Monday, January 15, 2018

Niall Ferguson loses the plot

I have been a fan of the renowned economic historian Niall Ferguson for many years. The bookshelves in my office, where I am writing this, contain his works The Ascent of Money, Empire and Civilisation. I think he added a lot to our understanding of the extraordinary dominance of Western civilisation since the 15th Century with his identification of six 'killer apps' that drove the West's political, economic and military growth - competition, science, the property owning democracy, modern medicine, the consumer society and the Protestant work ethic. Therefore, I had high expectations of Ferguson's latest book, which I bought a few months ago but only got around to reading over the summer holidays.

The Square and the Tower is about networks and their ability to challenge established hierarchical political and social structures. Ferguson starts with the Illuminati, the secret society established in Munich in the 18th Century whose membership came to include princes, archdukes, clergymen and intellectuals, and which some people claim is still around, pulling the strings of power like some grand puppet master. Ferguson, to his credit, dismisses most of the conspiracy theories, for example pointing out that the Illuminati was shut down by the Bavarian government within a few years of its establishment. 

Most of the book is Ferguson's usual mix of facts, analysis and interesting connections, but where it parts ways with his earlier works is in its conclusions about current day events. Ferguson may dismiss conspiracy theories in the case of the Illuminati but is happy to embrace them in respect of Donald Trump, giving plenty of credence to the "Russia hacked the election" conspiracy and ironically blaming "fake news" for Trump's 2016 election victory and Brexit. 

He goes on to paint internet and social media giants such as Google and Facebook as the present day Illuminati and thinks they are "profoundly inegalitarian" because they are still largely owned by their founders. He seems to pine for a resurgence of totalitarianism when he says, "A generation mostly removed from conflict - the baby-boomers - had failed to learn the lesson that it is not unregulated networks that reduce inequality but wars, revolutions, hyperinflation and other forms of expropriation." This is reinforced when he claims equivalence between China and America, i.e. "both states are republics, with roughly comparable vertical structures of administration and not wholly dissimilar concentrations of power in the hands of the central government." Seriously, Niall?

In some of the later chapters he demonstrates his ignorance of the technologies on which he comments, for example when talking about digital currencies he says, "Bitcoin seems extraordinarily wasteful of computer resources because of the fact that it is 'mined' [on computers]." It is precisely because it involves the work of huge numbers of computers that gives Bitcoin its value, something I would have thought the author of "The Ascent of Money" would be able to appreciate. But, not to worry, if Ferguson is right, we'll all be using China's crypto-currency in future. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

2017 in Review

Two thousand and seventeen will be remembered as the Year of Trump. The yellow-haired one became president on January 20th, 2017, and despite predictions of doom, America seems to be still functioning about as well, or as poorly, as it has under previous presidents. He hasn't been impeached yet and the investigation into his team's collusion with the Russians seems to be going nowhere, with the only indictments being for lying to the investigators, which is not a crime in most countries and demonstrates prosecutorial desperation.

Hillary Clinton set a world record for sour grapes when she spent most of the year touring the United States and the world promoting her book What the Fuck?, a 500-page screed of excuses and blame mongering for her election loss to Trump. Of course her own name only appears on the cover.

The social justice wars heated up with wealthy white kids with iPhones and college funds violently opposing anyone with views that might differ from their post-modernist, neo-Marxist worldview. We were supposed to regard the enemies of these wealthy white kids as Nazis, but the black-uniformed and masked protestors looked more like SS enforcers to me than anyone they opposed.

Talking about intolerance, a guy at Google was sacked for circulating a critique of his company's gender equality policies, and a teaching assistant at a university in Canada was subject to a Maoist struggle session for playing her students an excerpt from a Canadian public television debate about the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

It was the year of 'Me Too', a phenomenon in which famous men were exposed for their sexual harassment of women. Weasels like Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein certainly deserved to be shamed but by the end of the year it had turned into something of a witch hunt with accusations being equated with guilt and trivial trangressions such as making inappropriate comments being treated as if they were sexual assault.

