Leaders; do we get the best?

How to select leaders is of particular interest here (New Zealand) at present because the Leader of the Opposition has resigned, and the race is on for a replacement. The resignation came because the previous man, while he had a great record as a reasonable negotiator, was not an incisive speaker and he had a poor command of television appearance. He did not look good, he was picked on by the commentators, so he had to go. Quality was irrelevant! Whether that is good for democracy I leave to you to decide, but this issue of leadership is one of the themes of my ebook trilogy First Contact, which, while nominally about contact with aliens, it also looks at governance in a dystopian future. One of the advantages of fiction, and why I write it, is that one can construct scenarios to make specific points without embarrassing a specific person, and without starting a feud with someone. The idea is to give things to think about for those who wish to, besides also entertaining.

The first book (A Face on Cydonia) starts by showing how governance has failed to eliminate blatant injustice and corruption, how one character becomes devoted to stopping that while another evolves into taking advantage of the situation and becoming a significant part of the problem. In the second (Dreams Defiled) the characters advance, and one becomes in a position to “fix things”, while the other evolves into an even worse character and sabotages the first, only then to be constrained by other forces. At the end of the third (Jonathon Munros) the main surviving character notes that the set of skills needed to get to a position of power through a vote have nothing in common with the set of skills required to do the job the candidate is standing for.

This particularly applies to politicians, but in Jonathon Munros it also applies to some extent to the election of the head of a corporation. For a corporation, the voters were restricted to Board members, and the candidates were, perforce, senior directors and so to some extent many of the skills could be assumed to be present from all candidates. In the novel, the problem was, if a candidate simply wanted to stand on his or her reputation, the candidate would lose. Winning required some additional pressure, which opens the way for bribes and threats. In other words, the skill required to get to the top was to be more cunning than the others. What happened was, of course, is simply fiction, but I believe the problem is real. Sometimes the best person really does get to the top, but in other cases it is someone less than adequate. Recall the time when Apple Computer hired as CEO the man from Pepsi? As someone remarked, the biggest technology challenge he faced previously was to change the colour of the can. In a period of years, Apple went from the most promising and advanced personal computer company to a near basket case. That it survived was almost entirely due to picking Steve Jobs as CEO, and I suspect that only happened because the company finally realized it had done so badly it needed a near miracle.

The case for politicians is worse. I recall once being in such a candidate selection meeting. There were seven votes. Three came from votes from the floor, i.e. party members who would cast their individual vote after hearing the candidates speak. Three came from a branch committee of the party, and I have no idea how they were selected. Finally, one came from the party head office, exercised by a representative. In principle, all votes were supposed to be decided from the candidates’ speeches, but in practice, the head office vote would be predetermined. So, did the best candidate win? What happened is one candidate got the three from the branch committee, who were presumably his friends. Because two of the other candidates were of reasonable quality the floor votes went to them but were divided, and the three branch votes produced a majority over the others. I have no idea how the final vote was decided but the three votes won. Only too often candidates win positions in safe seats because they have been loyal party members, or because they have friends on the selection committee.

Another issue is the minority card. The argument seems to be that we need more of the minorities. More women, more gay people, more minority races, more indigenous people, then there is the religious card. A Jewish lesbian of mixed Chinese/Maori descent would seem to tick a lot of boxes here. I do not have anything against any of those groups, but I do think that if they ask me to give them the right to run the country, they have the obligation to show they have some chance of doing the job. What do you think?

The right stuff in politics

A week of calm has descended over Wellington, but we cannot have that can we? If the weather stays really calm, someone has to substitute, and in this case it was the politicians. In some of the futuristic ebooks I am self-publishing, one of the background themes is how governance can be manipulated by politicians. One way is by making misleading statements. How do you defend yourself against these?

We have had an example here. The problem: the cities of Auckland and Christchurch have house prices that are getting out of hand. There are several reasons for this, and the one I feel is the most likely to be determining the prices is that there are too few of them. In Christchurch, the reason is the recent earthquakes. Large areas of the eastern city have been found to be built on ground that rapidly liquefies, many of the services such as sewage have been hopelessly wrecked, and the authorities that be have declared that part of the city is not worth rebuilding, and rebuilding should occur elsewhere. The problem is, it has taken some time to get around to building enough houses to house about a quarter of the city’s population, so housing is really expensive. In principle, this is a transient problem, because eventually enough will be built and the prices should come down. The current high prices should reflect those who have money and want to get to the head of the queue. Whether that is right is another story.

Auckland has a different problem. New Zealand is currently experiencing significant immigration, the immigrants all land in Auckland and few go further. On top of that, there have been far too few houses built recently. The reasons are somewhat obscure, but it seems to be that the planners that be have decreed that Auckland is occupying enough area already, and it needs greater housing density, more apartments, etc, and to bring about that nirvana, it is not issuing permits outside certain boundaries. There is not much free land within the boundaries, and while the City Council no doubt thinks high-rise apartments are the way to go, nobody is building such apartments, possibly because a recent lot were not a financial success. That was probably because not everybody wants to live in postage-stamp sized apartments without somewhere to park a car.

Given such a problem, there is some evidence that speculators have descended and several thousand such houses have been purchased by foreign people who have no intention of living here. Presumably they will rent and resell at some time in the future. It is not clear how many such houses are purchased by foreign speculators.

Now enter politics. The Labour (opposition) leader has announced that if they win the next election they will ban foreigners from buying houses unless (a) they come to live in them, or (b) they build them. There are various responses to this. The right wing accuses them of being xenophobic. The prime Minister has said only a few per cent of the houses are bought by foreigners for investment, so it is hardly a big deal. To me, that is misleading. Those bought by foreigners are often bought at auction, and top auction prices tend to set expectations from sellers, especially when there is a clear shortage. If you know what someone else got for a comparable house, don’t you want something similar? Also, our Prime Minister made his own personal fortune as a trader, so he must know that it is the top few transactions that tend to be price setters on a rising market.

This illustrates a problem (apart from, following from my previous post, we just had another earthquake while writing this!) in that politicians and their appointed authorities control our lives through their actions. Our system of governance only really works when politicians “do the right thing”. Making dismissive statements to abandon responsibility is hardly “doing the right thing”. At the end of my next ebook, Jonathon Munros (available some time  in August) one of my characters expresses the opinion that the problem lies in that getting the right person to do the job and getting the person elected require completely different skills. What do you think?