Political Ideas in the Pandemic Age

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Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997).

Last week, a group of ‘contrarian’ academics led by epidemiologist Simon Thornley broke ranks to propose an alternative strategy for dealing with COVID-19. ‘Plan B’ would see New Zealand abandon the goal of elimination to focus on mitigation. In practice this means easing restrictions and a return to ‘business as usual’. Underlying the contrarian argument is a belief that elimination would have disastrous social and economic consequences. Yes, we may ‘defeat’ COVID-19. But the result would be a broken and impoverished nation. 

If Thornley and his collaborators expected a groundswell of support, they must have been disappointed.  ‘Plan B’ was roundly condemned by the scientific community and social media. Thornley in particular has been ridiculed for ‘cherry-picking’ evidence. But most damning for Thornley was an earlier suggestion that New Zealand should consider following Sweden’s laissez faire approach to COVID-19. At the time of writing more than a thousand Swedes have died with the virus. 

So it is unsurprising that a host of data scientists, medical researchers, political activists and commentators are urging the Government not to abandon its elimination strategy. At first it was demanded that the contrarian detractors release modelling and peer-reviewed research to ‘prove’ their argument. But at least one eliminationist grasped very quickly that the debate was less about science and more a question of moral and political philosophy.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles told Newsroom bluntly: “I’m just opposed to the very fundamental values base that they’re coming from, around how it’s okay to let people die of this because they would die anyway, or something?” For Wiles the difference between her and Thornley is the relative weight they place on  ‘excess mortality’. That is to say, the number of deaths that COVID-19 may cause in excess of the overall mortality rate. On average 33,000 New Zealanders die per year. Is that figure likely to be much higher in 2020; and if so, how many of these ‘excess’ deaths will be from COVID-19? The international evidence is unclear.

But Wiles does not consider these questions relevant to the policy choice. In her view, society has a moral duty to eliminate the virus, regardless of any cost-benefit analysis. Saving lives from COVID-19 is her number one priority. Of course, to reduce people to mere numbers would be callous. But as the contrarian economist Ananish Chaudhuri has argued, should one not give equal weight to all lives that may be affected by such policy choices? Leaving aside the empirical data on mortality, this dilemma cannot be resolved by sophisticated mathematical models.

Science may give us the facts but it does not tell us what to do with them. One is more inclined to read a tract of political philosophy than a paper on epidemiology.  In a way, the pandemic has exposed the flaws and contradictions in New Zealand’s predominantly liberal outlook. Isaiah Berlin, one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers, devoted his life to understanding the different strands of liberalism and the conflict these entail. His own philosophy may be instructive to us during these bleak times.

At the core of Berlin’s thought is the simple notion that human beings yearn for many things: freedom, security, justice, equality and so on. Such values are universal and to some degree they are all essential to ‘the good life’. But very often these values conflict with one another. For Berlin, the greatest lesson of history is that the many different ends we strive for cannot be reconciled permanently. Each generation will face conflicts that have no ideal solution. Sometimes it may be necessary to give up freedom for security and vice versa. As Berlin put it, “We are doomed to choose and every choice may entail irreparable loss.”

But the idea that we can perfect the human condition has entranced people for centuries. It has motivated extreme political ideologies of left and right, inspiring revolutions, war and terrorism. Berlin was not exaggerating when he lamented that more human beings had given their lives for the ‘perfection’ of humanity than any other cause. Although scientific knowledge and technology continue to grow rapidly, the basic dilemma of how to balance different values and goals will endure. COVID-19 has exposed this fundamental truth. 

A perfect solution exists only in the imagination. To pursue it would be futile and dangerous. The ideas needed most right now are humility and realism.


How Democracy Ends

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Overall turnout in the 2019 local body elections was a dismal 41 percent. The figure was particularly bad in Auckland, where barely a third of the electorate bothered to vote. To put that into perspective, Phil Goff was re-elected mayor by just 17 percent of Auckland electors. However, declining participation in local democracy is nothing new. This has been the trend for quite sometime. But the 2019 elections represent a new low and could be a harbinger of things to come at the national level. Just before casting my own vote, I read a fascinating and timely book called ‘How Democracy Ends’ (2018) by David Runciman, Professor of Politics at Cambridge University.

