Saturday, May 16, 2015

Cyclists are the Parasites of the Roads

Recently a friend of mine who is an avid cyclist told me he was off to protest outside the Wellington City Council chambers with a bunch of like-minded, two-wheeled self-locomotionists. When I asked him why, he said it was because the Wellington City Council did not provide enough cycleways.

'Let's get this straight,' I said to my friend. 'You don't pay any road user charges or petrol taxes, you don't pay any accident insurance levies and you don't even pay any city rates because you live out of town. And yet you want Wellington City ratepayers like me to provide you with special paved tracks for you and your mates to cycle around the city. Is that correct?'

That's right,' he said with a smirk.

A little while ago I narrowly avoided my vehicle being hit by a cyclist while I was stopped at a pedestrian crossing. The cyclist had broken at least three traffic rules and by doing so had placed himself in the position of having to chose whether to hit an elderly pedestrian on the crossing or my car. It was only my alertness and my very quick reactions in getting my car out of the way that prevented him causing serious injuries either to himself or the pedestrian. My reward for my almost superhuman effort to save him from disaster of his own making was to suffer his verbal abuse. Rest assured, I gave as good as I got.

Let's face it - cyclists are the parasites of the roads. They don't obey any road rules, they are the most discourteous road users, they constantly put themselves in danger and expect motorists to have some sort of six sense to avoid them, and they think the rest of us should be happy to pay for their self-indulgent lifestyle choice. They are the ultimate bludgers.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Time to Sell Biased State Media

One of the first and most significant appointments David Cameron has made after his landslide UK election victory was that of John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary. The reason this appointment is significant is that Whittingdale will be the minister responsible for the BBC and in his previous role as chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee he has been very critical of the BBC and the licence fee that funds it. Some are going as far to suggest that Whittingdale's appointment is the Conservative Government's payback to the BBC for its very biased (i.e. pro-Labour Party) coverage of the election.

In Britain the BBC has a dominance over broadcast media that state media outlets in former Soviet bloc countries could only dream of.  It owns nine television channels and sixteen radio stations as well as numerous digital media outlets and cultural assets such as symphony orchestras. The BBC paints itself as unbiased but it is certainly not. It is partisan, secretive and ruthless in pushing its biases, and it is incredibly arrogant in refusing to concede its errors. 

Some examples of the BBC's behaviour are its cover-up of accusations of child abuse against Jimmy Savile, its promotion of the scandalous libel against former Tory peer Lord McAlpine and its reliance on a secretive panel of so-called independent climate scientists for its coverage of climate change issues (that turned out to largely comprise non-scientists from environmental lobby groups). The BBC is, in short, a malevolent presence in British culture.

In New Zealand over the last few weeks there has been a minor furore about the likely cancellation of TV3's current affairs Campbell Live. I have written before about left-wing bias in the the coverage of politics by the New Zealand media and in particular about how partisan John Campbell is. I said that I didn't have a particular problem with Campbell Live because TV3 is a privately-owned broadcaster and that eventually the market would sort him out. The uncertain future of the show is proof I was right. The BBC and our own state broadcasters Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand are a different matter. State-owned enterprises, even those like Television New Zealand that are commercially-focused, are not subject to the economic realities of private enterprises. The market cannot sort them out.

Thomas Jefferson said that 'to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical'. State broadcasting, particularly state broadcasting that is politically biased, does exactly that.

If there were ever valid arguments for the state to own media outlets (presumably around the lack of sufficient scale in small countries to justify private sector investment and monopolistic practices of a small number of private media outlets even in larger markets) those arguments no longer exist. The internet has reduced the cost so dramatically that anyone can afford to broadcast to millions from their bedroom and there are literally millions of news and opinion outlets of every possible political persuasion. It is time for the state to get out of broadcasting. Cameron's government should break up and sell the BBC and the New Zealand government should do the same for Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand.