Here in New Zealand an unholy alliance of lefties, greenies and nationalists formed our new government, despite the fact than none of them could muster so much as a plurality of votes. The new prime minister set the tone for her reign with claims that capitalism has failed, although she wasn't too specific on what she planned to replace it with. Perhaps we will see Maoist struggle sessions here too.

It wasn't a year of big discoveries in science, with the most significant being proof of the existence of gravitational waves, substantiating another of Einstein's predictions and adding to our knowledge of what happened at the birth the universe. We also detected the first interstellar visitor to our solar system, an cigar-shaped rock called Oumuamua that some think is an alien spaceship in disguise. Science continued to be politicised, with the once-respected journal Nature listing Trump's presidency and 'separation anxiety' over Brexit amongst their list of significant scientific events of 2017 (really!).

Some famous people left us in 2017 including musicians Tom Petty, Glen Campbell, David Cassidy, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino; actors Roger Moore, Mary Tyler Moore and John Hurt; Playboy founder Hugh Hefner; Irish republican Martin McGuiness; and notorious murderers Ian Brady and Charles Manson. New Zealanders who died included cartoonist Murray Ball, businessman Doug Myers, the great All Black Colin Meads and the incomparable comedian John Clarke.

In concluding this review of another good year, I would like to thank you for reading my blog posts in 2017. I should stress that while I may express some concerns about the state of the world in these posts, I know that we live in the greatest time in human history and that our lives continue to improve exponentially due to greater individual freedom and the growth of capitalism throughout the world.

So, I will sign off for 2017 by leaving you with one of John Clarke's videos as the legendary farmer Fred Dagg addressing the United Nations on how fortunate we are here in New Zealand. May you have a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous 2018.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Language, Gender Pronouns and Free Speech

You may have heard about the case of Lindsay Shepherd, a young teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, who was interrogated and censured by a disciplinary panel for showing a video of a television current affairs show debate to her class. The panel consisted of Shepherd's supervising professor, a second professor and a university official. The ostensible reason for the hearing, which Shepherd recorded (and which you can hear here), was that by showing the video of the debate, Shepherd caused 'harm and violence' to her students. You could imagine that appearing before such a panel was pretty intimidating and going by the fact that the interrogation reduced Shepherd to tears, it could be said that she was subject to harm herself.

The video clip (which you can watch here) was of a debate between Professors Jordan Peterson of University of Toronto and Nicholas Matte of University of Waterloo, and others, about the use of gender-neutral pronouns such a 'ze' and 'hir' for people who identify as transgender. The issue has become particularly contentious in Canada since its parliament passed an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act known as Bill C-16, which criminalises the use of pronouns other than that which the person prefers. It puts the use of the wrong pronoun into the same category of crime as, say, advocating for genocide. Professor Peterson objects to the law compelling the use of such pronouns, whereas Professor Matte, who believes that there is no such thing as biological sex, agrees that the law should force people to address transgender people by whichever pronoun they prefer - no matter how many and varied are such pronouns. I have written before about Peterson's stance on this issue and how I believe the use of pronouns should be a matter of manners, not law.

The televised debate was civilised and respectful, if a little heated at times, and most reasonable people would agree that there are valid views on both sides. Leaving aside the merits of the arguments (and believe me, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who identify as transgender), it is symptomatic of a broader issue in Western countries - that of equating certain political and social views with violence in order to abrogate the right to free speech. The motivation of those who promote this equivalence is literally to delegitimise any views they disagree with. Unfortunately this call to ban any dissenting viewpoint is far too common today and is particularly characteristic of those on the political left who call themselves 'social justice warriors'.

A liberal society is one with heterogeneous views that can be debated openly. It necessarily means that some people will be offended and even emotionally hurt by opinions with which they do not agree. I believe there is a large degree of psychological hypochondria amongst those who claim to suffer harm from different views and that, in any event, emotional harm is no reason to compromise what is the most critical prerequisite to a free society - free speech. There is a world of difference between physical assault and having to hear opinions with which you disagree. Equating the two diminishes and legitimises physical violence, but of course that may be the real intention of those who do so. The fact that they they label themselves 'warriors' is in itself revealing.