Runciman makes the case that Western liberal democracy is going through a midlife crisis. In the past, liberal democracy’s greatest strength was the ability to continuously ‘reinvigorate’ itself. This was accomplished through widening the franchise, redistributing wealth and expanding social rights. War and depression, while threatening the essence of democracy, also highlighted its virtues – making it a more attractive proposition. By the end of the 20th century, the liberal democratic state had triumphed over communism and fascism, leading Francis Fukuyama to declare ‘the end of history’. However, the new millennium has seen democracy fall into decline. Runciman notes a ‘widespread contemporary disgust with democratic politics’ throughout the world and falling voter participation reflects this.

In a sense, Runciman argues, liberal democracy is a victim of its own success. Having achieved universal suffrage, and with the welfare state exhausted, there is nothing left to offer the masses but more of the same. While protecting us against extremism, liberal democracy has failed to come up with meaningful solutions to climate change and disruptive technology. It could be that these problems are beyond liberal democracy. This might explain the preoccupation with identity politics, which are concerned more with the authenticity of individual experience than finding common ground. The latter demands compromise – and that is a rare quality in politics now. Just look at the fallout from ‘Brexit’ or Trump’s America.

As Runciman explains, it was once accepted that the main objective of democratic politics was to find a consensus most people could live with. Mass political parties were essential to this, providing the means for compromise between different ideologies and interests. But social networking and mobile technology have rendered the old way of doing politics obsolete. It has become much easier to seek out those we agree with and to have our opinions validated at the click of a button. There is no longer any need to compromise. Hence the decline of political parties. Technology has also made it possible for manipulators of public opinion to get inside our minds. This could have major implications for liberal democratic politics (think Cambridge Analytica). While ‘the wisdom of crowds’ might have cancelled out individual biases in the past, this is no longer the case.

So what can be done? Runciman doesn’t have any solutions. Rather he counsels us to accept that this may be as good as it gets. However, unless humanity is wiped out, it is unlikely democracy will have a single endpoint. The three main possibilities that Runciman sees are: i) democratic states gradually become more authoritarian, ii) technology liberates us from making political decisions altogether – and not necessarily for the better, or iii) democracy survives in its present form. The possibility Runciman definitively rules out is that we can go back to the old politics. This is a provocative and troubling argument but one I find compelling. The moribund state of New Zealand local politics is one way democracy could end in this country.

The next Mayor of Auckland

Mayor Phil Goff with challengers John Tamihere and Craig Lord.

On 12 October, Auckland may have a new mayor. John Tamihere promises to ‘shake it up and sort it out’ if elected. Rates will be frozen, the regional fuel tax abolished and the city’s problems fixed. We can expect homelessness to disappear and traffic to move fast. If that sounds implausible, it probably is. A mayor does not have the power to do any of that. But herein lies the significance of Tamihere’s campaign. He is seeking to redefine the mayoralty and in doing so push the boundaries of what is possible.

Until now, the mayor has been nothing more than an elected bureaucrat. Although central government is referred to as an ‘external partner’ on the Auckland Council website, the Council itself is an organ of the state. There might be a pretence of autonomy but decisions are made within the parameters set by Wellington. Perhaps that is why Phil Goff makes so much of the fact that the Ardern Government has spent $9 billion extra on Auckland under his mayoralty. But that figure means very little when your train is delayed, or you are stuck in gridlock traffic. These are almost daily experiences for the average Aucklander. The City Rail Link is not due for completion until 2024 and the proposed second harbour crossing is deferred for another ten years. Light rail to the airport is unlikely to materialise soon. Meanwhile, the Council is spending $500 million on cycleways that too few use.

The most original idea proposed by Mayor Goff? To politely ask the government for more money. This is Goff’s Auckland. There is no alternative but to wait. Goff lacks the political imagination to see the world any differently. He has been a career politician his entire adult life, having spent a total of 15 years as a Cabinet minister, and more than 30 years in Parliament. While Goff’s commitment to public service is admirable, his ability to represent the average Aucklander is questionable. There is growing frustration with the Council. Many are bewildered by a perceived lack of consultation on issues (see for example Chamberlain Park or the proposed Erebus memorial). The local board model should have improved public engagement. But communities feel more disconnected from their elected representatives than before.