I'm sure Rupert Murdoch would be interested.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Tax Freedom Day

It is tax freedom day in New Zealand - the notional day of the year on which we no longer have to hand over our hard-earned money to the government but can start to keep it for ourselves. May 7th is also the day on which businesses have to make their final provisional income tax and Goods and Services Tax payments for the previous financial year. For profitable small businesses like mine, that means making a very big payment to the Inland Revenue Department.

I do not willingly pay this money. I only hand over this large chunk of my income because the government threatens to incarcerate me if I don't. I know I could make better use of the money than the government does and that paying for my family's health, education and savings would cost me less than the wodge of cash I pay the government. And don't tell me it's the price of living in a civil society - according to the Minister of Finance, the New Zealand Government obtains 70% of its income tax revenue from 10% of its taxpayers so clearly I'm paying for a hell of lot more than what it actually costs me and my family to live in this society. Plus, there are perfectly civilised societies in the world, such as Monaco, that have no personal taxation at all.

I recently attended a discussion with Inland Revenue Department staff about the future of tax collection in New Zealand and was surprised when one of the representatives of the IRD said that they were considering all views on how tax services should be operated in future except for the view that 'taxation is immoral and should be abolished.' The fact that even in the fortress of taxation they acknowledged that the morality of taxation was not a certainty was very gratifying, if cold comfort for those like me who hold to that view.

I am not so quixotic as to believe that taxation will be abolished in my lifetime, but I do think we stand at a crossroads in respect of the burden of taxation. During the period from the mid-1980s until the end of the 1990s most Western governments reduced the burden of income tax on their populations, but many countries like New Zealand saw left-of-centre governments restored in the 2000s that increased tax rates again, albeit not to the staggeringly high levels that were commonplace before the 1980 reforms. Leftish parties in Britain, Australia and New Zealand now want to increase the burden further to pay for their profligate policies. The tax take as a percentage of GDP in New Zealand currently sits at about 39%. That's two dollars in every five that is taken by the government and too much already.

We must continually remind politicians that it is our money and our tolerance of the extortion that is taxation is not boundless.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

This last week we saw another mass execution of foreigners by the Indonesian government for drug trafficking, and earlier in the week I listened to a debate on the Intelligence Squared postcast on the subject of "Should We Abolish the Death Penality." These events caused me to reflect on and reaffirm my opposition to the death penalty.

There is something nauseatingly banal about the ritual of judicial execution. The build-up to the Indonesian executions was accompanied by months of legal and political wrangling as the Indonesian President Joko Widodo dismissed appeals and stuck to his determination to make an example of the offenders. The condemned became unwilling celebrities as everyone connected to the case including the local police commissioner ensured they were photographed with those about to die.

The Intelligence Squared debate outlined various important arguments for and against the death penalty. Those in favour of it won the debate and I thought they made the better arguments - that some crimes and some criminals are so bad there is no valid alternative to putting them to death. Those against the death penalty made the usual arguments - that mistakes are made and innocent people are executed, and that the death penalty is applied discriminately. However, I think that neither addressed the key question in my mind - is the death penalty moral?

The question of the morality of state-sanctioned homicide cannot be answered without addressing the broader question of what is the moral role of the state. As a libertarian, my view on this is clear - the state exists only to protect individual rights. More specifically, the state exists to prevent the initiation of violent actions against individuals and their property. The corollary of this is that the state cannot morally initiate violence unless it is to counter actual or imminent violence against individuals. The cold-blooded killing of a criminal, however justified it may seem in terms of retributive punishment, does not satisfy this criteria.

The execution of drug traffickers by the Indonesian government is a particularly grievous example of immoral state-sanctioned killing. Trading in recreational narcotics does not, in itself, present an imminent threat of violence to anyone (leaving aside the fact that drug trafficking laws have driven the trade into the hands of violent gangsters) and therefore it should not be illegal, let alone punishable by death. The only real crime here was the murder of the traffickers by the Indonesian government.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Lest We Forget

Today is Anzac Day, the day on which we commemorate those who died in the original Australian and New Zealand Army Corps action at Gallipoli in World War 1, and those who have served in the defence of our two countries since. I am always in two minds about such commemorations. On the one hand, I have enormous admiration and gratitude for those who died to defend the relatively free and prosperous societies we have established in countries like Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, I always find myself angry at the fact that we don't seem to have learned the lessons from that brave sacrifice.