The paradoxical thing about the transgender language issue is the premise that gender is purely a social construct, which is the view that Professor Matte expresses in the debate. This is the diametrically opposite position to that which gay activists have taken in respect of sexuality. We have come to accept that sexuality is largely inherent and yet we are expected to believe that gender is not inherent at all, despite the fact that sexuality and gender identity are closely linked (which is something that even gender activists would accept). The science is still evolving and we don't begin to understand all the linkages between physical biology and psychological traits such as gender identity, and the idea that the law should be used to be force people to use language that legitimises a particular philosophical viewpoint and to close down any debate - including on the science - is very dangerous. This is precisely Professor Peterson's objection.

It is the same tactic used by the those who advocate for draconian legal responses to climate change. In that case too, the science is far from settled (at least in respect of mankind's carbon emissions causing catastrophic global warming), but any view other than the orthodoxy is equated with Holocaust denial, no matter how scientifically sound is the scepticism. Lindsay Shepherd described her inquisitory hearing as Maoist, and it certainly was. Mao's Red Guards were never satisfied with silence - you had to profess the beliefs you objected to as vehemently as they did or they would persecute you to the death.

The prospect of being hauled before a tribunal for expressing a belief contrary to the consensus is perhaps the most ominous sign that liberal democracy is under real threat. We should all be a little frightened at where this is going.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Secret deal confirms new government's illegitimacy

New Zealand has suffered a non-violent coup d'état. What else would you call the seizure of political power by a bunch of parties, none of whom got anything like a plurality of votes let alone a majority, through a secret agreement that they are not prepared to disclose to the voters? It is certainly not democracy. National Party leader Bill English has called for the release of the secret agreement but new prime minister Jacinda Ardern has refused, despite claiming her government would be more open and transparent.

These people work for us, or at least that is meant to be the case in a liberal democracy. How dare they negotiate a secret agreement to hold power without disclosing to us what is in it? It is bad enough that our MMP electoral system allows power-hungry minority party politicians to hold us all to ransom without them doing secret deals over our how our country is governed. 

I have written before about how this mongrel coalition has no legitimacy and this secret agreement only adds to its bastardy. Readers will know that I am no fan of the National Party, but it is the party with the most right to govern in this country because it got a plurality of support in the election. Bill English should go further than his call for the release of the secret agreement and commit his party to do its utmost to bring this government down as soon as possible.

Monday, November 20, 2017

New Government already seeing unintended consequences

The unfortunate thing about believing that government is the solution to every problem is the Law of Unintended Consequences. This law says that almost any government action will produce unintended, and generally negative, consequences. The new New Zealand Government certainly believes that it has the solution to every problem, real or imagined, that prevails in this country with literally hundreds of new policies in their manifesto and coalition agreement. But they are already seeing unintended consequences of their policies, even before they have had time to enact any of them.

The most obvious example of this was today's headline in Wellington's DominionPost newspaper reporting that the city is heading for its worst rental crisis ever, with a sudden contraction in the number of properties being offered for rent. Property Investor's Association president Richard Bacon blames the new government's policies including the Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill, which is intended to raise the standards of properties offered for rent, saying that many landlords are pulling their properties out of the rental market in anticipation of higher compliance costs. So rather than getting healthier homes, many tenants will be getting no home at all.

Another example is the increase of the minimum wage to $20/hour. Muriel Newman points out in this article (based on figures from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment), that this increase to one of the highest minimum wage levels in the world could destroy over 60,000 jobs. So rather than getting higher wages, many workers will be getting no wages at all.