Goff is not to blame for the ‘democratic deficit’ in Auckland nor the slow pace of change. But he represents an establishment fearful of new ideas, unwilling to experiment and beholden to ‘official advice’. Tamihere offers something quite different. If Goff is a bureaucrat, Tamihere is an activist. If we are to believe his rhetoric, Tamihere would spend the next three years advocating for a radical shift in central government priorities and major policy innovations. If nothing else, he will change the way Aucklanders think about the mayor. He promises to be a democratic outlet for their rage against the system.

And if Tamihere fails to get elected? It is likely he will move on to other things. A return to Parliamentary politics is in the offing. The path will then be clear for a truly populist mayor come 2022. Craig Lord is easy to dismiss as ‘the third candidate’ now but he offers something Tamihere cannot: a life untainted by politics. In the end, it could be Lord who fulfils Tamihere’s ambition of redefining the mayoralty. But only after three more years of waiting in Goff’s Auckland.

Rob and Judith


45 years ago, National MPs found an unlikely saviour in the abrasive and controversial Robert Muldoon. The Member for Tamaki had already lost one leadership contest before and few expected a comeback. But a quiet campaign to win the confidence of his colleagues paid off. The following year, Muldoon led National to a stunning victory. Is history about to repeat?

In June 1974, the National Party’s Dominion Council passed a unanimous resolution endorsing former prime minister John Marshall to remain in the leadership. His timidity and consensual approach to politics had earnt him the nickname ‘Gentleman Jack’. But Marshall’s style proved no match against the larger than life personality of Norman Kirk. Yet, despite losing the popularity contest, Marshall was head of a party that retained significant support. Opinion polls had National and Labour neck-and-neck. The soaring cost of living and a housing shortage loomed large in voters’ minds. The hope and change promised by a new Labour government was beginning to fade.

With Marshall’s leadership apparently secure the press gallery was content to run the official party line: Gentleman Jack would have one last chance to face off against Big Norm.  But behind the public display of unity there was growing disquiet in the National caucus. Having spent most of the past year resigned to Opposition, there was now a whiff of victory in the air. They could win the 1975 general election. If only they had a leader who could get the measure of Kirk. But there was only one man up to the job. And he was not available.

Since the 1972 election, Robert Muldoon had been lying low. At least when it came to direct questions of leadership. He had lost to Marshall once before and would not allow himself to lose a second time. Thus, Muldoon portrayed himself as the ever-loyal deputy, keenly focused on the issues of the day, and holding the government to account. He argued policy details and administrative technicalities. What kept him up at night, he said, was not ambition for high office, but a burning desire to solve New Zealand’s economic problems. Leadership of the National Party? That was for the caucus to decide, and evidently, the caucus had chosen Marshall.

A few weeks later something changed. National MPs finally turned on their leader.  To the press gallery’s shock, Marshall summoned them for a Friday announcement. He was resigning and there would be a special caucus meeting the following Tuesday to select his replacement. There was only one contender. And until that moment he had been unavailable. But, as they say, a week is a long time in politics.

Back to the present, and Judith Collins finds herself in the role of a latter-day Muldoon. She alone can rescue the National Party from certain defeat.  Yet her claim to the leadership depends on the Member for Papakura remaining above internal politics. Collins’ silent campaign  has now reached its climax. What happens next may be more accident than design. It is but a waiting game. When Bridges goes, Collins will be the only real contender.

Roger, Ruth and Jacinda

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The capital gains tax was an article of faith for left-wing supporters of Jacinda Ardern. Its failure to materialise has been attributed to weak leadership or, worse, political  deception. But there is a further explanation: Ardern’s devotion to the legacy of the Fourth Labour Government. An uneasy marriage between neoliberalism and social justice has been at the heart of our politics since 1984. Confronted by the prospect of a divorce, Ardern chose to renew the wedding vows.

