originally published on his blog, Rear Window Travels (http://rearwindowtravels.tumblr.com/post/98298918735/high-horse-preachy-politics).

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Drones, Climate Change, and the South China Sea: A Time for New Zealand Leadership?

New Zealand has an impressive history of individuals taking a leading role in world affairs. Mike Moore led the World Trade Organization, Don McKinnon the Commonwealth of Nations, and Helen Clark the United Nations Development Programme. Add to this the substantial achievements of countless other less well-known New Zealanders in far-flung places working to make the world a better place. If Helen Clark became the Secretary-General of the United Nations, it would be the crowning achievement of this history of individual leadership by New Zealanders. However, whilst the leadership and impact of individual New Zealanders on the global stage is impressive, it is less clear that the New Zealand Government’s foreign policy these days is similarly engaged or influential. 

New Zealand is an outward-looking country. Over a million of us live overseas and many more frequently travel and work abroad. We have a proud tradition of independent foreign policy positions – most famously our Nuclear Free status – and are well respected globally as an open and progressive society. We are also a relatively wealthy and successful country compared with much of the world. From a foreign policy perspective this raises two questions. Are we effectively addressing our own strategic interests in the world? And are we, given our position, taking leadership on issues affecting our friends, allies, and those less fortunate?

Our campaign for a seat on the Security Council and our important role in WTO negotiations are both encouraging examples of serious engagement with global affairs. In 1994, when we were last on the Security Council, we were one of the few countries to push hard to strengthen the UN mission in Rwanda. It is high time we returned.

Yet on other major international issues our participation is weak or our position suspect. In international climate negotiations New Zealand has largely been happy to hide behind the limited appetite for action from Australia and the United States. An alternative would have been New Zealand as a strong voice for action in solidarity with our Pacific Island neighbors and in recognition of both our own long tradition of environmental awareness and our strategic interest in a stable climate. This strategic interest includes the sensitivity of our coastal cities and the agricultural sector to climate change, and the potential challenges of climate induced migration from the Pacific.

Our voice and participation are similarly absent in addressing the rising tensions in Asia. The impact on our commercial ties needs to be carefully managed but as Robert Ayson points out in a recent blog, “our continuing silence suggests that the principles that allow for regional peace and commerce are unimportant to us.” If positioned correctly, New Zealand may even be well placed to play a role in mediating the dispute between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea given our perceived independence (in contrast to the United States) and relatively close relations with all parties. Norway, a country of similar size and stature, has played this kind of role in international disputes previously.

Our development aid programme, whilst doing invaluable work already, also raises questions. Our current level of aid is only 0.27% of GNI, despite our commitment to 0.7% of GNI which countries such as Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands have already met. Oxfam reports that 60 percent of New Zealanders support reaching the 0.7% target and yet, unlike many countries including the United Kingdom, we have no credible timeframe by which we intend to reach it. Furthermore, the National Government has decided to reduce NZAID’s autonomy from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs so as to increase its use as a tool of diplomacy. This risks reducing the effectiveness of each dollar spent by imposing criteria other than development impact on funding decisions. It is also the exact opposite of the approach taken by the United Kingdom. In 1997, in search of greater impact, they made the Department for International Development independent and reduced the extent to which aid was tied to purchasing British products abroad.

Finally, the Government’s indifference about drone strikes – including those on a New Zealand citizen who was killed in Yemen in November 2013 – is concerning. As Toby Manhire points out, a twenty year old New Zealander was effectively given a death sentence without a trial. John Key admits that it is ‘possible’ that information gathered by the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) could have prompted some American drone strikes. The very real threat from organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS poses extremely difficult questions to which there are no easy answers. However, there is an urgent need for a proper debate about the legality, moral legitimacy, and future implications of GCSB involvement in the targeting of drone strikes, particularly as a New Zealand citizen has now been killed – without due process – by a drone. More broadly, drone strikes often raise complex issues of legality and sovereignty. With many more countries attaining drone capability there is a strong case for an international agreement on some basic rules of their use – just as exists in other aspects of warfare. As a country beginning to confront our own role in drone strikes, New Zealand could step up and lead the international discussion on the need for, and creation of, an international legal framework for drone warfare.

In contrast to many of the individual New Zealanders participating in global affairs, our foreign policy increasingly seems to be happy to follow others rather than lead. I am proud of New Zealand and proud of our role in global affairs through history. Today, though, it is hard not to conclude that we could and should be more engaged and influential – with a foreign policy based on New Zealand’s own national character. We are a country that believes in fostering peace, security, human rights, development and a good global environment and we should follow those beliefs with integrity and diligence. This could take the form of positioning ourselves as a mediator in Asia, a more ambitious and substantive position in the Paris climate negotiations, a clear commitment to effective international aid, or a voice highlighting the need for an international legal framework on drone warfare. Underlying all of these should be recognition that we must not simply measure our progress in foreign policy by other people’s standards but try to better ourselves using the yardstick of our own principles and highest aspirations.

– Kinley Salmon

Kinley is a New Zealander who grew up in Nelson before taking an opportunity to study politics at Cambridge University. After graduating, he worked predominantly on international development.  Today he is completing a Masters at the Harvard Kennedy School and is a close follower of events back home.

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Paving the Way for a New Politics and a New Economics: Thomas Piketty’s Book on Wealth in Our Time

Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has been getting quite a lot of attention – at least in the small circle of economic commentators, journalists, and public policy-makers. Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has said that the book “will be the most important economics book of the year – and maybe of the decade”, and has talked of how it’s caused conservatives to feel “Piketty panic”. Why are some people so excited about the book? And what are some of the broader ideas sparked by it?