A third example is the new government's policy of building 100,000 new homes. The details of how they are to go about this are still sketchy but if the government funds and constructs these houses, it will have an enormous effect on our already highly constrained building industry, diverting resources from private house construction. The real cause of the lack of new houses is the Resource Management Act, which enables local government to severely constrain the supply of land for house construction and to impose huge compliance costs on builders and developers, but the government has said it will not touch this draconian law. At the same time, the government intends to pursue a looser monetary policy, which will further inflate the real estate bubble. I am prepared to bet that the unintended consequences of these policies will be to further reduce the supply, and increase the price, of new housing.

I could go on. One doesn't need to be a genius to figure out the unintended consequences of almost every one of the new government's policies - they are obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of economics and human nature. But those with faith in the religion of big government don't want to hear facts and reason.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Year of Trump

You have to admit it, even if you detest Donald Trump and everything he stands for, the last year of US politics has been the most interesting since...well, probably since Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House (and I think there are many parallels between that earlier renegade Republican and Trump). I still find myself laughing aloud at Trump's tweets, the utter bewilderment and denial of Hillary Clinton that she lost to him, and most especially the mainstream media's continued outrage that they have lost control of the political narrative.

Trump hasn't achieved a lot in terms of policy - Obamacare is still in place, the wall hasn't been built, and the tax cuts he wants are bogged down in the congressional swamp - but doing nothing isn't a bad thing for a politician because it means he hasn't stuffed anything up, which is more than you can say for the preceding four presidents. The earnest ingenues in the new coalition government here in New Zealand should take a leaf from Trump's book and work on their golf game rather than pursuing their utopian dreams.

Much is made of Trump's low approval ratings but I wouldn't dismiss his prospects of re-election in 2020 just yet, assuming he decides to run. Three years is an eternity in politics and events may overtake the narrative as they did with George W Bush in 2001. The U.S. economy is finally rebounding, and if you add to that some tax cuts, a major foreign policy success, and a Democratic Party that continues to be its own worst enemy, and we could well see Trump win a second term.

There is much I dislike about Trump and his policies but it would be almost worth putting up with another few years of his cronyism, xenophobia and simplistic economics just to see the mainstream media's reaction to (as Australian rugby star George Gregan once said about the All Blacks losing the Rugby World Cup) "four more years."

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Is the NZ Government the result of a personal grudge?

We learned this week that Winston Peters, the 'kingmaker' in the recent coalition negotiations to form the New Zealand government, is suing four National Party members of parliament, including former prime minister Bill English and deputy Paula Bennett, over the leaking of information that he had been overpaid his state pension for seven years. Peters' lawsuit seems to be a fishing expedition with journalists, National Party officials and even the chief executive of the Ministry of Social Development (the government agency responsible for payment of the pension) being served papers.

The most concerning thing about this matter is not the overpayment itself or the speculative nature of Peters' legal action, but the fact that it reveals an obvious conflict of interest in the coalition negotiations. Peters swore an affidavit in support of his legal action the day before the election, meaning that he was involved in the lawsuit when he sat down to negotiate a possible coalition agreement with the very National Party leadership that he was suing. He should have declared this conflict of interest before the election so that voters could have taken the matter into account or, at the very least, prior to the coalition negotiations getting underway. Ideally he should have recused himself from the coalition discussions and decision-making of his party.

In view of this, it is unsurprising that Peters chose the Labour Party as his coalition partner. I have written before about how Labour and New Zealand First don’t even have a plurality in the new parliament and the fact that the National Party, which has more seats than Labour and New Zealand First combined, would be part of a government under any electoral process other than our shambolic MMP system.

The fact that Peters didn't declare his conflict of interest begs the question whether he entered the negotiations in good faith and whether he had any intention of forming a coalition with National. It makes a mockery of the coalition negotiations and casts further doubt on the legitimacy of the new coalition government. Peters may have a legitimate grievance over the leaking of his confidential superannuation details but that doesn't justify him holding the country to ransom and making decisions of constitutional importance on the basis of a personal grudge. The fact that this is even a possibility raises serious concerns about the health of our democracy.