Once asked by a journalist how much of her thinking is ‘socialist’, Jacinda Ardern replied ‘not much’. Yet, her announcement that there will be no capital gains tax – for as long as she is leader – shocked New Zealand’s media and political establishment. The belief that Ardern would lead major tax reform had become an article of faith for many on the left. After all, what was the use of a Labour government if not to tax capital? Such was their faith that most leftists overlooked the conservatism of Winston Peters and New Zealand First. Peters, who turned 74 earlier this month, has been an opponent of a capital gains tax since the idea was first mooted by Labour in the 1960s. Yet, the media consensus – perhaps owing to the confidence of the left – was that Labour would reach a compromise with Peters. They were wrong.

So, what happened?  Bryce Edwards has speculated that the entire tax reform programme was a cynical exercise in virtue signalling. When she established the Tax Working Group, Ardern must have known that Peters’ entrenched opposition to the capital gains tax was unlikely to change. But to rule out the tax then would have betrayed a total lack of principle and undermined faith in the Labour cause. After all, support for Ardern’s ‘politics of kindness’ has relied on the belief that her government is making a genuine attempt to address poverty and inequality. The failure to implement the capital gains tax could be forgiven if Labour was seen to have at least tried. Indeed, centre-left voters may now blame Peters and NZ First for any lack of progress.

Ardern has been widely criticised in the media for weak leadership. But once they had got over their shock, long-time political commentators such as Audrey Young praised Ardern’s decision as ‘pragmatic’. I suspect this will become the accepted narrative. By defusing the issue of tax, and denying National a powerful weapon, she has improved Labour’s re-election chances. Though it may breathe new life into the Greens. But I think there is more to Ardern’s decision than leadership failure or electoral strategy. As a child of the 1980s, Ardern grew up in a period of major social and economic transformation. She would later join the political party responsible for this change. Ultimately, it is Ardern’s belief in the Labour Party that explains her decision to break faith with the left.

Ardern’s Labour Party: A Brief History

The term ‘neoliberalism’ is often used to describe the policy consensus that emerged out of the 1980s. This concept refers not just to a set of policies, but an ideology of the state. David Harvey, the Marxist scholar, describes neoliberalism as a “central guiding principle of economic thought and management” based on the belief that “liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills’” should be the main purpose of government. Most commentators see fit to classify neoliberalism as a ‘right-wing’ project. However, in New Zealand, it was the social democratic Labour Party that deregulated the economy and introduced market-based reforms to the public sector.

The popular narrative is that the Fourth Labour Government (1984-1990) was ‘captured’ by a small clique of right-wing ideologues led by Finance Minister Roger Douglas. The reforms caused major dissent within the Labour rank-and-file. The resulting ideological conflict eventually led to the downfall of that government, and a schism in the Labour Party. However, the neoliberal project was continued by the National Government of Jim Bolger in 1990-1993. Major cuts to welfare spending, deregulation of the labour market, and reforms in the health sector were introduced. This agenda was led by Finance Minister Ruth Richardson. However, public opposition resulted in a hung Parliament at the 1993 general election. The country also voted for MMP. This new system of proportional representation would hand considerable power to minor parties. Richardson was sacked, and the Bolger Government retreated.  The forward march of neoliberalism was halted.

But there is a problem with this narrative. Academics and commentators have often overlooked the social democratic character of the Fourth Labour Government. In doing so, they blur the lines between ‘Rogernomics’ and ‘Ruthanasia’. Douglas and his Cabinet colleagues never intended to dismantle the welfare state. On the contrary, distributive justice remained a priority for that government. Spending on health, education and welfare was increased significantly. Government spending on benefits and social security, alone, soared from $4 billion in 1984 to over $10 billion in 1990. Tax reform provided relief to low and middle-income families, while beneficiaries were given substantial income exemptions and abatement rates. However, the Fourth Labour Government did cancel the universal family benefit in favour of a more targeted approach. This represented a significant departure from the approach of past governments but did not result in the decline of the welfare state.

The Fourth Labour Government also used the state to promote wider social justice. Gender equality was made a serious priority with the passage of the Employment Equity Act and a new Ministry of Women’s Affairs. A Māori housing scheme was introduced, the Waitangi Tribunal was given the power to investigate Treaty claims back to 1840, and Te Reo Māori became an official language backed by an official body. The Fourth Labour Government also rewrote the country’s immigration laws to end racial discrimination at the border. These were major policy achievements that had a lasting impact on New Zealand politics and society. In fact, this progressive social agenda formed a key part of the public policy regime that developed out of the 1980s. The Bolger Government largely continued this work, advancing the Treaty settlement process, and passing specialised anti-discrimination legislation.