World War 1 is particularly instructive because no one can seriously call it a just war. The Kaiser's Germany was no better or worse morally in its actions than Imperial Britain or France and probably better on almost any count than our ally, Russia. Others have written about the bungling and political expediency that led to war and the ridiculous circumstances by which New Zealanders found themselves invading Turkey, a country we had previously had no truck with, in support of the territorial ambitions of Russia, the country we had previously regarded as our biggest threat. But the root causes of the Great War come down to one common factor - the propensity of governments everywhere and at every time to sacrifice the freedom and eventually the lives of its people in pursuit of ever-greater power.

The threat to freedom does not come mainly from without, it comes from within our societies. It comes from those who who see the power of the state as a tool to solve whatever problem they perceive ails us. Initially, they are well-intentioned and the problems universally agreed, such poverty, prejudice and oppression, but sooner or later their sights are turned to people and causes that are nothing more than scapegoats for the wrongs they wish to right - foreigners, rich people, intellectuals or certain religious and ethnic groups. Historical grievances, real or perceived, are dredged out of the deep pool of past conflicts and used to justify present-day prejudices. Minor territorial disputes from earlier ages become reasons for beligerence and eventually actual military aggression. Thus begins war.

I see too many parallels with the origins of the Great War in the actions of governments and the words of demogogues today. As in 1914, there are signs that the long period of comparative peace and prosperity that the Western world has enjoyed is coming to an end. We have a declining superpower and an ascending rival and a host of regional and religious conflicts that threaten to go global. We have economic uncertainty and an end to the sustained growth of the post-World War II decades. This is dry tinder for political pyromaniacs.

The phrase "lest we forget" originally appeared in Rudyard Kipling's poem Recessional and didn't mean what we take it to mean today - that we should remember the fallen. Rudyard intended it to mean that we shouldn't forget what we have. At the time he was, of course, talking about British society and its values of freedom, morality, individual responsibility and respect for the rule of law. To me, this is the more powerful meaning of the phrase. We shouldn't forget those who scacrificed their lives, but more importantly, we shouldn't forget what they sacrificed their lives for.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Answer is Simple - Don't Pay Beneficiaries Cash

A recent article in the New Zealand media about Social Development Minister Anne Tolley's plans to crack down on mobile truck shops caught my eye and I discussed it with my wife, who has worked for many years in the social services sector. My wife confirmed the essential facts of the story - that some mobile shop operators were charging high prices and high rates of interest and were targeting customers in poor areas, with the result that some customers were getting into financial difficulty (or greater financial difficulty than they already were). Interestingly, she gave the same example of the $30 packet of cornflakes that is given in the article (without having read the article), suggesting that this is more of a meme than a real example.

Unusually for our invariably one-sided, scandal-mongering media, the article does include comments from the 'executive chairman' of the largest mobile shopping company, Home Direct, who appears happy to disclose his interest rates and fees, suggesting he has no nefarious practices to hide. And it is to Anne Tolley's credit, perhaps, that she is not planning to introduce new laws specifically to deal with this perceived problem but rather to use existing laws. However, I think this article, and Anne Tolley's response to it, is inherently dishonest about the true nature of the problem.

If, as the article alleges, poor people (and let us assume they are state welfare beneficiaries because almost all people on low incomes in New Zealand are entitled to welfare benefits) are being ripped off by unscrupulous mobile shop operators, this can be for only one of two reasons. Either the mobile shop operators are committing fraud (e.g. by misrepresenting their pricing or interest rates) or the poor customers are so desperate or foolish they knowingly pay above the odds. If it is the former, then it is simply a matter for the police. If it is the latter (and the article and Anne Tolley's response suggest they think it is) then the problem is a bit more fundamental.

