Hard News by Russell Brown

The road to weirdness

Who'd be a Californian? Larry King's interview last night with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man who would be Governor of the golden state, would have filled no sensible person with joy.

Arnie, as you might expect, knew his lines well enough. But they tumbled out in the most arbitrary fashion. He knew all about "the ordinary life" he insisted, droning on about his work for the Special Olympics, that had taken him to Africa to meet Nelson Mandela. Arnold, a quick word: ordinary people don't fly to Africa to meet Nelson Mandela.

"I'm against partial abortion and, er, all those things …" he explained in an attempt to place himself on the moonscape that is modern Republican Party thought.

He's also thunderously against fiscal deficits - which at least aligns him with the sector of Republican thought that isn't stark raving mad - but provided little or no clue as to how he'd balance California's budget without raising taxes or cutting services. And King was too busy trying to empathise with the big guy to put the obvious question: If running fiscal deficits is so bad, and the people doing it are such idiots … what's your view on the White House these days?

Actually, I don't dismiss the possibility that Schwarzenegger's combination of profile, motivation and raging egotism might be useful in the top job, but it's an indictment that these can only be found in a populist screen actor.

The big problem is that California is so far down the road to weirdness that I don't think anybody really knows how to turn it into a conventional, transparent economy. And I'm puzzled that no one else seems to be making this point: that even if he can win Arnold is going to have hell's own job setting any budget at all. Thanks to the state's requirement for a two-thirds "supermajority" in the state assembly on fiscal bills, even the Democrats have struggled to do that - and they have a majority.

It was nice, then, to tune over later in the evening to find Kim Hill interviewing Nandor Tanczos. I disagree with him on a number of issues, but he came across as a serious, articulate young man capable of having a debate without cue-cards.

And at least he has something other on his mind than flimsy allegations of corruption. In recent weeks, we've had Opposition claims that all public sector CEOs are bent, the police are bent, the Prime Minister's Department is bent, and, now, the Speaker of the House is bent.

The stupidest story of all was the "cover up" alleged in this Star-Times front-pager. I'm sure Rob Muldoon would have approved of the micromanagement of the public service, but the rest of us ought to be past that. Yes, perhaps Shane Ardern ought to have been ticked off, rather than prosecuted, for his tractor stunt, but really. Who'll be the first to turn up in a fetching new tinfoil hat, then?

So the telecommunications commissioner's inquiry has come up markedly in favour of local loop unbundling. The Herald's Chris Barton is well pleased.

But the market appeared to be expecting something else - as was I in the conclusion of the analysis I wrote for the current issue of Unlimited magazine. There's quite a stoush to come between now and 2005, when unbundling is proposed to come into effect, but, assuming that the recommendations stay essentially in place, you can expect some rather better deals from your telecommunications providers in the next few years.

Jane Kelsey kindly dropped me a line to advise that she has addressed the trade issues I discussed this week in her last newsletter from the WTO meeting, Reflections On Cancun: Where To From Here?

It's wordy and occasionally obscure, but, it must be said, better than the NBR's bizarre back-of-a-fag packet "editorial" this week, under the title Bye, bye WTO. It's a demonstration of the increasing tendency of elements of the right and the left to converge on the issue of multilateral trade rules - albeit for very different reasons. But, hell, is this the standard of analysis we can now expect from our leading business weekly?

As it happens, I also drew a parallel between the WTO and the UN, in a recent column for Unlimited, which focused on shifts in perception revealed in the Pew surveys. Feel free to read the whole thing, but here are some relevant paragraphs:

The new report uses previously unpublished responses from the earlier surveys, and adds a round of questions about the war in Iraq, the war on terror and global governance. International perceptions of the US, especially in the Islamic world, but almost everywhere else too, have flagged in the past year. But in almost every country where a previous benchmark was available, confidence in the UN has also reduced. So has support for the kind of ties embodied in NATO …

… But, happily, there are things we can all believe in: “People everywhere are united by their desire for honest multiparty elections, freedom of speech and religion and an impartial judiciary,” says the report. There was guarded but consistent support everywhere for global trade. Indeed, the very countries that anti-globalisation activists tell us are hurt by free trade were the most enthusiastic. Sixty-seven percent of Nigerians thought global trade had a “very good” impact on their country, and 62% of Pakistanis — compared with only 21% of Americans. African countries were the most enthusiastic about the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank and they had a better opinion of big US corporations than Americans did.

The danger, perhaps, is that trade and economics might become as fractious a battleground as democracy has been lately. In Argentina a loss of faith in the market model (not entirely unreasonable under the circumstances) has been accompanied by a collapse in confidence in institutions in general, from the IMF to trade unions. As they pursue their newly unilateral policy on trade, America’s leaders ought to ponder the dangers of a world where nobody believes in anything but their own gods.

Anyway, that'll do. Check out Cursor.org for dozens of interesting stories. I've got paying work and a Skeptics' speech to finish before I can make the dread journey to Takapuna for the bNet Awards tonight. Now that will be fun …