A new politics 

Capital in the Twenty-First Century provides a robust foundation for claims that inequality is on the rise in certain developed nations. Piketty’s focus is on the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan, but he touches on other countries, especially Scandinavian nations, and Australia and New Zealand. Piketty shows that inequality has followed a U-curve. After a high point in the early twentieth century, inequality dipped for some years, because of the creation of progressive income taxes and the destruction caused by the world wars, amongst other factors. But since the 1970s and 1980s, it is increasing again, Piketty explains, because of mass privatizations, low growth, and a return of inheritance. Piketty’s basic message is that when the rate of return on capital (more on what this means in a moment) exceeds the rate of growth in economies – when r > g – inequality rises. And he explains, with methodical care, why this trend is returning.

More than giving credibility and evidence to debates about inequality, though, Piketty’s book invites a shift in thinking around progressive politics. At its heart, and as the title suggests, Piketty’s book is about capital: a concept that might be pretty fuzzy in the minds of most people (and was fuzzy in my mind when I started reading the book), but which Piketty defines crisply as essentially housing or real estate, and financial instruments. Piketty pleas, implicitly, for politics to turn its attention back to how wealth is accumulating today through capital: in other words, how people are getting rich through inherited wealth, housing, and financial investment.  And he shows powerfully that initial endowments of capital often expand significantly over time without effort or additional work (think of large sums accruing interest in a bank account, or rent being acquired on a house) – an idea that is in part “an affront to common sense and that has in fact perturbed any number of civilizations”.

He doesn’t ignore incomes and wages. Indeed, a big part of his book is also about “supersalaries”, and how lower top rates of income tax have arguably led to managers being freer to press for higher salaries (in a context where it is difficult to measure managers’ actual productivity and where those setting compensation levels often ignore conflicts of interest to set salaries).

But where Piketty’s analysis is fresh and original is in highlighting how progressives need to think beyond incomes and salaries, to how wealth is stored and passed on in other ways. This is relevant to politics today in numerous nations: for example, it should give ammunition to those in New Zealand fighting for a capital gains tax. And Piketty is not shy of giving practical suggestions to countries wrestling with these issues: he calls for a progressive annual tax on capital (of between 0 and 10%), pushes for more regulation of tax havens, and suggests an 80% top income tax rate may be optimal, accepting that these might be politically unrealistic at present. Overall, Piketty encourages harder thinking about wealth more generally, highlighting that taxes can play a role in setting norms about acceptable levels of wealth and revealing information about the wealth held in a particular country. The analysis should prompt us to reflect further on other ways that wealth is passed on outside of the realm of salaries – for example, through social capital (for example, parental networks that provide internship opportunities), or majoritarian advantages that are conferred in societies still riven by prejudice of different forms.

A new economics 

What is also powerful about this book is the categories of economic thinking that Piketty marks out as important. Piketty returns consistently to notions of capital (in its different forms, including public capital and natural capital), labour and income, growth, debt, inflation, and distribution. These are not radically new concepts. But Piketty examines them in new and creative ways, rejecting the market failure paradigm that explains away economic failings in terms of mere “market imperfections”. He also claims that it is futile to search for ironclad economic laws that will hold true across history (and he rejects explanations of inequality based on supply and demand), bringing to the force the importance of political institutions and policy choices. As well, and relatedly, he acknowledges that an economist cannot escape value judgements. “Everyone is political in his or her own way,” he says. In doing all of this, he offers us promise for novel economic thinking – which is more creative, more exploratory, and ultimately more insightful. This is a goal that we can surely all rally around.

Piketty calls for a humbler economics that is not superior in its view of other disciplines, as well – another important cry, given the fact that many people feel alienated from economic debates. Economists cannot define themselves in terms of their “supposedly scientific methods”, says Piketty, and should end the practice of relying on models that mask “the vacuity of the content”. They have to engage with public debate, “make choices and take stands”, and abandon the idea that “the scholar and the citizen live in separate moral universes”. Piketty himself tries to lead by example in engaging with other disciplines and popular culture. His book is rich in its analysis of history (drawing on several centuries’ worth of income and estate tax returns), frequently refers to historical literature (especially the novels of Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac from the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries), and is full of allusions to modern film and TV. Mad Men is scrutinised for what it says about wealth; even Django Unchained gets a mention. This makes the book a more entertaining and persuasive read, but also indicates the need for economists to engage with other disciplines.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century ends with a particularly powerful call for progressives not to turn their back on economics. Everyone, he says – across academia, the media, unions, politics, and elsewhere – “should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it, and its history”. But those who want to challenge power and care for the most disadvantaged may need economics most of all. Why? Because “[t]hose who have a lot of [money] never fail to defend their interests”. And “[r]efusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off.”

The path forward

There is much more that could be said about this book. It makes fascinating comments about the troubling rise of sovereign wealth funds (which may come to own much of the world and have a corresponding political influence), the fact that increasing public debt may actually serve the interests of the wealthy, and the imperative to address climate change. There also some criticisms that could be made of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, with more space: for example, while it spends some time considering China, it neglects thinking about how inequality trends might affect the developing world.

But it is no exaggeration to say that this book is worth the attention that it is getting – and more.

It paves the way for a new politics and a new economics. The next step is turning that paving into a path we can travel down to achieve meaningful political change – in our societies and in our lifetimes.

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