Deregulation of the labour market and retrenchment of welfare in the early 1990s are usually seen as a continuation of Rogernomics. But these measures do not sit comfortably with the Fourth Labour Government. On the contrary, the Fourth Labour Government passed legislation to protect workers’ rights and address inequality.  Labour would spend much of the 1990s vigorously opposing National’s attempts to introduce a more laissez faire approach to social policy. Ultimately, National failed in this agenda. The election of a new centre-left government in 1999 restored social spending and reversed market reforms in health, housing, and employment relations.

The Labour-led Government of Helen Clark did not repudiate the main tenents of the post-1984 consensus, however. Clark and her finance minister, Michael Cullen, had both served in the Fourth Labour Government. They were social democrats who embraced fiscal conservatism. The emphasis was on maintaining business confidence through low inflation, low taxes, and a high degree of economic freedom. To this end, the Clark Government avoided major reform to address unfairness in the tax system. The Clark Government also refused to increase core benefit rates above inflation. Welfare remained targeted, with the focus on personal responsibility and incentives to work.

Ardern’s election as a Member of Parliament in 2008 coincided with the defeat of the Clark Government. But a decade later, the party remains in an uneasy marriage between neoliberalism and social justice. Ardern’s disavowal of socialism was in keeping with this marriage. Whatever she may believe about the virtuosity of tax reform, Ardern’s political ends can only be realised within the ideological parameters set by her Labour predecessors.  And so when confronted by the prospect of a divorce, Ardern did what Clark before her did. She renewed the wedding vows. 

The CGT will haunt Labour

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“Under my leadership, we will no longer campaign for, or implement a capital gains tax.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 17 April 2019.

So long as Ardern is leader, there can be no capital gains tax. Yet there is a problem with her position. The government is composed of more than Labour. Greens co-leader James Shaw has been explicit in his view that the Coalition was elected on a platform of reducing wealth inequality. The CGT was to be a key part of this.  His colleague, Marama Davidson, elucidated the Greens’ position in a speech last month. According to Davidson, the CGT was “just the beginning” of transformational change. She envisioned a society in which houses would no longer be used as a commodity to be traded for untaxed profits. That vision has been shattered by Ardern.

While large numbers might oppose the CGT, however, we should not overlook the ambivalence of public opinion. The recent Business NZ/Reid Research poll reported by Newshub found that 32 percent were in support of the CGT (with 14% undecided). This represents a significant voting bloc. How many of these voters, swept up by ‘Jacindamania’, switched their vote from Green to Labour in 2017? Anecdotally at least, there is growing disillusionment on the left. The Coalition has failed to make any meaningful progress on child poverty and housing affordability.

So far, Ardern is absolved of responsibility for these failures. And her personal support has reached new heights in the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings. The CGT announcement will ensure that centre-left voters blame NZ First for any betrayal on tax.  But where do they go? Ardern has made it clear that Labour is unwilling to challenge the status quo further. Those wanting fundamental tax reform must look elsewhere. Shaw and Davidson offer a clear alternative. They hold the promise of a transformational centre-left government in 2020.

The Greens now have a major point of difference with Labour. If they choose to, Shaw and Davidson could rally support around the CGT in 2020. This would provide the Greens with the traction they need to displace NZ First as the third party and form a truly progressive coalition with Labour. Such an outcome would prove, once and for all, that Labour cannot take its status for granted. With centre-left voters going back to the Greens, Ardern would likely find herself leading a party not much larger than it was in 2017.

And even if the Greens do not take this approach, National will make sure that voters know precisely where Shaw and Davidson stand on the issue. The CGT may be dead and buried. But its ghost will haunt Labour.

The Culture War of Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins

Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand is a cosmopolitan liberal society governed by the ‘politics of kindness’. Many share her vision. But it would be a mistake to think that Ardern speaks for all, or even most New Zealanders. To be successful in 2020, National must speak for those who do not identify with Ardern’s New Zealand.