In New Zealand generally we pay welfare benefits to people in cash and leave it up to them to decide how best to spend the money. Welfare workers like my wife will tell you that this situation provides the opportunity for gross abuse. For example it is commonplace in communities reliant on welfare for absentee male ex-partners to turn up on welfare pay day to threaten and abuse solo mothers to obtain what they see as being their share of the woman's welfare payment. It is also the day that the TAB (the government-owned betting chain), the poker machine halls, the public bars and the Lotto shops in these areas do the most business. It is not unusual for welfare recipients to have exhausted their entire two week payment within a few days of having received it, leaving them with no other means of feeding and clothing their children and paying their rent until the next pay day. It is not surprising therefore, that they buy from mobile shops that offer credit, even when this is at exorbitant rates.

The answer to all these problems is the same - don't pay beneficiaries cash, pay them in kind. Give them food, rent, transport, medicines and any other necessities of life for them and their children, but don't give them the cash that provides the opportunity for them to be ripped off. Unless, of course, you believe they are entirely capable of looking after their own finances, in which case they don't need state welfare at all.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

It Can't Possibly Come Down to a Bush-Clinton Fight, Can It?

The dance of the seven veils has begun. No, I'm not talking about Salome's performance for Herod Antipas, I'm referring to the drawn-out unveiling of candidacies for next year's US presidential elections. On the red side, we have confirmed candidacy announcements from Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio; and euphemistic 'exploratory committee' announcements from Jeb Bush and neophyte former doctor Ben Carson. Jeb Bush is the frontrunner in the early polls. On the blue side, we have...well, Hillary Clinton. If you're anything like me, and take an interest in US politics, you're probably already groaning, "No, no, no, it can't possibly be coming down to a Bush-Clinton fight, can it? Hasn't this country of more than 300 million people got two decent presidential candidates who don't belong to one or other of these two families?"

I think it is unseemly in a democracy to be ruled by political dynasties. It's unseemly because it demonstrates democracy is not working. It is the sort of thing that happens in countries that are democratic in name only, countries like the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The frequency with which dynasties have arisen, even in democracies are that are worthy of the name, can only be down to two factors - either the name recognition is, in itself, sufficient reason to attract voters to the candidate, or there is some form of favouritism or nepotism built into the political system. If it just comes down to name recognition, that suggests the voters are too shallow to consider real political issues. If it is favouritism, that means the voters don't really get a choice between the best candidates. Either way, it indicates democracy is not working.

Now, it may surprise you to learn I'm not a doctrinaire democrat. I believe, like Winston Churchill, that democracy is the least bad system for selecting our political leaders, and like Thomas Jefferson, I believe democracy only works effectively when it is tightly constrained. The unconstrained will of the majority is nothing but mob rule and the tendency towards this must be tempered with strong constitutional checks and balanced with strong protection for individual rights. One of the important constitutional checks in most Western nations is regular, fair and openly contested elections. The growth of political dynasties suggests that the 'fair' and 'open' criteria are not being met.

The United States desperately needs fresh political blood. That great nation is, I believe, on a path towards mediocrity. It is the most heavily indebted nation in absolute terms and has the biggest government expenditure deficit. Even in relative terms it is one of the most heavily indebted nations in the world. Unlike similarly indebted countries like Greece, the United States gets away with it because its dollar is the world's reserve currency, which means the value of its currency is inflated by demand for it as a unit of exchange. This suppresses the effect of all that debt on other economic indicators like interest rates and inflation and that means the US Government can continue to fund those deficits by borrowing and printing (electronically) more and more money to pay its debts. But sooner or later reality will catch up with America and that comparison with Greece will start to look a whole lot more real. At that point, or hopefully before it gets to that stage, Americans should hope they have better political leaders than the current crop.

And I really don't think they will be wanting a president named Bush or Clinton.