When — and it is only a question of when — Judith Anne Collins is named Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, Prime Minister Ardern will finally meet her match. The two women are opposites in just about every respect. Yet both have the same basic appeal. Ardern and Collins are as much cultural icons as they are political leaders. Both represent a side of the New Zealand character, embodying certain values and traits that we see in ourselves. They appeal to images and ideas that define what it means to be a New Zealander in the 21st century.

Since its formation in May 1936, the party has been served by 12 leaders. Only three did not become Prime Minister. Simon Bridges is set to join Adam Hamilton, Jim McLay and Don Brash as the fourth leader to miss out. But there is a more humiliating title Bridges could wear. Bridges, like McLay before him, might have the distinction of not contesting a general election. He cannot blame circumstances for his failure. For over a year, Bridges has led a party of formidable electoral strength that can boast the title of ‘strongest Opposition’in history. Despite the popularity of Ardern, National’s polling has remained in the 40s.

The Coalition’s broken promises on housing and child poverty, the unpopularity of tax reform, and a perception it is ‘soft on crime’ have sowed seeds of doubt. Come election time, the fruit will be ripe for harvest. Those on the left who shake their heads in disbelief at the continued support for National should consider this: in its 83 years, National has spent 48 of those on the Treasury benches. In that time there have been two one-term Labour governments, and one two-term Labour government. When the electorate turns to National it does so for the long haul.

Understood another way, the perennial conflict between Labour and National is a permanent struggle to define the experiences of ordinary New Zealanders. Both claim to stand for fairness and the New Zealand dream. What this means will depend entirely on who you are. For Labour, fairness is free tertiary education and welfare payments. For National, fairness is tax cuts and self-reliance. Neither disagree that the lack of affordable housing is a problem. But whereas Labour’s solution is for the government to build more homes, National prefers to subsidise social housing projects and leave the rest to the market.

In practice, the two parties govern more or less the same. There is a slavish adherence to fiscal conservatism and basic market principles. Labour and National ministers both fret about upsetting business confidence. Yet they maintain a fidelity to the welfare state and existing tax structure. But their narratives of the New Zealand dream could not be more different. Ardern’s appeal during the 2017 election cannot be attributed to policy or even political strategy. There was nothing that Labour said, or did, that it would not have under Andrew Little. Rather, it was her authenticity, and ability to speak directly to the moral conscious of those New Zealanders who share her values.

Those voters felt a deep sense of injustice or guilt every time they read a story about child poverty, flinched over the latest reports on climate change, and asked why the government wasn’t doing more. They refused to accept that this was the best New Zealand could do. Ardern gave them cause for hope. While it is debatable whether problems such as poverty and climate change can be solved without a radical change in our way of life, people are willing to put their faith in Ardern to make things right. And her cultural leadership in the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings has vindicated them.

But it would be a mistake to believe that Ardern speaks to all, or even most New Zealanders. In a sense there are two different New Zealands. The contrast was illustrated in Bridges’ hyperbolic response to a proposed capital gains tax. If only he were to be taken seriously. Whether it is due to a lack of charisma or bad messaging, there is no question that Bridges has failed to connect with voters on an emotional level. To win, National must capture the public’s imagination with a powerful counter-narrative of what life means for those New Zealanders who believe in the virtues of self-reliance and personal responsibility. Those New Zealanders who don’t believe in ‘collective guilt’ or that all our problems can necessarily be solved by government. While it is uncomfortable for the progressive left to admit, they are us too.

Enter a former tax lawyer from Hamilton. A woman steeped in the experiences of small business, family and community in provincial New Zealand. Her voice is heard by all. Collins’ tough, no-nonsense approach to crime has defined her in the media. But she is more than this. She is a political cynosure of conservative Pakeha and others who do not fit into the educated liberal middle-class milieu of Ardern. In that regard, she channels the legacy of Sir Robert Muldoon. While Collins and Muldoon are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to economic management, they share the same conservative political philosophy.

Muldoon stood for New Zealand the way it was in 1975. Collins stands for the way New Zealand is now. Don’t underestimate how many other New Zealanders stand with her.

Originally published on Medium.